New Tricks for Old Dogs

(Also available as a podcast )

You’ve been around the block a few times – you know what’s what. You have your own unique way of dealing with life, and have all sorts of tricks up your sleeve for when things don’t go the way you want, to make the cards you’re dealt a bit fairer. Whether it’s about making the best of your skills and qualities as a person, to get along in the world, and feel like you’re top dog, or just doing your best to make the best of the hand you’re dealt, you may well feel it’s all about how you play.

Everyone has their own way of dealing with challenges that come along, and life has a way of throwing hoops out in front of us, and saying “Jump!” We don’t always have a trick for every situation, and we can get stopped in our tracks, when we don’t know how to respond to a situation effectively. This can make for a lot of stress, since life is about learning new things, or learning the same things as everyone else, to fit in socially. There’s often the fear, a realistic one in many cases, that we will get left behind, and the hand holding the hoop, and demanding we jump, will whip us if we don’t learn quickly.

These are the pressures of the modern world, you might think, but there’s always been some pressure to conform, and learn the tricks required to fit in, or keep up, or whatever else is needed as a skill, in any society. Society isn’t as concerned about the individual’s happiness, as it is about the smooth functioning of its own organisational structures, in which you are just the dog that must jump through hoops, with no fancy treats if you don’t. There’s not a structure there to accommodate those who can’t, or won’t go along with the ring master, since it’s the antithesis of what a society is about, to live in a way that says you don’t need to learn its tricks to be able to live well.

Societies have to be about compromise, to an extent, since they generalise about individual behaviour, and advance the mean for the average, in terms of how you’re supposed to behave. The degree of personal freedom allowed depends on what kind of society you live in, of course, and the more repressive the society, the more they tend to talk about responsibility to others, and place value on that, rather than on individual rights and freedoms. Your rights don’t matter as much, if others’ as a group do, and if you don’t like how you’re told to behave, well, you can lump it.

If we think about it a little, we can see how much consensus is important, as a concept, in a society, to make that society function in such a way that the animals in it will learn to jump on command, or be shamed, or berated, or punished in some way, if they don’t. So control is a very big issue indeed, and a certain degree of uniformity encouraged in a society, with responsibility the flip side of being allowed any freedoms in it. Your master feeds you treats, and provides fresh straw for your cage, if you jump. If not, well, it’s your own fault what happens then, and you’re just a bad dog for biting the hand that feeds you, if you’re not always behaving in a grateful and obedient manner.

It’s harsh, but it could be argued it’s fair. It’s not argued as often that it’s also rather mad. This is because it’s a madness all humans have, to want to control things, and keep them stable, so it’s all considered perfectly normal, to want to tell others how to live, and expect them all to want the same things you do from life. It’s easier, if you don’t have to learn any new tricks, even if it’s not in nature’s nature to stay still. It’s built into every human mind, apparently, this kind of controlling behaviour. Or is it? Is it real, this need for stability and social structures that have some endurance, or is it a construct built on fear of losing ourselves, and our place in the structure, if we don’t jump when told, and just a lazy shortcut in thinking, so we don’t have to examine other people’s different notions about how things are, and feel more like we know what’s expected of us, so we don’t have the fear of the dark jungle, potential tigers, and feeling lost?

All animals have social structures of some kind. It’s a biological necessity for animals to work together to breed and get food, shelter, safety etc., but only humans seem to be able to turn the whole biological endeavour into a moral drama, since they have the trick of language, and with that comes all sorts of moral concepts, based on ideas about the nature of reality, rather than the reality itself. This is where it turns into a circus, because everyone has ideas about how everyone else should live, and it gets pretty heated when we don’t agree. One of the hardest things for humans to do is to just let someone get on with life, without telling them how to live, since we tend to see anyone who doesn’t think the same way about life as a threat to our own lifestyle, since they live in the same society, and therefore (again, depending on which societal model you use, in your local circus) have an effect on the running of that society.

