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June 30th, 2018
Warning, there’s some Game of Thrones spoilers in this post for those who haven’t watched to the end of Season 7.
this episode references episode 72: Perseverance vs Pivot, episode 73: Plow Ahead and episode 75: Plan Vs. Hope. If you’d like to fully understand these references, it’s best to check out these episodes.
We have an absurdly strong tendency to lump things into categories, and then lump categories together into larger, and increasingly vague categories. And in the process we sever any helpful cross-overs that such vaguely defined boxes prohibit. In many areas of life and culture, things eventually get lumped into super (and super simple) categories. We all know them:
Good & Bad.
This thinking shortcut is certainly useful. Indeed it wouldn’t exist if it weren’t helpful in some way, even if that reason is potentially due to the limits of brain size and capacity. With any shortcut though, there’s usually a tradeoff, and in this case, it can be incredibly useful to challenge the shortcut and usurp any further usefulness that is inevitably cut short.
Take for example, the above super dichotomy: good and bad.
This slippery pair is what life boils down to in a simple sense. Is this good? Then more of it. Bad? Let’s get rid of it.
But in many ways we find that things we thought were in one category actually belong in the other. Any concerned and loving mother would be stressed out by a member of the family who is not eating and say that such practice is bad. But much scientific inquiry into the nature of fasting has shown that it does very good things for our health.
Let’s take an even simpler set of examples: Villains.
Superheroes are always the good guys. And they fight the villains – the bad guys,
But there is automatically an inherent slight of analysis in this first declaration:
A villain or a bad guy in some fictional setting or even a real one is branded as such because of their effectiveness.
Being effective is often seen as a good quality. In fact it’s fairly broadly accepted that intelligence is an ability to understand the environment, form PLANS and carry those PLANS out to success. Villains wouldn’t garner their illustrious title if they did not have this positive quality.
Oh, but they have bad PLANS.
Fair enough. But does that mean we should overlook the many strategies they employ in order to be effective?
Take two popular examples: The Night King from the Game of Thrones series, and the Joker from Christopher Nolan’s Batman series.
Let’s look at The Night King first.
In season 7, episode 6, Danny flies north to save Jon Snow. Her dragons decimate huge portions of the Night King’s army.
How does this guy react? Does he look on in dejected horror at his losses as they happen? Does he stress over his loss in numbers and think about how disrupted his PLANS are and how much longer it will take to bring his numbers back up again? Does he fear for his own ‘life’?
No. He is calm as a cold rock. And beyond this, he sees the whole situation as an opportunity. Instead of seeing Danny’s dragons as a huge obstacle and enemy that is making him weaker, he sees this obstacle as an opportunity to further his own goals. Like a good chess player, he turns his opponent’s offensive attack into his own gain. He takes down one of the dragons and revives that dragon, which in turn is the key for getting his forces past The Wall.
Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus… all of the stoics would have to admit some admiration for the Night King’s clear and calm thinking, his ability to turn setback into advantage.
Indeed the Night King appears to be effective because of his stoic qualities. His emotions seems well managed and supple to his goals, and never does he seem impeded by his emotions. Particularly when there is good cause for negative ones.
Just because he wants to go to war with all of humanity does not means we should ignore the qualities that allow him to be effective and PLOW AHEAD towards this goal. Such qualities are admirable. And his enemies would do much better to learn these stoic qualities.
The Joker from Batman - particularly the Nolan movie – is also a villain replete with good qualities.
In his longer monologues he talks at length about how Batman and politicians, and the police force are all so tied to their PLANS. He scoffs at this and takes his cues from something more akin to chaos. While batman is all about preparation and control, the Joker feeds off of randomness and the unexpected.
Granted, the Joker clearly makes plans to pull off his stunts. It’s impossible to accomplish really anything without having some thoughtful foresight and putting things into place for future execution, and the Joker is clearly planning ahead in order to achieve his goals. The lesson from the Joker is perhaps the emotional connection to such plans. He is completely willing to abandon those plans as things develop. He is not tied to his theory of what might happen. He is a doer, who is refreshingly mindful of what is happening in the moment and this makes his strategy nimble.
When a superhero encounters an unforeseen flaw in a plan, the mood of the audience depresses with the superhero. Whereas the Joker seems positively titillated by any event, whether it be the successful completion of a plan or an unexpected setback.
Which quality would allow YOU to move forward more quickly and efficiently?
The heroes of these stories are unfortunately a bit fragile in this way. Perhaps they have to be in order for an audience to go on the emotional ups and downs required for ‘entertainment’.
The villains, on the other hand, are what Nassim Nicholas Taleb would probably call ‘Antifragile’.
Like the Hydra which grows two new heads when you cut off one, these villains seem to be effective and powerful because of how they emotionally handle setbacks. Like a good entrepreneur, they see opportunity where others might see a dismal situation.
They are able to PIVOT extremely quick.
Superheroes rarely display this kind of emotional ability. And there is something romantic about this inability to let go of an emotion that we as an entertained species really seem to lust for.
But this romantic tendency is ultimately a counter-productive one, and here is an uncomfortable juxtaposition to help.
In Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson’s fantastic book “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body” they recount an episode about the Dali Lama. He is told about a terrible tragedy of a massacre of people and the Dali Lama exhibits a deep sadness about the news, and then a couple of minutes later someone says something funny and the Dali Lama laughs whole-heartedly. Goleman and Davidson recount this anecdote to show how the Dali Lama has the ability to pivot emotionally very quickly. At first glance, a westerner with familiarity with medical jargon might call this bipolar, but Goleman and Davidson point out how this emotional dexterity is the result of thousands of hours spent in meditation.
Being so strictly tied to an emotional state prevents us from integrating new information effectively. If our first reaction to a development in a situation is a negative one, then we risk being blind to seeing how such a development might help us if we hold onto that emotion for any length of time.
We’ve heard so often: We see what we want to see.
We see what our feelings permit.
Categories are inevitably a useful tool, but we must be aware of the ways they forestall our abilities. What may be good may have bad aspects, and what we might associate with bad or evil, might have extremely admirable qualities. Nearly everything is some kind of composite of different, and often conflicting qualities.
The benefits of categories are short term, and the long term benefit lies in recognizing the tension inside categories and across categories. Indeed the romantic flaw detailed above may be a simple love of categories.
“I am feeling this emotion.”
To let go of that emotion and smoothly transition to another state is somewhat like a betrayal of identity in that moment, to somehow be less human, as though emotions were the only thing that makes us human. Unless we decide to identify less with any given emotion we are feeling.
Perhaps instead of phrasing things like “I’m feeling depressed”, what if we phrased things like “I’m experiencing some feelings of depression.” Or “There’s some feelings of depression present right now.”
A simple switch in language can help institute a shift in thinking. And in so doing we can distance ourselves from emotions a little and have a better perspective on how useful they are.
After thinking deeply about our long term goals and the good we HOPE to accomplish, we can perhaps then take a cue from the Joker, the Dali Lama and the Night King and PIVOT faster and more effectively when our path towards those goals of good are thwarted, obstacle strewn and laden with plenty of opportunity to lose heart.
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