Some time ago I explored the workings of brains, and therein as well as in the discussion that followed, I hinted that I would take up related matters at some point. That day has arrived for one of them. It seems to me we each operate under a tyranny that is inescapable—at least permanently and meaningfully inescapable. But then, I am probably showing my ignorance with that statement.
In my previous blog ramble on brains, my primary point was that each individual’s brain is custom-built, so to speak: it gets the way it is from one’s genetic blueprint, plus one’s experiences in the world. As several people commented, brains—even older ones—are remarkably plastic, tweaking and rerouting and reassigning as needed in some cases (disease or physical damage), or seemingly inexplicably in others. Yet, despite this constant fluidity, our brains create a tyranny that some seem unable to recognize, much less crack.
This tyranny is the tyranny of self.
I’d been thinking about this, and wondering how to present the idea, when I came across a transcript of David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon College commencement address. He expressed my musings better than I ever will, so allow me to pass on his assertion:
Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it's so socially repulsive. But it's pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.
Now, please don’t mistake where I’m going here; I am in no way trying to claim that this is necessarily and always a bad thing. The experience of self is metaphorically equivalent to one’s skin—it keeps us together, more or less, through all of life. And as such is it just as important as skin—without it we would be a heap of disparate mental stuff with no uniting context.
But, because we are locked in to this narrow perspective, the uniting function of the self spreads ... it seeps into our thinking in areas where it doesn’t belong—and where it can be downright dangerous. It can lead to ego issues. It can create as well as perpetuate communications difficulties with others. In fact, now that I’m thinking about it, many psychological phenomena may ultimately be pinned on the tyranny of self—the fundamental attribution error and in-group bias are two, for starters.
One example of its pervasiveness has been briefly touched on here before. We are curious creatures, always trying to understand things. When we wonder about something—especially when something unusual happens in a familiar context—we try to come up with explanations for these situations. A more accurate frame would be that we tell ourselves stories, because that elucidates what pure fiction they can be. And a large part of what makes them fiction is that we place ourselves at the center of those stories. I explain someone’s behavior in terms of a shift in their thinking about me, when it turns out I requested (and then forgot about) the behavior, or—even richer—their choice is completely independent of me ... it just impacts me in some way. [And, for those of you reading and telling yourself that I must not like you any more, else I’d reply to your email, well, it isn’t you. I remain way behind and am getting even behinder.]
Some people are more aware of this self-focus than others. Some seem to grasp it intellectually, but appear to be unable to act on it in practice. This is the origin of many otherwise senseless squabbles among pro-freedom individuals, I think, as well as charges of hypocrisy. Yes, I may be a hypocrite for whining about shifts in relationships when I have removed people from this blogroll—but in my own view my actions stem from good cause: it isn’t mere disagreement that prompts removal, but rather I may encounter something from the other that strikes me as being contra freedom [or it’s possible that it was a housekeeping accident]. Was it hypocritical of me to complain about a lack of business at Sunni’s Salon and shutter it, after allegedly helping to shut down a pro-freedom bookseller? Some apparently see it that way; I do not. But enough of this diversion.
Is it not accurate to say that semantic differences have contributed to much of the rancor between pro-freedom individuals—and by extension, the groups which seem to form around certain individuals and/or ideas? Why is it so hard for some to acknowledge that their definitions of, say, “capitalism” differ from others’, and that as long as they understand and keep those distinctions in mind, communication can remain fairly productive? If we all must agree on one definition for each word before we can exchange ideas, we truly are doomed.
There are ways by which we appear to step out of the trap of self. Probably the most common one is empathy—stepping in to someone else’s position. In shifting our frame of reference in this way we can gain deeper understanding, and a wider appreciation for how our experiences differ from another’s; but is this not ultimately a joke we try to pull on ourselves? Our understanding of any person is filtered through that self-context. That includes ourselves. Which is not to say that our efforts to empathize are worthless, because they most emphatically are not—but we can delude ourselves as to how much we’re actually stepping outside our own context and into another’s.
Some who’ve made it this far—and who have certain experiences with substances that I lack—might step up at this point and advance the claim that entheogens provide a more enduring way out of self’s tyranny. As best I recall, I do think every person who’s spoken to me about them has claimed that it has forever changed how he views the world ... but still those experiences come from within that framework of self. I don’t doubt that they expand one’s perspective, but I’m not sure that they break through it. By that I mean that entheogen use enables a different perspective on living and experiences, but it doesn’t allow one to mind-meld with another ... does it?
Now, in musing publicly about all this, I hope to raise awareness and assist better understanding, rather than contribute to a sense of frustration or futility—because I do think we have some power to step outside our usual context. David Foster Wallace again:
If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities [in response to scenarios outlined earlier] that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it.
He’s talking about something I touched on before: the stories we tell ourselves—the ongoing context-building or –sustaining narrative on which our actions are pinned. They are often overly self-focused. As a result they’re frequently inaccurate, and worse, uncharitable to the others in our lives. I’m reminded of a story I linked to in my last Salon, The Gold Wrapping Paper; and I must admit, in my haste and self-absorption I have at times come too close to that man than I care to consider.
The tyranny of the self—or of the ego, if one prefers—may be an unconquerable tyranny when viewed from one perspective, but from others it need not be. As Wallace implicitly shows (and his entire address really is worth reading), a nontrivial part of that tyranny is simply a choice to follow habit. The willingness to change that—to give the stories we tell ourselves a different angle (irrespective of whether it is more accurate or not, and whether we ever learn whether it’s accurate)—may be the most enduring way we can break out of this tyranny and gain a more compassionate view of others. I see this as vitally important in raising children, as well as being a beacon of liberty to others.
[Also, whilst wandering around and musing about this subject, I came across another essay that seems to come at the same idea from a very different angle. I’m not sure how Why Most of Our Lives Is a Rationale for the Imprint ties in, but it seems it does; and thus I offer it in hopes that one of you can help me understand better.]