Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Vital Lie

Bertolt Brecht wrote a play about denial, among other themes, called Galileo. In one scene a small boy is energetically engaged, like his playmates, in stoning the hut of an old woman. "What are you doing?" Galileo asks. "Why are you throwing stones at that hut?"

"She's a witch!" the boy responds, "everyone knows it." "A witch? Well, let's investigate," Galileo says, raising the boy to the hut's window. "Now, what do you see with your own eyes?"
"Just an old woman stirring porridge," the boy reports. Pleased, Galileo lowers the boy, who runs off to join his friends. "She is a witch! she is a witch!" the boy cries.

As the real Galileo Galilei found from personal experience, people are capable of denying not only what is proven to them, but even what they see with their own eyes or hear with their own ears if the truth conflicts with what they wish to believe. Given that we all want to feel that we are reasonable and open-minded to new evidence, why is this so?

There are many reasons we cling to our perceptions, right or wrong. Sometimes the truth is too painful to admit, or we fear that its consequences might be more than we think we could handle. Other times we might deny to protect our ego, if the truth might force us to admit we are guilty of something, or weak, or lacking in talent or ability, or wrong about something we hold dear. Whatever the reason, it amazes me to what lengths people will go to protect themselves, their families and friends, against truths they don't want to admit. Sometimes it might be a child's not winning a dance contest to a stage mom, or accepting a son or daughter really was disruptive in class, or a third really started that fight. Few of us seem to need truth so much as our own protections and rationalizations.

We will accept only as much truth as we can while still protecting our self-image and retaining our self-respect. We must, to live. We will believe whatever we must to survive, physically and emotionally. Otherwise we can turn on ourselves. So we deny, and spare no means to prop ourselves up with our "vital lies"--the false but cherished perceptions that keep us happy. That is why I am convinced that I'm only forty-something when I shave and brush my thinning hair just so, to one side so as not to see too much scalp shining through; that I'm really about six feet tall instead of five-nine and shrinking; that my waning mental age, which my wife's new Brain Age game tells me is eighty, is only a parlor game and has no basis in fact. It is also why I'm often absolutely convinced I'm right about something when I'm not.

But these things are well-known. Most people realize deep down that we all try to hide our weaknesses and blemishes, that we all kid ourselves. We know it just means we're human. And we still accept one another and care about one another, with all our delusions faults, warts and all and hope others will respond in kind and treat us the way we'd like to think we are. When it arises from good intentions, Denial--and her handmaiden, Tact--provide the balm that keeps us going.

What may not be as well understood is the role of emotion in these false perceptions. If I want to believe something badly enough, if I feel strongly about it, I am apt to believe it because I feel it so much. If I feel it so deeply, I reason, it must be so. The feeling itself creates the "resonance of truth" much the way the mind resonates when a reasoned proof is perceived through argument, or a fact is proven to us scientifically that we cannot deny. Emotion, in fact, is a very physical thing, not just an internal phenomenon. When we feel strong emotion, our galvanic skin response changes, our heartrate and blood pressure change, and our "feeling" can be measured and identified to the trained eye. So a false perception, like an accurate one, can produce the same strong feelings as far as the mind is concerned. Reality is what we perceive it to be, in other words, and we can prove it to the machines and technicians. Is it any wonder, then, that ewe create "our" own truths, and cling to them in the face of nearly every challenge? Denial, in that respect, is simply the affirmation of a different truth: the one we choose to believe, the one we really "feel" is true. Watch the big screen--and pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

Monday, January 15, 2007

No-yes, Yes-no, and Engineers

English teachers caution against expressing a double negative. My English department head told me this story:

A man ran out of gasoline and was stranded on the roadside when another car stopped. "What's the problem?" the driver asked. "I don't got no gasoline," the first replied. My department head told me this story and added the punchline, "Only a fool or a grammarian would conclude the first driver had gasoline."

To that story today I would add "...or a computer engineer." Engineers don't think like I do, and I spend half my computer time trying to figure out what they were thinking when I run into snags running my programs. Much of the time my misunderstandings are semantic, and when I do realize what a certain thing meant to the engineer, it makes sense--but only in the most Byzantine (to me) of ways.

When one says a statement like "The woman said 'no,'" to me it is a negative statement. Not to a software designer, who might see it as 1) a declaration was uttered ("yes"), that a woman said something ("no"). Yes, she said no, in other words.

