Our Experiences of the World are Unique to Us

I often find myself extending my own experiences and feelings to other people, and assuming that other people have the same thoughts, reactions, and expectations about the world that I have. I know that this is not the case since I don’t enjoy watching much television, I am really interested in politics from a policy side, and get really excited about exercising and running (three traits of mine that I know set me apart from most people). Nevertheless, it is hard for me to remember that everyone is experiencing the world differently, and thinking about and interpreting what goes on around them in a different lens. Michelle Alexander looks at this reality in her book The New Jim Crow, specifically when she addresses economic changes and the way that people experience disruptive technology and market changes.

In her book, Alexander looks at the impact that policies and decisions have had on different races throughout our nation’s history and she specifically looks at the disparate impact that policies have had for black people relative to white people. What is important to consider when thinking about what we can learn from her writing is that our subjective experiences are just that, subjective. Other people will experience and have different reactions to the same economic and cultural realities. We must consider what this means from an equity and racial perspective, especially if we want everyone in our society to participate and have a chance to be socially and economically successful.

When our economy shifted in the 1970s and we implemented policies to help people adapt, we did so from a single point of view with a single group of people in mind. Changes in our economy had different implications for black people who had already been left out of societal progress. Alexander writes,

“As described by William Julius Wilson, in his book When Work Disappears, the overwhelming majority of African Americans in the 1970s lacked college educations and had attended racially segregated, underfunded schools lacking basic resources. Those residing in ghetto communities were particularly ill equipped to adapt to the seismic changes taking place in the U.S. economy; they were left isolated and jobless.”

I don’t have advice for how to best help those who are vulnerable to economic change and disruptive technology as it is not something I have ever looked into or studied. Technological change and advancement in many ways seems inevitable and while many individuals can potentially be left behind, many more have a chance to better themselves and their lives with the adoption and inclusion of new technologies. What we should do better, at least what I know I must do better, is understand that my perspective is limited and does not encompass the experiences and realities other people. At the end of the day we, and our politicians, must make decisions, and we must do the best with the information we have. What I feel challenged by, and what I think we should all challenge ourselves with, is incorporating more views than our own thoughts and reactions when making decisions. We must be careful and recognize when we are generalizing our thoughts and experiences to the larger population. Becoming more considerate means recognizing when we are thinking from only one perspective and making broad assumptions about other people. We do eventually need to make a decision and come to a conclusion, but we must make sure that decisions is based on more than just our own subjective experiences.
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Exchanging Ideas with Others

“Today, I’m of the opinion that if you want to reach someone, to really communicate in a language they understand and trust, you have to be more flexible.” Colin Wright expresses this idea early in his book Come Back Frayed to introduce some of the changes he has experienced in the mediums we use to communicate in the 21st century.

 

Wright’s book is an exploration of his time spent living in the Philippines, detailing how he has learned to adjust to challenging climates, new cultures, and new demands on his time as an author connected to the world in a sea of evolving media. “There was a time when people who watched videos online were a mystery to me, and I was content to write words I hoped to someday convince someone to read. There was a time when I felt my writing, vocabulary encoded with twenty-six bit alphabetic iconography, was the sole practical and relevant mechanism I had of presenting and exchanging ideas with others.”

 

Together his quotes show the varied nature of communication today, and the importance of learning to reach people through a variety of channels and formats. My blog started as simply a means for me to return to my reading and to think more deeply about passages that initially stood out to me, and so I never thought of trying to reach others and amass an audience. But communicating with others is something I enjoy to do and intend to make part of my future career. Learning to use and understand different formats of media will help me not just send a message to other people, but to understand others in a more profound way.

 

What I truly enjoy about the quotes above from Wright, is that his goal is not to reach more people through new technology just to drive his content and sell people more stuff. Wright’s goal is to actually exchange ideas with other people. I am not good at social media and dislike the quickness with which a lot of our thinking and decision making is done today, but the tools we have certainly do allow us to exchange new ideas in new manners.

 

I think there are areas where individuals can change their habits of consumption, and groups can change their methods of delivering ideas to increase knowledge and help improve perceptions and relationships across society.

 

I am studying toward a Masters in Public Administration through the Political Science Department at the University of Nevada, but one certainly does not need to study politics to see that the general public is distrustful of technocratic knowledge delivered from policy think-tanks considered out of touch with our mainstream population. Better understanding of how we can use our technology as individuals to find helpful information and avoid information silos can reduce this resentment, but at the same time, a better understanding of the ways people communicate today will help academics, policy researchers, and people in government administration better share their ideas, thoughts, challenges, and perspectives with the general public in a way that can build new foundations of trust.

 

Like Wright, the goal must be to further develop the exchange of information and to develop greater knowledge on the end of the person delivering the message as well as the person consuming the message. A driving goal of increased profits would ultimately lead Wright to failure, but a mission of flexible learning will open new perspectives to lead to true development. This idea is true for Wright, and may be true for agencies, companies, researchers, and others who want their thoughts to have a greater impact on the planet.

The Ruling Faculty

Marcus Aurelius placed his ruling faculty, or the conscious and rational ability of his brain above all else in his life.  He focused on maximizing his rational ability and strove to bring a sense of awareness and intentionality to all aspects of his conscious being. To him, recognizing the power and control that he held over his rational brain meant that he had the ability to shape his life by changing his opinions, ideas, perspectives, and thoughts of the world around him.  In Meditations he wrote about how one could recognize and take charge of their conscious and how one could view the world from greater perspectives.  Aurelius wrote, “What is my ruling faculty now to me? And of what nature am I now Making it? And for what purpose am I now using it? Is it void of understanding?” By framing his conscious decision making ability in this way he was able to put power for his life and his actions into his own hands, or rather into his own rational brain. He looked at the world and saw himself as the primary actor driving the decisions and actions of his life.

