Over the past year, Iâ€™ve posted the first eight installments (seven chapters and an excursis) of my unpublished book, THE RIVER AND ITS CHANNEL. Itâ€™s a book of which I feel very fond, and one that continues to excite me (and one whose failure to find a publisher I grieve). Iâ€™m glad that it has been grabbed at least some of you as well.
Here now, for your possible weekend reading, is chapter 8. (One interesting segment of this chapter is an exploration of the nature of creativity.)
The overarching question with which THE RIVER AND ITS CHANNEL is concerned might be stated: Is there something that we can trust to see that what unfolds in our lives and in the world is as it should be, or are we wise to try to impose our will and intention to make things happen as they should happen?The book itself works by weaving together two levels: the telling of a story and the exploration of ideas. How the story unfolds is in itself organically connected with how the ideas get clarified.
ADVENTURES IN THE EXCLUDED MIDDLE
It felt like a significant shift in my project. From celebrating the unfolding side of things in preference to the controlling, I began now to explore how it might be that beauty and wisdom emerge out of the ways the two sides get combined in the dance. The project itself had been unfoldingâ€“ and this, too, was a kind of dance that melded the unpredictable flows of sheer discovery with the more structured process of critical analysis. In the wake of this shift, I now I felt some need to regain my bearings.
For help in this, I sought out companionship, contacting people who might help me sort out the ways that we should allow things to unfold and the ways where we should impose our intentions and purposes. The search for such companionship was not an unmitigated success.
I soon entered into a conversation with a new acquaintance on the question of how much of the mindâ€™s creative work gets conducted beneath the surface of awareness, springing forth out of places in the mind not governed by conscious intention.
As Iâ€™ve already related, Iâ€™d been thinking about the way Iâ€™d sometimes awaken in the night with ideas useful for my work, and about how sometimes the best way to advance my current project would be to set it aside and do something altogether different, like splitting wood or going for a walk. Originally Iâ€™d just seen this as one of the miracles of pure unfolding, a gift from the depths that showed how, in creative work, the controlling aspects of the mind could be irrelevant, or even an impediment. But then, after contemplating the contrast between Maraâ€™s needing to establish structure versus my own need to loosen it up, I considered a new possibility: perhaps, even in these visits from my creative muse, the purposeful aspects of my mind were still playing an essential role.
To explore this part of the dance further, I contacted Sam, an academic psychologist I knew. Samâ€™s area of expertise included the decision-making process, a subject which Iâ€™d imagined might belong in my unfolding project. So Iâ€™d previously sought his response to an idea of mine that perhaps the best way of making decisions was not to lay out a whole course of action but rather to take things a step at a time, positioning oneself to maximize the possibilities for unfolding dialogue between oneself and events in the world. Our conversation then had been incomplete, but it was clear that he was less than blown away with this notion of mine. Iâ€™d not tried to contact him again till now, when I decided heâ€™d be a good person to bring in on my thinking about the mysteries of the muse.
â€œThe phenomenon youâ€™re talking about,â€ he wrote back in response to my email to him, â€œis called incubation. Or perhaps I should say â€˜purported phenomenon.â€™ According to this notion, even when youâ€™re not trying consciously to do anything, the mind is at work solving problems. Your image of the shoemakerâ€™s elves,â€ he continued, making reference to my emailâ€™s use of that fairy-tale metaphor I liked so much, â€œcaptures the idea quite nicely. Unfortunately, however, I donâ€™t think thereâ€™s really anything to this â€˜incubationâ€™ business.
â€œTrue, people often will report how â€“after setting aside a problem they were stymied byâ€“ they hit upon some solution, upon their return, superior to anything that seemed at hand before the break. They intuit that if theyâ€™d stayed on task instead of going on the break theyâ€™d not have thought of anything so good. Fair enoughâ€“ that sounds real.
â€œBut the interpretation thatâ€™s often put on this â€“that unbeknownst to themselves, while they were otherwise engaged, their unconscious minds were hatching that solution to the problemâ€“ doesnâ€™t seem valid. Thereâ€™s no real evidence to support it.
â€œWhat is probably actually going on is something else: taking a break makes possible a â€˜fresh start.â€™ In other words, when people are getting nowhere with a problem, theyâ€™re often stuck in the rut of a misguided approach. Continuing to push, in that situation, might well mean staying stuck in that wrong track. But taking a break gives them a chance to let go of that fixation, so that when they come back to the problem they can start freshly and find some new trail that leads on to success.
â€œThat makes a lot more sense to me than the notion of incubation. SAMâ€
â€œDear Sam,â€ I wrote in return, â€œI donâ€™t doubt that the â€˜fresh startâ€™ idea can be a factor in what happens when people stop pushing and take a break, but this doesnâ€™t seem like the whole picture. Indeed, when it comes to uncovering the mysteries of the mindâ€™s creative capacities, I donâ€™t think itâ€™s the heart of the matter.
â€œFor example, let me tell you about the aspect of my own creative process thatâ€™s central to my image of this â€˜incubation process,â€™ as you call itâ€“ though Iâ€™m hardly the only one whoâ€™s had this kind of experience. Iâ€™m referring to the way I awaken at night with ideas that substantially advance my thinking on some problem Iâ€™ve been engaged with during the day. This happens especially when the work is at its most intense.
â€œItâ€™s hard to see how a fresh start is involved here. After all, itâ€™s not as though Iâ€™m returning to the old task after some time off. Iâ€™m not even consciously attending to the task at all. Iâ€™m sleeping. So something else has got to be involved. Is it not evident that, without my making any conscious decision to address the task, or even being consciously engaged with it, some part of my mind is still working away on it, like the shoemakerâ€™s elves, while my conscious self sleeps? ANDYâ€
â€œYouâ€™re right, Andy, in saying that youâ€™re not alone in this experience. But I also think youâ€™re not alone in being attached to the appealing notion that somehow there must be some mysterious forces at work here, that youâ€™ve entered some fairy-tale realm of elves, some mythological domain where muses cavort around in see-through garments. All very appealing, but wholly unsubstantiated.
â€œWhatâ€™s more likely happening here is that, upon your awakening, some random image from your chaotic sleeping mind serves to spark some useful thought in your conscious and now-awakened mind. Out of the random workings of your unconscious mind, simply by chance one may arise that your purposeful mind recognizes as useful for addressing the problem youâ€™d been working on. SAMâ€
When I read that, I didnâ€™t know what to think. It seemed to me that Sam was going out of his way â€“contorting himself, evenâ€“ to maintain that â€œheadquartersâ€ is in command of all the mindâ€™s successful operations. What did this insistence signify? And was there still hope that Sam would prove a useful companion in my exploring the new dance-of-the-elements approach? I wasnâ€™t sure on either score, but I decided that Iâ€™d continue to engage with him about these issues, to see whether I might spark creative engagement in some possibly neglected part of Samâ€™s mind.
What I decided to do was to share with Sam a passage Iâ€™d recently discovered, describing the central creative moment in the life of one of the pre-eminent American scientists of the century, Freeman Dyson. It seemed a clear case of some sort of incubation at work. And though I would make no claim to understand how such a thing happens, I figured that once itâ€™s conceded that such things do happen, thereâ€™s no escaping the question of just how these mysteries occur. Maybe Sam would come on board in response to Dysonâ€™s story.
