|Nature versus Nurture|
I usually prefer to pontificate in the context of pop culture. But I am getting ready to teach an Interpersonal Communications course (which I've taught before). Since I in no way consider myself an expert communicator, I usually focus on either discussing more philosophical questions (like in this post) or hammering home the course's main point: Communication is complicated! Be kind!
Kate's Theory about Stories and the Self
In my Interpersonal Communications class, we discuss what goes into creating personality. Fifty years ago, nurture was the rage (Freud, post-Freud); about 10 years ago, nature was the rage (the latter has morphed lately into a more complex view that includes evolutionary biology/anthropology, not merely genes).
My view, the older and older I get, is that it comes down to the stories people decide to tell themselves about themselves (from the available material)--that to a large extent, Freud was wrong: it isn't the unconscious that influences the self; it is the created self that influences the self.
The story of the self is created in three ways: (1) cherry-picking evidence; (2) making comparisons; (3) constructing interpretations.
(1) Cherry-picking evidence
Cherry-picking evidence sounds awful, but it is in fact necessary and natural to human survival. We are inundated with experiences, flooded with sensory information, overwhelmed with faces, names, locations, memories, and choices. Brain Games and other lite-anthropology fare point out that humans have a remarkable ability to shut out information. This is what makes magic tricks (and pick-pocketing) possible. It is also what makes survival possible. Since we can't download "it" all, we're better off ignoring most of it.
Of course, there are negative side-effects, like "missing" vehicles we are not used to seeing in traffic (drivers literally don't see atypical vehicles). Often the eye as well as the mind has to be retrained.
Selecting or cherry-picking memories can also have negative side-effects. In one House episode, House "cures" a woman who has a photographic memory, only to realize that her photographic memory isn't responsible for her "only" remembering her worst memories; she chooses to do so. (Ah, I did bring in pop culture!)
The opposite of this would be Pollyanna-ism or, from Freud's point of view, denial. Either way, we don't select ALL memories when we create our stories; we select certain memories and discard others.
Again, this is a survival mechanism. We must compare in order to not get eaten by wolves.
In one class, I asked students about their assumptions regarding people. A student told me in all seriousness, "I don't make assumptions about people." I didn't contradict her, but I pointed out to the class that it is natural to make assumptions since we have to start from somewhere in order to learn. I assume that traffic will be bad around noon and five because whenever I'm driving around town at noon and five, it is. So I avoid driving in town around noon and five if I can.
Assumptions are embedded in comparisons--we have experiences which lead us to assume "truths" about people, so the next time we have an experience, we compare it against the experience we previously had ("The last time I was in a room with a big, scary, yelling dude, people called for security, so the next time I'm in a room with a big, scary, yelling dude, I'll leave.").
Unfortunately, comparisons, while unavoidable, always reach a point where they become downright demoralizing. And they become unhelpful when they preclude new information. If, for example, Lizzy continued to compare Darcy only against his previous behavior, she would fail to recognize that he is a good landowner and charmingly diffident when encountered on his own property. (Miss Bingley does make the comparison mistake, failing to recognize that Darcy's opinion of Lizzy has changed.)
Overall, I believe comparisons become unhelpful when they become non-constructive. Maybe I'm not enough of a Horatio Alger American but I've really never understood the comparison of rich to poor. I don't particularly want to live like most rich people, so why would I want their stuff?
It seems so much more constructive to be happy with what I have and (additionally) to be happy for what other people have. The only people that I am really jealous of are people who live in apartments overlooking Central Park, and they are so mindbogglingly wealthy, they might as well be aliens. Seriously. Aliens and space. Because sure, I would like to go to space, but I've never been even remotely jealous of someone who has--nope, not even Howard from Big Bang Theory.
(3) Interpretation. The same event can be interpreted multiple ways.
Interpretation is the most controversial of the three points. I could argue, for example, that being a woman in a culture that (still) contains many patriarchal institutions and mentalities has weakened me as a person. I could also argue that being a woman in this situation has made me tough.
|Rimmer sees his life as a series of totally unfair events.|
Ultimately, it is the individual who interprets and creates his or her story (creating stories about other people's lives is fraught with problems). I can--and have--looked at events in my life from one exclusive perspective until something happened that shifted my viewpoint. I then tried interpreting those same events from an entirely new perspective ("Ooooh, that was a good thing, not a bad one"). Like many people, I often settle on a mixed interpretation.
The older I get, however, the more useful I find the positive interpretation. I'm not talking Pollyannism so much as a reasoned argument that the positive interpretation could be true. As an adjunct, I could argue, for instance, that the unreliability of the work, the resentful attitude of the administration, and the lack of funds IS what my job is all about. I could also argue that the variation of work, the growing availability/use of contract jobs in the academic world, and the pride I have at making a living under adverse conditions outweigh the negatives--and personally, I think they do!
Other adjuncts don't. Those adjuncts seem to me rather unhappy, sometimes downright bitter.
Here's my main point: the bitter state of mind is boring. Literally. When I fall into that state of mind, I get bored with myself. I'll suddenly think, "Wow, this is so dull. I'd rather be watching TV," so I do.
|Turns out, Ace Rimmer--Rimmer's|
|charismatic, happy double--was|
|the one who was (unfairly) "held|
|back a year," not the original.|
C.S. Lewis got it right--hell as a state of mind is an utter wasteland of monotony. He made it a bureaucracy. I would make it a business cocktail party. Either way, there are better things to do.
Regarding the stories, once formed, I'm not sure how prophetic they are--on the one hand, a negative story can create a downward spiral of self-reproach and self-denigration. On the other, the happiness experts (yes, there really are some!) argue that one's level of happiness remains fairly constant (within 6 months after a hugely positive or hugely negative event, people tend to return to their state of happiness before the event, whatever that state might have been).
I do believe that the story one creates can help make one's current situation bearable or non-bearable. It may not be prophetic but it certainly intertwines with the "norm." According to happiness experts, one's "norm" is determined by one's biological/hormonal baseline; meditation/prayer; and one's sense of accomplishment in the world. The last can be service; it can also be finding a career one likes and/or creating something for others to appreciate.
In other words, referring to the last item, happiness in the now is about adding to the universe, even (I apologize for the sappiness) if that addition is a card or a smile or a silly joke.
Stories by definition are constructive, negative or not. Stories that formulate a positive out of a person's life are even better.