Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Letter from Bret Rensselaer

"Forget what happened. You are off on a new adventure. Like Kim about to leave his father for the Grand Trunk Road, or Huck Finn starting his journey down the Mississippi or Jim Hawkins being invited to sail to the Spanish Caribbean, you are starting all over again. Put the past behind you, this time it will all be different, provided you tackle it that way."
The narrator of the book promptly describes the literary references as clichés, and fair enough, yet there is something about that. letter that speaks to me.

Bret Rensselaer is a character who appears in a number of Len Deighton novels. The quote above is from Faith, which I am maybe halfway through now and enjoying immensely. I turned back to find it as what Bret means to communicate to the hero, Bernard Samson, seems like it might be much more important than I first thought given later events in the novel.

There is an odd contradiction in it in that Bret has just finished telling Bernard not to leave his wife while all the examples suggest leaving all family ties behind. The spy story this is wrapped in all seems more or less a MacGuffin now. The real issue is what do you do when you are bound by marriage, mutually shared history, your children and your career to a woman who lied to you and betrayed you?

Indigenous Peoples?

I sympathize with the people who want to replace "aboriginal" with "indigenous".
This perspective is not a unique one. Often members of a Nation prefer to be called by their self-chosen names, but respecting self-identification becomes complicated when naming a Canada-wide celebration – like National Aboriginal History Month, for example. It poses a challenge because these country-wide celebrations need to be dedicated to all Indigenous Peoples in Canada. We can’t call it “Inuit History Month” or “Anishinabek History Month” because then the celebration would only recognize these specific communities. But at the same time, using “Aboriginal” falls short in recognizing all Nations in a respectful way. So, what do we do?
On the other hand, if we have to keep revising our vocabulary and definitions that should be a powerful hint to us that it is our thinking that is muddled in the first place. And why do these terms always get capitalized? Does "Indigenous Peoples" mean something that "indigenous peoples" does not?

To put it bluntly, what people are looking for is a blanket term to describe a number of groups who have not much in common. They want this term to bring all the members together while respecting their individuality. And, just in case that isn't daunting enough, they want to leave the people they are describing with this term completely free to define themselves while simultaneously insisting that whatever definition they come up with must be a group definition and not an individualistic one.

Oh yeah, the term also has to be exclusionary in that Quebecois people don't qualify but Metis kinda do.

Is there any reason to believe this trick can be done?

Your identity, whatever you take it to be, should be enabling. It should allow you opportunities to flourish. The people who shifted from "Indian" to "Native", then from "Native" to "Aboriginal", and now are attempting to move us from "Aboriginal" to "Indigenous"are building traps for the people they claim to want to help. (The same problem applies to the shift from "sex" to "gender".)

Monday, June 26, 2017

The strange, empty feeling that comes with leaving a bad relationship behind

It's very hard to leave people behind. No matter how much neglect or even outright bad treatment was involved in what was supposed to be a close relationship, the decision to move on produces an odd feeling of emptiness.

You'd think that finally moving on from someone who held you back for years would produce  a feeling of joyous liberation. It doesn't. It leaves you empty and lonely.

The solution, of course, is to move on, to fill the vacuum. But even though you can see that ..,

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Was the defining message of the era just stupid?

Lennon turned his doodle into one of the crown jewels of the Beatles’ entire repertoire, one that stands as a defining message of the era: “All You Need Is Love.”
Fifty years ago today apparently.

It was very much the defining message of the era. It hardly originated with John Lennon though. A year before the song was written a now-deservedly-forgotten writer named Jospeh Fletcher published a book called Situation Ethics whose message was all you need is love to make moral decisions. Fletcher was one of the lesser products of a school of Protestant theology that placed a lot of emphasis on the notion that "God is love".

The message travelled from liberal Protestant theology into the general culture of the time and then was reflected back at people in lyrics that, even by John Lennon standards, are a banal series of non sequiturs. And people ate it up so we can hardly blame John Lennon. The culture was awash in this trite optimism.

