Looking Out and Looking In

Once we become aware of our consciousness, human beings have to negotiate life taking into consideration we have to deal with a world “in here” (our internal world which is really our theatre of mind) and a world “out there” (the external world which provides the physical environment of our existence).

(The transpersonal psychologist, Ken Wilber, devised a model that not only looked at dealing with the interior and the exterior but also the individual versus the collective. Insightful as it is that is perhaps a little too complex for the discussion I have in mind but I would recommend it to those trying to gain a better understanding of the human condition. See his book A Brief History of Everything.)

It doesn’t take much thought to come to the realisation that our sense of well-being largely emanates from our interior world. If our internal world is balanced and grounded, our external world has minimal impact.

Now that is easy enough to conceptualise but much more difficult to put into action. But playing out this realisation is a rare and very fortunate outcome arrived at from introspection and enlightened self-observation and (as I point out later) sometimes facilitated by our genes and our personal circumstances. The world-at-large doesn’t support people easily coming to this realisation.

[I recall the good Dr Phil telling me of a seminar he had run. He had seemingly convinced his audience that the state of one’s internal world was paramount to a sense of well-being. He then asked the question of his audience, “Tell me about the last time you were angry.” A man volunteered, “Well, it was this morning.” He continued, “I went to the bathroom to have a shower. My teenage son had just come out of the bathroom and there were towels all over the floor and the walls were dripping with condensation. And of course I got angry for how slovenly and inconsiderate he is.” “So,” said Phil, “at that point you allowed your concern about the state of your bathroom become more important than your state of mind?” The man looked a little guilty and then nodded, “I guess so.” And this is a common dilemma. We think, erroneously, that we need to control our exterior world to obtain interior peace.]

Most of the commerce we do with the world encourages us to focus on our exterior world. Market capitalism exhorts us to consume more and would suggest that our status and our happiness is dependent on our wealth and our material possessions. It is only those with a trained mind who can find consolation and inspiration in their interior world alone.

And let us not underplay the appalling circumstances that some people must endure in their lives which make attaining such an outcome more difficult. Yet nevertheless some of us who face the greatest privations manage to maintain the greatest equanimity.

In the modern age we seek to avoid the need to confront and negotiate our reconciliation with our internal world by manufacturing distractions. Fleeing to identity politics where minor external differences are exaggerated and people rush to wear the mantle of victimhood is one such distraction. This provides for many an easy escape from fronting up to the world as it is and the personal responsibility we should assume for our own state of mind. What’s more we tend to cocoon ourselves with other like-minded people whose ideas reinforce our own in emphasising such external differences and we shelter from or shut down thinking that counters our own which tends to make us more likely to assume the mantle of victimhood. This is essentially an avoidance of the self-examination we vitally need to come to know ourselves.

[Although I have referred to it many times before let me repeat the psychological process the good Dr Phil recommends to attain psychological maturity. That process is:- we need to know ourselves; then accept ourselves; and finally to forget our selves. Self –examination and introspection is the first step in getting to know ourselves. Avoiding this and clinging to some façade of how I would like to be perceived rather than confronting who I am actually makes us more vulnerable. Understanding who I really am and accepting that, automatically makes us robust and relatively immune from victimhood.]

It seems to me that one the manifestations of a reluctance to self-examine is the tribalism that has resulted in identity politics. This trend has been exacerbated by the rise of social media. Social media facilitates the easy connection of like-minded people. But social media does not normally provide a platform for in-depth discussion. Much of the information bandied around is self-reinforcing (rather than self-examining) superficial and often unreliable.

Now if I haven’t come to the liberating conclusion that the prime source of my well-being comes from my state of mind, I am continually looking outwards for a remedy for any source of discomfiture or frustration. Psychologists refer to this response as an “external locus of control”. Those who seek solutions from the interior world and by using their own personal agency are referred to as having an “internal locus of control”.

Now I have had a very fortunate life. Professionally I have been blessed to have a career where I thought I could make a contribution to the betterment of society. I might have been egotistical but not only did I have the belief I could make a difference in the world, I had long ago come to the conclusion that I was largely responsible for my own sense of well-being.

Despite the fact I was born into a working class family, my parents encouraged me to do my best even when it meant moving into a world that was unfamiliar to them. But my ability to prosper was hardly entirely due to my own efforts. I was intelligent enough to excel at school, athletic enough to perform well on the sporting field and with sufficient emotional intelligence to be able to manage social interactions. These innate gifts were accidental outcomes of my genes and early socialisation and nothing that I could personally claim credit for.

It was from that elevated position of good fortune, no doubt, my internal locus of control was encouraged. Consequently the least likely response I would have to whatever adversity I have encountered is victimhood.

But it is not surprising to me that others from different backgrounds, who did not feel empowered, who did not have the early experiences of success that I had, might come to think that the world is a more inimical place than I do. But it is indeed a pity if they lose a sense of personal agency and believe they are hopeless, passive victims of an injust world. If they fall into this abyss their only solution seems to them is to resort to blame for their perceived injustices and demand that somebody (usually the government, but certainly not them) do something about it.

It does not take long to see that if my well-being is dependent on others solving my problems for me I become entrapped in a cocoon of self-pity and I forsake my own autonomy. The best strategy for my personal betterment then seems to be to highlight my self-suffering in order to get more attention from the external agencies on whom I believe I must rely on for respite.

