The Power of Reflection. In which my Whackadoodle student and I begin the third of fourteen lessons for navigating life, and spend some time reflecting on what makes people tick. If you have entered this story in the middle, click here for the prologue.
“So I have that list of abstract nouns you assigned me last week,” she declared as soon as she sat down for our tutoring session.
“Good for you,” I told her, watching her as she began to dig through her backpack. “I thought that you would ignore my homework. Most people do,” I added. I should also probably explain that as a tutor, I’ve gotten used to kids expecting me to do their homework for them, instead of just helping them when they get stuck. They seem to want me to hold their hands and do everything with them instead of risking their own mistakes.”
She scowled at me for a second before handing me her list. I took it and glanced down. She had listed about thirty words.
“I would have written more,” she informed me, “but I ran out of room.”
I began reading down her list. The sixth word really jumped out at me, “Neoliberalism?” I read surprised. “Where the heck did you even hear such a word?”
“It was from that Hartmann guy you turned me on to a while ago,” she replied. “He had this whole article about the collapse of Neoliberalism and how it was affecting the world. I couldn’t resist clicking on the article because I had no idea what neoliberalism was, why it was collapsing, or why it’s collapse was affecting the world.”
“And after you read the article?”
“I was even more confused,” she sighed. “I mean he does define neoliberalism in the article. I think he called it….wait,” She pulled out her phone to look up the article. “Okay,” she said at last. “Here it is,” she added, and began reading. ‘Neoliberalism is an economic and political system where regulation of the economy of a nation is largely taken away from government and handed to the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful economic actors, be they billionaires, corporations, or both.’ He then goes on to list five bullet points about how they took over, why the policy is failing, and links to several articles that he’s written that supposedly prove his point.”
“And his point is?”
“I’m still not quite sure, but I think that he was trying to explain how this neoliberalism policy has been tried for years and is about to implode, taking all of us with it unless we go out and vote.”
“Sounds comforting,” I said despite myself.
“I even looked the stupid word up on Wikipedia,” she looked up in disgust, “and do you know what it says?”
“No, but I expect you can tell me.”
“Wikipedia says that the defining features of neoliberalism in both thought and practice have been the subject of substantial scholarly debate. It then goes on to list a whole bunch of debates about what the word really means. I actually found a million page paper on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, where they give like a million definitions for this one word.” She ended with a huge sigh, then finished at last. “I thought it was a good example of unclear abstract nouns that should never be used if you want people to understand you.”
“Good pick,” I acknowledged, glancing back down at her list. “But I like some of these other words even better,” I admitted. “Like Rhetoric; I’ve always thought that rhetoric was an over used word that too few really understand. I mean, why can’t people just call rhetoric what it really is?”
“And what is rhetoric?”
“A bunch of words linked together in ways that we have already heard, used in an attempt to grab attention and get people motivated,” I stole a glance at her, and added. “My definition, not the official definition.”
“What other words on my list do you like?”
“I particularly like that you’ve chosen the word projection.”
“Why?” she asked, leaning in.
“Because it leads us right into rule three,” I winked at her. “And isn’t our next lesson supposed to be about rule three, the Power of Reflection?”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “But what does projection have to do with the rule of reflection?”
“Do you remember rule three?”
“Yeah,” she nodded confidently. “It basically says that the words people use and the actions people take are a reflection of what they believe,” then she shook her head. “At least I think that’s what the rule says,” she admitted.
“Close enough,” I told her. “But why does the rule matter?”
“It means that if I pay attention and understand, I can figure out the belief systems that make other people act the way they do. I can understand people better, and I can understand myself better.”
“Good,” I nodded. “Now what does projection mean?”
“I not sure,” she complained. “That’s why I put it on my list. I looked it up on Merriam-Webster, and it had something like nine different definitions, none of them fitting the way I heard it used.”
“What usage made you add it to your list?”
“People keep talking about how certain people project themselves on others, and I don’t know how that works.”
