Where Will Our Words Lead Us?

It is raining. It is raining on the foot of snow that fell last week. It has been raining, it seems, since the beginning of August and it is now almost December.


I can hear the rain striking the roof, the snow melting on the drainpipes, and the wind in the naked trees. A woodpecker pecks on the wood siding of our house, then stops to look in the bedroom window at one of our cats, Tara, who looks back at him, excited.


Chickadees, blue jays, cardinals, tufted titmice, nuthatches, downy and red bellied woodpeckers, and squirrels surround a bird feeder hung from an apple tree branch and the food spread below it on the ground. The branches of the tree are tipped with light. Dripping ice or rain acts almost as a prism, not to refract but concentrate the light.


Max, another of our cats, sleeps between Linda, my wife, and me. Linda is reading a novel. I am writing this.


At first, it was not just the sky that was gray. My mood, even the trees, looked gray. I could barely see the blue of the blue jay or the red of the cardinal. But the more I listened to the rain and the snowmelt, listened for the moment words began to form in my mind, it all changed. The sky lightened as I focused on the light on the tips of the apple tree branches.


And when I allowed myself to feel the fact that this person and this cat were here next to me, one reading by my side, one sleeping by my hip, my mood lightened. All sorts of words came to me, but none were as deep or eloquent as the reality itself, or the feelings.


Our words can be the way we speak a self into existence. They can split the world in two by separating in our thinking what we perceive from who is doing the perceiving. We then think what we perceive is “out there” distinct from us “in here.” We think the gray mood we feel is entirely caused by the gray sky. We mistake the world of our words for the world itself. And then we imagine we live in that world of words.


Or words can be signposts leading us back to the point before words were born, to where we tie feelings to thoughts, sensations to memories, and create emotions and understandings. It is where we shape how we perceive the world with what we have learned about it. It is also where we all, where every single being, meets all others more directly. It is where practices such as mindfulness or meditation can lead us, so we learn how to pay attention, each moment, to whatever arises.


Emotion is not just feeling. It begins with feeling but includes thoughts, sensations, and proposed actions. Just consider the thoughts that go through your mind when you’re jealous, or the sensations you experience when angry. One purpose of emotion is to tag the stimuli we sense with value so we know how to think and act.


Daniel Siegel, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA, describes phases in the process of constructing emotion. The first phase is jolting our bodies to pay attention. Siegel calls this the “initial orienting response.” The second is “elaborative appraisal,” which includes using feelings to label stimuli as good or bad, dangerous or pleasing. We begin to construct meaning and then prepare for action. We feel good or threatened and then want to either approach or avoid someone or something. These first two phases can be unconscious. In the third phase our experience differentiates further into categorical emotions like sadness, happiness, and fear. And we have conscious responses.


Emotions thus integrate diverse realms of experience. They link physiological changes in our bodies, feelings and sensations, with words, with explanations of how things work, and with perceiving and communicating social signals. Without this orienting attention and assignment of value, we could not learn and we could not act. In other words, body, mind, and relationships arise together in an emotion.


In order to think clearly and act appropriately, we need to mindfully step back from any particular way of thinking about a situation or person. We need to reflect on how we are hearing words. Do we hear them as self-contained objects, whose meaning and very being is created entirely by the speaker? If we do this, the other can become a label, a threat distinct from us, and a not-me that we can have no empathy for or any relationship with. If we don’t hear what we say to ourselves, we miss a good part of any conversation.


Or when we hear the words of another person, do we hear them as arising from another thinking, feeling being not much different from us? Do we take time to pause and feel how his or her words radiate in our mind and heart? Do we respond not just to the meaning we think the other person intended but also to the whole situation—to our own humanity as well as theirs? Do we respond with care and awareness that what we say creates not only an identity for this other person but for our selves?


When we speak, we often think we are simply expressing what is in ourselves. We then don’t realize we can’t speak ourselves into existence without speaking an audience into existence. We speak to who we think the other person is, or who we would like them to be. So, before speaking or acting, it’s important to check how accurate or comprehensive our words are, and what they imply about ourselves, about whom we are with, and the nature of the world we live in.


And doing this can make all the difference. It can free us from a gray mood, allow us to realize the beauty in the rain, and really see who we are and who is sitting beside us.


