Introduction to Part II
We began this journey with the Sophia Burns article on the movie, The Last Jedi. Uncharacteristic for the Star Wars series, the general message was curiously populist—that people cannot rely on leaders or grand heroic figures to “fix things”. We must rely on ourselves. In this second segment of Inside-Outside, we consider the driving forces within us and our collective experience as these forces impact our ability to choose. Toward the end of the article, a simple exercise is presented—an exercise which, if employed diligently, could revolutionize our daily lives.
Free to Choose
A hero is someone who understands the responsibility
that comes with his freedom.
How free are we? How free can we be given our propensity to accept the forms and assumptions communicated to us by an unforgiving “outside” world? The 2008 U.S. presidential campaign saw the rise of the phrase “Yes we can”. This phrase, though inspiring, is not enough to bring about change. We still need to say “Yes, we will”. Yes, we have the freedom to bring about change. But this freedom comes with a cost—a cost some of us, perhaps too many of us—are not willing to pay.
The cost of freedom is responsibility. Part of that responsibility is a required vigilance to remain aware of those forces that tacitly communicate to us that we are not good enough, that we do not have the power to accomplish what we set out to do. Forget about what you have done in the past. Forget about the disempowering habitual choices that created who we think we have been. Choose now, choose this action, a new, innovative action. Exercise freedom to choose and become the person you what to be in this moment. Build a new habit which builds a new identity. We are always free to think of ourselves in this way, free to feel and express this kind of energy. Too often, we do not.
Rather than presenting a long and involved exploration of the nature of freedom and our relation to it (which would be a worthwhile activity) let’s think about that phrase ‘yes,we can” a bit. (For a relatively quick overview of freedom within a choice context, take a look at the book Choice Awareness Training by Pavel Somov or other books dealing with choice in the face of apparent “addictive” habitual behavior.)
We can. However, as noted in Inside-Outside, Part I, too many of us do not believe we have the power to change the world in a major way nor to any significant degree. Through frustration with political parties, unfulfilling albeit self-applied sociocultural (tribal) labels, and seemingly intractable economic practices which bind us to only a few step from bare subsistence, many of us feel trapped in a world both inhospitable and unforgiving. Furthermore, too many of us feel bound by personal limits which further constrain any sense of freedom in our lives.
As such, we fail to realize that our perceived inefficacy is not a disease, a life condition. Rather, this illusion of a lack of personal power represents a habit—a habit based on choices. We tend to hold these choices as life-pervasive, insurmountable impediments. However, when we take a step back, considering the phrase “we can” in the context of moment to moment decisions, we can see each individual choice on its own. We become free to choose between our options (and perhaps invent some innovative opportunities to express our own desires). The problem, of course, is that pesky tendency to choose in the same manner as we have before. Somehow, we need to break out of making bad choices or the habit of not choosing at all. But wait. Maybe this constant affair with habit is not such a bad thing.
Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit describes what he calls the ”habit loop”, which consists of a cue, a routine and a reward. Our minds are always looking for an opportunity to take a break, to relax and allow some form of automated habituation to take over. Drawn by some sort of impetus or “craving”, we seek to attain what we crave. We’d like to do that with the least amount of effort. We habituate as a kind of shortcut to acquiring our cravings. After we have repeated the same process a number of times, we come to recognize characteristics of any given process or routine by a familiar event or “cue”. This begins a relatively automatic set of routine machinations or behaviors which lead to some sort of resolve or “reward”.
The stages of the habit loop are usually not nearly as provocative as they sound. Most are mundane events we barely notice. For instance, when we tie a shoe, the reward is the completion of the act—the shoe is tied. In this situation, the “routine” phase of the loop is the act of manipulating the laces and the “cue” is the placement of the shoe on the foot. Nothing special here. But we enact hundreds, perhaps thousands of these habit loops every day without even noticing. That is the point.
Other actions in which we enact habit loops appear far more significant (although we usually fail to notice those as well). For instance, when we hear a news story about a politician we do not like, we are drawn to a “craving” to belittle or in some way denigrate the ideas or perhaps the party that politician represents. In such a case, anything that politician says, for instance, becomes a cue that triggers one of our habituated responses. We unleash our typical reaction (the “routine”), then arrive at the “reward”—the feeling that we and our positions/ideas are superior to the politician’s. The truth of our assertion is never tested. It is merely assumed. The particulars of the information we have received are never scrutinized. The habit loop has taken over and rendered us mere kibitzers in the face of our own behaviors. No thought was needed to pronounce the assumed inferiority of the politician, the ideas nor all that person stands for.
Racism and many other “isms” generally conform to this habit loop paradigm. The good news, however, is that we can use our propensity for such mental laziness…eh…that is, such cognitive efficiency to our advantage. We can create habits that work to help us automatically do things we consider “good”.
We will…, one way or another. Success at changing anything (including the world or ourselves) must begin with that first step of the thousand mile journey. We can use habit loops to help us move forward with a sustained effort. As shown in the habit loop diagram above, we need a craving on which to build the loop. Viktor Frankl in his description of the value of logotherapy, has described three main craving paradigms (motivational theories) which have typically driven individual humans and human societies.
