The Power of Forgetting


The tenets of psychology, namely those of Sigmund Freud, teach us that we must deal with every tragedy, and every moment of despair, if we ever hope to get past them.  If we ever hope to move beyond them we must be honest about them, confront them, and analyze them ad nauseum, until we achieve greater mental health.  Some of the times, that’s not true.  Some of the times, it’s better to forget.

ForgetAre you a bad person?  Most people don’t think that they are, and if they did they probably wouldn’t tell you.  But how does one become a bad person?  What’s the difference between a fully formed, moral adult and a bad one?  Some would say that a bad adult is created through a series of events that have happened to them, or the way in which they dealt with them, or remember them.  Some would add that it’s the decisions that we have made in life, based on the series of events that we have experienced.  Others would say that it’s a great stew of the conscious and subconscious decisions we make on what to remember, and what to forget, and that that forms the core of who we are?

This relatively new belief in the healing powers of the mind to forget seems to go against one hundred years of psychological teaching, particularly those involving the philosophies of Freud.  Freud taught us that the path to mental health involved remembering every excruciating detail of our lives, until we reached a point of exhaustion where those details could be properly analyzed and interpreted.  He then wanted us to focus on why we remembered these details, how they should be remembered, and when they should be remembered most often.  Anyone that has visited a counselor, of any stripe, has experienced this concentration.  Most of us have wanted the counselor to move on, but the counselor decided that that the particular event in question was crucial to our growth, and it may very well be the case, but we’ve decided to move beyond it to some degree.  We decided, whether consciously or subconsciously, to forget the event and its effect on our lives.  The psychological community is now correcting itself and realizing that there may have been an element of truth to our complaints.

The psychological community has, in fact, become so entrenched in this apparent evolution of thought, that when they now run across a patient that is not able to forget certain events, after extensive counseling and other treatments, they now believe there may be something fundamentally wrong with that patient’s brain.  It’s an almost complete reversal of everything Freud, and the 100 years of psychology that followed, theorized.

If you’ve ever been under the influence of a heavy drug, say morphine, as a result of an injury or surgery, chances are you’ve relived a horrific moment of your life in explicit detail.  You always remembered that horrific incident on a certain level, as it affected everything you did in its aftermath, but you didn’t remember it on that “enhanced” level, with that kind of detail, until your mind was brought to another state.  Those of us that are blessed, and cursed, with excellent memories found it a little troubling that we forgot anything involving that horrific incident.  If you’ve ever experienced such a moment, you’ve experienced this idea that the mind is keeping certain secrets from you, to protect you from the life you may have lived if you were cursed with living with these details at the forefront of your mind every single day.

Romantic populists provide us with powerful conceits: “I think about the Holocaust every day!”  While most of us think that’s a bunch of hooey, it does give the provocateur a degree of cache we’ll never know.  “How do you know I don’t?” they might ask defensively.  We don’t, of course, but we do know that doing so would make them incredibly miserable people to be around.  We could tell them that they’re probably doing a disservice to the memory of those survivors when they don’t move on and live the lives the Holocaust victims had unceremoniously, and horrifically, taken away from them.  We could say that relatively few of them would’ve wanted to see our lives so burdened by their demise.  We could say that at some point, they would’ve wanted us to just move on.  The truth, for most people, is that they don’t dwell on the negative as often as they purport.  The truth is that the brain works in its best interests, as all organs do, to remove those toxins that might hinder peak performance.

The mind is a powerful tool.  The mind can juggle a multitude of memories.  Some have guesstimated that we can quantify the number of memories any brain can hold at three trillion, others gauge their guesses in terabytes and petabytes, and others say that it’s not quantifiable.  Whatever the case is, most people agree that our resources for memory are limited.  The mind can remember the Pythagorean Theorem, Walter Payton’s career rushing total, Eisenhower’s farewell speech on the military industrial complex, your distant cousin’s birthday, or that wonderful time you spent with your family at the lake, but it can also forget.  It can purposefully forget.

This power to forget can, at times, be as powerful a tool to your furtherance as the power to remember.  To those of us that live relatively happy lives, it could be said that the mind provides the soul a crucial ingredient that it needs to move on, when it decides to forget.  To say that the mind is simply blocking out certain memories seems a bit simplistic when it comes to forgetting those moments of despair, where all hope is lost, and where a person believes that they can no longer go on.  It seems the mind is making crucial, and subconscious, decisions to simply filter out such information to provide the soul some relief from all the guilt and sorrow of the event.

