Monday, May 14, 2007

Here Be Dragons

Your mind, your personality and even your character are not what you believe them to be. Popeye can say, "I yam what I yam," and you can intone "I am I" until you are blue in the face but in the end this construct, this story of personality and integrity and grit, is just a finely balanced electrochemical machine.

Personality with sufficient protein is different than the personality starved for it. Dehydration and cold and loss of blood can have definite physical effects but long before those show up, the mental effects (usually stupidity and stubborness) make their appearance. The fastidious personality that checks fine restaurants for spots on the crystal will eat worms if hungry enough- if he or she has been taught that worms are edible.

These are all physical and measurable. Easy to put out there, hard to argue with. More subtle and just as definite (but easier to deny) are the effects of perception and experience. Things that happen change you, and sometimes not the gentle growth of learning but actually throw that finely tuned machine out of balance.

Long-term exposure to violence and fear, whether raised as an abused child or six months of combat duty or a year of gang patrol can change your brain.

It's a fine line, because sometimes it is learning- new information about the risks of the world come in, new ways to interpret perception and you grow into a slightly different person. Sometimes it is just damage- in fear and anger you do things that horrify you. But often damage is justified as learning: "That's the way the world, is, man. Dis a man and you gots to die." And sometimes people find power in wallowing in victimhood and turn something that could and should have been a lesson into damage, or at least an excuse to hide, to avoid change. Change does hurt.

This is where and why civilians shy away from the truth. Why they will rally for police departments to change and officers to change, but will never sit down and just listen to the world the officers live in; rarely to never spend enough time riding along on patrol to grasp the world the officers have adjusted to. Why the media and the public dwell on some things that might have the whiff of wrong-doing but will only examine the organizational environment, not the dirt and concrete and sand and sun and fear and uncertainty, the real environment where the events happened.

This is why we distance ourselves from issues like racism. Reverse the roles in American history- black slave owners and white slaves. Do you really think that 140 years after the war to end it you ancestors would have done any better or worse? Just because of the color of their skin? But we don't look at that because we need to believe that we are constants and that the Rory raised on a ranch is just the same as the Rory raised in poverty or as a refugee or wealthy would have been.

It's also why the fantasy elements of violence are so clean- Arnold is Arnold. When the movie starts and after he's killed his seventeenth man, he's the same. Rambo's tortured and conflicted psyche is positively homey, and stable.

You watch the movies and you don't talk to the veterans. Because Arnold was always Arnold, and once the veteran was a man very much like you and now he is very different. You aren't better or stronger or tougher- deep down you think he might be stronger than you. But you need to believe that if you looked into that abyss, you would remain unchanged, simply 'you'. And you know damn well you wouldn't. So you don't look and you try not to spend time with the people who live there.

Which leaves the people who have changed largely on their own to decide if it is growth or damage. It is hard to believe it is growth when people avoid you.

It can be growth, though, almost always. But it helps to process it as growth, and that is hard when people who avoid it call you damaged.


Kai Jones said...

Give me the brain!

Kami said...

As painful as change can be, and it can be extremely painful, I think staying the same or trying to stay the same (or pretending you're the same) is harder on a person in the long run. They fight and fight and fight to stay in a comfort zone while the world changes around them, and their friends change and ... they're left behind. They stagnate and wither and become less and less a person and more and more of a shell of what they think they should be. Often what they think they should be is so much less even than what they used to be, the very thing they try to cling to, whether it's someone who has control of their life to someone who is in a safe place, or youthful, or strong, or whatever.

Oh, how to avoid that fate, how to avoid it ... is to go through the painful process of change.

Anonymous said...

Situational personality.