389. Fish or Cut Bait

December 26, 2014

The life we are born into is only a beginning where the major decisions are made by grownups and the culture they live in. We as children go along because we don’t have a choice. We are too inexperienced to know any better.

But we are fast learners. As we gradually come into our own through hard-won experience, we learn to grapple with situations as we come to them, striving for freedom and independence in living as we choose to live for ourselves, not as somebody’s child.

As a matter of course, being ourselves in our earliest days gradually comes to us while we are somebody’s child, so we become who we are through a long series of trials, errors, corrections, retrials, and eventually morph into young selves whose judgments we can live by and with.

Examples of the exercise of judgment include parental decision-making as expressed in such terms as “Good girl,” or “Naughty boy, “Try harder,” “You can do it.” The world we are born to includes courts of law where judges, tribunals, and juries weigh the evidence pointing one way or the others towards either guilt or innocence; playing fields where umpires call strikes or balls, safe or out; and debaters randomly assigned a thesis to defend or disprove, pro or con.

Judgment comes down to an either-or decision: yes or no, go or no-go, true or false, wise or foolish, freedom or captivity, change it or lump it, fish or cut bait. Which means the situation at issue has to be structured as a duality to simplify the job of making a polarized decision.

This structure is not arbitrary. It flows from the workings of a human mind that frames situations in black or white. Nerve cells either fire or they don’t. They resolve the various activating and inhibiting signals they receive. If the activation threshold is reached, the nerve cell fires; if it fails to reach that level, it does nothing. End of signal in that branch of the network.

True, if the threshold is crossed, then variations in signal strength are reflected in the frequency of firing. But if the threshold is not reached, that signal is dead in that neuron.

Which is why so many of the concepts with which we compose our thoughts come in pairs of opposites: pro or con, assertion or negation, promotion or opposition, with or without, fight or flight, and on and on.

The essence of consciousness is found in sharpening perception, increasing contrast, heightening discernment, making thoughts and judgments that much clearer and unambiguous.

We are wayfarers made to be judicious in choosing our pathways through a succession of either-or decisions. Our choices have serious consequences: win or lose, succeed or fail, live or die. The wisdom of our heritage, genome, intelligence, and judgment all comes down to the quintessential difference between positive or negative outcomes. We make it or we fall short.  Eat or go hungry. Survive or perish.

From our earliest days, life is a matter of learning to make the right choices in one situation after another. Success means we win the right to make future decisions. Failure means we have gone as far as we can go and have come to the end of the line.

 

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Biological values and situated emotions are two of the primary motivators that guide us in weighing evidence and deciding what to do. We all require air, water, food, rest, shelter, and companions to survive in most situations. We build (or select) cultures around ourselves as a group to meet these and other needs on a reliable basis within the habitats where we live.

Emotions are our primary resource and guide in meeting the many situations we face on our own during our daily engagements. Fear, anger, loathing, envy, sympathy, love, and joy not only stir us to action in proportion to their motivating strength, but their positive or negative polarity directs us to either seek or avoid situations in which they arise.

Our situated intelligence, the “I” at our core, initiates a round of engagement by converting the meaning of a given situation as perceived into a course of action appropriate to our experience in such a situation.

The valenced or polarized drive of emotion provides the key to the self’s judgment on the basis of that meaning. Fight or flight? Good or bad? Glad or sad? Love or spite? If the incoming perception agrees with our intentions, we judge it to be a positive state of affairs and we will do what we can to further that agreement.

If, on the other hand, perception disagrees with or opposes our prior intentions, then our judgments might well depart from what we did earlier and we revise our behavior to remedy the situation by taking a different tack.

The self or situated intelligence is where incoming and outgoing signals are linked together on the basis of our current judgment of harmony or discord, suitability or inappropriateness, liking or loathing. That judgment is a conscious expression of our personal intelligence in combining the diverse forces acting upon us into a coherent course of action.

In writing these words, I continuously edit what I have just written to better accord with what I am trying to say. The work of engaging is ongoing and requires judgment at every round. I write, read, rewrite, reread, continuously adjusting my stream of activity until I am happy (or at least not dissatisfied) with what I have put down, and move on to the next thought.

What I am after in writing this reflection is a sense of personal integrity that represents my inner workings as I truly know them from inside my mind.

In wallpapering the front room of a house I was living in over forty years ago, I chose a colonial pattern in pale blue that I thought was attractive while not calling undue attention to itself. Stepping back to view the first strip I had hung behind the door, I realized I had hung the pattern upside-down. It was too late to remove it, so I had no choice but to continue, taking care to right my error, beginning with the second strip.

