Today’s heresy

lotusOf anyone in my family, I have probably been the most abused. More than likely, I am also the most functional, the most clear-headed, the most able to engage in supportive relationships, and the most able find life most rewarding.

I am more fortunate than any of them.

And yet I have suffered. I have suffered terribly–probably more than all of them put together.

I have suffered not only because of what all of them did to me, but because I have the greatest capacity for suffering. I retained more of my humanity, and can therefore feel my own pain.

In a sense, they suffer without any witness. No one sees their pain—not even themselves. I am my own witness. I am with myself and for myself in a way they can never be to themselves, and so they are alone and lonely in the most terrible and frightening way.

I can hear myself. I can speak about my suffering so that others can hear me. Despite my internal fragmentation, I am whole in a way they never will be.

I can also care about others. I am not so consumed by my own overwhelming needs and intense desires that the rest of the world exists for me only either an obstacle or as a source of gain.

Consequently, I have both myself and other people. My family members are so alone they don’t even have themselves

All I can say is how grateful I am. I am grateful to have been born with the capacity to become the person I am. If I had to grow up in the way that I did, I am infinitely appreciative to have been given the qualities that would allow me to remain human through all of it.

But that also raises some questions. Quite a few, in fact.

Because they weren’t so lucky. You can talk about grace if you want to. I am alive and standing only through the grace of God. But where was God’s grace when they needed it? Nowhere. There was no grace left over for them.

You can also say they made choices. Indeed, they did. But the path they went down in order to become the people they are today began when they were too young to know what the consequences of their choices would be. I blame them for those choices. But not entirely.

Through his Forgiveness Project, Bishop Tutu relates the story of ? who, while being tortured in prison, began to think to himself, “These are God’s children, and yet they are behaving like animals.”

Most pine cones grow with Fibonacci numbers of spirals. Sometimes there are mistakes and they spiral in Lucas numbers.
Most pine cones grow with Fibonacci numbers of spirals. Sometimes there are mistakes and they spiral in Lucas numbers.

My father, who tortured me in more ways than I can bear to remember, is also a child of God. Even animals won’t do what he did.

It’s hard to wrap for me head around that. If God is our Father, how did he ever create a little boy that could become the man my father was?

If you believe in the Devil, then you have it easy. The Devil led him astray. But I have a hard time with the Devil as a construct. God is supposed to be greater than Satan. Good should triumph over evil. Good only sometimes does. Why?

Sometimes, God seems to let down the side. Why?

I can’t think of  a reason, and so I can’t blame things on the Devil. The Devil doesn’t make sense to me. I need some other answer to this conundrum, and that involves today’s heresy.

Which is this: I don’t believe God is perfect.

I don’t think there is evil at work in the world so much as there are terrible accidents. Accidents where we all look around and think, “Crap, why didn’t we see that coming?”

Accidents like my father, a little boy born to neglectful, incompetent, and sometimes psychotic parents who himself lacked both the internal and external resources to cope and consequently failed to develop either empathy or conscience–instead developing a monstrous sense of self-importance.

The Bible tells us that we were created in God’s image. That’s not true. Instead, we created God in our image, or at least according to our own preferred imagings.

We prefer perfection. We are not perfect, but we busy ourselves most days trying to create it. Otherwise why we would we be on the fifth Iphone? Why would Windows release first Windows 8 and, almost immediately following, 8.1? We want perfection. And just as we want a perfect phone, we want a perfect God.

But God is not perfect. If you want proof, look around. His Creation is not perfect. It is amazing and mysterious and sometimes jaw-droppingly beautiful. But everything in it is flawed. People are flawed, flowers are flawed, dogs are flawed. If God were so perfect why would the whole of his Creation be imperfect?

The planet is teeming with life. We have done our best to destroy it, but so far there is simply too much of it for us to kill off. In the Amazon alone, there are so many species that we are driving them to extinction faster than we can discover them.

If you look around, what you can see clearly for yourself is that God loves to create. He loves life in all its wonder and splendour and diversity. He is a creative God, a beautiful God who can fill us with wonder and awe. But He is not perfect, and neither are we.

Which means that sometimes there are accidents–accidents like my father.

Entertaining the idea of an imperfect God—in the face of all the theology to the contrary—may disturb you, but it comforts me. It’s the only way I can make any sense out of my life.

A perfect God could only spell a cruel god—at best, an indifferent God. Even there, I see a problem. How can a cruel God create so many kind human beings? Again, I can’t make any sense out of that.

But I can live with a flawed God who is kind.

A flawed God also means that I can forgive Him for giving me the childhood I had. It means I can forgive my father. It means I can live with the life I have led and with the world I live in.

That’s today’s heresy. Someone who has seen the worst of what human beings can do to one another must not only forgive the perpetrators, but the God who made people capable of doing such terrible harm.

This is the only way I can.

