Posts Tagged ‘morality’

Introspection Part 7, Intersubjectivity

Friday, June 8th, 2018

There’s this scene in the movie The Elephant Man that was transformative for me.  I saw the movie in my late teens.  In the movie, the main guy has a disease which disfigures his whole body, including his face.  In this particular scene, he is running from reporters.  I think he’s in a hospital.  At the end of a hallway, a dead-end, he confronts his pursuers, a crowd who want to ask him questions, take his picture, but he doesn’t want to talk to them. He’s had enough of being a freak to others.  They don’t seem to care how he feels, but he will make himself heard.  Despite his difficulty in speaking clearly, he slowly, emphatically utters to them this simple demand that he be taken seriously, “I am not an animal! I! Am! A! Human! Being!”

In this profound reprimand, the main character demands they consider his feelings. He demand they take into consideration his subjective experience—to imagine what it means to be him, and not them! He wants to be left alone, and demands they understand this, that this is the least he should be able to expect from them, to be treated with respect and humanity, with dignity, no less than what they expect for themselves.

What if we all started with this proposition in all our relationships? And coupled with this demand to have our subjective experiences accounted for by others, we also found hypocrisy intolerable, which would mean that we could not demand from others what we ourselves demanded from them.  This would mean that we would want to form all of our relationships as including at a very basic starting point that they will take our subjective experiences into account and that we will take their subjective experiences into account. This is intersubjectivity—the intersecting point when two or more people engage with each other as subjects, while treating each other as subjects.  The starting point for all of our relationships and interactions would have embedded in it this simple and powerful proposition: “I want you to take into consideration when dealing with me my subjective experience and I will take into consideration when dealing with you your subjective experience.”

I bet I can guess what you might be thinking.  You’re thinking, well, we already do this all the time in our relationships, so why do we have to have a word (intersubjectivity), let alone some guy’s blog post, to describe it?  If this happens to be what you’re thinking, I have an answer ready. We don’t do this, hardly ever.  Sometimes we do, but fleetingly at best, and usually only in our very most important relationships (where failure to account for the other’s subjective experience doesn’t get us what we want), or in relationships where it doesn’t cost us much to do it (like with the cashier at the grocery store, who might be taking a long time and frustrating us, but we understand he is just doing his job and seems to be struggling with it, so we don’t complain).

I should admit here that the idea of treating each other as subjects didn’t originate in my head. During a recent discussion with a friend, the concept of “subject-to-subject” relationships came up in the context of sexism. The observation had been made decades ago that men often treat other men as subjects, and expect themselves to be treated as subjects by other men, but they often didn’t, and still do not, treat women as subjects. They treat women as objects to meet their needs, whether those needs are sexual or other role-specific needs (mother, sister, daughter, caretaker).  I don’t think this is controversial (meaning it seems so obvious, if not also seriously terrible, that it can’t really be open to much of an argument against it). The solution is obviously for men to treat other men, and all women (and all children too), as having subjective experiences of their own. I’d even say we should, to the extent possible, apply these concepts of intersubjectivity to all sentient beings, whether human or not. That’s my soapbox though, and not necessarily the point of this blog, so I will step away from it (for now)!

I should also admit that I was introduced to the word “intersubjectivity” in a book discussing the philosophical basis of the meaning of symbolic representations of ideas and how that meaning gets shared between individuals in a group.  So, I suppose I have “hijacked” the word to describe what I am attempting to explain here: that where two subjects meet in a relationship, and they acknowledge their own and the other person’s subjectivity simultaneously, that intersection, that “shared space” between them, the “in-between” space, with all of its ramifications, can be summed up in the word “intersubjectivity.”

My thoughts then expanded to many of the kinds of relationship issues people bring up in therapy. Specifically, it occurred to me that many of these problems would evaporate if both people in the relationship treated each other at all times as if the other had their own independent subjective experiences (which they do anyway) and that each had the right to expect the other to consider their subjective experiences in all their interactions.

What does it mean to treat someone else as if they had their own subjective experience?  I suppose to start with it means imagining what the world looks like to them.  We know what the world looks like to us.  Step 1: imagine the possibility of others seeing the world just as we do. Step 2: imagine what that would be like for them—to imagine the world as we see it.  Step 3: imagine them wanting us to see the world as they see it.  Step 4: try to see the world as they see it. Base what that world would look like on what you know about them—their attitudes, history, feelings, their personality, what scares them, what makes them happy, what they like, don’t like, what they want and don’t want, how they see you, their job, their school, their friends, their family, how they see themselves.  What you don’t know about their world, ask.  Ask them.  If you want to try to imagine what their world looks like and there are blank spots in your imagined world of their subjective experience, fill them in by asking them.

Immanuel Kant was a really important philosopher from Germany.  He talked a lot about morality. One of the most famous things he said (I am paraphrasing here) is that we should never treat others as merely a means to an end, we should always treat others as ends in themselves.  In other words, we shouldn’t use people solely for our own gain, for our own purpose. We should treat them as having the right to have their needs considered, no matter what our needs might be. I guess you could say this is a kind of intersubjective morality.

Intersubjectivity is a never-ending process.  It’s just like self-discovery. If you are engaged in self-discovery, invested in it as a way of being in your life, there will always be more to discover. The same is true for discovering someone else’s self. They are no less complicated than you. They have new things happening within all the time, just as you do. So, intersubjectivity is a way of always deepening your understanding of the other person, and in so doing, deepening the connection between you. This takes time, of course, but you have time, plenty of time. The attempt is the thing that matters. Imagining your relationship partner’s view and experience of the world around them becomes a constantly improving thing over time, but only if you are trying.

Aside from deepening your relationships, intersubjectivity, if you and the other person can be committed to it, will help you avoid and resolve conflicts. You will each know the other expects at all times consideration of your subjective experiences to the extent possible.  Hopefully, you will also realize that you can never actuallyknow what someone else’s subjective experience truly is. This would require that you become them, which of course is impossible. In the attempt though, in the wanting to know, caring enough to imagine and then consider what the other person might be experiencing, probably is experiencing, could be experiencing, you will tailor your behavior, words, priorities, to what you can imagine they might want, they might appreciate, they might hope you will do. And when you aren’t sure, remember, ask them.