You may have noticed that people tend to like people who they perceive as being like them, and tend to dislike people who they perceive as not being like them. It’s pretty easy to see why; those whose ideas are different represent a small threat to ideas about how society should run, and how personal behaviours and lifestyles fit into that structure, and so on. These different ideas are challenging, and hard work, intellectually, because they make you question why people should behave in certain ways, require you to argue your point to defend the status quo, and maybe be prepared to have to defend your argument logically. These issues can take quite some thinking through. If we have a way to make our minds up quickly, though, and don’t change our minds much subsequently, we won’t have to always stop to think carefully, or consider all the factors influencing every attitude we have, and this turns out to be a swift and energy-saving way to take action, and make decisions. This human trick is based on shortcuts and generalisations in our thinking, which are very good handy for acting swiftly, when dealing with attacking tigers, etc. Black spots on yellow background always means tiger, so panic, or run, or both, based on what our previous experience or our elders taught us.

You’ll seldom come across the idea that we shouldn’t be disapproving of another’s lifestyle, or beliefs, as long as the ideas being discussed aren’t our own, and if any hint arises in conversation that we could examine our own beliefs, we realise it’s a dangerous idea to express within a group, as it can cause the disapproval to be aimed at ourselves, rather than the intended target, situated in an out-group, not within our circle, if we express it aloud. It threatens the social cohesion of the group, to threaten any central or fervently held ideas it holds. Other people’s ideas, it seems, can be wild tigers waiting to spring at our throats, rather than obliging dogs that will jump through our little hoop for us, at times.

We don’t like pain, although interestingly it tends to be more memorable than pleasure. We tend to seek out pleasure, and avoid pain, because our human organism wants to live, and overall, happiness contributes to better health, and longer life, unlike stress and anxiety, which wears the organism down, maybe not as fast as a real tiger at your throat, but gnaws away, nevertheless. The displeasure we feel when encountering something which results in psychological pain is the same mechanism as that for physically painful encounters; escape as quickly as possible, is the message our minds and bodies are giving us. Go towards pleasure, and avoid pain, if you want to live longer, or just live.

The problem with pain avoidance though, is that we often can’t avoid pain. It’s part of life, and we have to tolerate a certain amount, to push through to pleasure. This perception of what pain is about, or for, and our way of jumping through hoops to avoid as much of it as is humanly possible, can actually create more pain for us than is necessary, through focussing on pain, in our fear of it, and effort to avoid it.

Part of the reason we sometimes seek to exert control over our environment, which includes other people, is to create a situation where it’s less likely we’ll experience pain we think they created in the first place, when they didn’t play the game we wanted, and jump through our hoops, and wanted to play the ring-master instead, trying to have us jump through their hoop. To plan for the avoidance of future pain, then, we become like hunters, lying in wait for our prey, watching out for pain, before it ever appears. It might not appear at all, but still we keep watch, and waste our nights looking out into the darkness, seeing movement in every bush, ready, and on high alert.

It’s tiring, and doesn’t always have much point, when you start thinking about it, because it doesn’t always prevent attacks, but can make us experience the tiger going for our throat many times over, in our imagination, and make us tend towards dwelling on pain, and wanting to inflict it on others, in retribution for what we perceive as pain entirely caused by their actions, and not also our responses to the threat. It’s very understandable that we would want to balance the justice scales in our own minds, by returning the pain to the source, as we might see it, but is it an optimal response, in terms of its effect on us, if it keeps us stuck in the same cycle of stimulus/response, and high alert state, when the stimulus may not be as immediately life-threatening as a real tiger attack? This is a very sensible life preserving function of our psyche, which unfortunately runs a bit haywire if we lose our perspective about the immediacy or seriousness of the threat to our lives, or lose our sense of perspective, because pain is more memorable than pleasure. Where does all the pleasure go, if you’re stuck in the pain?

