Finding Equilibrium

In a previous blog post I wrote about some of my questions about equality.  Why do some people actively seek it and why don’t others?  Is that they already see the world as equal as it can be?  Do they simply accept a natural order in which things are going to be unequal?  Or are they simply selfish, knowing inside that equality might remove them from a position of privilege?

Whatever the answer to that question is, a recent conversation with a friend, and articles about the inequality that exists in areas of Baltimore, got me thinking a little more about equality.  I started to think about the question:  What does equality even look like?  Is equality a state of perfection that we cannot attain?  Are we caught in idealism and not being practical?  How can equality be achieved, when we are all different?  I think those of us who fight for equality have visions for what that might look like, but have we ever actually seen it?  Does this sense of equality only lie in our hearts and we push in a direction not really thinking about where we end up?  Even though nature often tends towards balanced, it is state rarely reached if ever.  Instead we find most things oscillating about a state of equilibrium.  Many times that oscillation is damped, meaning that while we never quite reach a state of balance, each oscillation is not as wild (or in other words doesn’t take us as far from equilibrium as the preceding oscillation).  Is this perhaps what the fight for equality looks like – swinging back and forth until finally the oscillations about that state of equality or so minute that we can no longer detect the inequality anymore?  In a complex society where one can find many areas in which inequality exists, do we prioritize the most obvious ones first, until other ones seem resolved to the point that new areas of inequality see more important?  Or as a fellow blogger wrote when addressing the issues of vaccines, can we sometimes make the issue worse by continually fighting for something even when the problem doesn’t exist because of the time and energy we have invested into a cause?  A recent Daily Show piece discussed how anti-GMO groups have actually helped large corporations, like Monsanto, to gain more of a stranglehold on the food supply because they are now the only ones with the money to be able to afford all the bureaucracy it takes to get a patent on a genetically modified seed.

It occurred to me that although we might be great at pointing out inequality, how often do we have a conversation about what equality looks like, and does it exist anywhere?  Are there real examples we can use?  Are there any microcosms of the larger society we all want to live in?  It is has only been within the past 30 years or so that a lot of psychological research shifted away from just looking and ailments of the mind and started focusing on the more positive aspects of our humanity, like happiness.  While depression is terrible and it is important to help those with depression out of those states, is learning how not to be depressed that same as knowing how to be happy?  Can we always derive what a good example is, by simply only looking at bad examples?  I believe the answer to that is no.  Growing up with an alcoholic father, I learned about the kind of husband and father I didn’t want to be.  But as I had marriage troubles in my own life it occurred to me I never thought enough about what a good father and husband is supposed to be like.  It required a certain rewiring in my thinking.  When it comes to studying happiness it required asking a set of questions that haven’t been asked before.  What makes people happy?  What kind of behavior to happy people exhibit?  What kinds of societies are happier? These questions are important to ask and science has helped make a lot of progress in the area of happiness.

So while we are all pretty great at point out inequality maybe we should shift our focus to talking about what equality would look like.  Find real world examples.  Analyze how and why those societies work and how they are advantageous to what we already have.  Pointing out inequalities between men and women have value, but let’s have a conversation about what are the positive values we want a human to have, regardless of gender.  Let’s have an idea of where we are going, before we push.  It might even help us get there faster

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Terms of Two

Not that I am any great writer or am treating any of my subject matter with a great deal of academic rigor I would nevertheless like to add the final chapter to my blog posts on self and individualism, and collectivism.  There is another facet of the human mind and human behavior that fascinates me and that is our ability to be dual-minded.  I’m not positive if my definition meets any particular psychological definition, but let me describe what I mean.

I often have trouble reconciling how many Republicans can be anti-abortion but pro

From http://www.elfwood.com

war or pro capital punishment.  Growing up with an alcoholic father I found myself always wondering who my father was.  Was he the neglectful alcoholic who passed out and missed spending time with me, or was he the jovial affectionate sober dad?  Is he the bold man whose not afraid to go up to anybody and strike up a conversation or ask a question, or is he the coward unable to handle even is own inner demons and needing the escape that drugs can give just to get through the day?  The somewhat recent passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman reminded me of this paradox as I saw people debate.  As one side would simply praise his genius while the other side condemned him as selfish and stupid for abandoning his wife and children for heroin.  What about those who believe that God wanted us to have free will, but who also believe that everything is part of God’s plan for us?  How do we reconcile those who are scientists whose work depends on forming conclusions based on evidence, but at the same time are people of faith subscribing to a set of beliefs which have no such evidence?  We hate those people who might bud into our private business, but then have no trouble doing it to other people.  Is it a contradiction to want to be part of group, but within that group you try hard to stand out as individual?

