When I do or say things that are:
- accompanied by neither forethought nor reflective consideration in the moment;
- not in my best interests;
- out of line with my (conscious) values; and
- probably, upon examination, the product of massive conditioning over the course of a lifetime…
… I figure I must be brainwashed.
I haven’t actually looked up the definitions of brainwashed or brainwashing, but I have observed myself (always in retrospect) acting brainwashed, and I’m fairly certain that there are many more ways I exhibit brainwashing which I’m not even aware of after the fact.
So if you see me doing that, please alert me.
In the meantime, here are three examples, two of which are very recent, and one of which has mildly haunted me for decades.
I was driving at night recently, in the rain, on Burnside Street in Portland, which is a busy thoroughfare, and I was looking for a parking space, so I slowed down. A huge vehicle behind me blasted their horn.
Reflexively (I won’t say instinctively … and I’ll get to that in a moment), I thrust my arm out the window and flashed the proverbial bird back at the vehicle driver, but that wasn’t satisfying enough, so I slowed down even more and began feathering my brakes so that my break lights would flash on and off and mess with the driver’s head and piss her or him off a bit more. I did this for about half a minute, consumed by hostility, and then I turned right down a side street, hoping for better luck with my parking space search.
Now. Let’s consider.
The anger may have been instinctive. I was, after all, shocked by the sound of the horn.
But I’m not sure that my ancient genetic programming – deeply encoded responses to the threat of hungry lions on an open savannah and so on – can be held completely responsible for my passive aggressive brake feathering. Yes, I was in the grip of emotion, but there was no survival threat. Rather, my ego was piqued. Someone had dared to be “rude” to me, and since, over the course of my entire life, I have absorbed the lesson that my ego must be defended along with my body – even when the “insult” isn’t remotely personal, and I hadn’t the vaguest idea what was up with the impatient driver behind me (they could have been on their way to a hospital for all I knew, or maybe just desperately needed to pee) –since my “dignity” had been encroached upon by that obnoxious horn, I felt compelled to offend in kind.
And I’m the guy who wrote, only a couple of weeks ago, that the only relevant question now is what I can do, in my own little sphere, to help create a more peaceful world.
I’m not judging, just observing. I plead brainwashing. I’m just a victim here too, your honor.
Last week I took my godson Taoh out to dinner at a fancy restaurant for his 30th birthday. When our dishes arrived, we tasted them and immediately began rating our food.
That felt like the most natural thing in the world — to quantify the depth of our pleasure and assess our overall satisfaction, and to compare these dishes with ones we’d enjoyed at a different high-end restaurant we’d eaten at last summer when Taoh’s parents were in town. (His parents had bought us that meal – thanks again, Barry and Erica!)
Our conversation lazily drifted to other culinary delights we’d known (both the exceptional and commonplace – for example, Taoh reported that most delicious falafel he’d ever tasted was from food carts on the streets of Israel), what our lifetime favorites were, and where precisely our current shockingly exquisite meal stood within our respective pantheons of memorable dining experiences.
Well, what else is there to do while you’re eating a special dinner?
Just sit there and go, “Mmmm …. Mmm.”?
Recently a friend told me a story about his gregarious younger brother. One time, this brother and his wife were in a nightclub with some friends, and a legless man in a wheelchair entered the club, and the brother shouted out, “Hey! What happened to your legs?”
Far from being offended, the man – a total stranger – came over to their table and told his story, and they proceeded to have a lively, convivial conversation.
This put me in mind of an experience I had in the late 1980s. I was riding the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train from Berkeley to San Francisco. I found myself seated next to a very pleasant, obviously good-natured young man who wanted to talk. There was something very endearing about him, and he also seemed more than a tiny bit lonely. I liked him immediately … but I was perfunctory with him and turned back to my book.
The reason was that his breath was horrible. I mean, really epically overpoweringly awful. To avoid it, I had to turn my face away.
I had nothing against the guy – he wasn’t hitting on me or anything weird; it wasn’t like that at all – but what could I do?
I have played that situation over in my mind many times. What if I had told him, “Hey buddy, I just have to tell you something. You seem like a great guy, but you know, you have to do something about that breath of yours. It’s really strong and really bad. I don’t mean to hurt your feelings and I’m sorry if this seems rude or none of my business, but I just think you should know, just in case you don’t know.”
In the moment, I could feel that the guy was bewildered, like he had no idea why I wasn’t a little more friendly. Maybe that was his chronic life experience, always bewildered, always wondering why people weren’t receptive to his innocent overtures. I mean, I know I’m making up a whole story here, and I have no idea what his life journey was, but I think it’s a plausible story. People have blind spots that doom them. I think this guy’s blind spot may have been his breath, and perhaps I could have given him an important piece of information that might have changed his life. I understand I wasn’t responsible for his life, and I’m sure there were many, many other people who would have had the opportunity to inform him about his breath. I wonder if and when anyone ever did.
What would have been the worst thing that could have happened had I “spoken my truth” to this fellow traveler? His feelings may have been hurt; he may have deemed me a nasty person. But I think his feelings were hurt anyway. Or – who knows? – he might have thanked me for being so bravely honest, and pledged to go brush his teeth soon. Or maybe he had some kind of incurable gum disease that he was already aware of, and nothing would ever help. Who knows?
But my question today is – what values were governing my behavior in those moments?
And the answer is obvious: I was controlled, utterly unconsciously, by deeply conditioned precepts about “boundaries” and what’s “appropriate” to say to a stranger.
That is, I was brainwashed, and my brainwashing stifled my compassion.
By contrast, my friend’s brother was not so brainwashed.
A Lovely Response to Our Last Newsletter
My longtime friend Paul is one of the least brainwashed people I know. He always thinks for himself, and his take on things never fails to deliver a surprise or two for me.
Here is his characteristically thoughtful response to our last newsletter, in which I offered “a welter of thoughts and feelings” about the latest horrific events in Israel/Palestine:
A wondrous discharge of minding! I feel for you from afar. I see multiple scripts dogfighting for primacy, and all seem to be drafts short of finality — and no surprise, because you try on many shoes, and peer through many eyes. Indeed, if I were, say, your ‘dissertation advisor,’ I’d warn with some exasperation that you’re ‘all over the map.’
But I’m not any kind of advisor. My own solution involves ‘putting the map down,’ and looking longer at the table upon which it sits, the room the table is within, the house…, etc. You ask, “How do I create more peace?” My approach to this is almost anti-activist — to be simply a living ‘node’ of peacefulness; a tight stitch in the still strong and widespread tapestry of human peaceful concourse that wraps the Earth.
But if I were to assess, I would contextualize with a John-Lennon-Imagine vision of future global human harmony, against which I would identify the strains of stupidity which must vanish to achieve it — strains like macho male dinosaur warplay, materialistic greed, and, yes, holding snappishly dear to chip-on-the-shoulder religio-cultural tribal identities.
The misery in the Middle East is everything you said, but it is also — in the context of human sociocultural evolution — profoundly stupid. Many may find it easy to ‘take a side,’ but side-taking, as I see it, only feeds the beast. Practically speaking, I favor only the dull, dispassionate ‘heavy nudging’ of relentless diplomacy. Incremental defusing after incremental defusing. Gesture after gesture. One small handshake at a time.
And as for you? I read and re-read your piece, and the only bit of advice I dare to venture is that you quit the false separation of mind and heart that you identify. They are one. I think this schism runs deep in you — a common curse of a verbal mind where words are given much sanctity (as is seen in so much philosophy).