Feeling Threatened

When we feel jealous of another person, what do we actually feel about ourselves? In his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships, author Colin Wright writes, “Jealousy, at its core, is about feeling threatened.” Many of our reactions to the world and people around us, in my opinion, tie back to tribal forces that have been brought with us through human evolution. Jealousy is related to our status in the group, and when others have something we want, live a way we would like to live, or receive some benefit that we did not receive, our position of status appears to diminish in our tribal brain.

 

Wright continues in his book to explain that we can overcome jealousy with better awareness of our feelings and reactions. In personal relationships this means a better focus on how we feel, awareness of what causes certain emotions to bubble up, and a recognition of what places and people cause us to feel a certain way. Gaining a better handle on what actions and behaviors help us feel good and what actions and behaviors lead to negative feelings, such as jealousy, will give us the chance to craft our life in a more considerate direction.

 

This focus will help us begin to analyze our thoughts and feelings and begin to act in a less impulsive manner. Focusing beyond ourselves, slowing down our actions as responses to observations and feelings, and bringing a rational approach to how we think about our feelings can allow us to overcome negative impulses. Assessing why we feel a certain way can give us the chance to decide whether we should be upset, whether our emotions are the result of a lack of sleep, or whether we should act to correct an injustice.

 

As a public policy student, I see this ability and a deeper understanding of jealousy as critical in deciding how we should react to policies that unavoidably direct scarce resources to some groups and not others. Recognizing that our jealousy regarding certain programs may not be influenced by the efficiency or effectiveness of a program, but on our thoughts of how deserving we find the beneficiaries of a program is important in crafting and evaluating policy. We can understand that our jealousy is a reaction based on our perceived status relative to others in our complex society, and can begin to evaluate our opinions by moving past our initial reactions based on jealousy, status, and threat.

The Mind Observing the Mind

I am not a scientist in the sense that I don’t work at a laboratory, I don’t publish academic papers, and I am not going out into a field to make observation about the nature of the world to experiment with and report back on. But I do love science. I listen to a handful of science podcasts and I like to approach the world from a scientific point of view. This has lead me to look at objects and observers and to be aware of the relationship between an object and the observer recording the object. Scientists try to be as objective as possible, independent of the thing they are studying, but this is not always possible. When it comes to the human mind, and the observations we make about our thoughts, we must accept that we cannot split the mind from our thoughts and our emotions, even though we can observe both.

 

Thich Nhat Hanh writes about this in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness. He uses a metaphor of a guard standing at a gate, observing everyone who enters and leaves to describe the typical vision we have for our mind. Hanh explains that this is a limited view of the mind because we are both the guard and the people going through the gate. The mind cannot truly be separated from the thoughts and emotions going through it.

 

He describes the importance of this by writing, “We are both the mind and the observer of the mind. Therefore, chasing away or dwelling on any thought isn’t the important thing. The important thing is to be aware of thought. This observation is not an objectification of the mind: it does not establish distinction between subject and object. … Mind can only observe itself. This observation isn’t an observation of some object outside and independent of the observer.”

 

Our observations of the mind can change the mind as much as cake, a traffic accident, or the birth of a child can. We only have our thoughts inside our mind, but we don’t exactly control every thought, emotion, and feeling. Being unaware of our thoughts leads us to being whipped around as in a hurricane, but trying to be too controlling of our mind drives us mad and frustrates us at our inability to shut down the thoughts and emotions we don’t wish to have. Recognizing the reality of the mind as being one with its thoughts helps us see that our best option is simply to observe and accept the thoughts and emotions that run through our mind so we can choose to be more constructive with how we react to thoughts and structure the environment in which our mind operates.

Translating Symbolic Racism

What does racism look like when it is not overt and outwardly displayed? In Obama’s Race Michael Tesler and David Sears look beyond what people say and use survey data with carefully designed questions to try to look inside the mind of average people. Sears and Tesler are able to judge people’s affect, or their emotional feelings and responses, toward people of color, and look at their behaviors and actions such as their support for president Obama in the 2008 election or their support for public statements made in the wake of his election.

