All over history, we see people repeat the same tired cliches again; repeat staggering errors in thinking time and again, as if there is no past. Even within our own lives, we do this, myself included of course. Many question why. We have a history! We actually know what happened! So how can we ignore it?! That is what we all ask ourselves and others at times.
The answers are still forthcoming. But I think I can at least give a glimpse of where the trouble lies. “Aye, there’s the rub!”, we will be able to say with Hamlet if we can open our eyes to creation.
Human beings do not see everything. That is even literally true. Our eyes (or brains) miss enormous amounts of visual information that they could have. The funny thing is that we get more than enough now so we don’t miss anything. Only in isolated moments, we realise that we lose information. But also in a more metaphysical sense, this is true. We have a limited view of what the world really is. We see certain regularities in our lives and then build in a image of it. But do we know everything?
This crucial! It is extremely important for us to realise that we work in our heads with a model of life, not life itself. A scientist who studies the universe, does measurements and on them, tries to build a model of reality. Scientists must never forget that their models are only a clever way of description, never the real thing. And what is true for scientists, goes for all human beings, especially in their daily lives.
We’ll have to look a bit at what thought is. Well, we don’t really know. In the seventeenth century, a philosopher tried to invent something like a chemistry of thought. He tried to break down thought into manageable units and the links between them. So he could make up ‘traffic rules’ of some sort. He failed of course. Still, interesting work. Leibniz compared the brain with a mill that milled perceptions. Later, in the twentieth century, the comparison with a telephone switching board seemed compelling. Still later, the comparison with a computer became popular. The novel idea in the computer-metaphor is that in a computer there is no longer a little man who does the work. A computer essentially works with information itself.
Metaphoric and ‘true’ reality combines here. In a way, our brain is a computer, a large part of what it does is computation. Still, it is a limited comparison. It is fascinating to see a human play chess with a computer. Their depth of play maybe equal but they go about it totally different. A respectable chess computer works its way through dozens of moves while even a brilliant chess player maybe prepares five. There have been brilliant children who could crack the biggest prime numbers in seconds. How did they do this?! We don’t know. Popular view had it that they used some kind of subconscious algorithm. But why is the computer-metaphor so compelling? I don’t believe the mind works algorithmic, like a computer.
Back to reality. Immanuel Kant wrote that the universe is both majestic and ridiculous. On the one side we may be these jewels of nature but on the other side we die as helpless, wasting, and cruel as Darwin wrote. “Like the bees and the horses.” This is all a way of seeing things. Are they true? I’d like you to stop and think about it for a bit. Were the two above statements true?
Before I answer, let us first remember that what we think is the world, is actually a self-constructed model. For all intents and purposes, it seems adequate most of the time but that does not change the idea. Kierkegaard said that we cannot know, only believe. Even in science, one of the most exact things around, most people think. Great biologists and neurologists have asked the question where our conscience, our mind begins. Information comes in through the eyes, the ears and other organs. Information comes out. We know that parts of the brain, dedicated to specific sensory functions, work very mechanistic. They can be seen as extensions of the sensory organs. But where does the mind begin? Where is the magical boundary where the person starts? This line would of course be very crinkly and turn around a lot but where is it?!
I don’t think there is such a boundary. Now, we slowly come to the point where the answer becomes clearer. In our society, we tend to think in absolutes. Centuries of mechanistic science have taught us that. In a way, science is our religion. We worship exactness. When we meet something that doesn’t work within our model, we have the choice between reworking our models or trying to force it into our existing model. And this is what most people do! This is the classical mistake that everyone always makes.
We come now to back to expectations. An expectation is really only a theory that we form, based on our experiences, our ‘model’. The dangerous thing is that we do it with life, not with physics. We continuously expect people to behave certain ways. Normally, we are quite good at it and it allows us to function socially. But the big problem – the ‘rub’, so to say – lies in the same mechanism. What if we’re wrong?
