For many people, 2016 was the year of hurt. Over the past few months, this has been the prevailing thread in many long conversations I've had with friends. Below I attempt to distill these conversations into a single essay.
Despite our efforts, we cannot help but to hurt each other, especially when the stakes are so high.
At first I wondered if it was just an inevitable part of being human. But that seems too lazy of a conclusion. That's the conclusion that leads to jaded sorority girls writing about relationships on Elite Daily, weary intellectuals ruminating about a godless existence, and radicals waging war in the name of Some Party You Aren't Invited To. That's no fun.
The way we hurt ourselves and each other stems from a poor understanding of how our thoughts, desires, and memories work.
These three streams are what we absorb most willingly, and they converge to help us form a notion of who we are (our ego). The ego is a useful construct because it helps us have a semblance of continuity and consistency.
But the ego also has a dark side -- it often deludes us into believing that our thoughts, desires, and memories are valid and correct. We thus fail to be thoughtful, to listen carefully, and to avoid passing our pain on to others.
A lot of the violence we commit happens silently and without even noticing ourselves doing it. This habitual violence is so deeply ingrained, it's nearly impossible to eradicate it entirely. I keep catching myself sliding into these ego-fueled patterns. So the best thing we can do is to begin to understand what they are and what they look like.
1. Imitative Desires
From philosopher Rene Gerard's I See Satan Fall By Lightning:
"Rivalistic desires are all the more overwhelming since they reinforce one another. The principle of reciprocal escalation and one-upmanship governs this type of conflict. This phenomenon is so common, so well known to us, and so contrary to our concept of ourselves, thus so humiliating, that we prefer to remove it from consciousness and act as if it did not exist. But all the while we know it does exist."
Our desires arise from imitating the things other people want or find desirable. These "mimetic desires" push us into conflict with each other. We want the same things. Evolutionarily, our ability to imitate is what makes us such quick learners and adapters. But the complexity of modern society makes the imitation game a losing proposition.
Sometimes we want the same things but claim we want different things, which is what causes conflict! If only we could just recognize when we want the same thing (and we can both have it)!
Sometimes we want something just because someone else wants that thing! This drives us into a frenzy and we are no longer happy with what we already have.
The wants and haves of our peer group become the things we covet. Tragically, we don't realize that the things we have become the things others covet. In an era of abundance, our instinct is still to pine for the seemingly scarce.
2. Ego-Driven Speech
From psychologist Marshall Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication:
From spiritual teacher Adyashanti's Falling Into Grace:
"Analyses of others are actually expressions of our own needs and values."
"When we see the world through our thoughts, we stop experiencing life as it really is and others as they really are. When I have a thought about you, that’s something I’ve created. I’ve turned you into an idea. In a certain sense, if I have an idea about you that I believe, I’ve degraded you. I’ve made you into something very small. This is the way of human beings, this is what we do to each other."
When we talk to each other, we have a concept of ourselves and we have a concept of the person we are talking to. Our sense of self, our identity, often forms from the thoughts we cling onto, attach ourselves to, and perpetuate over and over again.
The words and phrases we use to communicate translate these patterns of thought very inefficiently to words. What comes out is a stream of ego-protective expressions that often escalates into some form of conflict. We protect our egos even when we claim to be "expressing ourselves."
"You're such a so-and-so when you ..." (very judgmental) vs. "You make me feel inadequate when you ..." (subtly judgmental) vs. "I feel disappointed in my ability to make you happy when you ..." (vulnerable).
You don't say what you mean to say in the very moments you need to say what you mean to say.
Because we attach much value to our thoughts (and the correctness of translating these thoughts to words), we aren't well-equipped to notice the harm our words can cause.
3. Suffering Through Memory Reliance
From Michael Lewis's The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds:
"The human mind was just bad at seeing things it did not expect to see, and a bit too eager to see what it expected to see. 'Confirmation bias is the most insidious because you don’t even realize it is happening,' [Kahneman] said. A scout would settle on an opinion about a player and then arrange the evidence to support that opinion."
From psychologist Carol Tavris's Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me):
"Most people, when directly confronted by evidence that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or course of action but justify it even more tenaciously. Even irrefutable evidence is rarely enough to pierce the mental armor of self-justification."
Our memories play tricks on us. Our memories are extremely vulnerable to the recency effect (how we felt at the tail end of an experience can often skew our memory of the total experience).
Our memories are extremely vulnerable to "making sense" of things in a way that protects our ego. When something promotes the ego, we cherry pick the good; when something clashes with our ego, we cherry pick the bad. This is also why it's so hard for people in high-ego settings to admit fault.
Our subjective memories are not very reliable judges, though they do provide us with rich perspectives. However, we obtain much of our suffering and our emotional state from how we choose to remember something.
You think someone stood you up, so you grumble and despise them, until you learn that they got into a car accident on the way to meeting you. In a flash, your sense of suffering changes entirely - you move from anger to concern.
Reality doesn't change; our perspective on it does.
Our imitative desires cause us to seek a very relational happiness. We are "happy" if we are better off than those around us. However, with the advent of social media, this relational happiness is impossible to attain -- there is always someone or something "better" (or at least, more novel) than what we already have.
And so we must learn to identify these desires and master them.
Our ego-driven speech leads us to conflict. We communicate mostly to secure our own sense of self, rarely thinking, speaking, and listening empathically.
And so we must learn to identify patterns of violence in the way we talk to each other.
Our obsession with our (faulty and unreliable) memories causes us to latch on to our own experiences. We construct narrow narratives about our lives that we defend viciously.
And so we must learn to never let our memories become an obsession.
It appears we are not careful enough about our relationship with our thoughts, desires, and memories. While it is certainly valuable to care about them, it's dangerous to assume an entitlement to them. They add some color to our life, but the shape of life exists somewhere beyond the pale of things that make us suffer. And so we must break the cycle.
Edit: Also will be trying something different and closing with a list of recommended books + essays. Here are a few related to the conversation above:
- Ryan Holiday's "Ego Is the Enemy" (book): Great gateway to Roman Stoic philosophy
- Rene Girard's "I See Satan Fall Like Lightning" (book): Girard's most accessible work, mostly about mimesis and religion
- Adyashanti's "Falling Into Grace: Insights on the End of Suffering" (book): Simple, yet shockingly poignant
- Michael Lewis's "The Undoing Project" (book): A strong introduction to Kahneman/Tversky's work on human bias
- Chris Jennings's "When the Messiah Came to America, She Was a Woman" (essay): The story of utopianism in America