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Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand

uber-ChristiansWhenever I go past the StaplesCenter in LA and there is some kind of event going on, I inevitably see signs that tell me to repent. “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Maybe just “Sinners, repent.”

I’m not really sure what the uber-Christians have against the Lakers, but it must be something severe, because their signs never fail to seem threatening. The intent seems to be to make the rest of us feel guilty and more than a little scared—as we either quietly going about our lives running errands and carrying heavy groceries or else off for a well-earned night of fun on the town.

God will come soon. And he isn’t going to like what he sees. Be afraid.

That’s the message. I have to admit I am not a fan.

However, I think they’ve gotten things a little mixed up. Or at the very least that there is another way of looking at this.

I seriously don't know what they have against the Lakers. Or maybe it's the fans they hate so much.
I seriously don’t know what they have against the Lakers. Or maybe it’s the fans they hate so much.

I have to admit, in writing this, that I am not a Christian. I do not actually believe that there was a Christ who died for our sins. So, this is not a post written by one of the faithful. It is a post written by someone who thinks that, like other religions, Christianity has something to offer. If this offends you, I suggest you stop reading here and find something else to read that it is more to your taste.

Since you are still here, I assume it’s because you aren’t offended and you are all ears.

Specifically, what Christianity has to offer comes through the story of this Christ that I don’t believe in. You may find that odd. Here I am saying, “I don’t believe it’s true,” and at the same time, “I think there’s something to be learned here. Let’s look at this story. It’s a good one, and it has some important and helpful things to tell us.”

solving equationsBut if you’re finding it odd, that’s probably because you don’t see the human mind in the same way I do. Stories are a part of the way we come to understand things. They are a part of the way we, both as individuals and as entire societies, remember and communicate important ideas and events.

For example, I have a wonderful teacher friend who explains how to solve an equation to her struggling math students through a long complex description of a bad breakup. The breakup never really happened—it’s a made-up story—but it is, in fact, how to solve an equation. The story, although it is made-up, helps. Her students can solve equations.

The same thing is true in my mind about Christ. I don’t believe that the Son of God ever came down to this earth and died for our sins—although it doesn’t disturb me if you do—but I do think what is revealed in that story of his coming might very well be true. At the very least, it’s worth considering.

But first we need to break down this idea of repentance, because while the uber-Christians at the Lakers games scare the pants off me, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” is not a phrase they made up all on their own. Christ isn’t credited with this little instruction, but John the Baptist is, and he seemed to know what was what.

So, what is repentance? You can tell me in the comments what you think about that. I’d like to know.

paint by numberIn the meantime, I’ll tell you what I think. Repentance has three parts to it: 1) an understanding in your own mind that you have done something wrong, 2) an earnest desire not to do it again, and 3) an attempt to make things right again.

If you’ve gone through a 12-step program, then you know all about repentance. You’ve done a lot of repenting. You’ve taken an inventory of your shortcomings and personal failings, you’ve thought about the people you harmed, and you’ve done your best to make amends.

There’s a reason for this. It’s not arbitrary. Repentance frees us.

And that’s what Christianity has to offer—among some other things. It says, “Christ will set you free.” This is one way that Christ can. Because, while I don’t think religion is intended to be done like a paint-by-number, I am a math teacher and I do tend to understand things as processes.

I can see a method here.

All of us do and say things that are insensitive, hurtful, selfish, rash, unwise, unkind, ungenerous. If you want to call it “sin” when you do those things, then we’re definitely all sinners by nature.

So this is the method: acknowledge in your own mind what you have done wrong, attempt not to do it again (usually easier said than done, but give it a go anyway), and do what you can to make things right again.

That’s repentance. It’s not really very hard, is it? Most of us do that.

Horus and Thoth weighing a heart.
Horus and Thoth weighing a heart.

It’s the second part that’s harder. “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” What does that mean? Well, it could mean that God has shown up and intends to judge everyone right here and now. But that’s not very interesting. People have been thinking that God will judge you at the end of your life for quite a long time—a lot longer than people have believed in Jesus. The Egyptians thought your heart would be weighed on a scale. The only innovation here with Christianity is that judgment might come while you’re still alive. Which actually is pretty scary. And not very inspiring.

I'm just not seeing the appeal. You might as well stick with Horus and get our heart weighed.
I’m just not seeing the appeal. You might as well stick with Horus and get our heart weighed.

And the story of Christ was innovative. It captured the imagination of a great part of the world remarkably quickly. I have my doubts that that happened solely because people were so excited that they could find themselves sentenced to a lake of fire to burn for eternity at any moment instead of only after death. I think there’s got to be something more to it.

That “something else” was forgiveness. Like understanding that the world is indeed round and that light behaves both as energy and as matter, the idea of forgiveness changed the foundations of Western civilization. It made possible a different kind of justice: instead of punishment for wrong-doing—hanging, stoning, flogging, execution—it suggested restorative justice. We still don’t seem to have gotten our heads around this, but let’s keep trying, shall we? It might turn out to be worth doing.

