492. We Engage or We Die

April 24, 2015

My claim in this series of posts is that consciousness is not fully contained within the brain, but is a distributive property achieved by an organism’s collaborative engagement with its planetary environment.

Take the brain out of its normal range of ambient stimulation, as in solitary confinement or other forms of sensory deprivation, and consciousness suffers a morbid decline. In a depleted environment, consciousness develops to a lesser degree.

Those who survive in depleted sensory environments learn to engage with ants and spiders crawling in the corners, or to fall back on the store of memories they bring with them, building upon them by planning what they will do when they get out.

An Sang Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader, suffered fifteen years of reduced engagement under house arrest; Nelson Mandela survived twenty-seven years of confinement in three different prisons, actively pounding rock into gravel during the day, later playing football, gardening, reading, studying for his law degree.

No matter what conditions we live under, we find ways to engage—or we die. The other night I was falling asleep and became aware I could not lift my head or move my body. Yet my mind was dimly active. I distinctly remember my last, fading thought, “Friends, I feel I am slipping away,” that is, dying. That’s what death is: a state of non-engagement, forever. Not just unconsciousness, but utter oblivion.

Engagement brings us to life. It is precisely what it means to be alive. To be both perceptive and active, with judgment thrown in between them, if we’re lucky.

We engage to build models of our situations in the outside world by analyzing the patterns of ambient stimulation delivered by our sensory receptors. That is, by finding meaning in those patterns, gauging our options, then judging which option is best as a guide to making an appropriate response.

The problem being that the inner realms our minds create on the inside are never accurate models of the world we inhabit on the outside. Our attention is highly selective, so we can only take in ambient patterns in fragmentary form. Our inner models are made of bits and pieces, dribs and drabs, not replicas of the world.

So we do a lot of guessing, estimating, and interpolating in trying to piece together the world puzzle, the big picture of what’s going on that is likely to affect us. Our sensory abilities may be amazing, but the world is always more complex than we can imagine. We must commit ourselves to a lifetime of continuous engagement or we’ll never keep up.

As babies, we are in way over our heads, so require nurturing care from others on a twenty-four-seven basis. That is called parenthood. But if our significant others stick with us, our situation gradually improves, and eventually we learn to stand on our own by backing our engagements with commitment, concentration, and dedicated campaigns of perception-judgment-action for ourselves. We stumble around a lot at first, but slowly straighten up and set our sights on far horizons.

Life is a matter of matching our inner possibilities to the possibilities offered by the world. Consciousness, together with loops of engagement, are our most basic tools for accomplishing that feat. All of which is made possible jointly by our minds, brains, and worlds working together.

That is my crucial point in this blog. We can’t do it by ourselves—survive, that is. Our success is a collaborative effort between mind, brain, and planet. It takes a planet to evolve a brain, and a brain to evolve a mind. In the brief window of life available to us, we are beneficiaries of all three. If, that is, they truly engage in mutual interaction from one moment to the next, one situation to the next. Encouraging us to evolve throughout our lives, infant to senior, getting better day-by-day at whatever it is we are doing with our fleeting gift of life.

As I pointed out in the dissertation quotes I bulleted in post 488, “I Am Not Making This Up,” the nuts and bolts of engagement are made possible by the workings of the limbic system as a finely-tuned comparison between perception and memory, between the present state of the hippocampus as compared to a coded remnant of earlier experience. That comparison is at the heart of our loops of engagement.

If that comparison between present and past results in a disparity, then consciousness springs into action to get a more detailed picture of the situation through further exploration. That’s what trial and error is all about, figuring out a way to get a better fix on what’s going on in order to make a better, more appropriate response. All solutions are pending, not certain.

That’s what learning and education and experience are all about. Our growth and survival depend on doing better under highly variable conditions. There’s no way ahead but to take the plunge, make a mistake, and try again. And again. And again.

I’ve got one more post to go before ending this discussion. Then it’s on to my final conclusions, and wrapping up this blog as a whole.

If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If your only tool is a gun, every stranger looks like an enemy. If your only tool is faith, every cause looks like God.

These are the wages of consciousness. What we’re seeing is not the real world but the world puzzle as we solve it day-by-day with the primary tool available inside our black boxes, our fallible human mind.

We do the best we can with what we’ve got in the time allowed under the conditions that prevail at the time.

The problem being that once we’ve solved the world problem, we consider it solved for all time. That is, we elevate our personal convictions to the realm of knowledge describing the world as it truly is.

But an idea in the mind is a glimmer that shines in our eyes like a beacon of truth. Actually, it’s a guess or hypothesis that seemed like a good idea at the time. If it’s truth we’re after, not just operative truth, then follow-through and reconsideration are all important. Our primary tool of mind is more like trial and error or successive approximation than sudden revelation.

