(This is third in a five-part series of posts. To start at the beginning, click here.)
In Controlling the Narrative, Part 2: Discovery, we looked at Paul’s novel approach to assigning responsibility for his shit. (see explanation). By disowning his shit, he took control of part of his own narrative: he decided who he was not. That leaves the more interesting — and difficult — part: figuring out who he was. I think his methods will surprise you.
Paul the Categorical
Nothing indicates that Paul was passive or discouraged about his shit. Far from it: he boiled his struggle down to a choice of identity and vested himself with the power to choose. His actions did not define him, unlike they do our existentialist friends. He loved doing good and hated his shit, but his identity didn’t depend on the ardor or effectiveness of an emotion; not even his passions defined him. Nor did intentions, motivations, or loyalties. His closing statement of Romans Chapter 7 is categorical and final. He served the law of Good with his mind and the law of shit with his “flesh.” No qualification, no justification, no explanation. Matter concluded.
Paul’s claim raises questions if we take it seriously, whether we accept it or not. The question that interests me most is, “How did he know?” What made him so sure that he could differentiate at all, let alone so categorically? How could who he was and wasn’t be so clear? My psychology turns questions like that into very complicated affairs. Was he much more simple-minded than me? A quick perusal of his writings attests to the complexity of his thinking, not the contrary. Maybe he was self-deluded. What if he subconsciously loved shit and hated Good, but managed to trick himself into consciously thinking the reverse, so that he’d continue doing what he shouldn’t and never be the wiser? Or, if not quite that twisted and he had legitimate basis for his confidence, what was it? What evidence did he have to show he was who he thought he was?
Paul’s confidence went well beyond basis and evidence. The basis of a claim is the ground it depends on. A proof depends on the evidence that supports it. Paul’s logic avoided external dependencies; he did not owe his identity to anyone or anything. He simply chose and asserted his choice. That’s how it is in spiritual matters; and if we look closely enough at ourselves, we’ll see it’s that way in every matter.
Ultimately, we just choose. Underneath all our cogitations, beneath reason itself, we start and end with stark naked, unjustified choice. Neuroscientists now suspect that before we consciously “make” a choice, we make it first subconsciously, and that the most we can consciously do is nix or accept the subliminal decision we already made. If so, we need to dig down even deeper to get to know ourselves. (See Bereitschaftspotential (BP), a.k.a. readiness potential. It’s already spurred new interest in the old philosophical issue of “free will.” By the way, if readiness potential does involve pre-conscious choice, we need much more scientific attention and study than we’ve ever invested in the subliminal processes that “spirit” and “spiritual” refer to.)
When we make a choice, conscious or not, our basis, justification, evidence, and reason itself always fall short of certainty at the point of commitment. There is always a confidence gap between deliberation and decision. Commitment is a switch. Before we flip it, we have options. Once committed, deliberation is over and our decision is “made.” Before we commit, we can’t be 100% sure. Afterwards, it’s a bit late to wonder. In between is a gaping nether region that we hate to get suspended over. The more important the decision, the wider the gulf we need to traverse. It seems bottomless, and down there be harpies of doubt a-swarm, tempests of vacillation, and a thousand fiery “what if…” wasps buzzing around, eager to sting. We can ignore, deny, or dismiss our doubts and worries and act like we’re certain, proving only that we aren’t, since we can’t proceed unless we suppress them. However, our underlying psychology is more honest than that and doesn’t so easily let them go. We doubt and fret uncertainties because we recognize the hand of the unknown and the wild cards it might play. The unknown and unexpected make us brace ourselves and swallow before we take first steps (or leaps, as the case may be.) Either the unknown stops us, or we overcome our confidence shortfall: in spite of it we go ahead, choose and commit, and speak or act.
How do we get across the dark chasm between “Should I?” and decided? I like swimming, so let’s use a diving illustration.
