Ego and other possibilities

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The term “ego” is an ancient one, with Latin roots. It simply means “I” or “Self.” Its first known use in English was in the late 1700s. Psychologists love to argue about whether there actually is an “I” in the sense of predictable personality traits, or whether at any given time, our behaviors and moods are the result of ingesting food, drugs, and alcohol, exercise, responding to the expectations of others, the amount of sunlight in a given day, how much love we’ve soaked in, the amount of sleep we’ve managed to get, and maybe the cosmic forces at work on us.

Of course, a related meaning of ego has to do with our personal valuation of this “I” that may or may not define us. Sometimes, we are more certain of ourselves, our internal integrity, our worth, and our motivations than other times. And of course, for reasons still being debated, some of us vastly, vastly, vastly over-estimate our worth to the world and believe we are entitled to unlimited resources and praise. Why are some people far too humble and others sickeningly prideful?

Though Dr. Bossypants is not Buddhist, she believes Buddhists possess significant wisdom. As she understands it, the Buddhists believe that this “ego” or sense of separate individuality gets in our way of recognizing how artificial the boundaries between apparent “individuals” are. If we had less attachment to ego, we could more clearly see the unity, the connection, the oneness of all the pieces and parts of ourselves and our fellow beings, our earth, our galaxy, and even the time-space continuum.

It is indeed jarring to consider ourselves as one with all living beings, because this would include our current leadership, those aspiring to leadership, our alcoholic uncle, and even terrorists who blow themselves and others to smithereens. Most of us consider it creepy or stupid to seek even a tiny corner of common ground with these fellow human beings who act so abhorrently.

At this juncture, Dr. Bossypants must confess she is about to make claims that can’t be fully substantiated. But as far as it can be studied, it does not appear that the infliction of pain, hatred, deprivation, or even death is effective in changing human behavior for the better. Oh yes, we can change human behavior with such actions, but the change is, at best, temporary compliance, with enhanced motivation for later revenge.

It requires intelligence, tenacity, self-control, creativity, and great strength of character to find common ground with people we refer to as evil. These same attributes, plus wisely-used resources, are necessary to contain, reroute, and/or defeat the spread of destructive behavior. Research suggests that violence begets violence. Dr. Bossypants readily admits that this totally sucks because revenge feels good whereas the application of containment and compassion are tedious, slow, and even dangerous (in the short run).

But the real, long-term dangers are far worse: Ever-deadlier weapons, shriveled empathy, us/them dehumanizing rationalizations, bigger prisons, less education, hungry, abused, or unwanted children, and the increasingly shrill declarations of US FIRST. It just doesn’t work that way, dear readers. The ways we treat each other—including every single “other”—are the building blocks of the future. Just as violence will engender more violence, ultimately, kindness will bring forth more kindness. Humans appear to be uniquely able to make corrective choices. Dr. Bossypants is rooting for us all. With courage, we can choose some better paths.

Ethical Commandments

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Fans of Dr. Bossypants may remember that she blogged about ethics for a while before turning to trauma. Clever of her, because she firmly believes the infliction of trauma on others is unethical, so all her blogs are still relevant! And faithful readers also know she believes that trauma damages babies, children, and all people severely. Such damage may result in these same people then inflicting trauma on others later in life, perhaps not even realizing it as such. It is a vicious, potentially deadly cycle.

Philosopher Bernard Gert (1934-2011) created a list of ten moral commandments. Here they are:

  1. Do not kill other human beings.
  2. Do not cause unnecessary pain (this lets surgeons and dentists off the ethical hook).
  3. Do not disable another human being.
  4. Do not deprive another human being of freedom.
  5. Do not deprive another human being of pleasure.
  6. Do not deceive others.
  7. Keep your promises to others.
  8. Do not cheat.
  9. Obey the law.
  10. Do your duties—those required by social relationships, your job, your commitments, and so on.

Gert realized that there may be times when you are certain the deeply moral thing to do is to break one of the commandments. If so, he believed that you should only break it if you’d be willing to allow everyone else, in all times and in all places, to break the same commandment in the same situation.

It seems obvious that killing, hurting, disabling, or depriving people of freedom or pleasure causes some level of trauma in the hurt, disabled or deprived one. Being lied to and cheated isn’t much fun, and in some situations, can also be traumatic. And of course, at the social level, our culture would fall apart if everyone broke the law all the time, and/or failed to do their personal and civic duties. We’d have a broken culture.

