I wrote the following as part of an email discourse with a long-time friend and business partner. Our ideals and politics are very different, which I suppose is why my response to our discussion has been very thought-provoking for me. I share my theory by reprinting this email here:
“It strikes me that there are only two steering wheels in approaching and understanding human behavior: fear and trust. Which steering wheel one chooses to drive with determines what directions one takes and which obstacles one will be encountering. As for me, I choose the steering wheel of trust, by which I mean I place my faith in the scientific method, people and rationality, and the basic need of humans to live in a community based on shared agreements of how to behave. This does not mean that I think that there are no crooks or that people will act out of self interest over the interest of their fellow man, because there is certainly a lot of evidence to the contrary. At the bedrock of my belief is an assumption that in every person there is a desire to successfully do the right thing, no matter how great the failures. And there are reasonable explanations for why these failures occur that are rooted in culture, upbringing, security (or lack thereof), and circumstance. For me, the steering wheel of trust is a more satisfying life choice. With the other option, the steering wheel of fear, it is the individual against everybody else. It is the zero-sum game, the winner-take-all philosophy, the cynical belief that there is such a thing as evil in the world and that people are basically the victims of evil and are to be feared and fought. That’s a world I don’t choose to live in. But I do see it is a powerful force that can have disastrous effects on politics and the health of our country. With this steering wheel, the devil is everywhere and his influence must be overcome through the prism of politics as a way to evaluate values and morality of actions. In the final analysis, politics are about which kind of government we will be building for generations to come. Our political arguments go to the heart of who we are and how we choose to be in the world. Our ideologies allow us to make easy choices without doing the hard work of understanding all the ramifications of our actions. There are certainly other issues which should stand outside of the structures we struggle to build with our politics: common values, family values, the pursuit of happiness, and the value of service.”
All of these need to be taken into consideration when making decisions about the future we want to build.
RESPONSE May 27, 2014:
I admire your clarity and your positive stance. How to use this model when thinking about personal relationships?–Dr. Marilyn Kallet
RESPONSE May 27, 2014:
I appreciate your comment and I will think about the reponse. I am pleased to make your acquaintance. We share a number of the same poetic influences, as well as our southern heritage.–Charles Entrekin
RESPONSE May 28, 2014:
I thought about it some more, Marilyn. Relationships are a bit like politics. When you get into conversations with your friends, the matters of understanding one another are often guided by the same steering wheels of fear and trust. It’s easy to say one chooses the steering wheel of trust over fear because that is how we want to see ourselves. It is much harder to engage in trusting that your friends or neighbors are all striving to do the right thing. When conflicts emerge, fear surreptitiously enters the picture and suddenly, even though we thought we had chosen the steering wheel of trust, we are operating with the steering wheel of fear. I think it is more difficult than one might imagine to set aside one’s concealed fears (fear of conflict, fear of losing face, fear of alienating, fear of telling the truth to a friend who needs to hear it but doesn’t want to hear it). I talked to my wife and daughter about these issues and they both agreed that the temptation to judge somebody harshly was an easy, slippery path to go down and it requires a positive force of will power to pull oneself back and say to yourself, “There is a reason why my friend (or neighbor) is behaving the way they are and I need to understand it.” I just wanted you to know that I followed up.–Charles Entrekin
RESPONSE May 27, 2014:
Thoughtful analysis of a fascinating topic. Fear is a desperate state that I cannot imagine anyone of sound mind proactively choosing as a guiding philosophy; more probably, fear, like a satanic snake, insinuates itself into the identity or self-image of those who see themselves adrift among uncertainties and forces beyond their understanding and/or control; hence they are susceptible or vulnerable to manipulation, deception, exploitation and other predatory behaviors of the more clever, powerful and successful around them (e.g., politicians, crack-pot visionaries, cult leaders, etc) who promise them “salvation” from their fearful state.–Brendan Allen
RESPONSE May 28, 2014:
Yes, fear offers a scary ride, even though it is often controlled by unconscious or subconscious mindsets. –Charles Entrekin
RESPONSE May 30, 2014:
As you say Charles, very thought provoking! In general I like your optimistic slant, but alas I (being a recovering pessimist) feel compelled to take issue with a few things; no offense intended. BTW, my response is an aggregation of my recent readings in philosophy, neuroscience, and spirituality and therefore not currently well thought out…but thanks for the opportunity to start it!
