Saturday, March 29, 2014

Being true to yourself: Alfried Laengle on Existential Analysis

Auto Awesome Picture of falling snow on a winter day


About a month ago I had the opportunity to attend a fascinating talk by the distinguished Austrian psychotherapist Alfried Laengle. His practice of logotherapy is founded (and elaborated) upon the work of fellow Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. The talk itself was titled “On becoming more myself” and was presented by and affiliated with The Existential Analysis Society of Canada. As I constantly muse about how I can be better at being who I think I am I thought it would be useful to perhaps find out more about myself. In fact, this pleasant and good-natured psychologist had mind-blowing ideas on how we see ourselves, others and how both of these can directly affect our mental health and well-being.

The focus of logotherapy is on the existential core being of the individual and its either sound or afflicted relation with the outside world. Our personality, according to Laengle, is what we know deep inside about ourselves, a genuine and unflinching but nonetheless caring look at what makes us different from others.

Yet identity is like an intangible candle flame. We know what it looks like, but we fail to grab it; however hard we may try, it will elude our grasp. Not only is the core identity hard to put and define in words, but it is also a continuous process. Every time, our inner core self comes in contact with information, we may change as a result. These types of impression or as he called it “in-formation” are the form and substance, or bread and butter of how we come to know ourselves better.

For example, I may not know of specific skills I have until I try out new things. This contact from the outside with my inner being may bring out what makes me more myself. There are two things at stake here. Number one how genuine is my expression of myself towards the other. For instance, when I respond to a situation or a person how much of it really comes from who I am? The question we would ask ourselves would be how would “I” (state your name here) react to this given situation. What makes it my own personal response and what is it that makes me be me?

That we often do not respond with honesty is evident in social situations where we are concerned about how others may view us. This can be beneficial or necessary in certain situations, such as controlling our anger or our too honest opinion at work, but it can harm us particularly in our social and romantic relationships where we may not show ourselves the way we are or say what we think out of fear of rejection or disapproval. This may explain why so many people are conformist because they are afraid of showing their true colors and personality. If this dishonest habit occurs on a consistent basis, we may harm ourselves and our psyche.

The second point is how we would integrate this new experience with our old self. If we resist change, then we do not allow life to leave its mark on us. We will become stagnant and not grow as a person. Since identity is fluid, it needs to be affected and stimulated by this new information. These experiences need to integrated with our core self from which a new and more updated self would emerge.

If the interaction and reflection between the inside and outside world is accurate and genuine, then the person is considered balanced and healthy. We do what we love and say what we think, again within reasonable bounds and limits. 

Yet in reality, our lives often become schizoid due to the person we are and values that we hold dear and the many necessary roles we play or think we ought to play in our society. We become confused, lose touch with who we are as individuals, and we also fail to see others in their unique richness; hence our communication both inward and outward becomes forced, dishonest and often superficial.

For true communication or interaction to occur both parties need to be responsive. I need to express my own feelings and be able to listen and decode yours. It again does not mean that one has to agree with everything. It simply means that we accept the fact that there are other opinions, but we still see and interpret the world through our unique lens. But this openness may touch us both and perhaps change one or the other or even both. By laying our cards on the table, we may become vulnerable, but if both do so and if they express their genuine being, then this can only have positive and transforming effects for both parties.

Another issue that is of importance is that the core self be grounded in the actual and present. We often carry around the baggage of the past, and it may block us to see opportunities of change and growth right in front of our eyes. This could be the person who has been hurt in the past from harmful romantic relationships and sees every person as a reflection or potential threat due to their own previous negative experiences. In this way, we disfigure our present with fixed notions of our past, which is again not healthy nor productive.

Being in the present should be accompanied by a certain confidence in one's own abilities and power of discernment. We are bombarded by a multitude of stimuli, but cannot be frayed to and fro without thinking. That would be an automatic response, which is not an expression of individuality. To be oneself one needs to judge and interpret the stimuli instead of blocking ourselves.

Each situation is unique and should be seen as an opportunity to develop one's own unique sense of self. It cannot be automatic, rehearsed or enacted, but it ought to be a natural endeavor, a steady work in progress. Hindrances or obstacles should be dealt with quickly, so that we do not let others block us nor should we block our own self-expression.