What the authors find is that many American’s, consciously or not, harbor feelings toward black people that cast black people in a second class status below white people. They write, “These earlier examinations have largely confirmed the original theory that the origins of symbolic racism for white Americans lie in a blend of antiblack affect and beliefs that blacks violate traditional conservative values such as individualism, obedience, and social morality.” The surveys show that white people view black people less positively than people similar to themselves. This is often not a conscious reaction, but rather hidden feelings that materialize in complex relationships in the real world.

I don’t think the results of the study show that we as white people are constantly acting against black people or that we don’t want to see black people live on an equal level with us, but it does mean that we tend to lean away from black people toward whiteness  without realizing it. This could mean that we like a resume from a person with a white sounding name more than an equal resume from a person with a black sounding name. It could mean that we are likely to be meaner to a black person who accidentally rear-ends us than a white person who rear-ends us. And it means we might choose to talk to a white person at a social event rather than a black person. None of these actions are directly racist and it is hard in the moment to ever recognize that you are making these decisions at all, but when a black person is constantly left out and receives harsher treatment, a sense develops that they are less valued within society.

I have recently been listening to John Biewen’s podcast, Scene on Radio, and his series on the show, Seeing White. Biewen discusses the origin of race and racial discrimination not just in the United States but across the globe. In a powerful episode, he and the scholars he interviews explain that people enslaved others for economic exploitation, and that exploitation required justification for the domination of other people. From such exploitation came the excuses that those who were being enslaved were savage beasts, hardly able to live on their own and much better off being subjugated by another man. In the United States these views were weaponized against black people with the advent of race, a biologically false idea, but a socially powerful and socially real construct. To justify slavery and exploitation, white people needed to be able to see black people as less moral, unable to live up to American values of individualism and self responsibility, and any action against their bondage demonstrated their clear disobedience. According to the research from Tesler and Sears, America never moved past these views of black people, and the views we developed as an excuse for our desire to exploit and subjugate human beings were carried with us to the present day, when our President attempts to undermine every accomplishment and action of our previous black president, and openly embraces terms and ideas that are caught up in racists backstories.

Emotional Wounds

One of the things I often think about at work is whether I am helping make the office a more enjoyable place for everyone to be. Am I helping to create an environment where people actually want to be, or am I in some ways contributing to an atmosphere that people dislike and don’t look forward to being at? These thoughts require that I take the focus off myself and instead shift it to those around me. It helps me look at my frustrations and move past them or see how they are opportunities for me to help others and make the day better for someone else.

Thinking in that manner is not easy, but I think it is something our society needs a little more of.  Whether we are in the office, on the freeway, at the gym, or in our neighborhood, we can think more of others and focus on how we can make a place better for others rather than selfishly thinking of ourselves.

A short passage from Cory Booker’s United helps me see why thinking of others and how I contribute to the world around me is so important. “For the eight years that I lived in Brick Towers, and during my almost twenty years as a Newark resident, my neighbors struggled with the emotional wounds of violence. This is not America; it is not who we are. It is a cancer on the soul of our nation. Like many cancers, the true peril comes from not detecting it, not recognizing the threat and the thus not taking the appropriate action.”

Our society often recognizes that everyone has problems that they are dealing with, but we never take time to think about the emotional wounds that many are going through. Booker refers specifically to emotional wounds brought on from violent experiences, but we all know people who have suffered intense emotional wounds without necessarily experiencing direct physicial violence. Putting thoughts of others and thinking of how you are helping the world be a nicer place for others helps us begin to heal the emotional wounds that Booker is discussing no matter where those wounds came from.

In regards to violence, we never spend much time thinking about how the victim will move on, continue life, and reintegrate with the world. We become singularly focused on how we wish to punish the violent offender but we don’t spend much time thinking about how we can minimize the emotional wounds that everyone involved will surely experience. I do not have a perfect answer for how we bind these emotional wounds, but I think that a crucial first step is to stop focusing on ourselves, what we want, and what is best for us in any given moment. We need to focus on other people, on how other people will react to our decisions and actions, and we need to focus on showing others that they are just as valuable as we are, and that we care about them. This does not mean we can never be self-centered and do things for ourselves, but rather that we will be more conscious of how our decisions impact other people, and we will find the appropriate time and place for ourselves.