And from the vantage point inside our black boxes, that is a hard lesson to learn. We make a benefit of any doubt that we have so that, as it turns out, no White jury will ever convict a White police officer of needlessly killing a Black man.

Scientists speak of the brain as an information processor that operates by computations based on data, as if the brain were actually the precision machine they want it to turn out to be. But that is just their way of casting their beliefs ahead of them, so guiding their search for understanding from behind the shelter of their living convictions instead of what may lie before them in the shadow of their uncertainty.

All of what I have written so far in this post says far more about how the mind works than how we want it to work. Whenever a new metaphor for a wondrous machine become available, it becomes the rage of the hour for explaining how consciousness works as a function of an orderly brain. People earnestly propose the mind in terms of clockworks, quantum theory, holograms, or the staid conventions of the scientific method—in every case mistaking the tool at hand for the solution they seek.

My approach is different. I start with my mind as it presents itself to me, and take its folly seriously enough to wonder why it should work in that way. My only method is to pay attention to everything my mind does. Incidents of mistaken belief pile up; questions accrue, my answer file stays empty. My own mind remains a mystery. Which I keep poking and probing with everyday incidents of lived experience.

I don’t play the games of peer review or publish-or-perish. Truth is, I am going to perish anyway, no matter what I come up with. Rather, I take my time, waiting on my mind to reveal itself to me in new ways. Which, when my files are stuffed, it does, offering a response to the whole of my uncertainty all at once, not one bit at a time.

So here I sit at my computer while trying to clear the walk of ice and snow, cook breakfast, and work on my blog simultaneously—because my mind is working on three problems at once. I am only its recording secretary, so I do the best I can to keep up with it. Oops, the egg is getting overdone. . . .

Back and forth I run between walkway, kitchen, bedroom (where my computer happens to be), on a roll because my mind won’t let me alone after I awoke well-rested and ready to do what I’m told.

I’ve been living with my mind for eighty-two years, and respectfully scrutinizing it for the last thirty-seven, so I’m starting to get clear on a number of issues all at once. I wouldn’t say it’s an additive process so much as an all-hands-on-deck process that shares what’s going on with all concerned.

My first method was to keep notes on a yellow pad with pen or pencil. But as soon as I wrote something, I’d want to change it with an insertion or correction, so very quickly I became unable to read my snarled notes. What to do? I turned to a typewriter, which I thought would be neater. But the urge to make changes persisted, so I wrote one draft of a paragraph after another, and page-by-page, my neat record of my thought became gibberish.

The word-processor on my computer helped me produce cleaner copy because I could cut and paste-over what I had written. Then I thought of having a small, selected audience of true believers to keep me on my writing toes, so started a blog—this very one on WordPress in 2008, Consciousness: The Inside Story. That effort led to two self-published books meant to summarize what I’d written so far, and a couple of Acadia Senior College classes based on those books.

But my thinking on trying to understand my own mind was always a work in progress, so as soon as I reached another stage, I’d want to change and expand it. Last year I wrote down my thoughts on consciousness in an article one-hundred-and-forty pages long, which I set up a new Website to host. But seeing my summary on the Web, I saw it was still gibberish, so went black to blogging the material contained in that piece in small chunks.

And that is where I am today. The challenge will never end. I will die a work-in-progress. Thinking about consciousness, or my consciousness thinking about me, either way, I’ll never reach a tidy conclusion. Too many problems; too many suggested answers.

Consciousness is what it is, different in each instance, and I’ll never get it down on paper or in digital form.

Consciousness is a way of life for each one of us. I’ll never get to the bottom of it because its bottom is leaky and runs into everything else. But I will never wallow in that psychic slough of despond. At least I’ve made it this far, and have learned a good deal, if not all there is to know.

I’ve been thinking of retiring from this long search and enjoying what time I have left on the coast of Maine, which for me is the center of my little universe. I’m almost to the end of the discussion and conclusion sections of this blog. When those last posts are done, I don’t think I’ll turn around and go over the same material in yet a new way. Enough, already.

But the issues I raised at the start of this post on the wages of consciousness still weigh on my mind. To kill in the name of racial or religious belief is a heinous crime. Conscious conviction plays a central role in every such death. To kill for an idea in the mind is absurd, no matter how lofty, beautifully crafted, or convincing.

So there’s still a mountain of work for humans to do in not only understanding, but civilizing their own minds. I’d like to think I could become part of the solution, and I suspect that such thoughts will occupy me as I take my ease in the land of my dreams here on Earth—even as the North Atlantic rises ever higher against this section of coast.

Engagements between self and other have been around since the early days of one-celled lifeforms drifting about in their aqueous environments. Which-was-which depended on your perspective, that of cell or other, self or world.