“Ah,” I nodded. “That would be definition six, ‘the attribution of one’s own ideas, feelings, or attitudes to other people or to objects; especially the externalization of blame, guilt, or responsibility as a defense against anxiety.’”
“What the heck does that even mean?”
“It’s not really that hard,” I encouraged. “Take liars. They know that they lie. They know lying is looked down upon. They know that people appreciate the truth, but they lie anyway because, for whatever reason, they think lying is their best or most lucrative option. Furthermore, when they do get caught lying, they often resort to lying their way out of it. So far so good?”
“Yeah,” she nodded. “I know a few people like that.”
“So if you accuse that liar of lying, what will they tend to do?”
“Project?” she answered cautiously.
“Yeah,” I nodded back. “And what do you imagine that projection might look like?”
“I suppose they would accuse someone else of lying,” she answered. “So that their lies don’t matter so much.”
“And that my girl is projection.”
“Oh,” she said, rubbing her forehead. “Then why can’t they just say that?”
“I don’t know. Psychologists are funny that way.” I laughed. “If I ever figure it out, I’ll be sure to get back to you.”
“But,” she added after her head had cleared. “I still don’t understand how projection take us back to Reflection and rule three.”
“Well,” I tried to explain. “You could say that projection is just an extreme example of Reflection. We all tend to project our beliefs on to the world around us; that’s why our words and actions tend to reflect our beliefs, our assumptions, our weaknesses, and even our strengths. Learning to interpret those words and actions accurately can help people to understand and therefore navigate life more effectively.”
“But how does reflection actually work?” she insisted.
“You reflect on what people say, and consider how those words reflect their worldview.”
“You just used the word reflect two different ways in the same sentence,” she accused.
“Yes I did,” I smiled. “Glad you noticed. It’s one of the reasons that I chose to use the word reflection to describe the rule.”
“It requires that you deploy two methods of reflection in order to follow the rule,” I said. “First, you must reflect, meaning to think deeply and creatively; in order to understand how people’s words and actions reflect, meaning to mirror, or shine a light upon, their worldview. It’s also a really good mental exercise because you have to use both the logical and the creative areas of your brain at the same time. Much better than those computer game ads that claim to be able to raise your IQ.”
Her mouth twisted as she considered my explanation. “So can you give me an example of how to do it?”
“Think reflectively of course,” she replied, tossing up her hands.
“Well, let’s take a look at your list of words again,” I said to calm her, and then began listing off a few more. “Christian, nationalist, loyalty, patriot. What made you choose those words?”
“Because I’ve seen people fight over their meaning.”
“So let’s take Christian,” I suggestion. “How do you most often find people using that word?”
She thought back, and said carefully, “Usually they use it to defend themselves. They say it like, ‘But I’m a Christian,’ as if being a Christian automatically makes them more acceptable.”
“And automatically makes non-Christians what?”
“Less acceptable,” she said eventually.
“So what does using the word Christian in such a way say about that person’s worldview?”
“It kind of sucks,” she admitted. “I mean, does that mean that they think only Christians are acceptable?”
“Not always,” I told her, “With reflection, as with all things, you have to be careful when making assumptions. However, it does imply that they believe being a Christian in a ‘Christian Nation‘ will make them more acceptable than being a non-believer. I mean, let’s face it, no atheist goes out on the campaign trail promoting their atheism.”
“But a lot of Christians do make religion a part of their campaign,” she concluded for me. “So are they just ignoring the first amendment’s separation of church and state?”
“Hey, the first amendment doesn’t say anything about separation; it only says that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. It doesn’t guarantee that churches won’t get involved in politics.”
“I suppose that was just an assumption on their part,” she grimaced. “Or as you might call it, a belief.”
“Perhaps,” I agreed. “Or maybe it’s because people’s words, actions, and even inactions reflect their true beliefs.” I let her sit with that thought for a while before asking, “So, you just used reflection to understand how some people used the word Christian. Do you begin to see how reflection works, and why it is an important rule?”
