Oh, how frustrated do I feel at times when my plans (or predictions) do not pan out… I then exist in a state of very difficult to accept anguish. I so wanted something (not) to happen, or believe that it should (not) have happened. Anger and rage are not far away in my conscious experience. Someone, somehow, did something wrong—if not altogether evil and reprehensible. How else could I explain that reality does not match my expectations?
This state, if I understand Iain McGilchrist in his book “The Master and His Emissary” correctly, is due in large part to how the left hemisphere of the brain “makes sense” of the world. It decomposes or deconstructs reality into knowable relations or propositions. It formulates, and speaks about, reality to allow its parts to “fit”. And this process indeed makes the world graspable, amenable to manipulation and control.
Unfortunately, existing in this state does not come with an inherent appreciation for its own limitations. Since it is based on operating over propositional knowledge, it fails to see where this approach breaks down. Whenever the elements we believe we have successfully identified do not fit, the left hemisphere struggles, which—if we then attempt to impose the structure onto reality—can create a lot of pain.
Two very different occurrences I was exposed to today still resonate in my (non-propositional) experience as I am exploring this difficulty. Earlier this morning, I read a news story about a small town in Ohio. The local city council voted to ban abortions. And it seems to me that the left-hemispheric view, depending on which side one takes, can find (self-) righteous reasons to impose one’s own value system on everybody else.
If you—propositionally, that is, and without exception—believe that it is a fundamental right for a woman to have some say in what happens in and with her body, this ban might feel like a slap in the face. If on the other hand you believe that every human life—including human life in the making—deserves to have a proponent to advocate for its rights to be protected, the idea that no-one would be willing to step in and speak for the unborn might feel unbearable.
Reality, however, does not exist in black and white, and it cannot be mapped (fully) into the propositional, such that by applying rules of logic all situations could be decided in a “this is what ought to happen” way. A less propositional approach would start from reality “as it is”, without attempting to impose a finite logical structure onto that reality.
Maybe communities in the United States simply have different trade-off preferences between certain values? And if I can accept that reality, maybe I can live in this world, and express my own, personal values, and yet accept that not everybody has to see the world exactly as I do? The pain created by holding onto (or insisting on) my beliefs as normative for everyone else can be quite exquisite.
The second occurrence was a work conference call I was on during my morning commute to the office. At the end, an emerging conflict in the field of clinical dermatology came up. Two propositional truths which are difficult to bring together were expressed: in recent years, dermatologists seem to have engaged, at least in part, in “over-detection” of melanoma. As the pressure has increased to detect cancer earlier and earlier, the incidence numbers have risen, but without as much of a clearly detectable benefit where melanoma-based mortality is concerned. This suggests the need to recalibrate towards more conservative detection.
The other truth is that, historically, most dermatological consideration and care was given to white (lesser pigmented skin) patient populations. This inequity—at least where patient engagement and care is concerned—has become an important feature of conversations in dermatology over the past few years. As the awareness grows that people with darker skin clearly also deserve attention and care, urgent calls for “equal treatment” are growing louder as well.
But what if the treatment white people are getting is far from optimal? Is it then desirable to simply extend this approach to everyone else in its current form? It is understandable that people who have been overlooked, as a group, wish to rectify this situation. How can this be done without making the same mistakes, though? The first necessary step might be to have an honest conversation about the situation as it presents itself to the various stake holders. However, that would require letting go of overly firm beliefs as being “the truth”.
Which brings me back to the beginning of the post. It is so very difficult for me to realize, in the moment of emotional pain, that there is always a good chance that the reason I am in pain is not so much due to an external fact, but rather a specific inner, left-hemispheric reality I bring to bear on my more intuitive, and ultimately more realistic experience of reality as it exists “out there”.
It seems such a natural and maybe even necessary approach to follow the anger I experience. Surely, at least sometimes my anger is justified, and the way I see the world, propositionally and with my own ideals, is “the better way”, and I would do best to impose it onto others, no? And that is the unknowable conundrum: the left hemisphere cannot fathom whether or not imposing its structure onto the world, with all the anger, force, and violence it can muster, is truly beneficial. Following its own, inner logic, it simply must assume that to be true. It could not function otherwise.
Hence the need to balance this view with a more temperate and inclusive approach. What if reality as it is, even if it contradicts my beliefs, has value in its current state? What if by imposing my belief system I actually make matters worse? It is this humility that I see lacking, in myself often enough when I dare to look, and also in the world around me. It makes it more and more difficult to enjoy engaging with those who hold beliefs different from mine. I am sensing that if I do not agree with others’ propositions, I am marked as a bad person.
And I hope we can, collectively, appreciate that this kind of game is ultimately destructive to the social fabric on which all of our lives rest. If we destroy the faith and trust we have in one another, insisting that we alone know the truth, then Rome will burn, sooner or later.