For the first time in my life, I’m really putting the concept of “objectivity” into practice and deepening my understanding of it every single day.
As a PE teacher for elementary school children in a difficult neighborhood of San Francisco, I’m learning what it means to be an objective (and detached) observer of events, instead of getting emotionally involved in the goings on of games during playtime. Take, for example, the following true story:
It’s a Wednesday morning, and the 5th graders have a 45-minute gym period (which is a long time for almost-middle schoolers to be playing high-adrenaline, high-emotion games on the roof). We’re playing a variation of dodgeball called “Medic Ball”, in which the group splits up into two teams and chooses one “medic” per team. The medic can raise anyone on their team who’s been hit out with a dodgeball by tapping them on the shoulder. There’s no other way for teammates who’ve been eliminated to get back into the game, so it logically follows that if the medic on one team gets eliminated, the rest of his or her team members will be slowly eliminated until everyone is sitting out and his/her team loses the round.
Last week when I was playing this game, I was watching carefully, as the detached, objective observer of all the random chaotic events that were simultaneously occurring. Suddenly, the medic on one team (let’s call them team A) was hit by a dodgeball thrown by a member of the opposing team (team B), although the ball simultaneously hit the ground when it made contact with the medic’s foot. In dodgeball games, it’s universally understood that a ball that hits the ground before making contact with someone is a dead ball, and can no longer eliminate someone. In this situation, both had occurred–the ball hit the ground at the same time it hit the medic, so what action should have been taken?
I anticipated the unfolding of events one step before they occurred: Team B rejoiced loudly, the medic from team A denied being hit in frustration, to which the team B member who threw the ball responded angrily, commanding the medic to sit down. Both players were unable to clearly perceive the truth of the situation because both were attached to the outcome of winning, and both were reacting emotionally as a result. As the detached observer (I favored neither outcome of Team A nor Team B winning), I had to step in to de-escalate both kids and remind them of the golden rule of game time arguments: settle disputes through Ro Sham Bo (Rock Paper Scissors). In the end, the thrower from Team B chose paper and the medic chose scissors, they both momentarily let go of their attachments to the outcome, and the game continued on.
Last week, you joined me on my exploration of the meaning of “truth” and how we can choose truths that help us live in a positive way. This week, I’m contemplating the place of objectivity as a path to the truth, just like I was able to use my position as an objective observer to clearly perceive the truth of what went down that day on the roof during Medic Ball.
I’ll admit that it may have taken me this long to understand the meaning of “objective” because of the negative connotations associated with subjectivity–that objectivity is rational and not influenced by emotions, whereas subjectivity is emotionally influenced and therefore has a limited or biased idea of the truth in any given situation. Society has unfortunately come to associate rational, objective thinking with men, and emotional, irrational (subjective) thinking with women, and as a female, I’ve naturally resisted the value judgment placed on objectivity (and rational thinking) over subjectivity (biased, emotional thinking) in the decision-making process. Now, having understood that society tells us a lot of stupid things that aren’t true, believing that both men and women have equal capabilities of being objective and rational, and understanding that there is a place for emotion and subjectivity in our lives, I’m finally understanding why objectivity, versus subjectivity, is crucial to the quest for truth, and so I’m attempting to detail why that is here.
When I first started therapy, my therapist was smart enough to explain what the process was going to be like. This is crucial for a first-timer because therapy is one of the most difficult things you will ever do, if you choose to. Essentially, you’re going through the construction of your entire worldview with someone, influenced by your life experiences and parenting namely, and breaking it down piece by piece until you conclude what is true about your perspective, and what is not. My therapist used the word “objective” to describe her role, and at the time, I had no idea what she meant. I knew the word, but what did it mean in this context? What could she possibly tell me about myself or the world that I didn’t already know? I was convinced that the way I saw things was true reality, but, as the objective observer, uninvolved in my life, she was able to point out when my perceptions of reality or cynical patterns of thought were just not real. And accepting that maybe her perception of reality was more accurate (because she was looking at my life through an objective lens), and that I’d have to change mine as a result, was one of the most difficult (but most important) things I have ever done.
