Posted by: josephsiry | August 4, 2010

At the Threshold of Fictions Lies an Anxiety in Knowing

At the Threshold of Fictions Lies an Anxiety in Knowing that we are at our best when we doubt.

There are times when in all certainty what we believe to be so is just as certainly not so. What then can we describe, glean from and use when such a situation is manifest and we are at loss because our challenged beliefs are insufficient to meet the exigencies of a perilously new period?

What exactly occurs when a cherished notion confronts an undeniable reality?

  • Denial, this can’t be happening.
  • Bargaining, well if it is the case maybe I can figure some way out?
  • Acceptance, inevitability is a harsh recognition.

Is an abbreviated set of steps we go through according to Elizabeth Kublai Ross[1] as we approach news of our own deaths, and what can be a greater challenge then to contemplate the sureness of your own mortality? For many, the loss of love, a loved one, or significant influence in ones life sets this dissonant process in motion. For most adults this seriously disturbing quarrel with events happens when they lose a job. Reality collides with personal ambitions that in our society include our self-respect since work in post-Protestant culture is regarded as a virtue.

Dissonance is the result of a clash. The collision is a result to two disharmonious elements experienced simultaneously. A conflict arises from our attempt to reconcile two or more contradictory feelings that arise from and perhaps sustain our beliefs. Brought from music theory, the term is applied to mental tension with the term cognitive dissonance. Everyone who is reflective experiences such tensions from clashing beliefs sometime in their lives. Many of us, probably experience this feeling of being at odds with what we anticipated multiple times in our lives if we are curious about life and experiment on the edge of acceptable behavior. One can welcome such disagreements between the expected and the actual outcome, because it promotes our deeper comprehension of the paradox in which the world, so often resides.

The richness of the Book of Job arises from this very quarrel inherent in our beliefs about our own worthiness in a just and orderly world and the experiences that jar our emotional and rational composure. Whole groups can experience such a situation as occurred in Salem Village in the seventeenth century when matrons were charged with evildoing witchcraft, like countless experiences in European villages before and during the Reformation. Personal upheavals are perilous, but social dislocation is dangerous as was the case in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, The Rwandan civil war, Stalinist Russia, or Nazi Germany. In many historical situations when social order changed reorganization from the initial disorganization of beliefs, behavior, and sympathies was the inevitable condition in which people had to live. Epidemics are particularly nasty examples of the process whereby we call into doubt everything we had once believed about our personal value and views of the world’s complexity.

What is this process of cognitive dissonance that leads to a reconsideration of our situation? Influenced by technology of nuclear reactors, some call it a “meltdown.” Popular in the 1940s and 1950s was the phrase “nervous breakdown,” Both terms suggest an unhealthy –as opposed to natural sequence of events—condition to which unstable people are prone. Weakness is at the heart of these and other terms for such personal and society-wide convulsions. Depression is an example of the pejorative association between instability and the incapacity to cope with unexpected challenges to one’s self-composure.  Personally many view this process of reappraisal as debilitating and associate it with signs of emotional disorder. However physicians at the Mayo Clinic point out that “Nervous breakdown isn’t a medical term, however, nor does it indicate a specific mental illness.”

So, what should we call a process of reevaluation based on a sudden, shocking or difficult to believe situation? The context is at once personal and social in that abrupt realignments happen, as in people’s lives when faced with unanticipated losses and in nations, such as South Africa when ethnic cleansing and apartheid –twin policies of the regime–were replaced and Nelson Mandela, once imprisoned for his opposition, became the nation’s President.

The setting wherein one set of beliefs was reinforced is altered and a very different set of assumptions becomes the norm, this some would call a revolution, but that is not precisely accurate. While complete changes can be revolutionary for a society, quite often, political revolutions retain much that is unchanged and unchallenged. Clearly the word we need here is not associated with pathology of mind. Instead there is within many people confronted by unanticipated tragedy for which there is no valid explanation, a willingness to face new realities in a resilient and emotionally reassuring manner. In search of neutrality some have used the phrase “paradigm shift.” The suggested meaning, though open to doubt, here is that an entire way of thinking about something is altered. Paradigm–meaning an archetype underlying the changing surface features of our world, or a model of reality, or a theory of how the social and natural order ought to work–can be misconstrued. The word and its associated phrase seem inaccurate, pretentious, and wildly subjective. Important changes deserve clearer language than a word that may mean three different things. While the author of the phrase Thomas Kuhn is precise in calling these shifts ” tradition-shattering,” the misuse of the term paradigm since his application of the term to serious scientific changes has been trivialized. So what would accurately depict the shattering consequences of abrupt changes in our emotional, cognitive, and spiritual lives?

