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Posts from — August 2013

Primary Choices

Primary Choices

You might not believe some of the stories I hear from clients. The ones that stand out most involve what’s come to be known as “relationship issues.” Someone’s lover did this, a coworker did that, a family member is driving the client crazy, this sort of thing. It is amazing how, despite the endless variety of details in the props and furnishings of the drama or the particular lines that the characters keep reading—there tend to be common denominators, themes and through lines, archetypes of distress and relief from distress. A good analogy here is found in the mechanics of color images on a printed page or screen. In the case of a printed page, the color model underlying the image is called “CMYK” (for cyan, magenta, yellow, and black). Even images that, to the eye, appear to have millions of colors, can be seen, under close magnification, to be made up solely of “halftone” dots in those four colors, which are in this sense primary to the model. It is the organization of those dots in rosette patterns interacting with the human eye that produces the visual effect of the full range of colors. Images on a screen, such as a computer screen, follow the “RGB” model (for red, green, blue), so that the full-color images we see on the web sites we visit actually are made up only of those three colors, which are “mixed” in real-time like the dabs of paint on an artist’s palette, to create all the other colors that we see in the image.

In a similar way, there are primary colors that appear on the canvas of experience as the quality of our associations with others. These colors are hidden deep in the infrastructure of how these associations get staged, but fundamentally, any work that’s needed has to be done at the primary rather than the manifest level. What are these primary colors? Well, here are a few: the self, the truth, and the will. These are primary in the sense that how we engage them inwardly determines how our worldly involvements with others gets rendered. Put another way, a problem in a relationship can be traced back to a problem in the client’s self-engagement, or in the client’s engagement with the truth, or to how the client engages his or her will. Correspondingly, resolution is achieved in session by adjusting the relevant “color.” Once the adjustment has been made and takes effect, a shift occurs that alters reality itself. Even if the facts remain for a time, the shifted spectrum allows the client to recognize and accept the previously problematic conditions, so that in a real sense, they are what they are but they are no longer a problem.

In the Apology, Plato documents Socrates’s testimony before the Athenian tribunal that eventually sentences him to be executed. Socrates all but laughs at the absurd charges against him—of worshipping false gods and corrupting the Athenian youth—and when, in keeping with Attic law, the court gives Socrates the opportunity to state a fitting punishment, Socrates suggests that the state pay him a stipend so that he can continue his philosophical work without the distraction of having to make a living. Offended by this, the tribunal leaves it to the chief prosecutor, Meletus, to determine Socrates’s sentence. Meletus proposes death.

One of the main philosophical ideas put forth by Socrates in the Apology is this: “No harm can come to a good man, in life or death.” This seems, on the face of it, absurd as we can look around us and see all sorts of harm coming to good people, who may even suffer as a result of their goodness. But Socrates’s claim becomes meaningful and even illuminating when we understand the position developed in the Republic that happiness lies not in outer conditions, but in having a “well-ordered” soul. Since outer conditions are irrelevant to the state of one’s soul, no outer condition has the power to inflict harm. In this view, the one who inflicts harm harms only himself, for by his action, he sets himself against what is true and good and beautiful, thus allowing his soul to become disordered. It seems clear that Socrates believed this, and we can assume that his recommendation that the state paying him a stipend would be an appropriate response, while ironic, was nonetheless sincere.

Back to our primary colors of the psyche. Our relation to self, our relation to the truth, and our relation to our will, in broad-brush terms, will be either harmonious, congruent, and “well ordered” or discordant, incongruent, and “disordered” in the Platonic sense. Much of what measures where we stand has to do with a healthy sense of our limitations, as this in itself protects us from self-rejection, deception, and willfulness, three dark colors that can produce a million miseries. If we hold to the best in us, refusing to give in to petty, ignoble, or self-aggrandizing promptings that may call us from time to time, then we find that we are happy regardless of what someone else does or does not do. If another person slanders us, it diminishes us not in the least. On the contrary, it diminishes the slanderer. If someone lies to us, or spreads gossip about us, who is harmed by the act? If a thief steals our property, we are not made less by it; our happiness remains intact because its wellsprings lie within our resolve to honor what is true and good and beautiful, while the thief has paid for his stolen property with his soul, and by his act harmed his own happiness. This is why Socrates makes the statement that no harm can come to a good man. Hannah Arendt, in her book, Life of the Mind, even goes as far as to say that it is better to be the victim of a crime than the perpetrator, for one has to “come home” to oneself, and the only way to live with a murderer is by having no thinking life at all. Countless philosophical coaching sessions prove that happiness is an inside job, and that once one has picked up the brushes and painted well, no situation, no matter how painful, and no other person, has the power to harm us.

Socrates was influenced by the Stoics, but what we’re suggesting here is not merely stoicism. Other people and the conditions of our life matter greatly to us; no reasonable person would suggest that it should be otherwise. But if other people and conditions matter so much that we lose ourselves in them, if we give them the power to take us hostage, if we succumb to what the I Ching calls “inferior influences,” then we allow ourselves to be harmed. As a rule, pain can be outlived, and all the more quickly when we are on friendly terms with ourselves and with life. In this regard, the end of Socrates’s life demonstrates a degree of spiritual independence and strength worthy of emulating.

The clients who take charge of these primary choices regarding the self (choosing to honor the inner voice), the truth (choosing to place unalloyed honesty above any situational gain), and their will (choosing willingness and acceptance over willfulness and resistance) soon outgrow the need for the support that coaching provides, because they find that support within them. The world’s fires may be burning around them, but they no longer stand in the flames, condemning the world, blaming others, lamenting their rotten luck.

When I was in my junior year at university, I worked for a year as a teacher’s aide in a kindergarten. To this day, it remains one of the best jobs I ever had. The teacher, an African American woman named Julia Harper, and I would walk out to the circular driveway at the end of the school day and wait with the kids for their parents to pick them up. One day—I had just begun seriously studying philosophy, and had a mind to impress Mrs. Harper with my political perspicacity—I said, “You know, Mrs. Harper, the worst thing that the white man did to the black man in our history wasn’t treating him like a second-class citizen; it was getting him to feel like a second-class citizen.” Visibly unimpressed but always gracious in her candor, Mrs. Harper replied, “Nobody can make me feel like a second-class citizen but me.”

August 19, 2013   Comments Off on Primary Choices