I think perhaps that deep inside of us, whether we have parents or not, whether our parents were helpful or not, each of us has a parental voice. If it weren’t there, we’d create it. I think maybe that voice never leaves – it’s the inner parent, in the same way there is an inner child. From the parental voice, depending on our character, we want one of two things. Either, on the one hand, we want it to tell us what to do, how we’re supposed to behave, what our goals are supposed to be – more or less, what is acceptable and what isn’t, or else we want it to tell us what the world is, how it works, what it means, and how one finds meaning while living in it. Some people say the voice is supposed to tell us who we are – that’s how some people interpret the right of passage, almost as a one time event in which the parent tells you who you are. I’m orthodox when it comes to that; I think learning who you are is a lifelong journey, not a one time altar call. Even if I’m wrong, I don’t know that the parental voice can tell us who we are, because regardless of the parents contribution to or abdication from it, it still, fundamentally resides in us – it still, really, is ourselves. Besides, we can’t depend on our parents to tell us who we are. They see what was, but they can’t see the choices you’ll make to define your identity for yourself. I’ve said before that “no one can tell you who you are”, and I still believe that. No battery of tests can produce the answer. But I do think that, if someone makes enough of a study, someone who is your friend, who likes you as you are, who wants you to have your highest hopes, they can tell you and the parental voice can tell you that they are right.
In other words, I think it takes both the world and the individual to learn the truth about yourself – not the whole world, but a particular part of it, that friend I mention. I think people that don’t have a friend like that risk never, actually, learning who they are – at least, I think it’s a struggle, and they must be stronger than I am – I don’t envy what they have to face. But I was saying, at first, that I think we look to that parental voice either to tell us what to do or to tell us what the world is, what’s real, and I think what we ask of that voice is a matter of character. I’m not knocking those who fall into the former group – that can happen when desperation is made to be a serious part of your life – when there isn’t emotional room for deep reflection, but a constant struggle mainly to remain intact in some way. I know that place; I’ve been in it, and I don’t buy into the philosophies that say there’s always a way out of it, if you have the right attitude. That may work for the people that aren’t swept under the rug, but it doesn’t work for the child sex slave in Thailand, who comes to awareness in a world where children are turned into machines for the pleasure of the ‘real’ people. It doesn’t work for the child who wakes up to a fist. And that fist can remain with you deep into adulthood or may never leave. No whitebread triumphalist emotional dogma here, please. If it can’t account for the hard cases, it doesn’t correspond to reality, and it’s not some kind of universal law. The line from “The Devil’s Own” at the end (Harrison Ford) is “We never had a choice.”
But for those of us who do have a choice, or have acquired one, that choice becomes a matter of character, and is a choice of how to live. Do we want a scripted life or an open-ended one? I’ve heard college kids from affluent families trying to solve problems by framing them in terms of “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do”. Scripted. And I don’t know enough about their backgrounds to know if that’s how they were raised, or if it’s just how they wanted to be raised. I know that I think of a parent’s duty as not most significantly to ingrain the “what to do” into a child, but the “what is real”, and you don’t get an “ought” from an “is”. I’m not saying a sense of morality (from God) and ethics (from nature) shouldn’t be taught, although I think a lot of children for whom those things are distorted grow up to be parents themselves and perpetuate the distortion. I’m saying that the fundamental conversation is not the minimalist one that is merely corrective – “don’t hurt people”, “help the poor and the stranger” (thing so important as to be entirely basic) – the primary conversation is “this is real, and that is illusion” – or, probably more accurately, since that’s dogma too “here are ways to tell real from illusion”. In other words, the primary conversation is epistemological. Maybe that’s accomplished by a myriad of examples, showing for instance that the collective imagination about who a person is isn’t real (think “To Kill a Mockingbird”) – the group doesn’t determine you, and you don’t get to determine anyone else – that’s reality, or that’s not how you discover reality. Teaching someone how to test things for reality is a huge responsibility, especially since one’s own prejudices can thwart the process and turn it back into dogma.
