Reflection 293: Situations

July 16, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

Situations, as I use the term, refer to models in our heads of what is going on in the world around us constructed on the basis of sensory impressions derived from energy impinging on our sense organs at the time. They range from wild guesses based on whims to carefully considered hypotheses derived from sensory evidence and experience. One thing situations are not is accurate representations of physical events in the world. Every situation is a conjecture signed and dated by its author.

Our senses convert energy in the world to nerve signals in our brains. The impressions we have of what is going on in the world are just that—impressions—because signals flowing from one nerve cell to another are very unlike energy transmission through the air, to be subsequently converted by eye or ear to electrically charged ions flowing across membranes along nerve fibers in the most complex organic system in the known universe, the human brain, and the mind emerging from its concerted activity.

Situations are what we think is happening in the world from our singular point of view. That’s why we have to test them through trial and error to see if we’re right, or revise and augment them if (as is so often the case) we are wrong. At best, our conjectures are subjective, partial (both biased and incomplete), and inconclusive in themselves. They are probes in the dark, seldom to be trusted in full.

Movies and soap operas derive drama while cartoons derive humor from the mix-ups we get into by trusting our sense of a situation overmuch. In a recent New Yorker cartoon, the bird lately come to heaven inquires of a resident angel, “You run into a window, too?” Or the Scrabble-playing cat tells the dog on the opposite side of the board, “‘Woof’ isn’t a word.”

As I said in my last post, situations are always posed from our personal points-of-view, so our unstated assumptions feature prominently in our behavior. Given the phenomenological nature of human awareness and understanding, it cannot be otherwise. Our renditions of the world are always seen from a first-person singular perspective.

The culture we grow up in has a huge influence on the situations by which we approach the world. Be nice, be brave, be modest, be strong we are told, and we are—as we interpret such advice in light of our personal feelings at the time. Parents, siblings, cousins, grandparents—all influence how we engage the world by our own lights. “You can take a boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of a boy” precisely because the situations in which a boy knows who he is are country situations, and he carries them with him to the grave.

Training a boy to be a killer in the service of his country cannot simply be countermanded by making him a civilian again. He can be separated from the service, but the disciplined training and battlefield trauma are his for life, and are ever-present in the situations he imagines himself to be in so-called civilian life.

Our loops of engagement are centered on the situations we conjure to justify our actions. Emotionally deprived of love, comfort, and warmth as infants (when we become who we are), we include that deprivation in each situation we engage with, perpetuating our childhood predicaments in every adult act. If a loving engagement is not available to us, we fall back on the next survival value in line—on food, drink, sex, sense of place, money, possessions, position, power, fast cars, big houses, and so on. We see reenactments of such engagements performed on the public stage every day. What else is a presidential primary campaign than a free-for-all for the neediest among us? The needier the candidate for what he missed in childhood, the stronger he comes across as knowing what’s good for everyone in the nation.

“Good” advice is what we give other people to make up for what we lacked as children; our own style of engagement is at the heart of that advice because it is what present situations call up within us. Since that voice calls so loudly and persistently to us, it is all we can hear and all we have to give others. Consider the financial services industry that thrives on turning public debt into personal profit, converting the wealth of a nation into bonuses for taking (and hedging) risks with other people’s money. All the while feeling the nation should be grateful for being bilked of its assets.

That is how situations work. I project my primal situation onto you in your current world, and do unto you as was done unto me a long time ago. If my childhood was loving and joyful, I spread love and joy wherever I go. If it was neglectful or abusive, ditto, I spread that around because it’s what I know best.

We live in a time when collusion between the deprived and needy is rampant because ungoverned, and ungoverned because unrecognized for what it is—a crisis of childhood needs left unmet. The film Inside Job makes clear that the banks are in cahoots with rating agencies, with insurance companies, with the media, with grad schools, with regulatory agencies, with public officials in creating schemes to divert the nation’s collective wealth to themselves at public expense. From the perspective of the moneyed elite, it all makes perfectly good sense to subvert the nation for their benefit so they can get what they want at others’ expense. That’s a fair portrait of the world situation from their point of view because it’s built into each of their personal situations and has been from the beginning.

How we engage one another is a function of the world situation as each of us constructs it for him or herself, and carries for life. Education is laid upon us when it should be drawn out of us from the first day of school, based on who we are when we enter the room instead of who we are supposed to become when we graduate. The question to ask is not, What do you want to be when you grow up?, but Who were you as a young child?, and Who are you now? That is the basis for every situation we will build ourselves around in reaching into the world, either to spread love or to get the gratification we were denied in our formative days, months, years. If we need to be held in loving embrace, then that is a school’s job to make us secure enough to get on with the world’s work. We need to be attended to and made to feel special, not treated as so many standard units of ignorance to be molded into entrepreneurs and engineers.

A schoolroom can be a model situation where everyone in it belongs to the tribe in her own way because she is who she is and has lived the life that she has. Accepted in that way, students feel like themselves and not hollow imposters having to pull the wool over other eyes to avoid having their secrets revealed.

Childhood situations make the man and the woman. Learning how to engage by nuzzling our mother’s breast and being read to in our father’s lap, we go on to find our place at the bosom of our tribe or neighborhood. The situations we are used to form the basis of our personal mythology. The financial services industry—and prisons—are full of those who may not have had that route available to them, so came to rely on surrogate engagements to get them through the day. When money (because with it you can buy anything you want) and brute strength come to stand in for love and respect, the nature of our most fundamental life situations degrades into extracting from others what they don’t want to share. With the results we see all around us in the form of war, corruption, greed, and criminality.

Do I have any right to make such a claim? Indeed, I speak from the depths of the life I have lived and discover in situations spread before me in every direction. Situations reveal where we are coming from, where we are situated in our own lives. They are always centered on personal concerns and aspirations. Situations are the mental territories where we live out our lives, the respective standpoints from which we seek to further our wellbeing and accomplishments. The situations we have lived through up to now endure at our core like the rings of a tree. They hold us up as we face the next storm.

One tree to another, I remain y’r friend, –Steve


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