Impending Doom

RiverThe game begins when we are tossed into the river of life. Unable to swim on our own, we begin totally reliant on others. These guardians provide the raft, and help structure our experience. The rafts vary in their capability to match the demands of the river. Some can move to smoother waters, while others never stray far from peril. Every alternative shapes our experience, pleasure and pain directing our path as we seek more of one and less of the other. Pain echoes the roar of what inextricably draws the river’s current. Is it perilous or is it benign? That roar, which reminds us that life on the river is fragile, is an existential given in our lives, and in all the life that has gone before us — impending doom.

The word impending has its origin in the Latin word “impendēre” which means to hang over, to be imminent. Doom has several contemporary meanings, including unavoidable bad fortune, ruin or death, an unfavorable judgment, decision or sentence. AlfredTheGreatYet, the etymology of doom is from an Anglo-Saxon word, “dom,” that means judgment or law. As an aside, it turns out, my 35th great-grandfather, King Alfred The Great (848-901 C.E.), compiled a dom-boc (doom book or law code) which attempted to blend the Mosaic code with Christian principles and three pre-existing Saxon codes. Winston Churchill credited the Laws of Alfred, which were continually amplified by his successors, as the basis for what grew into that body of common law, which has guided and constrained much of the world.

Games are built around rules, and the game of life is no exception. Rules of all sorts hang over us in life. Human laws, natural laws, and a myriad of rules connected to our personal and commercial interactions in the world, foremost are those we feel from within. Like King Alfred, we each create a personal dom-boc. This “creation” is an implicit process, generally happening outside our awareness, and built upon a foundation developed in our earliest years of childhood. Emotional interaction with our dom-boc is a fundamental activity of our minds. We live in fear of breaking the rules, being found out, judged, sentenced…doomed, whether by God, nature, or our fellow human — no wonder fear, anxiety, and worry play such a central role in living. While commonalities abound, we each have a unique dom-boc. We each construe the rules of the game and feel something slightly different hanging over us. While we tend to judge others based on our personal rules, since no one plays the same game or has the same rule book, we should consider caution in these evaluations.

There are many ways to play this game, so each of us faces our own version of impending doom. Each mind, to one degree or another, scans for what is deemed a meaningful threat, danger, or judgment — our flavor of impending doom. Impending doom is an inner experience, its meaning and consequences are constructed by the mind, and this perception frames our experience and sets limits on our actions and even our thoughts. We cannot cheat the game, but not all the rules are as rigid as we might suppose. Sometimes it makes sense to question authority, especially when that authority commands from our subconscious. Paying attention to the rules that guide our lives can be very revealing. When we shift our rules, the game changes. We each have to play our own game, which involves determining our purpose, our set of rules, and managing our experience of impending doom. How that balance is achieved, is the essence of the game.

“I am willing to take life as a game of chess in which the first rules are not open to discussion. No one asks why the knight is allowed his eccentric hop, why the castle may only go straight and the bishop obliquely. These things are to be accepted, and with these rules the game must be played: it is foolish to complain of them.”

W. Somerset Maugham


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

Growing Around

treethroughcoasterThe shape of a tree tells its developmental story. Trees grow around objects blocking their “lightward” trajectory. In some cases, these objects are permanent, making the tree’s story easily discernible. Yet in others, the original obstacle (e.g., another tree) may have been displaced or rotted away leaving only mystery and speculation.

Our personal developmental story reveals itself, not only in our physical presentation, but through our thoughts, feelings and behavior. Like trees, we too “grow around” the circumstances and people we encounter in our “lifeward” trajectory. We may remember some of the stories and circumstances behind these shaping experiences, but more likely they were never explicitly recorded. Regardless, these experiences have directed our growth. Conditioning and emotional learning write much of our implicit guidebook, which is revealed in our immediate experience and subjectively felt as we encounter life.

Conditioning refers to types of paired learning experiences, which are often involuntary. Classical conditioning, which we associate with “Pavlov’s dog,” refers to experiences that are paired together to the point where the paired stimulus reflexively induces the response normally associated with the other stimulus. Operant conditioning, which we associate with B. F. Skinner’s pigeons, is a form of instrumental learning that is based on whether behavior is reinforced or punished. Another significant way we are shaped is through social learning, which is based on direct instruction, modeling or observing the consequences of other people’s behavior. Social learning can be convoluted due to the subjective nature of our perception. Our interpretations are personal and do not always reflect what the “teacher” intended. Much of our learning is both implicit and emotional, bypassing our conscious awareness. Making it more complicated, the learning we receive is pre-filtered and colored by past emotional learning.

When we are confused by our own behavior or when it feels out of sync with our conscious intentions this often reflects that our subconscious mind is at odds with our conscious mind. Our subconscious mind follows the “rules” laid down in our implicit guidebook, rules originally drafted to keep us physically and emotionally safe, rules learned through past emotional experience — rules that might have passed their expiration date. Just as the earth can be equally shaped by intense events such as volcanoes or by slow and steady changes such as erosion, our emotional lives are shaped by the traumatic and the relentless. These experiences live on in the eternal present of our subconscious mind; rule enforcement is always on the ready. These rules are reinforced in their enactment. For example, when the guidebook’s rules prevent us from leaving our comfort zone, we are also prevented from possibly disconfirming our rules. As a result, our anxiety lives on to rule another day. It is in this way, the odd bend in our “trunk” remains a daily part of our lives, even though its origin may be a mystery.

 


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

Implicit Guidebook

Children implicitly absorb language from those around them, but they also absorb culture, beliefs and what it takes to make it in the world. They soak up what helps them get their needs met and prevents them from experiencing pain. They observe others’ experiences and learn vicariously. All of this flows in unconsciously and uncritically. These implicit learnings form the basis of our personality and our subjective perspective, and they write the initial chapters of our “implicit guidebook.” The implicit guidebook is a term I use for our underlying sense of what is right and wrong, how we are to live and our basic construction of how things are. It is our working hypotheses for ourselves and the world. While this sounds cognitive it is really at the essence of our emotional experiences. Because this “book” is implicit, we can’t sit down and read it, show it to others or fully know what has been written on its pages. This guidebook acts as a lens or filter that is as invisible to us as contact lenses can be to the wearer. It both shapes our perception and proves itself true in that shaping.

lens

Yet … the implicit can partially be made explicit. Ironically, understanding that our experience is subjective allows that subjectivity to become an object of our awareness. As we start to notice our inner dialogue, beliefs, rules, assumptions, expectations, etc., we are noticing our guidebook. The challenge is to get just enough space to notice it so we can make it an object of inspection. This happens with dialogue, with meditation, with writing, with contrasting our reality from those close to us and at a distance and in many other unexpected ways. As we engage in this process we may want to pull out our editing tools. We will see much that we want to strike through, many parts to rewrite and some which we will want to highlight or underline.

If only editing was this easy. It is not. This is the mind’s effort to reprogram itself. This is using the minuscule programer that is our conscious self to edit the code within the massive super-computer that is our unconscious. The programer is always vulnerable to being swallowed up by the program before the changes can be saved.

And yet … it can be done.

 


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.