â€œIn his account,â€ I said in my next email to Sam, â€œDyson describes how he immersed himself in two different ideas that related to some central problem then pre-occupying his field in physics. â€˜I spent six months working very hard to understand both of them clearly,â€™ Dyson writes, and then he tells how â€˜at the end of six months, I went off on a vacationâ€¦ and spent a couple of weeks just bumming around.â€™ And hereâ€™s how the climax of the story comes: â€˜After two weeks in California, where I wasnâ€™t doing any work, I was just sight-seeing, I got on the bus to come back to Princeton, and suddenly in the middle of the night when we were going through Kansas, the whole sort of suddenly became crystal clear, and so that was sort of the big revelation for me, it was the Eureka experience or whatever you call it.â€™ Thatâ€™s Freeman Dysonâ€™s account of what he calls â€˜the big creative moment in my life.â€™
â€œIs there not some mystery here, Sam, whether you want to make it sexy with see-through clothes on muses or not? What do you make of a story like that? ANDYâ€
â€œI like stories like that, too, Andy. But while anecdotes may work fine for the purposes of philosophers like you, a single good story does not a scientific proposition establish. Science requires something more, like systematic empirical study. And the studies trying to demonstrate the incubation effect have just not established any clear empirical evidence of its existence.
â€œStudies have been done, for example, with subjects engaged in a game of chess. I wonâ€™t go into the details in this brief message, but suffice it to say that, in the study, players are interrupted â€“creating disengaged time of the sort in your Freeman Dyson storyâ€“ to see whether having this extra time for the unconscious mind to make advances on the unsolved problems would enable the players to come up with chess strategies superior to what would occur without that â€˜incubationâ€™ time. No such effect was found.
â€œSometimes, thereâ€™s less in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophies. SAMâ€
I liked his closing line, even if I thought his position more worthy of the flat-footed Polonius than of the ever-deeper Hamlet. I started to become reconciled to the likelihood that Sam was not one to help me unravel those mysteries of the dance.
So Sam proved a disappointment. A part of me, however, also started wondering whether Samâ€™s skepticism was pointing me still further in the direction of disillusionment with my initial, unfolding-celebrating impulse. Would I be compelled by empirical reality to become, like Sam evidently, the very opposite of what Iâ€™d first started out to be, a partisan of the wholly conscious and purposeful dimensions of our being? After all, Sam was extremely knowledgeable â€“Iâ€™d learned from another psychologist friend that Sam was really top-notch in his fieldâ€“ and I did not want to commit the hubristic sin of dismissing his expertise because it did not confirm my own sense of things. Anecdotes, he was right to say, do not suffice as proof.
I considered this dilemma, and then I realized that among the â€œanecdotesâ€ Iâ€™d have to disregard to embrace Samâ€™s outlook was one that was absolutely central to my own life, both intellectually and spiritually. And I decided that it was this I would bring to Sam next, not perhaps so much in the hope of persuading him as simply to bear witness. A fitting enough reason, for this story was connected with an endeavor of mine that had from the outset been most deeply tied in with my sense of integrity, of bearing witness regardless of the consequences. It was the story of how I came to the idea that was at the core of my first book, The Parable of the Tribes.
â€œIn other words,â€ I wrote at the conclusion of my next message to Sam, â€œas it turned out those three years of my young adulthoodâ€“ years that appeared to be a time of going nowhere, of abandoning the course of purposeful workâ€“ proved, in retrospect, to be when I was laying the groundwork for the most important creative breakthrough in my life.
â€œDuring that period, I didnâ€™t know I was hatching something. I had been brought up to believe that the way to get someplace was to set out toward a goal. Those three years were a time of wandering. I was struggling. But I was not engaged in problem-solving in the kind of conscious, purposeful way that you apparently believe to be how creative work gets done. But at the end of it, I got this vision that â€“looking backâ€“ I could see had roots reaching back into all kinds of crevices in those apparently aimless prior years.
â€œWithout some notion of incubation, Sam, I donâ€™t know what sense I could make of that most vital episode in my life. ANDYâ€
â€œAndy, I donâ€™t want to trample on what is clearly, for you, sacred ground. I donâ€™t know just what happened in your creative life, of course. And the Freeman Dyson story, though itâ€™s shaped in the classic form of such anecdotal accounts, is also unfamiliar to me.
â€œBut let me recommend to you a really excellent book that goes into this question of â€˜creative leapsâ€™ â€“both historically and experimentallyâ€“ and more generally inquires into how people achieve in creative ways. Itâ€™s D.N. Perkinsâ€™ The Mindâ€™s Best Work. Take a look at that and, if you want to talk afterwards, feel free to get back in touch with me. Good luck. SAM.â€
While I went about following up on Samâ€™s suggestion, some other conversations were unfolding that seemed, in some sense, a mirror image of the one Iâ€™d just been having with Sam. While Sam seemed to be aligned with the element of control (at least in our mental life) without seeing the need for a dance partner of the more receptive gender, my other interlocutors were also insisting that the good dance is a solo, but this time with its being the more structured partner â€“the one who leads when he dancesâ€“ the one banished from the dance floor.
First, it was Eric Marklin writing me back. Eric was the maven of NVC (Non-Violent Communication) to whom Tina had referred me. When heâ€™d graciously consented to be my interlocutor in my explorations of NVC, Eric had signaled some disagreement. He wasnâ€™t, he indicated, in accord with my notion that the ability to practice non-violent communication represented a sophisticated achievement. I had responded to that signal by asking for some explication of his reservations, and after the elapse of some time, he was now replying.
â€œYou know from Tina, I suppose, that we in NVC contrast â€˜giraffeâ€™ speak with the â€˜jackalâ€™ way of talking that characterizes so much of the way people in our society have learned to talk with each other. â€˜Giraffeâ€™ is full of compassion â€“Marshall Rosenberg, our founder, chose the giraffe to represent non-violent communication because, of all the animals, the giraffe has the largest heartâ€“ and this way of speaking opens the way to fuller communication and greater connection. It shows vulnerability, and it respects the humanity of the other person. The way of the jackal (Iâ€™m not sure why we malign that poor creature) is to use evaluation and judgment, to block compassion, to avoid taking responsibility for the nature of oneâ€™s own experience. Iâ€™m speaking allusively, here, knowing that you already have some idea of the teachings of NVC.
â€œNow, you have referred to the NVC practice â€“this â€˜giraffeâ€™ speakâ€“ as representing a considerable achievement. In some respects, this is true: since almost all of us grow up surrounded by jackal influences, we all have a considerable amount of unlearning to do in order to be able to deal with our own feelings and needs, and those of others, in this compassionate way.
â€œBut I gather that you are saying something other than that. You seem to be saying that even undamaged people will need training â€“need to develop some sophisticated skillsâ€“ to be able to relate in this way. It is with this that Iâ€™d take issue.