Christ came not to judge us, but to forgive us. And the door to forgiveness is repentance. “Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” The Kingdom of Heaven is forgiveness. It has to be. None of our heart are lighter than feathers.

Without forgiveness, there isn’t much of a reason to repent, is there? I mean, if God is keeping track of these things, it’s not like he’s going to forget. Whatever you’ve done will still be on your record. Just as they say in school. “This will go on your permanent record.” And when the time comes, you’ll still have to pay for it.

But Christ said, “It can go away. I can wipe this out for you. You just need to do one thing.”

He wasn’t asking for a kick-back. He wanted us to start trying to make things right again when we screw things up and, you know, try not to keep doing it.

Safety, security, and trust

lockPeople don’t make me feel safer. Things do.

A locked door, quiet, cleanliness, being able to see the door, even money in my wallet and in the bank–those things make me feel secure.

But lately I’ve begun to see that it can be different from that.

For me, safety with people means that I feel a reasonable degree of certainty that they won’t harm me. And by harm I mean physical assault. Standards, evidently, are low.

It took me years–even decades–to realize that other people seemed to have very different definitions of trust. In a real sense, it didn’t seem to me that I had any problem with trust. People kept telling me that I did have difficulty with trust–notably, therapists–and so I assumed they must be correct. But it didn’t really add up in my mind.

I say that because, overall, I think I’m quite good at assessing matters of physical safety. Having lived and travelled in large, presumably dangerous cities for most of my adult life, I think it says something that I’ve never been robbed, I’ve never had my purse snatched, I’ve been physically sexually harassed but never seriously assaulted. And even that was a very long time ago. I may have just been lucky, but I think I may also have been able to keep myself safe.

I might even be more or less gifted at assessing some kinds of truthfulness, and that helps also with other kinds of safety.

Yes, it’s hard for me to share certain experiences, certain feelings and vulnerabilities with other people. But that’s because I’m afraid some god-like force will appear out of nowhere and strike me dead. It’s nothing to do with the person sitting there listening. I just don’t want to turn into a pillar of salt or a chunk of ash.

It never occurred to me that trust in relationships occurs for reasons well beyond the kind of neutrality that results from an absence of physical threat, and that it has to do with many other, more subtle things. Really. It didn’t.

One of them is simply about presence. The people you trust are the ones who keep coming back. Nandhini and I, despite the 10,000 or so miles between us, have lasted as long as we have in part for the simple reason that one of us keeps calling. And the other keeps picking up the phone. So, the people you trust can be depended on to be there and to be available to you in some way. Not all the time, but enough that it’s something more than a crap shoot. You don’t reach out and keep touching air.

What happens when you are very afraid, as traumatized people often are, is that you don’t reach out, so very few people are ever there. At the same time, you also have a tendency to retreat and to flee and so you aren’t able to be there for other people very well either. You don’t always end up with very trustworthy people in your life, because you can’t always be trusted. So it’s hard. The people who can form relationships with someone who isn’t trustworthy are often not very trustworthy themselves–and sometimes for more nefarious reasons than simply feeling afraid.

And this is probably some of the magic of therapy. You pay them, so they do come back. You can push them away, but they return. It isn’t a two-way street. And so you can have a relationship. You can learn about trust.

But there was a point when I didn’t know to expect that from anyone. I had close relationships–or thought I did–with people who were there sometimes, and other times not.

And then there is this other thing that relates to trust but is entirely new for me. In fact, I don’t understand it. It makes my head hurt to think about it.

This other thing you might call relational trust. Relational trust really comes down to the other person liking you, and liking you for who you are. So there are certain things they don’t do: they don’t tell you that you should live your life differently than the way you are living it, they don’t make fun of you or the of the things that matter to you, they don’t criticize and they don’t judge. Not because they are generous, non-judgmental people, although that helps, but because the reason they spend their time with you is that they enjoy you. The point isn’t just to exercise power over you or to have someone they can feel superior to.

Instead, they encourage you in the pursuit of your goals, because they think what you’re trying to do is worthwhile. Sometimes, they even praise you, because they believe, in spite of your faults, you have good qualities also.

As it turns out, a third element of safety arises out of this: the people who like you and spend time with you find themselves wanting to help you. They can’t turn your life rightside up if it’s gotten itself upside down, but they can lend a hand from time to time–and they do. They want to.

So, if you have secure relationships with safe people, then you aren’t just safe from them, but safer in the rest of your life, because they help you cope with adversity.

It began to occur to me earlier in the year that I felt safer simply having Nandhini in my life. When I have difficult decisions to make, or even just so many small ones I’m beginning to feel overwhelmed, I have a sounding board for thinking about them. At the very least, there is someone to talk them over with who might have a different perspective or a new idea. And there is someone to ask for advice, even if in the end I decide to ignore it.

