Practice Objectivity

This is another post in my ongoing series on the individual chapters in “The Obstacle is the Way.” I don’t know how useful or interesting it will be out of context.


In a chapter about how assigning values to things before we fully comprehend them, I think my favorite couple of lines are these:

Everything about our animalistic brains tries to compress the space between impression and perception. Think, perceive, act–with millisecond between them.

A deer’s brain tells it to run because things are bad. It runs. Sometimes, right into traffic.

I think I those lines for a number of reasons. I like the acknowledgment of our ‘animalistic brains,’ I like the visual aid, and I like the juxtaposition of the animal and the modern, because our animalistic brains weren’t made for the environment in which we live.

Which isn’t to say that they don’t offer anything of value, but that reacting to an upset boss the way you’d react to a predator–or even an upset ‘chieftain’ in a hunter-gatherer society–is counter-productive and one of the ways we repress ourselves.

I’m diverging away from the material of the chapter by getting into this territory, but something I’d like to examine better (or, read more about) is the fact that I don’t think people believe what they think they believe. When the animalistic brain reacts, the rational brain is a few steps behind and supplies reasons after the fact. (No, it would be tragic if my boss were to get angry at me, because…)

Getting back to the material of the chapter, the two paragraphs above are followed by the following two paragraphs:

We can question that impulese. We can disagree with it. We can override the switch, examine the threat before we act.

But this takes strength. It’s a muscle that must be developed. And muscles are developed by tension, by lifting and holding.

And, this is another thing that I think isn’t talked about enough: the importance of controlling yourself when it’s not super-important, because it will be much harder when it’s important. (For me, one example is being careful of how I speak to my kids when I don’t need to be careful about what I’m telling them, so that I have ‘muscle memory’ there for when I’m more concentrated on content than on how I say it.”)

The chapter only offers three strategies for doing this: contempt, describing things by means of their strict content, and thinking of your own problems as the problems a friend has. The rationale for this last one is that we’re more objective when thinking about our friends’ problems than when thinking about our own.

I think, if I could expand on this chapter, it would be to add priorities. Something that frustrates me is when a person complains about something in their life (the town where I live is so expensive!) but rejects all suggestions to make changes. Eventually, it usually comes down to something being more important (as long as my parents are alive, I want to live close to them). When a conversation reaches that point, I suggest “Instead of feeling sorry for yourself in such an expensive city, why not be glad that your parents are alive, and you’re happy to sacrifice having a big apartment for being close to them?”

It has been my experience that, if something is important to you, moving the ‘downsides’ of life in general into the appropriate ‘cost column’ in the accounting ledger of life makes a big difference. After all, we all think things along the lines of “there isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for goal.” That suggests, after all, that living in an expensive city is better than living in an expensive and dangerous city. You’re ahead of the game! The price could be much higher!

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