Similarly, I’ve learned that the work of academics is an exploration of the truth, but in a much less personal way. If there’s anything I learned from my time at Haverford, it’s that there’s always another angle from which you can look at a problem, and to uncover the answers to your questions, you need to think critically about each of those angles and then make a conclusion for yourself. My thesis, for example, answered the question: Did the insular, nationalist policies of Francoist Spain that closed the country to the rest of the world for 40 years and allowed only castellano (Spain’s reigning Spanish dialect–what we know to be “Spanish”) cause the scarcity of English speakers in Spain today? To answer this question, I had to think: Is there even a scarcity of English speakers in Spain, or was that just my perception while studying abroad there? If the scarcity is “true”, who presents another explanation for it? Where are those people coming from (Franco supporters/non-supporters, right-wing/left-wing), and how would it influence their arguments? Even if Francoist Spain did have some kind of an impact, what other factors could have contributed to the phenomenon? My advisor helped me realize that I needed to remove my own experiences in Spain from the equation if I wanted to remove any bias (subjectivity) from my argument (and I was biased towards answering that question with a yes).
If we connect all of this to the age-old concept of detachment found in all ancient wisdom traditions, we understand that detachment is not an uncaring, cold attitude towards the material things and people of the world. Instead, it just means removing oneself from a situation to view the larger picture and become an objective observer. Since we are unattached to a specific outcome, as I was in Medic Ball, we are unbiased and can therefore see what truly is.
There is certainly a place for opinion-related pieces in this world, as well as opinion-driven personal advice. I am certainly biased towards my friends who come to me for advice on choosing careers that are meaningful to them, for example, and doing something for the benefit of the greater good. Since I myself believe that it’s important to contribute something creative and meaningful to the world in our short lifetimes, I will be biased towards those who choose to do the same.
However, I recognize when I am being subjective, and when I am being objective. This is an extremely important skill for us to execute semi-regularly, because it helps you recognize when you don’t know the answer to something, and that’s humbling. Like when my therapist showed me how much I thought I knew about life, but didn’t, I was humbled and therefore freed of my negative thoughts.
Of course, it’s still difficult to differentiate between objectivity and subjectivity sometimes. I liken it to shopping for groceries when you are hungry versus when you’re not hungry. When you’re not hungry, you’re more likely to buy the true amount of groceries you’ll need for the week. Sometimes, you just can’t ignore the fact that you’re hungry! In that case, my advice is to “get a second opinion”, or an outside perspective, on your situation. Don’t work in a vacuum, or a bubble, is another way to put it. For the truths that matter, I like to ask the people I can trust for their rational and objective advice.
And ultimately, maintain a balance of both subjective and objective thinking in your life. Because sometimes, it’s enough to just choose your beliefs, even if you don’t know if they are truths.
Life is just the stories we tell ourselves.
In last week’s post on uncertainty, I wrote about how my parents each had their own stories about the disappeared coffee table, and I quoted Lesley Hazleton on how Islam, among other religions, has historically spun stories of the unknown in ways that have led to horrific violence and hatred.
This week, I’m contemplating the concept of “truth”, because if you’re anything like me, at some point in your life, you’ve found yourself wondering something along the lines of: “WHAT the hell is this TRUTH nonsense that all these religions and philosophers and laymen alike are always talking about???”
I’m also choosing to gift you with one of my favorite episodes from my all-time favorite TV show, Avatar: The Last Airbender, which, in all its light-hearted, youthful glory, manages to make an intelligent commentary on storytelling, perception, and truth (aside: honestly, if you haven’t watched the entire Avatar series front to back yet, drop EVERYTHING you are doing right now, including this blog, and GO. WATCH. IT. Or a crucial part of your childhood will forever be lost. Also, spoiler coming up for the episode I linked.)