Co-dependency would vanish with intersubjectivity.  I’ve defined co-dependency in Firewalking on Jupiter, as arising from two mistaken assumptions and the behaviors based on these assumptions: (1) “your needs are more important than they really are,” and (2) “my needs are less important than they really are.”  With intersubjectivity, these mistakes would be essentially impossible. If you required in your relationships that the other person take into consideration your subjective experiences, inherent within that demand is the expectation that your needs will be no less important to the other person than their needs are to you. If your demand for intersubjectivity were met by the other person, they would point out to you that you were allowing their needs to become paramount, while submerging your own needs, as part of the reality and the ideal of intersubjectivity.  I suppose I should say something here about the difference between equality and equity.  I am not suggesting that intersubjectivity requires two people to always treat the other’s needs as equal to their own, at all times (equality).  Needs differ in terms of importance, of course. Sometimes your needs are more important, and should take priority over your partner’s needs, sometimes it’s the other way around (equity). The important point is that no one’s needs are always more important or less important, which would be both unequal and inequitable (and not possible with intersubjectivity in place).

Abuse, in all its forms—verbal, physical, sexual, emotional—would also vanish with the practice of intersubjectivity, at least theoretically. I define abuse as being the result of an intent to harm.  If you demanded intersubjectivity in all your relationships, the other person would know that what they are doing was harming you.  You would of course know they knew this as well.  You wouldn’t stand for it.  You’d demand they stop, immediately, or you would leave the situation or even the relationship, depending on the severity of the abusive behavior and its repetition.  I truly wish that this were the case in all abusive relationships.  It would be the case if all relationships had at their core the demand that each person’s subjective experience were considered and attended to by the other person.

Intersubjective relationships, like I am trying to describe here, will also deepen your understanding of yourself. Think about it: if you demand from others that they treat you as a subject with your own world of experiences, you will need to be prepared to share with them what your subjective world is like.  You will need to be able to articulate many of the kinds of things that comprise and fill your thoughts and outlook.  You can hardly expect others to know what you are like as a subject if you don’t know yourself.  Nor can you expect them to understand what your inner world looks like to you if you can’t explain it to them. If you and others in your life, even just one other person in your life, are committed to this idea, each of you will learn from the process of sharing these subjective experiences much more about yourselves as you also learn about each other.

If you start from the proposition that you will expect at all times with all people that your subjective experience will be considered (varying in depth by the nature of your relationship and reasonable expectations of what they can and should know about you), you will be in a position to know when to assert your needs, and when to acknowledge the other person is attending to them as best they can. Of course, you will also be setting yourself up for grave disappointment, often.  That’s the nature of human interaction. We are all the time forgetting to account for the needs of others when those needs conflict with our own, when their needs are getting in the way of our needs.  Frustration abounds.  We have to temper our expectations with reality.  Many people you come across every day of your life will not give a whit about your subjective experience. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t want it, or even at times demand it, but it does mean you will need to accept “you can’t always get what you want.”  Even in your most important relationships, you and others will never achieve anything close to perfect or constant intersubjectivity. Intersubjectivity, as I’ve described its meaning and practice here, is an ideal, something to strive for, something you know you will never completely achieve, but something worth attempting, as often and as deeply as you can, especially with those relationships that are most important to you.

Give the idea a try. Start with yourself. Start by wanting others to treat you as a subject, even though to them you are an object (they themselves are their only subject). Ask to be treated as a thing that has a subjective experience. When you are not being treated that way, and you believe you have a right to expect it (like from your partner or family member), explain what you want.  Or, I suppose you could have them read this blog post and discuss it with them, to come up with your own mutual understanding of what “intersubjectivity” means to you.  Then offer to do the same for them, and then do it, even if they don’t.  I am all the time trying to treat others as subjects even when it clear they don’t treat me as a subject. Of course, I am human and also often treat others as an object when I absolutely should be treating them as a subject. Remember, no one is perfect!

 

Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.

Introspection Part 5, Your inner narrative

Sunday, February 18th, 2018

Now that you have some tools for accessing your inner self (See the previous blog post, Introspection Part 4), what are you supposed to do once you are “in there” (looking around within yourself)? Answer: find your “inner narrative”—the story you tell yourself about you and your world. That’s really it. Sounds simple, and it can be, but it can also be very difficult to identify the parts of the story that matter to you, that influence your outlook, your feelings, attitudes, values, and your responses to various situations. The good news is that you get to explore these stories as often as you want and as long as you want because you are constantly full of stories!

We all tell stories. All the time. We tell stories to others. We tell stories to ourselves. We do it so often, we mostly don’t know we are doing it. We also constantly revise our stories. The further we move from any given moment, the more our story of that moment is likely to change, as it becomes integrated into the larger story of our lives. You tell yourself stories about what you did today, yesterday, last week, last year. The story you tell yourself (and others) about what you did earlier today is slightly different than the story that was running through your head earlier today. The story you tell yourself now about yesterday is different than the story you told yourself about your day while it was still yesterday. The stories you tell yourself about last year are considerably different than the stories you were telling yourself during last year. See what I mean? Memory is a funny thing. It is complicated. Memory is partly retrieval of our perceptions in any given situation and partly pieces of a larger puzzle we edit to make fit the larger story of our lives. How we feel about that memory, the information it provides us now, which parts of the situation we retrieve—these are all very dependent on the story we tell ourselves about that situation, why it happened, why it is important, and our place in it.

One of my favorite stories about the importance of stories comes from a time when I was a trial attorney. John, a more senior colleague, and I were meeting with the executives of a company, pitching to them the ideas we (John) had about how we would conduct this large case if they gave the case to us. I was fairly young in my career then, essentially John’s “Sherpa” (carried the stuff and got it set up for him). I sat in silence as John made his presentation. John spent the better part of two hours or so going over in fine detail all the likely and possible twists and turns of how the case would proceed to trial once we filed the lawsuit. The meeting was almost over. The presentation was complete.

