Philosophy Tuesday

There’s an oft-used phrase that I think fits very well for many of the unconscious social constructs we often (nearly always?) find ourselves trapped in:

The Circular Firing Squad

While the phrase is most accurately used to describe situations where groups are engaged in self-destructive and internal conflicts and recriminations, I’m bending it here to mean… well, actually, pretty much the same thing.  It’s may not necessarily always be as destructive as the phrase implies (sometimes it may be Nerf weapons), but it still is quite similar.

What I mean here are all those situations where we are behaving in a certain way because we know everyone else expects us to behave that way, and we can see them all behaving that way… but the only reason everyone else is behaving that way and the reason they expect you to do so is for the exact same reason:  they also think you, and everyone else, expects it, and they also are following what you, and everyone else, is doing.

Which can lead to unproductive and deleterious but also sometimes hilarious situations.  Like how we often worry that we’ll be judged by others… when everyone else is also, simultaneously, worried they’ll be judged by us.  So much so, that they, and we, are often not judging them because we’re too worried about being judged.  It’s kind of delightfully absurd, isn’t it? How fascinating!

Of course, we do indeed often judge others – it’s a human thing to do – but our little and “normal” bit of judging is further encouraged and enhanced to an unproductive level by us creating and then living inside a context (or, more often, many contexts) that fosters and even demands judgement.  “If everyone judges, then I’d better judge to! (And get them first)!“ is a first level of this, but additional contexts, such as that of vertical individuality, push it even further until we’re in a full prison where we spend 90% of our time judging others, and the other 90% of the time worried about being judged.  No wonder we’re frazzled.

There’s a social capital “game” going on here, one that is, again, something quite human to do and not necessarily an issue.  It may even be necessary for a vibrant community.  But the unhealthy levels to which we play the game are driven only because everyone else is similarly playing it.  We see people out to get us, but they’re only doing so because they think we are out to get them.  And then we do go out to get them, because we think they’re out to get us, so we’d better get them first, which causes them to react in kind, which confirms our suspicions and… boom.  We’re caught in the circular firing squad.

How easy is it to see these and free ourselves from them?  Individually, it’s not that difficult.  We can recognize and not choose to play the game, or to play the game on our own terms in ways that are productive for all.  And the best part is that when we do so, we unconsciously give others the freedom to also forego the game.*  We can engage in more authentic ways; we can be free and self-expressed and at peace.  It’s a glorious thing.

The more we practice and lay down our metaphorical arms, the larger our circles of freedom become, and we begin to create new types of circular squads, squads of joy, love, support, excitement, creativity, peace, and more.


* Though it may take them a little while to get over their ingrained habits and fears.

Philosophy Tuesday

I’ve spoken a bunch on this blog about our identity/identities.  No surprise – it’s perhaps the most fundamental way we understand and interact with ourselves, and, as such, perhaps the most fundamental way we interact with and understand the world (through the filter of how it relates to us).  The three-part series that starts here is the big primer on our “identity of identities”, but later posts cover even more facets, including this one on the benefit of diversifying our identity/identities as well as this highly important bit about how our brains cannot tell the difference between an attack on our body or an attack on our identity.

All of which means that what we incorporate into our identities is vital, lest we lash ourselves to a narrow set of views and options (often leading to unproductive results) or lest we lash out in all sorts of deleterious ways when they are threatened (leading to further unproductivity).

But one thing I hadn’t really done before is to consider that there might be differences between the ‘intensity’ of our identities.  That is to say, I have been treating all of the identities we have as equal in their enforced rigidity as well as in their fervency.  But that doesn’t exactly fit with my lived experience, nor with the philosophical concepts of the gradient and the middle path.

And so, perhaps it’d be good to introduce into this mix the idea of “tiered” identities, where our Tier 1 identities are the most intense identities that govern our behaviour the most rigidly and to which our calculating self reacts the most ferociously if it feels threatened.  Tier 2 identities are less so, Tier 3 even less so, and our Tier 4 identities are, in many ways, only tenuously an identity and mostly are of the ‘for fun’ type relating to a casual hobby or interest.*

By looking at and recognizing our identities within this framework of Tiers allows us, for starters, to focus our mindfulness on those of the higher Tiers, as those are the ones most likely to lead us astray.**  It also opens flexibility, reminding us that we are always at choice and even something like our identity is malleable.  And it lets us have more fun!  We needn’t, even accidentally, tamp down our lower Tier identities for concern that they may run amok.*** We can be playful with them and let them lead us to be playful with others as well.

