A new experience beckons, we look forward with trepidation and at times alarm or eager anticipation and always with the mentality that "I' will select the behavior best suited to highlight how incredible we simply know we are. On the other side of the experience, frustration ensues at why we didn't say just that very thing we now know we should have, why we behaved in just the wrong way and how clearly the impression left was one of misfit rather than one inspiring social esteem. Does this sound at all familiar? Simpler examples abound. That moment when we find ourselves saying or doing things we didn't think we'd do or even swore we wouldn't; those social faux paus's like a gaseous expulsion at a funeral.
Yet with all of these instances of social lack of control, we rarely find ourselves burdened by doubt concerning the seamless quality of our lives. Our internal narratives string along event after event into a wrinkle-less whole, rationalizing and justifying every instance of "good" and "bad" behavior, offering up on a platter of literary brilliance the holism of our lives. This holistic feel allows for notions of authenticity, where a person adheres to their “real” or “core” self; this feel also allows for judgment, legal and moral, when a behavior is noted as being outside social standards or that favorite of political pundits, hypocrisy; that feel provides continuity to our lives, as we are able to look back and get a sense of both where we came from, where we currently are and project into the future the fantasies of where we’d like to be.
This sense of being-ness, the psychological root of metaphysics, is not without difficulty. As noted above there are moments when we find ourselves doing or having done something that didn’t “feel” like ourselves, where we offer declarations of “this isn’t what I wanted to do.” Yet there exists a niggling doubt, a thread of anxiety concerning whether we did in fact “want” to do that very thing. Unless at that moment we are willing to believe an external agency took our bodies over and manipulated our actions, then the only person in charge was “I.”
Note here the existence of a separation of two influences and their location. When we discuss matters of free will we often talk as if the “I” is an external being, picking and choosing among disparate actions, uninfluenced by so-called physical variables. However, when something occurs for which we feel a disconnect or dissociation we then inquire as if the “I” is an internal being that was overpowered by external variables. Perspective shifts the location of the “I,” and this occurs without a pause in our collective considerations for the repercussions.
Let’s look at this differently. Bring to mind a person who, upon imbibing a chemical substance, whether of the social lubricating variety or of the blindly-accepted pharmacological variety, behaves differently. Often the situation is narrated as the person feeling “true” or connected with “who they really are.” Leaving aside that an external variable, the chemical, shifted dramatically what was supposedly an external and non-contextual “I,” think for a moment what those changes have manifested in interconnected relationships. If the previous set of behavior had continued, there’d have been reactions to it that are different than the reactions to the behavior post-chemical, precisely because they’re different. This would have resulted in a different relationship dynamic, offering up a different space for the manifestation of different behavior and so on. More simply, imagine for a moment what would happen if you acted the exact same way at home as you did at work, or at work the exact same way as out with friends. The repercussions are legion and fundamentally the only difference between a chemical and a variation in social situation, is the verbiage in description. They are both simply variables in the singularity that is reality. One is not more or less natural than the other, one is not fundamentally any different in kind. Yet, the story told of the pharmacology is that we find our “true” self and when alcohol is involved we tell the story that it was like being someone else.
Pause for a moment and consider each and every variable as equal to one another, not necessarily in strength but in kind. Familial background, genetic history, social class and the accompanying philosophies, these and many others all have variations in strength concerning influence on any life but are still fundamentally variables as such. With this in mind, begin taking away one of them at a time, starting small with a single social connection like the bus-driver who helps you get to work and then progressively bigger variables. See the ripples each one disappearing has on the story you create.
As Bruce Hood, in The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Reality, states: "You only exist as a pattern made up of all the others things in your life that shape you. If you take each away, “you” would eventually cease to exist. This does not mean that you do not exist at all, but rather that you exist as a combination of all the others who complete your sense of self. These are the memories and experiences that shape you. The problem, as we have seen, however, is that these memories are not always that reliable and so the self that is constructed is not necessarily an accurate or consistent version.”
See what has happened here. When it is noted first that ego is a point of reference, we can see why perspective will shift the location of that very ego or “I.” When it is further noted that each and every variable is fundamentally of the same kind in a singular universe, then that “I” ceases to be an external director selecting potential actions to complete. Instead, the “I” is an internal construction, a locus at the intersection of a virtually infinite set of variables, all coalescing into a seemingly seamless self-narrative because it is the story that is being consciously held not the variables separately themselves.
The power of perspective, of conscious intention and attention, is bound in this realization: the self is a construct, one that is constantly evolving. Like offshoots in a genetic line that may find ground to grow and others die off, so the self has its own tendrils, manifesting as behavior we either declare is in line with the “true” or something other. Confusion here results only if the “self” is a director. If considered as a construct, no less powerful or meaningful, then everything we do is us and the potential for change is as enormous as there are variables in the universe. When we contemplate our stories and find ourselves in a moment of self-castigation or doubt or shame or judgment upon others, remembering the ebb and flow of that construct of variables brings both freedom and an increase in empathic understanding.
© David Teachout