As it turned out, the pattern was so subtle, it was hard to tell the difference between the first two strips. By looking closely, I could see it, but no one ever mentioned my mistake. Even so, I have remembered it for half of my life.

That long-ago lack of scrutiny and judgment has stuck in my brain as a major flaw ever since. A flaw in my integrity that I need to draw attention to, and apologize for. A cautionary tale. A life lesson to myself, earned through trial and error.

As my confounding “solstice” with “solace” in a sentence (long forgotten) that I spoke to my father, a teacher of English, who was in the driver’s seat when I as an adolescent was getting into the back seat of the family car, a mistake that made me feel stupid then, and embarrasses me even now fifty years later. That mistake in that situation will go with me to the grave because I felt so stupid at the time.

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Simply put, we generally find what we look for in life. We expect more of what we are sensitive to. We are particularly sensitive to fear aroused by threatening situations. If we have no time to ponder the circumstances, our unconscious minds convert fear into anger, rousing us either to do battle or run for cover. Consciousness is too slow to be of much use in dangerous situations that arise quickly. It is more suited, once things calm down, to planning how not to let the same thing happen again. In the press of the moment, things we find scary or threatening get us moving without thinking, either toward or away from the fray. As seekers of happiness, like the proverbial donkey, we are driven from behind with greater urgency by the stick of fear and discomfort than we are drawn by the carrot enticing us forward.

As an example, I offer this exchange of letters to the editor of The Ellsworth American, a weekly Maine newspaper to which I subscribe. Concerned (fearful) that Major Nidal Malik Hasan was being tried in the media before all facts were known about the shootings at Fort Hood, I wrote the first letter:

To the Editor:

What if Ft. Hood’s notorious Major Hassan [sic.] were a perfectly sane and sensitive man acting as many Mainers might act under contagiously stressful conditions such as therapists undergo in treating returning service men and women suffering post-traumatic stress disorder? Even those who face an enemy once removed by piloting Predator drones from cubicles in Utah are vulnerable to PTSD. Like Major Hassan, many in the armed forces are stressed beyond endurance. They deserve public sympathy and support more than condemnation. In the Ft. Hood incident, war itself is the villain that reached ahead of itself to kill those soon to deploy.

Steve Perrin, Bar Harbor

I put my views as succinctly as possible so not to take up undue space on the most popular page in the paper. Two weeks later, this somewhat longer reply appeared under the heading, Save the Sympathy:

To the Editor:

In the Nov. 19 American, Mr. Steve Perrin of Bar Harbor wrote in asking if perhaps Maj. Nidal Hassan was suffering from vicariously induced PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), which drove him to commit his heinous acts of cold-blooded murder at Fort Hood.

He further asked if many Mainers might act in a similar fashion under such circumstances. Mr. Perrin’s comments were unquestionably the most imbecilic drivel I have ever read in The American. His attempt to excuse Maj. Hassan’s acts is incredibly insulting to those of us who have served our country. My Army Reserve unit was activated in late 2003 and we deployed to Iraq for a yearlong tour of duty in early 2004. There were certainly some very stressful moments during our deployment (as a transportation unit we did have several convoys ambushed, but with only minor injuries inflicted). However, we dealt with our stress in a constructive manner. Some of us prayed, some of [us] worked out, but we all dealt with it without harming ourselves or our fellow soldiers.

Mr. Perrin’s attempt to offer his “sympathy” to those of us who have served is a further insult. We are not victims. I, like every American soldier to have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, made a conscious decision to enlist. Not a single one of us was drafted. Our country, which has been a beacon of hope and justice since its founding, called us to duty on foreign soil to free oppressed people and to safeguard our nation. We answered that call and we did our duty. I personally am immensely proud of my service to my country and I in no way need anyone’s misguided sympathy for it. I seek only to live my life as I see fit and raise my family in the greatest nation on Earth. It is through the service of my fellow veterans and myself that I am free to do just that.

The victims of the Fort Hood massacre and their families have earned Mr. Perrin’s sympathy. Maj. Hassan doesn’t deserve it and I don’t want it.

Terry L. Bishop, CPA, Ellsworth

I could feel the blood rushing to my ears as I read that letter in the paper. Had I truly insulted the writer or offered him sympathy? Clearly, he took it that I had. And took pains to rebuff an offer I had not made. Next day, I sat down and wrote a follow-up letter:

To the Editor:

I appreciate the effort Terry Bishop made in responding to my letter about the Major Hasan affair at Fort Hood. In that incident, the victims were soldiers, the killer was a soldier who provided treatment for soldiers, and the location was a military base. It struck me that this was another front in a war we think of as being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, but is now being waged closer to home by our own troops.