Later on, the issue became control or regulation of the engagement. Again, that depended on your perspective, whether you took the point of view of the cell or of the environment. You had to be in the ongoing loop of engagement, either looking out or looking in.

From the cell’s point of view, the problem was to solve the world puzzle of where you were and what was going on around you. From outside the cell, the problem was to figure out what was going on inside the cell.

The metaphor of the black-box problem applies, from both inside and outside the box. From inside the cell’s black box, the world is a mystery. From outside in the world, the cell is a mystery in a black box. There are two black-box problems: one solving the world puzzle from inside, the other solving the mind problem from outside. I use this metaphor to clarify the problem of consciousness.

In some situations the world seemed to be in control; in others, the cell seemed to be in control. But in every situation, control is actually shared between cell and environment, the balance depending on which is dominant during that particular engagement. That is, on whether the cell needed the environment more than the environment needed the cell, or vice versa.

Why does a cell need its surrounding world? To supply the resources it needs to sustain its internal activities. Why does the world need the cell? To consume the resources it has in excessive amounts.

The goal each way being to achieve a balance that works to the benefit of both self and world, cell and environment.

Cells help the world stay in balance; the world helps cells stay in balance as parts and extensions of itself. They are of the same system. The issue is chemical balance, physical balance, energy balance. All within a shared gravitational field rich in energy. In black-box terms, the solution to the two respective problems depends on resources being available both inside and outside the box. The key to balance is in the flow of life-sustaining engagement between input and output.

As both selves and worlds grew in size and complexity, control and regulation of engagements between them grew more demanding. Cells developed the ability to move about and, simultaneously, to gauge and identify a sense of different regions within their environments.

As evolution progressed, environments grew ever-larger and richer in content, but more challenging at the same time. Living organisms had to take greater risks in order to get what they needed to survive. The task of regulating engagements became more complex and difficult.

In response to increasing pressures, multicellular life evolved alternative strategies for survival. Some lifeforms traded their harbors in the sea for territories on land. Others took to the air. Still others learned to tolerate broader ranges of temperature, salinity, humidity, terrain, illumination, suitable foods, weather conditions, and so on. All in response to the urgings of the life force as fueled by individual metabolisms.

At some point, organisms outran their genome’s ability to prepare them for the difficulties they were to face, and consciousness emerged as a means of adapting to challenging conditions as they might arise. Habitat niches remained all-important, but the range of situations they presented as lifeform populations increased and diversified became less of an obstacle.

Consciousness allowed individual organisms to assess their environments (perception), consider their options (judgment), and set and enact behavioral goals accordingly (intentional action), all the while maintaining an ongoing flow of engagement with significant aspects of their environments (between black-box input and output).

Memory became the base of consciousness, providing a background against which to face into novel situations. Expectancy, curiosity, familiarity, conceptualization, and recognition became possible, simplifying the analysis of highly variable conditions.

Too, the old standard behaviors of reflex action, mimicry, habits, routines, prejudice, orthodoxy, rote learning, trial and error, and other energy-efficient shortcuts in lieu of full consciousness remained as viable alternatives.

But consciousness allowed memory to be linked to a review of alternative possibilities, prioritized according to a choice of criteria, and judgment concerning which choice made the best fit to the current situation.

So did consciousness serve to build on a Paleolithic genome to make it fit to serve in a modern world to which our ancestors never had to adapt.

Consciousness itself is a neurological response to a discrepancy between conflicting aspects of perception. It pointedly draws attention and awareness to unsettling aspects of experience, whether good or bad. When consciousness is focused on a particular problem, all else falls away as irrelevant. The ability to concentrate on a particular issue is the essence of consciousness.

By applying our neural resources to one situation at a time, consciousness makes our awareness both efficient and coherent, screening out all that is irrelevant to its current focus. This ability to rate situations on a scale of importance at the moment is one of our greatest assets in getting through the day one moment at a time.

At the core of consciousness is our situated intelligence that organizes a given situation in terms of the elements or dimensions that make it up. That core of situated intelligence is what we experience as the self, which changes from one situation to another as suits the occasion.

The dimensions of consciousness that might contribute to a particular situation include: memory, sensory impressions, feelings, motivation, values, imagination, understanding, life force (or energy level), humor, temperament, goals, skills, relationships, and many other factors that collectively constitute our minds.

Our situated intelligence stands at the nexus between incoming perception and outgoing action in the precinct where judgment and commitment are possible. It is activated by a gap, inconsistency, or abrupt change in our loop of engagement that rallies attention to that unsettling state of affairs. Our intelligence gathers its assets to focus precisely on that gap or inconsistency (duality, disparity, discrepancy, annoyance, delta signal, disappointment, surprise, shock, etc.) as a rousing alarm that serves to focus our attention, stirring consciousness to life. Here is a matter to be dealt with.

