Mastering Living

I am currently writing a book entitled Ordinary Magic: Mastering the Art of Living. From time to time I will post excerpts. This is the first, from the final section of the book.

We live our lives in the context of our circumstances. Mastering the art of living involves recognizing, acknowledging and coming into harmony with your circumstances – and changing them where possible to suit you better. We have already explored in depth the ordinary magic of doing that.

But circumstances are only part – indeed, the smaller part – of life. How you live your life in the circumstances you are in essentially determines what your experience of life is. The key is mastering, not life, but living.

Consider:

  • Jack worked hard to earn promotion to his dream job. It came down to Jack and one other; when the decision was announced he was very disappointed to hear he was not the one chosen. I joined him for a drink after work, expecting to commiserate and lend a sympathetic ear; instead I found myself enjoying his obviously genuine good humor. I commented on his mood, and he said: “I really wanted that job – but I didn’t get it. That door is closed. But I know that whenever a door closes, another opens, and I’m eager to find out what that door is.”
  • Barry was invited to a meet-the-parents dinner at his soon-to-be in-law’s house. His future mother-in-law had prepared a huge spread; as soon as he sat down she loaded his plate with brisket, chicken, dumplings, vegetables and salad. Barry gamely worked his way through every morsel, praising each dish extravagantly as his nervous bride-to-be beamed her approval. Having emptied his plate he courteously helped himself to another slice of brisket and some more potatoes. As he took his first bite of the brisket, his future mother-in-law frowned and said: “So – you didn’t like the chicken.”

For Jack the world is a place of constant opportunity, where you do your best, accept whatever happens and look for the door that is open. For Barry’s mother-in-law, the world is a place where your best efforts are never good enough and they invariably lead to criticism and disappointment. The differences between how they see the world clearly make enormous differences in how they live their lives and the satisfaction they derive from it. In fact, their differences are so great, and so significant, they might as well be living in different worlds.

Actually, they are living in different worlds. Literally. Descriptive Psychology’s conceptualization of worlds makes clear how this is so, and helps us understand how a person’s world can in fact change or be changed for the better. Competence in changing worlds is ordinary magic, indeed.

Peter Ossorio in The Behavior of Persons distinguishes between two types of world: the Observer’s world, which is the public world we all share and which we know by observation and participation, and the Actor’s world, which takes the form of a dramaturgical pattern we essentially create as we go along. The difference between the two is both subtle and profound, and is well illustrated by one of Ossorio’s classic images, The Picture of Winston Churchill:

Wil hands Gil a picture and asks: “What is this?”

Gil takes one look and says: “That’s a picture of Winston Churchill.”

Wil : “Hold on a minute. How do you know that’s not a picture of someone else who looks a lot like Winston Churchill?”

Gil: “You got me there. I can’t be sure it’s Winston Churchill.” Then Gil picks up a pencil and draws something on the paper. He hands it to Wil and says: “That’s a picture of Winston Churchill.”

Wil: “Hold on. How can you be sure that’s not a picture of someone else who just looks like Winston Churchill?”

Gil: “I’m sure it’s a picture of Winston Churchill because I produced it, and that’s what I produced it as.”

The Observer’s world is what we see around us. The Actor’s world we create as we go along, and it is essentially what we produce it as. Becoming consciously aware of how we are producing our own world, and intentional about what we produce, is the key to producing ordinary magic in our own lives.

Of course we usually do not see ourselves as creating our own world – yet another aspect of our competence that is invisible to us – and we must be very careful here because the potential for vanishing into mumbo-jumbo is very real. A well-known saying captures both the actual potential and the traps:

The world is as you see it.

It’s easy to dismiss this saying as either a trivial reminder that we know the world through observation, or as a weak-minded attempt to paint the world in your preferred colors. In fact, when your only concept of “the world” is the Observer’s world, it’s hard to see any sense here at all. When we recognize that the saying refers to the Actor’s world, we can see it as providing a guideline for how our world can change, and for the better. (This is yet another instance of Descriptive Psychology’s conceptual articulation making competence available to us that we just don’t have without it.)