But beyond this set of rather obvious conclusions, Dr. B would like readers to ponder another set of costs. We can easily see the cost of such actions on those acted against, or on society at large. But what are the costs of crossing those lines to the actor? The cost of breaking those profoundly basic moral edicts? The killer, the torturer, the liar, the cheat, the dictator–why are they willing or able to cross those lines, and what does it do to their psychological condition?

Dr. B believes in the long run, the actor is diminished in the process of acting unethically. But it is, perhaps, a habit-forming brutal cycle with enough shallow rewards to keep the unethical actor repeating the harmful actions.

Is there a way for society to help cheaters, liars, law-breakers, or brutal people to see the costs to themselves? Is there a way to peel back the “rewards” and help humans see that ill-gotten gains are ultimately malignant? Or could we at least stop tolerating or admiring such actions? Probably not, but Dr. Bossypants is going on record, with the wise Bernard Gert, as saying that killing, hurting, disabling, depriving, lying, cheating, breaking the law, and failing to do your basic duties—these are all unethical, psychological corrosive actions harming the victims, our community, and most likely harming the perpetrators as well.

Thank you for any thoughts you may wish to post. Also, someday soon, Dr. Bossypants promises to write something upbeat. And because of Number 7 above, you can bank on it.

More thoughts on trauma

045 (2)In our continued considerations of trauma and the costs of trauma to human development and functioning, Dr. Bossypants came across a horrifyingly illustrative example, recently published in the New Yorker. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/04/03/the-trauma-of-facing-deportation. It has to do with childhood trauma and the extreme physical and psychological costs of such trauma. It also demonstrates the role culture plays how pain and terror are expressed.

The mind is a most amazing expression of life. Dr. Bossypants uses the term “mind” rather than “brain” because some consider the brain a seething mass of neurons, electrical impulses, neurotransmitters, and gray matter—a complex but eventually unravel-able mystery—whereas in Dr. Bossypants’s lexicon, the mind encompasses consciousness and something beyond the sum of the parts of the brain. The mind goes beyond nurture or nature, biology, rewards, or punishments. Victor Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Dr. Bossypants might add, “In our response lies our survival.” Regardless of your own leanings, dear reader, at present what we know is that this mind/brain organ adapts, acts, and reacts. It learns and then makes changes accordingly. For the most part, it seeks to survive, but as in the article noted above, sometimes, it assess the hopelessness of a situation and begins to shut down.

The question Dr. Bossypants wants to raise is this: Why do humans hurt each other? Some argue that males hurt each other to show dominance and thus attract mating partners. Dr. Bossypants hastens to note that there is ample evidence this is not necessarily the case.

Is it fear that causes us to hurt each other? Deep down inside, are we so afraid of being hurt that we hurt others so they can’t hurt us? Or is it fear of deprivation, leading us to hurt others for the sake of accumulation, which then becomes greed?

Or expediency? The threat of pain, or pain itself, changes behavior temporarily, but it has a lot of psychological collateral damage. When big people hurt little people, or crowds of people hurt one person, we usually call that bullying. And we generally don’t approve. We’ve come to realize that such bullying causes a lot of damage to the one bullied.

Is it pleasure that causes us to hurt each other? Sadism exists; those who are sadistic enjoy causing pain. How did that twist come to be in that psyche? It doesn’t seem very adaptive, or loving, or helpful…could it have manifested due to early childhood trauma? Could it lie quietly in our cultural narrative, increasingly brought to the surface by media and war? Does it somehow come back to fear?

The sad truth is that Dr. Bossypants does not know the answer to this basic question, and believes that perhaps, no one else does either. In fact, there may be a multiplicity of answers. What is known is that inflicting pain on others, either bodily or psychologically, ultimately does not pay off very well. In the short run, bullies might get the lunch money, but in the long run, Dr. Bossypants suspects that the lunch money will not make the bully happy, and such actions cost the community and the victims a great deal more than the lunch money.

What Dr. Bossypants does know is that humans have choices. We can evolve beyond hurting each other, whether on the playground, the street corner, or the battlefield. Nonviolence takes great courage and extraordinary intelligence. It takes self-restraint and self-sacrifice. It is noble and rare. It begins at home, in the refusal to hurt each other. Potentially, it can extend to a global way of being. Yes, Dr. Bossypants may be guilty of extreme optimism, but no, she hasn’t been smoking anything. And frankly, dear readers, nonviolence will turn out to be a far better choice than the annihilation of our species.