It is the nature of our minds as they have evolved to depict situations in terms of dualities (dichotomies, bifurcations, oppositions, contests, confrontations) and other forms of either-or, yes-or-no, approve-or-reject situations. This is due to the complementary roles of activation and inhibition that our neural networks play in shaping consciousness in different situations.

Our engagements between self and world take place on the four fundamental levels of nature, culture, community, and family, which I have extensively dealt with in developing my views on consciousness in this blog.

The above summary provides an outline of my wayfaring journey in my daily posts to Consciousness: The Inside Story, in, what to me appeared to make a coherent sequence, but probably appeared random to readers who broke into my stream of consciousness in the middle of its development.

Tomorrow I will remind readers where we may have been together as a review of my specific ideas about consciousness as posted to this blog.

The art to understanding a situation assembled by human intelligence is to gather the pieces together and try to fit them along their natural contours so that they complement one another, adding to a larger whole—forming what my high school physics teacher called “the big picture.”

In recent posts to my blog (since about post No. 347), I have been trying to develop the big picture of my personal consciousness, piece by piece, in a consecutive series intended to present my inner mind as a whole. After engaging with the stars in this series of posts, I will discuss the progress I have made, summarize my findings, and draw what conclusions I think are warranted by my work on this project.

The greatest difficulty I have had is a result of my going against the grain of consciousness studies in this technological age of neuroscience. Modern researchers are highly invested in their costly equipment, and overlook introspection as a suspiciously low-tech, low-budget enterprise beyond the reach of peer review. With only one experimental subject, what value can one such limited study contribute to our current understanding of consciousness?

That is, the baby gets unwittingly tossed with the bath water before anyone (but the introspector) suspects a case can be made for something splashing about in the tub. Once I claim in my big-picture findings that, indeed, such a case might be warranted, there is no one around willing to go back to Go and start developing the big picture all over again.

The irony is that the only direct access to consciousness is available on a first-person basis to the subject herself. Studying the brain will not reveal the structure of consciousness. Disciplined introspection is the only method that provides a clear picture of the constituents and structure of consciousness.

My focus has been on my perceptual errors, the very criterion professionals use to dismiss consciousness as a serious topic of study by way of introspection. But errors open the way to the big picture they reveal in their shadow. You just have to stick with it; in two years you’ll have enough data to fuel ten years of analysis and writing-up results.

Yet in other fields, I see feisty individuals gathering all the relevant pieces and assembling something entirely fresh with the discards from what has already been done, expanding the limits of what is thought possible. Croatian cellists Luka Šulić and Stjepan Hauser are turning musical conventions to entirely new uses by combining pop and classical styles once thought incompatible, with formidable (yes, that’s the word) results.

An Indonesian woman working as a domestic in Hong Kong has gathered the courage to defy the convention of cowering before her employer, and has splashed the big picture across front pages around the world, publically declaring the secret tyranny of the system.

Big pictures expose the hidden truth trapped in the shadows of conventional practice. We get so caught up in our conventional wisdom that we can’t see anything else but the lies and half-truths we keep telling ourselves in maintaining our respectable ways and beliefs.

Taking the fragments of historical human engagements with the stars, what sense can we make of them as a group? That is my next project in this blog. Cosmologist Brian Swimme did it before me in the late 1980s and 1990s in his twelve-part video, Canticle to the Cosmos. He and Thomas Berry developed the notion that we need a “new story” about humanity’s place in the universe. Theologians, who have been on the forefront of human understanding of such matters for some five thousand years, now must give way to a new breed of cosmologists who update the story from a wholly new perspective based on recent achievements in space science.

I was born to a small town with five steeple houses built well before my time. I passed them every day on my way to school, but no one told me what they were about. Later I got a dose of the old story in one of them, a tale of mumbo-jumbo about virgin births and resurrections and assumptions into heaven. Even as a kid I knew enough about the way the world works to recognize flapdoodle when I heard it directed at me as God’s truth.

My life has been a matter of gathering fragments to piece together as a big picture that puts the small, narrow picture hung in all those steeple houses to shame. The very word religion stems from Latin religare meaning to bind or tie back to old ways of belief based on God’s directives relayed to Earthly priests by patterns among the stars. The priests’ job was to make sure that people did what God told them to do from his high seat in heaven.

It would be nice if we could start with recent archaeological findings at sites such as Göbekli Tepe in southern Turkey because of its dating back to 9,000 BCE. But it’s a recent dig, and theories about its purpose haven’t had time to reach any sort of consensus. Some of its incised reliefs remind me of imaginative renderings of stellar constellations, but it isn’t known whether the many so-called temples were roofed over or open to the sky.