Every first step we take is more or less like our first jump off the high dive at the local plunge. We can’t know that we’ll survive the splash until after we jump. We can’t jump until we choose to do it. I remember my first time well. It came down to a series of raw, naked decisions.
Our neighborhood splash in Southern California, 1966, had a “low dive” and a “high dive.” Both were springy boards about 12 feet long. The high dive was only 10-12 feet above water line, but to me looked immensely high. I watched kids make the long leap off, and finally decided that I wanted to try it. It looked exciting and fun. So I walked to the ladder. I stopped. It took a bit to decide to climb it, but I started up. About half way, I decided to turn around and go back down; but I couldn’t, because a line of kids had already started up after me. So, I decided to keep going. At the top, I decided to let other kids go ahead of me. Then I felt embarrassed, so I decided to make my way to the edge of the board. That four-yard journey was one of the most tentative trips I’ve ever taken. Then I decided not to jump, but knew immediately: it was too late. I had to. Most of me didn’t want to, so I forced myself to leap off that gently bouncing edge. In that instant, the only “sound” I could hear was me in my head yelling “JUMP!” at myself. The next time ’round involved the same steps, just a bit less indecision and intensity.
Every first time requires a leap over the unknown, however small. Eventually, habit and familiarity breed confidence, so we lose track that the unknown and unpredictable are always involved. Surprises and accidents sometimes remind us; but for the most part, we move through our lives feeling fairly adept. Is our confidence justified? Competence accounts for some of it; scaling circumstances down to match our capabilities accounts for some; but ignorance, denial, and hubris account for the rest.
The unknown is always a huge factor in our decision-making, whether we recognize it or choose to ignore it. This is our state as finite beings of limited awareness and knowledge, our inescapable lot. We can’t do anything if we don’t first decide that we won’t let the unknown stop us. For that decision we never have basis, justification, or evidence, and reason fails us. What’s left? Desire and the power to choose.
In order to do anything, we must go further than reason can take us. Reason can’t work with information it doesn’t have. Nor, for that matter, can intuition. The unknown lies beyond the reach of both. Though we can recognize the fact that unknown factors will certainly play roles, they remain nameless, featureless, unplaceable, and imperceptible. Neither reason nor intuition can say anything about things unknown to them. At the point of commitment, our decision to do something — anything — is a leap over that crevasse of lingering doubts, apprehensions, misgivings, and information deficit, without basis or justificational cover: a naked choice. We choose before we take action, except for impulses that we like to disavow anyway. Either we let unknown risks and fear of failure dissuade us, or we choose and act. The leap involved makes us all believers, though not the way that the religious describe “belief” or “faith.” Eventually, I plan to show that before we can choose, before we can even think, we believe. We all “have faith.” We need it just to operate. But that’s for another post.
Best Foot Forward?
Before our behavior defines us, our choices do. Before words and actions have any relevance, our choices determine who and what we are. Identity isn’t just an internal matter, out of sight from others, it is wholly an internal matter. Before doing something observable, we invisibly decided what it would be. Our choice of intention and our commitment to a course of action define us, not the actions themselves, not their consequences, and not the stories of observers, who only witness results that sometimes end up far wide of the marks we aimed for. “Missing the mark” was partly what Paul struggled with. We struggle with it, too.
Paul considered his identity problem from a spiritual perspective: prioritizing internal considerations over externally observable ones. In doing this, he took a three-fold departure from conventional wisdom, an identity trifecta. He decided that he defined his own identity. Others didn’t do it for him. He defined himself by means of naked choice. Finally, his commitment to his chosen identity was valid and definitive before he acted; in fact, whether he acted or not. In a nutshell, Paul’s behavior did not characterize him; he characterized himself solely by asserting and affirming his chosen identity. Paul was the person he decided to be simply because he said so. That’s what it means to author our own narratives.
Jesus also took a spiritual perspective, stressing that what matters most originates within:
It’s no different for the opposite of “these evil things.” Good things that hallow and purify “the man” also originate within.