The executives had asked all their questions, and seemed satisfied with John’s answers. We were wrapping up. Then the CEO asked a final question. He did not ask John. He directed the question to me (remember, up until this point, I hadn’t said much of anything). He asked, “Michael, if you were me, is there anything you would you ask that we haven’t already asked?” In my ignorance of the politics of being subordinate to John, I made the mistake of giving an honest answer. Looking back, I can now see I was supposed to say “I can’t think of a single thing—I think John covered it all brilliantly!” The problem was that John hadn’t covered it all. John had actually failed to cover the most important part of what he should have been explaining to them: the story of their case! I told the CEO (something like the following), “I would want to know, once we get to the trial, how are you going to win this for us, what story will you tell the jury to convince the jury they should decide in our favor?” Silence. Oops! The client redirected my question back to John. John recovered well, as I recall (or at least that’s the story of this situation I tell myself now). He then spent some time explaining how he would reframe the complexities (it was a very complicated case) in a way the jury could digest, understand and believe. The point of my story here is that John had become so focused on the details of the lawsuit, he overlooked the client’s basic need —to be able to get in front of a group of people (the jury) and tell a story about why the client had been wronged and needed to be compensated (given substantial sums of money) to make things right. FYI, we did get the case and the client did get the money they needed to be satisfied.

What is a “story?” At its most fundamental level, a “story” is nothing more than a link between two causally related events. I just took a break from writing this post. Here’s the story of the break. I was feeling shaky, typing with more typos than usual. I had begun to lose track of my thoughts. Something was off. I kept going, though, because I was on a roll and didn’t want to lose my momentum. Things got worse, to the point that I could no longer ignore what was happening. I realized my blood sugar was low (I have Type 1 diabetes). Then, I remembered when I woke up a few hours ago, my blood sugar was at “almost perfect” (perfect is “100” and mine was “113”) and I’d had nothing to eat or drink other than coffee. So, I got up and grabbed a small glass of Mango juice. Now I am back writing. This is the story of my break. In it, I have described to myself (and now you), what prompted the break. I have also told myself the perceptions (more typos), feelings (annoyed), physical symptoms (shaky and weak), observations (memory of earlier normal blood sugar), and attitudes (I didn’t want to stop until I had to). These are the “inner states” I was having during the time of the story. I have made causal connections between those inner states and the likely causes (low blood sugar), and then what I did to respond to and modify the cause (drink mango juice) and the effect (my stability). The result: satisfaction after an interlude of minor difficulty.

You tell yourself similar stories all day, every day. They are not always so mundane or casual. They are most of the time though—mundane and casual. As time goes by, stories become connected to each other. We integrate the stories. We give them greater meaning than they might have had in the moment, as they become part of a larger whole. We form attitudes about them. And then those attitudes in turn change the stories we tell, the parts of the stories we recall. Over time, these attitudes, coupled with the patterns we remember, help us to form meanings about the stories, what those stories mean to us in our larger lives, as part of what we are, who we are, the kind of person we are and the kind of lives we have. I can’t say I will remember this one particular story about needing to take a break to get a cup of juice. I can say that this kind of story is one that occurs daily, sometimes several times per day. Over time, it wears on me. I add up the annoying aspect of having to “always” take breaks, check my sugar, etc. Of course, I am not “always” having to do this. It is a nuisance, to be sure. The way I tell myself the story of my diabetes effects the way I remember the important parts of each of the isolated incidents like the one that happened just now. The way I tell that story and the parts of each of these related I remember then can have a profound affect on how I feel about having diabetes, and even what it means to be “me” as a person with diabetes.

Nearly all therapy approaches have in common getting at the way you tell yourself stories of your self. Three of the most popular therapeutic approaches come to mind that will demonstrate this: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Narrative Therapy and Psychoanalysis. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy teases out the logic you use in making causal connections between your perceptions to test your capacity to recognize “mistakes in thinking” that can then be “corrected” once identified so you don’t continue to make those “mistakes” to your detriment. A simple and very frequent example of this is when a client takes an “all or nothing” approach to a situation. Say Jennifer has been told by her supervisor that she is getting a promotion, but it will mean changing locations. She fears that she may now lose her job because she doesn’t want to change locations. Jennifer has made the “mistake” of assuming that she has only two choices: take the promotion (and transfer) or lose her job. It hasn’t occurred to her that she could very well just say to her supervisor that she’d prefer to stay in her present position if it means she can stay in that location. The story Jennifer is telling herself about her supervisor’s announcement, what it means, and how it will affect her, all have a significant impact on how Jennifer thinks she can respond to this situation going forward, even to the point of having considered taking a position she doesn’t want due to the way she has told herself the story of her situation.

Psychoanalysis focuses on the way your childhood development, including the relationships you formed during early and later childhood, continues to influence your way of being in the world now. Narrative therapy takes this a step further (and closer to the point of this blog post) by emphasizing that it isn’t only the actual way you developed as a child that influences you now—it is also the story you now tell yourself about your development—that profoundly affects the way you see and feel about yourself and your life now. I regularly use narrative therapy in my practice. It is consistent with my belief that the stories we tell ourselves about our whole lives, all the way from our early childhood to the lunch we had today, become part of an integrated story of ourselves that directs our perceptions, attitudes, values, interactional patterns, choices, and behaviors—everything we are and everything we do. How’s that for a unified theory of the self!

Let’s get back to the point of this post: once we figure out how to look inside ourselves (Introspection, Part 4), what are we supposed to be looking for? Stories. Messages. Linkages. Connections. Plot lines. Subjective experiences and your reflections on those experiences. Ways of seeing the world. Ways of seeing yourself in the world. Ways of seeing yourself interacting with others. The stories you tell yourself about those relationships, those patterns of interactions. Start asking yourself, in any given situation you might remember: “Why do I remember it this way?” “Are there parts to this story that I might not be remembering, or remembering fully, or accurately?” “How do I feel about this story?” “What does this story I am telling myself about this situation tell me about myself, about the situation, about the other people in the story?” “Can I change the story?” “Can I change the way the story tells me about myself?” “Why do I tell myself this story and not another story about this situation?” “How is my story the result of influences from others, now, and in the past?”