Stonehenge on England’s Salisbury Plain and Several Sumerian sites at the then head of the Persian Gulf were roughly contemporary in dating to 3,200 BCE. Stonehenge is definitely aligned along its major axis with the summer solstice, so could have been established as an observatory to keep track of the sun’s apparent motion along the ecliptic, so serving to peg seasonal labors and rituals to cyclical celestial events. Which was exactly what Sumerian priests did with their ziggurats, now just mounds in the desert, but once the center of human understanding of man’s place in the universe.

In my next post I will begin with the Sumerian system of belief, which still lives in our religious views of today.

Memory is at the heart of learning through trial and error. We are born knowing very little; it’s all uphill from there. Families give us a leg-up by not having to be feral children dependent on instinct. They give us enough leeway to own what we learn.

And what we learn is what to expect next time. Expectancy, recognition, identification, meaning, and understanding are gifts our sheltering families make available to us. Leading to judgment, which opens the way to appropriate behavior.

All courtesy of the families that give us room to fall on our face, pick ourselves up, and have at it again. Getting that one more chance makes all the difference because we remember the last time, and vow to do better. Our efforts add up as we go. Practice makes, if not perfect, at least for improvement.

Families give us the chance to engage through successive approximation, so that what we aim at, we eventually attain. Not trial and error just once, but again and again, showing incremental improvement each time. If we put in our ten-thousand hours of consciously appreciating those decreasing increments, we find ourselves right where we wanted to be two years ago. Courtesy of memory, room for experiment, the wisdom of patience, and the willingness to try.

Join all of the above to the life force that urges us on from every one of our cells because we need to do something with all that energy our mitochondria provide, and we have the formula for success via one earnest attempt after another.

Knowing almost nothing in particular at birth opens the door to the possibility of adapting to unanticipated conditions and situations. If we were born fully equipped with everything we needed to know, the first surprising change we encountered would throw us off our stride. We’d have no way of coping with novelty, and it would be our downfall in the end, which would come sooner rather than later.

No matter how trying family life can be, real life is far worse. Family life is a trial run for the time when we must face every challenge on our own by standing on the two feet we were born with and that our families have encouraged us to develop into an asset. Thanks, Mom; thanks, Dad; we owe it all to you. Oh, yes, and to the kids who grew up alongside us, no matter what pains they were to us at the time, or we to them.

Families are our first schools. In that sense, we all start out being home schooled. What do we learn? To be ourselves. To speak our native language. To engage. To babble, then invent our own patter. To discover meaningful speech. To understand others. To understand ourselves.

It all begins at mother’s breast while we are fed, warm, and safe. She smiles; we smile. She laughs; we laugh. She oohs; we ooh in response. Then we ooh meaningfully at the sight of her smile. She giggles; we giggle. Peek-a-boo!

We sense we’re onto something. We play off against her; she plays the same game. Back and forth; forth and back. There’s no stopping the banter. Then the flow of talk. Her turn, our turn. Then the full exchange, the loop of engagement of perception and action at the same time. She playing her part; we playing ours. Equally engaged. Paying attention. Watching, listening. Being watched; being listened to. Taking turns. Conversing. Being ourselves with each other. Not alone anymore. The biggest discovery of our lives. Or not, if there’s nobody to play the game with to get us started.

 

452. Was I Ever Young?

March 9, 2015

Looking back from the vantage of being eighty-two, I wonder, was I ever young? Was I ever! Young, that is. I have a bank of memories to prove it. Too many to count, so I will bullet a few.

  • Falling over the edge of a hayloft, hitting the floor between two pieces of heavy farm machinery, breaking my wrist.
  • My Vermont grandfather scolding me for sneaking into his workshop, messing with his woodworking tools.
  • Watching my grandmother talk through fingers screening her lips to keep her false teeth from flying out.
  • Lying in bed listening to steam locomotives pulling out of the station on wintery nights, hearing them try to gain traction on icy rails, slipping, then slowing, making another try, and another.
  • Auntie Viv giving us a dog that chased cars in Buffalo, and promptly chased cars in Hamilton, never tiring of attacking noisy tires.
  • Feeling heat from the fire in the boiler at the basket factory, hearing the machinery.
  • Crunching on broken glass, hearing whining complaints from sheets of galvanized roofing clanking in the wind at the old observatory on the hill.
  • Holding my nose among the bodies of cats pickled in formaldehyde at the gut lab, stiff legs poking under lids of their metal coffins.
  • Ogling a man’s head in a jar, donated the label said for research, skin stripped from half his face to show veins and arteries filled with blue and red rubber.
  • Watching a meteor shower with Norman Stauffer.
  • Finding fossil trilobites in layers of slate.
  • Getting stung by yellow jackets.
  • My father tapping his pipe out the car window, sparks setting tents lashed to the running board on fire.
  • My fifth-grade teacher’s heaving bosom as she sang Gilbert and Sullivan in the gym.
  • Brass spittoons among the ferns at the barber shop.
  • Crawling out over rafters holding up the tin ceiling of study hall at school, poking a balloon through a rust hole, bending down, braced between taut arms and legs, blowing it up for all to see—except nobody looked up.
  • Stealing a bike adornment with five flags from the dime store.
  • Peeing in a jug for a week to put on the neighbor’s porch.
  • Kicking a soccer ball on an icy sidewalk, legs flying out from under me, landing on the back of my head.
  • My tongue freezing to the metal steering bar of my Flexible Flyer.
  • Poking sticks into muskrat traps set in Payne Creek, the trapper yelling at me on the street.
  • Breaking into a barn, stealing an upright telephone and jewelry, wearing the pins under my sweater at school until my mother found out.
  • Mother spanking me with a canvas stretcher for yelling “I’m going to murder you” at my little brother for knocking down the tower I was building with wooden blocks.
  • My father making me give back the jackknife I stole from Dickie Wet-his-pants in second grade.