We all hope this is an anomaly, a onetime event. Yet with soldier suicides on the rise, the need to provide effective care for physically and mentally wounded veterans, and uncertain prospects for how long these wars will go on, it is evident the cost to the American people is far greater than merely footing the bill. Lives of thousands of civilians and military personnel on both sides are being shattered—to what end?

Before we leap to judgment in the case of Major Hasan, I think we owe it to all of our troops in these wars to take a long, hard look at the conditions we ask them to perform under, and the consequences we expect them to risk and endure.

I say the true culprit is war itself, which every day is reaching deeper into our country, creating havoc and chaos when what we need is healing and compassion in these troubled times.

I regret that Terry Bishop regards these concerns as “imbecilic drivel.” He evidently has a deeper understanding of the military mind than I do, and is right to take pride in serving without harming himself or his fellow soldiers. Yet I include myself among “those of us who have served our country,” which I feel gives me a certain authority in stating my case. Mr. Bishop is one of the lucky ones. I think his views and mine are not incompatible. My sympathy was intended for the fallen and the broken—among whom I count Major Hasan, his victims, and their families.

Steve Perrin, Bar Harbor

For my part, I saw Terry Bishop as standard bearer for those my first letter was meant to reach. For his part, he committed to engage on the issue I raised. I couldn’t have asked for a more heartfelt response, backed by deep personal experience (beefed up with a good dose of military boilerplate). It struck me that he was engaged on a very meaningful level. His tactic was to blow me from the face of the Earth. Why such a strong reaction? His lashing out suggested the dynamic I outlined at the start of this post. My views seemed to warrant such an attack because they tripped a very sensitive nerve.

Evidently he took it I had fired the first shot in writing, “Like Major Hassan, many in the armed forces are stressed beyond endurance. They deserve public sympathy and support more than condemnation.” Why “many” rather than simply realize, because he had successfully dealt with his stress, that my offer did not extend to him? I think perhaps his military experience was more stressful than he chose to admit. Why else all the boilerplate meant to deny that possibility?

Fear motivated me to write the first letter: I was afraid Major Hasan was going to be made an example of to cover up what training and war can do to civilians in turning them into hardened killers. There is no off switch for such a mindset. Mr. Bishop apparently was afraid I was speaking directly to him. Which I was, but he didn’t want to hear it. Nor did the branch of the military that so carefully trained him. Leaving him to wrestle on his own with whatever fear and anger my letter stirred up.

I do not mean to single out Mr. Bishop for this kind of treatment. I recognize the same struggle in myself—and in humanity at large. Fear is a big part of life, which shows up in a broad spectrum of angry behaviors. Fear starts it off, then anger gets us moving. Together, they are a big part of our biological heritage for dealing with threatening events and situations. Or, more accurately, events and situations which we take to be threatening. Once, when I stepped on a twig while watching beavers in a pond, a Weimaraner plunged through the bushes and gave me what for, the owners calling out, “He won’t hurt you,” but I looked in his eyes and saw he was considering doing just that. My fear turned to anger at the owners for having their dog off-leash in a national park.

For more than eight years now, I have wondered what the nineteen terrorists who felled the Twin Towers were afraid of—what drove their anger. They didn’t know any of the occupants of the buildings—so it couldn’t have been them. The structures themselves were symbols of America’s widespread presence in the world, so it might have been that presence they feared, especially as evidenced in their homeland, Saudi Arabia. I think now the terrorists’ actions on September 11, 2001, were their desperate way of shouting, Yankee go home, we don’t want you here—you threaten our deepest beliefs and way of life! Osama bin Laden said as much at the time. But we were interested in the actions themselves as a show of deadly hostility, not the reasoning behind them. Our reaction was kindled by our fear, not theirs, which is how conflicts arise. Had we bothered to inquire at the time, and reflected on the reply we received, we might have spared the world a couple of wars and thousands upon thousands of deaths. But we committed ourselves to a bold and decisive course of action for the sake of its effect on the world, a course fueled by fear and anger, not any desire to hear and understand.

Through the agency of our upbringing, our culture often warns us it’s not nice to be fearful or angry. So we stuff such powerful feelings deep inside, denying they exist. I-am-not-angry! we shout; I-did-not-flinch! Yet this deadly duo surfaces every day of our lives, craving recognition as driving forces behind much of human behavior. Until we learn to deal effectively with road rage, cutting remarks, feeling left out or wrongly included, trashing the opposition, being cruel, and the countless every-day episodes rooted in anger and fear—until that day comes, we do not yet use the gift of consciousness to full advantage. We are still apprentices at being human, falling short of our full maturity—both individually as persons and collectively as a people.

Black-and-yellow field spider