Sunday, February 5, 2012

Subjectivity of my Reality

The only problem with reality…

The only problem with reality is there are so many versions of it. Game Time: Think of a 12-Step meeting you look forward to going to. Now think of one that makes you roll your eyes. I practiced what I preached - they are in my head right now. Man those sanctimonious bastard think they know everything. Not like my home group - we aren’t perfect but we know a little something about humility, love and tolerance. How different are these two groups? To an impartial observer, they might not see much difference in either of them.

In 1966, Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann expanded this theme in a book called The Social Construction of Reality. Consider that each autonomous 12-Step group is its own society, like two towns in the same country (fellowship). Berger and Luckmann write:

“Two societies confronting each other with conflicting universes will both develop conceptual machineries designed to maintain their respective universes. From the point of view if the intrinsic plausibility the two forms of conceptualization may seem to the outside observer to offer little choice.”

Let’s say a medical student picked two meetings to attend to learn about our brand of addiction and recovery. He picked the two closed meetings to school on consecutive nights. One was a mainstream AA meeting and the other was a Gay group, or Agnostic or young people’s group. Would he notice that one was different from the other. Each of them were peer to peer groups, they both read, “What is AA,” took a Seventh Tradition, talked about the only requirement for membership, the problem of powerlessness, the idea that alcoholism is a progressive, fatal illness and together we can do what alone we cannot. So even if one group was a “special interest” group, formed because members needed a place they could really relate to other alcoholics or addicts that appreciated what makes them different, these “conflicting universes” between mainstream and special focus groups could be so small that the casual outside observer doesn’t even see it. If we are members of these groups, we see what differentiates us; the outsider sees the common theme.

What I know is real is really what I believe; what I believe colors everything I perceive as I tend to ask life to corroborate my worldview. My worldview is what I see outside my window. I don’t see the whole world, but  I create my view of the world from what I can see (and a little more from what I imagine). My view has limits.

Everyone in recovery knows that our worldview can change. I was sure that alcohol and drugs were the missing piece in the puzzle of my life. Everything made more sense and I felt more complete when I was intoxicated. I vehemently defended this perceived truth when confronted about my addiction. But now I accept that I am powerless. I have a totally new worldview, because I am looking out a different window.

To borrow from Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860):

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

You told me I was powerless and my life was unmanageable. I scoffed at first. Then I raised my voice and got drunk at you. Now I am sober and expect to stay sober all day. My truth of the past went through three stages as it morphed into what I believe now.

If we keep seeking, we go through this three-stage phase all the time. We all learn to “let go absolutely.” What becomes of that will once released is a much debated idea. Many know exactly what happens and why; that is their truth. All I know is that I hate being controlled and I want to have control. I believe that letting loose of my desire to control the agenda is good for me. What becomes of this willfulness is purely subjective. Now there have been times when I needed to understand what’s behind the curtain. Isn’t that funny – I was willing to let go of my controlling tendency, but I insisted on understanding what became of this will of mine – as if that’s important. But it was important to me, so I listened to some smart sounding people and made something up that kind of made sense to me. I explained this truth of mine in exquisite detail. Then I started to believe something else and explained how wrong I was then, and what the real truth is now. Oh, “there are none so righteous as the recently converted.” I have been converted a few times now.

Understanding that my truth and what is real to me is subjective is important to me for two good reasons. First, I don’t want to stop growing. Second, I want to have compassion for others and if they differ from me, I best not think I am enlightened and they are deluded. It wouldn’t be any better to see them as whole and me as incomplete. Humility for me today is about me and my world being right sized. Maybe I am my brother (and sister’s) keeper, but I am not their master.

I think that a spiritual journey is a continuum, more circular than linear. My tendency is to lock in on those who reinforce or validate my current worldview. I am quick to dismiss alternative worldviews. It is a reflex. It happens before my cognitive functions are engaged. That’s why I like think, think, think; if I give myself time to think and think some more before I react I can be more civilized than my base instincts. And really, who am I going to learn from. The people who mirror my moves, or the many who move to the beat of another drummer

Have you ever seen the award winning documentary, “Escape from Death,” about the books by Pulitzer Prize author Earnest Becker, called, “Denial of Death” and “Escape from Evil?” See the trailer  

This movie and the work of Terror Management Theorists shines a light on why I am more likely to dismiss, or feel threatened by, someone different than me, than I am to feel communion and connection. I want to get along; I want to see the beauty in others. To do so takes exercise to rise above my base instincts. Like all of us, I suffer from attribution tendencies. I attribute “reasons” for my flaws and those I love and I attribute “defective character” to the flaws of those outside my circle. For example: I am late because of traffic and look how busy I am. You are late – how could you show so little respect for my time, you narcissist!

Part of Step Ten and Eleven for me is to meditate on compassion and assess how I am doing when I am in the kitchen where things get hot. I also review when I find myself defending my reality. When I am so sure I am right and I have figured a problem out, I now like to ask myself, “What else could this mean?” That’s one way, I have learned from others how to think, think, think.

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