First, casting human behavior in terms of fear and trust seems like not that much different than the arguments about whether the world is “good” or “evil” with people believing in one or the other. (with your background you could better address this in the philosophical sense.) (In non-dual thinking, it is said that both (or neither) exists by itself, they are two sides of the same coin, one defining the other.)
Also, the notion of a steering wheel raises the specter of free will; it sounds like you are assuming we have free will and therefore have some control of our destiny. I think it is considerably more complex than that and I tend to go in the direction (at least for now) of Sam Harris that there really is no free will in the sense of that we would like to believe. Neuroscience and psychological research tells us that there are many “drivers” of our intention (i.e., free will being an expression of intention), much of it biologically based as well as conditioning from experiences that are embedded mostly in our two memory systems, conscious and unconscious, and habit systems (dopamine (reinforcement) and opioid (reward) circuits in our brains), not to mention all the possibilities for mental and physical dysfunction. The argument says that our reason is used largely post hoc, to explain events that have already occurred (and I might add, sometimes aimed at burnishing the ego). The other problem with the rational mind is it tends to make lots of mistakes due to cognitive bias’. Furthermore, our “hardwired” conditioning (i..e, evolutionary sources) makes us negatively biased; we are compelled to pay attention to fear the most, otherwise we wouldn’t survive in a hostile world. Seems we can’t really avoid the fear part, but we are lucky when we are not driven by it. From where I set now, I am skeptical that we have much of a choice about how we turn out, and why its extremely (impossible?) hard to change a person (unless he/she does the hard work you allude to). However, on the positive side, “good” habits are also reinforced and rewarded which explains how we get to being happy, empathetic and compassionate people. We learn how to engage pro-social actions, how to take care of ourselves when we need to, all of this aligned with learning how to make ourselves feel better/good (which sometimes even includes self deception and other egoistic indulgences as well as “seeking” behavior). Of course, we can go too far with making ourselves feel good and trigger the opioid circuits resulting in all kinds of addictions. Most of us fall somewhere in this spectrum, but fortunately there are a lot of people that fall near the “positive” end…like you Charles! Without these folks, it would indeed be a dark and dismal world.
Certainly, there is some influence from our rational minds that embody our ideologies, beliefs and values (whatever they are?). But the main point is, intentions are like thoughts, they just pop up seemingly for no apparent reason but they seem to be mostly out of our control. (This does not include didactic or deductive/inductive reasoning, like we do with planning, calculating etc.)
This POV is also embraced by Buddhism and Taoism in that we basically have no (or little) control, the universe does what it does and our task is to live in the flow of it. Most thoughts come from nothingness are not real except we try to make them real by identifying with them….which of course is how we suffer.
Another point is “doing the right thing”…we all like to think we know the right thing, but one persons right is another’s wrong; one example is Libertarians saying the “right thing” is to look only to your own self interest, that everybody depends on themselves only…I am sure you and I could agree that this does not constitute a “right thing” for a successful society of imperfect individuals; it seems like ideology run amok. If we were all perfect (or enlightened) we would not need police and only a very limited government.
So, all of these influences “determine” how each of us turn out and respond to the events in our lives; there are winners and there are losers it appears. This brings us to politics which I think is the point of your letter.
Well, now that you have me reading The Brothers (plus some others I am reading along the same lines), and am no longer sanguine about how the world is shaped by democratic politics and a few smart guys (to glue it all together). Seems to me, our fortunes (literally and figuratively) are shaped by unintended consequence of the plutocratic oligarchy. We enjoy the lives we are living by hard work and dedication to ourselves and our families, but also with a dose of good luck. I hate to be pessimistic here, but it appears that we all got here on the backs of the oppressed all over the world (and our own downtrodden) that the US (and Europe) has so far been able to manipulate. We have benefited from the greed and power that these folks have been able to marshal, at least thus far.We have done some amazing things along the way, but the fact remains it far from an ideal system and always will be given its populated by humans of different persuasions.
And we should not forget the role of religion. I recently read in Sam Harris’ book (The Moral Landscape) a fascinating bit of research. In a nutshell, the countries that have done the best in terms of overall happiness and all measures of well-being are the northern European ones, where inequality is least and religion is minimal, the true secular societies. The US is an anomaly among the developed nations in that we have a very high (90+% Christian) religiosity even though we have wealth. The upshot is, inequality and other forms of insecurity drive people to group together with those whom they share values (e.g., tribes) and adhere to notions of eternal afterlife and the hope of salvation but mostly provide security and a sense of belonging/affiliation (witness what is going on in the mid-east). This appears to be a fundamental human trait, our need to belong to society. Institutional religions certainly fill that need and are embedded in the political structure no matter how much lip service we give to separation of church and state.