A story has many events in it that follow one another in a sequence. This is the plot of the story. The specific events are “plot points.” We chose which plot points to focus on and which to dismiss. How we make these choices is dependent on many things, including previous similar stories and on how we are told by others to identify and connect the plot points. Once you begin to see how you do this internally, you will have a much greater chance at directing this process going forward, instead of continuing to allow the messages others have given you about how to do this to control how you do it. The most important point in this whole discussion is this: just because you do not know you are telling yourself a story doesn’t mean you are not telling yourself a story. So, if you are telling yourself stories about you and your life (and you definitely are), it would be a very good thing to know what stories you are telling yourself and why.

Here’s a possible story.  It could even be about you (but maybe not). Let’s say it is Sunday afternoon. You recount your morning. Your morning included getting up, getting the kids to various activities (sports, gymnastics, etc.), then you picked up around the house, did some laundry, and prepared a nice lunch for the family. A productive morning. Something to feel good about. But you don’t. At first, this morning looks a lot like yesterday morning, and yesterday you felt great about the first part of your day. Now, let’s say you were raised in a family that went to church every Sunday, without fail. It was a really big deal. Your spouse doesn’t care about church. It’s an argument if you insist. So you don’t insist. You go to church now only on the holidays. Your mom and sister tell you they miss seeing you at church, wish you would start going again. So, you feel bad about your morning. You did many good things, but in your mind, you didn’t do the one important thing you should have done: gone to church. This is an important part of your story about your morning. It is the thing you are focused on—the one thing missing, the one plot point that should be there, but isn’t. Now that you know this, you can begin to think about which is more important: going to church or letting go of that as an influence on how you should feel about Sundays, and therefore about your life. Knowing this will also influence your behavior. Will you now risk more conflicts with your spouse, or will you resign yourself to the differences you each feel about church and just go to church alone. Either decision is fine, but at least you have greater awareness of something that has meaning for you that has been missing in your life.

Here’s another example. It’s the story about Theresa and her body. Theresa is 48. She is relatively fit. She takes a “spinning class” (stationary bike) twice a week at the gym. She eats fairly healthy, allowing herself only a few desserts per week, and tries to stay away from processed foods when she can. At her recent annual physical, her doctor had only good news about her health, including her cholesterol levels and blood pressure. She has much to feel good about with her body. She doesn’t. She doesn’t like to look at herself in the mirror, especially without clothes on. She fears the scale, and weighs herself once per week, only because she thinks she must. Robert, her boyfriend, tells her she looks great. She thinks he means it. But, still… she feels bad about her body. It isn’t up to her standards. Whenever Theresa thinks of her body, when she sees herself in the mirror, or imagines what Robert sees when they are in bed together, she almost becomes queezy at the thought, shrugging it off as quickly as possible. She is dreading spring break with Robert in a few weeks because she will need to find swimwear that doesn’t look terrible on her. Theresa doesn’t realize that, with each of these thoughts—of herself in the mirror, with Robert, on the beach—she is superimposing on that image what she looked like twenty-five years ago. Theresa thinks she should still look like she did when she was 25. Of course it isn’t rational for her to compare herself at 48 to the way she looked at 25. More than that, though, is the standard she held for herself when she was 25. Back then, she ate very little, went to the gym three or four times per week, and was thinner than what was really healthy. Back then, and now, she held herself to the standards set by Victoria’s Secret, Hollywood, and billboards adorning our freeways with photoshopped women less than half Theresa’s age, all telling her, “if you don’t look like this, you are not how you are supposed to be [insert many other very negative messages].” If Theresa could see more clearly how she is telling herself the story of her body and age subject to the influence of marketers who want her to feel this way so she buys their products, she could begin to accept her body and her age with more grace, and without terrible and unnecessary guilt and shame. This is a simplistic explanation of a complicated problem for many people, especially women, in our society, so I don’t want to trivialize it. Yet, more awareness of this complex set of stories are part of recovering from these constant negative influences.

Sometimes the stories we tell ourselves can reveal reasons we have certain kinds of lingering moods. Someone who tends toward depression might simply tell stories that are overly focused on the negative aspects of their experiences. Someone with anxiety might focus mostly on those possibilities that could be potentially harmful outcomes. If either of these people were able to fill in their stories with more balanced perspectives, their moods might begin to improve quickly and dramatically. A client just helped me think about this (you know who you are).                                                                                    .

When you “go inside yourself” through introspection, look for your “inner narrative.” Start looking at what happens in your life and how you feel about what happens. Start identifying the plot points you remember. Start figuring out why you choose those plot points as your focus, including how you relate them to each other. Think about plot points in the situation that you are not including in your story. Once you have done this, you can ask yourself if your choices about the plot points you remember and connect are choices you want to continue to make. Are they really “your” choices, or are they choices others have told you to make? You get to decide, but only if you know what you are deciding. Your stories become “intentional” (it is your intent that informs how the story should be told, not the intent of others). Once you engage in these practices on a regular basis, you won’t merely have an “inner narrative,” you will have an “intentional inner narrative.” An intentional inner narrative allows us to throw out things like debilitating shame, inappropriate guilt, useless bitterness, and longstanding resentments. When we do this, we begin to clear a path toward accepting ourselves as we are, not as we think we must be or how others want us to be. This is the ultimate goal of introspection and an intentional inner narrative: self-acceptance, which is the topic of the next post in this series of blogs on introspection.

 

Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.

Moral Conviction

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

Where does moral conviction originate? Does it come from within? Is it instilled in us from something external? How does it arise? Do we need to pay attention to it, foster it, grow it, encourage it, for it to gain strength? Or, does it exist of its own accord, making itself known when the time is right? What is the value of moral conviction? What are its costs? What happens when we pay attention and act on our moral convictions? Conversely, what happens when we lack moral conviction, or maybe worse, when possess it but ignore it?