Just as I think about the environment my decisions at work create, we should think about how our actions help to heal the emotional wounds that people in society face, or whether our attitudes further the strain those wounds.

Feeling our Emotions

Ryan Holiday addresses a common misperception of stoicism in his book, The Obstacle is the Way, when he addresses ideas surrounding our emotions and how we handle our emotions. I think people often associate stoicism with a lack of emotion, and will describe people as being stoic when they respond to emotional situations like reactionless statues. I think there is merit to the idea that people who follow stoicism don’t show emotion, but I think it is often taken to the extreme in people’s mind. Not showing wild emotion swings becomes conflated with not having or feeling any emotion at all, and in Holiday’s writing the curtain is pulled back to give us a new view of how we can react to our inner feelings, and to give us new perspective on the thoughts and minds of those we call stoic in turbulent times.

Holiday writes, “Real strength lies in the control or, as Nassim Taleb put it, the domestication of one’s emotions, not in pretending they don’t exist.” Holiday’s quick quote shows that stoics and people who practice stoicism are not simply stones without emotion. Rather than being voids without feelings, Holiday presents an image of someone who is self-aware and capable of managing and controlling their emotions. Stoics have practiced this ability over time, recognizing their feelings, channeling their passion in productive ways, and choosing how they will use their emotions. Often we don’t see these people as having any emotion because we do not see the visible emotional outbursts that are common on television shows and socially encouraged at sporting events.

Holiday takes the idea of feeling emotion a step further in his book. He does not simply explain that people who follow the teachings of Marcus Aurelius and other stoics feel emotions, he explains that people who practice self-awareness and recognize the ways their emotions drive their behaviors experience better outcomes in life than those who allow themselves to be driven by the impulses of their emotional states. Further, Holiday writes that stoics feel their emotions quite strongly, and that they do not ignore their emotions. He encourages his readers to explore and to feel their emotions, but he does so in a way that is constructive and provides us the opportunity to learn and grow from our current state. By using our emotions and being aware of them we can channel our energy into truly productive directions. The failure to recognize and the failure to understand our emotions leaves us in a place of no direction.  When we assume that we should not feel one way or another, and when we strive to be without emotion, we leave a valuable part of ourselves behind.

To Avoid Becoming Frustrated at Things

Marcus Aurelius had a very practical way of looking at the world, and his pragmatism stands out in his book Meditations when he is taking about the ways in which we become frustrated.  Rather than allowing himself to be driven by emotions he was able to slow himself down and think about his thoughts and what should be done.  This aspect of stoicism helped him see the world in a more wholesome manner, and it can help one reduce stress and overcome points of frustration.

 

Aurelius wrote, “It is not right to vex ourselves at things, For they care nought about it,” to remind himself that he should not give anything outside of his mind the power to control his mind. In our world of technology I think this idea fits perfectly into our lives. It is not uncommon for a piece of technology (our computers, TVs, wireless routers, headphones, etc…) to frustrate us.  When we expect our technology to operate seamlessly, we become very disappointed and sometimes irate when things fail.  Allowing ourselves to be overcome with emotion in these situations will not help our devices, and will often lead to worse situations.  What Aurelius would argue is that we should never allow an inanimate object to control our life to the point where it can challenge our emotional wellbeing.

 

When looking at how we should perceive the world around us, Aurelius wrote, “the things which are external to my mind have no relation at  all to my mind.” What he is explaining in this quote is that his mind is its own entity and that it cannot be directly affected by anything outside of our heads.  We choose how we want to allow our mind to react to the world around us because our mind is in control of itself.  When we allow our technology to be the singular thing that brings us joy then we are giving an item control over our brain. When an external event demolishes our emotional state, we are choosing to abandon control of our mind, and we are letting things that do not directly touch our brain to have power over the one thing we absolutely control.

