My Better Self, Whoever That Is

We moderns see the unconscious, but I wonder if we’ll ever accept its influence. Behavior we consider rational actually reflects deep motives, deep associations, deep affections, judgments, and tastes. We can’t say with absolute certainty what invisible instincts compel us, and the social circumstances that create and constrain us also blind us to their sway. “DNA is boss,” a biology colleague once told me. In his view, art, government, learning, and all emblems of civilization spin from one central helix.

I don’t like to think so. Instinct scares me. Extreme emotion feels like an alternative existence, and I return from my moments as Dionysius, Macbeth, Caligula, Mr. Hyde, or the Incredible Hulk with strange memories. Perhaps I’m in denial—my intellect accepts that possibility—but when instinct surfaces, I don’t feel like me. I feel aberrant. I can’t abide believing those moments are the true me and rationality is fantasy.

The March 13th NYTimes Book Review included a piece on David Brooks’ The Social Animal, which presents the thesis that the conscious mind is overrated and that we ought to usher the unconscious into our thinking. The reviewer, a philosophy and law professor at NYU named Thomas Nagel, is skeptical but dutifully reports Brooks central tenet:

The conscious mind writes the autobiography of our species. Unaware of what is going on deep down inside, the conscious mind assigns itself the starring role. It gives itself credit for performing all sorts of tasks it doesn’t really control.

Nagel notes Brooks’ purpose is political, not philosophical. Brooks wants to encourage positive unconscious urges rather than impose or enforce rational but alien policies working against our natural impulses. What Nagel finds objectionable, however, is that discovering “subrational processes” should automatically lead to accommodating them. “There is moral and intellectual laziness in [Brooks’] sentimental devaluation of conscious reasoning,” Nagel says, “which is what we have to rely on when our emotions or our inherited norms give unclear or poorly grounded instructions.”

These ideas create a lively theoretical debate, but I listen with more than intellectual interest because I have a nasty temper to keep in check and regular appetites I don’t want to indulge. I’m more on Nagel’s side. Will, not instinct, channels desire, and I can’t let go of my control. Feeling and thinking negotiate endlessly in my brain. I mark my success by reason’s record of wins to losses.

But at a cost. I see Brooks’ point. I wish I could invite my unconscious in. I have a strange memory for conversations—no matter how many years separate me from them, they continue—and many focus on my muted emotion, my “unavailability.” My college senior self is still leaning on the metal rail of my cousin’s stoop, listening to my friend lecture me about being “too uptight,” and that friend’s voice joins an MFA teacher who blows the steam from her tea and takes a slow, stalling sip before informing me my poetry is too neat to reach any reader’s heart. The conversation between Brooks and Nagel awakens echoes.

In his review, Nagel cites the famous EQ experiment where researchers asked four year-olds to forego eating one marshmallow for the future delivery of two. Those who could wait scored better on the SAT in later life and had better college completion rates. Those who couldn’t wait ended up in prison more frequently. The moral of this story seems clear to Nagel and just about everyone else—self-restraint wins. Nonetheless, I envy those immediate marshmallow eaters. They ask questions I’ve hidden. Does the pleasure of an unexpected boon surpass the agony of waiting? Who needs two marshmallows?

Curiously, I’m always thinking about the proper place of impulse in my life. My internal pilot directs me that, okay, now I can give someone a hug or that now is the moment it’s I okay to object strongly. Sometimes, after becoming angry at students, I return to what moved me and how much ought to have moved me. The Greeks used the word thumos to describe “spiritedness,” and, though they sought to guide it, they regarded it as essential. Some moments must move us, and I sometimes wish I didn’t need to think about which.

This week one of my students asked a familiar but welcome question.  She wondered aloud whether primitive humans might have been happier than we are, whether modern improvements complicate life instead of making it easier, whether our desperate desires have led us to confusion instead of comfort.

I think she’s asking the same question Nagel and Brooks are, the same question I have the most trouble answering, “Are we lost?”

I wonder if I could believe the answer if I found it.

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1 Comment

Filed under Doubt, Education, Essays, Gesellschaft, High School Teaching, Hope, Jeremiads, Laments, life, Memory, Modern Life, Recollection, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoughts, Worry

One response to “My Better Self, Whoever That Is

  1. Intriguing post.
    Thoughts in response:
    1. Now I want to read David Brooks’ book. I can’t imagine him being a fan of the raw impulse.
    2. I want to know the comparative BMIs of those children who ate or did not eat the first marshmallow.
    3. I participated in a short discussion during the last week about whether or not modern life makes for happier humans. You don’t have to go all the way back to primitive man to find lifestyles that offered no choices in how to stay alive… Anytime a human has the time to consider his happiness, he will be less happy than if he just did the next thing and called it good. It’s like feeling good physically: if you think too long about how you feel you will never feel GOOD.

    I’m not sure Brooks is a fan of the raw impulse. I probably don’t know his writing as well as you do, but it sounds like the book is more about realigning public policy in accordance with what we would do anyway.

    It may not be fair to Brooks’ ideas to conflate emotion with unconscious impulse, but my fear of emotion arises from wondering where they come from and where they will lead.

    Most of the people I know reject my notion that a simpler life is a happier life. They love to be busy, but you can be too busy and/or busy at something that doesn’t add much to quality of your life. We can’t really know if early humans were happier–I’m sure their lives were hard–but their activities were certainly more vital and less abstract.

    Thanks for your comments! D.

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