Well I guess that is enough maybe too much!–Tom Webster
RESPONSE July 3, 2014:
About good and evil:
Ever since Nietzsche’s work, I feel that civilization has, at least, in part, moved beyond the concepts of good and evil. Personally, I have long concluded that there is no such thing as good and evil, except as it pertains to religious dogma. The terms “good” and ‘evil” are merely labels that help religious writers define their rules and regulations for prescribed behavior. For me, they are terms empty of content that merely express the prejudices of the speaker. As you seemed to point out, these perceptions depend on one’s personal perspective. Or, to use a contemporary cliché, “It’s all relative.” People like to label things after the fact and put it in a box that makes their story appear more acceptable or correct or righteous. The use of the term “steering wheel” is intended to suggest subjective perspective. “Fear” and “trust” are abstract concepts. They are a lens for determining how you see the world around you. The same events can be interpreted positively or negatively depending on which lens through which you see them. It is clear that politicians have learned that the easier way to convince people of the righteousness of their arguments is the steering wheel of fear. They should fear evil, they say. They are the worst of the worst, they say. All these arguments are driven by the steering wheel of fear, to instill a belief that will get the desired action or reaction. For example, Edward Snowden can either be looked at as a hero and a patriot or an evil person seeking power and fame. For me, I think of him as a hero. I trust what he says until or unless evidence to the contrary arises, I am to the side of transparency, not secrecy.
About free will:
Steering wheels don’t suggest free will to me. They suggest directional intentions, so that we get to make a map of where we want to go in our lives. It doesn’t mean that we will necessarily go there or even be successful in our attempts to go there, but our intention to go there. My son Demian says that human beings can change but only by 3% over a lifetime. But it is my belief that we are changing all the time. We are constantly making choices and the results of our choices will create the persona we project. Ever since we were born, we were making choices and these will create a foundational personality of what we can do and what we can’t do. As Sartre says, “We are doomed to be free.” Every action we take is a choice that has implications and repercussions, conscious and unconscious. In many ways, the personality we have or, to put it in Buddhist perspective, the story we tell, about who we are is the personality or the ego construction we deserve, have chosen, created for ourselves. Our conception of ourselves is not who we are. Who we are is the sum of the choices we have made, whether we face up to them or not. It is often the case that we do not tell ourselves the truth about who we are, e.g. we do not admit to having made the choices we made. Like in Stephen Crane’s novel The Red Badge of Courage, we lie to ourselves about what we have done, convince ourselves that we are heroes, have acted with great courage, when in fact we were terrified and ran away. The reality is a part of us, but not acceptable to the vision of who we are so we do not own up to it. But whether we can see ourselves or not, we make choices and those choices have repercussions. But I digress.
It is clear that environment and genetics both play a huge role in determining our choices of who we can be. But even within those constraints, we are still doomed to make our choices about how to react to those constraints. And with each decision, a path is forked that determines what our next choices will be and we are on the path to becoming unique personalities. If this were not so, we would not be able to sit in a sanga meditation and watch our story unfold before us and recognize it as just a story. We would not be able to choose compassion as a path to pursue. And, like you, Tom, I choose compassion, but also the steering wheel of trust, because it gives me a release from my particular constraints and allows me a sense of well-being that I am not able to achieve any other way.
About Rightthinking and Wrongthinking: As Rumi says, “Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” In other words, for me, there is no “rightdoing” and “wrongdoing” outside of a religious/political perspective. There are only choices, decisions, and actions which are, in effect, who we are, they define us. They are our “story,” the real story, not the one we tell ourselves.
About politics, religion and sociology:
First of all, I like Sam Harris and I particularly enjoyed his Letters to a Christian Nation. But beyond reading books like Sam’s and Stephen Kinzer’s The Brothers ,I don’t have much to say about these fields. I have no expertise in any of them. I read about them and draw opinions, but I haven’t studied them and am skeptical about what these theories have to say, especially those that draw on dogma as a starting place. But I do think that if we look could into the history/mind of an oligarch, we would find that he or she, too, made choices that determined his/ her story of himself/herself. I do think that you are right about inequality being a bad model for driving culture and I do feel that America’s promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is a goal worthy of a government. So far, we have not lived up to that promise and it appears that we have been lied to about our role in the world culture.
I think your thoughts are exciting and I have taken great pleasure in this discussion and I look forward to your next installment in our conversation.–Charles Entrekin