â€œItâ€™s completely natural for us to speak giraffe. The only reason that we are beset with this problem of jackal-speak is that society has imposed upon us all the clutter of its various life-alienating ways. That stuff simply drives a wedge between us and our true, life-aligned nature. So if it werenâ€™t for this socially-imposed clutter, weâ€™d be speaking giraffe all the time. What you are calling the â€˜artfulnessâ€™ of the NVC approach is, then, no great â€˜achievementâ€™ but is what children just naturally do. ERICâ€
â€œThanks, Eric, for getting back to me. Iâ€™d like to explore further with you this idea of giraffe being our natural way. My way of exploring is to question and probe â€“I wonâ€™t claim that itâ€™s just my â€˜nature,â€™ but at this point it is certainly at least second nature to meâ€“ so please let me know if that bothers you.
â€œYou refer to what children naturally do. I donâ€™t know if youâ€™re a father â€“I feel certain that youâ€™re not a motherâ€“ but I am, and consequently have had an opportunity to observe not only my own little ones but also those of a lot of other people. From what Iâ€™ve seen of children, itâ€™s not clear to me that theyâ€™re natural â€˜giraffes.â€™
â€œLet me put it this way. Leaving aside the question of how naturally compassionate we are, it seems to me that dealing with oneâ€™s own feelings and those of others in the way of NVC requires a rather high degree of awareness. If someone does something one finds hurtful, for example, NVC would have us recognize the separability between what the other person has said or done and how we have reacted to it. In giraffe-speak, itâ€™s not â€˜You made me feel such-and-such,â€™ but rather â€˜I feel such-and-such, and though what you did evoked that response in me, the response was mine and not your responsibility.â€™ I donâ€™t know how readily a two-year-old could ever have that kind of awareness.
â€œSociety might very well help or hinder us in the development of such awareness â€“and I will certainly readily agree that much in our society gets in the wayâ€“ but thatâ€™s not the same as saying that if it werenâ€™t for the stuff that society imposes on us weâ€™d all be giraffe-speakers without having to work to mold our consciousness.
â€œSo I think you may be ignoring how much work of cultivation goes into creating the understanding that underpins the practice of your compassionate â€“forgive the wordâ€“ art. ANDYâ€
â€œNo, I donâ€™t mind at all your questioning or probing my positions.
â€œAs for the two-year-old, of course â€“as in any other avenue of communicationâ€“ his or her practice of giraffe will not be as elaborate or precise. The acquisition of language is still going on. But what the two-year-old would communicate in a rather direct and unsubtle way would still be, I am convinced, pure giraffe. Thatâ€™s what -by natureâ€“ we are. And I said â€˜would communicateâ€™ because, of course, the actual two-year-olds we see in the families around us are growing up in this society which, from the violence of Saturday morning cartoons to the toys in Toys â€˜R Us, is teaching other lessons that get in the way.
â€œThe awareness, the self-knowledge, of which you speak is just part of our natural endowment. We come fully equipped with the requisites of giraffe from the factory. Standard equipment. At no extra charge! ERIC.â€
In response to this, I quickly sent off the brief note: â€œIf self-knowledge is built into us, as you say â€“unfolding naturally unless interfered with by our non-giraffe environmentâ€“ why is it that the Oracle of Delphi made such a big deal about it? I mean, if that were the case, you wouldnâ€™t need to go to the trouble of inscribing â€˜Know Thyselfâ€™ over your Temple doorway, would you? ANDYâ€
But no sooner had I clicked to send the message than I knew how Eric would answer me and sure enough, just as quickly, he sent back the reply: â€œThe world in which the Oracle of Delphi operated was one, like ours, in which a whole lot was already out of kilter. Wars, oppression, the works. So they were already driven, by that time, out of our natural human condition. They needed to work spiritually to regain basic things â€“like self-knowledgeâ€“ that should have been theirs by the unfolding of their nature. ERIC.â€
I found my response to this to be cloven in twain. On the one hand, I felt somewhat dismissive of it, thinking that I could see fairly clearly the ways that an interpersonal dance following the principles of NVC really required, like playing the piano or basketball well, required the development of sophisticated skill and awareness.
But on the other hand, I also recalled my own earlier ruminations â€“in â€œLousy First Draftsâ€â€“ about the challenge of breathing deeply and evenly. That, I had maintained, was not a sophisticated achievement like playing the piano like Horowitz, but was something babies were born able to do. Was it possible Eric was right that the same was true of the kinds of awareness that NVC seems to require?
Later that same day I was perusing a book an artist friend of mine had sent me when sheâ€™d heard I was investigating the nature and sources of creativity. It was The Artistâ€™s Way, by Julia Cameron. Maybe it was a case of synchronyâ€“ if there is such a thing â€“as if the universe had been eavesdropping on my exchange with Eric and wanted to put in its two cents. Or maybe it was simply that my being attuned to certain issues prompted me to pick up on something that might otherwise have escaped my notice. Whichever it was, something struck me as I read over Cameronâ€™s table of contents: the chapter titles, by themselves, were implicitly making an extraordinarily bold assertion about the human condition, an assertion in harmony with Ericâ€™s vision of our nature.
The Artistâ€™s Way has twelve chapters, each corresponding to a weekâ€™s work in Cameronâ€™s program to guide people into greater possession of their creative powers. (Aha!, it occurred to me, is it just a coincidence that this program has 12-steps?) Each chapter title tells what the purpose of the week is. The title has in it some â€œSenseâ€ that is undoubtedly of great value: the sense of safety, of power, of abundance, of self-protection, etc. But whatâ€™s remarkable is that the first word in each chapter title is â€œRecovering.â€ The clear implication being that all these blessings are goodies we had once but have since lost. (â€Hi, Iâ€™m a recovering Artist!â€)
A remarkable assertion, that. With some of them, it was not too hard for me to imagine that it was true. Perhaps we are all born with a sense of safety, for example, having at least come to some kind of consciousness in the tranquility of the womb. But a â€œSense of Identity.â€ I thought that was one of the Eriksonian tasks we need to accomplish as we move into maturity. And likewise with a â€œSense of Autonomy.â€ I doubt we had that in the womb, with the umbilical cord plugged into our middle, and the ever-present sound of another personâ€™s heartbeat. But I donâ€™t know.
It did seem, however, that there was something afoot here, culturally speaking, that these chapter titles expressed. But what did it express? A â€œSense of Loss,â€ perhaps. Or a sense of something of great value having been taken from us? A sense, at any event, that progress is about going back to recapture an original condition, rather than moving ahead to achieve something new and advanced.
Then, while I was pondering this, another conversational thread began to unfold that stirred and challenged me in some kindred ways to the exchange Iâ€™d had with Eric.
Some time back, I had assembled that small group of people who were interested in exchanging ideas about what I had called my unfolding project. It was a diverse group, which included the folks with whom, earlier, Iâ€™d naively floated the idea that rise of democracy, science, and capitalism might indicate a historical trend toward civilizationâ€™s embracing more fully the ways of unfolding.
More recently, in the wake of the message from Frank Hartley complaining that, rather than our society being too controlled, too much was out of control, I had posted to this group a message posing what I called an â€œapparent contradiction.â€ This was the tension between the idea, that many of us in that group intuitively credited, that we live in a Dominator Society, and the notion, plausibly argued by contemporary American conservatives, that on the contrary, thereâ€™s a pressing need for things to be brought under firmer control.
