Why the hell did they do that? or How to Understand People and Your Fictional Characters

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This entry applies to writers and general audiences. For writers, you can use this blog to think about how your characters make choices. For the general populous, you can consider how conflict and misunderstanding arises and perhaps consider some of this to help in your daily life.

When I teach anthropology I have a saying that I drill into students heads.

You don’t have to like it, but you do need to try and understand it.

This is the essence of what we call cultural relativity. There is a lot of misunderstanding about this topic. For example, if someone tells me that cultural relativity is postmodernism, or that it’s ‘poison’ or that it means anything goes, I know they have absolutely no clue what they are talking about.

I wrote an answer on cultural relativism on Quora on this question a while back so I am not going to go into detail here but in short, if you want to understand someone’s choices (especially if they are in another culture) then there are three things you need to consider to begin that understanding, context, conditions, and choice.

I am going to tell you something that is really really hard for many us raised in the Western part of the world to understand. You are not an individual. This doesn’t mean you aren’t responsible for your choices, but if you want to understand how the world works, put that idea aside for a moment and consider the following.

1. Context

You are contextual. What do I mean? Well, you live in a particular culture at a particular moment in history and you speak a particular language. In some cases even being born a few years earlier or later can radically alter the course of your life. Think of people who were born just in time for the Vietnam War and were then selected in the draft versus someone who missed the war by a year or so.

This body of knowledge (as some of us social scientists call it) is so vast that we spend years growing up and learning all about it. This process is called Enculturation and is largely what institutions like elementary school is all about. Primary school is far less about learning facts, and more about learning how to behave in your given society. Every culture has their version of passing on their culture, though it varies.

Every culture is holistic. Each facet of your context is an integrated whole. Technology, economics, religion, etc. All these things can impact the entire culture. For more on this read my past blog on Worldbuilding Part 2 Anthropology and Key Elements of Culture

Of course, history is a big part of this. What has been happening for the past few decades or even centuries before your birth directly impact your experience. You, as an individual are not free of a cultural and historical context. Change that context, and you also change. Remember, no matter what you do, your culture and history is constantly changing all around you. Life is a dance of constant change and movement. No matter how tightly you clamp down on something, it still changes.

2. Conditions

Embedded within context is your particular experience. Let’s get specific. Let’s assume that two people grew up in or around Denver, Colorado. One grew up in a wealthy area that is heavily Protestant and the other grew up on a poor neighborhood that is heavily Catholic. Their cultural context is pretty much the same. They grew up at a particular time period in a particular culture but the conditions of their lives are different and thus their experience will be different. Their gender, the color of their skin, the religion they subscribe too, even the block they grew up on, changes the conditions of their lives and their experiences within the cultural context.

This is why you get an extraordinary amount of variation within a particular culture in a particular part of history (have I said particular enough for you yet?). Even something as simple as catching the last bus versus missing the last bus to make it on time to work can radically change your conditions. Maybe you got fired from your job as a result or perhaps you got a promotion as a result. Perhaps you are diagnosed with a chronic disease or maybe you won the lottery. Your conditions are constantly changing within the context of your culture. Change really is constant.

3. Choices

Okay, now we can talk about choices and free will. Your ability to make choices (or your agency) is impacted by both your context and your conditions. Your choices are not limitless and you certainly can’t make a choice that you don’t know exists. There are also laws, taboos, and social pressures that influence how we choose and move through the world.

But we certainly aren’t passive actors either. Individuals can cause massive changes to both their own conditions and their cultural/historical context. Even minor figures in the historical records influenced small things in ways that may or may not have had a big effect on that particular cultural moment.

Why should you care?

Well if you are fiction writer, this may help you to flush out character profiles and understand the choices your characters make. I talked about this a lot in my third part of World Building.

If you are just someone trying to get through their day, and your boss is a total asshole, sometimes a little understanding can help to dissolve conflict.

But honestly, the real core of this is this is how we can solve big problems. 

