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September 12th, 2020
If you woke up and found yourself in a completely different reality governed by beings you could not even see nor hear nor even conceive and they asked you to describe your world, how would you do it? Would you start talking about how unfair the current leaders of your tribe are, and perhaps name people who are popular today and perhaps the ways we all sort of intermingle with one another despite the resistance we have toward one another. Or, would you start by describing general things like a force that sticks you to the ground, and an invisible substance that you suck into your body during every other moment of your life and the heat and light that comes from a lofty celestial source that rises and falls and lapses into darkness once a day?
This later one could just as easily sound like an archaic religious system as it is a quasi description of physics as we experience it. It’s clear the first description regarding mostly people and the ways we interact requires a much larger context in order to understand. And of course one description is quite dependant on the other. The celestial bodies would still turn and hurtle through space without humans to witness it, but humans would be unable to evolve and witness anything without the turn and hurtle of celestial bodies.
Notice how staggeringly incomplete it is to describe reality through the lens of personal identity. Take for instance political affiliation as a subfield of personal identity: is a thorough summary of the current warring political parties a good measure of the constituents of reality? How does such a description fair in comparison to something politically charged like changes in atmospheric composition, which would, should, or could veer away from reality as understood through personal identity..
A full description would inevitably include both as they are both aspects of the reality we experience. The importance of juxtaposing them, however, is to examine the disproportionate way such views of reality actually occupy our view of reality.
We are, on the whole, far more consumed with a description and view of reality as filtered through the lens of personal identity. Other considerations like atmospheric conditions or the actual statistics of a given controversial event are often one step removed since the cultural component of these topics is primary. The “facts” of a situation often don’t even make it into the conversation because we are too busy painting and repainting our own narrative of the world with attempts to repaint the narratives of others who are likewise trying to do the same to “us”.
There exists a simple explanation why we have such a difficult time focusing our collective conversation on a cold and sober exploration of facts, and it’s best introduced by a quote attributed to a dictator who was responsible for an extraordinary amount of death.
Joseph Stalin is popularly attributed with saying:
The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.*
Sad, no doubt, but perhaps true. The human mind just can’t relate to the concept of a million. And what exactly does it mean to relate to a concept? The tragedy of a single person is relatable primarily, and perhaps exclusively because it evokes a strong emotional reaction. Statistics, on the other hands rarely, if ever evoke an emotional reaction. Strangely, it requires a a good deal of cognitive horsepower to really grasp the meaning of important statistics in a way that can have an emotional impact. On the other hand, most of our emotional reactions, as we might have by witnessing the death of a single person, are automatic reactions. These are built in responses that don’t require any work to have. Whereas the cognitive effort required to understand a statistic on an emotional level is far greater.
This is why our narrative about reality is most often fuelled and filtered through a lens of personal identity. If personal identity in current times can be summed up as anything, it’s probably fair to say it’s a collection of those things that are most likely to make us emotional.
How many people consider the laws of gravity as part of their personal identity? Very few indeed, despite the fact that gravity is vital for our daily functioning. But of course this is because gravity isn’t something that we can easily get emotional about. Just imagine that: an impassioned and raging debate full of emotional hysterics regarding gravity. This perhaps happens in certain scientific laboratories and perhaps at a physics convention here and there, but if this somewhat hilarious event made it on to mainstream media, most people would barely even blink at it. Now flip the narrative and think about all the impassioned hysterics that fill our view of the world. How much of it is fleeting, and how much of it is based in facts that actually reflect the wider status of reality? If we weren’t so easily triggered by such topics, how might our actions regarding such topics be different? Would our choices be… wiser?
Much growth and learning is simply the ability to properly regulate one’s emotions. Learning, for example, can be boiled down to the way a person deals with the experience of confusion. If the default reaction to confusion is frustration and impatience, chances are learning is going to be slow with a high likelihood of stopping altogether. If, on the other hand an individual reacts to a confusing subject with curiosity, the chances that person makes headway is much higher.
We might reframe this topic of emotional regulation in the context of personal identity and how that becomes our filtered narrative of reality. It’s plainly obvious that little if any emotions regarding our most triggering issues are being well regulated if regulated at all.
We hinder ourselves in the absence of such regulation. The clearest and most effective path only becomes visible and apparent when we are calm, passive and at peace. Strangely, our impassioned emotional reaction is a self-defeating response - it is more likely to hinder our ability to make things better and resolve the issue that is causing such strong emotions.
So often, in this wide rambling game of human discourse, the issue that triggers us the most and to the greatest degree is, oddly and simply, the narratives of others.
*The sentiment behind the quote most often attributed to Stalin was most likely the creation of a Geman Journalist named Kurt Tucholsky.