Oversimplification 100%

I've started to write a project bio today – perhaps you know the sort of thing: a paragraph or two extolling what you contribute to whatever project you are joining. Much shorter than a CV, because it can just hint at a few of your valuable qualities, and the contexts in which you are confident. Useful simplification. But what about the areas in which you aren't confident? Personally, I lack confidence in emotionally-laden areas, including where other people have strong preferences, for how am I to handle them being upset? (Rhetorical question alert – I've already started writing about this in earlier entries under the heading of personal development.)

I've noticed in recent years that, according to many people, it is better only to do something when you are 100% about it. You know – you're supposed to get this feeling, or inner sense (which Peter Limberg has referred to as "Heaven, yeah!"). Which, I guess, is fine for those people for whom that works. And, indeed, it sounds great. If only I could have that degree of inner alignment! But if you're a self-doubting type of person, lacking in that emotional confidence that enables you to be sure of what you want to do, almost nothing – and certainly nothing complex, is 100%. Everything has its pros and cons; we are only too aware that fast-thinking instinct is often misguided; and when I engage in internal discernment, it is usually deliberation, weighing up the options. If I had to be 100% before acting, I might never get round to anything with emotional implications, and that would be an unbelievably, intolerably empty life. So actually I see this 100%-ism as being potentially dangerous. If a self-doubting person is persuaded that nothing is worthwhile unless they are 100%, that sounds to me perilously close to a prescription for depression.

Quakers (of whom I am one) have a traditional way around this. Yes, you do your individual discernment, which leads you to the feeling that you are “acting under concern”, but then you can take that concern to Friends, who can add a kind of collective intelligence (they don't call it that) to the discernment process. If a gathered Meeting is led to unite with your concern, you can be a lot more confident that it isn't just your ego or your trauma leading you up the garden path.

Some gifted people seem to have the ability for acute discernment by themselves. I reckon George Fox (the early Quaker) was one of those. But for most, when they “know” what they should do, sometimes, in some contexts, that might be reliable, but their lives suggest rather that their inner discernment process has holes in it, in other contexts. My inner discernment process is no more than rags when it comes to emotional matters, but rationality, that I can do!

Where does this spectrum of self-confidence and self-doubt come from? Of course there are some generic answers here. Personal history, particularly trauma, might be an influence, as might social norms, explicit or implicit, and they both interact with individual personality. But what matters more to me is that we make allowances across the whole spectrum, rather than the normative, one-size-fits-all assumption that the right way to be is able to accurately self-discern, and that if you can't do this it must be because of trauma, which you can work on in whatever approved way the speaker thinks fit. For me, what I have said for many years is that I need two things: openness and patience, to hold space and listen my deeper feelings into speech; and careful, kind but frank and honest feedback about how ego-bound those tentative personal discernings might be. And as always, it needs whoever is with me to be open to the possibility that it may be their blind spots in play in some cases.

So, when I read Peter Limberg's Apex Narcissist piece very recently, I felt a little uncomfortable. Yes, it deals with Trump and the recent ugly events in Washington DC. He writes “In my body, seeing the photos and watching the videos, I felt a sense of an aggressive aliveness, and a perverse excitement, …” and I wonder whether what follow on is rather not speaking plainly and simply enough, what we could call an undersimplification? Yes, the rest of his piece is critical, implying that rioting is not a good idea, but shouldn't we, in this case, be expressing a clearer line? It's Peter's thing to be non-partisan, sure. But here I sense a genuine danger of being misunderstood, in a way that someone else's oversimplifying, fast thought process can take as support for destructive action.

(Later …) Let me spell that out more clearly, as Ria didn't think it was clear enough. To me, someone who is not paying deep attention to what Peter is saying could think “ah, aliveness, excitement, let's try that and join the mob! Let's join the revolution!” What I would hope Peter to say is something more like “Okay, I feel that aliveness and excitement, but for heaven's sake don't join in with a mob, that is likely to lead to worse things for everyone. And it just contributes to ‘the spectacle’. Instead, focus that feeling of aliveness and excitement on withdrawing from ‘the spectacle’, and doing things differently.” And spell out more of what that might mean. There's no lack of that kind of positive thinking on the Stoa (however long that might last).

Peter refers again to the book and concept, Empire, but worryingly seems to be seeing Trumpism as a force acting against the implicitly evil ‘Empire’. I want to point out that 5th order dialogue cannot compete head-to-head with tribalism and tribal violence. It's all very well for the privileged to look on calmly as things head towards collapse, but how is that good or loving towards the less privileged, who are likely to suffer most from any collapse?

I do, though, feel in tune with what I understand as at least one of the major premises of Empire: that we should not focus on competing, but on withdrawing and building an alternative. Withdraw from ‘the spectacle’, yes. To me, that is the same in essence as Secession from the broadcast. That powerful piece seems to me to have the same values, the same logic.

I started out having in mind the problems that arise through oversimplification, and in particular the idea that we should be 100% about decisions to act. But naturally this too is an oversimplification. I say now, let us take care to adapt our level of simplification to the context, and to the other people in there. That's one skill that I am grateful to have picked up a little of through being a schoolteacher.

Topics: Complex psychology; Current affairs

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