“It is surely human to forget, even to want to forget.  The Ancients saw it as a divine gift. Indeed if memory helps us to survive, forgetting allows us to go on living. How could we go on with our daily lives, if we remained constantly aware of the dangers and ghosts surrounding us?  The Talmud tells us that without the ability to forget, man would soon cease to learn. Without the ability to forget, man would live in a permanent, paralyzing fear of death.  Only God and God alone can and must remember everything.”{1}

The mind also juggles inconsequential items.  Some of us remember all the lyrics of the Britney Spears songs from 1999, but most of us have forgotten them.  Most of us only remember the video, the skirt, and the ponytails.  Very few of us remember the role Archduke Ferdinand played in the outbreak of World War I, but when we had to remember it for the test, it was at the forefront of our minds.  It could be said that the mind only has so many resources –like any laptop, cell phone, or camera only has so much memory– and if we want to add new applications we must clear some extraneous information that we no longer use to provide room for it.  Most of us have forgotten more than we remember about the trivialities of life.  But, the psychological community is largely unconcerned with these occasional slips of the mind.  They’re far more concerned with the remembering and forgetting of crucial information of their patients.  Both, they feel, are mandatory for mental health and vital to mental hygiene.

Are you that annoying type of person that just keeps bringing a horrible memory up to your loved ones?  Have you ever heard the phrase: “Isn’t it time we moved on?” from them.  They say this with loads of sympathy and empathy, but they also say it with some degree of determination.  Those of us that have been hit with this question were almost as devastated by the question as we were the actual event.

“How can you move on?  How can you just forget something like this?” You ask.  “How can you not want to talk about it nonstop?  How can you not want to get to the core of this matter and how it affects every day of your life?” 

You want to deal with it, get to its inner core, and learn that all of those affected are just as affected as you are?  They aren’t.  They’re saddened by it.  They’re lives will never be the same as a result of it, but their mind is telling them to clear the resource pool for an eventual return to happiness, and you just keep bringing them back.  Repeated requests to remember are rejected, until one person gets angry.  They’re tired of you bringing it up at every get together.  They want to move on, but you won’t let them.  The mind has a lot of power invested in remembering, but it has as much power invested in assisting us to forget.

Are you that bad person we discussed earlier?  Are you generally mad?  Suspicious?  Distrustful?  Sad?  Are you someone that cannot let go of the fact that you weren’t raised in a happy, functional home?  Are you someone that feels that you were not afforded the luxuries that most of the people around you took for granted throughout their youth?  Are you someone that dumps a prospective lover before they can dump you?  Are you haunted by the fact that you didn’t spend enough time with a recently deceased loved one?  Or, are you a good person that is generally happy?  Do you consider the path to happiness trying to be better today than you were yesterday?  And is all that defines your demeanor based on your memory of a life well-lived, or could it be said that you’ve forgotten a lot of the events of your life that could be making you a miserable person to be around right now?

Dragon

Fear Bradycardia and the Normalcy Bias


“Didn’t you hear the old, Native American woman say there’s a monster in the lake?!” one of the great looking people on shore screams.  Dougie ignores them, apparently unaware of the golden rule of modern cinema: Always listen to Native Americans, especially if they’re old, and they speak in hallowed tones.  “You’ve gone too far Dougie!” the great looking people on shore continue to shriek.  “Come back!”

“C’mon ya’ chickens!” Dougie says backstroking leisurely.  “It’s fun, and there’s nothing out here!”

DragonThe music that cues Dougie’s impending doom spills out of the speakers of our movie theater.  It is followed by a subtle roar.  We tense up.  We’re gripping the armrests so intensely that the muscles in our forearms are flexed.  We’re joining the gorgeous people on shore with mental screams sent to Dougie to get out of the water.  The great looking people on shore grow hysterical, screaming that there are swirling waters.

“Dougie please!”

“Ah, shut it!” everybody’s favorite clown, Dougie, says waving off their warnings. 

The trouble is the actor that plays Dougie is slightly unattractive and out of shape.  Those of us that have watched movies for decades, and know casting, know Dougie’s in trouble.

