Reflection 325: Stormy Weather

September 28, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin.

Little Eva, age three, got several presents at Christmas: toy dinosaur, plastic sow and piglet, miniature pocketbook with handle. She quickly saw the former two would fit snugly in the latter, so used the pocketbook as a shelter for her new treasures, which she proudly carried about the house. Until the handle came off, the pocketbook fell to the floor, and Eva, broke into tears, her momentary joy come to a sad end.

Ever the observer, I saw that episode as an example of a loop of engagement kindled in the mind of a child who, heartbroken when the pocketbook fell apart, cried in frustration and disappointment. As Steve Jobs cried when designers at Apple failed to live up to his demanding expectations for new product lines.

These days emoticons and smiley/frownie faces are everywhere, reflecting how we are engaged at a particular instant. Life is parsed in terms of its happy and sad moments of engagement. I can imagine someone’s diary or autobiography as a sequence of times and dates, punctuated by small faces either happy or sad.

How many songs have expressed the sorrow of being alone, shunned, or jilted in love; or the joy of finding new love? Such moods have been the meat of the popular music industry since the thirties when I became aware of “Blue Moon” and “Stormy Weather” ("stormy weather since my man and I ain’t together, keeps raining all the time"). For better or worse, we hum and sing the turn-ons and turn-offs of our engagements.

We cheer the home team and jeer the team from away as naturally as we invest our hope in the one and envy (or dread) in the other. We do the same for candidates in political campaigns, identifying with one, demonizing the rest, putting buttons on our chests and signs on our lawns to declare our pledge of support. As we are engaged, so do we present ourselves.

Our stability is largely maintained by cyclical engagements with our surroundings. Just as our digestive system takes in nutritious food and expels unclean waste, our cardio-pulmonary system circulates oxygen and rids our cells of carbon dioxide, our reproductive system stores eggs and sperm in separate vessels that need to merge in complementary engagement to be fruitful—so does our nervous system transform sensory impressions into felt situations, and develop felt situations into appropriate actions by means of loops of streaming awareness.

Through periodic engagements, reproductive sex assures that each new person is a unique human being. Eating is a form of engagement that maintains our bodily metabolism and triggers elimination of exhausted waste. Engagement through games, athletics, and education demonstrates our capabilities both mental and physical. Through art, music, dance, and literature we express the essence of our engagements with others and with our personal situations. Through religion and politics we conduct ourselves according to interactions steered by the dictates of our passions and beliefs. Through family connections we do our best to assure ourselves of food, sleep, learning, health, adventure, and wellbeing.

Engagement is natural law because our lives depend on it. Where there is life, we know that streaming engagements make it possible. We sing our new ones and mourn those gone by.

When striving to convert sensory impressions into appropriate actions, we know we are engaged. When we look about us, we see impressions from our situated perspective. When we listen, we hear impressions from that same familiar place. When we sniff the air, we scent those aromas that confirm who and where we are. When we reach out to the sensible world, we touch its recognizable features. When we question our surroundings, we are answered by what we can comprehend. When we marvel at events, we arouse our need to update our situation and personal perspective.

Mental development is a spiraling process of repeated attempts leading to successively more satisfying engagements. Space is the province of our actions; time the domain of our awareness: the two together in sequence constituting a loop through space-time that is the signature of our unique, animated, personal style of engagement. Consciousness is whatever passes through the human mind in the course of its serial spatio-temporal engagements from sensory impressions to meaningful situations to purposive actions. The result is what we call consciousness, the basis of our existential life.

Solitary confinement denies us that life, as does any form of sensory deprivation. Mind-altering drugs change the chemistry of our brains, creating false impressions and situations, leading to performance of inappropriate acts. If we go deaf or blind, at least our minds often learn to compensate by sharpening senses remaining intact so we can learn to engage by means that are only rudimentary under normal conditions.

Our social engagements bear the stamp of our mental processes at the time, revealing our respective levels of ethics, respect, courtesy, integrity, attention, awareness, and situated perspectivity. Practice of the golden rule signals a mind in good social order as it entertains neural signals in the context of diverse minds processing signals across a wide range of subjective conditions. Loners with slight practice in engaging will be apt to tread roughly on the sensibilities of those around them, asserting their untutored styles of engagement because they lack a repertory of suitable alternatives.

Nowhere is this more evident than in a financial services industry where the sole reason for doing anything is to make as much profit as the situation will bear, or even to transgress that limit if thought possible (through, say, hedge funds and insurance). The essence of financial exchange is fairness between equals. A trend toward fairness is the governor that makes capitalism itself possible in practical situations. When fairness and equality are taken as the mark of the gullible and inexperienced, then real-estate markets collapse, savings and loans go bust, dot-coms fail, stocks tank—leaving big banks and investment firms casting about for yet another ruse for separating the public from its money.

All engagements are transitory. They are fleeting by definition, and must of necessity come to an end. If any combination of great wealth, power, or influence is at issue, then the stakes are high enough to corrupt all but the most disciplined loops of engagement. Personal gain trumps fairness, justice, and equality much of the time. Politics, finance, organized religion, healthcare, and other social institutions are susceptible to influence by those who stand to profit the most by manipulating others through fraudulent engagements.

Engagements paying off in peace of mind, joy, justice, public spiritedness, efficiency, and long-term stewardship of natural resources—such engagements in high places lend themselves not to corruption but to social adaptability and citizen approval. Think Eleanor Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Vaclav Havel, Rachel Carson, George Washington, Elizabeth I and II, Hillary Clinton, Albert Schweitzer, Margaret Mead, Kofi Anan, Florence Nightingale, and many others who have for the most part resisted the gravitational pull of power on their personal pursuits.

As we engage with our surroundings and with significant others during childhood, and update our approach when we come of age—so (in many cases) are we likely to carry on for the rest of our lives. Like the proverbial die, our styles and expectations are cast. Mental pathways established when we were young can be modified later on, but it takes concentration, deliberate effort, and perhaps ten-thousand hours of practice to restyle our habitual engagements.

Loops of engagement play a leading role in the everyday psychology I have been developing for the past thirty years. The twin arts of constructing situations from sensory impressions, and programs of meaningful action from felt situations, determine not only how we present ourselves, but how we interpret the world around us. Engagement, then, is the process we use to build a world around us as our current reality.

)>:|;>) –Steve from Planet Earth


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