If you can take Context, Conditions, and Choices and use these three to analyze someone or something, you can understand it’s source and how it persists. You can see where big and complex problems arise from and can in turn act to address them. Of course, it’s not always so clear or so simple, but without understanding, you can’t even really begin. Honestly, this is a huge reason why people who, have nothing but good intentions, go out into the world to solve an issue, and it backfires and makes things far worse.

Let’s go an intense route for one moment. What about suicide bombers? Anthroplogist Nasser Abufarha asked this question in his book “The Making of a Human Bomb: An Ethnography of the Palestinian Resistance” 

Now this guy has got some guts, he did his research with some pretty scary folks. But in his research what he did was examine context, conditions, and then the individuals (the agents) who carried out some of these attacks. He talked to leaders of these terrorists cells and tried to form a picture of why they do the things they do. Their answers? Well I will let you read for yourself if you want to dive in, but let’s just say quickly that violence begets violence.

You want to understand the rise of Hitler? Context (The history of the interwar period in Germany and of antisemitism) Conditions (The experiences of Hitler’s life that made him such an angry asshole) and Choices (The genocide of six million Jews).

If you can understand some of this stuff, you can solve all manner of problems. Of course, even if you have the answers you still have to contend with political bodies and economic interests who may or may not want things to change, but that is an entirely different topic.

Seeking understanding, and information of the experiences and context of your fellow human beings can change the way you think or behave forever. Sometimes understanding can illuminate our experience and in that light, perhaps you can see an easy way to dissolve conflict.

Look, I get it, you might be thinking right now (if you made it all the way through) that this seems like an awful lot of work. You’re right. It’s a lot of work to be an informed citizen, to know the history of our own country, let alone other’s. But consider this, maybe if you aren’t sure about something, consider withholding judgment. Instead, find an expert or pick up a book on the topic before you decide that one particular group of people is evil, or that a singular event is an anomaly. History and Culture are really messy things, and it’s rare that there are clear black and white answers.

The world really is an amazing place and a little patience can make it all the more beautiful. People are just so damn interesting if you let yourself see it.

Actually, You Probably Don’t Use Your Free Will

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What does Free Will Even Mean?

Do humans have free will? This is one of those great questions of the ages. I am not going to claim here that I have an answer, just some thoughts, and opinions on the topic. You have to make up your own mind about it. Nor am I going to claim that my particular thoughts on the subject are original. They probably aren’t, and certainly, some of them have been heavily influenced by the Eastern Philosophy that I have spent years reading.

So let’s refine this question. Does everyone have free will?

My answer? No.

Now once, when I was a young Catholic teenager I said this to one of my youth group leaders. She came over and punched me in the arm and said, I just expressed my free will, didn’t I? Being a young teenager and not really having the ability to articulate what I was saying, she won the argument. But if I was going to back now, I would argue, that what she did wasn’t an act of free will, but a reaction to a particular kind of external stimuli.

When I say that not everyone has free I am not going to make a claim that particular group is more capable of this than others, I don’t think that could possibly be true. What I mean, is that the majority of people are not present enough, not mindful enough to actually express their free will. They are just mindlessly reacting. That’s not will, that’s cultural programming and instinct.

Most of what we do in life is not of our conscious choice. Most of what we do is a reaction. What does that mean? It means that without the space and presence of mind to stop and actually make a conscious choice, we aren’t acting of our free will. Instead, we’re caught in a net of cause and effect. Someone with a true conscious choice, with true free will, can break free of the old patterns of cause and effect and completely change the game.

What do I a mean? Let’s use a fairly common example of a reactionary situation. I will use this example because even if it has never happened to you, you have certainly heard of a situation like this or seen it on tv or read it somewhere.

Imagine being held at up at gunpoint in the middle of a parking lot. It’s broad daylight. How do you react? I’ll give you a moment to think on it.

