Thursday, February 02, 2012

Nothing Special

This ties back heavily to the last two posts.
We all have things we like about ourselves. Special traits and abilities. Things that set us apart. Things that make us proud.

Probably the thing I like most about myself is that I rarely need approval. Peer groups and expectations have little power over me. Criticism is criticism and I milk it for information, but don't think it is about me. I like being the watcher in the corner of the room. I'm happy to walk the perimeter while the big wheels make their big deals and network.

It is almost a superpower. It allows me to blend in and make friends in many cultures. Things get done because it doesn't matter to me who gets the credit. We do the job, lieutenant gets the praise, Captain does the press release... everyone is happy.

It is almost the direct opposite of the personalities that Charles pointed out, the ones who can't distinguish between good and bad attention. Almost the direct opposite and almost exactly the same. Because in a deep level, I don't distinguish either. Neither is very powerful, but praise makes me almost as uncomfortable as criticism.

Talked a few weeks ago with a friend who shares some of these traits. What do we have in common? A childhood where any attention could be actively dangerous. We both learned very early that it was better to be invisible than to be good. With time and work and skill, we turned that into something to be proud of. Handled a little differently we may both have been one short step away from a groomed victim profile.

Same with the ones who don't distinguish between positive and negative attention. A very particular type of ass in normal life, but with time and work and skill thriving on both kinds may be what it takes to be a celebrity.

Nothing special. The personality trait I am most proud of may have been nothing more than a random result of early conditioning. This ability that makes me so special (in my own mind) might be just luck. I deserve credit no more than a turtle plodding through a maze. Some take the right turn, some don't. Some are in mazes with different rewards than others. All the ones who don't die adjust. Just turtles, just living.

Then the human tacks on an elaborate story of struggle and triumph, heartbreak and glory. An elaborate, fragile, wholly imaginary story.

I think this is why there was so much backlash against the Behaviorists long ago. It explained everything, was open to rigorous experimentation and study... but left no room for the story. No place to feel special.

It is a pretty deep abyss to look into: The possibility that everything you have done and been is...
What? Luck? Nothing at all? Random? Protoplasm responding to pain and pleasure?

This is what I think about when I snap awake at three AM, like I do most nights.

Bonus points: Did you notice all the weasel words in this? The 'may' and 'mights' and 'possiblies.' Not sure I like looking into this abyss much either.


Kai Jones said...

Things that happen are random (i.e., not aimed at you). What you do is not random. Agency is the only tool we have to insert meaning into the random events that make up our lives.

sam said...

What if he was born into a completely different situation though? Would he be somebody totaly different than who he is now? Yes we all choose but our different experiences in life in a way dictate our choices

Rory said...

Kai- We are both heavily 'internal locus of control.' Everything we believe about agency, the fact that we can change our lives when so many others drift, predicates on the difference between an internal and external locus of control.
What if the opportunity or necessity to develop an ILC was a response to random early events and conditioning? What if the tool of agency, the bedrock of your personality was a coin flip?

And this, right here, is the deep abyss thought.

Sam-lots would change. About 32% would stay the same if I crunched the numbers right in college. ;)

Charles James said...

FORREST: Jenny, I don't know if Momma was right or if, if it's Lieutenant Dan. I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it's both. Maybe both is happening at the same time.

Steve Perry said...

You really need beer and pizza in the dorm room for this discussion ...

Lisa said...

@Steve: Scotch, turns out, is also good for such discussions. ;)

There's the "learned helplessness" model for depression; I think it's one compelling argument for locus of control being a learned trait. Not that every single creature would fall prey to it; some kids still manage to preserve an internal locus of control in pretty awful situations... but it does make it hard.

It's hard to look into the abyss for long, but it's good to do it occasionally; I agree with Rory, it helps you realize that you're not really special, which in my case helps me deal with other people; they all have reasons why they act the way they do, too.

Still, I always have to bake cookies or learn something or clean my house when I've spent some time with those questions. Something mindlessly pleasing that makes me feel like I'm special, I'm me. I'm not any better at living in the abyss than anyone else.

Steve Perry said...

But here's the thing: We *are* all special. Unique. There may be a lot of things we have in common, but there is only one "you," however you view the manifestation of self, be it contained or some sliver of god or whatever.

Now that doesn't mean you are *better* than anybody else; nor that you are part of some grand, cosmic scheme that places you in a superior pantheon.

Nor does it mean that you aren't, either. You could be, and if you are spiritual or even simply religious, your view of things is apt to be different than if you are not.

You can believe that you are naught but a tube, food in one end, crap out the other; you can also believe that you are divine and will eventually rejoin God in heaven. Debates on which are entirely speculative and you pays your money and you takes your choice.

You can argue nature versus nurture, free will versus fate, vanilla versus chocolate until the cows come home and you won't find an answer that is entirely verifiable. And it's fun to explore the various arguments, but we aren't turtles, and the ability to sit here and talk to each other via computers across time and space should make that fairly obvious.

All the animals in the barnyard are equal, but some *are* more equal than others. That would be us.

Teja said...

Was just reading all this and thinking... How messed up am I... If I do something wrong, it's my fault and I have to fix it or work harder (internal LOC). If I do well, obviously someone must have been sleeping on the job to let me get by (external LOC).

On another note. Would you chose to be able to fly? Or to be invisible?

I know, it's old question. But still fun.

sam said...

Steve are you trying to say some people are more interesting than others? If you are I agree but I think generaly people are not as interesting as they think they are and go through alot of mind games to make the story more interesting. To make it more complicated, when really their motivations are simple and the solutions might be simpler, not all the time but I think generaly.

Anonymous said...

SciFi writer and marine biologist Peter Watts put in this way recently on his blog: "You are an experiment of Nature. So am I. Get over it." I think that kinda circles what you were targeting there.

Steve Perry said...

If you believe all we are is driven by yearnings of the belly and phallus and that the stories don't matter, you can do that. I happen to believe that the stories, and our ability to tell them and understand them, choose to believe them are things that separates us from the bunnies and badgers. Nobody else we know about in the universe can do that, and that makes us special as a species.

Not perfect, not civilized, but unique. And each one of us is different than every other one of us.

Are there aliens light years past Arcturus who are to us as we are to ants? Could be. The ability to imagine that? Probably the coyotes don't spend much time cogitating on such things.

Is my story better than yours? Not necessarily. And does it reflect the One True Reality? Who can say?

Me, I like Desiderata.

When the turtle can write that, then I'll be impressed with him.

Eric Parsons said...

Deep stuff of late.

Isn't this discussion getting pretty close to the age-old debate of free will vs. determinism? And if so, maybe it matters for us to *believe* our stories matter, even if they don't.

Also, thinking back to your recent post about the ways people learn, it seems that one of the key elements of the mentoring method *is* the story passed from the elders to the younger generation. In this sense, the stories are still important, even if they aren't necessarily the Truth.

Finally, tying in to what Steve wrote, personally, I think that the ability to overcome our instincts (for good or ill) is perhaps what makes us uniquely human, even if we don't manage to do it nearly as often as we like to think that we do.


Rory said...

All true. Even if we are all belly and phallus or all story or a mix, it's unlikely to matter. It's intriguing that you can see it either way. It's intriguing that you can (IME) motivate through story in many ways that you can't at the turtle level... but that the story expressed as a reason usually has nil predictive power.

I am impressed that a human, and only a human could write "Desiderata". And impressed with animals, because only a human would have felt the need.

Ymar Sakar said...

Will and intent combined with physical power will produce amazing results.