The monster roars up to an impossible height.  Dougie looks up at it, and he finally begins screaming.  The monster takes its time, so we can see the full breadth of its horror.  It gnashes its teeth a little, it swivels its head about, and it looks menacingly at Dougie.  Dougie continues to look up, and he continues to scream, as the monster lowers onto him and bites his head off.  The fact that this scene took a whole thirty seconds leaves those of us that have watched too many horror movies in a squirming state.

Why didn’t he just move, is a question horror movie aficionados have asked for decades.  Why did he sit there and scream for thirty seconds?  We could live with the fact that the monster would’ve moved through the water quicker than Dougie, had Dougie attempted to swim away.  It’s more aquatic than Dougie.  We could’ve also lived with the fact that Dougie probably didn’t have much of a chance the moment he jumped into the water, but as a person that gets titillated by horror movies, I would like to see their victims do a little more to survive.

When I later learned that actors have to stay on their mark, I was a little less disgusted with the actors who played Dougie types.  I still wanted them to move, but I realized that they were instructed by the director to stay on the spot the director designated for the decapitation scene.  This clichéd scene may strike horror in some, but I would venture to say that most of those people are not quite thirty.  For the rest of us, it’s just plain irrational that a person wouldn’t move, or do anything and everything they can to survive.

Author David McRaney argues that not only are Dougie’s reactions normal, but they are actually closer to the truth than anything we movie goers call for.  The book McRaney wrote is called You Are Not so Smart, and it basically states that the only aspect of such a scene that may be overdramatized is Dougie’s screaming.

Those of us that are casual, non-psychology types, believe that there are two basic reactions every human will have in the face of catastrophic, chaotic moments: action and non-action, or those that act and those that choke.  Those that act may also be broken down into two categories: those that act to selfishly save themselves and those that act in a heroic fashion to save others, but there are still only two basic reactions for casual, non-psychology types.

McRaney argues that there is actually a third course of action, and casual, non-psychology types will likely view this course of action as an extension of their idea of choking.  It is called fear bradycardia.  McRaney argues that while fear bradycardia may fall in the “choking” category, choking is a term that should be reserved for routine circumstances in which a person fails to act.  Fear bradycardia is an involuntary, automatic instinct that is likely to occur in moments that contain unprecedented aspects of chaos and horror for the unprepared.

Put succinctly, fear bradycardia is the idea that a person, a Dougie, simply stops moving and hopes for the best.  It is based on the idea that most of us are not accustomed to moments of abject horror in which our lives are truly on the line.  It is based on the idea that in those moments, most of us will not know what to do, and we will simply freeze in place with the hope that that moment will simply go away, and we won’t be forced to decide what to do, or how to act, in anyway.  It is an automatic and involuntary instinct in all of us.  Fear bradycardia is also referred to as tonic immobility by some, but no matter what it’s called it falls under the umbrella of a term psychologists call the normalcy bias.

McRaney details several incidents in which people experienced fear bradycardia.  He lists an F5 tornado that occurred in Bridge Creek, Oklahoma, a plane crash in which the plane managed to get earthbound before exploding and killing everyone on impact, survivors of floods, and the Trade Center terrorist incident that occurred on 9/11/01.

According to some first responders, the one thing common to most survivors of such tragedies is that they go to a dream-like state.  With their world falling down around them, and no one to shake them out of it, most survivors will simply shut down and go to a safe, more normal place in their minds where all of this horror isn’t occurring around them, and they aren’t being called upon to act in a manner that will result in their survival.

In the aftermath of the Trade Center terrorist incident that occurred on 9/11/01, some first responders spoke of the orderly fashion in which the survivors evacuated, and how they were grateful that people responded in such a fashion. These first responders said that the calm exit saved lives.  They suggested that the nature of this exit should be reported on, so future survivors would learn of the example these Trade Center evacuees set.

Other first responders agreed with the general sentiment, but they added that the unspoken sense of order was so calm that it bordered on eerie.  Very few survivors were screaming, and though there wasn’t much room to sprint, very few added to the chaos by trying to find some way to get out of the buildings quicker.

Some of the first responders, cited by McRaney, spoke of the manner in which some survivors took a couple of extra, crucial moments to log safely out of their computers before listening to the first responders; some gathered their coats, and others even engaged in mundane conversations with their cohorts on the way out.

What a bunch of idiots, those of us on the outside looking in may think, reading that.  If that were me, I can tell you I would be running.  I would probably be crying, even screaming, and I might even be knocking little, old ladies down, but I would do everything I could to get out.  I don’t care what this pop psychologist says I’m all about survival brutha.