Was I ever young? Which tells you why I am now an empiricist, studying my own mind by direct observation and personal experience, shunning theories and mathematical models like dengue fever, dwelling contentedly in my subjective black box, taking full responsibility for my engagements with the world. Learning everything I know from my mistakes.

At birth, we are naïve about the ways of that world. The point of memory is to free us from our ignorance that we might have some chance of survival. Childhood is given us to learn as much as we can by trial and error in a somewhat protective environment. Now I know that pottery breaks when I drop it. Splinters lie in wait for me to rub my hand across rough wood. In the days when tires had inner-tubes, and I was old enough to drive, I was sure to get a flat tire if I didn’t carry a jack in the trunk.

It isn’t the taming of fire that gives humanity an edge on survival, spoken language, or even humor. It is memory that lets us learn from careless mistakes so, if we’re lucky, we can eventually work our way around them.

 

450. Family Story

March 6, 2015

My grandmother died of a heart attack in 1896 after giving birth to her only child, so he, my father, had never know her, his own mother. He was christened at her graveside. And as it turned out, his own children never knew him, our father. To us he might well have been a cobbler hammering at his last in some distant workroom across town.

But we loved him in spirit because he often read to us before bedtime. In the end, he pipe-smoked himself to death at age sixty-four. When he said good night, he smelled like an ashtray.

Though famous in a professional sense, he never found the engagement he missed-out on when the one person destined to be there for him never showed up. He never engaged her, his own mother, so never had a chance to respond to her personal qualities, and so never developed his own. He was a presence notable for its absence due to professional duties. Throughout my life, he was always this bemused man in the background.

In retrospect, I see him as a good provider, but, too, as a kind of silent partner, a sort of blank to be filled-in upon later reflection. That is what I see myself doing in writing this blog using the English language to write about the one mind I have to work with. And saw my two brothers doing late in life before they died, putting themselves into typing out plays and poetry, respectively. Reminding me of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, children of the John B. Watson era of child abuse by means of edicts issued from academia.

My father’s great gift to his family was Burying Island, which my mother brought to family attention as a memory from her childhood, presented to her in a dream she had in 1937 of a time she and her father had rowed to the island to pick raspberries. Talk about family engagements: I have spent almost my whole life interacting with that island on the Maine coast, and I am sure that connection explains why I moved to Maine in 1986 to become an inadvertent environmentalist.

My love for that island goes back to its meaning for both of my parents. For my mother it was a living remnant of her relationship with her father; for my father is was a fantasy remnant of a relationship with the mother he never knew. For me, it was the setting of the happiest days we enjoyed as a family before we went our separate ways into disparate worlds of our own.

I now manage Burying Island LLC for the three families that used to own it in undivided shares, but together formed an LLC to assure protection of its ecological integrity for the foreseeable future. A good part of my life’s energy has gone toward protecting that island from innocent degradation by well-meaning family members. That island is at the core of my creative life as Steve from planet Earth.

Mind, self, island, planet—I can’t keep them separate because in my experience they aren’t separate at all. They are levels of life on Earth as expressed through my lineage. I had to live my whole life to this point in order to write that sentence in the context of this reflection.

That is how my mind works. And I would now say how minds work in general. Ultimately they are expressions of the planet that bore them, their families, communities, cultures, and natural surroundings, at root based on sunlight and water joining forces with soil to create mindful life.

Our families provide a core around which our engagements are wrapped, giving shape to our actions, judgments, and perceptions. Here I am connecting the words in this blog to the situation I have created for myself by undertaking this project as an expression of my family history as kindled by my mother and father all the way back to the founding of one-celled life in ancient waters and soils pooled together and both warmed and lit by rays from the sun.

This is my story as dictated to my fingers by my mind. All told by trusting my situated intelligence to find coherent meaning in the many currents of thought and feeling that make up the mind that I am.