I’m intrigued to see what opens up for me as I begin to explore this more.  If you were to list your identities, what would you say they are, and, of those, what Tier would you assign to each?


* For sure, your hobbies or interests very much CAN be a higher Tier identity – for some it is their LIFE and they’ll twist everything in their lives for it and will react very harshly to anything that threatens it, whether external (someone speaks ill of it) or, perhaps, internal (an injury that removes their capacity to do it well or altogether).

** And when, by being present and mindful, we can notice that the default, already, always ways of being that live within those identities crop up in situations where they would not be productive and thus interrupt them before they cause undesired outcomes.  Remembering that our identities are a creation, we can set them aside and be another way or engage another more appropriate identity here.  (And, if it happens often enough, swap out that identity entirely).

*** Again, not to say they won’t or can’t run amok, but the chance is lower, and realizing they’re of lower intensity also has us realize they’re easier to interrupt and redirect ourselves before they go too far.

Philosophy Tuesday

“This morning, I’m thinking about this Wallace Stevens poem that begins, “Twenty men crossing a bridge into a village is twenty men crossing twenty bridges into twenty villages. The bridge is different to each of us, as is the village beyond.” I guess I’m thinking about this poem because I’m remembering a walk I took ten years ago with my friend Esther [across a bridge].

The bridge had a grated floor so that you could see through to the teeming river below and I’ve never been super enthusiastic about heights or, for that matter, bridges, and Esther, whose empathy dials were always turned up to 11, noticed there was something wrong. She told me that we were almost across the bridge and that I could take over pushing her wheelchair if I wanted something to hang on to. She knew my bridge was different from hers.

And so, the true observation is never ‘this bridge is terrifying’, instead, the only thing you can say with any certainty is ‘my bridge is terrifying, how ’bout yours?’

And then, this is real trick of living on a planet that contains many other human souls that are as valuable and multitudinous as your own, you must find a way to really listen to this other person’s answer and to believe in their experience as fully as we believe in our own.”

— John Green

(Ah, this whole piece is powerful and a delight all at the same time! If you have four minutes go hand have a watch/listen… It takes the idea of the river, of the cathedral, and even a bit on how every person you encounter meets a different you, and blends them all together into an uplifting call for empathy, not only for others, but for ourselves as well.  Is my bridge terrifying?  Do I feel as though it shouldn’t, and, more over, that I’m re bad for it feeling that way?  How fascinating!  I can let that be, for that is where I am right now.  And if it isn’t some place I want to be, I can forgo what’s wrong and look for what’s missing.  I can reach out and hold onto something and begin the work of transformation and possibility from there.)

Philosophy Tuesday

“… a lot of people think or believe or know they are being – but that’s thinking or believing or knowing, not being… almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to be.  Why?  Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you are being a lot of other people,  but the moment you are being, you’re nobody-but-yourself.”

—  e.e. cummings

Philosophy Tuesday

File this one as an expansion of “Yesterday’s Transformation is Today’s Ego Trip.”  Because while philosophy and ontological concepts and insights can create great openings and oodles of possibility for us and those around us, when our identities and world views are challenged, these critical tools can also be repurposed.  Rather than being mindful and doing the work and practice to remove our blind spots and barriers using our transformational knowledge, our calculating selves can instead pull a switcharoo and instead wield them as a weapon against that which challenges our world views and “truths.”

It’s paradoxical, perhaps, but the very same transformational knowledge is used instead to try and annihilate the incoming information, and it does so in the most efficient way possible:  by tying into our unrivaled capacity to be dismissive.

We turn our deep philosophical understanding (and groking) into dismissal missiles.

It’s foolproof, really.  With our smugness and certainty into our awareness of these concepts, we can brush away any incoming flak as just others falling for those traps.  “Yes, yes, it’s not us who has the blind spot; it’s clearly them.” *

As it turns out, no.  Anytime we’re engaging dismissiveness we’re not being mindful, present, or engaging with what’s so.  We’re not being aware and sage; we’re being resistant. And, in a way, we’re not even there – our authentic self is not in the driver’s seat.

We can learn the feeling of when we’re being smug, we can learn the feeling of when we’re hooked by something, and when we notice that rise we can learn to let it be and to engage our mindfulness.  What is it?  What’s so right now?  What might we need to let in?  In those moments we can then engage with our wholeheartedness and self, avoid arming our dismissal missiles, and explore what’s possible.