It is clear that we are all walking contradictions to a certain extent.  What makes it all so remarkable is that we simply don’t see it.  It seems we are unable to recognize these contradictions within ourselves and our behavior seems perfectly natural and sensible.  Of course we are not dealing with simple opposites like hot and cold, black and white, left or right, but complex behaviors.  So while they may seem contradictory, perhaps if we analyzed them at a deeper psychological level they would not seem so contradictory.  Since we rationalize our beliefs and behaviors rather than base our beliefs and behaviors on reason, if we try hard enough we can bend any two contradictions complex enough to our will.

Of course our brains are complex and contain different systems that have different functions.  Perhaps these contradictions are simply feeding off a different set of neural pathways and there is no communication between the two such that there is no cross-check for incompatibility.  Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion postulates that we may have conceived of the notion of God simply because when we are young we don’t understand that the voice in our head is us.  We are dual-minded from the beginning because we aren’t really aware that the voice in our head is our own.  I, as I am sure all of you have as well, have had many a debate in my mind.  It is clear that our mind can simultaneous take different sides of an argument with sincerity in order to weigh our options in order to make the best decision.  So it seems at least possible that we might have these different sides of our self that remain separate, for which there is no debate or where we can’t resolve the debate.  It could be that a dual sided nature appeals to our sense of self as adding complexity and uniqueness to who we are.

It seems likely to me that this duality, like our sense of self, is quite possibly an illusion.  Perhaps it is part of our need to categorize and separate things; labeling people and actions.  But Freud seemed to think that our minds are always in conflict.   For instance I came up with this scenario in which parents tell their child not to cheat, that it’s wrong.  At the same time they get very happy when their child gets good grades.  So let’s say they aren’t prepared for an exam and they are now caught between perhaps cheating off the person next to them so they can please their parents (because what child doesn’t want to make them happy) or listening to their parents advice about not cheating and do poorly thus disappointing them.  Such conflicts are perhaps simply a series of battles we fight.  Sometimes winning sometimes losing.  Perhaps my father is simply fighting his addiction everyday.  Some days he wins and is able to the be the man I love, and other days he loses and becomes the man that I feel distanced from.  Perhaps for some people the struggle ends in compromise, unable to resolve what is truly right and wrong they allow one answer to pervade one type of behavior and another answer to govern the other.

In the end I think it’s all you.  Our brain can quickly consider many possible solutions to any problem, and not all of them are right, but what does right have to do with it?  Perhaps any solution that helps you survive as well as possible is all that matters.

Are we ourselves?

Psychology has become a fascination for me in recent years, particularly trying to understand how the mind works.  A class I sat in last year about love which focuses a lot on our relationship to others had me also asking the question “What about the

From Illinois.edu

love we have for ourselves?”  In talking to my colleague who teaches the class, she said to her knowledge, while many have done intensive studies both through surveys and neuroanalyses of the brain in relation to the love we feel towards others, she wasn’t aware of any studies that really studies our brain when we think about our own self.  For instance I wonder, what areas of the brain activate when we start talking about ourselves?  Is it the same area that activates when we talk about our mother?  A frightening thought indeed. Like many questions it began to lead me down a whole other path of thinking as well about how we develop identity and about individualism.  How do we become the people that we are?  How do we know ourselves?  Is our sense of self just an illusion?

From http://www.studentaffairs.pitt.edu

In the first month or so it is clear that newborns don’t have a sense of self, and numerous studies have shown that they still see themselves as extensions of their mother.  Essentially still in the womb, although the womb conditions have clearly gone through some big changes.  🙂  For the past few weeks I can clearly start to see changes in my son as he begins to engage in the world and starts realizing that he is an individual separate from others.  Although filled with a lot of terminology I am less familiar with my colleague sent me a link to a paper that talks about the development of self (as well as other things).  I found it interesting to learn that the sense of self is initial learned by imitating and watching the behavior of others.  As social animals only through learning about others do we begin to get a sense of self.  I found this to be a fascinating dichotomy.  Because on one hand we think of ourselves as unique, which is at the heart of our individualism, but this uniqueness appears to come from the observations of others.