But again we have to be careful not to make too many generalisations. If we allowed these two opposing dispositions to express themselves in the extremes what would be the outcomes?

Those with an internal locus of control might come to the conclusion that they are entirely responsible for all aspects of their lives and consequently government has nothing to offer them. But at this extreme we are looking at anarchy. Even the most secure of liberal thinkers must concede that a democratic government provides benefits, and although its activities might compromise some elements of our individual freedom, the benefits we accrue from such government intervention are worth the curtailment of some of our freedoms. Indeed the principal argument for government intervention is to help our most vulnerable with health care, education and the provision of safety nets for the most impoverished and disadvantaged.

On the other hand those with an external locus of control might conclude that their welfare might be better promoted by handing over to the state complete control over their lives. This is essentially communism and historical precedents would have us be wary of this course of action.

The debate between liberals and socialists is really about how much of a role we should allow governments to play in our lives.

So on balance it seems obvious that we need to ensure a degree of personal autonomy while admitting that our state and its citizens also benefit from a degree of government intervention.

Now in recent decades achieving this appropriate balance has been rendered more difficult by two trends in the twenty first century, viz:

  • The decline in trust of public institutions, and
  • The rise of identity politics.

Fifty years ago, for better or for worse, citizens had much more faith in governments to act for their benefit. What political parties stood for was clear and governments could be relied upon to act in the national interest. Today, the underlying purpose of our politicians is not nearly as clear and voters are more concerned that they are promoting vested interests at the expense of the national interest. (Research by the PEW Research Centre shows that in the USA in 1964, 77% of citizens reported a high degree of trust in government. In recent times less than 10% now share that sentiment.)

Fifty years ago we were more overtly a Christian nation and churches were trusted by many to provide us with a moral compass with which to negotiate the exigencies of modern life. Today fewer people admit to being guided by religion and many are appalled by the depravity recently revealed of trusted churchmen.

Fifty years ago we rarely questioned the integrity of public institutions and big business. Today we have been made aware of the moral shortcomings of our banks and financial institutions and the intellectual biases of our universities. (It will be interesting to see if the government is able to utilise the recently released report by former High Court chief justice, Robert French on freedom of speech in our universities to restore some confidence in those institutions.)

Paradoxically, this loss of faith in our major institutions, instead of driving people more to seek self-reliance in their lives has triggered an explosion in regulation and government intervention which mitigates the obvious response of accepting more personal responsibility.

The rise of identity politics has resulted in an exaggerated form of tribalism. This has served to curtail debate on important issues. In an era where political correctness has come to dominate, minorities clustered around such tribal identities have successfully curtailed debate on significant issues compromising our freedom of speech and weakening our democracy. For example, those questioning various progressive causes are not contested by rational debate but are shut down by avoiding the contest of ideas and resorting to name calling.

Consequently it is almost impossible to have a sensible debate on immigration, indigenous issues, gender politics or climate change.

But surely our society is little helped if instead of relying on governments and other public institutions to help us navigate our way through the dilemmas of modern society we resort to Facebook?

And surely, given the importance of knowing and accepting ourselves, if we are to gain some sense of well-being, resorting to taking on the various mantles of identity politics in order to avoid proper self-examination can only lead to victimhood .This is a pathetic “Self” defensive mechanism that can only lead to disempowerment and sorrow.

If I choose to focus my attention on looking outward, and have an external locus of control, my attention immediately goes to those things that superficially distinguish me from others. This is the platform on which identity politics arises.

Paradoxically, if I focus my attention on looking inwards, and have an internal locus of control, it soon becomes obvious that the commonality I share with you is vastly greater than the individual differences I might otherwise have focussed on to exaggerate my separateness. Again paradoxically, an internal locus of control compels me to recognise my Oneness with you. I come to understand that at the depth of our beings there is a common “Ground of Being” which renders our superficial differences inconsequential.

Which reminds me of the words of Pauli Murray, who I have quoted before. Murray was a lawyer, an American civil rights activist, an advocate of women’s rights and an Episcopal priest. In 1945 she wrote:

I intend to destroy segregation by positive and embracing methods. …When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them. Where they speak out for the privileges of a puny group, I shall shout out for the rights of all mankind.

The tribalism of identity politics creates its own segregation. We would do well in heeding Murray’s words on how to address that travesty.

2 Replies to “Looking Out and Looking In”

  1. Thank you Ted for that final quote from Pauli Murray. I was not aware of it, but I think it is just wonderful and the only way to deal with bounded identities. It has long seemed to me that it is very dangerous to personally identify with any bounded group, religion or philosophy — such as “I am a …” that place some inside and some outside the boundary. Not only does a boundary indicate that “I am better than those outside the boundary” but it also places me in a position where I am obliged to more or less agree with all that goes with the label and in so doing shuts down the intuitive capacity of the mind that must alway be ‘unbounded’ if it is to remain free to alternative ideas. It reminds me of the allegorical story of the Pharisee and the Tax collector. The Pharisee comes into the Temple and proclaims loudly “I thank you Lord that I am not as other men” especially this tax collector …. and went away deluded. The despised tax collector goes into a corner and says words to the effect, “forgive me for I am just the same as anybody else” …. and went away enlightened.

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