June 23, 2015

Minimalism Part II

By In musings, quotations

If we carry less relief from the physical burden requires little more explanation. Yet, the emotional liberation is tangible too. But from where does this stem, getting rid of the old and overused and purchased but forgotten? From the formation and use of our internal support system and need for less external underpinnings? Or, from a deeper understanding and acceptance of who and where we truly are, and from where we must step toward progress?

To begin I’ll defer to Joey Berglund, of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, after having traveled halfway around the world to follow an adulterous opportunity with his wedding ring halfway through his digestive tract, for the first time, seeing himself, “so clearly, it was like standing outside himself. He was the person who’d handled his own shit to get his wedding ring back. This wasn’t the person he’d thought he was, or would have chosen to be if he’d been free to choose, but there was something comforting and liberating about being an actual definite someone, rather than a collection of contradictory potential someones.” (Jonathan Franzen, Freedom,  pg. 432) For the time being, I won’t delve into the meanings of shit in this statement, because what’s more interesting is Joey’s disavowal of the “potential someone” he may be with the adulteress, Jenna, and acceptance of an identity defined by his own actions in the present moment. This is acceptance of the fact that his actions do not align with who he wanted to be by being there with her but, rather are indicative of an identity he has been trying to write off. Joey visualizes a preferable version of himself with Jenna, and through a series of choices and proximity to her is trying to bring himself closer to that potential self, by virtue of, finding it better, or just prevailing displeasure. This aligns with Esther Perel’s assessment of a wandering eye in an exclusive relationship; when we seek the gaze of another, it isn’t always our partner that we are turning away from, but the person that we have ourselves become. And it isn’t so much that we’re looking for another person, as much as we are looking for another self. The more the eye wanders the more our imagination generates selves and lives with greener pastures, in an array of hypotheticals that don’t generally fit into a cohesive sense of self or identity. Instead they push and pull on each other and our psyche through a perceived sense of lack or failure and then an urgency to remediate, in an attempt to do so the tendency is to reduce the long road of personal development to a singular choice or pairing between ourselves and someone or something.

The drama of these pairings has been well researched and reported on, extensively by Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice, and is especially relevant in a day and age when we are faced with infinite possibilities with regard to possessions, relationships,  and identity. The presumption is that the more choice we have, the more control we have, and thus, the more freedom, which is always good. Contrary to the alternative, being no choice, this is true but, Schwartz posits that in the face of too many choices and too many options (too many variables) we’re faced with a litany of negative side effects, including brain fatigue. A short-circuiting or over-fault of the prefrontal cortex, the rational brain center that is limited in how much data it can store and analyze at once in the average untrained person. In the instance prefrontal cortex max capacity (numerically > 7∓2) is reached or exceeded the emotional brain center, the cerebral cortex (more specifically the orbitofrontal cortex) relieves the rational brain of its responsibility to choose, a responsibility it’s been vying for and the rational brain is now too busy to combat.  The thought is then that the emotional decision is made based on somatic markers, physiological responses that are associated, coded, and stored in the brain, and then recalled to deter  or encourage the decision maker away or toward the subject.

Second to brain fatigue, is the stress of the inevitable potential for regret and lament for all the alternatives left unchosen; “In the space between yes and no, there’s a lifetime. It’s the difference between the path you walk and the one you leave behind; it’s the gap between who you thought you could be and who you really are; it’s the legroom for the lies you’ll tell yourself in the future.” (Jodi Picoult, Change of Heart, pg 20)

This is a significant emotional weight and stress to bear for the illusion of freedom of choice. Given the majority of choices we make aren’t rationally determined and, when we have the opportunity to make a conscious choice, all too frequently our actions are predetermined by our habits. When we think we’re choosing, at the base of the forebrain, the basal ganglia is guiding us with stored, learned, and consistently rewarded behaviors. As an aside we do, in some way, choose our habits but more so than choosing an original ideal this takes all the work to combat and rewrite those already engrained – those engrained through a series of repeated emotional decisions? – but this rewriting is the basis of development and change.  Regardless, through one jarring instant Joey is able to step away from the possibilities and objectively view the concrete, all the repetitive actions that keep bringing him closer to the girl he has tied himself to with his wedding band. For Joey this reveals both a lack of choice and a greater freedom in acceptance of an identity rooted in those decisions already made regardless of how little free will was involved in their making; “This wasn’t the person he’d thought he was, or would have chosen to be if he’d been free to choose, but there was something comforting and liberating about being an actual definite someone.” An actual definite someone that doesn’t always have the responsibility of choosing in an instant who among the possibilities they will be, suddenly all the brain fatigue all the responsibility of making a rational choice is allayed and recognition of who we are already, where we’re starting, is a stronger place from which to spring into rewriting and re-wiring ourselves into someone new.

For, to change our habits, all we have to do is something different just this once. And repeat. Until we have built the foundation of our preference and this automatic action is no longer a choice, requiring significantly less energy and percentage of willpower, the excess of which can then shift toward the replacement and construction of another more desirable inclination; “All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits – practical, emotional, and intellectual – systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.” – William James,  Principles of Psychology

In too many ways and in too many domains we are holding on, to our effects, to our habits, and  mainly to homeostatic ideals that don’t comply with how we are built at a cellular level but, are aimed at maintaining all that is good and to which we are attached. To bring it back (to the) home, spring cleaning, within these materialistic collections, there exist pairings to potential and nostalgic selves that don’t align with the present. Temptations that lure us away from the moment and into the trap of an impossible choice; on a day-to-day basis we don’t have a choice between who we once were, who we are now, and who we wish to become.  We can’t, through ownerships of items that align with who we want to be, or partnership with a different person, immediately change who we are, just the image, which is far from the groundwork of habit formation, and thus, true maturation. Letting go is relief from constantly trying to decide on something that is built on circumventing too many steps to ever be successful.  Like Joey, too often, we wouldn’t choose to be as our actions elucidate or the mirror reflects. Superficially, perhaps we’d love version of ourselves that once did or would look great in a certain size or style, we wouldn’t choose to be the person that just can’t pull it off but, does storing it for a day we could weigh on us painfully via some sense of lack or failure? Or, does it truly motivate us to become that potential someone, and if so, how does the idealized image lead us? And, where does the striving to become our own ideal image end? Perhaps, we need inspirational items, novel interactions and a little bit of imagination to inspire us to step away from a situation or self (habits) that is no longer serving us, only we can make that determination  but, at what point do we practice acceptance of the present and the circumstances surrounding it if not now? And then, if development is what we seek, what better place to start, than a deep understanding of all the misguided actions that brought us to where we are? An understanding so simplified, and minimalised, it’s no longer mired in the  fragments of who we once were or all our speculative selves, making space for residence and presence.


  1. http://www.ted.com/talks/esther_perel_rethinking_infidelity_a_talk_for_anyone_who_has_ever_loved
  2. http://www.radiolab.org/story/91640-choice/

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