The Maze of Subjectivity

This is probably 1 of 234,227:

I tweeted something this morning in response to one of Adam Lane Smith’s tweets in his absolutely epic “1 rt = 1 uncomfortable psychological truth” thread.

The tweet itself was one about understanding depression. The substance isn’t particularly relevant here, but here’s the tweet for reference:

My response was as follows:

As true as that is, it's "advice from the outside."  

Someone in the throes of depression has no idea what that means.  They can't abstract their mind from the moment well enough to actually get a handle on the needed perspective.

Nothing earth shattering of course. But it brought to mind something that I’ve been thinking about for quite a while.

I’m really quite shocked at the general blindness people have to the walls around their own and other people’s headspace or mental contexts.

The reducto ad absurdam of it is telling someone who’s an addict to “just stop.”

People know, generally, that saying that is a cultural taboo. But I suspect that taboo has just sublimated the problem. And it may very well be the case that “thinking beyond your context” is something that people are generally not willing or able to do.

It’s a self-referential problem for me as my reaction is “just stop not doing that.” The difference I think is that I’m aware that I’m not in a box of self-denial to the notion that I probably don’t understand what’s going on. Fair enough. But that’s a bit too meta for me to talk about without spinning my head in tight little circles.

Now this might get a little weird and a lot of it is conjecture:

Through my adult life I’ve always had a sense of where people were coming from when they’d say something in conversation. This led to a few decades of sitting in meetings and at bars saying “Wait…that’s not what he meant” and “She heard that as this, but what you meant was that, right?” then having to explain myself, usually to the nods and sometimes even gratitude of the participants.

A sense of our own subjectivity is something that’s rarely open to us. But we ARE capable of seeing it ALmost first-hand. Though somewhat ironically, we’re not really able of doing anything about it other than “being mindful.” You can’t actually free yourself from subjectivity in its entirety. But any particular subjective bias you may be able to wrangle. The thing is, it’s perhaps literally bottomless.

Here are some of the things that will absolutely change the way you think almost immediately:

  • Eat when very hungry (not “because I feel like it”)
  • Exercise: Seriously, do 5 push-ups, even if you have to “cheat” and do them from your knees. Or walk around the block. Whatever. It has to just be enough to be “not nothing.”
  • Change your location/context: Go for a walk, a drive, outside, something.
  • Anything else that’s outside your current experience. Don’t draw? Draw. That kind of thing.

It sounds trite but it’s absolutely so. IF you’re paying attention you’ll see your whole mental state shift. The way you think will absolutely shift a little bit if you do any of those things, assuming it’s been several hours to a day since the last time you’ve done it.

That helps us see the differences in the little sub-personalities we’ve got in our heads, all striving and fighting for dominance, seeking to be satisfied.

A deep understanding of what they are and how they work is absolutely critical to any kind of self-mastery at all. Otherwise you’re just a slave to your lower aspects. For instance I still have an awful problem with social fear of external judgement, etc. The more someone’s opinion of me matters the more tongue tied I’ll be. So I’ve taken on a rough program of noticing that and going out of my way to do something about it.

The result of engaging in behavior that violates your comfort zones or reality tunnels (a really useful term coined by Timothy Leary, of all people) is that you HAVE to manage the cognitive dissonance of your subjective view of the world not jiving with your FIRST HAND experimental evidence. You’re left with the understanding that your understanding is limited and can be tweaked and possibly, though far from assuredly, altered by changing how you look at the world.

I personally find this so ubiquitous an experience that I (somewhat entertainingly) find it completely unfathomable that people don’t think about what they think in this way. But I suppose it’s simply so.

Now, take all that and put it in a box, more or less as follows: Our perceptions, reactions, thoughts, and opinions of ourself, the world around us, and how to interact with it all is subject at any given moment in time on our internal mental and emotional states. So our ability to assess what is “true” is vague and subjective at best, and more likely a self-fulfilling presumption.

HOW poorly then are we able to understand what’s going on in the mind of someone else at any given time?

In some ways and at some times we have the advantage of distance in dealing with other people: Imagine the friend who you’re watching engage in self-destructive behavior. They may or may not even be aware of what’s going on. But you can see it plain as day.

But that’s not to say we can see and understand what’s going on underneath. Behavior is an effect, sometimes an effect many times removed from the cause, which is occulted from understanding by layers of prejudiced interpretation in ourselves and the other person.

As an example I’ll take a conversation we had one night at (well, after) Bible Study group about a month ago. It was on suicide. Sure, it started off with the theological implications of suicide, which, unless you’re Catholic, is a pretty short conversation. But it quickly got to the two stock phrases people deploy:

  • Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
  • Suicide is the most selfish thing you can do.

Now…those depths of depression are something I know something about. There are a lot of reasons people end up in those places, but one of the things that typifies that state is as far from “pride” as you can possibly get. Now, I’m not going to get in to it here, that’s not my point.

My point is that you have to be careful (well, you don’t HAVE to be, but I’m tired of language-lawyering with myself) when you’re inclined to give advice, even if it comes from the best of motives. People aren’t going to hear what it is you think they’re going to hear when you address something deep inside their own souls. They’re going to filter it in an entirely different way. They’re going to wonder what your motivation is, first of all. Then what you’re saying (and, at least as important, how you’re saying it) is going to be filtered down to their consciousness through the dark filter of their mood. It’s going to sound like a whisper in a hurricane and immediately assailed with the self-reinforcing assumptions, logical or not, of their mental state.

Knowing that, if you’re able, you’re honor bound to try and navigate that. But it’s like shooting a laser into a black box full of prisms you can’t see, hoping you hit them all in exactly the right place for it to shoot out the other side. You don’t really have any hope of succeeding. So the best you can do is “as little damage as possible.”

So be mindful, when you seek to help. Ask yourself if you’re trying to serve the other person or serve your own ego, the discomfort at another’s discomfort or what have you.

The life you save….well, you know.