You are probably thinking, well I would just give the mugger what they want and they would go away. Maybe you have a background in combat or martial arts and you figure, I’d kick his ass. Maybe you are a gun-toting 2nd amendment stand up and fight kind of person and you would draw your gun the second you had a chance. No matter what you would do, all of those things are reactions, not choices. They feed the same tired old cause and effect. They don’t make things better, they just continue the status quo, the cycle, the pattern.

A rection is something that arises from emotions, from stress, from neurological patterns that you have spent a lifetime building. X input will result in Y reaction. It is why there are all kinds of mental games you can play with people’s thoughts. It’s how cold reading works.

But here is an article with an example of someone who was present in that situation, who did make a conscious choice. NPR A Victim Treats his Mugger Right

I’ll summarize for you real quick so you don’t have to go read it unless you want to. Basically, a mugger threatens a guy with a knife and as the mugger is walking away he offered the mugger his coat. They end up eating dinner together and the Mugger gives back his wallet and leaves his knife behind.

There is a difference here. This person with enough space and presence was not only able to change the course of the game but drastically alter it so that they were creating something entirely new. It is only in a true conscious choice that the space for real change can begin.

Now you might say well hell, what if the guy just killed him? What if it ended badly for both of them? No one said that free will is a safe course or a safe option. In fact, true transcendence of the simple reaction to any situation requires a large degree of courage and fearlessness. It requires that you leap into the unknown and accept that all situations are impermeant, that yes, you may die, but so what?

Your reaction is probably something like, but what about my family? What about the consequences of my death? What about all the things I will miss out on? Maybe I would have more time if I act a certain way? I am sure that you, like most people, fear death. This is a reaction, not a conscious choice.

But death doesn’t give a shit. It can come for you at any moment and in fact, for most of us, it will catch us completely off guard. It will sneak around the corner and end you and you can’t do a damn thing about it. You aren’t invincible. You will die. Playing it safe probably won’t help you. For example, a family member of mine was murdered working third shift at a convenience store when he was only a teenager. What does that mean? Nothing. Rationalize it with any theological argument you want, death is still coming for you.

It is good and right to contemplate this. You cannot truly live, you cannot truly have free will, you cannot be liberated from stagnation without accepting death as a concrete thing.

True free will is risky, it is dangerous, but it also contains in it a true power to remake the world. True free will is also hard work. It is uncomfortable and messy. You make lots of mistakes and you have to own up to them. But the amazing thing is, true free will is also what allows us to experiment, what allows people to come up with amazing solutions to complex and seemingly impossible problems.

It is the unthinking, unfeeling masses that bring upon terrible conditions in the world. Millions of people are starving in the streets and yet, nearly half of all food in the United States is discarded. We waste half our food

War, poverty, homelessness, so many of the ills of our world come from the lack of the exercise of our free will. Most of us just try to get through our day, apathetic to the consequences of our actions, of the things we do or use.

One of my current favorite authors, Anne Leckie, has a fantastic quote in her book Ancillary Justice. “Luxury always comes at someone else’s expense. One of the many advantages of civilization is that one doesn’t generally have to see that, if one doesn’t wish. You’re free to enjoy its benefits without troubling your conscience.”

So how do you become more conscious? You have to create a space of self-examination. You can do this through various activities. The easiest and most powerful way is meditation. It doesn’t matter which kind of meditation you do but the purpose of meditation is self-reflection. It is creating the space in your brain and in your experience to stop and act consciously. Meditation is training your brain to do just that, to have the focus and the presence of mind to detach from simple reactions and transform them into conscious choices.

The thing is, it doesn’t start happening overnight. It takes a long time for people to transform. Think of this way, if you are 20 years old, you built up 20 years of habits around the way you think and react. You create mental impressions and ideas of how to react based on certain situations. There is also a cultural level to this as well. By the way, this is what Karma is about. The concept of Karma is entirely misunderstood in the West. If you want to read a different piece I wrote over on Quora on Karma you can find it here.

So what does this all mean? Well as I said in my last entry, if you want freedom it requires discipline. Anyone can do this, but few actually embark on it. As humans, we can do better. We need to do better. We will do better. The world is ours to remake, if we can only be a little more conscious.