Now a response from Calvin, the fellow whoâ€™d broken through to trusting the universe, helped launch our group discussion.
â€œYour concern for this â€˜apparent contradictionâ€™ is certainly understandable, given the bent of our Western intellectual tradition, with its insistence on logic. Aristotle and the â€˜excluded middle,â€™ and all that. We think that a contradiction is a problem, as if everything must somehow resolve into some logically consistent set of propositions.
â€œI think, on the contrary, that we should tolerate â€“even embraceâ€“ these paradoxes. If weâ€™ve got a couple of propositions, such as Andy has laid out, that seem to contradict each other, I propose that we just accept the fact of this apparent contradiction. Like Zen koans â€“those mind-boggling riddlesâ€“ paradoxes help move the mind toward greater enlightenment. CALVIN.â€
To Calvinâ€™s suggestion that we should tolerate paradox, I replied: â€œI agree with Calvin that we should not be too hasty to get rid of the paradoxes we encounter. But Iâ€™m not certain I understand what we do after we â€˜acceptâ€™ the fact that weâ€™ve got two propositions that seem at odds with each other. I wouldnâ€™t want to stop with â€˜acceptance.â€™
â€œFrom my vantage point, I regard any apparent contradiction as posing a challenge to us, as indicating that thereâ€™s some problem in our present way of construing things. Iâ€™m operating from the premise that reality makes logical sense and that therefore the various things that are true about it must be compatible and, ultimately, not contradictory.
â€œWith this particular â€˜apparent contradiction,â€™ I can imagine that both notions are true but at different levels or in different realms. (Thatâ€™s how Iâ€™ve been toying with this too-much versus not-enough control matter.) But more generally, I would say that a contradiction might also be an indication that one of the propositions is untrue, or that there is a higher level of understanding in which the contradiction dissolves. But in any event, at the risk of seeming too Aristotelian, Iâ€™d like to say I donâ€™t think that we should be content to let a contradiction among our ideas just sit there. ANDYâ€
This notion was, of course, rather central to my whole way of engaging in the unfolding process of inquiry, in my own evolving body of thought, and also in the Socratic role I often play with callers to my radio shows.
Calvin replied with another message holding to the notion of the value of freeing ourselves from logicâ€™s strait-jacket. The next phase of the action, however, stemmed from another response to my remarks about contradictions. This message came from Joe, whoâ€™d previously criticized my inclusion of science â€“that excessively â€œleft-brainedâ€ pursuitâ€“ among the mansions of Unfolding.
â€œI agree with you, Andy,â€ Joe wrote, â€œthat when we are confronted with a contradiction â€“or paradoxâ€“ we ought not simply disregard the tensions in it. But I agree with Calvinâ€™s critique of our Western approach to those tensions. We seem to think that the problem will yield to us if we simply can apply to it the might of our intellect and the power of our will.
â€œWhat is wiser, in my view, is not to seek a resolution, but rather to accept the fact of the problem and to stay in contact with it. It is a process thatâ€™s sometimes called â€™sitting with.â€™ Sitting with a problem entails putting ourselves in a wholly receptive frame of mind. The will is disengaged. Thatâ€™s crucialâ€“ to understand that willpower has nothing to do with the genuine processes of â€˜getting somewhere.â€™ Indeed, â€˜willpowerâ€™ and â€™sitting withâ€™ are mutually exclusive.
â€œTo sit with the tension is to place the matter into the figurative hands of powers beyond our control â€“the Divine, I sometimes call it in my own internal conversation about such thingsâ€“ and to allow these powers to unfold things to their proper fruition.
â€œI hope this conveys my meaning. Would be happy to say more if thatâ€™s needed. JOE.â€
â€œI like what you say about the value of â€™sitting withâ€™ the tension, Joe,â€ I replied. â€œThat does seem to be an important part of the process of getting somewhere with many of the knotty problems we encounter. And it fits well with my sense of whatâ€™s most worth celebrating in the idea of unfolding.
â€œAt the same time, I have some question about what you say about the will. Iâ€™m not sure that willpower is so completely irrelevant to that â€™sitting withâ€™ task.
â€œWhat I most appreciate in your message is the idea that we shouldnâ€™t be in too much of a hurry to get rid of the tension and that we should instead patiently stick with the tension and see where it wants to move. Thatâ€™s not always easy to do, in my experience, but it does seem to be an essential part of the unfolding of our understanding â€“individually and humankindly.
â€œBut for the very reason that it is not easy to do â€“tension being, almost by definition, uncomfortableâ€“ I am not sure that itâ€™s fitting to dismiss the will as having no role in the â€™sitting withâ€™ process. Whether the tension we confront comes from apparent contradictions in our beliefs, or from unresolved relationships in our lives, or whatever, thereâ€™s always a temptation â€“at least in my experienceâ€“ to just turn away from the tension rather than to sit with it. And when thereâ€™s temptation, how else can we resist it except through the application of our will?
â€œIn my own experience of what it takes to â€˜holdâ€™ the tension of some problem in my consciousness, it takes a real discipline of the will to truly stay with, rather than just evade, the knot of difficulty.
â€œSo, would you accept my rephrasing your comment about will-power to say that the approach customary in our world over-emphasizes the will, and that the role of the will ought to be diminished? Would you agree that what is excessive is to attempt, by dint of will, to force the tension to resolve, to take Alexanderâ€™s approach to the Gordion Knot of our contradiction and hack through it? And that, nonetheless, the will still plays an indispensable role by enforcing our commitment to stay with the tension until things move toward where they want to go?
â€œSo what Iâ€™m proposing is that the art of unfolding, through sitting with a problem, involves some kind of marriage of the allowing and the directing, of the receptiveness of letting things happen and the activity of helping to make them happen. ANDYâ€
What I got back from Joe, while in some ways answer to my message, was also an evasion of my question. Or, at least, so it seemed to me.
â€œHolding the tension can, indeed, be uncomfortable,â€ Joe wrote. â€œThatâ€™s why weâ€™re often so eager to just will our way into a resolution. Or to just give up on part of the picture so that we can be rid of the discomfort of holding the whole thing together. (Iâ€™m especially interested, for example, in the way so many people will just abandon their vision of a better world because itâ€™s uncomfortable to hold their ideals together in tension with the reality of how the world actually now is.)
â€œIn the face of the temptation to avoid that discomfort, we can turn to the intentionality to sit with the tension. Intentionality has nothing to do, however, with willpower. Willpower is willful. Intentionality is about willingness. One directs oneâ€™s attention toward the tension and, far from forcing any resolution of it, allows that tension to unfold where it wants to go. That is the road to contacting, and being guided by, the Divine. JOE.â€
I sat with this for a while before responding. Joeâ€™s absolute rejection of willpower as having any constructive role to play in our relationship with the Divine seemed to have something of a doctrinaire flavor. He had used the word temptation â€“in the usual sense, where itâ€™s something that should be resistedâ€“ but then continued to deny that any good comes from the employment of the will. How does one resist temptation, I still wondered, except by the use of the will?