We’ve all seen scenes in movies, and TV shows, that depict such scenes, and we’ve all mentally placed ourselves in the mind of the characters involved, and we’ve all done things a little differently in our mind.  We’ve all shouted things at screens when the Dougies just sit there as a monster nears them, and we all know how we would’ve reacted, but the central question of McRaney’s thesis is do we really know?

Do we really know how prepared we are for a moment of unprecedented horror and catastrophe?  Have we ever actually been involved in a worst case scenario in which our lives are on the line?  “If you haven’t,” writes McRaney, “you can never truly know how prepared you will be, and you can never truly know how you’ll react.  Our ideas of how we will react may be lies we’ve told ourselves so often that we’ll only find the actual truth after it’s too late to rectify it.”

Shutting down computers, gathering coats and having mundane conversations are automatic and involuntary responses that occur as a result of this dream-like, normal state that we go to when it becomes clear that no amount of rationalizing will ever make this horrific, and unprecedented moment of chaos, a normal moment.  It’s a shutdown mode we go to to block out the flood of external stimuli that may otherwise cause us to panic.

The people in the World Trade Centers on 9/11 had a supreme need to feel safe and secure,” McRaney writes.  “They had a desire to make everything around them “go” normal again in the face of something so horrific that their brains couldn’t deal with it in a functional manner.”

As previously stated, most casual, non-psychology types would characterize this as choking in the clutch, but McRaney states that it goes beyond this, because you’re not necessarily freezing up out of panic.  “It’s a reflexive incredulity” McRaney writes —attributing the term to an Amanda Ripley— “that causes you to freeze up in a reflexive manner.  It’s a reflexive incredulity that causes you to wait for normalcy to return beyond the point where it’s reasonable to do so.  It’s a tendency that those concerned with evacuation procedures— the travel industry, architects, first responders, and stadium personnel— are well aware of, and that they document this in manuals and trade publications.”

McRaney provides just such a list from a journal called “The International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters.” This entry lists the course of actions most of us will experience when we go through a chaotic catastrophe.

Interpret.  You will attempt to define the incident that is occurring around you in terms that you are familiar with, and in doing so, you will underestimate it.

One such incident that illustrated this, by contrast, was the “underwear bomber” incident.  The successful thwarting of this planned terrorist attack was due, in part, to luck, but the expedient and resolute manner in which the passengers reacted to the incident could only be said to be an informed reaction.  Thanks to the terrorist incident that occurred on 9/11/01, in other words, they had precedent.  They were informed of what could happen if they did nothing, for they lived, as we all live, in a post-9/11 world where such incidents have been introduced as something that could happen.

Save for those passengers on flight ninety-three, that managed to overtake the pilots piloting the plane to crash into the ground near Pittsburgh, one has to imagine that most of the passengers on the other flights, froze up with reflexive incredulity when the terrorists took control of the planes.  They didn’t know a world where terrorists flew planes into buildings, and they were not prepared for the violent worst-case scenario the terrorists’ presence indicated.

The terrorists capitalized on this, whether knowingly or not, by informing the passengers that this was a simple hijacking, and once the terrorists got their money, it would all be over.  Hindsight may lead us to believe that the passengers were naïve to believe this, but why wouldn’t they?  One could also guess that the passengers also believed this, because they wanted to believe this.  The alternative may have been too horrific for them to contemplate.

Information. You will seek information from those around you to see what they think of the incident.  This may involve, as McRaney points out in other parts of the chapter, listening to radio and television, and any source of media that helps you come to terms with the incident.

Most of those on board flight ninety-three weren’t necessarily better equipped to handle a terrorist incident occurring on their plane, they were just better informed.  The terrorists on board that flight made a strategic error of not understanding psychology well enough.  They allowed the passengers to call their loved ones.  Those loved ones redefined the norms of the passengers on ninety-three, by telling them what the loved ones were witnessing on TV.  Those passengers then informed other passengers, until all parties concerned were forced out of their reflexive incredulity, and that prompted them to act in the manner they did.

Again, from the reports we’ve had of flight ninety-three, there was a great deal of discussion in the aircraft, and with others on the ground that occurred before Todd Beamer said: “Are you guys ready? Let’s roll!” They helped each other interpret what they were experiencing with the information they gleaned from those on the ground, and they used this information to prompt others to act.

Move.  After doing all this, you will evacuate.

