Characters of Our Own Making

scene from Le Roi de Coeur

“All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players” — WS

One of the places that the enormous cognitive dissonance in my life often plays out, is in my volunteer activities with various non-profits. Dave #1 (the activist “me”) wants to make the world, or at least our civilization, better. Dave #2 (the collapsnik “me”) believes that’s a waste of time, that civilization’s collapse is accelerating and we’d better adapt to a radically different emerging post-collapse world. And Dave #3 (the radical non-dualist “me”) believes there is no free will (and, even worse, no ‘one’ to have it), so ‘improving’, and ‘adapting’, are both impossible and unnecessary.

As I recently told my friend Djö, this cognitive dissonance is pretty easy for me to handle. The differences between the three Daves are mostly intellectual and abstract (they’re different understandings of what really is, and how the world really works) rather than emotional or existential. The three get along reasonably well, take their turns being “me”, and are comfortable, even intrigued, by uncertainty and ambiguity.

In our Teal group meetings, where we are currently working with a local group managing a still-under-construction village for the unhoused, it is Dave #1 who is usually engaged. This Dave loves to learn, and the group is a powerful network of people who share knowledge, insights, ideas, experience, expertise and connections.

So it was fascinating to hear one member of our group say, at our last meeting, “We’re all characters in a story of our own making, wanting to be better characters”. Suddenly, Dave #3 woke up, wondering if this was his cue to take over. And then another member of the group introduced the Drama Triangle model, which asserts that we often see ourselves (and others) variously as playing the role of victim, rescuer, or culprit in different situations, which usually turns out to be an utterly dysfunctional perspective for dealing with these situations.

It was probably a good thing that I had joined the meeting via Zoom, and that we had a bad connection, or Dave #3 might have muscled himself in and embarrassed Dave #1. Instead, the two Daves just paid attention and listened, shrugging at each other.

Caitlin Johnstone and Indi Samarajiva, two of my current favourite political and cultural writers, must have similar alternate personas. They have both written recently, and more than once, about non-duality and our lack of free will. When they do, it must strike readers as as jarring as it does me. It’s like “Huh?! What?!” You can’t follow a rant against despots and corrupt corporatists with a post that says, essentially, everyone is doing their best and no one is to blame! But they have done so, and I completely understand. These views cannot be reconciled (though I’m guessing Caitlin and Indi would disagree with that),  and that’s OK.

So, getting back to my own cognitive dissonance, and the neo-Shakespearean statement that woke Dave #3 from his slumber: “We’re all characters in a story of our own making, wanting to be better characters”. Of course we are. Dave #1 nods, acknowledging that, metaphorically, we are our stories, and that we all want to make these stories better, with a happier ending, and strive our whole lives to do so. We all love stories, and metaphors!

But to Dave #3, this is not a metaphor. The story of our own making, the story of ‘me’, he asserts, is a complete fiction, since without free will, all of our ‘wanting’ and ‘striving’ is futile, serving only to cause us, and others, distress. What we do and what we believe are entirely the result of our biological and cultural conditioning, given the infinitely complex and variable situation of each moment. Nothing is preordained, but nothing is within ‘our’ control, either, including our own behaviours and beliefs.

Of course, the Teal group would be wise not to go there. That is not what they meant at all, though they may harbour some doubts about free will, which they may well quickly put out of their minds as dangerous, or irrelevant, thoughts.

So Dave #1 and Dave #3 look at each other: Is there some way of reconciling these two worldviews? Can we be activists and still acknowledge that everything we do is our conditioning, over which we have no agency?

A number of philosophers (with IMO limited cognitive capacities) have warned that, while “thinking men” (these boneheads are invariably male) might absolutely accept that we have no free will, we would not ever want this knowledge and understanding to be known and accepted by everyone. They couldn’t handle it; they would commit suicide or become nihilists, unrestrained thrill-seekers running riot in the belief that since they’re not responsible, they can do anything. It’s an absurd and obviously fatally flawed argument, but you still hear it a lot.

The worst that would happen is that everyone would wrestle, and learn to live, with the cognitive dissonance that they are compelled to believe and do things over which they have no control, but that they must suffer when what is done is not what “should” have been done, and try to do their best and to make things better nevertheless. “For us”, TS Eliot wrote, “there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

As for the Drama Triangle, which toys with the idea of us having unhelpful personas, the two Daves are again unable to come to terms. Dave #1 asserts we must move beyond roles and labels and work with each other in more mature and nuanced ways, as attentive and respectful equals, each with knowledge, insights, ideas, experience, expertise and connections to usefully share.

Dave #3 just smiles and laments that, lacking free will, we cannot do any of our “musts” and “shoulds”, no matter how fervently we believe in their urgency and necessity. We will do what we will do. Should we brush up against people who know about the dangers of roles and labels and judgements and other dysfunctional behaviours and beliefs, and who expose us, at the right time with the right framing (and story), our conditioning may shift accordingly. Meanwhile others (or we ourselves) will brush up against people who make emotionally compelling arguments for dysfunctional and destructive behaviours and beliefs, telling the ‘right’ story at the ‘right’ time to condition them to make things, from our perspective, worse.

It will be fun to see how it all plays out. Dave #2 has just woken up, and he wants to have his say about all this, too. But apparently my conditioning is such that he won’t get the chance, at least not today.

Thanks to Gabe Piechowicz and Alberta Pedroja for the quote about stories, and the introduction to the Drama Triangle, and to the whole Teal gang for keeping Dave #1 on his toes, and engaged with the world. (Or so he thinks.)

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2 Responses to Characters of Our Own Making

  1. Paul Heft says:

    “Can we be activists and still acknowledge that everything we do is our conditioning, over which we have no agency?” I suppose you’re doing just that, Dave, though not both in the same moment. If one enjoys activism, why abjure it as a product of conditioning rather than something called “will”? At first it might seem inconsistent, but why stick to strict logic? Who wrote the rules, anyway? “Dave #3 just smiles” seems the right attitude while watching Dave #1.

    As for sleepy Dave #2, the collapsenik, doesn’t he judge the sort of activism Dave #1 engages in depending on its particulars? I would think that a village for the unhoused could be beneficial and appreciated for years, and might usefully point us in the direction of the radically different emerging post-collapse world–a world in which we must develop new ways of taking care of each other. At least it’s a useful pointer to the extent that it helps us to practice care, cooperation, and collaboration, and practice reducing dependence on today’s long-term financing, increasing value of real estate, increasing rents, profit-oriented landlords, infrastructure (including transport) which may not be maintained, and extractive or less sustainable construction materials. (Oh oh, I wonder how much any of that is considered when planning the village.)

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Dave #2 says: I like activists. I admire what they’re doing. Small scale local stuff can have value, for a while. In the longer term, none of it is going to survive, but that’s OK. When the economy collapses there, this will no longer be funded, and all the hopes and dreams built up by this project…. (mmmmmpph) (Dave #1 covers Dave #2’s mouth)

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