My son got me some remote control plugins which enable me to turn lights on and off automatically from my desktop computer. The program configures an a/c interface to send signals into the a/c house wiring itself which can be picked up in any room by plugins. However, there is one house circuit which doesn't carry these signals due to the way the house was originally wired. To make a lamp turn on in my living room requires an RF (wireless, broadcast) signal, and in addition to configuring the module itself in my computer, I must configure a separate "macro" to turn it on, and another to turn it "off." Each macro, in turn, must create its own timer to tell the "on" one exactly when to signal the switch module to activate, and another timer to tell the "off" macro when to signal the switch module to switch the lamp off.

So within the first macro, I needed to select "on" to activate the macro and "on" to signal the switch to turn on the lamp. So far, so good. But within the second macro, I need to select "on" to activate that macro but "off" to send a lamp switch-off command to the module. Yes-no, in other words. To an engineer, that makes perfect sense. To me, it's bad semantics. I think activating the macro should be termed not "on/off" but "activate/deactivate" or "enable/disable" so as not to confuse that selection with the "on/off."

When I run into this kind of engineer's logic, I get very frustrated trying to second-guess it. At such times I have to remind myself how stupid these machines really are; they do exactly what they are told to do, and they can't interpret things in any but one way. They can't understand the human intentions behind what is said, or the feelings or emotions behind the commands which most people can, intuitively. People can often sense what we really mean behind the words, and can often sense when we don't mean what we say, or are kidding or lying or being sarcastic. Computers, unfortunately, "believe" everything we say, and can "understand" only the very precise meaning of each word. Yes, they cannot, no.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Ma Coat, Ma Hat, Ma Gandhi

It is said that one of the world's most influential philosophical and political figures of all time, had in his possession at the time of his death only a few meagre items. Other than his personal effects--spectacles, a loincloth or two--he "owned" only his small, low writing desk, pens and papers. Yet Mahatma Gandhi, father of nonviolent resistance, was to move mountains as India's leader and an inspiration to Martin Luther King's social preachings. His spartan existence begs the question of how many things we need to acquire in order to feel fulfilled.

Acquisitiveness is a disease nearly all of us carry most of our lives, and Americans, in particular, have this malady in abundance. We each pursue our American Dream in our own way, but acquiring (and parading our trophies) more and more things in a constant stream of purchases seems a vital part of it. And why shouldn't we? In this amazing land of unlimited personal opportunity and availability of a seemingly infinite supply of new products and gadgets, we get and spend, get and spend, and get some more.

I'm not suggesting there's anything wrong with acquisitiveness per se. We all admire those who have become materially successful--especially if they share their wealth with others, but there aren't many Gandhi's among us, happy with only "a few nice things." To criticize acquisitiveness, which it seems has become almost synonymous with our Constitutionally guaranteed right to pursue our happiness in our own way, might even question patriotism. If everyone in this society were a Gandhi, consider the economic collapse as the stores would close, the factories stop making so many things, and most jobs would be lost--in short, without our acquisitiveness, we couldn't sustain our lives as we know them. But given Gandhi's life and legacy, it is interesting to consider what we really need.

The results of our constant acquisition are that we gorge ourselves externally, in the same way that we seem to gorge our palates internally, and have nowhere to put all our stuff. Our living space has grown from an average 1,500 square feet residence of our parents to an average 2,500 square feet, though the size of our families has shrunk, largely due to the need for more places to put all our stuff. And without enough space in the house and the closets, we take over the spare rooms, the garage, the attic, the basement, and keep on going by getting sheds to store more stuff. Out paths inside the house are shrinking from clutter and basically crowding us out! Yet still we are loathe to part with one item we "own." We might need it someday. The children might want it. It always meant so much to us sentimentally. It's still perfectly good. Our excuses are always ready and sufficient to overcome our occasional remorse for our material obsessions. America is one of the few societies in the world to spawn an entire industry of storage facilities that have sprung up in every state, just to have someplace to handle the overflow of our stuff.

The tendency to create clutter, interestingly presented in last December's issue of the AARP's magazine Modern Maturity, may be in part hereditary. But it's probably more sociological. Our fast-paced lives and limited interaction with family, friends, and neighbors may contribute to our need to acquire more material things, to reassure ourselves that we've got something to show for our efforts, because we can see and touch our "trophies." And we don't let go of anything, because it represents a sense of continuity of who we are, as we bring the past--as much as we can drag of it--with us into the present. Perhaps it gives us as well a sense of control, because let's face it, without our "stuff" we have no idea who we are.

But when we confront who we are independently of our possessions, our trophies, our bank balances and our net material worth, we can begin to see those things that really are important, and they're within us, not without. Our selves, our health, our values, our relationships, our friendships, our characters and honor, our choices and experiences, our service to others, our faith and our loyalties--those things Gandhi had and didn't need much else.