Reflection 264: Testing, one, two,

May 19, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

For those who do not reflect on their own thoughts, life becomes a projective personality test, often conducted at others’ expense. By claiming our own fears and desires, our judgments of allure and repulsion, we free ourselves to discover the world without prejudgment rather than mold it to fit our personal preferences and prejudices.

The world does not simply flow into our heads as it is. We shape and distort that world according to our basic proclivities in order to view it as clearly as possible from our point of view. If we are unaware of our biased approach to experience, we cannot separate our contribution from what is actually there in front of us. Which is apt to have dangerous consequences for both the world and ourselves, as in the gunning down of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmermann in Florida.

Our biases reflect the attitudes we developed in childhood in reaction to our formative experience. Growing up, we discover ourselves to be Republicans or Democrats, Catholics or Protestants, talkers or listeners, laborers or managers, not because of tendencies built into our genes but because of the subtle atmosphere in our homes and communities that we inhale with each breath. If we grew up in different families, we might well find ourselves on the opposite side of the fence.

A rigorous course of self-administered introspection is the best way I know of getting a handle on who we are and how we came to end up this way. I am not talking about neuroses, pathology, or severe mental trauma. My aim is to get a hold on how we live out our everyday lives. That is, how we think in forming sensory impressions, interpreting those impressions, feeling about those impressions, and then act in response to such factors. 

The mistakes we make in acting inappropriately in the world are given us to learn from. By reflecting on incidents when we make mistakes, we come to understand where we went wrong and how we can avoid doing the same thing over and over again. The capacity for self-correction is built into us by means of self-reflection, should we choose to make use of that gift. We can catch ourselves in the act of doing something foolish, review alternative ways of acting, and strike off on a new heading. Such insights burst upon us suddenly—often in revelations lasting mere fractions of a second. If inertia drives us to suppress them, so be it—another lost opportunity for increased self-understanding. But doubt has been raised, and perhaps we will get another chance.

If, however, we live under such extreme or chaotic circumstances that we don’t have time to examine our own mental processes because we are so driven by events in the world, then we have to get help from others so we can call a time-out to get a fresh perspective on how our thinking (or not thinking) leads us to act.

Think about it: as individuals, only we ourselves have access to our personal feelings, our values, our memories, our dreams and nightmares, our sensory impressions, our interpretation of those impressions, our understanding of those interpretations. That is, most of what it feels like to live the lives that we do is known only to us. The reasons we act as we do are strictly our business because out of all people in the world, we are unique. We don’t act as the world would have us act. No, we act as we choose to act because of the internal forces that drive us, forces we alone are aware of.

Introspection is our primary means of self-help for improving any situation. Yes, if we trust a few others, perhaps they can help, too. But the heavy lifting falls to us because we are the only ones who know what it feels like to exist, think, feel, and act as we do. If we don’t help ourselves, who else can we look to? Who can we trust?

Every life is an experiment to see what happens when a person of such-and-such genetic makeup is placed in a difficult situation. At first, with only an instinct to eat and to cry out in pain, we are wholly dependent on those around us. We cannot make it on our own. But over time, we learn to fend for ourselves by making ourselves happen in various ways to discover what sorts of responses we can get. We learn to avoid harsh responses and seek more of the nourishing ones.

But where behaviorist thinking placed emphasis on others being in control of our actions, I now say that we learn in our formative years to be in control of ourselves so to thrive under the conditions in which we grow and learn. It is our life we live—colored by our impressions, fears, desires, dreams, values, understandings, and decisions to act as we do. We, not the world, are in charge. Or if we lack the physical power to follow our own course, we can pursue every chance we get to develop that power.

As I say, every life is a test. Without an instruction manual. We are on our own in doing the best we can with what we’ve got in the time allowed and the help available to us. I have found that self-reflection gives me immeasurable help in figuring my own course as I go. Life is a process that can be improved upon day-by-day. If we’re still the same person today we were yesterday, have we really made use of the time available to us? I just put that thought out there as a reminder that our experience is largely our own doing, and making it better is our responsibility, not the world’s.

Enough said. Hope you have the strength to face into the challenge. As ever, y’r friend, –Steve



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