After hundreds of years of wars between the Gan Jin and Zhang tribes, sparked by their unshakeable belief in a convoluted story of injustice between two of their clansmen centuries before, Aang (the all-powerful Avatar and peacekeeper) manages to bring the tribes together and settle the peace. How? He invents an entirely new story that immediately causes both tribe leaders to suspend their centuries-old anger and judgment! Aang is believable because, despite the fact that Aang is a 12-year-old kid in the show, he’s supposed to have been alive 100 years before the start of the show, but was frozen in time (for reasons you’ll find out when you watch it). Instead of placing Jin Wei (of the Zhang) and Wei Jin (of the Gan Jin) on separate tribes, Aang “recalls” that they were actually brothers, and that they were playing a game that involved a ball (instead of the “sacred orb” that the Zhangs accuse the Gan Jins of stealing), and that no one was imprisoned for life, but rather, Wei Jin was put in the penalty box for 20 seconds during the game. At the end, after the leaders of the tribes have made up, Aang sheepishly confesses to his friends that he has no idea what actually happened, because he invented the entire story to resolve the conflict!
This tiny, 4-minute fragment entirely illustrates how the stories we choose to tell ourselves about our lives, people, and the things that happen to us, govern our actions. The story Aang chose to tell was great because it resulted in positive action for both tribes moving forward. However, it still makes me wonder, what was the truth? What’s the real story between the Zhangs and the Gan Jins?
I started to question this whole idea of “truth” during my senior year at Haverford because of a friend who had some very interesting explanations for her negative actions and behaviors at the end of the year. I knew she had been diagnosed with OCD in high school, but she’d told me it hadn’t followed her through college. At the end of the year, she started to slam drawers and doors in our suite and switch hallway lights on and off when the rest of us were talking in our rooms, in the hallway, or in the common room, and then denied it when we asked her what was up or if she was ok. Perhaps this is just my overactive mind always concerned with finding THE answer to whatever questions its ruminating, but I was bent on figuring out: What was reality? How could our versions of the truth be so polarized? How was it possibly ok in her mind to treat other people so poorly?
And the worst question of all: if I didn’t find the answer (or the truth) to these questions, could I possibly be living in my own delusions?
I think the difficulty with the concept of “truth” is that it can be used broadly or narrowly; practically or philosophically. To help you understand the concept of “truth”, here are the three main categories of truth that I use to conceptualize it:
1) The truth about any given, concrete situation
This, to me, is a more narrow, more practical definition of the truth. It’s narrow because I believe that there is a concrete answer to questions like “What actually happened to Hae Min Lee the night that she was killed?” (for all you Serial fans out there), or, was my ex-friend really suffering from a recurring onset of her OCD, which led to her denial about her incredibly odd behaviors? This type of truth exists out there somewhere, and it’s just a matter of someone with enough expertise and insight coming along to enlighten the rest of us to the answer.
2) Truth as moral values
This is broader and less concrete than the above definition of truth, but understandable nonetheless. Why, for example, should I pay my muni (SF bus system) fares if the drivers never actually check for a transfer? Why should I treat others with kindness and respect? Why does my co-teacher insist to our students, every day, that they make the right choices to follow the rules during games and demonstrate good sportsmanship?
I honestly believe that these universal morals exist for a reason, and reasons beyond just “if you punch someone in the face, they will punch you in the face back, and then you will be sad” (although that’s true too). Every action has a consequence, whether those consequences manifest immediately or not. I, for example, could be fined by the SF MTA if I’m caught without proof of payment. Or maybe my tendencies to try and cheat the system will carry over into some other part of my life where I’ll be screwed twice over to make up for my unpaid muni fares years before. Either way, I take it to be true that paying my muni fares is the right thing to do, so I keep doing it.
3) Truth as an “ultimate” reality
Now this is where things get SUPER broad, metaphysical, intangible, and especially debatable. This version of truth, for me, brings up questions like “Is what we perceive even what really is?” “Are there things that escape our limited human consciousness?” This kind of truth is what I always assumed the major religions to be referring to when all of their enlightened folk described “truth” and “enlightenment”, as if there is some ultimate consciousness that sees everything in our world (and beyond) as it really is, without the skewed, subjective perspective of a human mind. If you’re interested in the topic of truth as a question of reality and perception, check out Attack on Titan and this awesome WaitButWhy post on truth.