The sociologists, McRaney cites, say that “You are more likely to dawdle if you fail to follow these steps properly and are improperly informed of the severity of the issue.”  Improperly informing one’s self then leads to speculation and inevitably to the comparing and contrasting it other incidents of which we are more familiar.

Men, in particular, have an almost imbedded desire to rationalize fear away.  Fear, by its very nature is irrational, and most men feel it incumbent upon them to keep fear a rationalization away.  How many times have you heard a man say, “It’s bad, but it’s not as bad as an incident I’ve experienced previously”?

The culprit they assign to unwarranted fear is hype.  The type of hype, they will suggest, that is usually found in the media and promoted by politicians.  The media wants viewers, politicians want voters, so they pound horrific details home to keep you afraid and focused on them and their efforts to investigate and rectify.  All of this is undoubtedly true, but it’s also debatably true that the terrorist incident that occurred on 9/11/01 was the most horrific to happen in our country.

This largely political discussion makes its way into our discussion, because it illustrates a mindset.  Those that rationalize horror in this manner tend to carry it with them in their every day, until they are faced with a horror they’ve rationalized for most of their life.  At that point, they will fall back on what they know to normalize their incident in such a way as to help them deal with it in terms with which they are more familiar, until it becomes apparent that this incident is far worse than anything their rational mind could possibly imagine.

To those that suggest that there is politics at play here, and that we should all start believing the hype of politicians, and media players, is a rationalization in and of itself.  We fully recognize that some media outlets, and politicians, have made their bones on promoting fear, but there are times when a little fear –an emotion that can initiate a need for awareness– could save your life.

For these reasons and others, it is crucial that a city facing an ensuing crisis, have their local media inundate us with reports concerning an impending storm, because the media needs to help us redefine our norm.  It is also a reason, for those of us that make fun of our friends for paying attention to the stewardess’ instructions, to drop our macho façade and listen.  We may also want to drop the pretense that we’re such frequent travelers that we’re prepared for anything and get our normalcy redefined in preparation for what could go wrong.

Even with all the information McRaney provides, I still find it hard to believe that those movie scenes that depict the near-catatonic reactions a Dougie will display as a monster nears him, are closer to the truth than I am about how I will react.  I live with the belief that a survivor instinct will kick in when I see a monster coming at my head, and that I will do whatever it takes to try to survive the incident, regardless if I am great looking, unattractive, or slightly out of shape.  That doesn’t mean, however, that I am going to be so afraid of appearing afraid that I will disregard the information that may help me avert disaster.  We’ve all had some incidents in our lives that could be called mini-disasters in the grand scheme of things, and most people have a fairly decent batting average when it comes to reacting to them.  Here’s to hoping that if our lives ever depend on our reactions that we don’t experience a fear bradycardia, a tonic immobility, a reflexive incredulity, or any of those normal bias tendencies that McRaney says are automatic and involuntary instincts among the unprepared that have lied to themselves for so long that they accidentally rationalize themselves to death.

Are you Superior?


Some of us define our superiority based on sheer physical strength and athletic ability.  Others believe that their greatest opportunity for superiority lies in their intelligence.  It’s often difficult, and fruitless, to stare into a mirror and gain true, objective definition, so we use comparative analysis –through our day-to-day interactions– to try to gain information about ourselves and our true identity.  The one unfortunate characteristic to our quest for greater understanding of our identity is that it is, more often than not, gained on the backs of others.

Mr+Bungle+-+Disco+Volante+%2B+Bonus+7%22+EP+-+LP+RECORD-67741Run into a person on the street, at work, or in any walk of life, and some will begin dressing you down.  Why do they do it?  Most of them don’t know why, and those that do have something of an idea, may not attribute it to a search for superiority, but they do know that they’re searching for something that will give them a lift.  These searches may occur in the first few moments we begin speaking to them, and it often begins with our physical appearance.  Are we well groomed?  Do we brush our teeth?  Are all of our nose and ear hairs trimmed?  Do we have a hairdo that is accepted in the greater society?  Are we wearing clothes that they accept as fashionable, or are we wearing the finest duds known to man?  Have you ever heard the phrase, the suit makes the man?  Some would tell you it’s all about the shoes.  Others would tell you that if you can create a pleasing dimple in your tie, by denting that tie with your thumb in the tying process, you can create a lasting first impression.  Most people won’t speak in terms of superiority or inferiority in polite company, but what is a lasting impression?  What is a first impression?  What are impressions in general, but attempts to, at the very least, define one’s self equal to their counterparts?