Now, to the task of getting some answers to these thorny questions. More importantly, and perhaps a bit more thorny given the subject matter, to do so without sounding preachy!

This question about the importance of moral conviction threw itself upon my thoughts recently while re-reading “The Brothers Karamazov” (Fyodor Dostoevsky, Translated by R. Pevear and L. Volokhonsky). I will share with you the passage that got me thinking about moral conviction. Before I do, I will give you the context of the passage. The character involved is Alyosha. He is a young man living in a monastery in Russia in the 1800s. His mentor, another monk, has told him he needs to leave the monastery for a while, to live in the world, to be among those outside the protection of the monastery who struggle with the realities of life, including temptation, confusion, tragedy. Shortly before the passage I am about to offer, Alyosha’s mentor (the Elder) has died, throwing Alyosha into an almost unbearable grief. The passage takes place just as Alyosha has an epiphany while praying over the coffin of his beloved mentor.

Again the coffin, the open window, and the soft, solemn, distinct reading of the Gospel. But Alyosha did not listen to the reading. It was strange, he had fallen asleep on his knees, but now he was on his feet, and suddenly, as though thrown forward, with three firm rapid steps he went right up to the coffin. His shoulder brushed against Father Païssy without his noticing it. Father Païssy raised his eyes for an instant from his book, but looked away again at once, seeing that something strange was happening to the boy. Alyosha gazed for half a minute at the coffin, at the covered, motionless dead man that lay in the coffin, with the ikon on his breast and the peaked cap with the octangular cross, on his head. He had only just been hearing his voice, and that voice was still ringing in his ears. He was listening, still expecting other words, but suddenly he turned sharply and went out of the cell. He did not stop on the steps either, but went quickly down; his soul, overflowing with rapture, yearned for freedom, space, openness. The vault of heaven, full of soft, shining stars, stretched vast and fathomless above him. The Milky Way ran in two pale streams from the zenith to the horizon. The fresh, motionless, still night enfolded the earth. The white towers and golden domes of the cathedral gleamed out against the sapphire sky. The gorgeous autumn flowers, in the beds round the house, were slumbering till morning. The silence of earth seemed to melt into the silence of the heavens. The mystery of earth was one with the mystery of the stars…. Alyosha stood, gazed, and suddenly threw himself down on the earth. He did not know why he embraced it. He could not have told why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss it all. But he kissed it weeping, sobbing and watering it with his tears, and vowed passionately to love it, to love it for ever and ever. “Water the earth with the tears of your joy and love those tears,” echoed in his soul. What was he weeping over? Oh! in his rapture he was weeping even over those stars, which were shining to him from the abyss of space, and “he was not ashamed of that ecstasy.” There seemed to be threads from all those innumerable worlds of God, linking his soul to them, and it was trembling all over “in contact with other worlds.” He longed to forgive every one and for everything, and to beg forgiveness. Oh, not for himself, but for all men, for all and for everything. “And others are praying for me too,” echoed again in his soul. But with every instant he felt clearly and, as it were, tangibly, that something firm and unshakable as that vault of heaven had entered into his soul. It was as though some idea had seized the sovereignty of his mind— and it was for all his life and for ever and ever. He had fallen on the earth a weak boy, but he rose up a resolute champion, and he knew and felt it suddenly at the very moment of his ecstasy. And never, never, all his life long, could Alyosha forget that minute. “Some one visited my soul in that hour,” he used to say afterwards, with implicit faith in his words. Within three days he left the monastery in accordance with the words of his elder, who had bidden him “sojourn in the world.”

Here we have at play all of the questions I asked above, and more—that is the nature of Dostoevsky, very dense stuff, but rich, so rich! I highly recommend it. In this scene, Alyosha has an encounter with what will be a lifelong powerful and revelatory moral conviction. Much of the remainder of the book will explore the nature, the extent, and the power of that moral conviction and its impact on Alyosha, who ends up being the central character of the whole book. This is at least part of the nature of moral conviction: it is often not entirely clear what it means, or where it will lead us.

I take this passage to mean, and I copied it here for you because I happen to agree with it: that moral convictions, even when very powerful, are not always clear in their meaning or eventual use. What is more important in the moment at which we realize their existence is that moral convictions give us the power to act in accordance with the message of that conviction at that time, which is often necessary and important when we are faced with a very difficult situation, when we likely would not act the way we do without the moral conviction telling us we must. This is when we know somewhere deep inside ourselves there is a “right thing to do” and a “wrong thing to do.” So we rise above our instincts for self-protection, we risk much because to do otherwise would cause us the shame of ignoring what we now cannot deny, even if we can ignore, the “right” course of action.

And so, the cost of ignoring moral conviction is to shrink from taking action that may lead to the risk of struggle, to stand up for, or against, the prevailing winds, the tide, the current, by taking the path of least resistance, the safe course, which will eventually lead to a kind of moral humiliation, from which we end up running, expanding the negative consequences of acting against what we know to be right for us and the world we live in. I have in this discussion unintentionally yet essentially zoomed in on an overall theme I first raised in my blog post called “Defining Morality.” There I noted that many clients come to me after years of making decisions inconsistent with their own moral compass. Here I am saying there are important moments, moments when our convictions tell us the direction we believe we should take, which give us “waypoints” along our moral navigation that we have chosen to heed or to ignore. Moral convictions are like arrows at the forks of our moral road. We can still choose to take any decision we want, ignoring those arrows, but at the risk of becoming lost along the way, and having a great and difficult time getting back to the “right” path (for us), especially if we choose to ignore many of those arrows over time.