Jesus aimed his harshest denunciations at hypocrites. His basic complaint? They hid their true identities behind striking shows of attractive appearance. Remind you of anyone? Or better put: Who does that not remind you of? I’m wary of human pursuits that are heavy on pomp, circumstance, and glitz. Love of superlative and falderal reflect bullshit quotient, not substance. It’s odd, for example, that the word “glory” almost never occurs outside contexts that promote military, religious, or political agendas. Strange bedfellows, and that’s not all they have in common.
Hypocrites take an anti-spiritual perspective: prioritizing externally observable considerations over internal ones. The contradiction between word and deed that we usually label “hypocrisy” is just a symptom of a deeper problem: neglect of inner integrity.
Straightening out the yard is a good thing, but it doesn’t substitute for housecleaning. Only one thing can be more “evil” than Jesus’ long list of shit that proceeds out of the heart of men: donning a costume of “goodness” to mask it. Jesus called it “sheep’s clothing.” People who prize decorum and finery over integrity, implying that impressive displays actually signify integrity, broadcast that they have plenty to hide. Ignoring the crucial inner concerns that Jesus stressed, they love to define themselves in terms of behavior.
Jesus’ priority was clear: first the inside, then the outside. In fact, he implied that once the inside gets cleaned up, the outside will fall in line as a matter of course. What we choose inwardly is primary and determines everything else. Sincere behavior is a reflection of genuine commitment, the outcome of deciding who we are and what we want.
Choosing the Chooser
All our lives, competing narratives vie to tell our stories, even inside our own minds. The prevailing narrative determines who we are, and we decide which narrative prevails, either by creating our own or by accepting what others create for us. Rationalizations, justifications, and evidence used to advocate one story over another all boil down to what we decide they mean. Bottom line, someone chooses our prevailing narrative, and we always choose the chooser. We can run our own front page stories or we can feature other writers, but that decision is always up to us. This is definitely not what we learned in school or Sunday Service.
If Jesus and Paul were correct — if internal factors are more important than external ones — then the decisive considerations that define who and what we are lie inside us, where we have complete editorial latitude. Either we deliberately wield that power, or we defer to proxies. If we defer, we chose them in lieu of anyone else. If they asserted themselves or forced themselves on us, at some point we chose to give in to them. No matter how or to whom, the last say about our identity goes to whomever we choose. Choice of chooser comes down to us, always. Ultimately, directly or through others, we and only we decide who we are, without regard to basis, evidence, or justification. We either make a straightforward, transparently naked choice like Paul did, or we obfuscate it with endless varieties of complicated mental machination, only to wind up making a naked choice anyway. Whether by us or by way of others, all told, we decide, and our decision is final.
The Jungle Within
Millions, maybe even billions of thoughts and impressions go through our minds — and bodies — over the courses of our lives. Most of them are pretty mundane, but some of them are beautiful, others bizarre, some clever, and others just nasty or dumb. Some are inspiring, and some are awful, even shameful. Some please us and others plague us. Where does it all come from? Do we author all of it, or even most of it? The stories we entertain can make our day or break our mood. We seem to fear that our internal activities aren’t merely indicative, (that having shitty thoughts and feelings means that we might be shitty people,) or causative, (that having shitty thoughts and feelings causes us to be shitty people,) but definitive: having shitty thoughts is what being shitty means. In other words, merely having some means that’s what we are, as if shit identifies us. That’s about as far from disowning our shit and identifying with our good side as anyone can get.
We don’t like being shitty in any degree. Except for the most cynical, we refuse to resign ourselves. We keep struggling to avoid, suppress, or get rid of our shit, but fighting it can seem like a loser’s battle. Even a smidgen is enough to drag oodles of goodness into question. We rarely think to question the paradigm, since we’re already bent on the only solution we can think of: eradicate the shit. That’s a tall order if Paul was right and his principle of ever-present shit is correct. It’s especially hard to avoid the having shit = being shitty equation when shitty thoughts lead to shitty actions, intended or not. Skilled denialists, we’re all capable of deftly “forgetting” our private behavior, but evidence in plain view of others is hard to argue with. So we struggle on, trying to overcome or deny our shit and glom onto as much good as we can in hopes to tip the scales in the right direction, wasting a lot of time, energy, money, and angst in the process.