Of course, a lot of this is just using metaphors, and ideas, to discuss societies and our roles and behaviours interpersonally, and within societies, and you could think about our interactions with other people in a variety of other ways, of which the way I’ve just used is only one that I was playing around with. The mind loves metaphor, but language is an approximation, remember, and it stands in as a description of the dog that’s jumping the hoop, rather than being the dog itself, or, for that matter, the hoop. The reality gets lost a little (or a good bit!) between the thing, and the conveying of the idea of the thing, in language. When you take away the stories, and points of view, you’re just left with reality, and that’s rather harder to control, because you haven’t written the story around it, and constructed the ending, which in the story I just told, consists of a life with no pain in it, just pleasure, all there at your fingertips, when you are the ring-master, and controlling everything skillfully. Sometimes, we’re so sold on the stories, that we can’t even see the reality of the thing in itself.

This is actually a really popular way to think about life, this pain-free life, these days. It’s possibly an offshoot of consumerism, or it might be just a natural by-product of being human, because we’ve developed this ability to think ahead, and plan, along with our ability to verbalise these plans we have for how everyone should behave around us, so we can be happy, and not have to experience pain. We often completely miss the fact that we would have no word for pleasure if we did not have a word for pain. There would be no distinction between the two, were both not present at times in our perception of reality, and our explanation for how reality works. We’d be at as much of a loss, in fact, without pain, as we would be without light and dark, good and evil, black and white, or any other opposites you can think of, for constructing our ideas, and categories for how things are , and how they should behave, the science of things, if you like, for the average thinker, who is a still quite a bit of a scientist, when it comes to organising ideas, or rules of thumb, in order to make sense of the world, for day to day functioning. The idea of removing one of these negatives in opposites from our concepts, like pain, or controlling it to the extent it isn’t part of your life, seems a bit ridiculous, then, yet this is what we seek to do with pain, when we imagine a life without it. Where would the value in comfort be, without discomfort, which is what the definition of pain is, if you look it up in our word-symbolism book, the dictionary, to establish what in the world it signifies?

People, it follows, although a pain in the behind at times, are a necessary evil, since we wouldn’t appreciate being alone with our freedoms, perhaps, if we didn’t experience them being under attack once in a while, just as we might not appreciate our individual uniqueness, if it wasn’t brought to our attention by other people’s behaviour being different to our own. I know, it’s a slightly simplistic way to put it, but look at the sunrise shown below, and then imagine there’s no sunset at the end of the day. The sun just stays up there all day. How much pleasure would you get out of that? How good for the planet, or any of us on it would that be, if things never changed? This is a simplistic argument, but we tend to forget that change is part of life, when we’re in the middle of suffering, or difficult situations, because we’re trying to exert some sort of control over something that’s happening, that we are wanting not to, or we think someone else is trying to control us, and make us jump through hoops, or learn new tricks we don’t want to learn. Change can be beautiful, but it isn’t always painless, even if it’s not always bad.

Should we seek to avoid pain, then, or to control the behaviour of others? It does seem necessary in some respects, if you want to live in society with others, and all animals have this give and take built in, at least the ones that survive, and thrive do. Humans, though, having the ability to over-think, as well as think things through, may be a bit too concerned with learning all kinds of fancy tricks for managing life, to really be getting pleasure out of how they live in the moment, aside from all the big plans, and ideas about how they and others should be living. Turns out that one of the best tricks you can learn is how to enjoy what you have, and are, and let go of worrying a little about what every else is up to, or wanting to have everyone behaving the same way. Let others jump through hoops, if they like, and enjoy watching the circus, or learn a few new tricks yourself, by all means, but ensure they’re the ones that do you the most good, in terms of your own happiness, as well as those you come into contact with. You deserve a little pleasure in your life, right now, as there’s only really now, when you take all the ideas and words away. Although pain may be inevitable, and necessary, you may find you still have some options when it comes to how much you want to suffer, or cause even more suffering, in your own life, or in others’ lives. Being happy is one of the most fun tricks you can learn. If the ring master isn’t happy with that, that’s his problem, not yours.