We will…enjoy. One primary motivator in human experience—the “will to pleasure” —was described by Sigmund Freud. This “pleasure principle” represents one of the most pervasive drives within human society. As perhaps the “easiest” (cheapest?) of the three primary human motivations (motivations beyond mere subsistence), pleasure is what most of us manage to apply to as many situations as possible in our lives. It is the swimming pool in which the hedonist in us sits as we proclaim “it doesn’t get any better than this!” This sentiment plays itself out again and again, in a myriad of forms during this Age of the Selfie. We want to feel good. In such troubled times, seeking pleasure is the quickest way to accomplish that goal.
We will…control. Another motivator—the “will to power”—is one way of characterizing the work of Alfred Adler (although the phrase was actually coined and popularized by Friedrich Nietzsche). Some people define Adler’s “personal psychology” theory as relatively benign, orientated to competitiveness and personal achievement. However, others believe attachments to the will to power idea always stem from feeling of inferiority (feeling “not good enough”). Eventually, we who take up the mantle of this form of motivation inevitably seek to control other people as a way to insure our own well being. We see this in our politics, the desire to overwhelm others by any means possible. Whether through gerrymandering, inequitable tax manipulation, inhumane stances on immigration, blatant neglect of the health and well being of common people as well as a vulgar tendency to vilify those “others” (Jews, Republicans, immigrants, Democrats, conservatives, liberals, Arabs, Blacks, women, white men—and the list goes on), the will to power is certainly one way to present a bold—albeit artificial—face to the world.
Again, the difficulties of the current age have caused many of us to believe that our lives are not what they should be (and neither are we, or so we believe). Many of us have begun to despair, feeling our lives are out of control. We want some measure of that control back. As a corrective, many of us have turned to what we think are personally “meaningful” connections to various societal labels (such as political affiliations), to identification with militant civil action, or to antagonistic or exclusionary categorizations (such as anti-immigration or white supremacy)—all of which help us to forge a self-identity we can control. We want to be “good enough”. So we create categories for ourselves defined by ourselves in order to elevate our opinion of ourselves over others—the will to power. The problem is not that we have defined ourselves. That should be a good thing. The problem is the manner in which we have accomplished this. The will to power inherently creates personal power at the expense of other people. The result is an inevitable dehumanizing of those we come to define as “other”. Ultimately however, if some humans are devalued, so are all humans, including the perpetrators of the devaluation.
We will…mean. Viktor Frankl proposes a different kind of “will”—the will to meaning.
“…today, more than ever the despair over the apparent meaninglessness of life has become an urgent and topical issue on a worldwide scale. Our industrial society is out to satisfy each and every need, and our consumer society even creates some need in order to satisfy them. The most important need, however, the basic need for meaning, remains—more often than not—ignored and neglected.” ~ Viktor Frankl
When we “mean”, we establish significance, both in our own minds and self-awareness as well as within the world. When we establish meaning as the primary motivator in our lives, we reach beyond preoccupations with self-aggrandizement or self-pity. We reach above a tendency to define ourselves relative to a diminished worth of other people. Our lives come to mean something more than momentary pleasure and contrived interpersonal value. (See the Note at the end of this post.)
Mr. Frankl goes on to remark:
“And [meaning] is so ‘important’ because once a man’s will to meaning is fulfilled, he becomes able and capable of suffering, of coping with frustrations and tensions, and—if need be—he is prepared to give his life.” ~Viktor Frankl
Driven by significant meaning, we can and will see ourselves as being good enough. Consequently, we feel good about the identities we express. Rather than anesthetize ourselves within a constant, addictive need for immediate gratification and rather than hide our limitations within a superficial identity politic, why not approach ourselves, as Albert Einstein described himself, as “passionately curious” about who and what we really are? We should be “passionately curious” about how “good” we can become and how far we can go in personal development. We could be “passionately curious” about how impactful we can be in the world and how successful we as a human race can be at initiating and maintaining a peaceful, mutually beneficial reality we can create for everyone and everything that is a part of that reality.
Living life driven by meaning cuts across the stilted barriers erected by pleasure-seeking and by power (control) oriented identity politics. What do our lives mean? Want do we truly seek in life that is worth pursuing? What do we intend as a means of achieving meaning fulfillment? What values emerge from such meaning?
Think about a child and the human values and behaviors we typically express toward children in general—values and behaviors such as nurture, responsibility, mutual trust and care, helping, and protection—all the values each of us consider important or “meaningful”. We should routinely apply these meanings and express associated behaviors toward the outside world as well as toward ourselves. In controversial Jordan Peterson’s new book 12 Rules for Life, one chapter is interestingly titled “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping”. How would we behave toward ourselves if we thought of ourselves in this way? By extension, we might consider treating the world the same.
Whether any of these life cravings, these life motivations proposed by the above mentioned learned men are the principle motivators of humans and our societies is debatable. What is most important, however, is the question ‘what are the implications of any of these ideas employed as the primary impetus of our individual and collective behavior in any given circumstance?’