The fact that this is a surprise to me probably begins with not having parents–not parents who counted,who did parental things. I’ve always had to make my own way in the world, to decide myself what was going to be best for me in the long run. There was never anyone more experienced or knowledgeable to ask. Even now, although I do ask, I find no one else is quite like me. What I am told will work doesn’t work. And approaches that seem effective for other people seem to turn out disastrously for me. Instead, I often ask for information, rather than advice. But the benefits of advice from someone more experienced are ones I’ve come to understand well enough to crave.

But that’s just one kind of help that comes with relational safety.

When I moved out of my apartment recently, I had help. A lot of it, actually. Someone is storing the things I decided to keep and also helped me move them. Someone else brought his truck and pitched in with all the heavy lifting. A third person helped me cart some things I didn’t want off to the charity shop. A fourth person took me to the airport. And the person who is storing my things had me stay with her after I’d moved my things out and there was no longer any place to sleep.

I have never done anything that involved help from so many people, and especially something that wasn’t a crisis or a cause. Just me, needing to pack my things up for an adventure.

I can only guess they did it because they want to see me succeed in this. They like me, and because they like me they also like the kinds of goals I have for myself. But I’m only guessing.

Truth be told, I don’t know what to make of it. It was one of those things I didn’t have enough time to think about. It was happening. And so I still don’t know what to make of it. But it’s the kind of thing that happens in safe relationships.

And that’s the part that’s hard. Because it’s there, and now I can see it is there. But I don’t understand it. I can’t.

Sunday is bhaji market day

Sunday is my favourite day of the week. First of all, it’s Nandhini’s only day off, since she has class on Saturdays, but I also like the change in routine. There is a sense of being a kid again for me and of having something special to do.

Because Sundays we go to the vegetable market. We call it that, but they sell nearly every kind of food there, including fish and meat. It isn’t just for vegetables.

There is an order to our shopping, and I know it from the last time I came here and the time before, as well as from what I hear over the phone when Nandhini calls me on Sunday mornings. First, there is the snack shop–we buy khakra, a kind of thin, crispy bread somewhat like a deep-fried tortilla but with an entirely different taste, and almonds for me.

To get into the market, we pass through a narrow passageway with high walls. I have no idea idea what the purpose of the high walls are, other than to slow our passage. This is the meat market though. I can tell you that much. And today there are goat skins and heads arranged on the ground in front of the butcher’s, waiting for someone to buy them. I don’t look at the goat’s heads. It’s too much like being at a funeral: I like goats, the way some people like dogs, and I don’t think I could bear to look into their sad, brown eyes

Even aside from decapitated goats, this market would probably turn me into a vegetarian if I weren’t one already. The fish are one thing–their silvery corpses don’t disturb me as they sit still in their baskets, promising both freshness and flavour. But the chickens are so clearly distressed in those seconds before their heads are whacked off that it breaks my heart. I can hear them calling plaintively as we weigh potatoes later on.

Mutton weeks, we go into the butcher’s and put in an order for something I don’t understand and don’t pay attention to. I’m too entranced by the bodies hanging from hooks in rows along the walkway, close enough to touch. Death both fascinates and repels me, the idea perhaps that we all one day become only that–a bit of meat. I don’t mind that the butchers periodically come by to whack bits off of these corpses, as long as I don’t have to touch it.

Today, though, we only walk by. And it’s on to the “modern dairy” for frozen peas. Don’t ask me about that. I can’t explain it to you. But they do sell milk and cheese and butter as well. We just don’t buy any of those dairy things–not today.

Next is the fruit-seller, Manu. He has the smallest and plainest of the fruit stalls, and evidently gives the best prices–or at least he gives the prices to Nandhini. I don’t know how many years she’s been buying her fruit from him, but I think it’s been at least a decade. He’s late today-or maybe we’re early. But the conversation they have when he comes at last an hour later is the same one they always have.

“What are you giving me today?” Nandhini asks.

And Manu tells her what fruit is the sweetest and freshest that week. We leave with apples, mandarins and something people sometimes called custard apples–which do, in fact, taste like custard, but are full of large seeds.

elephant's footBut I’ve skipped the vegetable market, the main show, where we shop until Manu comes. The game for me here is to find vegetables I don’t recognize and to try to guess what they taste like. It’s getting harder for me to play as the year go on. Today, there is only elephant’s foot, which looks an enormous, pink, ugly beet but I imagine tastes more like a mild potato. (Does it?)

And I’ve skipped too the errand that is just for me–a cup of tea, in a small glass from the chai-wallah. Nandhini won’t drink it. Only I like this kind of tea–strong and very sweet and full of bufallo milk.

