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?

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Fear Bradycardia and the Normalcy Bias


“Didn’t you hear the old, Native American woman say something evil lurks 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!”

The music that cues Dougie’s impending doom spills out of the speakers of our movie theater. A subtle roar follows. We tense up. We grip the armrests so tight that we flex our forearms. 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 the warnings. 

The trouble is the actor that plays Dougie is unattractive and chubby. 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 idea 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 want them to move, but I realized that they receive instructions from 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 closer to the truth than anything we horror movie aficionados call for. The book, You Are Not so Smart, suggests that the one detail of our story that is incorrect, in many stories similar to Dougie’s, is the 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 fight to save themselves, in a selfish manner, and those that act in a heroic fashion to save others, but casual, non-psychology types insist there are but two reactions to such situations.

McRaney argues that there is a third course of action, and casual, non-psychology types will be more apt to view this course of action as little more than an extension of choking. Psychologists call it fear bradycardia. The difference between fear bradycardia and choking is that a victim of fear bradycardia experiences a heart deceleration, as opposed to an acceleration that may cause one to fumble about and select an incorrect reaction. A victim of fear bradycardia experiences a freezing, or an attentive immobility. Fear bradycardia is an involuntary, automatic instinct that often occurs in moments that contain unprecedented aspects of chaos and horror for the unprepared.

Put succinct, fear bradycardia is the idea that a person, a Dougie, will stop moving and hope for the best. This psychological state occurs when we encounter a moment of unprecedented, abject horror. It is based on the idea that in those moments, most of us will not know what to do, and we will freeze in place with the hope that that moment will 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. Some refer to this state as tonic immobility, but no matter the name, 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 shut down and go to a safe, more normal space 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 calm evacuating survivors exhibited, and how most survivors followed instructions to allow for a safe exit. Some first responders said that the nature of these survivors saved lives. They suggested that the nature of this exit should be a model for future survivors, and first responders, to learn the proper evacuation process.

Other first responders agreed with the general sentiment, but they added that the unspoken sense of order was so calm and quiet that it bordered on eerie. Very few survivors were screaming, they said, and though there wasn’t much room to sprint, very few added to the chaos by complaining about the slow, orderly exit, and even fewer attempted to find another 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 complete the log out procedures on 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, when reading that. If I were in that situation, I would be running. I might be crying, even screaming, and I may even knock the occasional little, old lady down in my departure, 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 watched such scenes in movies, and TV shows. We’ve all placed ourselves in the mind of the characters involved, and we’ve all done things a little different from them. We’ve all shouted things at our various screens when the Dougie characters 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, or do we think we know? How prepared are we for a moment of unprecedented horror and catastrophe, and how much of what we think we know conflicts with the reality of what we really know?

“If you haven’t (experienced a worst case scenario firsthand),” writes McRaney. “You can never know how prepared you will be, and you can never know how you’ll react. The ideas of how we will react may be lies we’ve told ourselves so often that we might end up knowing the actual truth of these questions after it’s too late to rectify it.”

Shutting down computers, gathering coats and having mundane conversations are automatic and involuntary responses that occur because 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. We shutdown 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 stated previous, most casual, non-psychology types would characterize this as choking in the clutch, but McRaney states that it goes beyond this, because you may not be 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. This reflexive incredulity 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. Doing so, will lead you to underestimating it.

One such incident to illustrate 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 was due, in part, to precedent. Thanks to the terrorist incident that occurred on 9/11/01, in other words, those heroic passengers lived with a post-9/11 mindset.

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 they knew it 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 believed this too, 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 may not have been 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 those passengers what they were witnessing on TV. Those passengers then informed other passengers, until all parties concerned defeated this reflexive incredulity acted in the manner they did.

According to reports, there was a great deal of discussion on flight ‘93. There was discussion among the passengers, relaying the reports they were hearing with others on the ground that prompted Todd Beamer to say, “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, “You are more prone to dawdle if you fail to follow these steps and are not informed of the severity of the issue.”  Failing to gain the necessary information leads to speculation and to the inevitable comparisons and contrasts of other incidents for 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 a previous experience I once had?” 

The culprit they assign to unwarranted fear is hype. The type of hype, they will suggest, comes from the media and politicians. The media wants viewers and 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 true, but it’s also true that the terrorist incident that occurred on 9/11/01 was one of the most horrific to happen in our country.

We only add the political section of this discussion to illustrate the mindset of those that rationalize horror away. They do so to lighten the load such an incident could have on their minds if they didn’t deal with it in the manner they do. The problem arises when we face the type of horror we’ve rationalized for most of our 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 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. Most of us 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’ve prepared ourselves 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 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 we call mini-disasters in the grand scheme of things, and most people have a 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 may rationalize themselves to death.

Are you Superior?


If an individual is strong or gifted in the athletic arena, they already know the feeling of superiority, as most of us regard those physical traits superior. For the rest of us, the search is not as simple. 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 this quest is that we gain definition on the backs of others.

Most people we encounter will dress us down psychologically, soon after we meet them. Why do they do it? Most of them don’t know why, and those that do have something of an idea might not attribute it to a search for superiority, but they do know that they’re searching for something that will give them a lift for the day. 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 socially accepted hairdo? How much did we pay for it? How much did we pay for the clothes we wear? Do we wear fashionable clothes? If clothes make the man, what kind of man are we? Some say it’s all about the shoes. Others say that by creating a pleasing dimple in the tie, by denting that tie with the thumb in the tying process, a person can create quite a first impression. Most people don’t speak in terms of superiority or inferiority in polite company. Yet, most people are worried about the impressions they make. What are impressions, but an attempt to define one’s self among their peers?