Now I am not suggesting that we don’t have some genetic uniqueness as well.  Many parents report their children having a personality from very young ages that appears to be different from their own or their siblings.  I have no doubt that this is true.  But it could be that the children are picking up on personality traits that we don’t recognize (or admit) in ourselves or it could be that genetic differences influence how we perceive the actions of others and thus each child interprets behaviors and intentions slightly differently.

It seems to me that even if this would not be the case we would still all be quite unique because our lives are sum of a unique set of experiences.  No person meets the exact same people, goes to the exact same places, and experiences the exact same education.  We are all dynamic and constantly changing individuals such that even children of the same parents will experience their parents and different times in their lives when they have more or less experience, different skill sets, etc.

So it’s not that self is so much an illusion but rather that the concept of self perhaps has no value without the context of others, especially for a social species.  We are constantly comparing ourselves to others, judging others, labeling and categorizing others, and while I can see the harm that this can sometimes, it seems that it is something we have been doing all our lives.  Without doing that can we understand who we are as individuals without comparing and contrasting ourselves to

From http://www.chameleion-web.co.uk

others?  People tell you not to care what others think of you, but this seems like somewhat unrealistic advice.  No matter how much a person protests that they don’t care, there is no question we all do care.  What we really want to do is shrug off the people who think we suck and believe hook, line, and sinker in the people who think we are awesome.  It seems to me that this is really hard thing to do given how much of our life we spend defining ourselves through our relationships with other people and so we must often take the good with the bad and then reflect on the interpretation that others seem to gather of our behaviors and actions.

I would love to hear the thoughts others have about this, and would love to get academic about it as well is you have any expertise to share.  This I would like to be just one in a 3 part series as I am also fascinated, as an extension of individualism, by collectivism.  After that I’d like to look at the somewhat more ethereal topic of duality.

I’ve Got a Feeling

A few years back my wife and I had some trouble in our marriage.  I remember it being rather a shock to me that all of a sudden what seemed like a happy marriage seemed to be falling apart so quickly and was full of such heartache and pain.

But I am not here to talk about that.  It is in the past, and we have rebuilt and things are wonderful with our first child on the way.  What I would like to reflect on though is how feelings translate into actions.  The shock I felt was because I had this incredible amount of love in my heart.  But these feelings did not translate into a behavior that would have qualified me as a great husband.

I am sitting in on a wonderful class right now taught by a colleague in the Psychology Department on campus called Love, Lust and Attachment.  We were discussing in class how we go about measuring relationships.  Ultimately emotions cannot be measured, but behavior can and let me to thinking about why those two things are so often in a disconnect.

A must see documentary that will break your heart. From en.wikipedia.org

All of us have intense emotional experiences.  They can be intense sadness at a story on the news or a documentary; intense feelings of joy as a baby is born; intense anger at a betrayal, intense love for a partner and/or friend, intense fear when frightened by something.  It struck me that these intense emotional experiences have a real physical impact on us, and I began to wonder if this physical impact deludes into believing that it has more of an impact on our actions or behavior than it actually does.  Many people are often moved to tears by a sad story, but few act on that feeling to do something about it.   We may love someone deeply, but does that feeling of love translate into actions that make the other person feel loved?  Does our outrage over a defunct government move all of us to write our representatives?

The motivational speaker finds success in not so much giving us new things to think about, but rather tries to get people to direct their emotions, ideas, and thoughts into actions.  Few emotions in of themselves lead to immediate action without conscious thought.  Things like fear or disgust may be good examples of ones that do, for these emotions from an evolutionary standpoint impact our very survival.   But for the most part it seems that emotions are what motivate us, and yet only a small fraction of the emotions we feel actually lead us to a behavior that is the consequence of that emotion.   Furthermore we may simply lack the understanding of how to effectively behave to show how that emotion is affecting us.  I remember William H. Macy’s character in Magnolia’s words “I really do

From catdangle.com

have love to give, I just don’t know where to put it”.  I think many of us can identify with this character.  Acting on our emotions is often like wandering around in the dark, especially when we haven’t had positive examples in our lives.

Perhaps the only relevant answer in the end is that we live in a world with limits.  While I might be able to feel love for many different women, I only have the time, energy, and resources for a finite amount.  While I may feel deeply passionate about numerous social causes, once again those feelings cannot translate into an equal amount of actions.  There are only so many hours in the day.  We must rest and recharge to function adequately in our daily lives.  Of the many emotions we feel throughout the day we must pick and choose the actions we take.  And sometimes certain tasks are more important in the moment and we must let put intense emotions aside.