Can you feel it—that flow? That’s who I am in alerting you to that flow in yourself, to give you encouragement to keep your own flow flooding through your mind and activities as a vehicle for your family’s history of turning sunlight and moisture into deeds that perpetually flower in the guise of your creative engagements.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, that is why I undertook the project of writing this blog—to earn the right to say what I just did in these last few sentences and paragraphs.

 

449. My Parents

March 5, 2015

Surprising as it may seem, parents are people. They are who they are. They can’t be all things to all children, who tend to draw closer to one or the other. Sex hormones may be one draw, a sense of shared identity or “identification” another. I’m with him, mister active who plays catch; I’m with her, the listener and supporter who gives me a hug now and then.

I grew up under the teachings of John B. Watson’s recent (1928) book, Psychological Care of Infant and Child, which advised raising children at an emotional distance as if they were young adults, shaking hands with them, but not hugging or kissing them lest they be spoiled. Young academics were apt to accept Watson’s doctrine as the authentic voice of scientific reasoning, so got suckered in to Watson’s “method,” while more loving parents remained skeptical.

The only time I can remember my father holding me in his lap was once on the front porch when he helped tie my shoes. The incident stands out because it was a unique event. Late in her life, my mother admitted that most people in Hamilton didn’t approve of how she was raising her three boys.

However family attachments are formed, they stir our engagements much as loving hands turn a prayer wheel in Tibet, or, as in my case, dutiful hands dress a child for school to meet community standards of approval. I have always seen my childhood as Platonic in being based on ideas and not feelings. I can’t recommend such treatment to anyone.

After all, it takes only a gentle pressure now and then to keep family relationships active and alive. Like prayer wheels, family engagements are made to spin, two partners in mutual orbit. To endure, they have to spin one around the other. In most families, parents trade off in keeping things going. Both are active while doing different jobs that have to get done every day. Like working for a living, getting dinner on the table, cleaning house, or watching a movie together.

When my parents got married in 1926, my father laid down the law: this is to be a one-career family. My mother was working on her doctorate in geology, so had to switch tracks mid-course. Her father had been a granite worker in the quarries of Sullivan, Maine. It was only natural for her to follow his lead. I remember she kept a few mineral samples in a bowl on her dresser, each labeled with its scientific binomial. In 1923, she did geological research at Acadia National Park. That was the year her father died of silicosis.

In the mid-1920s, her future husband showed up on her doorstep in Sullivan, seeking a rest stop on a hike from Middlebury to Nova Scotia. That was the end of his solo journey. My mother grudgingly learned to specialize in childcare and homemaking, developing a sideline of easel painting on Sundays, her day off.

I remember her boiling the laundry in a huge copper laundry tub that fit over two burners of the coal stove in the kitchen. She was a highly visual person, with marine artists in her family background. A Maine native, she loved the outdoors. In Seattle in the 1940s, I remember her saying after a long spell in the house, “I want to go out and touch trees.” She sent many signals that childrearing was not her chosen thing. But she worked at it as best she could because that was her family role. When she got more free time as her three boys got older, she took up flower gardening as a suitable pastime for a faculty wife.

My father was a distinguished college teacher of English. As far as I could tell, his toolkit consisted of pencils, paperclips, a stapler, pads of paper, and a zinc writing board with a bent corner. His main tool was an upright Underwood typewriter that made clickety noises through the closed door of his study after dinner, starting promptly at seven o’clock.

Each of us three boys had to invent himself for lack of an explicit model to engage with. Career-wise, we each did a lot of flub-dubbing around. Both my older and younger brother had great trouble finding a way through the halls of higher education. Both of them got lost.

Suspended between science and the humanities, I, too, got lost, but as a middle child with lesser influence from both parents, in my late forties I eventually stumbled my way to a doctorate in humanistic and behavioral education from Boston University School of Education in 1982. On the secondary level, I taught English for a time, and poetry, along with creative photography, art, and the humanities. Then I moved to Maine to write my great book, became an environmentalist, made a life for myself, and discovered wayfaring as my true profession. So did I resolve the misguidance of John B. Watson’s early and longstanding influence on my life.

We acquire our genetic parents at conception, but achieve our dreaming and waking minds in the womb as distinct from those of our parents. We are each born to our most rudimentary families, such as they are, with a mind formed by a particular course of events in utero. We bring that mind with us at birth as our basic tool for engaging the hereafter as it gradually unfolds in our particular case. That unfolding may strengthen or weaken the mental pathways we are born with.

The rest is history as told in our expanding autobiography. Though there may be general milestones, there are no laws of child development. Laws are cultural, not natural, artifacts. Collectively and individually, each family is an experiment containing a mix of experiments that proceeds by trial and error as proven by developing relationships among grandparents, parents, selves, children, and grandchildren.