Is it all about the clothes, or do we making better first impressions with 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 what we say after the first impression has greater import. 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 of a strong follow up impression. The subtext involves the idea that doing so will end their search for our weakness, and the feeling of superiority they gain will allow them to feel more comfortable with us. This, we hope, will result in them enjoying our company more. 

Comedian Louie Anderson turned this into an art form. Moments after stepping foot on stage, Louie Anderson informs his audience that he’s overweight in the form of a well-rehearsed joke. The first impression we have of Louie is that he is overweight. When he follows that first impression up with a quality, self-deprecating joke it disarms us. We thought we were superior to him, based on his physical flaw. By acknowledging that flaw, Louie takes that feeling of superiority away from his, and he gives it back to us with his definition of it. That re-definition of our superiority allows him to go ahead and manipulate us in all the ways a comedian needs to manipulate a crowd. The distraction of our physical superiority is gone, and we’re now free to enjoy the comedic stylings of Louie Anderson.

The problem with such a successful, follow up presentation rears its ugly head when we begin to overdo it. When our self-deprecating humor works in the second stage of impression, and we attempt to move into the more substantive third and fourth stages of impression we might find that most people are not as entertained by us as they were in the second, self-deprecating stage of impression. As a result, we may begin to fall back on the more successful, second impression. “Of course I’m nothing but a fat body, so what do I know,” is a qualifier that we insecure types add to jokes when we find that we’re no longer entertaining our audience. When that proves successful, and our counterparts begin laughing again, we begin committing to this qualifier so often that we become that weakness in their eyes. They can’t help believing this is who we are, 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 we have fallen prey to this progression is to remove that successful, qualifier that we have been adding to the tail end of our jokes and stories to gain favor with them. If we have been adding it too often, they might add, “That’s true, but aren’t you fat?” to the tail end of our story for us.

Some of the times, we commit to these additions 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 because 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’ve heard that statement many times, but I rarely heard someone use it as a weapon of superiority. 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 the American way of life. She would ask 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 might be due to the fact that David was much younger than we were. Steve agreed with that to an extent, but he stated that he thought it had more to do with David’s education level. 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 when it dawn on me that Steve’s greater goal was not to insult David, or compliment me, but to attempt to define his own feelings of superiority through comparative analysis. I thought of confronting him with this, but I’ve always felt guilty about revealing others in this manner. It’s never gained me anything more than a 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.

Upon reflection, I realized that my college graduate friend, Steve, had been on the outside looking in of 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 as a result, 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 we did.

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, we dismissed his opinions 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. Some even gain feelings of superiority based on the manner they brush their teeth. Those that brush their teeth top to bottom are not doing it in the manner advised by the American Dental Association. Others base their comparative analyses on the manner in which a person shaves their pubic hair. If one person leaves a strip and another 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. If I ever doubted his superiority, he offered me constant reminders.

This modern battle for psychological definition often calls for a type of guerrilla 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 modern age mind would never risk their troops in the type of toe-to-toe battles that former battalion leaders considered the gentleman’s way to fight. On that note, no one, of the modern age, would ever ask their counterpart if they think they’re superior, in other words, for that might 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 guerrilla warfare-style pot shots.

For those, like me, that feel guilty about cashing in on those opportunities to nuke another person’s argument for the purpose of gaining superiority, my advice is to refrain judiciously. Some of us will take any opportunity afforded us to make another person look bad. They enjoy it, especially when they consider that other person to be superior in some way. Others don’t enjoy this, as we have intimate knowledge of the embarrassment that can accompany looking bad in front of others. We also feel some empathy for those that say easily corrected things. We hold our fire. In a perfect world, others would value such judiciousness, and they would return it. For various reasons, including the idea that most people do not know when we’re refraining, it is not valued. Some may even consider it a display of weakness on our part.

In a perfect world, our interactions would call for facets of the modern definition of warfare. Most people would wait for enemy fire before firing, to win the battle off the field as well as winning the one on it. The problem with refraining too often, or only firing in self-defense, with those we do battle with in the psychological wars, is that most enemy combatants do not view refraining as an order to ceasefire. One would think that in the absence of pot shots, the other party would recognize the cease and desist order. In my experience, they don’t. They sense weakness, and they open fire. Something about the human condition suggests that even the most empathetic and sympathetic to stay vigilant, and fire off a few rounds occasionally just to keep our enemy combatants down. Even if it is just to keep them level with us, the individual with their mind’s eye open to the psychological games we all play must keep firing, if for no other reason than to remind all of our opponents of the arsenal we have at our disposal. 

After tiring of all the games that Steve and I played over the years, I finally broke down one day and said, “Do you think that you’re superior to me?” I realized that this was a violation of the modern rules of psychological warfare, but I couldn’t take the ever-present chess match anymore. Being a good friend, and a modern psychological warrior, schooled in the PC/HR tactics of guerrilla 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 that shatter your beliefs to such a degree that you asked me what had changed? Would you ask me if I received a promotion, won the lottery, or if I had sex 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 began 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?”