When I question the stories we tell ourselves about the world, I’m questioning all three categories of truth. When my suite mate was randomly slamming the doors and drawers in our suite at all hours of the day and then insisted that it was the wind from the open windows, I knew she had convinced herself that that was the truth. Was her OCD returning to cause her to have obsessive thoughts and rituals that involved door slamming (level 1)? Had she convinced herself that it was ok to blame us for her frustrations, and therefore treat us coldly (level 2)? Was any of this stuff all of us in the suite had perceived even real (level 3)?
I may never know, but I’ve written my own story about that situation in my head. So then the question becomes, if we create explanations about situations in our lives when we don’t know the truth, (and may never), how can we make sure we’re writing narratives that lead to positive actions?
This is my conclusion: always search for the “truth” in any given situation. Question things, recognize when and what you don’t know, and always revisit your beliefs and values to make sure they are as universally applicable as they can possibly be. And while you’re on your quest for the truth (which, by its very nature, is universally applicable, eternal, and unchanging), be like Aang. Choose a story that makes you the best version of yourself, and live by a narrative that brings positive energy and action to yourself and to those around you.
I figure, however much it bothers me that I don’t and may never know the “truth”, it can’t hurt to write my stories about life in a way that helps me keep moving forward through struggle and benefits the people around me. My hope is for this blog to help you write your story, too.
Over Christmas break, my parents and brother came to visit me out here in San Francisco. I planned the entire trip, which basically meant that we were hurrying from one activity to another, every minute of every day. This was a perfectly exciting plan to me (my parents and brother might beg to differ…), except on the day after Christmas, when I got an e-mail from IKEA informing me that a coffee table I had ordered for my room had just been delivered (and abandoned) on my apartment doorstep.
Immediately, the worst-possible scenario that it had been stolen by some cold-hearted passerby sprang into my head. I mentally prepared myself for that possibility, though I hoped it wouldn’t be the case. We only got to my apartment at 8 pm, and of course the coffee table was no where in sight. It wasn’t inside anywhere either. I decided to suspend any judgment of the situation–who knew what had happened? Was it possible that someone stole it while it was outside, like I had feared? Yes. But it was also possible that someone had picked it up for me and put it in an unknown location, or that the e-mail was inaccurate, and it actually hadn’t arrived that day. I wanted to take the next steps with the understanding that I didn’t know, but my parents (who are so loving and wonderfully supportive, but also human, with their own faults) had jumped to the same conclusion: they both believed someone had stolen it off the steps.
It’s clear that I had a different view on the situation than my parents did, and that I was less certain than they were about what actually happened. In the end, my uncertainty saved me, because I was able to calmly navigate the GRUELING process of getting on the phone with IKEA without letting the whole incident take me away from being present and enjoying time with my family. The coffee table turned up shortly after, having been picked up by an upstairs neighbor who was safeguarding it for me. In the end, recognizing that I did not know what happened helped me take the necessary steps to getting the coffee table back while also maintaining a positive internal state throughout.
People are always chasing security and certainty in life; whether it be certainty in regards to why positive or negative things happen in life, to certainty about how justice works (or does not work) in this world, to knowing where you’re going to be next year, to financial security. I know what that’s like–I’ve been influenced by the stereotypical Asian American values growing up. But as I’ve gotten older, and as my goals and priorities have changed over time, I’ve learned the value and the immense creative potential of uncertainty–of not knowing why something happened, or what will happen, next.
I’ll divide my concept of certainty into two separate categories: 1) our beliefs about the world and 2) future plans. In both scenarios, uncertainty can be liberating; in the first, it’s because we never actually know why someone made a rude comment about us, or why we didn’t get that job or that apartment. Reminding yourself that you can only speculate about these things, and recognizing that the repeated narratives we use to explain disappointments to ourselves are just narratives, liberates us from the dark places that we sometimes enter into. Uncertainty can be liberating with regards to future plans, too, because with an open mind comes an alertness to new and exciting opportunities that can present themselves to us at any moment.