After Manu comes the poultry market, where we buy two dozen eggs–mostly for me, although I think it’s time I cut back on eating eggs for breakfast. My cholesterol is bound to get out of hand this way. A young man slaughters chickens while someone else packs the eggs for us in a black plastic bag. I am glad to see he washes his hands carefully under the tap afterwards, and then shocked that he drinks straight from the tap afterwards, the way we kids used to drink from the hose. I didn’t think anyone did that any more, but evidently they do. It’s good to be wrong sometimes. At least once a day.

The adventure begins

As many of my regular readers know, I am in India now. If you are not South Asian, you are probably imagining how exciting and exotic this is for me, so I thought I should probably set you all straight.

It is instead entirely tranquil and domestic. Some might even call it boring, but I am not so easily bored. Also, I am relieved after the stress of planning and packing and moving out of my place.

A run-down of my (so far) typical day might lend a fuller picture.

Since I have traded day for night in coming here, I wake up at three or four in the morning. (It started out with four, and I’ve been inching backwards ever since. Soon, I’ll be waking up before I even get into bed.) I’m also me, and therefore wake up starving. So, I get up and make what I like to think of as “first breakfast.” First breakfast generally consists of toast, some fruit, and tea. Also, sometimes there is chapatti left over from dinner.

I managed to burn the toast today and,  as I watched smoke billow and swallow up the kitchen, I was comforted at the thought that few Indians have smoke alarms in their homes. It was just me and my burned toast–and not the whole household.

I opened the window, as you might imagine, and was immediately bitten on both feet by particularly vicious mosquitos, which got me to worrying about malaria risk, as I’m not taking any prophylaxis this time around. But this is not part of the usual routine.

After first breakfast, I write in my journal until it’s something a little closer to a decent hour. Then I go pester my girlfriend–at this point, I should probably give her a name, so let’s call her Nandhini–until the alarm goes off.

While Nandhini chops the vegetables for the day’s meals, I start my preparations for second breakfast,. Second breakfast consists of two boiled eggs, more toast and a different kind of fruit. Mercifully, I did not burn the toast at second breakfast today.

Over her chopping and my eating, we do speak, but not a lot. She isn’t a big talker in the morning, a quality I continue to love about her. I can carry on a conversation first thing in the morning, but only with tremendous effort.

After that, she gets ready for work and heads out for the day. I run what we call a “bath” around here (a full bucket of hot water, poured over the body with a small plastic pitcher). There is a shower, I think, but we’ve all decided it’s inferior. I’ve never even tried it.

My girlfriend’s father–whom we shall call Uncle–gets up around this time and begins sorting out various medicines while coughing up his spare lung. (He grows a new one nightly, I believe.) I ask him how he slept. He invariably tells me he always sleeps well, although I know this is not true. He was in the army when he was younger–the army years seem to be the years he felt most alive–and he would like to be the kind of person who always sleeps well, in any kind of conditions. So that’s what he says.

Meanwhile, I check my email and life here in blogland. The internet connection is slow, so this takes a long time–at least an hour. And then I post, as I’m doing now. Which also takes longer.

Sometimes there are also chores to do in the mornings. Today, I had a bit of hand-washing to attend to. (Red clothes = pink underwear. I’ve learned my lesson.) Yesterday, I lifted some heavy things in support of Diwali cleaning, which is a bit like Passover cleaning, only without the leavening issue. We’ll see what tomorrow holds.

When I can’t stay awake any longer, I go for a walk–the idea being that it’s hard to sleep when you’re upright. I hope I don’t end up being wrong about that. An Indian road is not my preferred place of collapse.

The day before yesterday, I crossed the bridge over the river and felt sad as various people stopped to throw plastic bags full of sacred things in. Why don’t we seem to have any sense? Looking at the river, can’t they see for themselves what becomes of their plastic bags? Plastic bags don’t, as it turns out, disintegrate into the ether. They remain. Or maybe they’re just thinking, what’s one more? But what did that kind of thinking ever get us? Does anyone think that about children? Or kidneys? Plastic bags are no less important.

But I walk that way because I like the birds. There are weaver nests in the trees, and cranes wade near the banks. This–despite the plastic bags.

Photo credit: Arul Horizon.
Photo credit: Arul Horizon.

Yesterday, I went the other way, to admire the shiny new exterior of the revived German Bakery and to wonder at the enormous Starbucks with terrible coffee. (I haven’t tried that either. I don’t think I will.)

Following my walk, I sleep. Usually for about three hours. Yes, I’m sure this is not helping with the waking up in the small hours of the morning issue. But the whole process seems to be out of my control.

Next, comes lunch. Or sometimes there is lunch and then sleep but mostly I don’t make it all the way until lunch. Lunch is made by Nandhini’s sister’s maid. The food is mostly quite decent. Yesterday was okra and stuffed chilis. The day before we were blessed with dal and two kinds of vegetables, including lotus root, which I hadn’t had before. I like new vegetables.

Unfortunately, Sister’s maid believes that dal should almost burn your mouth with salt. It’s rather a sad thing.