 

On Discipline, Desire, Suffering and Transformation

Dune Quote

Driving in Traffic this morning and listening to an audiobook I came across the quote above. I had to rewind the audiobook several times and listen to it over and over. Partly cause I was completely stopped for a good few minutes and needed to focus on something else for my sanity, and partly because I was just so captivated. Why? There’s so much to it. It is one of those small deep truths that we rarely fully understand. It is a kind of precious gem.

Ask yourself, what are you trying to achieve with your goals? What are your dreams and aspirations? My guess is that it has something to do with freedom. Most of us, in a capitalistic society, are chasing money, some out of survival and some out of sheer desire. But why are you chasing money? Freedom.

This could be freedom from harassment, freedom to travel, freedom to sleep in, freedom to spend time with your family, the freedom of owning a home, or many other things. But it always seemed to me, that the more we chase freedom the more we are caught in a web of desire.

Frank Herbert, the author of arguably one of the greatest science fiction novels (and I believe the best selling) integrated a lot of Zen ideas into his work. This is partly because he was fascinated by Zen and partly because he was a huge fan of the 1960’s Zen teacher Alan Watts.

For those of you who aren’t Buddhist, the core idea of Buddhism is the four noble truths. Now hold on, before you click away, this totally relates, I promise.

1. Life is dissatisfying and we suffer. This isn’t nihilistic, just an observation, like a doctor saying, hey you should probably stop eating copious amounts of sugar, cause it’s gonna cause problems.

2. The cause of suffering is clinging to stuff or trying to pin your happiness on something outside yourself. The problem with this is that stuff changes or disappears and good or bad, nothing lasts forever. Yes, even grandma’s eternal fruitcake or that Mcdonald’s sandwich that has been sitting in the open air for ages. Eventually, they will pass away, though probably not in my lifetime.

3. There is a path out. By the way, there are 2500 years of evidence that these methods do work. People have radically changed themselves through Buddhist practice and meditation.

4. The last of the noble truths is a series of practices and methods for the cultivation of discipline to get out of this sense of dissatisfaction and suffering. This is known as the 8-Fold Path.

So what does all this have to do with freedom and discipline? Well, if you are chasing after freedom, you’ll never find satisfaction. Either, you will, at some point, lose that freedom or you will always be chasing after more. It may also be the case that what you thought would bring you freedom, may actually only be freedom in perception, meaning that it wasn’t as good of a deal as you thought. That fixer-upper you bought because you were inspired by one of those reality tv-shows… you probably understand this pretty well.

If you really want to change your life, if you really want to find greater peace and internal freedom, then you must cultivate discipline. You would be amazed how one small act of discipline can change your life. I like to say, a little bit every day goes a very long way.

In the interest of transparency, I am not the most discipline personed in the world. Also, I haven’t been a formal practitioner of Buddhism for terribly long, only about 2 years. But I have noticed a significant change in my attitude and my ability to work with difficult situations.

But, I’m not saying you should run out and check out Buddhism. What I am suggesting is that if you want to make a real significant change in your life, find a way to establish some discipline. You see, what you will notice when you make a commitment to some kind of discipline is that it will start to spread to others areas of life. Shit, I just cleaned my bedroom because a few things were out of order. I would have never done that a year ago. I’m normally a two-pile kind of guy, one of clean clothes, one of dirty.

But look, it could be something small. Perhaps, like me, you want to be a writer and you make a commitment to write at least 500 words a day. By the way, you are reading my daily words right now. Or maybe you want to learn a language, you could download an app like Duolinguo and spend 15 minutes on there every single day. For me, it began with making a commitment to meditating. As of writing this I am currently on a 123-day streak of daily meditation and attempting to get to a full year.