* The one I see most often is once people begin to understand the concept of Cognitive Dissonance (understand, not necessarily get or grok it).  Maybe it’s because CD is widely disseminated and easy to come across, and so by default it is most prevalent, but it otherwise seems especially prominent as a tool to shut down and dismiss someone else.  And then be used by that same originator over and over and over and over… (and I’ve never seen someone stop, realize, and say, “Wow, there’s so much CD going on, I wonder where I’m being susceptible to and falling prey to it?”)

Philosophy Tuesday

This question of maturity, so intimately tied to forgiveness, is the subject of another of [David] Whyte’s short essays. Echoing Anaïs Nin’s assertion that maturity is a matter of “unifying” and “integrating,” he writes:

“MATURITY is the ability to live fully and equally in multiple contexts; most especially, the ability, despite our grief and losses, to courageously inhabit the past the present and the future all at once. The wisdom that comes from maturity is recognized through a disciplined refusal to choose between or isolate three powerful dynamics that form human identity: what has happened, what is happening now and what is about to occur.

Immaturity is shown by making false choices: living only in the past, or only in the present, or only in the future, or even, living only two out of the three.

Maturity is not a static arrived platform, where life is viewed from a calm, untouched oasis of wisdom, but a living elemental frontier between what has happened, what is happening now and the consequences of that past and present; first imagined and then lived into the waiting future.

Maturity calls us to risk ourselves as much as immaturity, but for a bigger picture, a larger horizon; for a powerfully generous outward incarnation of our inward qualities and not for gains that make us smaller, even in the winning.”

Maturity, Whyte seems to suggest, becomes a kind of arrival at a sense of enoughness — a willingness to enact what Kurt Vonnegut considered one of the great human virtues: the ability to say, “If this isn’t nice, what is?” Whyte writes:

“Maturity beckons also, asking us to be larger, more fluid, more elemental, less cornered, less unilateral, a living conversational intuition between the inherited story, the one we are privileged to inhabit and the one, if we are large enough and broad enough, moveable enough and even, here enough, just, astonishingly, about to occur.”

Excerpt from an article on Brain Pickings by Maria Popova


Philosophy Tuesday

“I don’t have to run faster than the bear…

I just have to run faster than you.

While the above is not the actual quote,* it is how I first heard it.  You’ve might have heard some version of it as well.  And through its dark humour it speaks with a kind of seemingly unexplainable profoundness.

Whether there’s any truth to it in the physical realm (whether you live someplace where there are bears or not), the thing is that is does point to how we often relate to certain aspects of our life or of our behaviour.  Especially when it comes to the realms of morality or ethics.  It is quite easy to stop examining ourselves about whether we are living up to our ideals who we profess ourselves to be – including whether we’re being productive or unproductive, whether we are creating possibility or causing harm and hurt, whether we are working towards our common desires or running roughshod over others – and instead begin comparing ourselves to others, with one single metric.  To put in the same context as the above:

“… I just have to be better than you.

The game is no longer mindfulness, or self examination, or creation, or self-actualization.  That all gets short-circuited by the easy way out of comparison.  It’s a way to assuage our guilt.  Comparison smooths over the dissonance and discomfort that comes from stepping over our authentic self and its morals, ethics, ideals, values, and any of the bits that run counter to who we say we are.**

And it does a great job of it!  Inside the Bear game (aka “not as bad as…” game) we don’t gain peace, but it does move aside the confusion and unease and ache, at least temporarily.

But it will only ever be temporary.  Because we’ve got a break in our word, and a break in our world between our authentic self and how we’re being and behaving.

When we recognize the Bear game, we can put it aside.  We can let ourselves see those disconnects so that we can do something about them.  We can take action, do the work, create new clearings to step in to, and align ourselves with who we truly want to be.  We gain access to peace of mind, wonder, connection, and fulfillment, while also creating spaces where we can all flourish.


* The original, by Jim Butcher, is not presented as a punchline to a joke, being much more straightforward:  “You don’t have to run faster than the bear to get away. You just have to run faster than the guy next to you.”  It was meant as encouragement towards perseverance (specifically in becoming a writer) as well as a good reminder to stop focusing on our imperfections and that we don’t need to be perfect or the ultimate best in the world at something to enjoy fulfillment and success.  However, the version I’ve got stuck in my head, with its more pointed nature, is more perfect for delving into the inquiry at hand…

** Unless, of course, who you say you are is a jerk or tyrant or conniver or schemer or the like… in which case, there’s a different conversation that needs to be had to transform that!