After lunch, I watch cricket with Uncle for a while–I believe they are having these things called test matches, but I’m not entirely sure. I don’t understand cricket beyond the idea that there are two players running at a time and you don’t knock the wicket over, but I’m starting to get the hang of a few things beyond that. Not so well that I can tell you about them, but give me a few days. Pakistan played South Africa yesterday. I have no idea who won.

Towards evening, Sister herself comes with Baby. Baby is eight months old and makes everybody happy. In fact, she’s about the only thing that makes everyone happy, as generally this is a cranky, rather than a contented household. For the time Baby is here, we all become lost in doing baby things–even Uncle makes little baby noises for Baby and Aunty sings very loudly and very badly. It’s quite charming really. I do my ironing in the evenings as well.

Around the time Sister and Baby leave, Nandhini returns. Nandhini makes dinner, or finishes up the cooking her mother has started. Tonight we are having Chinese-style noodles, which involves making a sauce out of several bottles of things that resemble ketchup but aren’t. I know it will be noodles because of vegetable chopping in the morning. They were noodle vegetables.

Over dinner, Aunty watches a Hindi soap opera which I only kind of understand and don’t pay much attention to. Afterwards, there isn’t really any washing up, as we save most of the dishes for the maid to do in the morning.

And then I go to bed, while Nandhini studies for her master’s degree program.

WEIRD People and Imagining the Minds of Others

WEIRD is the best new acronym I’ve run across in a while. I’m in love with it. I’m in love with the concept it represents. I’m in love with the fact that it confirms my own basic notions about the limitations of what we know about the mind. (Which means I may need to write a post about confirmation bias and come clean about a few things.)

WEIRD people frequently interpret the line on the left as being longer. San people aren't fooled.
WEIRD people frequently interpret the line on the left as being longer. San people aren’t fooled.

But, in the meantime, I’ll confess to you that I myself am WEIRD individual, from a Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democracy.. I am from the “slice of humanity” Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine, and Ara Norenzayan say most social and psychological research uses as subjects and is then, in many cases erroneously, generalized to the rest of the species.

As it turns out, WEIRD populations differ significantly from the rest of the world in how they think, not just in what they value or their cultural practices, but in other ways as well. In ways you might not even guess. From how we interpret converging lines to the inheritability of our intelligence, the WEIRD are weird. And Americans are the weirdest of all. We’re weird, but we assume that everyone else on the planet thinks more or less like us.

It makes we wonder something. Something I’ve already been wondering. How much do we use our own minds as models for understanding the minds of others? How well are we able to imagine someone else’s mind when it differs in some important way from our own. How much have do we make the mistake of idiosyncratic or culturally specific processes to others because our own minds are all we know?

I’ve been wondering this because it’s begun to dawn on me over this year of introspection that I’m not exactly like most other people around me. Not just because my dad saw locking me up in the freezer as a reasonable disciplinary action or because he forced me to kill a kitten with my bare hands as a second-grader, but for an entirely different reason that makes it hard for me to fathom the minds of others–and the difficulty seems to be mutual.

I’m unusually intelligent. That’s not a brag. It doesn’t make me special. I’m not sure it’s made my life any easier. It may have made it harder. I really don’t know. I don’t know what to make of it at all in fact.

I grew up, actually, feeling colossally stupid. “You think you’re so smart….” is the refrain I heard throughout my child, trotted out as I did something especially clumsy or ill-conceived. You know, when I put the phone in the freezer or dropped my ice cream.

I thought intelligence meant you knew everything all the time and did everything right. But I don’t know anything. The more I learn, the less I think I know. The more I know, the more I understand what I don’t know and what I can’t understand.

She's watching a LeapFrog educational video. I was just bored.
She’s watching a LeapFrog educational video. I was just bored.

But I remember spelling my first word when I was 2. It was CAT. I made it out of those letter magnets on the refrigerator. It could have been chance, but I don’t think I would remember the moment of spelling it if that’s all it had been. And it’s not all about reading, but language seems to be the area that giftedness shows up in first. I didn’t talk, but I read and I wrote. I remember my first 400 page book. The book was National Velvet. I was in first grade. The parent volunteer at the library almost didn’t let me have it. “Are you sure you can read this?” I think it took me a whole week.

Mainly, my mind makes my world more complex for me. It doesn’t make it easier. It doesn’t make finding answers automatic. But I find myself taking in more information from the world around me. Figuring anything out means sifting through what seems to be vastly greater amounts of data than anyone else seems to.

It’s not a big deal. I haven’t found a cure for cancer or won the Nobel peace prize. It’s just a difference. A difference like needing to wash your hands all the time or not getting social cues. And it probably means that when I do make decisions, it’s based on a more accurate assessment of the situation at hand, but I’ve realized that accuracy isn’t all that important. Most people get through the day and through their lives while making cognitive errors in every thought they have, every line of reasoning they pursue. I’m sure I do too, but perhaps less so. My point is that it doesn’t really matter.