Is it all about the clothes?  Is it apparent in the way we stand, the way we sit, the manner in which we hold our head when we talk, or whether or not we can look our counterpart in the eye?  Do we have a tongue stud?  Are we a tattooed individual, or a non-tattooed individual, and who is superior in that dynamic?  It’s all relative.

The first impression can be a difficult one to overcome, but some believe that it is often what we say after the first impression that holds more weight, for if we have a fatal flaw –noticeable in the first impression– we can garner sympathy or empathy, through an underdog status, with what we say in the follow up impression we provide.

To further this theory, some believe that if we notify our counterpart of our weakness –say in the form of a self-deprecating joke– it will redound to the benefit in a strong follow up impression.  The theory behind that is that doing so will end the search for our weakness, and it will allow them to feel superior and thus more comfortable with us, which we hope will result in them liking us more.  Comedian Louie Anderson turned this into an art form.  Moments after stepping foot on stage, Louie Anderson will inform his audience that he’s fat in the form of a well-rehearsed joke.  The first impression we have of Louie is that he’s fat, but when he follows that first impression up with a quality, self-deprecating joke it disarms us –or takes away whatever feelings of superiority we had and gives it back to us with his definition of it– and that re-definition of our superiority allows him to go ahead and dominate us in all the ways a comedian needs to dominate a crowd, because we’re no longer distracted by our physical superiority.

The problem with such a successful, follow up presentation rears its ugly head when we begin to overdo it.  When it works in the second stage of impression, and we attempt to move into the third and fourth stages of impression with our counterpart, our insecurity suggests to us that our counterparts may not be as entertained by us as they were in the second, self-deprecating stage of impression.  As a result, we may begin to commit fall back on the more successful, second impression.  “Of course I’m nothing but a fat body, so what do I know,” we say when they didn’t laugh at what we said.  When that proves successful, and our counterparts begin laughing again, we begin committing to this qualifier so often that we begin to become the weakness in their eyes.  They can’t help believing this is who we are, for it’s the repetitive impression we’ve given them so often that it becomes what they think of us.  One way to find out if you have fallen prey to this progression is to remove that successful, second impression qualifier that you have been adding to the tail end of your jokes and stories.  If this is the case, they may add, “That’s true, but aren’t you fat?” to the tail end for you.

Some of the times, these additions are made to complete the rhythm of a joke, or story, but most of the times it’s done to insert some element of superiority or inferiority.  Thanks to certain situation comedies, and the effect they’ve had on the zeitgeist, some jokes, stories, and thoughts feel incomplete without some element of superiority or inferiority attached to it.  I used to be a qualifier, until I realized that too many people were exploiting my qualifiers for their own sense of superiority.  It was so bad, at one point, that I couldn’t say anything halfway intelligent without someone adding the equivalent of “Ross, you’re zipper is down” at the tail end of it.

It’s my contention that most of us are in a constant search of indicators of superiority or inferiority. If our counterpart is religious, we may feel superior to them based on the fact that we’re not.  If we are religious, we may want to know what religion they are, and we may base our feelings of superiority on that.

“They’re all going to hell,” a friend of mine commented when we passed a group of Muslims.  When I asked why she thought this, she said: “They don’t accept the Lord, Jesus Christ as their personal savior.” 

I heard that statement many times, but I hadn’t heard anyone use it as a weapon of superiority before.  I realized some time later that this was all this woman had.  She hated her job, her kids hated her, and she was far from attractive, or in good shape.  She needed this nugget of superiority to help her get through the day, and to assist her in believing that she was, at least, superior to someone in some manner.

On the flip side of the coin, a Muslim friend of mine seemed forever curious about my (American) way of life.  She was always asking me questions about the motivations I had for doing what I did.  It dawned on me later that she was searching for points of superiority.  She saw the Muslim religion as a clean religion from which she gained a feeling of purity.  There is nothing wrong with that, of course, until she used that as a weapon of superiority against me.

