27 April 2007

The possibility I am living into is...

The possibility that I am living into is having enthusiastic people living passionate lives in a joyful society. The key to making this a global reality is understanding and supporting everyone to have access to optimal states of mind. If you review all of the world’s philosophical and psychological literature you can boil it all down to our fundamental moral obligation. Our fundamental moral obligation is to do no harm and help when we can. All the rest is commentary. I understand both the nature of both harm and help in terms of optimal states of mind.

You cause harm if you prevent someone from having access to optimal states of mind. The obvious case of harm is physical violence. If you attack someone and damage them physically you are creating certain states of mind in them. The most likely states are pain, anger, fear, and many others that are non-optimal. There is a small chance that their mind might enter an optimal state, but that would be unlikely except in a specially trained mind, such as that of a martial artist or other warrior-type. Harm can also take the more subtle forms of severe poverty, an oppressive work environment, or emotional turmoil.

You can help someone by facilitating them to have access to optimal states of mind. The obvious case of help is medical treatment. If you provide someone who is injured with the means to heal their injury, or alleviating severe pain, then you are causing a change in the state of their mind. The most likely states that will result are relief, rest, clarity of mind, and many others that are more optimal than pain and anguish.

It is the less obvious cases that make it more challenging to distinguish help and harm. It may not be so clear with a parent who sets what they believe to be a safety boundary for their teenager and then receives a reaction from their teenager that gives every appearance of pain and anguish at what they believe to be a hindrance to their budding sense of maturity and self-determination. In this case both sides may have legitimate concerns.

The greatest challenge in each life and as a society is figuring out how to meet our fundamental moral obligations to prevent harm and provide help. Resolving the differences of opinion is paramount. The fundamental political and social problem we have today is the conflict of two value systems that disagree on how to prioritize certain values. Both value systems include the value pairs of empathy/ responsibility and strength/obedience but disagree which should be put in a higher position as a means of thinking about making political and social decisions. Another difference between the two value systems is that when strength/obedience is placed as a higher priority responsibility tends to be thought of as simply and directly caused by individuals without significant regard for the emergent effects of group dynamics. On the other hand, placing empathy and responsibility as a higher priority tends to enable a more systemic view of how complex the causes of individual behavior can be.

In my experience resolving differences can only truly happen when we choose to be in communication, in communion, in community with both the person who disagrees and with all the relationships that are at stake when a course of action is taken (and other possible courses are ignored.) Making this assertion about the necessity of communication and accounting for the relationship as a significant party to the decision is a declaration of empathy and responsibility as defining core values along with universally held values such as fairness, freedom, equality, and justice.

I choose to put empathy and responsibility as higher values than strength and obedience because when push comes to shove if strength and obedience take precedence then the relationship will be sacrificed to preserve the relative social and/or political position of the participants in the conflict. This is true because the strength/obedience perspective does not recognize the relationship as a meaningful factor and therefore cannot anticipate the emergence of effects that are totally unpredictable based solely on the known qualities of individuals.

Let me illustrate this with a story from my teaching practice: I remember when one of my first students was about 6 or 7 years old and his parents expressed concern about his reading skills. I’ll call him Keith. His parents had never married nor lived together and his Dad was just becoming a significant part of his life for the first time. With the time he spent as my student he effectively had three different places of significance in his life, two families and a school. When his parents expressed concern for his reading skills I was a little surprised because when I was with him he seemed to have pretty good skills for his age. Under the circumstances I chose to simply accept their concern at face value and inquired further of each parent separately to find out what their expectations and observations were.

I suspect you could not find three situations with more different expectations of the same person. His Mom was single and working with Keith as her only child. She was a supreme nurturer and for her reading was a full-on nurturing opportunity. Keith showed a lot of interest and needed a lot of help. Her concern was that he seemed to be very slow at becoming independent with his skills.

Dad on the other hand was all about showing strength and independence. He expected Keith to not only know how to read but to be able to demonstrate his ability in front of everyone in the family on command. For his Dad, Keith was a complete non-reader. He failed to perform even the most basic reading skills and persistently resisted anything to do with it.

For me Keith was a budding reader who was curious about it when it suited his needs and had a voracious appetite for acquiring the skills necessary to become independently able to fulfill his needs.

To make my point: First of all, there are no individual villains in this story. Every single one of the four characters; Keith, Mom, Dad, and myself are all doing exactly what we believe is going to be most helpful for Keith to be a good, healthy, and wholesome person. The situation is one that is complex not simple.

If you take the normal operating assumptions of the strength/ obedience value system then the cause of Keith’s behavior is simply and directly caused by his choices. If it is true that he was making direct conscious choices then you would have to conclude that he is a malicious manipulator of his parents based on my observations of his behavior with me. However, this particular child is one whom I knew for many years and no one, least of all his parents, would ever believe that of him. The only reasonable explanation I can come up with for his behavior is the emergence of three different group dynamics that affected him and contributed to the apparent disparity in his reading skills.

After investigating the situation I consulted with the parents separately about how to address what they perceived as a problem with his reading skills. I pointed out the disparity in his reading behaviors and explained that they needed to look at their own attitude about reading and also consider how their expectations about reading may be affecting their relationship with their son. With this guidance they were both able to reflect on their priorities and make a positive shift in their relationships with Keith.

In the final analysis I believe that both parents were making the same mistake from different values. They were both looking at Keith’s reading behavior as if it was caused by a set of simple and direct factors. In their view, if I could manipulate Keith in some way, either impart a skill more effectively than they had, or else influence him to make different choices, then he would be O.K. The truth is that his behavior was not the result of simple and direct causes. It was a system of causes that the parents had much more control over than I did and it was much easier and more effective to influence them than it would have been to attempt to influence Keith. In this case the optimizing of Keith’s state of mind around reading was achieved through changing the social systems around him not changing him.

The possibility I am living into is enthusiastic people living enthusiastic lives in a joyful society. The key to making this a global reality is understanding and supporting everyone to have access to optimal states of mind. We need to learn to see relationships as a factor in the equation, not just the individuals who are in relationship. The only way we are going to achieve these outcomes is to actively seek to understand the complexity of the world as best we can and to consistently act on and express how the core values of empathy and responsibility are the best way to meet our fundamental moral obligations to prevent harm and help when we can.

[Also posted on VisualizePossibilities.com]

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