â€˜Temptationâ€™ implies a sense that the natural unfolding of oneâ€™s energies would carry one along a path one regards as not the best oneâ€“ in this case, the path of avoiding the discomfort of sitting with the tension. If that natural course is to be avoided, it seemed to me, a psychic element must enter into the process to countermand the energyâ€™s natural course, turning it from the unwanted to the wanted direction. â€œNo, donâ€™t run away from this, come back here and attend to this uncomfortable but nonetheless ultimately valuable process of â€™sitting with.â€™â€
Joe brought in some idea of â€œintentionality,â€ declaring it to have nothing to do with the willpower. One is willful, the other is willing. But was there really such an absolute cleavage? I saw it more as a matter of degree. With respect to allowing the energies to course down the road of temptation, Joeâ€™s intentionality seemed plenty willful. It was controlling, imposing. But once having imposed the â€™sitting with,â€™ the will was willing to retire to the sidelines rather than impose a solution. So the element of control was still there, playing a role in the dance, but not trying to dictate the choreography. So, perhaps, Joeâ€™s â€œintentionalityâ€ and his â€œwill-powerâ€ â€“though both truly engaged in controlling the flowâ€“ could be said to differ in the nature of what is willed and what is allowed.
I wasnâ€™t sure just how I wanted to respond. One course would have been to highlight the evasion or distortion I thought I saw. My gut told me, however, that at this point in the exchange it was time, rather, for bridge-building. So I wanted to find a way to speak from my own understanding that would highlight what I found valid and important in what Joe was saying. That, I thought, would maximize the likelihood that we could sign on together to something that would enable us to dance further together in our conversation. Upon careful consideration, I wrote another message to Joe and the group.
â€œDo I understand you correctly, Joe, to be making the following distinction about the â€˜willâ€™ in relation to â€™sitting withâ€™:
â€œThe kind of will that simply says to me, â€˜You attend to this, be with this, and then follow what comes from that wherever it leads you,â€™ is a benign form that you call intentionality. It directs us to follow something that is beyond the control of will. And this ultimate readiness to follow is its willingness.
â€œWhereas the kind of will you are calling will-power, or willfulness, would not be willing to leave the outcome of the process â€“the form and content of what we will end up withâ€“ to forces beyond its control, but rather would work to force the stuff-in-tension, into a form of the willâ€™s own design.
â€œIs that a correct reading of your distinction? ANDYâ€
Several days passed with no response from Joe, or other messages from that group. In the meanwhile, I began to read in that book, The Mindâ€™s Best Work, that Sam had recommended to me. And for a while, the question of whether the will had any role to play in the dance of â€œsitting withâ€ subsided, while the somewhat opposite question of whether any of the uncontrolled parts of the mind had any role to play in the dance of creativity came back to the fore.
Sam was right about Perkinsâ€™ book. It was really excellent and, in addition to being highly intelligent, was engagingly written. At the same time, I had some of the same kinds of problems with it that Iâ€™d felt in my conversation with Sam about incubation. After reading about half the book, I emailed Sam to discuss some of these problems.
â€œIn addition to all those things that I like about Perkins,â€ I wrote after a couple of laudatory introductory paragraphs, â€œI also feel uneasy about Perkins apparent eagerness to reduce the creative force to some entirely domesticated beast, like some tame pet that we can put on a leash and just take out for a walk when we wish.
â€œFor example, Iâ€™m not entirely satisfied with his admittedly fascinating discussion of how Edgar Allen Poe came to use the refrain â€˜Nevermoreâ€™ in his poem, â€˜The Raven.â€™ Heâ€™s persuasive in his dismissal of Poeâ€™s own account, where the Poe-et represents his choice as quite straight-forward and almost inevitable. Despite what Poe says, the use of â€˜Nevermoreâ€™ is hardly an obvious choice at all. But is Perkinsâ€™s emphasis on the method of â€˜trial and errorâ€™ really any better as an explanation? Even when he supplements this with references to possible influences from other peopleâ€™s works?
â€œWhen a creative person seizes upon a particular creative move, referring simply to the universe of available alternatives simply does not solve the mystery of how that particular choice gets made. Options are practically infinite, but from somewhere within the creative mind there comes some guiding force that leads to the choice so apt that generations later it remains part of our world, whether it be Poeâ€™s refrain or a melodic line of Schubertâ€™s.
â€œThis same tendency to explain away the mystery reappears later in the book when heâ€™s discussing his thinking-aloud studies. Those are the ones where Perkins gets artists to articulate the considerations guiding their creative choices. As you may recall, he renders one account in some detail, the story of how a particular woman poet wrote a poem beginning with the lines â€˜My babies are wailing like those air raid drills/ I remember.â€™
â€œIn her account, the poet uncovers step-by-step what it is that connects the wailing of her babies with the air-raid sirensâ€“ other than the obvious auditory connection. What she comes to is that the poem is about â€˜Self-preservation.â€™ The account as Perkins lays it out is interesting, but I donâ€™t think it demonstrates what Perkins seems to think it does.
â€œPerkins writes that â€˜To complete the poem, she wanted to deepen the metaphorâ€™ that connected the crying and the siren. Then, by getting the poet to recount, retrospectively, how the connections got made and how the poem unfolded, Perkins seems to claim to be showing that the mind proceeds in a step-by-step methodical way. But, as I read it, the poetâ€™s excavation shows nothing of the sort.
â€œThe crucial thing here is that she began with that line about the babies wailing and the air-raid drill. Thatâ€™s where it started. What her account does is to show the discovery of the connection. â€˜Aha!,â€™ she writes, â€˜It has to do withâ€¦. preserving your own life first.â€™ Before she came to that â€˜Aha!,â€™ something in her mind had already made the connection. Thatâ€™s how that initial line came into being in the first place.
â€œWhat the poetâ€™s account accomplishes is not to get rid of the mystery of how she came up with the poetic connection, but rather only to explain what her poetic muse â€“speaking out of the mystery of the creative spaceâ€“ had communicated in its gift of that image. It was not the metaphor that got deepened â€“in some step-by-step processâ€“ but rather her ability to interpret the metaphor her own muse had given her. (Do you remember Socratesâ€™ search for someone with greater wisdom than his knowing-that-he-does-not-know? When his search brought him to the poets, he found them clueless about their own process of creation.) ANDYâ€
Sam wrote back, â€œYou can believe in this mystery â€“this kind of unconscious mental processing, miracles outside the light of awarenessâ€“ if you want to. But as Iâ€™ve said, experimental attempts to demonstrate its existence have not succeeded.â€
â€œI emphatically do not want to believe what I â€˜wantâ€™ to,â€ I replied. â€œIt is a matter of importance to me that I not believe something to be so just because I wish it so. My commitment, rather, is to allow reality to speak to me and to form my beliefs accordingly.
â€œI donâ€™t know enough about the empirical studies to be able to comment on your observation that studies donâ€™t show unconscious processing. But Iâ€™m not even sure that the â€˜unconsciousnessâ€™ of the processing â€“in the sense of being â€˜outside the light of awarenessâ€™â€“ is really whatâ€™s central to our issue here. The crux of the matter is less whether â€˜the mindâ€™s best workâ€™ happens someplace in the dark, though thatâ€™s a piece of it, but more whether weâ€™re fully in control of the process. Both you and Perkins seem to be saying that our conscious ego always makes the show move forward. All control, no mysterious unfolding.