Note what this does not say. It does not say that the world is as you say it is, or believe it is, or want it to be, or intend it to be, or affirm it to be. It’s not a mere matter of knowledge or intention; it’s a matter of behavior. The world you see is the world within which you act, and paradigmatically, in which you succeed: to paraphrase Yoda: “Not try; do.”

Discerning what your world is, and discovering how to change it, is a profound undertaking, not to taken lightly or done easily. But it can be done; it has been done, and the means for getting there are known. Let’s explore a bit further this most profound ordinary magic.

The late Randy Pausch, whose “Last Lecture” moved and inspired millions, provides an interesting case in point. A vigorous 47-year-old computing science professor, happily married and the father of three young children, Pausch was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. He delivered his “last lecture” ostensibly to the Carnegie-Mellon academic community, but actually as a legacy to his children. In it he describes his world in ways which many have found inspirational. We may find it instructive.

Pausch acknowledged the pain and difficulty he faced in coming to terms with his imminent and untimely death. But he insisted that he was in fact a happy man, full of enthusiasm for living the life that remained to him – and he appears to have been telling the truth, according to those who knew him then and in his last days. His world, clearly, was a place where opportunities for happiness constantly present themselves, and he embraced them enthusiastically. How could this be? And how can one change one’s own world to be more like his?

Pausch himself accounted for his world as the result of a choice made early in life. Drawing on his early reading of Winnie-the-Pooh, he said that he noticed that in life you could either be an Eeyore or a Tigger – and he choose to be an enthusiastic, energetic Tigger, a choice he affirmed for the rest of his life. (His parents confirm Randy’s early Tiggerishness.) As simple as that – Eeyore or Tigger. Choose.

This account is persuasive to many; some people who were depressed and even considering suicide wrote Pausch to say that his example inspired them to embrace life. But his account is flatly unpersuasive to others, who say no choice was involved: Pausch’s genetic inheritance and early life experience made him a Tigger, just as theirs made them decidedly not. You are what you are, the critics say, and there’s not much you can do about it.

So who’s right – Pausch, who says you choose your world, or his critics who say you can’t? I suggest that both are right – and neither is right. The actual story is more complex than either account. It both allows for and constrains ordinary magic in living. Let’s dig a bit deeper.

Possible, Actually Possible and Real

Ossorio observed that the real world divides into facts, not things (an observation he shared with Wittgenstein and several other philosophers.) The real world consists of all facts and all possible facts. Thus, as observers and critics our accounts rely both on what actually happens and what could have happened but did not; often, like the dog who did not bark in the famous Sherlock Holmes story, the significance of what took place may be seen more in what did not happen but could have.

As actors navigating our world, we continuously determine what we will pay attention to and how we will cast our drama. Every situation presents both opportunities and obstacles to action; what we see depends on the place we currently occupy in the community in which we are acting, what we want, what we know how to recognize, what we know how to do, and our habits (S, W, K, KH, and PC parameters of Intentional Action, respectively). Each of these is a potentially fruitful avenue for changing how we create our world; we can act from a different status or community, acquire or lose reasons for acting that change what we want, learn to recognize new opportunities or obstacles, acquire new skills or notice our habitual patterns and actively seek to change them. But our behavior and world construction also depend on another, less obvious but nonetheless powerful factor: we act on what is real to us. Changing what is real to us is perhaps the most direct and powerful means of actually changing our world.