I know it’s hard. I know you are tired from working multiple jobs and having a family. Believe me, I know all those things intimately. I’ve done both and still sometimes do. That’s why you need to create some accountability while you build a habit. Make a team on Duo-Lingo. Join the ‘My 500 Words’ Facebook group and post daily. If you want to get in shape, find a friend and sign up for an event so you have to train. I did this back in 2014 and signed up for a century-ride. It was a painful first ride attempt because I wasn’t as disciplined as needed. I have since learned my lesson.

Community is crazy important in establishing discipline. In fact, the Buddha recognized this 2500 years ago when he told his adepts that one of the most important things (we say one of the three jewels) is a community (Sangha). Community is there when you are too tired to continue. They are there when you just want to say, to hell with. They remind you what you are doing it all for. By the way, having a loving and supporting partner is also a bonus, but if you are like me and don’t, friends are also excellent at this. Tell them to bug you about it.

Of course, all of this is just advice. There is no shame in living an undisciplined life. Not everyone has the opportunity or the ability to make a radical change. Sometimes the conditions just aren’t there. Personal transformation isn’t easy, it isn’t comfortable and sometimes you are going to hate it. But that is how you know it’s working. If you find discipline, you will ultimately have to confront things about yourself that you don’t like. But this is the price for true freedom.

Feel free to share your stories about discipline or what you have been trying to build a habit around in the comments below. I am happy to discuss this more.

 

Beneficial Flame

Beneficial

There are moments in our lives when we feel the fire of rage.

All is in a fog, all is unclear, all is distorted. Yet in the center of that rage, we believe that there is clarity, that we know what the right course of action is.

We confirm our truth.

We allow our preconceptions to build on perception and solidify. It becomes tangible. To us, there is a kind of beauty in that anger. We lust for it.

Like a flower, it seems to have bloomed from some place righteous, some place justified. And those who will be the victims of our rage will receive their just reward.

Yet after, what does it make? How was it of benefit? Did the flame burn truth into the brow of our enemy?

Most often, anger burns the one who wields it, like one who lit a match and held it too long. Scorched fingers.

Patience douses the fire with water.

Sit in the center of the flame and watch it. Let it burn but do not feed it.

Sit in the center and whisper the sacred syllable, Hung.

Watch it transform.

Watch you transform.

Give it space.

Rest in Mind.

Celestial

celestial

Celestial

It’s simple

A simple explanation

We search our lives for meaning

We travel the world seeking answers

We gaze at the stars and the wonders of the universe

We try to unlock all knowledge

But the truth is

I am naked.

Obscured

Content

“Content” For a larger version visit the Photography and Art Page

We walk winding paths, 

Obscured by trees. 

It is an arbitrary obscuration. 

Only one path exists. 

The path goes round and round. 

Until we sit in the center, unmoving.

 

 

We seek, we search, we long to fill whatever that empty feeling is inside of us. And all we seem to be able to do is turn on the TV, listen to loud music, or drown in our variety of distractions. We all seek refuge somewhere and through something.

And what are you hiding from? What are you looking for? How far have you traveled? On what does all your happiness rest? Soon it will be gone.

We do nothing but build glass houses. It is only a matter of time before what we have built shatters, before we find ourselves in another chaotic mess. And of course, you will die one day. All is impermanent.

There you are, I am, laying naked, cold, lonely, and weeping. This is all so familiar. Round and round and round we go… where do we stop? Some of us never do.

Some do stop the cycle. Some only pause between intervals, take a few breathes and then continue. In those still moments, they might see that when everything else is stripped away, there is only honesty. We can choose to turn to it, to ourselves, or we can shut our eyes and walk away, continuing to ride yet another round on the rollercoaster.

If we don’t want our world obscured, we must turn into ourselves with terrifying honesty. The truth is dangerous and frightening but it is necessary for peace. We have built so many ideas and theories, many of them do nothing but mask our honesty. It is only when we turn inward that we truly turn outward and see the world through fresh eyes. In Zen this is called beginners mind, because we must always start at the beginning, always with the eyes of a child. Then there is joy in knowing all things pass with time.