Mystics have argued for the word epiphany because it means a moment of sudden revelation tinged with a different insight from any we have previously experienced. Is such a change of hearts and minds in a society, or in the core beliefs of any person really an epiphany, where the heretofore “hidden qualities” are manifest for all to see? I do not think so. Clearly St. Paul on the road to Damascus, or Charles Darwin on the death of his daughter Annie experienced profound changes in their lives. These if anything are threshold moments, where the capacity for people to retain once cherished beliefs is challenged and we pass on to some new outlook. Critical events Aristotle told us for in the drama the climax occurs when the very ground of the narrative shifts bringing with it a new understanding about which we were earlier mistaken. Oedipus has not, after all, avoided his fate and we see in the tragedy his recognition of his hubris, his culpability, and his need for reconciliation. While epiphany is more accurate than paradigm shift for these threshold moments the axial quality of their importance is not fully conveyed by “epiphany.”

On the opposite side from mystical language is the terminology from science “a quantum leap,” as if the world of the infinitesimally small could have some application to people, or socially shattering circumstances. People use the term quantum leap to suggest a big change in something we observe. It implies an abrupt, coherent, and circumscribed change, because as Einstein and Bohr theorized–and experiments bear out–the light quantum exists in measurably separate and distinct states; that is electrons are not just spread out around the atomic nuclei, but instead stick to one place or another. How the reference to the smallest imaginable behavior of electrons was shifted into a term meaning big changes may be because quantum mechanics revolutionized physics, but that is speculative. Societies or people do not behave like electrons, despite the seductive power of the simile.

If meltdown, paradigm shift, revolution, epiphany, or quantum leaps all miss the point is the absence of a word to best describe these radical adjustments in hearts and minds that occur as we are confronted by the unbelievably unexpected conditions of the world a paradoxical oversight? That is to say, we are confounded when trying to express the contradictory patterns of how we perceive the world and then change our minds. Each of these words approach but never fully capture that anxiety ridden threshold when we, for no rational reason, have –in the words of W. H. Auden and Ghandi– “a change of heart.” In some deep sense both men grasped the emotional depth that comes with shattering transformations in beliefs, behavior, and comprehension. At the core of any threshold moment is an authentic awareness of our own culpability, gullibility, and inability to know. At the very limits of our understanding we become open to the enriching possibility that if we are wrong, we can change.  The Japanese suggest that the word is “satori.”[2] The sudden emotional recognition accompanying enlightenment means to see passed the surface fascination to the pit of existence and liberate our illusions. Jammu Krishnamurti calls it “freedom from the known.” And Karen Horney suggested it is a healthy step in overcoming the neurosis of perfectionism in that we cannot know without uncertainty and due to this “tyranny of certainty” we seek in life can mislead us into comforting delusions that are, none-the-less, an illusion.

Just how one learns to feed our curiosity and pursue these thresholds to exercise our capacity to transform what we think, feel and interpret is one important aspect of an educated, or at least an educable personality. Anyone can learn to reinforce his or her prejudices and call it knowledge. In freedom from the known Krishnamurti argues that we are biased by personal doubts and reinforced in our illusions of certainty by society. The willingness to pursue contradiction, understand the paradox of knowing, and walk down a forking path of mounting uncertainties is the first step to satori. But this passage in search of threshold moments is no guarantee that we will become enlightened.

It is merely a down payment on an insurance policy that we will not forever be deluded by our fictions, fantasies, and fables.

1643 Words

8:45–3:44 PM

Wednesday, August 4, 2010; 8:57:40 AM


[1] In Death and Dying she posited five stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

A shorter list is proposed by Dr. Roberta Temes:

Numbness (mechanical functioning and social insulation)

Disorganization (intensely painful feelings of loss)

Reorganization (re-entry into a more ‘normal’ social life.)

[2] Satori (悟り?) (Chinese: 悟; pinyin: wù ) is a Japanese Buddhist term for enlightenment that literally means “understanding”. In the Zen Buddhist tradition, satori refers to a flash of sudden awareness, or individual enlightenment, and is considered a “first step” or embarkation toward nirvana. Satori is typically juxtaposed with the related term kensho, which translates as “seeing one’s nature”. Kensho experiences tend to be briefer glimpses, while satori is considered to be a deeper spiritual experience. Satori is an intuitive experience

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