My mother told me that she and my father got all of their children out of bed to watch the television broadcast when the song was unveiled. She believed it was an historic occasion. The writers at the Los Angeles Times still do.

In the end it amounted to ...

Saturday, June 24, 2017

A question

One additional issue arising from yesterday's post: how much time and energy do we spend supporting bad relationships?

We all have connections, family connections, home-town connections, school connections, business connections that we maintain. But what should "maintain" mean here? I can think of quite a few in my life where all the maintenance has come from my side and nothing but impositions and exploitation has come from the other side. This is especially true in my case of family relationships.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Singing la la la

Like a lot of people, I mocked him when this photo first appeared four years ago. I did this on FaceBook and an overly sensitive cousin of mine got very angry with me. That was neither interesting nor educational in itself. That an overly sensitive person would be overly sensitive is not news.

What was interesting was that I got a barrage of back-channel messages from some people I've known for a long time, one male, one female. They both wanted me to apologize to the little snowflake and they threatened to break off relations if I didn't. I was shaken by that. These were people I had been very close to and I didn't want our relationship to be disrupted. On the other hand, I knew I had done nothing wrong and I didn't want to apologize just because someone else was upset.

That, was a big epiphany. I've remarked before that turning points sneak up on you. In retrospect, that was a turning point in my life but it just felt like two weeks of anxiety at the time. I spent several days feeling awful as these two threatened to break off relations if I didn't apologize. In the end, I didn't give in and they just moved on.

Then there was a second epiphany. In my family there is a tendency to appease women. Men in my family, including me, were raised to seek the approval of women and, therefore, to cave completely when a woman got angry. It didn't matter whether that anger was justified or not. I grew up with the odd notion that being a gentleman meant cravenly seeking the approval of women.

The funny thing is that my relationships with the two people in question never were the same again but not for the reason I expected. They, as I say above,  didn't break off the relationship. They just went back to normal. And that was the third epiphany: all their anger turned out to be a bluff. The only time approval or disapproval matters is when it comes from a person who has authority over you. Otherwise, it's just an empty threat. I, on the other hand, stopped taking them seriously and my life was richer for that.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Why express your feelings?

I see advice repeated over and over again without clear justification for why we should behave this way. A classic example is the advice to express your feelings. I'm not saying this is bad advice. I suspect that there is something there but that we aren't given any compelling reasons for it.

Under pressure

I'll start with an example of really bad reasons. I've discussed this here before. In the 19th century and in the early part of the twentieth people often thought of the brain on analogy to a hydraulic system driven by steam power. They did that for the same reason that a lot of people imagine the brain working like a computer now. It was new technology and you could do some pretty amazing stuff with it.

One consequence of thinking that way is that pressure has to go somewhere. If your whole system is driven by steam power and you allow that steam power to keep building up it will eventually explode. If feelings drive our psychology the way steam drives a hydraulic system, then we need a pressure valve to blow off our feelings or else we'll explode.

The problem is that there is no evidence to support this. To the contrary, people who "depressurize" by blowing off their feelings actually get worse and worse at controlling them.

This bad thinking still lingers in the background when experts tells us that we should express our feelings.

Real, true, authentic?

Being in touch with your feelings will make you a better person as well as a better parent and partner. Being true to your emotions can’t help but make you feel better about yourself, for you’re able to be authentic.
That's Barton Goldsmith Ph.D. writing at Psychology Today. The old conclusion is still there—Goldsmith warns us not to "bury" are feelings because, he claims, bad things will happen when we do—he talks about "toxic energies", a concept that is more akin to the sort of pseudo science yoga instructors flog than anything someone with Ph.D should be talking about. Along with the old, bad argument, however, something new has slipped in.