There can be a danger to paying attention to our moral convictions without due consideration. We must not blindly follow what we might think is the right course in the moment merely because it feels strong, feels like a moral conviction. What if what we think is a moral conviction leads us to ruin, to make bad decisions, to act contrary to otherwise sensible behavior in a very serious way? For situations in which the course is ambiguous, and the stakes are high, I have a few thoughts on this, which come down to three things: intent, prudence and humility. If we focus on the why of a thing we do before we do it, we are so much less likely to make the mistake of thinking a thing is moral conviction when it is actually something more base, something self-serving. The intention question is rather simple (but still not always easy to answer): Will I be doing this thing (insert action you intend to take) because I truly, honestly, deeply believe it to be the right thing to do? If so, can it really be a mistake? Prudence suggests we don’t just ask this question quickly, in passing, but give it real thought, seek support, guidance, objective viewpoints, and all the while “dig deep,” “know thyself,” “make a searching and fearless moral inventory” of your reasons, before acting. Finally, make sure you understand the consequences that may arise, and know that you are willing to live with those consequences because you feel you must in order to act in accordance with your convictions. This is where humility comes in: knowing that the limits of what seems important to you is not always important to others, knowing that the risks you are willing to take for yourself doesn’t mean you should risk negative consequences that will befall others, knowing that you are prone to mistakes as everyone is, which is why seeking the views of others is prudent.

The passage above from The Brothers Karamazov makes it pretty clear that Alyosha’s moral conviction came to him from an outside source: “’Someone visited my soul in that hour,’ he used to say afterwards.” I take here no position on whether moral convictions come from internal or external sources. That is not my role. That is for you to decide, however you do (see my blog post, “Defiant Morality”). What is more important is that Alyosha noted the moral conviction, his need to leave the Monastery, to follow his mentor’s advice, to go out into the world. His attention to the moral conviction came from within him, regardless of whether its original source came from heaven or anywhere else.

Moral convictions are the deep-seated instincts or tugs we feel when we are at the crossroads of important decisions that will impact the way we feel about ourselves as good people. Paying attention to these moral convictions, while also using the tools of intent, prudence and humility, is very likely to lead you to feel better about yourself tomorrow than you did today, the culmination of which is the capacity to look back to last year, and the previous decade, and your life entire and feel that you have done a good, if not perfect, job paying attention to what you knew to be right when the decision was difficult, when it necessitated you take risks, when you had to struggle to do what was right. Ignoring your moral convictions in order to prioritize short term gains, to avoid conflict, to attain something not as valuable as your self-esteem, will lead to a kind of existence like the trope of Scrooge from a Christmas Carol. The only life worth having is one in which you believe you will be able to look back and say, I did the best I knew how to make the morally right decisions at most points when it required me to pay attention. If you can say that, you will be a person of sound moral conviction. You will be a person rightly proud of your life, your existence, your self.

Power

Sunday, October 9th, 2016

Power is morally neutral. Power is neither good nor bad. Power just is. It is part of the universe in which we live, part of the human condition, part of life.

Power is: the capacity to achieve a desired outcome.

One way to think about power is to compare it to a force in the physical universe. Power is to human interaction what forces are in the universe. You have the “power” to jump, but the force of gravity, which has more “power” than you, pulls you back down. For you actual or budding physicists or engineers reading this, I do understand enough about physics to know the analogy begins to fall apart quickly. Anyway, the exertion of power in dealing with other people becomes a moral issue because, as I said in the last post on Obligation, “Morality is about other people.” Power becomes a moral issue when it is used with or against other people. So, “Moral Power” (I just made that up) is: the capacity to achieve a desired outcome where other people are concerned.

So far, I hope my assertion that power is neutral makes sense in light of my definition of power. I have defined power, including Moral Power, in the most broad sense possible. There are many ways we have and use power with other people that we do not think about as power because it is so common, trivial and seemingly neutral. When you buy Raisin Bran cereal instead of Cheerios, you are using your money to assert power in the economy, which helps Post (the company that makes Raisin Bran) and hurts General Mills (which makes Cheerios). You are exerting “purchasing power.” I am guessing this decision doesn’t come with political overtones, so there was no intent to help Post or hurt General Mills. You probably just prefer Raisin Bran or think it is more healthy or something. On the other hand, if you have a choice between organic raspberries and nonorganic, you might choose organic as a health, taste, political and economic exertion of your purchasing power. All of a sudden, power becomes less neutral because your use of it has an intended purpose.

If you are willing to consider power as morally neutral in its broadest sense, then I hope you’re wondering why we fear power, why we disdain power, why even the word “power” can cause anxiety? Part of the answer: the way power gets used. Above, I said power is “the capacity to achieve a desired outcome.” I chose this language carefully to leave out all ideas about how that capacity is used. Once we get into an examination of how power is used, we enter into the realm of “strategy.” There are many strategies for the use of power, and the one we fear the most (rightly so I think) is control. I’ll get to that in more detail in a minute. Control is only one strategy for exerting power. Others include influence, persuasion, participation, negotiation, organization, concession, manipulation, deception, collaboration, consensus, agreement, disagreement, assertion, aggression, intimidation, passivity, silence, and many other subcategories of management strategies. Each of one of these strategies could be a topic for a separate discussion by itself. For now, though, just think about this list as demonstration of the many ways we can use power without the use of control. One way to think about power in a more neutral, less anxiety inducing way is to think about “managing a situation” rather than “controlling a situation.”

Now let me get back to control as the primary reason we fear power. Control is the source of the abuse of power, because it negates and ignores the wishes of the person being controlled to just exactly the extent of the force being used to assert control. When we get pulled over for speeding (yes, I’ve had this experience more times than I care to admit), we fear the power the cop has over us. What is he/she going to say or do to us. I was once pulled over for speeding and ended up spending most of the night in jail because unbeknownst to me the person I had sold a previous car to had been issued several parking tickets, didn’t pay them, and then a warrant for the arrest of the owner of the car (me) was issued. Yikes! So, when getting pulled over, there is a huge power differential. It turned out to be a complete mistake to arrest me, but I was in no position to say, “Thank you for the offer to go downtown, but I decline.” He had a gun. He put me in handcuffs. He “escorted” me to the back of his car and then others locked me in a cage. Now, imagine if I weren’t white, if I were a person of color, especially an African-American man, and was being pulled over. The fear there is really unimaginable to me. The power differential there is so great, the risk of harm and even death as part of the uncertainty are very real for him, no matter what he does. He can put his hands up, do everything he is told, and still might be shot dead. This is power which is anything but morally neutral.