“What did you mean by inactions?” she murmured, ignoring my question.
“Well, if I chose not to act, even though an action is clearly indicated, what does that say about my state of mind? What does that say about my beliefs and worldview?”
“I suppose that it means you have given up.”
“Or perhaps that I believe that my actions won’t matter, won’t make a difference; or maybe I just no longer care.”
“Hum,” she nodded silently. “I suppose they’re all sort of the same thing.”
“Except that one answer gets me closer to a cause that I might be able to influence.”
“It’s easier to encourage someone to take just one action and see what happens; than to encourage someone to not give up without having an action to point to.”
Her face scrunched up, as if trying to picture what I had said. “I guess that makes sense,” she said eventually. “And yeah, I think that I understand how reflection works.” she added, finally responding to my earlier question. “I think that I also understand why it’s important. I just don’t think that I’m very good at it yet.”
“As with all skills, reflection takes practice. If you’d like,” I continued, “I could give you some more homework.”
“What now?” she groaned.
“Well I could assign you a few award winning documentaries that would blow your mind,” I offered. “There is this one called Meltdown in Dixie: A Documentary about BBQ, Ice Cream, and the Confederate Flag. It’s full of people whose every word shouts out their belief systems. There is this one grandpa like guy who actually says,” I paused, thinking back to get the quote as close as I could. “He says something like, ‘I don’t use the N-word because I know it’s not polite, but when one of those people doesn’t know how to behave, I am not apposed to using it.‘ Just consider what that statement says about his belief system.”
“I don’t think I want to.”
“Well, if you don’t want to watch a documentary, the election is a few weeks away,” I continued. “So why don’t you just listen to some politicians and consider how their words reflect what they think their constituents believe. Or maybe you could listen to a few court cases, and listen to how the defendants try to defend themselves. That’s always fun. I mean, look at Alex Jones’s defense in the Sandy Hook libel case.”
“What’s his defense?”
“He said that all the lies he told were okay because he believed what he was saying at the time,” I shook my head. “The judge really rebuked him. She told him, ‘You believe everything you say is true? That does not make it true.” She took a huge sledge hammer to one of the most dangerous beliefs of the last half century.”
“That using lies, violence, and intimidation are acceptable ways to get your way, earn money, or achieve your political ends?” she suggested.
I think her comment made my face fall. “Oh right,” I nodded. “That belief probably is more dangerous.”
“What belief were you referring to?” she asked curiously.
“That you can ‘Think and Grow Rich,’ and that ‘The Secret’ to ‘Success’ is ‘Positive Thinking.’ That we can use our minds to attract and manifest what we desire. I mean,” I paused for breath. “It’s like that ridiculous Henry Ford quote that gets repeated everywhere. ‘If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you’re right.‘ I can admire the second part of that quote, but I kind of hate the first part of it.”
“Why is that?” she seemed to be getting concerned.
“Because the second part is true. If I think I can’t, then I have already given up, so my likelihood of success becomes nominal. However, the first part does not seem true. Just because I think I can do something does not always mean that I can. Sometimes the best we can do is keep trying, which of course takes us to a popular definition of insanity, ‘Keep doing the same thing expecting a different result.’”
“I thought you believed in positive thinking.”
“I adore positive thinking,” I assured her. “Positive thinking works motivational wonders–much more effective than negative thinking. But what I don’t like is magical thinking. There is a big difference between the MASTER’ed affirmations that I recommend, and simply repeating a bunch of unbelievable words so that people can learn to love themselves. That’s nothing but an attempt at self-hypnosis, and learning to lie to oneself.”
“Okay,” she said, drawing a line in the air with her fingers. “This is no longer about my lesson in reflection. This is something that has been bothering you.”
“And you thought that you were not good at reflection,” I smiled sardonically. “So can you figure out what is bothering me?”
“Well it obviously has something to do with other people’s thinking,” she said in disgust. “So what is the problem?”