When I was young I felt like I was full all this emotion that was going to make me a great person, but I felt that none of it was coming out.  Emotions can be overwhelming and sometimes even paralyzing.  I felt like the real me was buried deep within myself.  I am proud to say that each day I’ve felt like that person was getting closer to the surface.  I am not sure if I’m the person I want to be yet, but I believe it is important to:

1) Let yourself feel what you feel.  Embrace the ones that make you feel good, and forgive yourself for the ones that frighten you or make you feel weak.  All emotions have value.  They teach you about yourself and raise awareness in your conscious mind about things you deem important in your environment.

2) Reflect on those emotions and choose a course of action that is according to your morality.  One that hopefully benefits you and the world around you.

3) Then reflect on the translation of emotion into action so that you can make adjustments if necessary.

Remember, no one is a natural, but we can all try to do more, and become better people.  We are changeable.  Accept it and don’t fight it, because then your emotions will never weigh you down and you will realize that you are learning and not making mistakes.

Why I love Dexter

The series Dexter is coming to an end in about a month and so I felt inspired to talk about it, because I think it is one of the most amazing shows to have been made and thought I would explain why I think that.

First of all if you think Dexter is just a show about vigilante justice, a psychopath who goes around killing other bad people, you’ve missed the point completely in opinion.  This aspect of the show is really just to make sure that you can morally stay with the character while keeping you on the brink of darkness.  Ultimately if you are only watching the show to see “bad guys get their just desserts” then I might be a little worried about you, because that’s really not what the series is trying to show you.

The first aspect that I like is that you see the world through the eyes of a killer.  He kills “bad guys” so we can sort of tolerate his killing.  However there are some other things that build us sympathy.  He loves his sister, and he loves his children.  Finally the fact that we know of his past, the fact that he had a traumatic child hood experience in which he saw his mother get murdered and sat in her blood for a prolonged period of time and thus impacted his personality is where the brilliance starts in my opinion.  Traumatic childhood events are very common in people who society considers violent criminals, but how often do we spend time investigating what happened in their childhood.  We only look at what they’ve done and make our judgments based on that.  What if we had the story told in the way Dexter’s story is told for all violent criminals?  Might we not feel at least some sympathy for the devil?

The second brilliant thing the story does is to show us how much we are all a little like Dexter.  Dexter is a person who hides who he is.  He has to not just because of the law, but because of the disgust that would be shown to him by society in general.  But the show cleverly throughout the series looks at the fact that we all hide things.  We all have darkness in us, and sometimes it comes out. We all have secrets we’d rather not tell.  Very often we see a character do something, or we are told something about a character that makes us initially judge that person to have questionable character.  Only later the show reveals to us the truth.  Why they did what they did, or how a situation can easily be misconstrued.  Until you know the intimate details of a person’s life we can be quite erroneous about our judgment about someone, or at the very least the lines between black and white become a lot fuzzier.    Many of even the overarching “bad guys” in the series that Dexter kills in the end one can feel some sympathy for.  A psychopathic brother who was ignored and not given the same opportunities Dexter was given for love and support of his condition.  A District Attorney going a little too far off the deep end because he’s seen too many bad guys escape the justice system because of a technicality.  A serial killer who faced perhaps an even worse set of childhood tragedies and could not escape the cycle of violence.  A man steeped in religious belief he believed himself to be the bringer of the end of the world if he performed certain actions.  It makes us question, what kind of monsters we might become given a similar set of circumstances in our lives.

Finally it makes a psychopath human.  Despite how we might categorize psychopaths they are a part of a society, the human race.  Part of what makes them what they are is a physiological condition, and if we combine that with childhood trauma, what kind of person do we get?  It’s a combination of nature than nurture.  Furthermore it makes us ask, is someone simply a psychopath or not a psychopath?  Are there points in between?  Most likely there are.  Can they form absolutely no connections, perhaps that is true for some, but maybe there are some that can form a couple based on positive childhood experiences.  Again the grey comes back as we think about, maybe one of the reasons nobody thinks of a psychopath as a human as that nobody ever tried to uncover their humanity.   Maybe nobody took the time as a child to understand them and help them deal with their thoughts and feelings.

I know there are many people, probably in psychology, who think that Dexter doesn’t fit the model of a true psychopath but I think it’s important to remember that Dexter is a story, not a documentary.  That what the writer is trying to reveal is the dividing line between what we consider a monster and good person is not clear.

I am not sure how it will all end, but I think they have done a terrific job.  So thank you Dexter for drawing us in and reminding us that we all have demons to face and deal with. J