That haphazard process reflects evolution’s wisdom in not attempting to anticipate the conditions we will be born into, so not committing us in advance to ways of engagement which might prove ineffective or even harmful.

In truth, subjective judgment is evolution’s gift to us all in being formed in response to the specific situations we actually confront in family life, not some archaic set of Paleolithic challenges we are supposedly destined to face.

Whether nurtured by our families or not, the judgments that we ourselves make as based on our unique life experience is the crowning glory of evolutionary achievement. Evolution does not lay down the law, it allows for and opens us to the possibilities we might actually meet on our own.

I used to believe that matter obeyed Newton’s laws of motion, or that electrons heeded Ohm’s law. But the universe is not driven by obedience. In every case, the specific conditions in each situation determine the outcome of what happens next. Situations flow from one state of being into the next because conditions are right for that to happen, not by decree, but because each situation spontaneously governs itself in inventing itself on the spot in response to its state at each instant.

There is no such thing as an overall universe governed by laws; there is only the resulting configuration of matter continuously being what it must be right where it is in response to the set of conditions currently affecting its state of being.

Just as the universe is in a continual state of readjustment, so are we, its progeny. Like the Higgs boson, each family is the next state of matter that arises from the conditions that lead up to it. It appears as it does, not in response to a causative or descriptive law of physics it has never heard of, but because, under the circumstances, it balances itself in the moment as best it can.

Just as each point in the universe does as it does on its own in its unique situation, each family member is on her own in the bosom of her family. She is as she does in response to the conditions comprising her situation at each instant of her experience. She can’t help it. She is as she does from her point of view in the context she is in, which sets up a new situation, leading to the next resolution, leading on to the one after that. That’s the process we call development, which includes each individual person and the context of forces in which he or she occurs.

Our lives end up being the summation of each instant of growth as it occurs in the context of all that has happened before, both within and around us. That’s us: Works in progress. Getting it right or wrong by doing it right or wrong in an endless series of ever-changing situations.

As I said, development is not a matter of law. That’s why there are no universal guidebooks to child development. Lives are nothing more nor less than what happens in the situations leading up to conception, then as those situations further evolve after that until we wear out.

Our job as children is to deal with what comes our way the best we can, which we all manage to do more-or-less well. Put that way, it doesn’t sound very romantic. But as I keep saying, we are wayfarers by nature, and blaze our own trails. In contrast, imagine living life as a puppet on strings with a set storyline and guaranteed ending. Which would you choose, your own journey, or that as scripted by someone else?

Our minds are proposed in the womb, then disposed during subsequent engagements after birth for the period of one lifetime.

It is in the care of families that our minds develop perceptually from arousal, expectancy, and attention on to the formation of sensory impressions, their recognition, naming, categorization, and understanding.

Then in that same care that we apply those minds situationally in supporting our personal judgment, resulting in our setting goals and planning actions through projects and relationships as aided by tools and skills to actual enactment of specific courses of behavior.

Families are the medium in which we thrive (or not) as we learn through trial and error to piece these dimensions of mind together in coherent order to serve in our varied engagements with a world we can only construct and interpret for ourselves because, snug in our black boxes, we can never know it directly as it might be in itself.

Our parents, brothers, sisters, and extended families offer examples to illustrate the mix of skills, priorities, and attitudes by which we learn to live. Keeping clean is one ingredient in that mix, along with such qualities as being careful, paying attention, learning to talk and listen, recognizing when we’ve had enough, cleaning up after ourselves, playing fair, having fun, sharing, controlling our tempers, and caring for one another.

Through family living, we forge the commitments and responsibilities that bind us together as a unit, along with the many social skills that invite or promote successful engagements with others. Within the shelter of our families, we develop along the dimensions of mind that we exercise the most in our engagements one with another. We apply many of those same dimensions to engagements with events outside the family, or supplement that set of dimensions with others we find lacking at home and strive to develop on our own.

Our intimate families are the nests or niches that provide the protective spaces in which we grow into ourselves through the interplay of our mutual engagements. Family engagements are seldom one-way-streets, but depend equally on the mental qualities and actions of all members taken together.

Families may create the conditions of our personal growth, but that same growth challenges our families to develop along with us. Each family can be seen as a school of fish all swimming—or flock of birds flying—together. Or as a cohort of confederates joined in common cause. And yes, a can of worms wriggling en masse, each affecting all the rest.

Families are group projects dedicated to personal fulfillment and development of all members simultaneously. Individual commitment and responsibility are spurred by such dedication on a variety of levels as each member respectively attains them.

At the same time, families contain many specific personal experiences not shared with other members. In fact, I often found myself yearning to get away from other members so I could be myself and not somebody’s child, rival, or underling. I will expand on that aspect of family life in my next post.