“Did you know that Forty-Five (we’d long ago decided to never use Forty-Five’s name) was raised on the Power of Positive Thinking? His family even attended Norman Vincent Peale’s church every Sunday. Donald and both his sisters were married there, and funeral services for both his parents took place in the main sanctuary.”
“Are you aware of how much of Peale’s doctrine asks people to lie to themselves? ‘Rule one: “formulate and staple indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding…hold this picture tenaciously…and always refer to it…no matter how badly things seem to be going at the moment.”
“I’m not sure I get it,” she said after a moment.
“I didn’t lose the 2020 election. In fact, I won in a landslide.” I said in my best matter of fact voice. “I have in my mind a mental picture of myself succeeding. I will hold this picture tenaciously, and I will refer to it no matter how badly things seem to be going at the moment. I will do whatever it takes to manifest this image.”
I looked into her face, and found it blank. “Not enough?” I continued. “How about this? ‘Those government documents belong to me. I did not steal them. I was not wrong. I have in my mind a mental picture of myself succeeding. I will hold this picture tenaciously, and I will refer to it no matter how badly things seem to be going at the moment. I will do whatever it takes to manifest this image.’”
“Okay,” she looked away. “I think I get it.”
“I hope so,” I concluded. “Because I can’t help but wonder if one of the reasons he feels so comfortable lying to others is because he has spent a lifetime lying to himself—that he was in fact taught and encouraged to lie to himself as a ‘secret’ to success. And he is not the only one.”
I looked over at her young face. “It’s just that I see people buying and selling lies everywhere, or rather I hear it in the words people use,” I sighed. “Maybe you shouldn’t learn how to reflect. It can be exhausting.”
“But it’s still rule three, so don’t I need to know how to use it?”
“Don’t worry,” I told her smiling. “I think that you are already pretty good at it.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well if a family member walked up to you while you where in the middle of your studies, and said, ‘I’m hungry,’ what might you read into the belief system of that family member?”
“I’d think that he thinks my role in the family is to cook and feed him.”
“And the fact that you immediately thought the person might be a him? What might that say about your belief system?”
“That when you are dealing with someone who expects someone else to cook for them, they are most likely to be a man?”
“How about someone who comes into your room, and just starts talking without bothering to ask if you are in the middle of something? What does that say about their belief system?”
“That they are rude?”
“No, that’s too easy,” I corrected “What do their actions say about their belief system?’”
“I don’t know?” she nearly yelled. “What do you think it says?”
“I don’t know either, but that is the question you need to make a habit of asking. Maybe they believe that they have some important information to share, more important than whatever you might be doing. Maybe they believe that whatever you are doing can’t be nearly as important as what they are doing. Maybe they just have never noticed how their actions and assumptions impact your day. Maybe they have some wonderful news that they can’t wait to share. Or maybe, it’s the easiest answer of all.”
“What’s that?” she asked to prompt me.
“Maybe they just have a different definition of what it means to be rude.”
She stared directly into my eyes, busy thinking. “This is a complicated rule,” she declared at last.
“Funny,” I smiled into her frustrated face. “For me it has become a habit.” I closed my eyes, and decided, “Okay, let’s try one last one. Today I heard someone claim that only fools pay taxes. What does that statement say about his worldview?”
“Isn’t paying taxes part of the law?”
“Yes, paying taxes is required by law,” I allowed. “Taxes also pay for the many services we have come to expect. So what does this man’s statement say about his worldview?”
“He believes only fools follow the law?”
“Not bad,” I admitted. “Or maybe he believes his money keeps him above the law. There are always many possibilities. The question is,” I leaned in. “Do you agree with him? Because your answer will say as much about you, as his statement says about him.”
Coming Next Week
Navigating a Whackadoodle World: Episode Four
The Power of Focus
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- Navigating Life in a Whackadoodle World
- Finding Sense in a Whackadoodle World
- Teaching Logic in a Whackadoodle World
- Navigating Life Through Turbulent Tides
- A River Worth Riding: Fourteen Rules for Navigating Life