To sum up, the questions one should ask is how do I feel about this situation and what would be the best way for me to respond to it, which is basically one's moral evaluation of the moment. Laengle implies that that deep inside we do have the answers to any question and that we should trust our spontaneous feelings in the matter.

This would also present an opportunity to be flexing our self muscles (my words not his!) by taking a stand and by expressing ourselves. In this way, we would be revealing our real and genuine self to the world. The inner and outer face of our self need to be identical, and only then would we feel at peace with who we are and what we do on a daily basis. 

Problems and issues may shake the boat or the citadel of our identity, but they cannot capsize us because we will come to trust ourselves deeply and fully. This is the ultimate aim of logotherapy, to make us understand ourselves better and to act more in accordance with our unique core identity.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

As Lady Luck would have it


The other day, my son scratched and uncovered a winning ticket. Well, it was not his first time as he has been regularly winning his way into sweet treats by winning chocolate bars left and right. Yet we were scratching our heads a month ago when we saw the latest prize, which included much welcomed kitchen appliances of a total worth of $400!

I personally consider myself lucky in the sense of things generally working out for the better. And I am most grateful for this. But in terms of actually winning things, my highest limits have never exceeded a pair of movie tickets including popcorn (which I won on two different but consecutive annual events though). But anything beyond that used to be stories and anecdotes here and there until my son showed me otherwise.

What is luck? Where does it come from? And who is responsible for its distribution? Can you wear out your luck, that is, is there a wear and tear at play? Is it like money which you can overspend leading you to a bankrupt state? These are questions that were going through my mind and to none of which I have a definitive answer. I doubt anyone can solve this riddle, except by claiming that luck does not exist or dismiss them as figures and apparitions we project or imagine in the clouds.

When I consider the occurrence and distribution of luck I cannot help but notice that some are favored by this gracious Lady more than others. Some it seems are born under a lucky star since they keep winning big. Others never do. They do not even win a chocolate bar nor do they find small change in the streets. They are trapped in luckless cycles, and it seems that they always come up short, be it in their jobs, marriages, friendships.

Poets and writers have wondered about this wheel of fortune that gives out more to some, while downright ignoring others. Shakespeare often calls Fortuna - or her Greek version Tyche - a strumpet. That expresses well the resentment of those who are not touched by her grace. But how can we win her favor then? Can she be bribed? Can she be studied and influenced?

Some say there is no such thing as luck. It is all random and merely based on coincidence, while admittedly it may defy logic and laws. But how come some are consistently luckier than others? Does luck smile upon the bold or the hardworking? I have known both types of people but luck can be as elusive to them as the blue moon.

So it seems that luck is somehow granted or given, a kind of karmic gift. It might be that positive people tend to attract more luck as their outlook is a magnet for good tidings. Or it might be that their will is stronger and that they simply will luck into their lives similar to using the Force.

I remember the night we had a draw one of my colleagues stated at the beginning that he never wins. And literally everyone at our table won (I got the movie tickets that night), while he remained empty-handed. Can our belief work as self-fulfilling prophecy? If you think yourself lucky, will it indeed attract luck?

What surprises me also is that luck somehow seems to be bottomless. Although I used to think that one ought to use it sparingly so it is not wasted or spent, those who are blessed by Fortuna tend to encounter lucky streaks on a never-ending roll. For those lucky and chosen few, their water always turns to wine.

So, Fortuna, here is my wish. Keep us in the palm of your hand. Shower us with gifts, and we will welcome thee with open hands. And yes, I will believe in you.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Giving Police Officers Their Due Credit: A Review of The Voice of Reason



One of the surprising parts of Bryant McGill's book The Voice of Reason is its passionate defense of police officers. Most of the book I found somewhat formulaic, as it falls into the typical vein of self-help books that praise the inner beauty of humans in a corrupt world, ideas that hark back to good old Rousseau.

Although I agree with pretty much all of McGill's ideas, such as the dangers of a corporate-governed world or the need for authenticity, compassion and kindness in a plastic conformist mono-culture, I do not think that there is much originality in its presentation here.

At times it feels like this is merely the abridged and concentrated Coles Notes version of the actual text as ideas are not fully developed or explored; instead they stick out like one-sentence aphorisms that can be quoted at conferences to either empower people or to make them feel better about themselves or perhaps both.