Not that it’s necessary to be comprehensive, but that it takes a lot of examples, a lot of practice, so that the parental voice inside each of us is equipped to exceed the illusions and delusions that entrap the multitudes. I think what we learn to desire of the parental voice, and to expect of it, determines whether we’ll be what someone called an origin or a pawn. “An Origin has a strong feeling of personal causation, a feeling that the locus for causation of effects in his environment lies within himself. …a Pawn has a feeling that causal forces beyond his control, or personal forces residing within others, or in the physical environment, determine his behavior. This constitutes a strong feeling of powerlessness or ineffectiveness” (Richard De Charms). So now you know why, if you’ve been following the ROW blog, that I think this is relevant to one’s work. “What am I supposed to do?” It can be tempting to reach for that in moments of exhaustion or distress, but a more significant question is “what is real?” In other words, the fundamental question I associate with one’s work, the particular work that rightly belongs to a particular person, is an epistemological one. I think perhaps those who discover their vocations, what they are borne to do, what they are made for, are the ones always continuing to ask “what is true?” I’ve watched people turn away from this question, as a life pursuit, more importantly – as a way of living day to day, and the consequences do seem to be (among other things) vocational. The fundamental question about what one is meant to do (“what am I supposed to do?”), ironically, isn’t answered, precisely because the more fundamental question of “what is real?” isn’t the basis of asking it.
The failure is a reversal of subject and object (I and the world), in that we decide what we think of as real based on what we want to be real, because we’re starting out with a question of intention – “what am I supposed to do?”. It’s a kind of neurosis (a thing is true because I wish it to be true) – that is, reality is whatever corresponds to what it is my intention to do. If the questions are put back in their proper order, first “What is the world? What is this stuff around me? What is actually there in an objective way (not pretending that’s *all* of reality, but it’s the part we can know by observation and inquiry)?” and secondly, because we’ve now distinguished the self from the rest of the world by the very act of examining it for truth, “Who am I, and what should I do as I discover the answer to that throughout my life?” It’s not that if we know what is, we’ll get what ought. It’s just that we can’t really distinguish those things properly enough to ask them effectively, if we don’ get the order right.
I’m no behavioral scientist, and I’m not a philosopher, either. Perhaps I’m wrong about all this; it’s what I think, but every thing I think is contingent, capable of evolving, subject to adjustment as I interact with the world. This stuff doesn’t work if you think, “I know how the world works” in a way that has stopped learning, growing, and challenging your current notions about things. That stagnation ensures that the parent inside us is a tyrant, and you’re left with dogma that can only tell you what you should do (that’s one of the reasons, I think, we quote our parental voice a lot but don’t do what it says – I also think it’s because by disobeying it, we preserve it, except that we preserve it as the cruel dogmatist). In that way the parental voice becomes the endless inner voice of advice. Ever hear that voice in you? Constantly telling you what you’re doing wrong or where your flaws are or how you need to improve, except not in a constructive way, just in a wheedling way that makes you feel like mush? That’s the parental voice, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The parental voice can change its ways. It doesn’t have to be a dogmatist that talks but doesn’t listen.
That’s the thing – if it’s still asking “What is real?”, it listens and learns as much or more than it advises you “what you should do”. What you want is to accumulate experience, but let your attitude keep it contingent on continually accumulating still more experience – don’t expect to get to a certain ‘place’ where you’re ‘grown up’ or ‘old’ or ‘have arrived’. It’s goofy that the culture teaches us that we’re supposed to have stopped asking those fundamental questions by the time we reach a certain age – it’s hard to resist that cultural dogma too, precisely because it’s often passed along through the parental voice. The voice that tells us to stop growing is the voice that has, by telling us that, already stopped growing. Neat, huh? As soon as you stop accumulating new experiences and asking ‘what is real’, you’ve moved back in with your inner parent, with the old curfew and rules, no matter how old you are, and I mean that inner parent that’s a caricature of every criticism you ever heard. No wonder people who do that shut it off, stop listening, and just say “I’m old. I’m not changing, and I’m not thinking about it anymore.” I’d probably lobotomize that parental voice if it’s all I had left, too. And then that is the ‘wisdom’ we pass on to kids when shaping their parental voice, that you’re supposed to kill your inner parent 40 years after you kill your inner child. All this inner bloodshed – no wonder we’re an angry people. You see, it’s like a Greek or Shakespearean tragedy – we get older, and we kill our parent, thinking we’re going to take it’s power, and then we end up being the thing we killed.