What matters is the difference.

In the first place, it’s harder for me to understand the minds of those around me because I grew up around such aberrant thinking and behavior. From the cultish religion I was raised in, to my mentally ill family members, to the sociopathic world of sex trafficking, “average” is not something I had a lot of contact with. I sometimes expect selfishness and greed when there is none, or at least a lot less of it than I assume, because that’s the kind of mind I have known. Psychoanalysts call this transference, but it’s just a mental model of how minds work based on the minds I’ve known.

It’s doubly hard for me to understand because my world is so complex. I don’t have magic answers, but I have more facts. I don’t mean facts you learn through formal education or from your own brilliant research. I mean if I sit in a room and watch people for a while, I’ll come away having seen more and being able to remember more about those people than nearly anyone else would. And then I need to make sense of all that.

The point is that trying to understand the minds of those around me is sometimes especially difficult for me, because I’m using my own mind as a model. And mine is different. I suspect, in fact, that it’s difficult for all of us, but we don’t always realize it. We go on not seeing evidence that discomfirms our beliefs. The more different the minds of other are from our own, the more difficult understanding is.

I am reminded here of a post I can no longer locate from Aspertypical: that I recall saying it’s easy for neurotypicals to take the perspective of one another, because the way we think is fairly similar. It’s hard for neurotypicals to take the perspective of someone with Asperger’s Syndrome because it’s so different. We don’t know what it’s like to be that way. We can’t really imagine it.

The same might be true of being able to imagine the mind of someone very culturally different, or with a mental illness we’ve never had, or even profound trauma. If we haven’t thought that way before, it’s hard for us to see it in someone else.

Perspective-taking is partly about experience: our experience of others and of ourselves. Young teenagers find it extremely hard to understand the perspective of their parents: teens ascribe motives they themselves would have if they acted the same way as their parents do. So the parent who grounds a teen for poor grades isn’t assumed to be concerned with her welfare or for the future.The parent just wants to get back at the kid. Young teenagers have never had children before. They’ve never worried over anyone’s future before, and most of them have never waited up late for someone to come home. They don’t know what it’s like. And they haven’t been told in an authentic way what it’s like to be in that situation. So they don’t know. But they do understand wanting revenge. They see their own minds when they look at their parents.

7357Psychologists refer to this sort of self-referentiality as narcissism, but that term implies something about how we regard ourselves, an importance we assume we have. And that seems to distort the issue. Assuming everyone else is more of a cognitive limitation–a way in which we are just not that smart.

We do the best we can to imagine the mind of someone else, but that’s all it is: imagination. We can’t just climb in there to someone else’s head and have a look-see for ourselves. And if the only walls you’ve ever seen yourself were made out of rough-hewn logs, you might imagine that’s the only kind of wall there was. And that’s how we imagine the minds of others: as being made with the same logs our own are.

But sometimes they aren’t.

Further reading:

The Weirdest People in the World?

Four Steps of Perspective Taking

We Aren’t the World

Heuristics and Human Predators, or Why I Think I Can Just Let Some Things Go

Is forgiveness necessary?

I have asked that question before in Forgiveness. I don’t know the answer, but I can tell you the anger I continue to carry is uncomfortable for me. It is like a burden or a weight, this excess emotion, heavy and tiresome. Because of that, I continue to look for ways to get rid of it every time I notice its presence.

Forgiveness has begun to enter my mind as a possibility. But perhaps it isn’t forgiveness that is so necessary so much as understanding. And it’s hard for me to understand.

Not the atrocity of what was done to me. I understand that. I have spent my whole life around psychopaths and other very damaged, very abusive people. In the end, they haven’t been so difficult to get my head around.

It’s everyone else. Everyone who failed to act, who didn’t see, who turned a blind eye, who failed to intervene, who allowed it, who didn’t stop the abuse or rescue me from it.

And those later who failed to help me, who promised to help me and didn’t—mainly therapists, I suppose, who claimed to have an answer to my suffering but really just wasted my time—and not just one or two for a few sessions here and there. Half a dozen of them. For more than a decade.

I hold the rest of society responsible in a way I find it difficult to do with the perpetrators. Maybe this isn’t always the case, but my own perpetrators seem so lacking in what it takes to be human that it is difficult for me to fault them. Like lions, they seem wired to be predators. And they were very good ones.

If you have lions in your area, and you are a sensible person, you grow a lion-proof corral out of thorny bushes to protect your cattle. You don’t sit just sit around feeling mad at the lions.

So where was the lion-proof corral?

I had an epiphany recently, though, and that may help. I don’t know that it’s the most hopeful epiphany, and it may not be the one that helps you. The understanding that will help you is the one that makes sense to you, based on what you have seen and know of the world. This is the one that makes sense to me.