That being said, I really wanted to like it more, especially since the author himself had autographed my review copy! But again I felt that a book titled The Voice of Reason should at some point explain a little what this voice is or sounds like, why we should listen to it, and particularly why it ought to be based on reason since reason at times tends to be at enmity with one's inner core and spontaneous self. Yet all things considered I believe (and hope!) that a book that praises honesty should not be opposed to genuine criticism of itself.

But I must give praise where praise is due and that purports to the section “The Police: Crucibles of Society and Enforcement,” in which the author remarkably and perhaps surprisingly puts a human face to the roles of the police in today's society. In a book that is focused on revolution, both inner and outer, it would have been the easy way out to blame or demonize the police, to use its members as the symbol for repression of the masses, as the embodied voice of authority.

But McGill sees and illustrates the police in a different light. In fact, he empathizes with their roles. These are people who, more often than not, may even be idealists, those who wish to make the world a better and safer place. In fact, my five-year-old son sometimes claims he wants to become a member of the police himself. Asked about the inherent dangers of the profession, he answers that there won't be any dangers as he will catch all the "bad guys" and put them in prison. Problem solved.

However, police officers may often find themselves in a compromising situation due to their social position and their official training. So much so that in many cases where we would expect or like to see their human or compassionate face, they must shield their own emotions under their cloak of officious rules. This often gives off the impression that they are aloof and uncaring beings, which in many cases is far from the truth (and I am counting on personal experience here as I have worked and hung out with police officers and find them overall more humorous and fun-loving than the average person).

One should also not forget that most people the police have to deal with on a regular basis are simply not decent and law-abiding citizens; otherwise, the police would not be contacted in the first place. In such cases, showing empathy to the bad guys would not be a good idea as they would take advantage of it and see it not as an expression of solidarity towards human suffering, but rather as a sign of weakness to be exploited and pounded upon.

This is the conflict that the on-duty police officer has to face constantly. Unlike government officials or lawyers whose humor and passion must have drained through the overuse of bland and lifeless rules and regulations (sorry if this is a stereotype and please prove me wrong), the police officer is constantly in the fields of danger and must be alert at all times not unlike a samurai. Their training and experience functions as their safeguard, while their bulletproof vest is for survival.

Their actions must be guided by the law and hence their official response may be different from their own personal one. I remember one police officer who had to fulfill his duty with a heavy heart because he disagreed with the outcome. It was a custody battle where unfortunately the conniving wife held the upper hand and was assisted and supported by the law. Yet the husband was the one who had actually acted in a noble manner; his actions had sprung out of his sincere emotional attachment to his son. The police officer in question had to follow protocol despite his own feelings in the matter.

Similarly, as McGill constantly insists, protests need to be of a peaceful nature. Any kind of violence discredits the protest and its however noble-seeming cause. In fact, violence becomes self-defeating as it brings the protestor on equal footing to the tyrant or opposed authority figure whenever it occurs.

Yet what is worse is that violence is often directed at the representatives of the authority, the extended arm of law enforcement, namely police officers. Once the police officers are faced with violence, they have no choice but to respond equally, and there will be a number of innocent people hurt in this unfortunate fray. You cannot blame the officer for doing their job and for choosing their dictated response to this situation.

That being said, McGill also realizes that there are a number of abuses perpetrated by those in power, including the police officers. This is a sad reality, as humans are fallible and they differ in their level and degree of morality. It is the literal good cop / bad cop scenario, where the latter may accept bribes or use excessive and unnecessary force in a given situation. Yet it would be the job and moral responsibility of the good cop to expose those infringements whenever they occur (which is often easier said than done).

In reality, the good guys do not want to “betray” their partners and either turn a blind eye towards the situation, or worse, they may even defend their companions. This may be because they see themselves in an unspoken but acknowledged brotherhood with the force, yet that is a mistaken identification. The good people ought to expose baseness and let those rotten apples be eaten by worms instead of supporting and helping them. One of the problems is that infringements by people in authority seem to go by unpunished and that is why the public may glance upon those in uniform with an eye of mistrust.

So let us give the police officers their due credit for ensuring protection and safety for the citizens. They are, for the most part, heroes as they are risking their lives, the same way, firefighters do not fear the burning flames. At the same time, to quote Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility, so each of the members of the Force must use their own powers and authority in such manner, namely for the benefit and good of all.