As strange as their content may be, ideas themselves are peculiar beasts. Some of them occur to us at inopportune times, begging to be remembered yet often doomed to a fog that makes us ask “What was I thinking?”
Others might pop in and out, emerging at times we are unable to do anything about them, and then receding in our mind once we’re in a position to act on them. Some still are more themes than flashes, presenting themselves regularly over time with demands over our attention, thought and otherwise trying to move from the idea to belief.
The idea in question is simple. From our thoughts to the way we act, our lives are guided by patterns.
People are good at seeing patterns. Perhaps it’s a case of projection, asserting a set of rules upon what would otherwise be indecipherable chaos.
In the Wild
Over the past week, I’ve had two mock arguments on Twitter. They were nonsensical in effect, yet at their heart, they mirrored the actual arguments that do occur with relation to sexism and representation.
While neither intentionally began that way, the further the banter progressed, the more uncomfortable it became.
That it was there as a mirror, holding up a reflection of what happens in such arguments was a huge part of it, morbidity by association as it were. Yet it was the automatic nature of the responses, the lack of critical thinking required to accurately duplicate both sides of those discussions, as though I and the other participant were guided by a script we’d agreed upon previously.
Is it the case that these conversations have become so predictable as to become meaningless? If our response is already set, in what way can progress or understanding be reached?
If you do follow me on Twitter, you may have seen me lament on this. If not (or if you missed it), I expressed my sentiment as this: “That we fall into our scripts with ease, repeating words that have become a kind of mantra, belies unfathomable sterility in our thought.”
Even when we haven’t been participants in these discussions, either because we’ve stayed passive observers or commented about them elsewhere, we might have been exposed to them. We see the pattern to the conversation repeated across discussions, to the point we know what objections will be raised to any calls of diversity or equality. When in the situation ourselves, our automatic response is to fall back to the standard replies, and it can happen because we’re guided by a pattern – one we’ve observed before.
It isn’t the first time I’ve written something about this idea. The Holding Pattern presents the idea as an afterthought, while an SWF-inspired post, The Dangerous Power of Story, furthered the idea that it’s what we consume that informs how what and how we think.
Let’s not sidestep the point this time, nor try to cushion it.
You are brainwashed by the world around you. You are effectively being conditioned to act a certain way, to feel a certain way, and to think a certain way.
This may not be a circumstance brought about by malevolence. One of the primary ways in which we learn is through repetition, mimicking the strange sounds spoken.
Obviously I can’t know exactly how people think, in terms of how their own thoughts are formulated, assembled or structured. In my own case, sometimes there are vague concepts that no words can present, but in most cases I have words and sentences dancing about in there.
Sometimes I think aloud (coded: talk to myself), and while the pace is different, it is not so dissimilar to how the thoughts are there in my head.
Given the phenomena of talking to one’s self is not merely limited to me, I assume, rightly or wrongly, that language is a chief part of how our thoughts exist in our heads. I’ve also experienced (years ago) having thoughts and dreams in a language that was not of my native tongue, at a time when I was thoroughly absorbed in another place, culture and language. The use and repetition of another language affected my thoughts.
Beyond stretches of immersion in subjects or methods entirely new to us, we are also presented with a steady stream of information through our lives. It affects us. Reading widely enriches our vocabulary. Phrases or words in written works enter the mainstream, becoming part of the established language and in turn, our thoughts.
Everything that we do without conscious thought then becomes a product of what we have consumed. Our habits become entrenched as a part of ourselves, and any diversion from the pattern seems wrong or risky.
The prevalence of bite-size wisdom diminishes our thought. Brief slogans related to political interests are effective because of their simplicity, and the presumption that the issues they concern can be adequately summarised in a single breath. When we revert to the unseen script in our beliefs or responses, when no active thinking is required for us to reply, we are following a pattern.
We become passive observers in our own life as a result, unable to exert control – even over our thoughts.
When I was at university, I went off-book a little. I needed to take a few electives, and none of those in my degree appealed. I saw that there was another one I was interested in, over in a different academic stream. Surprise surprise, it was writing. One of the tasks/challenges I remember most vividly from that elective, was an exercise in describing a tree.
In the exercise, we would write down a list of twenty words (though may have been more) that could be associated with a tree (whatever came to mind). Once we had our list, we were asked to describe the tree, using not one of the words in the list. What followed were descriptions of difference, beyond what was conventional, yet still targeting the essence of a tree. We had to be more mindful in the construction of our sentences, forsaking the easy road of greens, bark, leaves and wood, for something else.
It’s not a unique exercise, and I’m certain I’ve happened across a similar one before. I know even outside of that, I tend to prefer to phrase things in ways that may not flow predictably, even if slows down the pace with which one can read my writing. If I had to pin a descriptor upon my writing style, needlessly complex might be most accurate.
The challenge may be to reverse the codification of our belief systems, whether it be in terms of politics, social issues, religion, or other values.
It is to be aware of our thoughts, to dig further into their source and their meaning. It is to deny the explanations that trickle from our tongue before they’ve been examined by our own thought. No conversation can take place until we deny the familiar fall-back positions, and refuse the statements we have learned by rote.
Go beyond the default.