Another friend of mine (we’ll call him Steve) informed me that a mutual friend of ours (we’ll call him David) was not intelligent, and because of that the two of them did not have substantial or engaging conversations.  I informed Steve that this may be due to the fact that David was much younger than us.  Steve agreed with that to an extent, but he stated that he thought it had more to do with the fact that David did not have a college degree.  Steve informed me that he considered me intelligent and that I provided well-rounded conversation topics, based on my well-rounded intelligence … even though I didn’t have a college degree.  I smiled.  I don’t know why I smiled, but that delusional blanket he wrapped me in was quite warm and comfortable.  I felt like an absolute fool later, and I thought of confronting him with this, but I’ve always felt guilty about revealing others aloud.  It’s never gained me anything more than the feeling of superiority.  It tends to leave the other person feeling bad about their identity, it has hurt their feelings, and it has cost me friendships.  That guilt thing would not permit me to lift that warm and comfortable blanket from us to reveal us for who we are.  The laughable thing about Steve’s comment was that his greater goal was not to compliment me, or insult David, but to define his feelings of superiority through comparative analysis.

Upon reflection, I realized that my college graduate friend, Steve, had been left out of the many discussions that David and I had regarding the politics, pop culture, and the general news of the day.  Steve was also not the type to learn of a story and form an instant opinion on it, and he often found it difficult to enter into our discussions.  He had also been ignoring such issues for so long that he didn’t have a base of knowledge that could extend itself beyond a particular news article he had read that day.  Steve was also a type to learn of an expert opinion of a subject and go with that.  He didn’t practice the art of dissent from majority opinion as often as David and I had.

As a result, Steve did start reading the news more often, and he did try to start formulating opinions on the news of the day to gain entrance into our discussions.  The opinions he did offer tended to be of a more clichéd variety that sounded as if they came straight off a late night talk show Tele-prompter, or a Saturday Night Live episode.  They were not of an individualistic, provocative variety.  As a result, his opinions were often dismissed on that basis.  Nothing that David and I ever discussed was noteworthy, or over-the-top intellectual, but we formed a mutual appreciation for the other’s knowledge, even though most of our discussions were antagonistic.  It was that appreciation, and I assume, Steve’s inability to find a place in it, that led him to feel the need to remind us that he had an intellectual superiority that we were neglecting.

The search for where we stand in this chasm of superiority and inferiority can be a difficult one to traverse, so we often attempt to answer them on the backs of others.  It’s a shortcut to examination and self-reflection.  Some feel superior to another, based on that other’s religion, their politics, their race, or in the case of Steve, their education level.  There may even be some that gain their feelings of superiority based on whether one brushes their teeth top to bottom as opposed to side to side.  There may even be others that base their comparative analyses on the manner in which a person shaves their pubic hair.  If one person leaves a strip and another person shaves Brazilian who is superior, and who is inferior, and where does the person that lets it all grow wild stand in that dynamic?  We all have some positions of superiority and inferiority, and most of them are relative.

As for Steve, I was sure he had a psychological profile built on me.  I was sure he had all of his feelings of superiority stacked in a row, based on the characteristics he had witnessed over the years.  The tenuousness of that profile was made apparent to me through the various reminders he would give me that he was, in all ways, superior to me.

This modern battle for psychological definition often calls for a type of guerilla warfare tactic.  The modern battle calls for subtlety and nuance.  The age of standing toe to toe may have occurred in the days of duels, and The Civil War, but most field generals of the mind would never risk their troops in the type of toe to toe battles that used to be considered the gentleman’s way to fight.  No one, of the modern age, would ever ask their counterpart if they think they’re superior, in other words, for that may involve some sort of equivocation that detailed the strengths and weaknesses of both parties in which no one was a winner and no one a loser.  No, the battle between two modern day, psychological combatants, more often than not, involves a long standing battle of guerilla warfare-style pot shots.

I broke down one day and decided to violate all of these modern rules of psychological warfare with Steve.  “Do you think that you’re superior to me?”  Being a good friend, and a modern psychological warrior well-schooled in the PC/HR tactics of guerilla warfare, he gave me an equivocation steeped in relative constructs.  Being the obnoxious man I was, I asked him to break it down.  “Would your competitive feelings change if you saw me start walking down a hall with more confidence?  Would this shatter your beliefs to such a degree that you asked me what had changed with me?  Would you ask me if I received a promotion, won the lottery, or got laid the night before?  Would you become so obsessed in your search for an answer regarding my new walk that you wouldn’t be able to sleep at night?  What if I decided to start walking down hallways without moving my arms at all?  Would you consider that walk kind of freakish, a little funny, and an inferiority on my part?  Or,” I asked, “Would you then consider me an equal?”