Exactly what this new argument consists in is hard to decipher, not just for us but for Goldsmith himself.
When you express how you really feel (in an appropriate manner), problems get solved, relationship issues get resolved, and life is easier. In addition, you will like your life better because you’re not holding on to unhealed or confusing feelings.  
When you express how you REALLY feel. Okay. That makes a certain sense. You might say things that aren't true. Marie tells Aiden that she thinks he's a really sweet guy that she's sure someone will find attractive but she's not ready for a relationship right now when the truth is that she thinks he's a pathetic, spineless wimp. That's a good example of not expressing what you really feel except that, uh oh, it implicitly accepts that there might be good reasons to sometimes not express your feelings.

Goldsmith accepts this and argues there are times when feelings should not be expressed and that there are ways they should not be expressed. "The purpose of expressing your emotions is to convey your true feelings, and to be open and honest, not to embarrass or blast another human being."

And we're back to the idea of something "real" or "true" that is, well, where exactly? Inside us? Yes, apparently. Goldsmith writes about "what’s truly going on inside your head." Again, this is undefined. And what if these true feelings might hurt? It might well be that telling Aiden the truth will motivate him to change.

Oddly, Goldsmith also thinks that there good stuff and bad stuff going on inside your head that needs to be balanced. He argues that we need to get to be as good as expressing the good stuff as the bad. But if our feelings are what is "really" inside us, what difference does it make whether we express them or not? Are our feelings somehow invisible to us until we express them?

Actually, that sounds plausible to me although I doubt Goldsmith would agree. We use metaphors such as "what's really going on inside your head" but you can't look inside your head. Just try it if you don't believe me. All we have is thoughts and thoughts are just expressions. You can say "I feel sad" out loud or you can say it in your head just as you can read this sentence out loud or say it in your head. You can say it whether it's true or not.

If you take the time to read the whole article you'll find a confused jumble of ideas.

  1. Feelings are natural things that spring up from some source inside me.
  2. Expressing my sadness will help me get over it.
  3. Learning to get as good at expressing positive feelings as negative ones will give us emotional balance.

The god inside me

A bad reason to express your feelings would be to manipulate other people into treating us in certain ways. No one else is responsible for your feelings. We could argue that we shouldn't hurt other people by saying things that will give them negative feelings and that is true in some cases. But it's not your job to make me happy when I'm feeling miserable.

Why do we even need to say this? Because of the assumption Goldsmith (and many others) operate on that feelings are natural, that sadness, joy, anger, relief, and so forth are things that just spring up inside us. Because they are natural, they can't be questioned. We can reasonably argue that people shouldn't shit in the kitchen but not that they shouldn't shit at all. The same logic has to apply to negative emotions if they are natural. That said, unless you did something to directly cause someone else's anger or pain, you aren't responsible to do anything about them and you have a right to expect them to only express these feelings in appropriate ways at appropriate times.

At the same time, expressing feelings is a huge part of what we human beings do.

I could go on circling like this for ever so I'll get off the merry-go-round. There is no natural source of feelings inside me. Every feeling entails a judgment, a judgment not about what is inside me but what is outside me.

Let's go back to Marie and Aiden. Why does she not tell him the real reason she doesn't want to enter into some sort of sexual relationship with him? There are a number of possibilities.

  • She doesn't want to hurt him and she believes he is easily hurt.
  • She thinks he should stop being such a wimp but she doesn't think he'd listen to her.
  • She thinks he should stop being such a wimp but thinks it is up to him to figure this out for himself.
  • She just wants to get away from him and this cringe-making conversation as fast as possible so she is brushing him off.

Marie need not be aware of which of these apply as she refuses Aiden. Anyone one of them or, indeed, all of them may apply. Or there may be some other reason such as that she'd actually settle for Aiden because she just wants sex right now but she's convinced a better option will be available at the party tonight if she can ditch Aiden now. The point is that the real reason is not something inside her but a choice she is going to have to make and live with.

And if that's rue, and I think it is, the key lesson about feelings is not to express them but to actually have them.