This post was also syndicated by The Good Men Project

News Events and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

How and why do people hurt others? I am a mostly retired secondary school teacher. This question came up frequently in my classrooms in the past, and it has frequently been in my mind lately. Is it in our nature to hurt? Do many of us suffer from an empathy deficit disorder? Or do we hurt others when we are too distracted, lost in an emotion, or educated to ignore the pain of others except those who are close to us? Do we have to be “carefully taught” to turn a blind eye to those in need or those breathing close to us on the street?


This is a crucial question, for the living room as well as the classroom. It is the question of “what is human nature?” Or is there a human nature? It is a question about the psychology of violence and ethics. How do you stop violence? Or, what allows us to be violent towards other humans? It happens seemingly too often. How can we not see and feel another breathing, feeling, speaking being as essentially just like us? What goes on in the mind when this inner blindness or distortion or active antipathy occurs? There are so many ways to think about and try to answer the question, yet we have to struggle with it.


In Baltimore over 2 weeks ago, an African-American man named Freddie Gray died in the custody of police. Evidence revealed to date indicates he was not involved in any criminal act. Yet, he was arrested and is now dead. How can this happen? Why? There have been partial explanations revealed, charges filed, but still, there is no justifiable reason for this death.


When we perceive others, we do so in an environmental, social-historical as well as a personal context. We are always part of a context or situation. We make the situation meaningful by organizing all the sensory and other information we receive into a coherent structure, basically into a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. This story helps us remember details of our lives; it is built out of memories. It gives meaning not only to the situation but to ourselves. To create this structure, details must be selected. What supports the structure is perceived; what doesn’t is ignored. Once we have our story, we live an abstraction; we live at a distance. How much and what we feel, think and, thus, do is determined by the story. How we frame reality determines our sense of power, our sense of justice, and compassion.


So, what story were the police who arrested Freddie Gray and contributed to his death telling themselves? Did they see him as another person? And the news reporters talking about the demonstrations and violence: what story were they telling themselves, and telling us? Are the people who took to the streets demonstrators for justice? Are they moral citizens or criminals? Is the violence the consequence of people taking to the streets to speak out? Or the inevitable consequence of inequity and racism?  And the police—are they also seen as people? There are stories of great courage in Baltimore as well as ones of people losing control. Clearly, there are volumes of background stories, volumes of past history. Which stories get told? Where you begin your story and how you tell it has consequences. Are the news media considering the consequences of the stories they tell?


Dominique Hazzard, a teenager from Baltimore, wrote: “Imagine, for a second, that Maryland governor Larry Hogan called for a state of emergency when Freddie Gray’s spine was broken and his voice box was smashed [when he was] arrested for no reason.” A very different way to think of what happened; a very different story would have been told. Such perspectives need to enter classrooms and living rooms throughout the country.


There are many subjects students need to learn in school, how to read, write, be a responsible citizen and question. But one crucial subject is how their own minds work and how other people and social situations influence their viewpoints and values. It’s not just what happens that’s important; its what we tell ourselves about what’s happened. There’s always a difference between an event and the thoughts and memories of it, even when we try to tell the truth. The event is alive, fully now, rich in infinite detail. The memory, story, is, as I said, more selective, abstracted. We all need to learn how we construct the meaning and memory of what happens in our lives. Only if we notice something, whether it’s an injustice in our community or a mental pattern that causes suffering, can we act to stop it.


In order to understand how we construct meaning, we need to study the nature of emotion and how it arises in us. One purpose of emotion is to tag stimuli with value. It glues a story together. Daniel Siegel, in The Developing Mind, describes steps in the construction of emotion. The first step is arousing attention, what he calls the initial orienting response. Do we notice, pay attention or ignore a raw stimulus? The second adds memory and thoughts. It involves appraisal, which includes labeling stimuli as good, bad, or neutral, something to approach or avoid. The third step is experiencing the full emotion like sadness, happiness, fear. Without awareness of the initial signals to pay attention and then to approach a task, learning as well as timely action is nearly impossible. Without this awareness, we too easily convert living people into characters in a story.


Teachers need to select the stories they tell and the ones they assign not just with the eye of beauty but with the aim of improving social and self understanding, knowledge as well as awareness. They need to tell the story of how to create meaning and live meaningfully. They need to foster inner strength, understanding of how interconnected we all are, and a sense of responsibility for how we act.