II. 5. Laura’s Trilemma


Self-perception is constituted by the known by us circumstances about ourselves, and its structure is formed by the degree of importance we grant to each of these circumstances. This “inner” hierarchy changes continuously. As time passes and our experience grows, we get to know ourselves better, because the longer our life is, the more opportunities we have had to check on the validity of our self-image. That’s why wisdom is being so often related to old age. A wise man knows a lot about the world, but most of all he knows about himself. This knowledge needs time to mature. Through it we get closer to being in harmony with the world around us. Not everyone, though, reaches this blessed stage. It is up to our character and the environment, both of which either grant or deny us this privilege. More often both of them are against us. More often we drown in the maelstrom of events having no time or strength to detach ourselves from our everyday life and to reassess our personality before proceeding further. As a result, instead of finishing our earthly pilgrimage as Lessing’s Nathan the Wise, we end up as Shakespeare’s Pantaloon.

The circumstances life serves us with at any moment are very rarely pure in their essence. While looking for a spiritual advice we might feel the urge to satisfy an unrelated emotional need; together with experiencing physical pain we often try to focus on a rational decision we have to make; occasions of coveted sexual arousal are sometimes overtaken by a strong moral dilemma… That’s why at any single moment our self-perception has to refresh the hierarchy of inner circumstances, combining them into a modified, unique and relevant to this very moment arrangement. Our subsequent actions reflect the new arrangement, enrich our life experience and speak to others about who we are.

Laura is 35 years old, still single, and already a little desperate about it. Tonight, though, she is invited on a party at the new house of a girlfriend of hers, who has also invited, as she claimed, Laura’s perfect male match. The whole afternoon Laura criss-crosses the stores to find the pair of shoes that would go with her outfit. In a nervous anticipation of the event she totally forgets to eat. It doesn’t help that she finds the right pair of shoes only at 7:30pm, in a shop located 15 miles from her friend’s house. So she arrives at the party 45 minutes late. While ascending the stairs she feels a short, but acute pain in her abdomen – a logical symptom for a starving person with a gastric disorder. While kissing her friend hello she knows that she has to quickly put something in her stomach, since otherwise the pain would quickly increase to a critical point. The thing is that her friend rushes her to the parlor, where her “match” is chatting with the other guests. On top of that, having made her first two steps into the house Laura senses the peculiar and distinctive smell of the interior. Nothing special – many old houses smell like this, but for Laura this odor has a very specific meaning. This was the smell of her grandparent’s house, where, being five years old, she found her grandmother lying on the floor, dead from a heart attack. The shock she experienced back then made her parents never take her to that house again.

What should Laura do? She is in a cul-de-sac. She can stay and go outside to meet her “prince”, double up with physical pain a minute later and suffer the enormous emotional throe of recreating the nightmare of her childhood. Or she can rush to the table and start stuffing her mouth with the treats on the trays, losing forever the chance to call the attractive guy in the parlor her husband. Or she can run away from the house immediately, not only losing the guy, but risking rolling with pain on the street, since the taxi has been sent away, and the nearest food store is several miles down the street. Whatever she embarks on would have negative consequences for her, no matter that all of her choices would be justifiable – morally, emotionally and physically. Yet, the arrangement of the mentioned inner circumstances Laura comes up with will speak tons about her self-perception, as well as about her human nature as a whole.

Often, though, we are not able even to catch up with the pace of the changing events around us. No matter how dynamic our self-perception is, from time to time the dynamics of the outside world overpowers it. In this case what we act upon is our instincts. Unlike our self-perception, they are the circumstances about ourselves we are unaware of.

What hampers the dynamics of our self-perception? Why are we sometimes so hesitant in deciding what is really important and worth standing up for? Which are those factors that slow us down, and leave us being assisted by our unpredictable instincts? What about when our self-perception starts being so dysfunctional and wrong, that even if it guides us through the events of the moment, it hurts our interests instead of serving them?

There are all kinds of viruses that can impede the normal functioning of our operation system: mental or behavioral ones, viruses due to prejudices, inner complexes or insecurities, emotional traumas, bad upbringing or poor judgment of past facts. Some of them we catch ourselves; yet for others we rely on our social circle or our therapist. When pointed out to us, we sometimes agree on getting rid of them; yet some other times we don’t want to admit having them, or even reject the notion of their harm, labeling them as virtues instead. Some of the viruses can be so powerful that they risk twisting the logic of our actions beyond recognition, dooming us to complete failure.

…In the realm of art the best depiction of human nature attacked and destroyed by viruses is that of the Theatre of the Absurd. Born from the public aftershock of WW2, it reflected the vulnerability of mankind revealed through the horrors the Nazis had been perpetrating for more than a decade. There were no more illusions about the irreversibility of human progress. Translated by art, this notion found its expression in characters that were so concussed by something (evil was never personalized), that they were not able to see, hear or feel what was going on around them. Some among the audience laughed at their irrelevance, but others were terrified by their resemblance to modern man…

The relation between self-perception and perception of the environment is a two-way street. Certainly, the information we get in the form of consequences of our actions enriches the knowledge about ourselves. But our self-knowledge also influences the way we accept and understand everything that surrounds us.

© 2009 Peter Budevski

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