Power in some situations, like the arrest story above, is a “zero-sum” game. This means that the more power one person has, the less the other has. Or, the more successful one person is in their use of power the less successful the other person is in the use of theirs. In other words, there can only be one winner. When I practiced law and went to trial, this was the case. There was a winner and a loser, and the more my client won, the more the other side lost. It all had to add up to “0.” If I won a million dollars for my client, the defendant lost a million dollars, so the total amount when you combine the winning and losing is zero. Zero-sum. There are actually very zero sum situations we encounter in our everyday lives. We often inaccurately perceive conflictual situations as zero-sum games, which then cause us to react in ways that prevent us from successfully resolving the conflict (see my chapters on conflict in my book, Firewalking on Jupiter).

Fearing the inappropriate use of power is not a mistake. All lives cannot matter until black lives matter. When we see power being abused, it is a very good idea to work toward ending that abuse. That’s why we have a constitution, with free speech, courts, representative government, all to limit the abuse of power. Richard Millhouse Nixon. Enough said.

Fearing power itself is a mistake and harmful. We need power. Just yesterday on the side of the road where I was driving, a woman was screaming at her toddler who’d gotten loose and was running toward the road. She finally grabbed her firmly, restraining her. Control, yes, inappropriate, absolutely not. If that parent had feared her own use of power, and been less demanding, controlling, even aggressively pulling her child from the side of the road, that toddler might have been hit by a car (how the child got away from her on the side of a highway is another question altogether).

If power is the capacity to achieve a desired outcome, we should first decide whether our desired outcome is reasonable and justified. If it is, we can then think of appropriate uses of power to achieve it. When we allow our fear of power to limit our appropriate and necessary use of power, we also limit our ability to achieve outcomes we need, want, deserve, and could have if we didn’t fear power itself. Coming to terms with power as morally neutral is essential to having what we want. Using the power we have, honestly, transparently, intentionally, and without fear doesn’t have to mean becoming hostile, controlling, nasty or disingenuous. Asking for what you want with the expectation that you should have it, assuming it is reasonable under the circumstances, is using power appropriately. When the response is resistance or refusal, you can and do use power to get what you want some other way, which can be completely appropriate or not.

Nearly every exchange you have with others in your life involves the use of power. Let’s say you and your partner are just finishing dinner. Your partner made a great meal and you are both full, you are ready to take a walk or help the kids with their homework or you want to call a friend who asked you to call them later. Who’s to clean up? Your partner made dinner, so you should, right? But you don’t want to. Last night you made dinner and did the dishes. You ask her if she wouldn’t mind doing the dishes and cleaning up (power: assertion). She gets irritated, says she made dinner (power: anger, mild aggression, persuasion). You remind her of last night (power: persuasion, influence). She says she has to meet a deadline for work (power: persuasion, argument, assertion). You concede but ask if she can help you get started by clearing the table (power: concession, negotiation). She agrees (power: concession, collaboration). You both (ideally) happily work together to get the table and kitchen cleaned up. If you had simply feared the exchange of power and conceded without a word your desire to avoid the dishes, you might have taken the victim role (I shouldn’t have to do the dishes but she is so difficult so I’ll avoid the fight and just do them) and ended up resenting your partner for an hour or all night. By embracing your power, and your partner’s equal right to use power with you, you begin on an even footing, work through the obstacles, achieve a desired outcome you can both live with and get most of what you want while recognizing her right to get most of what she wants too, if possible.

Another reason we (sometimes legitimately) fear power is that we don’t trust ourselves in its use. We want to be reasonable, wherever possible, to treat others as we want to be treated. So if we fear others inappropriately controlling us, abusing their power over us, we should also fear and avoid controlling others when it is not appropriate. The assertion of power is rarely a clearly defined thing, and often leads to uncertain outcomes when it causes conflict, which it usually does (again, see my chapters on Conflict, in my book Firewalking on Jupiter). The first step in learning how to use power appropriately and reasonably is to stop fearing power itself, thinking it is always bad, which as we see from the examples above, can lead to a warped (e.g. victim/perpetrator) perspective on our own and others’ use of power. If we can look at power head on, note it as a morally neutral thing, and a necessary thing in having the lives and relationships we want, we can more easily discern how to use power in ways that are consistent with our own sense of right and wrong, we can choose strategies that feel right to who we are, and avoid using strategies or allowing others to use strategies with us that feel wrong. We can become more adept at implementing “Moral Power.”

 

Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.

 

 

Obligation

Sunday, September 25th, 2016

“Morality is about other people.” I put that sentence in quotes because it is an idea I’ve been considering for a while without being sure it is correct. I think it is though. I also like the way it sounds. More seriously, though, if morality is about other people, then our obligations to other people and their obligations to us plays a very central role to morality.

When are we obligated to meet the needs of others? When do we have the right to expect others to meet our needs? What happens when we suffer confusion about either of these situations? Answers to these questions lie at the very heart of so many of our relationship problems. Inconsistencies between obligation and perceived expectation (e.g. you do not think you are obligated to do something but someone else does or you think someone else expects something from you and they do not) are often the most destructive forms of interactional patterns between people. Likewise, clear understandings, consistent communications, and reasonable negotiations of obligations and expectations is essential to having the most satisfying relationships.

Why are obligations so fraught with confusion and trouble? Simple: they are often unstated, and are instead created by circumstance—roles, the nature of a relationship, time, social pressure, gender, age, and other forms of power differences. Here’s a simple example. A client recently chafed at feeling obligated to be at work earlier than his boss everyday or nearly every day, even though there wasn’t any practical reason for him to come in early and his boss hadn’t told him to come in early. After exploring the reasons the client felt obligated to come in early, he realized he had decided he wanted to impress his boss to make it more likely to get a promotion, and based on what he could tell, coming in early consistently was an important part of impressing his boss about his diligence and responsibility. Note that the client’s “obligation” is self-created, is not based on any promise made, and no one clearly stated an expectation that he come in early, yet he felt obligated to do so. Ergo, confusion.

