What is Discovered When We’re Looking to Know Ourselves

By Arnold Siegel

It’s interesting to discover when we’re looking to know ourselves—to know what makes us tick, so to speak—that we often find our “answers” when we look at ourselves as one among many. Yes, each of us is unique. Yet all of us are here. Set down. Made. What do I mean by “made?”

We all come into the world at the effect of the authority of the natural, historical and linguistic experimental design and ordering of the human condition. The design and ordering appeal to our desires; exploit our fears (with natural intimidation or with cultural or human-made criteria which generate sentiments such as shame, ridicule, embarrassment and pity); and attempt to motivate us to adapt to the environments in which we find ourselves and to compete successfully over the course of a lifetime.

In other words, much of who we are is already done. So much has already been written on our bodies, our brains. (Our scientists tell us that our reflexes and habits or patterns of being are neuronally encoded, that is, actually written on the brain.) We already have a perspective from which to observe and it’s not a neutral position.

Why do we have certain prejudices? Why do we have certain beliefs? Why do we have specific desires? To some extent our genes may determine that we have these propensities. But where we were reared and the demands of modern life have focused them in a particular way. The “mass of expectations” that we are is not based upon informed thoughtfulness. Our expectations are based on a combination of the ideas of others; on unexamined, untested received opinion and on marching orders from our genes. How little of what is already done did we do with our eyes open?

And, as happens to most of us, what that perspective yields is a narrow and simplistic picture of the world. But in fact the bigger picture of the world that we are trying to acquire by studying autonomy and life includes, complexity, complication, intricacy, mixed messages, irony, layers of meaning, messiness, disorderliness, conflict, paradox, shades of gray, ambiguity, inconsistency, friction, disharmony, disunity.

Think about it. Think about just how “un” black and white the world is. In fact, the issue of conflicting or incommensurate values or truth comes up all the time—with children, peers, employees, spouse and with oneself.

Judgments, choices and decisions made by the smartest of us, as well as those made by the most naive, still effect consequences unforeseen and unexpected. Is it not true that obviously “right” and “wrong” decisions, choices and actions are few and far between; that many of the informed choices we make in good conscience still subject us to great pangs of regret and to consequences such as loss, failure and grief; that solutions or adaptations we choose give rise, themselves, to a new set of problems.

Is it not true that nostalgic dreams about lovers or friends we’ve chosen to leave behind crop up while we’re sleeping, as do nightmares portending misfortune or loss associated with choices well conceived and strategized; that there are limits to what relationships can provide — whether or not we choose to marry; holidays can look bleak whether we do or do not choose to have children; that choosing to allow truant older children to live at home may be risky and that choosing to ask them to leave may result in unthinkable consequences.

Is it not true that choosing to retain incompetent or deceptive employees may be risky and that choosing to fire them may result in crushing lawsuits; choosing to ignore the odd behavior of the neighbors may be risky and that interfering with their privacy may cause great disruption to your own family; that if we don’t choose to practice religion, we may experience moments of hopelessness and meaninglessness and if we do choose to practice religion, we may still have to fight down existential anxiety.

Is it not true that choosing to indulge our passions may cause pain to those who would have us choose otherwise and that if we don’t choose to go with our passions, we may grow old feeling we have lived terrible and little lives; that we can expect to have feelings of blame, shame, remorse, guilt, anguish, loneliness, indifference, hostility, disgust, self-reproach, regardless of the excellence of our judgments, decisions and choices?