Rule of Work: Stay young by staying open.
Want the secret to perpetual youth? Stay open, keep asking the fundamental questions – “what is real, who am I, and what shall I do while I keep learning those things?” I’ve written about surrounding yourself with people who are doing this as a way of constantly maintaining creative flow, innovation, the steady engine of new ideas in the soul of the entrepreneur – this is one way of saying ‘choose friends who can remind you who you are’ (even tho, remember, only you can truly discover who you are – they get it because they’re listening to you tell them, in one form or another, as you learn it for yourself and evolve – and hopefully, they and their perceptions of you and of themselves are evolving with you. But being closed to the epistemological pursuit and to the quest for identity and just trying to hang out with creative types, because you hope it will rub off, won’t work, because no one else can define you, and the only voice that can really tell you what you should do is actually your own – the one that comes from knowledge of self and awareness of context (the world) – you – the you that you hear, even if it’s just the echoes of something that’s not relevant anymore, quoting in your own voice those who told you that you don’t apply yourself, or you’re not realistic, or that the meaning of life is a job and a mortgage, or whatever). Want to reshape the parental voice? Ask the right questions, in the right order, and I think you’ll be on the path to always being an Origin – someone who just isn’t fit to be a Pawn and doesn’t fit in a row of Pawns. The voice begins to remind you how to tell real from illusion, and it spurs you on along the path of self-knowledge, rather than paralyzing you with an endless inner diatribe about how you’re fucking it all up.
You understand this prescription is partly conjecture, because we each stumble upon this, if we didn’t get it from childhood, in our own half hazard ways, but it’s what I think the pattern is that leads, however erratically we pursue the course, to the outcome. Character is commensurate with how open we remain to reality and self-knowledge. Asking “what should I do” without continually learning what is real and who you are (i.e. getting the order wrong), shuts down character and surrenders us to the tyrannical dogmas of the inner critic. So, to put it another way, character isn’t something you get that doesn’t go away, that day at the altar call where you are supposedly created whole on the spot, it’s something you maintain, grow, and nuture to the degree that you remain on the journeys of understanding of the world and knowledge of self. The hokie cultural gnosticism that says “the questions are more important than the answers” or “the journey is what matters more than the destination” soundly misses the point – it *all* matters. Take a plane out far enough over the ocean to exhaust the fuel, and you’ll *know* that taking a journey without a strong emphasis on the destination was a spiritual d’oh! And the pragmatist utilitarians don’t have it right either – those guys are busy making wars for peace and rendering the planet uninhabitable so Jesus can come back and live here for a thousand years. Accumulate answers, and keep asking the questions. You’ll never finish, if you’re lucky, learning what the world is or who you are, but you also won’t be some dolt who never came to some tentative conclusions along the way. I’ve met those guys – they’re getting high at Grateful Dead concerts as they chronicle the interesting lives that other people are living. Do it right, and you’ll be more interested in thinking about and exploring your own life. Welcome to my blog – word.
Sorry, for those of you who don’t get off on my touchy-feely brand of philosophical meandering; it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, I know. I talk about what’s on my mind which, if you’ve read my coaching on the subject of internet marketing, you know is how I manage any consistency in blogging – and I tell other people to write whatever is on their minds too – it’s one of the ways you learn what you’re interested in learning about and talking about, and there’s always an audience for that. It’s one of the ways you define and redefine your work, and the context (audiences / worlds) for it. Oh, and paragraph breaks are arbitrary – I publish first and proof later (my own brand of literary and motivational voodoo) – I edit live – it’s another ‘personal success secret’ (you have some of your own, don’t you?) to ensure that I actually get things out, which is more important to me than whether I spelled obliquely wrong – and if I never get around to editing, I still got the stuff out, and I’m probably loaded up with more, and will have more coming precisely because I emptied the clip ( if you’re a regular reader, you saw an article here recently about that theory and technique, called something like – ‘spend all you’ve got‘). I’m spent – I’ll proof later.