Wednesday, February 2, 2011
The answer to the last question is easiest, of course, because I'm explaining my own behaviors, not guessing at someone else's. But even then, do we really understand our own behaviors? I THINK I shot it because of its incongruity. And I suspect I have a softness for old abandoned toys -- even if I didn't read the Velveteen Rabbit until long after I reached adulthood.
But -- as I'm learning in my class on metaphor -- what we consciously control in our brains is tiny compared to the unconscious pathways our brains naturally travel. Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, asks us to consider each human being as a tandem enterprise: a lawyer trying to ride an elephant. "The part of us that is conscious, careful and calculating (the lawyer) is often outmatched by the huge lumbering bag of electro-chemical processes, appetites and cravings that characterizes the physical human body (the elephant). The good news is that our intellect is often quite reliable in telling us what we need to do. The bad news is that the intellect is often overwhelmed by the “elephant’s” unrelenting unconscious bodily impulses. What passes as human rationality is born of a conflict between these two aspects of who we are."
Which means that to some extent I am as clueless about why I photographed this horse as I am about how it ended up there in the first place. My conscious awareness is merely "a rider placed on the elephant’s back to help the elephant make better choices. The rider can see farther into the future, and can learn valuable information by talking to other writers or by reading maps, but it cannot order the elephant around against his will. I often believe," says Haidt, "the Scottish philosopher David Hume was closer to the truth than Plato when he said, 'reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.' In sum, the rider is an advisor or servant; not a king, president, or charioteer with a firm grip on the reins. . . . the elephant, in contrast, is everything else. The elephant includes the gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions and intuitions that comprise much of the automatic system."
What Haidt articulates so well is known understood by each of us, even at a gut level. We are constantly at war with ourselves. How else can it possibly be that so many people act in ways that are contrary to their cherished principles? How else could it be that so many sincere humans act absolutely contrary to their self-defined best interests?
I mean, think about it. It's February, right? Have you broken your new year's resolutions yet? How's that weight loss plan coming? How many times a day do you find yourself in front of the refrigerator or snack cupboard, contemplating something else to put in your mouth?
I'm obviously speaking from experience here. But I'm also trying to say that we delude ourselves if we think we're wholly rational human beings. Which means, I think, that there is work to be done. We need to understand and accept that we are not as in control as we think we are. Which means we're not as right, or as highly motivated as we think we are, either. Haidt says, "To live virtuously as individuals and as societies, we must understand how our minds are built. We must find ways to overcome our natural self-righteousness. And we must respect and even learn from those whose morality differs from our own."
It's a tall order, to be sure. But certainly worth looking into.
Posted by Diane Walker at 7:56 AM