â€œA propos of this assertion, let me bring in here another arena from our psychological lives that helps make this distinction between the in-the-dark aspect and the beyond-our-conscious-control aspect: the world of dreams.
â€œDreams, in my view, are largely conscious: that is, whatever is going on, I am aware of its happening. It goes on in the â€˜light of awareness.â€™
â€œI recognize that the unfolding action of my dreams must be dictated by my own mental (or neurological, or whatever) processes, but I am not consciously directing it. I do not have any sense â€“except in rare instancesâ€“ of controlling the flow of the action. Like the events of real life, the action of my dreams â€“except for the part that I enact in my role as myselfâ€“ seems to unfold on its own.
â€œSo, in our dreams, do we not each have ongoing proof that the mind is capable of creative activity that simply unfolds without our conscious will driving the creation? Every night, our minds yield a flowering of meaningful and often beautiful forms, streaming forth fully into the light of our awareness, but taking us by surprise. For though the dream is coming from us, we have no sense of controlling it. And though we experience our dreams as deeply meaningful, the meaning of these creations of ours â€“like that of the poetâ€™s creationâ€“ is difficult even for us, their creators, to fathom.
â€œDoes this not constitute proof of some kind of unconscious processingâ€“ unconscious in the sense of beyond our control, even if the whole thing unfolds in the â€˜light,â€™ upon the screen of our awareness? ANDY
â€œ(PS: And I have some suspicion that, beyond that, even when we have the most sense of control over the workings of our mind, there is still an irreducible element of unfolding â€“of unconscious processingâ€“ going on. )â€
Sam wrote back shortly. â€œDreaming may be an interesting experience for the dreamer, but I gather it has now been shown that our dreams really have no meaning, no significance of the kind the â€˜depthâ€™ psychologists have liked to imagine. (Iâ€™ve heard that the guy who discovered REM sleep did some research on dreams, showing â€“if I recallâ€“that dreams are just neurological events without any real meaning?) So the mind is not really â€˜creatingâ€™ anything.
â€œAnyway, what most interested me in your previous message was your final remark about an irreducible element of unconscious processing. Hereâ€™s a question. When I plan a trip around town, and I calculate just when to leave, and how to arrange my stops, and how much to allow for each one, so that the trip will be maximally efficient, and so that Iâ€™ll be back home in time for dinner with the family, it seems to me that my purposeful and conscious mind is fully in charge of that process. Are you suggesting this is an illusion? SAMâ€
Samâ€™s comments about dreams surprised me. For one thing, what kind of evidence could possibly constitute a proof that dreams do not have any meaning? Even if one doesnâ€™t see the meaning, how can one be sure that itâ€™s not there? For another thing, without knowing just what the empirical evidence was, I found myself imagining that even if it were established that undischarged â€œwhateversâ€ in the neurological system produce the â€œsparksâ€ we experience as dreams â€“with which humankind has been fascinated with for as long as we know aboutâ€”that by itself wouldnâ€™t constitute evidence that the patterns they form are meaningless? The sparks themselves are probably not random and even if they were, the combination of images and emotions that get woven into a dream might well represent a meaningful elaboration on the meaningless â€“just as the imagination finds pictures in clouds. Is there anything we humans do that is truly â€˜meaningless,â€™ I wondered?
And then I thought of how Samâ€™s dismissal of dreams having meaning, if accepted, implied a complete rejection of a whole centuryâ€™s work by Freudians and Jungians striving to find in dreams the keys to the emotional and spiritual lives of their clients. Not to mention old Joseph who became Pharaohâ€™s right hand man.
I decided, however, to skip the dream issue and attend instead to Samâ€™s other question.
â€œThatâ€™s a good question, Sam,â€ I replied, â€œwhether your sense of control in your trip-planning is an illusion. And Iâ€™m not sure Iâ€™m equipped to answer it. Iâ€™d say itâ€™s possible that, at some fundamental level, it is an illusion. If it is, maybe it would be like thisâ€¦.
â€œEvery time we move from point A to point B, the impetus for the motion must come from someplace. But just where is that prime mover? You might say itâ€™s your intentional will, but does the will control itself? And when the will says, â€˜Make this computation,â€™ â€“wherever the impetus for that command comes fromâ€“ does not the mind have to make some kind of a leap, at each point, that is not completely on a mechanical continuum: when the calculating imagination tries to compute how much time to allow at the floristâ€™s shop to pick up the roses, does the mind not create that picture on its own, spontaneously, just as the poetâ€™s â€˜cries of babies/ air-raid sirenâ€™ arose, but on a much tinier scale of creativity? Does not the movement of our minds always involve some sort of quantum bridging of the gaps â€“the leaps, Iâ€™m calling them hereâ€“ that occur perhaps in response to our intention, but never wholly within our control?
â€œWell, I donâ€™t want to press that point. I feel Iâ€™m beyond my depth here.
â€œMy reason for bringing up that kind of limiting case â€“suggesting that the notion of control is, at one level, always at least partially an illusionâ€“ was to defend our clearly creative faculties from Perkinsâ€™s apparent reductionism. ANDYâ€
â€œWhat kind of reductionism are you talking about,â€ Sam asked in his reply, â€œthat you see Perkins applying to our creativity?â€
â€œThe main impression I get from Perkins,â€ I answered, â€œis that even the mightiest of our creative works can somehow be (I would use the word) â€˜reducedâ€™ to a series of discrete, non-mysterious, easily comprehensible steps that get us from a starting point to wherever it is that the creative process ends up. He seems set on getting rid of â€˜leaps.â€™ No flying, just methodically putting one foot in front of the other.
â€œIt almost seems to be a way of arguing that only the ordinary is possible. But then, how is it that extraordinary things come into existence? Hereâ€™s Mozartâ€™s Clarinet Concerto. If what Mozart accomplished was the result of merely a series of quite straight-forward, small, ordinary steps, how did that work ever come into being? Or conversely, if Perkins account were correct, why arenâ€™t achievements like Mozartâ€™s and Shakespeareâ€™s commonplace?
â€œAlmost seems to me like how Zeno â€˜provedâ€™ that Achilles could not overtake the tortoise, even though evidence abounds that the swift can overtake the slow, Zeno or no. (By the way, have you heard the news? It seems that theyâ€™ve proved that not only could William Shakespeare not have written those extraordinary plays, but that no one else could have either.)
â€œSo whether or not Iâ€™m right in my intuitive sense that every step we take, mentally, involves some sort of leapâ€“ some leaps being longer and higher than othersâ€“ I canâ€™t see how the undeniable works of our creativity can be explained in terms of some wholly leapless series of steps. ANDYâ€
Meanwhile, back on my little forum of unfolders, several days had passed with still no response from Joe or from any of the other participants. So, on this Sunday morning, I decided to put out another question to the group on a completely different line of inquiry.