Trauma–Not good.

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Another fascinating mini-series by Dr. Bossypants is about to begin. Que: Dancing in the streets.

In upcoming blogs, we’ll examine an important and ubiquitous part of being human—stress and trauma. Dr. Bossypants believes that we are in a most precarious position in human history. Sure, we’ve always had wars, violence, sexual abuse, psychopaths, and natural disasters to deal with. Some of our fellow humans have these things for breakfast every day. This does not mean we should normalize suffering, nor any of these precipitators of suffering. In fact, it is time we get serious about eliminating sources of suffering and trauma.

True, we’ve always had war, and killing. But we haven’t always had nuclear weapons, nor have we had the glorious but potentially deadly Internet, nor the other technologies and forms of travel now readily available. Methinks we had better grow up fast here people. Fast indeed. The devastating degradation or complete annihilation of the planet and humans dwelling upon it is in play.

So we begin by examining responses to trauma:

Psychologists have a checkered history when it comes to assessing and addressing the effects of stress and trauma on human functioning. Dr. Bossypants has had significant professional exposure to these issues and, to no one’s surprise, strong beliefs as well.

Defining trauma is difficult and fraught with political and financial motivations that, when examined, are sickening. We, people and governments alike, want to pretend that trauma doesn’t exist, or that inflicting it has no cost.

The word itself comes from a Greek word that means “wound.” To be human is to wound and be wounded. But to be human is to also have choices, and assess consequences. We want what we want, and, tragically, we don’t want to be told that what we want might hurt others, or even cause long-term devastation.

For instance, though some of us may be loathe to bring him up, we must note that Sigmund Freud initially recognized and wrote about the tremendous wounds inflicted on women who were sexually abused. The (white, male, privileged) scorn heaped upon him for these astute observations precipitated a breakdown of sorts, and a recanting of his findings. For this, and many other wrong-headed actions and notions, Dr. Bossypants is not a big fan of Freud.

We will discuss the ubiquitous occurrences of sexual assault in later posts. We only note it here to say that humans are quite resistant to admitting the costs of trauma. Dr. Bossypants hopes to hammer this home in upcoming blogs. But for now, let’s move to the cheery subject of war and related forms of domination.

War is a common preoccupation of those who’ve ascended to power in human communities. It has, until recently, required boots on the ground. Boots with real human feet in them, and real deadly weapons strapped across their real, human hearts. The act of killing a fellow human being, or having a fellow human being try to kill you is traumatic. Period. It is not a sign of weakness or inadequacy to be traumatized by killing. In fact, if killing another human being is not traumatic for the one who kills, then something is wrong. We do not want to pathologize tender, caring, emotionally-mature human beings. Those who kill without pain and remorse are the aberrations of our species, and they need help and/or containment.

Dr. Bossypants isn’t being clear, here’s a summary. For the psychologically healthy soldier, war (of all sorts) is traumatic. This does not mean that that all soldiers will develop post-traumatic stress disorder, but many will. Rightly so. It is a terrible thing to kill other human beings and not feel a thing, even though we have many movies and television shows that would have us believe otherwise. For the general health and evolutionary development of our species, war is to be avoided. We need to go upstream.

In the USA, we are wildly privileged, wealthy, well-fed, lovely people. We need to win hearts and minds by being wise, generous, involved, honest, and fair. We need to embrace liberty and compassion for all, knowing we will get hatred in return for some time to come—there are many, many toxins that stay in the psyche for generations after war, violence, starvation, rape, theft, and brutality have been visited upon a community. But here’s the truth: Violence begets violence. Harsh judgment begets harsh judgment. Selfishness and greed beget selfishness and greed. We will harvest (or be harvested) by what we sow. Without significant healing and maturity, this is a psychological truth.

Therefore, we have to get smarter, kinder, and more generous. This is difficult, because we, too, have been traumatized. We are frightened and have become selfish—even greedy. But this is what Dr. Bossypants believes: We can acknowledge our pain, our own failings, and our woundedness. We can find the moral fiber to choose something besides endless repetitions of human mistakes. We need to open our borders intelligently, feed hungry people creatively, honor other people’s needs and beliefs, and do our best to contain the violence that is simmering near the boiling point on this beautiful planet. Otherwise, I think it will not be long before the planet will be rid of us, and get to heal itself without the pesky human beings now dwelling here.