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February 8th, 2019
The word obvious is defined as ‘easily perceived or understood; clear, self-evident, or apparent’
This is obvious to anyone familiar with the word.
What is more interesting are the implications of the etymology. From the late 16th century in the sense ‘frequently encountered,’ from the Latin phrase ‘ob viam’ meaning ‘in the way’.
We might spend a moment thinking of things that are frequently encountered. But this category requires some tempering, due to the fact that our attention does not gravitate equally to all things. For example our attention is more efficient at detecting negative emotions or threats than it is with things that have positive association. In this sense, ‘what is frequently encountered‘ is already skewed. The way this might play out in the ‘real’ world is that when we scroll through some sort of social media feed, we are more likely to pick up on negative stories simply because our attention is more efficient at picking these out. This creates a problem for our understanding of reality. Negative items that we come across are automatically encountered more frequently, not because they actually are more frequent, but simply because our efficiency with detecting them makes it seem like they are more frequent.
Another example of this discussion of obvious as a function of what is frequently encountered is digital advertising. Because of the addictive nature of screen technology, it provides an attention portal through which to bombard someone’s consciousness with ads for a particular product or service. How many times do we see an ad before clicking on it? If encountered enough times, the probability of clicking on that ad goes up and up.
Any person or company that can out-spend the competition on the battle front of digital advertising will win, simply because their product becomes –literally- the more obvious choice because it’s simply the most frequently encountered choice.
It’s important to note the insidious connotation this phrase has. The Obvious Choice, is not necessarily the best choice, though this is exactly what the phrase means in our current cultural parlance. It goes to figure that if the obvious choice were always the best choice or the right choice, we would all be living much better lives. Life is made of choices and making better choices leads to a better life. Unfortunately, making the obvious choice clearly does not lead to a better life. But this counter-intuitive approach to the concept is, appropriately enough, not too obvious.
This is why the meme “common sense is not so common” evokes the ironic response of common agreement and general head-nodding from everyone. The first conclusion one might draw from this rather humorous phenomenon is that some people who agree with this sentiment don’t know what they’re talking about - in fact any agreement with such a sentiment carries this conclusion that some large set of other people are foolish to think as they do. A conclusion that is perhaps more nuanced might examine the fact that no two people can possibly occupy the same perspective, and therefore the understanding that each person carries around is quite valid based on the totality of their experience, circumstance and atomic makeup. The counter-intuitive extension of this second conclusion is that a healthy engagement with other people requires thinking more about the systems that exist between and around people instead of the perspective they may be attempting to assault us with.
This is NOT the obvious choice when it comes to common conversation. Today’s conversation is characterized more by an identification of what is wrong with other people or their views instead of an exploration of what might be contributing to the generation of such views. Our idea of common sense is often likewise invoked by the seemingly dumb actions and decisions on the part of others. We witness some strange behavior and think or exclaim “don’t they have any common sense?”.
Wisdom is perhaps appropriately and ironically defined as being able to simply follow one’s own advice. Unfortunately, when it comes to our behaviors that we’d like to change, the wise choice is not the obvious choice, for the simple fact that we have not frequently encountered that version of ourselves that makes the better choice. And here in lies the rub: to make that difficult and wiser choice enough times so that our new behavior begins to inhabit the category of ‘frequently encountered’. Once we’ve sat and meditated enough days in a row, or gone to the gym enough days in a row, or reached for the healthier food options enough days in a row, these options start to become: the obvious choice.
This episode references Episode 163: What the Fool Believes.
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