 

Divorcing ourselves from reliance on things outside ourselves (technology, relationships, activities) helps us to regain control of our faculties of mind.  Aurelius would not argue that we should not enjoy the world around us and the point of stoicism is not to avoid any emotional feeling, but we should be able to recognize our thoughts and emotions and adjust our mental framing to be more productive and helpful. We should accept our feelings and understand  them, but we should also have the mental control to shape the actions, decisions, and perspectives of our life. When we give things external to the mind  the power to direct the mind, we give up our independence and become subordinate to things.

Reason, Action, Passion

While describing effective altruists, author and philosopher Peter Singer makes a distinction in the philosophy of reason and how we can look at effective altruists.  Singer establishes that effective altruists, or those who seek to do the most good that they can possibly do out of a sense of value for all people as opposed to seeking to do the most good they can do out of religious convictions or warm glow sentiments, empathize with all individuals across the globe because they are able to recognize the shared value in all humanity.  An effective altruist is drawn to help those who are in the most need and those who can be helped the most efficiently. Singer argues that their actions result from a strong sense of moral reasoning derived from the individual faculties of mind of effective altruists.  Moving in a very philosophical direction to examine the views of effective altruists Singer writes,

 

“The strongest objection to the claim that reason plays a crucial role in the motivation of effective altruists comes from Hume’s influential view that reason can never initiate an action because all action starts with a passion or desire … This is, in modern parlance, an instrumentalist view of reason.  Reason helps us to get what we want: it cannot tell us what to want or at least not what to want for its own sake.  To argue that reason plays a crucial role in the motivation of effective altruists, we have to reject this instrumentalist view of practical reason.”

 

At the end of the quote above Singer states that we need a different view of rationalization to be able to understand the actions of effective altruists.  The view reflected by Hume would suggest that effective altruists are truly only motivated by the warm glow we receive from helping others. He would argue that we receive an incentive to live altruistically because of the rewards generated by our actions. Singer on the other hand would argue that we would recognize these incentives only as byproducts of a positive lifestyle, and not the underlying goal for our actions.

 

Ultimately Singer is trying to place reason and rationality above emotions such as passion and desire.  For me this has always been a tricky area to disentangle.  We are very skilled at rationalizing our behavior to fit the reason we want our actions to be centered around. While Hume is arguing that our passions are what truly drive us at all times, singer is arguing that our passions grow from our reason.

The Impermanence of Failure

Throughout much of his writing, author Colin Wright tends to focus on our thoughts and the ways in which we react to things.  He frequently writes about self awareness and the ways in which our interpretations of our situations affects our thoughts and reactions. By becoming a more aware person and being able to control our thoughts we are able to have more positive reactions to the world around us.  In his book Considerations he writes, “Very seldom does failure have permanent repercussions. Unless you allow it to that is.  Many of the negative consequences of an action tend to result not from outside forces, but from our own negative thinking.”

 

I think this quote shows the power of self awareness and the power of controlling our thoughts. When we are able to recognize how we are thinking and feeling about any given event, we are better able to control our thoughts and shift them in a positive direction. When we are able to do this, we are in many ways able to chose our reactions and the ways in which we act.

 

To me the part that stand out the most from this quote is the last few words about negative thinking. By building self awareness and focusing in on our thoughts we can reduce the amount of negative thinking in our lives in all situations. Recognizing how your are thinking and acting allows us to see when we are over emphasizing small problems. For me, being able to recognize when I am letting something unimportant impact me in a negative way has helped me feel better about myself and my situations on a daily basis.

 

When it comes to failure, recognizing what Wright is discussing can be huge, especially in our professional careers.  We tend to fixate on things we have not done well, and we do not remember the positive parts of our workday.  When we dial in on the negative we build self doubt and cling to fears. What Wright is showing when with this quote is that others won’t remember those failures as long as we will, so it is not worth lamenting over those failures. If we do not learn to control our emotions and thoughts then all we gain from failure is a negative self impression and fear. Practicing self awareness can help us shift those thoughts so that we do not hang on to a past failure and allow it to become  a roadblock as we move forward.