Iâ€™d followed up on that earlier mention by Carrey of that book about improvisation, Free Play. The book, by Stephen Nachmanovitch, turned out to be, indeed, a most interesting work, and â€“as itâ€™s subtitle Improvisation in Life and Art (?) would suggestâ€“ it was relevant to a great many of my concerns. A particular passage in Free Play especially piqued my interest. It was a quote from Virginia Woolf and while what it said was interesting, what it seemed to imply was more intriguing still. Intriguing because it was far from clear both what Woolf was implying and whether what it was saying was true.
In the passage, Virginia Woolf is speaking of Shakespeare and his creativity. She writes: â€œAll desire to protest, to preach, to proclaim an injury, to pay off a score, was fired off in him and consumed. Therefore his poetry flows from him free and unimpeded.â€ This brief passage puts forward two assertions, and then links them with a â€œTherefore.â€ It was the logic underlying the â€œThereforeâ€ â€“a logic hardly self-evident to meâ€“ that intrigued me most. Even if not self-evident, that logic seemed to me potentially of great significance for my own inquiry.
What contributes to our creative flowering, Iâ€™d been asking, and what impedes it? Virginia Woolfâ€™s â€œThereforeâ€ implied a solution to that mystery. It was, she seemed to say, because a whole body of desires â€“to protest, to preach, to pay off a score, etc.â€“ had been burned out of Shakespeare that the poetry flowed out of him so freely. But why would that be so? Whether or not it was true that Shakespeare had let go of all such desires, what was Woolf suggesting about the nature of poetic creativity by saying that getting rid of desires of that sort would open wide the gates for its free flow?
What is it about protesting, or preaching that might get in the way of the flow of creativity? Is it that bringing into the process what might be called moral intentions creates obstacles to creative expression? Is she saying that the effort to move things from how they are toward how we think they should be requires a frame of mind incompatible with the free flow of our creative juices?
And if that is what sheâ€™s saying, should we concur? Had no preacher ever had free-flowing creativity? Was Picassoâ€™s creativity in Guernica impeded because the artist was inflamed with the spirit of protest against the brutality of the fascists? Was Virginia Woolf onto something here, or just showing some dyspeptic post-Victorian allergic reaction to moralistic excess?
I wasnâ€™t sure about any of this, but I thought that not only might the forum help me explore these matters better, but also that these people would find the Woolf quotation, seasoned with my inquiry into its meaning and validity, a rather tasty morsel to chew on.
So I wrote a message to the group, under the subject heading of â€œWhoâ€™s Afraid of Interpreting Virginia Woolf,â€ in which I said that in case the previous discussion of the will had come to a cul de sac, I thought Iâ€™d offer another possible line for discussion. And I then proceeded to present briefly the quote from Woolf, and my question about the understanding of creativity implied by the logical connector â€œThereforeâ€ in the quote, and I concluded by saying â€œIâ€™d be most interested in hearing how any of you would explicate that logic.â€
Within a half an hour, I â€“and all the other members of the forumâ€“ received two messages. One was from Joe who, apparently, had been writing me at the very time that Iâ€™d given up on getting an answer to that message in which Iâ€™d attempted to build a bridge of some kind between him and me on the question of the role of the will. Trying to come up with something we would both assent to, I had proposed that â€œthe kind of will you are calling will-power, or willfulness, would not be willing to leave the outcome of the process â€“the form and content of what we will end up withâ€“ to forces beyond its control, but rather would work to force the stuff-in-tension, into a form of the willâ€™s own design.â€
This was the part of his condemnation of the will on which thought I could join him, and so Iâ€™d hoped heâ€™d regard that passage as an acceptable bridge to his position. But he responded rather otherwise.
â€œFrom the way you bring in such phrases as â€˜not be willingâ€™ and â€˜forces beyond its control,â€™ I discern a prejudice you may have in favor of the conceptual domain and against the spiritual/emotional domains of which I am trying to speak. Those domains are where the action is, and they cannot be grasped with the conceptual mind. â€˜Understandingâ€™ of the kind youâ€™re insisting on is an artifact of the conceptual domain, and does not grow within the spiritual domain. Insisting on intellectual understanding will only bring frustration. JOEâ€
Well, that bridge didnâ€™t reach the other side, I thought.
And then I turned to the second message. It was a rather terse little note, from a fellow named Tim whom I didnâ€™t know but who had been invited into the group, with my OK, by one of my West Coast friends. â€œHere, try this version of the Woolf quote,â€ Tim wrote. â€œâ€˜All desire to explicate was fired out of him and consumed. Therefore his poetry flows from him free and unimpeded.â€™â€
I thought about the confluence of these two messages, that Sunday morning, as I took off from home on my way to the studio to do my weekly radio show.
It appeared that both Joe and Tim regarded as misguided my quest to make sense of things. Joe was instructing me in the futility of seeking to â€œunderstandâ€ intellectually matters that, as he saw it, belonged to a different realm where the conceptual structures I use to map the world do not apply. And in his indirect and sardonic way, Tim was chiding me for attempting to â€œexplicate,â€ suggesting that the desire to make sense of things impedes the free flow of creative expression.
Were they right? I couldnâ€™t dismiss the possibility. After all, various deep- and wise-seeming religious thinkers Iâ€™d read from various traditionsâ€“ Sufi and Zen came to mindâ€“ had said kindred things about the limits of reason and the intellect. Some important realizations, these sages had intimated, are available to human beings but not through the conceptual mind.
So maybe my correspondentsâ€™ dismissal of the conceptual approach was a manifestation of enlightenment. But my nose was telling me that enlightenment was at least not all they were manifesting.
It was increasingly my sense that, with this inquiry into unfolding, I had stumbled into one of the dimensions of our cultureâ€™s polarization. Between flow and control, it seemed, we Americans â€“or at least a good many of usâ€“ seem to have chosen sides. To be for one of the two elements meant to be against the other.
Some in my unfolding group evidently regarded the intellect as the banner of the enemy. The intellect is the means by which we seek to channel the overwhelming flow of images of our world along conceptual lines that allow us to see its workings more clearly. Or maybe the metaphor should be: to map the general contours of a complex terrain. True, the map might distort the terrain, mistaking its shape or leaving out vital aspects of the landscape. But what means of capturing our reality is foolproof ? Joeâ€™s unconceptual embrace of the Divine?
Clear thinking still seemed to me a useful tool, even if there are mysteries it cannot fully map. Could be wrong, but I wasnâ€™t prepared to concede to those who â€“out of the bias produced by polarization, as I interpreted itâ€“ seemed to prefer mystery to clarity. Polarization, I thought, does not yield wisdom. But then, Iâ€™d spent some recent years developing the concept of polarization as the crippler of the American cultural vision. So perhaps my thinking on this was just evidence of my remaining trapped in the channels of my own conceptual scheme.
Thinking about all this on the way to the radio station, I realized on the outskirts of Harrisonburg that Iâ€™d better get my thoughts directed toward the immediate business at hand. In a half hour, I would be talking with people about the topic of the week, â€œUnderstanding Evil.â€ Where does it come from? And how does our understanding of it affect how we deal with it?