 

This quote is valuable to me because I often feel as though my life is being driven and pulled in multiple directions without my consent or ability to shift and change course.  In our busy worlds of 40 hour work weeks, we may often begin to feel as though our routine is set with external forces determining what decisions we make and how we realize those actions.  Throughout Meditations Aurelius writes about the importance of being aware of our actions and retaining control over our rational brain, but in the quote above he shows us exactly how he practiced developing a rational brain.

 

Simply asking ourselves questions and focusing on ourselves wont create the lives we want to lead, but if we can build Aurelius’ questions into every fabric of our being, then we can begin to morph our lives into something greater.  Recognizing that we have the ability to be rational beings and that we have the ability to control our lives through the thoughts and perspective we adopt, will help us to build powerful habits that allow us to constantly grow.  The self-awareness that stems from the constant questioning of how we are applying the rational faculties of our mind will slowly allow us to ensure that we are always making decisions for reasons that are deliberately judged and not based in impulsivity.

Living Without Error

In his writing Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius reflected the ideas of stoicism and the lessons the philosophy taught him throughout his life. He valued the power of the rational mind, and was constantly looking for ways to better understand his own faculties so that he could better control his mental state and his perception of the world.  Through self-awareness and an ability to focus on the present, Aurelius was able to gain power over his mind by taking the control of his thoughts away from other people, objects, and events around him.  In regards to the strength of ones mind and becoming a complete individual, Aurelius wrote, “The third thing in the rational constitution is freedom from error and from deception.  Let then the ruling principle holding fast to these things, go straight on, and it has what is its own.”

 

When I first read this quote I left myself a note that I think sums up the idea presented by Aurelius in this quote and throughout his book, Meditations, in a powerful way. “He is not saying that the mind is free from making errors, but that it is free from living with those errors. The rational mind can understand an error and then chose the reaction to that error with which it lives.”  What I was trying to capture in my synopsis of the Emperor’s quote is the idea that the mind and the power of our rational thoughts decide how we will be affected by the mistakes that occur in our life. The mind can chose what will be learned from, what will shape our decisions, and what will be carried with us for the future.  The mind is in control of interpreting events and errors and choosing how they will be folded into the mess of experiences and decisions that make us who we are.

 

What separates Aurelius from other thinkers is his beliefs of what the mind is capable of doing when sorting out the events and histories of our lives.  Unlike today when it is common for us to regard our past mistakes and histories as baggage, Aurelius saw our past as nothing more than experience one could view through evolving lenses of the past.  Our mistakes and previous decisions do not have to hang around us and be carried with us constantly weighing us down and impeding our progress.  The mind is capable of recognizing its own decisions and thoughts, and the mind is capable of freeing itself from the past by controlling what it does with the experiences (both good and bad) from our lives.

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.

Influenced

In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius focuses on the power of our minds and how we can change our thoughts to improve the way we move through the world.  He focuses on self-awareness and the importance of recognizing how we behave and react to things and events in our lives. By taking control of our thoughts and actions we give ourselves the power to guide our life in a way that is the most productive and helps us be the best possible version of ourselves.

 

When it comes to our behaviors and reactions Aurelius writes, “It is in our power to have no opinion about a thing, and not to be disturbed in our soul, for things themselves have no natural power to form our judgements” (emphasis mine).  What Aurelius is saying in this quote is that we can decide how we will react to events in our world and that we shape the way that our lives play out. In the general course of our lives we can change the way we think about and perceive events that we deem to be negative if we can refocus our thoughts and find a positive perspective.

 

Changing our thoughts means that we have to recognize that no event and no thing has power over our individual faculties of mind. We always have control over our mind even if we have lost all else.  Certainly this is a great challenge during major life challenges like illness, foreclosure, and death, but recognizing your own ability to control your faculties of mind can help give you a stillness during the tempest, and return power to your situation.  Aurelius argues that this ability allows us to abandon the idea that something is either good or bad, and gives us the skill to evaluate the world in a more complete manner.  It is in our power to decide whether we think something is good or bad, an it is up to us to determine how any event or item impacts our life.

Opinion and Perception

“Take away thy opinion, and there is taken away the complaint, “I have been harmed.” Take away the complaint, “I have been harmed,” and the harm is taken away.”

 

This is one of the short passages that Marcus Aurelius wrote down in his common place book in the second century, and it is one of my favorite quotes in the work which was published after his death as Meditations.  His views and ideas about stoicism are shared throughout his writing, and the quote above is one of the best examples of what stoicism is, and how it can be implemented in our lives.  Taking control of the mind is a central part of stoicism, and controlling our thoughts leads to better actions, controlled behavior, and choices that lead to better life outcomes.

 

Aurelius’ quote above shows how important our thoughts and perceptions can be.  It shows how frequently we filter everything in our lives through a good or bad lens, and what we are truly doing when we look at the world in such a way.  How we respond and what we think is very often shaped by how we perceive an event. If we think that something is good while it is happening or being said, then we are more likely to be moved to participate with it. When someone says something that we view as being wrong or negative, we react by pushing against what was said and holding ourselves in opposition to the individual or group that said it.

 

For Aurelius, the stoic emperor, the goals was to live without opinion and to be able to open perspective to take in all angles of an event.  He strained to see the world objectively by taking away his opinion, and examining the world in the way it is, and not how he wanted it to be.  This is never an easy task as it does not eliminate all perspective, but it helps us begin to see things and think about things from the perspective of others. Abandoning opinion and not needing to deem every situation or occurrence as good or bad allows us to grow and connect with others in new ways. We become better at understanding the motives and actions of others, and we can make better decisions that do not intentionally ostracize or damage another.