Recognition and reputation are powerful, whether they go for or against us, but they are fallible and fickle. Other people can only go by appearances. They get their information about us the same way that we gets ours about them: from the outside. They aren’t in our heads. They don’t know why we did what we did, how hard we tried, or how hard we tried not to; that is, unless we tell them. In other words, they are relatively uninformed compared to us. Yet, we grant inordinate weight to their views and opinions compared to the intimate understanding we have of ourselves. Ironic, isn’t it: deferring to outside perspectives when you are the one subject on which the incontrovertible authority is you? It’s a strange reversal of relative credibility and an enigma of the human psyche.
Why are outsiders often so much more convincing? Telling yourself that you look great when you see your reflection in a mirror can’t shake a stick at hearing it from someone else, anyone else. Why do big-bucks outside consultants make so much more sense than company people who claimed the same things for years? Why does the marriage therapist get through so easily and credibly when we used the same words over and over again to no avail? Why do we fund multi-billion dollar industries to tell us how to think, (functionally, we hope! ;-)) among them education, psychology, “self-help,” and — the two-ton elephant — religion? Then, while they rake it in despite still trying to figure it out, we fund other multi-billion dollar industries to anesthetize us against our own psychic pain with rivers of pharmaceuticals, alcohol, and illicit drugs. And let’s not neglect our favorite pastimes: the quickly merging sports, sex, and entertainment industries. With all that dope and distracting stimulation incessantly flowing into our minds and body chemistries from outside sources, I have to laugh when we Westerners use terms like “real life” and “reality” as if we know what they mean. In our myopic over-attention to “the real world,” we lost our grasp of inner realities somewhere way back along the road.
Obsession with appearances isn’t our only cock-eyed feature. Another imbalance prevails throughout our interior jungles. Of our own narrative material — imaginations, plans, dreams, visualizations, fictions, musings — why are the adverse and negative so much more compelling than positive story lines? Authoring our own stuff doesn’t of itself ensure quality product. We come up with some doozies about how terrible or worthless we are. The mere fact that negative stories occur to us doesn’t justify how seriously we take them, especially considering how much harder it is to take positive ones seriously. We have no trouble believing tragic tales, but happy endings — real ones — seem incredible. Maybe they happen once in a long while to others in faraway places, but not to us in this lifetime.
Before we try to balance our psyches, we should figure out what threw them out of whack. Why we are so biased? What makes us so impressionable that merely insinuating disapproval or criticism can knock us off the rails? We might get back on track or even muster the strength to keep from getting knocked off, but we register the blow regardless. The bigots are us, and we’re against ourselves.
Anatomy of a Bigot
For example, when we get censured or maligned, we react. With or without composure, reactions are involuntary. Even if we choose to “not react,” we’re just counter-reacting to suppress the involuntary one. We raise hackles, object, rationalize, and defend ourselves, even if with a “good offense.” Sometimes we grope for words and go mute; other times we JUST SHOUT ‘EM DOWN! If all else fails, we boycott communication or leave. Our reactions rarely convince anyone, not even ourselves, which is why we often think back over scenarios and come up with “better” responses for next time. Our responses aren’t the problem. We are. We aren’t convinced, or we wouldn’t be so bothered. If our “side” is so obvious and the other “side” so incredible, why aren’t we laughing instead of fretting?
