III. 5. The Deepest Traps of All


Facts originating from the environment swarm on us every single moment of our lives. Wherever we go, whatever we do, objective reality challenges us with its countless, ever changing characteristics. Many of them (like air temperature or gravity) we have to conform with due to our nature; with others (like the social rules imposed on us) we deal because of our dependence on the community.

However, most of the facts that constitute our surroundings are not forced on us in any way, thus forming a huge pool of potential circumstances we can choose from in building our perception of the environment. How do we do that? What determines the choice of outer circumstances we decide to act upon, as well as their arrangement in terms of importance? And in what way do these circumstances influence our self-perception?

Let’s say that I’m entering a guest room in my friend’s country house where I’m about to spend the next few days. I have never been in this room before. Once I open the door I hear the sounds of a piano wafting through the open window. At the same time I see a beautiful painting hanging on the wall. I also feel the heavy golden door handle which I’m still holding. These are three random facts that may or may not get my full attention. If I’m a music buff I would definitely stop and listen to the music, maybe even try to guess its composer. If I love fine arts I might be more interested in the painting, walking around it to find the best point of view and avoid the reflection of the lamp. But if I am a handyman of some kind I would hardly listen to the music or look at the piece; my attention would be absorbed by the original door handle that I haven’t seen anywhere else before. These three versions of my behavior form three different perceptions of the environment at this very moment, because of the different circumstances my actions would be influenced by. Further on, each of these three choices determining my behavior would be a product of a different self-perception: that of a music fan, a fine arts admirer, or a handyman.

Things might become a little more complicated if I enter the room with the burden of some already existing (preliminary) outer circumstance: since my train has arrived late my friend’s whole family is already waiting for me around the dinner table, which requires that I just throw my luggage in the wardrobe and run back downstairs to join them. Whether I would do that, or spend some time in awe in front of the masterpiece I have been dreaming of for several years now, depends on my self-perception as before, but this time it has to redefine itself first; it has to go through the struggle for predominance between the two currently leading inner circumstances: the necessity to be respectful (to the kindness of the family), and the urge to satisfy my artistic curiosity (for the painting). It is the outcome of this inner fight which would allow my self-perception to sustain its role as the ultimate decision-maker on which fact of the environment to grant more importance to. In other words, as I’m being presented with two equally important facts by the environment, I can act only after I have an idea of their arrangement as circumstances in my perception of the environment; in order to achieve that I first have to refer to my self-perception to come up with a clear arrangement of its circumstances. (On its end, my self-perception would evolve based on the outcome of my actions: the feedback of the results of my behavior would either rebut or reaffirm my inner hierarchy – (chapter II.2.)

Throughout our lives our self-perception is not always presented with such simple cases. Environment often serves us with overwhelmingly contradictory facts that have the potential, if not to paralyze our activity, at least to make our behavior inefficient and inadequate for quite a long time.

Keith is about to finish successfully his first year as a student in agricultural engineering. He has put a lot of effort into his studies not only because he likes the college and his major; he knows how proud that would make his father. Working in a farm his whole life the old man has saved enough money to send his son to one of the best schools in this part of the country. But what makes Keith especially grateful is that his dad didn’t retire even when they found out about his heart condition. The doctors recommended a long rest, but the hard working farmer never changed his routine. All he wanted was to see Keith become an educated person, and this kept him up and running until the boy (and his bank account) was ready for college.

It is in the big city where the ingenuous Keith meets the girl of his dreams. She used to study in the same college as him but her love for music has put her education on hold. Now she is the solo singer in an all male band. Keith has never had a serious girlfriend before. Bearing his small-town inner insecurities, he still cannot fully grasp why she likes him in the first place. She is talented, smart and beautiful, and he, well-built as he is, is too far from leveling up with her in any way. Yet they have been together for seven months already, and she is nice to him most of the time. As an artistic person, she still has her emotional downturns, but within several hours and after a few plates thrown at the wall the harmony between them is always restored. Secretly Keith can’t wait to bring her home and proudly introduce her to his parents. In order to get closer to her he even takes a low-paying job in the bar where her band performs every other night. He is responsible for setting up the sound equipment and fixing the lights for the show. This puts a little more pressure on his studies, especially since the end of the semester is already around the corner, but, hey, he is young and strong, and the nights are long enough for his tests’ preparation.

Today’s news is that his girlfriend’s band has been hired for a two month tour around the state, which everybody considers a great opportunity for their artistic careers. Intoxicated with happiness the whole group bursts into Keith’s dorm room asking him to come with them to serve as the priceless tech hand he has been so far. Initially joining them in their excitement Keith suddenly realizes that the venture coincides in time with his annual examinations. Having in mind his plans for the future, as well as his father’s contribution to it, Keith’s response is that his involvement in the tour is, unfortunately, totally out of the question. Only after witnessing his girlfriend’s reaction does he fathom what he has just said. In a desperate attempt to prevent their obviously impending break-up he runs after her down the street and harnesses his whole eloquence to explain the real meaning of his words. Within three minutes he swears to help her and her friends, whatever that might cost him.

What Keith is experiencing is the “older-than-life” dilemma between two major inner circumstances: love and family. A self-perception problem of this scale cannot be solved overnight. In the face of what he has to sacrifice: the love of his life or the love (and maybe the life) of his father, he is stalled beyond his ability to find a compromise. In any case, whatever outer circumstance he chooses to go along with – the tour or his exams, it will have a ravaging impact on his life. Inevitably, the scars of his choice will stay with him for a long, long time…

If we transfer this phenomenon to the realm of art, one might say that it is our inability to set up our inner priorities in the wake of a complicated outer situation that constitutes drama as a performing arts genre. It’s not accidental that the cast of a play for the last two thousand years has been called “dramatis personae”. People come to the theatre or the movies not for the who-did-what story; what attracts them and makes their experience really unforgettable is the inner movement of the characters, their choices within a devastatingly complicated world. Why otherwise would “Hamlet” still be considered the play of the plays more than four centuries after its creation? Almost until the very end of the plot the main character does little to change the world around him. Yet his name is a byword for inner activity, whose scale comes the closest in literature to explaining the epic, even tragic conflict that can occur in our self-perception due to the overwhelming outer circumstances. It’s a shame that its solution goes often beyond our powers.

© 2009 Peter Budevski

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