Fly on the Wall – Cognitive Lightning

A pitter-patter of raindrops becomes a torrential deluge as the mountainous vista of my forestry job is invaded by meteorological reality. Lightning sheets across the sky, followed instantly by a tremendous crash of thunder. Amazingly, though not surprisingly given the nature of our 21st century, I simultaneously hear the much-quieter sound of my cell phone in its waterproof plastic bag heralding the arrival of a text message. Historically, I’d have taken this text to bear mighty meaning. As I retreat, MASH-style, off of the freshly planted clear-cut, it occurs to me that a change has transpired in my mind over the past few years. I no longer follow my traditional belief that every coincidence has cosmic significance. From there I begin to ponder causes and consequences that arise when aphorisms are taken at face value.

When it comes to questioning the validity of belief systems, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) springs to mind. The essence of CBT is that if we don’t ask ourselves whether our core beliefs are functional or dysfunctional for the accomplishment of happiness in our lives, we may be victimized by “a specific bias (that) affects how the person incorporates new information” (Corsini & Wedding, 2014, P. 264). The mystificatory consequences of believing the letter of a phrase is perfectly illustrated by an internet meme quoting the science fiction author Philip K. Dick. Dick’s line was:

“There exists, for everyone, a sentence – a series of words – that has the power to destroy you. Another sentence exists, another series of words, that could heal you. If You’re lucky you will get the second, but you can be certain of getting the first.”

When I first read this as an internet meme I laughingly paused and inhaled sharply, imagining myself susceptible to a revered author’s power of suggestion. Was this some magic spell? Could the trauma inflicted by painful words be cured by the invocation of other, more powerful, words? Of course not. Wounds are part of life. And while some folks bear incredibly debilitating scars, on no far off planet does there exist a formula or ?series of words? capable of healing traumatic experiences. As the adage goes, ?sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.? Yet I do think of Albert Camus, who suggests that all-too-often the immediate (rather than general) cause of suicide and self-harm is a mere phrase or sentence: “Newspapers often speak of ?personal sorrows? or of ?incurable illness.? These explanations are plausible. But one would have to know whether a friend of the desperate man had not that very day addressed him indifferently,” (Camus, 1955, P.4). That’s the thing about adages and aphorisms: they contain wisps of truth and layers of lies; words can be incredibly hurtful such that people can, metaphorically and even physiologically, die of a broken heart (Burnett, online).

The film world provides many examples of beliefs leading to glorious or tragic consequences. I think of the 2013 remake of The Great Gatsby where Leonardo Dicaprio’s title character claims that past circumstances may, for all intents and purposes, be recreated in the present (Luhrman & Pearce, online). Dicaprio as the title character states:

“No… You see you were there all along, in every idea, in every decision… Of course, if anything is not to your liking, we can change it…”

A CBT analyst would ask, ?what are the beliefs underlying this assumption?? Gatsby’s believes that he can have his cake and eat it too. Gatsby desires his longing for the girl of his dreams to be combined with her actual occurrence in his life. Longing and fulfillment are separate feelings, after all. And not only that, he is convinced that it is possible for him to recreate a past existence with her in the present tense (Luhrman & Pearce, online). He next argues that a person can change the past:

“Why of course you can. Of course you can. You’ll see. I am going to fix things just the way there were before. Everything’s been so… so confused since then...”

In an important way, Dicaprio’s character believes that the impossible is attainable. Though this might be a functional belief in an instance where optimism leads to practical results, his core approach to life comes to bear tragic consequences.

CBT begins and ends with the belief that to act rationally requires constant self-evaluation. This contrasts sharply with another theory of personal actions, Rational Choice Theory (RTC). Rational Choice theories are based on an unverified core belief that behaviour embodies calculated expressions aimed at maximizing desire (University of Regina, online). For RTC, people and their decisions are rational by nature. Shopping is an example. When making a purchase people are assumed to have calculated the costs and benefits of their decision. If a person enjoys their experience at the mall and the products they bring home with them, then they will repeat it. As the old mantra goes, the customer is always right. Capitalism assumes that we, the masses of potential consumers, are ready and capable of deciding what forms of happiness to pursue. What forms, that is, available on the consumer market and, more presciently, the ones which provide enough profit to warrant our continued employment in the labour force. This system assumes that we are giving it a glowing endorsement by our purchases. However, as Noam Chomsky aptly states in his acceptance of the ?Philosophy Now? award for the ?Fight against stupidity? “It’s the purest example of a tyranny you can imagine: power resides at the top, orders are sent down stage by stage, and at the very bottom, you have the option of purchasing what it produces.” (Chomsky, 2014, P. 37).

In a sense, our instinctual desires for fulfillment in the external world, desires that begin with the objective fact that, as infants, we require sustenance and nurturing to survive, may in fact be callously manipulated. To test the validity of this possibility we must, after returning home from a trip to the mall or from a perusal of possible future course syllabii, ask ourselves whether we really are getting what we wanted. In this final sense, cognitive behaviour therapy begs us to consider the practical outcomes of our core belief for our personal happiness and for the happiness of those around us. After all, in life, as in education, things can always be otherwise.

References
Burnett, Dean. (2015). Why Elderly Couples Often Die Together: The Science of Broken Hearts.
Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/shortcuts/2015/jan/09/why-elderly-couples-die-together-science-broken-hearts

Camus, A. (1955). ?The Myth of Sisyphus?. United States of America: Vintage Books.
Chomsky, N. (2014). Noam Chomsky on Institutional Stupidity. Philosophy Now: A Magazine of Ideas. May-June 2015.
Corsini, R. & Wedding, D. (2014). ?Current Psychotherapies?, 8th Edition. Canada: Nelson Education.
Luhrman, B., & Pearce, C. (2014) Retrieved from: http://gointothestory.blcklst.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Great-Gatsby.pdf
University of Regina (2000). Rational Choice Theory. Retrieved June 13 2015. http://uregina.ca/~gingrich/f1000

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