Let’s take a look at the reverse of the unstated obligation: commitment. A commitment is an assertion of a willingness to be bound by an obligation, to hold yourself to an obligation, to promise to meet some kind of need. When we make a commitment (a stated obligation), we have control over what we are committed to do and we can limit the extent of our obligation. Maybe more important, when we make a commitment, especially when it is not just a commitment to ourselves but is communicated to someone else, the person who makes the commitment and the person to whom the commitment is made are both much less likely to make mistakes about the nature of the obligation that flows from the commitment. Commitment and obligation are not synonymous. A commitment is a promise, freely made. An obligation can be created by a promise, but can also exist even when no promise has been made. This is why obligations are much more confusing and cause moral dilemmas. There isn’t much of a moral dilemma when we make a promise. “Keep your promises” is about all that needs to be said there. But, can we say “keep your obligations?” What does that even mean? I almost made myself laugh reading it after writing it because it doesn’t make sense. And it doesn’t make sense because obligations are so often fuzzy, ambiguous and they change based on the situation or evolve over time.

So, if there is no simple guiding principle for obligations, like there is for promises, how can we navigate obligations to reduce the kinds of problems that stem from confusion about them? We have to pay attention. Pay attention to the kinds of roles, situations, and relationships we allow, invite and create in our lives to make sure we can accept and embrace the kinds of obligations they create. Conversely, we need to refrain from allowing or creating situations, roles, and relationships that give rise to obligations to or from others we do not want in our lives. We also need to pay attention to whether we have relationships and circumstances in which others perceive obligations that we do not think we have or want.

Like so many other aspects of relationship health, a very good place to start with obligations is with yourself. Start by asking yourself, “what kinds of obligations do I choose to have in my life, obligations I would be okay with meeting, and obligations I would want others to meet for me?” You do this already anyway, but most of the time don’t think about it much if at all. I am just suggesting you make it intentional, conscious, deliberate, a choice, action rather than reaction. For each kind of obligation you want in your life, decide what kinds of relationships you want to have that will create those obligations. This could include family relationships, friendships, romantic partnerships, work relationships, and community involvements. Of course, all of these kinds of relationships already exist in your life. I am not suggesting you start over. Still, you can right now begin to examine all of those relationships and situations to see which ones you want to keep, to change, or to remove, while also examining which kinds of obligations you feel good about, which ones you don’t and whether others expect you to meet obligations you didn’t agree to meet, and whether you want to make new commitments that you haven’t yet made. The idea is obligation by self-determination, beginning with yourself.

As I said in my blog post, “Defiant Morality,” I will do my best to stay away from telling you what I think you should or should not do in any situation. I want you to own your obligations, not have them decided by me or anyone else. This is a commitment I have made for this project, for myself, for you. Instead, I will suggest questions for you to consider as you begin to build your own set of principles for obligations you want or don’t want in your life and relationships. Here’s an example of a simple decision-tree for obligations that I often use with clients when family members or friends are in crisis and they aren’t sure whether to get involved (and which I have used myself with my own family numerous times). 1) Did you contribute to the creation of the problem? 2) Are you taking ownership of someone else’s problem? 3) Will the manner in which you are thinking of helping them cause harm to you (beyond a sacrifice you are willing to make)? 4) Does providing the help actually hurt the other person (e.g. enable them to continue self-destructive behavior)? If your answers to all of these questions are no, then you are not obligated to help, but it seems like it might be a good idea to help, if you can. If you answer questions 2, 3, or 4 with a yes, you might be embarking on a co-dependency, an enmeshment, and enabling the other person to continue their issues at your expense. If you answered yes to question number 1 but are not willing to help, you should probably have a good reason if you want to do the right thing.

The idea here is to fit your obligations into a moral framework that is actually an outward extension of your inner moral self. If you look back at my posts on Defiant Morality and Defining Morality, I hope you will begin to see that this discussion of obligations is a natural outgrowth of those discussions. The obligations you agree to meet for others, and the obligations you expect others to meet for you, should ideally be consistent with how you see yourself, how you define yourself, and how you want others to see you. If you make this desire for internal and external moral consistency part of your conscious awareness as much as possible, you can avoid falling into the traps of resentment and disappointment, even betrayal, when obligations are confusing or inconsistent with what you want for yourself and in your relationships with others. If morality is about other people, then your obligations to other people should match up with your expectations for yourself as a moral person. In order to do this, you must know your moral self and then use that knowledge to build morally robust and meaningful relationships and circumstances in your life. Self-determined moral obligations to and from others as an extension of a morally defined self will help you set the course of a life with consistency between internal and external moral principles. Consistency between your inner sense of right, and your application of that sense to outer obligations is also the only way to avoid hypocrisy (do as I say, not as I do).

I recognize that much of this discussion on obligation is fairly general and theoretical. My defense: I have to start somewhere and the topic of moral obligation is vast, vague, challenging and too important to skim lightly through it. I hope to continue to explore specific examples and ideas about when, how and why moral obligations between people get confused, the consequences of that confusion, and possible suggestions for ways to prevent, avoid, and resolve that confusion, depending on the circumstances and the nature of the relationship that gave rise to the confusion. So, along these I plan to write blog posts on many related topics, including Power, Control, Exploitation, Influence, Fairness, Uncertainty, Isolation, and Synergy (when in relationships the whole is greater than the sum of its parts). I will also spell out some thoughts on how our willingness to meet certain kinds of obligations can hurt not just ourselves but others as well. With each of these topics related to moral obligation, I hope to examine and illustrate how a consistent internal and external moral framework that you create for yourself, will help you make the best of the very tricky job of benefitting from the obligations you create, and that others ask you to meet, all with an eye toward satisfaction with yourself, your life, and your relationships.

 

Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.