We’re a kluge. I’ve mentioned that before in Taggart, Near Death Experiences and our Klugey, Klugey Minds, and The Kluginess of the Human Mind. More importantly, we have significant limitations in our ability to process information. These limitations lead to cognitive errors. Cognitive errors are not the same as the cognitive distortions you might work on correcting with cognitive behavior therapy. Distortions are based on your specific history and your specific past. Errors are common to nearly everyone, and while you can try to be conscious of them, there is often not much that can be done to prevent them. They are just part of how our minds work.

Cognitive errors are mostly due to shortcuts we rely on to make information processing more efficient—heuristics. We need shortcuts because there is only so much we can pay attention to, remember, and draw conclusions from. We only have so much time to mull over everything we have ever experienced before we need to locate a pattern and decide what it means. Heuristics work in most situations, but cause errors in a smaller number of others. You can read more about them here or here.

Because of these errors, there are times when we fail to see what we don’t expect to see, even in the face of clear evidence.  I suspect that this played a part in the thinking of those who failed to act or protect me when I was young and most vulnerable.

Those who might have acted to protect me may have failed to see the extent to which I was being harmed because they did not expect it. The kind of abuse I suffered is almost unthinkable. It is not a part of our ordinary experiences, and it is not what we generally expect human beings do to one another. It is certainly not what we expect to see parents do to their own children.

There are things we don’t see because it is too painful to do so. And there are things we don’t see because knowing would require us to act. There are also things we don’t see because it would create an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. And then there are things we don’t see because we just can’t.

Others may not have seen what I was suffering because of all of those factors, or even just because of the last one.

And there may have been similar reasons why those who did act did not act effectively, and why we still don’t have adequate measures in place to protect our most vulnerable members from predatory individuals and groups.

As a culture, we typically have certain assumptions about how people think and behave. Because of our heuristics, we tend to notice evidence that supports those assumptions and ignore evidence that contradicts them. But our assumptions are rarely complete or accurate. They may help us understand most people and navigate most situations, but they leave out situations that are unusual or individuals with minds that are substantially different than average.

So, we may not see that some people lack conscience entirely. We don’t realize some people enjoy harming others for the sake of it. We don’t recognize these problems as being completely unfixable, or that people who lack conscience are often very ordinary-seeming, even charming. And we may not see how vulnerable we are to their manipulations. There is a great deal of evidence, for example, that most of us are extremely poor at detecting lying. And yet hardly any of us will admit to that. Also, we may not accept easily that punishment, reprimand, or counseling will not lead to any long-term change or improvement in individuals who lack conscience or empathy.

And that means we may not notice when someone like that is harming another person or harming a group of people. We may not see when we are being manipulated by someone who lacks conscience. And we may not act effectively to protect those who are unable to protect themselves.

It’s common to assume that people who engage in anti-social behavior are suffering deeply in some way. I have never seen any evidence of this, although I was surrounded by people exactly like that when I was growing up.

They do often express anger and articulate a sense of victimization. But I don’t think this is the same as actually suffering. Anger is a powerful emotion. I find anger unpleasant, but not everyone does and for some people anger can be intoxicating rather than troubling. And believing one is being victimized can satisfy a deep need to feel special.

So I tend to think that assuming harming others is always a cover for deep suffering is nothing more than that—an assumption. One we prefer to believe because it doesn’t challenge our basic ideas about the human mind: namely, that, at heart, we are all basically good people, we are capable of free will, and everyone can be redeemed.

I don’t think any of those things are true. Unlike dogs, some people really are predatory. Our ability to choose freely is limited by our perceptions, needs, and strong desires or feelings. A predator can choose not to harm others, but there is no real reason they ever would. Instead, I think our assumptions about the fundamentals of human nature arise through a heuristic—a shortcut. One that leaves us unable to respond effectively with our species’ outliers—but it was those outliers that I lived with everyday.

And it isn’t really a temporary problem. It’s an ongoing one—one that we may be able to make small inroads on over time, but our limitations are part of our condition as human beings.

We just aren’t that smart.

It’s hard to explain the emotion that comes with this perspective for me, because I’ve written all of this in a way that I think probably sounds very detached and clinical. But I don’t feel detached about it. I feel a terrible sense of sorrow, as if what it means to be human is in itself a matter of tragedy.

It is wonderful to be human. It is an astonishing privilege to be a part of creation in any way at all. But we are flawed in ways that make us vulnerable to harm from others and that cause us to form societies that are flawed in the same ways that we are.

We do the best we can most of the time. There is hope that we can do better, and there is some indication that we are doing better. Although there are now more individuals living in a state of enslavement than ever have before, slavery is at least no longer a legal condition. And although we continue to abuse our children, at least most churches do not actively advocate it any longer.  Despite the ongoing occurrence of genocide and group-based conflicts, at least we have begun to think about how to effectively intervene and prevent them.

And I also feel relieved about it, because I no longer feel compelled to hold anyone responsible. What happened to me was no one’s fault. And I can let go of that burden of anger at last.