When we meet a person, we automatically take note of the physical appearance. This is a subconscious process, we rarely notice it. Then, we form a model. A first-time rudimentary model but a model it is. This is the reason we expect guys with glasses and bad hair to study physics or something equally nerd-like. This is why we expect blond girls to be stupid, people who wear white socks and sandals to be American tourists 😉 and old people to be frail and doting. Again, what if we are wrong? Some guys with glasses study drama or sports education. Blond girls are normally just as intelligent as others and old people can be quite active. (American tourists are always the same, however. LOL)
What if we are wrong indeed? With strangers we know consciously that we don’t really know that person very well but who says we don’t make the same mistakes with people we do know? Well, we do.
A lot of the helps that TAO receives every week are about problems that can be traced back to expectations, or rather their failure. How does this work?
Let me tell you.
A girl of 15 years old lives with her parents. Her parents are on the verge of a divorce, the girl doesn’t get that much attention. She thinks that she is very adult and should be allowed some freedom. Contrary to her beliefs, she is not allowed to leave the house after nine. This girl gets into drugs and runs away frequently. The parents ground her. Only an example of course but we get the help-mail, either from this girl or one of the parents. The pattern is clear: We see the two parents and their daughter living past each other as separate entities, each busy with feeling bad about themselves. The parents had lots of expectations about marriage. (It is the most wonderful day of your life!) Apparently, they guessed wrongly, it didn’t turn out like they wanted to. They expect their daughter to be well- behaved. The daughter isn’t, for several reasons. She expects her parents to be good examples and to be there for her. To love her and show it. They aren’t’ and don’t, again for various reasons.
Can you see all those expectations colliding? An immediate answer for this example cannot be given. Too much was lost, broken to repair it instantly. I would advise this family to stand still for a moment, allow themselves to refocus on their priorities and talk a lot. With respect for everyone.
The crux here is that everyone expected the others to behave like they thought they would behave and they were all wrong. This is only one example but we can see how ‘backfiring expectations’ can hurt so much. (I use this term contrary to functional expectations, the ones that do work and allow us to function socially.)
Not the solution but maybe _a_ solution could be a change in our mode of thinking. I stated earlier that we like to thing in exact things. We do not even need to change that but what we all do need to do is to make this mechanism conscious. We need to be consciously aware at all times that expectations function in us and that they are not reality. We can use them to predict things about reality but they are not reality themselves. (No one ever mistakes the forecasts for the weather itself, do they?) This may be a long and difficult process but I really believe we should do this.
We should let loose the idea that reality is absolute. We now know that we miss a lot of information and that our view of reality is a personalized model and not reality itself. If we know this, then why not let go of the entire idea of ‘reality’? It is a nice concept, we can use it as a structural term or in relation with religion but we cannot use it for normal perception. This is a very important idea. If no one of us can claim that his or her view of reality is the ‘true’ one, then, essentially, there is no ‘true reality’ for us. There may be an ‘absolute reality’ but then that is beyond our thoughts.
Therefore, my plea for a more ‘fluid’ view on reality. There is one more pointer to this idea that should be given: memory. In popular culture, our memory is often compared to a computer’s hard drive. Wrongly. Metaphors like this are all very well as long as we keep in mind that memory is not a hard drive. We don’t even ‘store’ information that way.
Memory is still little understood but what we do know is that we not carry some sort of video tape on which everything is recorded. Memories are stored associativity, and colored by feelings. Some can disappear at all due to trauma, sometimes memories exist of things that did not even happen. I could clearly remember having visited a castle with my boyfriend but when I told him he didn’t recall. It wasn’t even possible as I didn’t even know him at the time. How did this happen? This is also why witnesses in court sometimes tell totally different stories. They are not lying, according to their memory, they tell the absolute truth. What is absolute reality when we can’t even know for sure what happened before?
I still haven’t given an answer as to why people repeat all those mistakes from the past time and again. Well, I still don’t really know but I think the matter is closely related to what I have spoken about. I don’t really know. Important to break through this mechanism is – I think – becoming aware of our expectations.
If we start to become consciously aware of our expectations, their possible inaccuracy and the fact that we all perceive life differently, life should not become more complicated but easier. Easier because mistake in expectation would not longer hurt us and others. We could simply acknowledge being wrong. One change in thinking. But it would constitute a fundamental leap for our cultures into a new unknown mode of thinking.