We fret with good reason: our protests come too late, only after we assume that reaction is warranted. Reactions don’t involve conscious decision; they happen too fast. Our reactions to criticism or slurs are more like emergency responses made under protocols established well in advance. Our self-defensive vigilance probably originates from deliberations going so far back that we lost track long ago. Sometimes we surprise ourselves with inexplicable, self-vindicating fervency. Our reactions show that we were locked and loaded before we ever arrived. In some sense, before we get criticized or slurred, we’re already prone to give credence to criticism and detraction, enough to make us balk like a knee-jerk. It isn’t just “the lady [that] doth protest too much, methinks.”. Just like the flip side of love is hate, the flip side of belief is protest. The stronger the latter, the surer the former. We don’t resist what we don’t think is real. We fight enemies when convinced their threat is significant. We joust windmills when we see them as giants.
Making ready the defenses shows that we perceive threat. Defensive vigilance shows that we think the threat is ongoing if not constant. Who decided to construe it as threat, let alone to such extremes? Did we write that passage, or did we lay down our authors’ rights on the desks of other writers? I don’t mean to imply that real threats don’t exist; but I emphatically claim that they are far fewer and far less serious than we make them out to be. Unless we take our places as authors and from that perspective examine the “threats” we think we’re faced with, we have no way of knowing how quixotic they are. Personal experience and the overwhelming weight of events I’ve witnessed through half a century attest that we let far too little depose us from the author’s chair. We abdicate too easily. Then we argue and fight with our surrogates for cooperation, resent them if they won’t comply, and resort to violence if they work against us. (Understand that I consider lying, for example, as a form of intangible violence.) All that trouble to reclaim rights we lost by our own concession. We chose to give up our places. We don’t need permission, approval, or compliance to take them back. They are already ours. They always were.
Instead, we’re like library patrons obsessed with the “Criticisms, Slurs, and Slanders” shelf, half-blind to other stacks, checking for our names every time a new volume appears there. If we’re lucky, we have people around who remind us that they wrote us a few nice reviews, and that others did, too. Wannabe celebrities looking for our 15 minutes, addicted to what little limelight and applause we manage to finagle, losing sleep over grapevine buzz both real and imagined; we seldom relax and we miss the whole point. We are authors, and our works are definitive. Outside opinion can inform, but is by definition inferior to our own. When we vacate our chairs, we give others what they aren’t entitled to: a say that overrules ours. They can’t quash our voices without our complicity. We disempower ourselves and adopt subordinate roles by our own choice. No one takes our power from us, because no one can. More or less, we make ourselves victims, at the mercy of whomever and whatever. In that posture we can do little more than witness our own lives, audience to plays scripted and directed by outsiders.
Our biases — our overweighting of outside opinion, the adverse, and the negative — skewed and twisted us long ago, and we were the principal instigators. If you will, this self-originated lopsidedness is our sin, if “sin” has any meaning at all. That is the source of our shit, and we did it to ourselves. We adopted subordinated positions that make disadvantaged, defensive biases seem reasonable. What is up with THAT? Disempowered, subordinated beings resort to some very complicated and fundamentally dysfunctional, self-defeating ploys just to gain a little short-lived influence, for example: compartmentalization, denial, dissociation, passive aggression, regression, self-harming… Want a complete list of coping mechanisms?
What are we coping with? Narratives that we wish would just leave us alone.
You’re such a _____!
Your are so _____!
If only you would just be _____, but No! You HAD to go ahead and _____!
You STUPID _____!
We know the litany well, but neglect the crucial question:
Clearly, Paul decided that he spoke for himself. He chose his identity, authored his own story, and stood by it. I see no reason that we can’t do likewise.
In the fourth part, Controlling the Narrative, Part 4: Solution, we’ll see how answering “Says who?” makes the power of Paul’s identity solution accessible to us.
— — — — — — — — — –
 Well, maybe one thing is even worse: using “goodness” as the delivery system to inundate “the flock” with shit. In other words, creating entire systems that let wolves in sheep’s clothing run rampant and decimate “the flock.” Religious institutions have a long way to go to clear themselves of that crime. (continue reading…)
 I’d include philosophy in that list if philosophers hadn’t strayed so far afield from issues that seem relevant to most of us. (continue reading…)