Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Thoughts That Keep Me Up at Night

It has been suggested that human relationships – whether intimate or distant – are based on the idea of the Other. It starts when a mother holds her infant up to a mirror and says, “Look, that’s you.” This is said by some to be the point at which an infant realizes it is an individual among other individuals and that the mother is not a part of the Self. 

This then is said to carry on throughout life and often gets expressed on a societal level, as well as on an intimate level, in negative ways. For example, in cross-cultural exchanges, whether they be first contact situations, international political relations, or anything in between, humans can conceptualize the Other in abstract terms because they are different; they are not the Self. Even within a single culture, a similar dehumanization occurs with the apathy so many people display to societal problems. A rich businessman or politician can decide to cut jobs or programs without guilt because when he does so he does not conceive of the reality of thousands of individuals suffering because of this decision. They are not, in fact, individuals to him. They are the Other, the poor, the unemployed, a statistic.  They are not the Self. 

These arguments are easy to make in a time like this when unemployment is high and world-wide income disparity is threatening to turn the whole of the planet into a 3rd world reality.  This case can also be made on historical grounds in light of the wars, genocides, and extreme forms of oppression that dot our past and fill our textbooks. 

At the core of this idea, however, is a profound misunderstanding of the Self, which in turn leads to misunderstanding who the Other is.  Working backwards through the introductory argument will show how a slight change in perspective undermines this understanding of Self and Other. The Other is not someone outside, but inside. We are all the Other of our own reality. You are your Other. I am the Other.

I did not elaborate on the historical argument above because it was unnecessary.  History is fickle evidence for this type of theorizing. It tells up partial stories of what a few out of billions of people did before they died. It does not give us a complete picture of the way people lived, thought, or understood themselves. Rather, history tends to focus on important people, leaders, and major events. It is also subjective. It is written by the victor. In between these record events most people lived, thought, and died without leaving much record of their existence. This is crucial because the present is not just the result of major events, but also of the common unknown lives of billions of people. (This is all not to say that there is nothing to learn from history – lest we doomed to repeat it – but simply to say that what is not on record outweighs what is; and therefore we should be weary of using history to determine human nature.)  

Our current political situation is equally unsuitable for measuring the of the Other for related reasons. The state of the world was largely created by a fraction of the population – the 1% – who control the vast majority of resources. Explaining the actions and psychology of this minority group cannot be extrapolated to the majority in a meaningful way.

In cases of cross cultural exchanges and intercultural apathy stress and misunderstanding must be taken into account. It is not that difference alone allows a person to conceptualize others in abstract terms. It is that difference prevents understanding, thus creating stress which when combined can leave a person unable to imagine the other at all. 

This brings us full circle to the infant. When a mother points at the baby in the mirror and says, “That’s you,” she is pointing to an image outside of the baby’s body.  The infant, not yet able to comprehend the idea of a reflection (or of self or other or much I would imagine) thus has the idea – the seed – planted in its psyche that the self is something outside of and separate from the body. The body is the Other.

These thoughts came to me while I was on the balcony of a hostel discussing insomnia with a man – Jack -  from my hometown. We did not come here (still in Taiwan) together; we met at this hostel. Our sleep problem was the same. It gets late, our bodies are tired, but then our minds become uncontrollably attentive. Jack said, “Sometimes I just wish my brain would shut-up.” I knew exactly how he felt and I have used this exact phrase before, but why should we say it like this? Is my brain not me? Without my brain I would have no thoughts, emotions, or personality; indeed I would not be alive. Yet, both me and Jack frequently speak of our brains as if they were objects we possessed rather than fundamental aspects of ourselves. For us this is made even more strange by the fact that we are both currently in the process of furthering our education with the goal of being intellectuals when we grow up. Our brains then are at the crux of our conscious identities and yet both of us still conceptualize them as somehow separate.

This conversation moved from insomnia to reflections on Eastern meditation practices and inner dialogues.  Jack said he sometimes struggles to gain the stillness and quietness he strives for during meditation – the state of his “babbling mind” shutting-up. Just as the attentive mind will not allow him to sleep, the babbling mind prohibits him from reaching inner peace. Both of these situations suggest not only that his brain is separate from his Self, but also that his brain is sometimes in conflict with his Self.    

This is the inner conflict. The brain and the Self fight each other over needs and desires that at times differ, but this conflict is only possible because the brain and the Self are, on some level, understood as separate entities. 

I am not suggesting that in Reality the brain and the Self are mutually exclusive. Without the brain there is no Self. That they are conceptualized as distinct, however, does effect one’s reality. It means that the brain becomes capable of acting on its own, and thus is uncontrollable.  As Jack cannot control his brain and quiet it at times, I cannot control mine and sleep right now. If it was fully controllable, neither of us would have these problems.  

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