Dr. Deepak Chopra once again articulates this perfectly in The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success in the chapter on the Law of Detachment (Youtube, 54:15-1:04:35):
True wealth consciousness is the ability to have anything you want, any time you want, and with least effort. To be grounded in this experience, you have to be grounded in the wisdom of uncertainty. In this uncertainty, you will find freedom to create anything you want. Security and certainty are a result of rigid attachment to the known…And what’s the known? The known is our past. It’s just the prison of past conditioning. There’s no evolution in that. Absolutely no evolution at all.
For example, if I had clung to the security of knowing where I was going to be come September last year, I would have ended up in a gray cubicle in a grayer office at the State Department of Health in NYC. It would have been easy to cling to the known and the security of having a job post-graduation, instead of accepting that my summer in San Francisco was making me rethink my priorities and career goals. Having had no real commitment binding me to the job in NYC, and having been told, after accepting the job, that my position was basically that of a glorified secretary instead of real public health-related work, I quit in July and decided to look for a job in the Bay after a month at home. I moved in with a college friend from Oakland, and we reveled in the excitement (and anxiety) of our unemployment together. With an open, alert, and calm mind, I found my current job within five days of moving back to the Bay, and now I’m teaching and living in San Francisco, making new friends, volunteering, dating, swing dancing, speaking Spanish, pretentiously drinking high-class beer and coffee, writing, meditating, and eating food from every corner of the world. I had absolutely no way of predicting that this would be my life a year ago, and therein lies the beauty of uncertainty. I am proud to say that I have lived Deepak’s words, that “You don’t need to have any idea of what you’ll be doing next week or next year, because if you have a very clear idea of what’s going to happen, and you get rigidly attached to it, then you shut out a whole range of possibilities.”
Don’t confuse this with letting go of intention. You should still set short and long-term goals and work towards them, but keep an open mind throughout, and allow yourself to recognize and act upon any desires to change direction during that process.
The second kind of certainty that humans are prone to is much more subtle, because it has to do with our internal narratives and explanations of events, and most of the time we don’t even stop to think about how rigid our stories become. My parents, for example, didn’t even realize that aspects of their outlook on life (that it’s unfair, that people are more often cruel than they are benevolent) were far too certain, and that these ideas were entirely informing their perspective on the coffee table situation (which was inevitably inciting some negative emotions for both of them).
Lesley Hazleton has an incredible TED talk on this type of certainty and how it’s particularly deadly in a religious context, leading to bigotry, prejudice, intolerance, hate crimes, and fundamentalism. Religion, in my opinion, evolved as a way for humans to explain the unknown, which is fine, except that there’s far too much certainty in these explanations. Hazleton goes into a really important argument about how Islamic fundamentalism, in particular, is founded on the absolute certainty fundamentalists have about the night Mohammad received a message from “God”, but you should just watch the talk to get all of that. For the purpose of this post, I’ll just leave you with this specific part of her speech:
Doubt is the heart of the matter. Abolish all doubt, and what’s left is not faith, but absolute, heartless conviction. You’re certain that you possess “the truth”, inevitably offered with an applied uppercase “T”, and this certainty quickly devolves into dogmatism and righteousness, by which I mean a demonstrative, overweening pride in being so, very right. In short, the arrogance of fundamentalism.
Then she says,
Real faith has no easy answers. It’s difficult and stubborn. It involves an ongoing struggle, a continual questioning of what we think we know, a wrestling with issues and ideas. It goes hand in hand with doubt, in never-ending conversation with it, and sometimes, in conscious defiance of it.
Faith, in its purest form, is just the belief in a story that we base our values and our actions on. I could have faith in a divine power beyond my human perception, or I could have faith that people are innately benevolent and will generally take care of me and others. Either way, it’s important to choose a story that helps us be our best selves and benefits those around us. I may never know, for certain, the answers to many of my questions, or where I’m going to be next year. But I want to approach everything in my life with the knowledge that I don’t know. I can always have an idea of why something happened, or a plan for the future, or a belief in a divine power, but in the end, I don’t actually know, and that’s liberating.
I’d rather be aware of what I don’t know is true, than be doggedly certain of what may be false.
For more reading on this, check out Dr. Kelly Flanagan’s awesome post here.