Real” in this instance contrasts with “true”. Whether a fact is true is directly part of the observer/critic world, a matter open to negotiation and resolution. It’s either true or not, and we have serviceable ways of working out which it is (of course sometimes we don’t know enough to be sure in a given case, and our observer/critic practices allow for that.) “Real” as used here is part of the Actor’s world, and contrasts with “merely possible” and “actually possible”. Ossorio’s “4 Bridges” heuristic (The Behavior of Persons, pp. 266-267) succinctly demonstrates these issues; essentially, he points out that if you have had the unfortunate experience of having three bridges in a row collapse just as you are reaching the other side, no amount of statistical evidence or engineering analysis will convince you that bridges are safe: “That may be true, but the bridges I cross over are dangerous.” Likewise, if whenever you go for a walk on a mountain trail you are actively afraid of being mauled by a bear, statistics that show this happens perhaps twice a year worldwide are unlikely to help: “That may be true, but for me the fear is real.”

With the bear example we can gain some ground in understanding how the observer’s world links to the Actor’s world, and thus how we might change our worlds. “Bear attack on the trail” is a possible fact, and for most of us that’s what it remains: merely possible. That is, if we thought about it at all we would acknowledge that, yes, that could happen, but it never actually enters into our behavioral choices. We literally don’t give it a thought. Suppose however you see a video of such an attack, or you know someone who was attacked by a bear – in other words, it moves from something you have merely heard or thought about to something you have in some way observed. This can result in a change in your world; “bear attack” may well become an actual possibility for you, one that you take actively into account in appropriate circumstances. And if the experience was particularly strong – say, you yourself barely avoided a bear attack, or when you observed the attack you felt almost as if it were happening to you – it may become real for you, that is, something that in relevant circumstances is automatically part of what you consider, with the directness we associate with emotions and feelings: “It feels real to me!”

Lest we get stuck on attacking bears here, recognize that what has been said could as easily apply to rape, assault, being mugged, having your laptop stolen, having your home invaded, etc; lest we get stuck on issues of danger, recognize that what has been said also applies to making a successful public speech, falling in love with someone who loves you, experiencing ecstatic bliss, or any other state-of-affairs which you have heard about but never before experienced. Merely possible facts become actually possible or real when they become in some way part of your actual life.

Now let’s loop back to Randy Pausch. Did he actually choose to be a Tigger? Of course he did. But in order to do so, Tigger had to be an actual possibility in his world, that is, he had to have experienced approaching life with enthusiasm and energy so that he could chose to do it again. And from there it was a matter of developing Tiggerishness as a habit, choosing it routinely and consistently long enough that it became real for him, an automatic part of what he considered in choosing what he paid attention to and in casting his drama.

But notice the part Randy’s essential capacity and learning history played here. Descriptive Psychologists understand essential capacity as providing boundaries on what a person can become, and learning history as required to turn capacity into an actual person characteristic. If you do not have the essential capacity, no amount of learning will result in skill at tensor calculus; likewise, if you have never had the necessary learning experiences, the capacity to develop trust in others will not develop into actual trust. Obviously, Randy had the capacity to become a Tigger; equally obviously he had learning experiences that turned that capacity into actuality. It seems that many people lack that essential capacity for enthusiasm and energy, or else – and I personally believe this to be far more likely – they have never had learning experiences that develop the capacity into actuality. In either case, they are not in a position to choose to be a Tigger; it’s simply not real for them and they understandably might be skeptical if it is really real for anyone.

How, then, do we change our worlds and for the better? One way looks a lot like certain forms of therapy: help people discern the parts of their world that are real but not true, and which restrict their ability to engage in their lives with satisfaction – the unsafe bridges and bear-attacks, if you will. This is a sound and useful approach.

But ordinary magicians in living take a different approach: from among the possible facts in this world, they choose those which are most personally desired because they create the greatest behavior potential, and set about finding life experiences that can make them actual possibilities, and with some habit-building work, real.

How exactly this is done will be covered in depth in this section. As a warm-up, here is an exercise that illustrates some of the ground to cover.

(Ordinary Magic contains many competence-building exercises called Making It Real. These will not be posted with the blog excerpts.)

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