Imagine finding yourself in a difficult, freedom constricting, even life threatening situation. How might each of these ideas sustain you through such an existential crisis? Pleasure? Control? Meaning? Consider that Viktor Frankl’s notions about meaning were honed in 1945, in the Auschwitz and later Kaufering (Dachau) concentration camps where pleasure and power were hardly useful motivators to keep him sane and whole. Meaning as a life motivation has stood the test of harsh life circumstances and could be useful in the difficulties in which we now find ourselves.
A key to unlocking the effectiveness of such meaning, then, is to find a method of embedding meaning in small facets of EveryDayLife. In all likelihood, when we fail to realize the world we want in the smallest lifespace transactions, we will inevitably fail to manifest a larger world of desired life experience. So how do we begin this long journey? Consider this exercise.
“Inside-outside” refers to an exercise several of us here at seekingGood know well. It represents a daily activity which stimulates actions as well as on going consistency of effort. The exercise only requires commitment, a notebook (or some notation device) and an imagination.
The exercise is simple. Every day, do something to improve yourself (the inside) and every day, do something to improve the world (the outside). What could be simpler? The exercise is so simple (and for some of us so obvious), presenting it here is almost embarrassing—almost. Sadly, as old and obvious as the initial quote—a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step—the vast majority of us fail daily to perform such simple, obvious acts. Of course, if everyone did this, truly committed to it, if daily, everyone assumed the responsibility to step up and make a difference inside and out, the world would transform almost overnight. And yet, we fail. Why? Distraction? Getting caught up in EveryDayLife stuff that seems ultimately more important than the little things? When we do a little, even very little, we change and the world changes around us. This butterfly effect-like process does work, but only through diligence and quiet, persistent perseverance.
This idea of “improvement” does not necessarily mean you should save someone from drowning. It does not mean you run an extra mile nor eliminate one un-heart-healthy food from your diet. Self-improvement could mean asking a pointed question of ourselves or challenging a long held assumption. World improvement could mean picking up one piece of litter or wiping out the sink in a public bathroom. The possibilities are endless for those with the courage and commitment to enact them. To go further, committing to the exercise with a partner or group can be incredibly effective, adding support and longevity to the good you can do in the world and within yourself.
Love cannot remain by itself – it has no meaning.
Love has to be put into action, and that action is service.
There is one more component to this exercise. If you have not guessed it already, the notebook (or recording device) is the most important element in this process. It keeps you honest. You have to write down or record something you have done every day. Along with the act of improving the self and improving the world, we need to make a record of our accomplishments. In addition to acting, we need to aggressively pay attention (become mindful) and record our actions. One of our colleagues who spontaneously started a similar exercise years ago as a seventeen-year old judiciously collected notebooks full of such recording for nearly a decade. The process became a way of life. Each day became a habit loop of self and world improvement (and continues to this day). Each day presents an opportunity to discover another way of helping, another means of enlarging the self and helping the world to arrive at a better place.
Do we have the courage to accept the responsibility to be who we are—our most evolved, even divine selves—rather than expecting the world to inform us what we should do and be? Can we rise above reliance on the adulation of the world to tell us we are okay, cool, sexy, attractive, and acceptable as human beings? How have you improved the world today? Forget yesterday or last week. Today—is the world better because you are in it? If not, why not? How could you change that? Step out—take a chance at being amazing.
Seeds of Reality
We each represent a seed planted in the world for its improvement—the improvement of the world and the improvement of the seed that renews the world. The inside-outside exercise is just one way to meet this reality renewing obligation. (There are many other such exercises.) When we step beyond the paltry desire to merely feel good, we move from pleasure-seeking gratification to self-seeking and world-creating significance. Reaching toward true meaning in life, toward who we are, we come face to face with that person we are becoming. Step by step, we realize we are becoming whole, re-creating ourselves daily, through acts of service in the world—a world that is transforming around us because we—a seed—are in it.
The Star Wars movie presented a departure from a story of a hero that saves the world to a world that begins to save itself. As we daily assume responsibility for ourselves and the world around us, perhaps we can begin to move from a society that saves its people to a people that saves it society. Perhaps we can begin to become a societal control structure that is no longer top down, a people ruled by others, to a lateral, face to face management of our own collective Self.
What a day!
What a day!
What a day that will be!
Images from Inside-Outside: Part I
NOTE: The more astute reader will notice a serious omission within this presentation. That we espouse meaning is not enough (in the same way merely saying ‘we can’ is not enough to change the world). The meanings we adopt must create the world we say we want. This, too, is not enough to create the kind of sane, inclusive world many of us seek. Notice the images of the “significant” historical individuals (above and explained in Part I). Adolf Hitler is right there beside Mother Teresa. He could have been on the far right, but he would not want to sit next to that Black man. Such is the limit of Hitler’s significance—which is the heart of this omitted “meaning choice” issue. Inherent in the notion of a meaning driven life within logotherapy is the idea of meaning as self-transcendence. Understanding such transcendence as a component of meaning is a large topic which would expand the length of this already voluminous, chapter-length tome. The choice of life meaning will be addressed in a separate post.