Predictably, several calls early in the show sought to put Satan back onto the map of modern awareness. The force of evil should not be underestimated, these callers said. In the back of my mind, I could hear Lutherâ€™s hymn: â€œAnd still our ancient foe/ does seek to work us woe.â€ It was toward the end of the show that a call came in that, in a strange way, connected with the conversation Iâ€™d just been having with Tim and Joe on my unfolding forum.
â€œWhat Iâ€™d like to interject into the conversation,â€ said the caller, â€œis the notion that, though many people feel a passionate conviction that they are on the side of the good, this gut feeling, this emotional certainty, cannot be trusted.â€ The caller sounded like a very intelligent, educated fellow.
â€œCan you illustrate what you mean?â€ I asked the caller.
â€œSure. One example from the headlines, not that long ago, is Timothy McVeighâ€“ the guy who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City. But countless other instances could be adduced: IRA bombers, I suspect, and John Wilkes Booth, some of the more enthusiastic Nazis, and so forth. All these people simply knew in their guts that their cause was just and right, and that their means were appropriate. A lot of them â€“like John Brown over at Harperâ€™s Ferry, or like some of these Islamic terroristsâ€“ are certain theyâ€™re instruments of the Almighty Himself, doing Godâ€™s work.â€
â€œI can certainly concur with what youâ€™re saying,â€ I ventured. â€œEspecially these days, in our country, a lot of people who seem to see themselves on a holy mission may not be serving their country as well as they think.â€ I was alluding to the way the righteous forces pushing for President Clintonâ€™s impeachment seemed â€“to many, including meâ€“ to be doing more damage to our constitutional order than had our president with his undisciplined appetites. â€œSo what is the lesson contained in these examples? Or what is the remedy to the problem youâ€™re pointing out?â€
â€œThe lesson, Iâ€™d say, is that our moral passions cannot be trusted. And the remedy that I would suggest is to submit all our moral positions to careful critical scrutiny.â€
â€œWhat kind of â€˜critical scrutinyâ€™ are you proposing?â€
â€œSome sort of thoughtful, rational cost-benefit analysis, I guess. What will be the consequences if I do this? Or if I do that? How probable are the various outcomes? What weights should be assigned to the various positive and negative results that might be anticipated for different courses of action? That sort of thing.â€
I felt considerable sympathy for this point of view, and I expressed it. And I went on to make a connection with a previous show Iâ€™d done on â€œHow should we think about policy?â€ My co-host and I shared a consequentialist perspective on matters of moral decision-making â€“i.e., the idea that the best thing to do is whatever will have the best net effect on the whole range of dimensions impacted by our actions. On that show, we both contrasted this with a tendency we both decriedâ€“ the tendency to treat one rule or another, or one â€˜goodâ€™ or another, as an absolute, as if following that rule were always good regardless of the circumstances or its results, or as if serving one value was always the right thing, no matter how much we might, in some particular instances, injure some other values in the process. So the thrust of this callerâ€™s remarks fit rather well with the perspective weâ€™d advanced on that previous show.
But there was something I sensed about this callerâ€™s viewpoint I wanted to check on. â€œSo what do you think is the proper role of that intuitive, gut sense that people get about something being right or wrong?â€ I asked.
â€œTheyâ€™re wholly unreliable,â€ he said. â€œJust feelings. Theyâ€™re no substitute for rational analysis. And so Iâ€™d say they should just be disregarded.â€
A line popped into my mind, from my readings a quarter century before, and, on an impulse, I came forward with it now, on the air. â€œHereâ€™s something I remember someone having written,â€ I said. â€œIt goes: â€˜How lucky it is for tyrants that one half of mankind doesnâ€™t think, and the other half doesnâ€™t feel.â€™â€
The caller laughed. Which relieved me, as it occurred to me that perhaps in bubbling up with that line I was confronting him more than I intended. â€œItâ€™s a nice line,â€ he said, â€œbut can you explain to me what it means? That is, what is the value of this feeling dimension, if youâ€™ve got the thinking dimension working clearly?â€
â€œI can tell you what the line means to me,â€ I replied, â€œthough whether thatâ€™s what the author of it had in mind I canâ€™t say. I used the line in a book of mine, in a section I called â€˜Unreasonable Reason,â€™ where I was discussing the kind of technocratic mentality that calculates accurately but lacks any basis for assigning values â€“those weights you mentionedâ€“ to the variables involved in the calculation. The kind of mind that can tell you what the results will be, but has no connection to the place where we sense that one result is good and another is evil.â€
â€œWhy should the gut feeling, or the emotional dimension, be necessary for that?â€ the caller asked.
â€œWhere else do we get what it takes to know that all those emaciated bodies in a ditch at Auschwitz are a manifestation of evil having been done? Cut off the feelings, and we can become efficient mechanics of death, like Eichmann and his cohorts were.â€
â€œBut those feelings, as I indicated, are unreliable,â€ he came back.
â€œYeah, they are unreliable. It often seems that people acting from righteous certainty donâ€™t really know what it is that is driving them. At least partially that can be because, if weâ€™ve been injured by our history, as many of the Nazis were, the place from which our passions arise can be twisted and deformed.â€
â€œAre you suggesting that, if we were undamaged, our moral passions and intuitions would be trustworthy?â€
â€œGood question, â€ I replied, â€œmeaning I donâ€™t know. I do think weâ€™re wired to have feelings, gut reactions, to what we encounter to give us some basic orientation â€“toward or againstâ€“ what we encounter. Which suggests that the healthy organism will have something in the feeling department that can serve as a guide.
â€œFor instance,â€ I said, making a connection that warmed me to the task, â€œthe revulsion we feel for the smell of rotting bodies, or for human excrementâ€“ are they just arbitrary, or learned responses? I suspect that we were built to respond that way to motivate us to steer clear of pathogens that could harm us. Likewise, the images â€“like those Achilles, The Iliad, bears upon his shieldâ€“ of life lived in peace and harmony Iâ€™d wager weâ€™re born to find beautiful. And I suspect the healthy human heart will naturally be repulsed by the brutalities of evil.â€
â€œBut you admitted that our feelings are unreliable. For whatever reason. And youâ€™ve said that our rational thinking doesnâ€™t get us there either. So, how do we avoid contributing to evil in this world?â€
â€œGood question,â€ I said, seeing by the clock on the wall that I was shortly going to be saved by the bell. â€œThe best I can say is that the judgment of humans will always be flawed, but that the best wisdom we can come up with will probably involve some kind of a dance between those unreliable forcesâ€“ those moral passions that just well up within us, from who knows where, and those capacities for rational analysis that we command.â€
And then I had to bid good-bye to the caller, and to the listeners as well, until the next weekâ€™s show.
The earlier installments can be found at:
Chapter 1: www.nonesoblind.org/blog/?p=214
Chapter 2: www.nonesoblind.org/blog/?p=233
Chapter 3: www.nonesoblind.org/blog/?p=250
Chapter 4: www.nonesoblind.org/blog/?p=271
Chapter 5: www.nonesoblind.org/blog/?p=289
Chapter 6: www.nonesoblind.org/blog/?p=355
Chapter 7: www.nonesoblind.org/blog/?p=418