Friday, March 18, 2016

Cross-Section of a Catastrophe

This is another jumble of thoughts, so I'm just going to stream them as I can and see how it goes.

When I was in 10th grade, I was part of a small club at my school that was focused on philosophy. There was one thing a friend there brought up which I recall a lot, which was Transactional Analysis. TA was the first time I think I could put to words the concept of tone and intention beyond just terminology. Then shortly thereafter I was reading a poem by Charles Harper Webb called "Tone of Voice.[1]" The last line of it stuck with me:

As useless to protest, "I didn't mean that," / as to tell a corpse, "Stand up. You misinterpreted my car."
This imagery of words having profound impact is quite the opposite of the rhyme I was told as a child, which was "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Yet I feel it's almost the opposite. I have a scar on my arm from a hot pan I bumped into while being careless in the kitchen, and a scar on my heart from where a girl I liked told me I was worthless. I have no problem cooking food near hot pans now, but I still treat relationships like it will lash out just as badly years later.

Actually, to that point, I think there's an important distinction here which leads to my connected thoughts. Those word scars are variable. A rock thrown by a friend or a foe will hurt just as much when it hits you. But scathing words from a friend, spoken with anger, hurt worse than any bully's vitriol. And the reason there is because friends we form some sense of trust with. We open ourselves to them, give them a greater view of who we are. And with that power, we give them the ability to bolster us into the people we were meant to be, or tear us apart into husks of humans. It's a huge amount of vulnerability, and I think it's why it makes us all so gun-shy to open our hearts. Either we've been wounded, or we've seen the damage it can inflict, so we guard our hearts, lock them in iron, so we never hurt again.

I made the observation recently to some friends that conversations and social interactions are like a lot of people in a dark room swinging sledgehammers in a hammer throw stance. We're spinning circles in the dark and sometime we connect with another person. And we may not be able to see the impact, but it happens, and it may be grazing, crippling, or fatal. And in turn, we never know when someone else's words will slam into us in ways we never imagined.

I recall another point from those high school years when I made some scoffing comment about someone's car being fuel inefficient, and another person pointed out that I'm not driving an economy car either. That comment, my embarrassment, and the truth of her remark sticks with me to this day. I recall "she was right, I was totally trying to feel superior even though, in the grand scheme, I'm not much different." I suspect she wouldn't recall it at all if I ran into her again, maybe even like the other girl who told me I was worthless, but those moments have lasted with me for more years than I would have imagined.

So these sledgehammer comments can be words, or tone, or contextual. And using the same pirouetting sledgehammer image, we are never quite sure when they'll happen. Though, as you spend more time with people, you interact more, and have more chances to do this. I then picture knowing people as getting some illumination. You can predict the swing, you can gauge your momentum and hopefully achieve harmonious synchronicity. Or, you can use this new knowledge for evil and give them a well-aimed blow with the sledge.


This gave way to my other thought, which is that this TA view tends to deal primarily with the external interactions. But we also have internal dialogue, and a whole world of thoughts, reactions, and complications happening below the surface. So I myself am a few layers before you get to the sledgehammer level, and so are others.

I wouldn't say they map specifically to Freud's model psyche with id, ego, and super-ego[2], but maybe it's just my unfamiliarity with the concept and I'm really reinventing the wheel.

So the inner layer is the core of me, or who I think I am. What my perception of the true me is, or my identity. Then comes the self-perceptive level, which is how I perceive my surroundings and things that happen to me, and what parts of me I think I express through the next level, the behavioral layer. The outer layer is the interaction layer, which is the observable portion, or the conversations we have with other people and can be the closest to factual interactions as possible. Below this interactive layer is what is subjectively done inside me, and thus harder to analyze both in myself and in others.

There's sadly no debugger for humans, or at least not one I know of. Otherwise this would be significantly easier to diagnose.

So let's take my model for a spin. Let's say I see a friend feeling sad. My interaction layer see's her agitation, hears her voice, notes her comments about sadness. These are observable and objective assessments of the situation. My behavioral layer first is the part that translates things like tears into strong emotions, or words into context of what happened to cause the sadness. It also passes those concepts into the self-perception layer. This is the part of me I consider my active consciousness, which processes this information and tries to assess things like "am I the cause of this sadness" or "what caused the sadness." But it also passes a request to my core, some sort of question like "have I felt like this before?" to which my identity then works on, and pulls up things like when I was heartbroken, or when I was injured and in pain. It passes that story, that piece of me, back to my introspective side, which converts that information into something that can be output to others. I may repeat the story, showing when I was like that too, give her some insight. Or maybe it just compiles the information and decides that hugs are helpful to me when I'm down, so I'll offer a hug to her.

You can picture this replicated in her too. She's going through some intense emotional stress, which is affecting the identity. So it tells the perceptive layer that it's in emotional pain, and things suck. That gets filtered through behavior as crying and venting to a friend, which are the interactive results.

As a person who has spent a decent amount of time trying to puzzle through programming, this is sort of a hybrid of encapsulation and abstraction. In one sense, the Eric instance has a core identity, which is surrounded by the perceptive layer, and then behavioral layer around that. The outer edge is the interactive portion, which is the massive pool we're all swimming in. So some other person instance might bump up against me, trading interactions, which then get passed through these filter layers.

Other times, I may just sit inside my own self-perception layer, trying to understand the identity, and try to figure out where the behavior comes from. The abstraction layers here[3][4], are not static. They are not just functions that take one input and output something else, but they have their own context and shaping that has happened in them. Some of those subconscious things will come out in these, like maybe a practiced response to a phrase will trigger in the behavioral layer before anything else is consulted. Maybe the identity and the perception will spend hours reassessing past mistakes in hopes to glean a new outcome, while the behavior (and the body) sit idly by waiting for something to do [5].

So all that said, I'm sure it needs work and some refining, but I find it a useful way to view my interactions with people, especially because I exist in some privileged context where I view my whole cross-section of interactions, but I only have the observable interactive layer for others. So if they're just an abstraction of their interactions, one cool move makes everyone thing that person is calm and collected, while inside they may be secretly falling to pieces under the stress of all their questions and reactions, but are controlled in what they let out to the interactive layer.

It also makes sense why we're our biggest critics. We have this expanded view of what we are both capable of and where we fail. I know I'm prone to giving grace to others because I don't know what's affecting them. But for some reason, to myself, I give no grace even though I have a very deep knowledge of all the things I'm wrestling with.

1: Google Books copy of Liver by Charles Harper Webb
2: This seems like a decent summary of Freud's model:
4: Another post of mine on the topic of object oriented humans and some abstraction.
5:  There's an Onion News sketch about this, which I think sums up the anxiety loop fairly well, and I am prone to getting caught in it. You can watch it here: