THE DUALITIES OF LIFE. BLOG #5.

THE DUALITY OF PESSIMISM AND OPTIMISM.

In continuation with this series of dualities of life, I would discuss the duality of pessimism and optimism in this blog. Actually, this duality is also a continuum in the sense that there is no fixed point which separates pessimism from optimism. Both these frames of mind are defined by the context of one’s circumstances of life. However, it is important to deconstruct this duality because it has insidious consequences on one’s life. While the consequences of pessimism on one’s mental health are well known, the optimism, particularly an undue optimism, is also detrimental to one’s mental health. Therefore, it is necessary to understand the nature of this duality.

Let us think about what makes one a pessimist or an optimist. Apparently, our past experiences decide what to expect from life. Therefore, it is legitimate to think that circumstances of our lives shape our perception of what future holds for us. However, our perception of our future is based on far more complex processes. Our pessimism or optimism arises, not just from our past experiences, but also from our irrational mood swings. More importantly, these mood swings, which are caused by chemicals present in the brain, are sometimes fixated by the structural changes in the brain. Thus the mood swings, which are originally supposed to be temporary mechanisms that reflect the immediate circumstances, become long lasting, if not permanent, due to these structural changes in the brain. As a result, our perception of future is no longer realistic, but it is distorted by these uncalled for structural changes in the brain. Thus, the natural mechanisms that the Nature had evolved to cope with the dynamic life, becomes out of sync with the reality, thanks to our brain’s tendency to make all our memories permanent. These structural changes in our brains which were originally meant to create long term memories, also make permanent our mood swings which are supposed to be short lived.

It is this mismatch between the original objective of making permanent memories and the unintended consequences of making permanent the transient mood swings, that is at the heart of our undue pessimism and undue optimism. As in the case of most of our mental health problems, the problem doesn’t really lie in how we respond to the reality but it lies in the disproportionate and mistimed manner in which we respond to the reality. It is perfectly healthy to feel elated or saddened due to the circumstances of our lives. However, when our emotions are disproportionate or mistimed that needs to be labelled as pessimism and optimism. This is precisely what happens when our moods are made permanent by our memory making mechanisms. Thus, if our short lived sense of happiness is made permanent, we would look at the future with optimism. Similarly, when our short lived sadness is made permanent, we would look at the future with pessimism. Thus, our perceptions of what future holds for us is compromised by this unintended fixation of our moods by our brain’s tendency to make our memories permanent.

The real trouble with this duality of pessimism and optimism is that we have no way to find out when our perception of what future holds for us, is realistic, or unduly pessimistic or unduly optimistic. We take our mood at that moment to be genuine and act accordingly. Thus, our undue emotional response unfairly shapes our plans to face the future and thereby the future itself. Therefore, even though we are free to shape our future, our freedom to shape our future is compromised by our emotional distortions. More importantly, we are not even aware of this handicap.

The question that arises is what can be done to act without being a pessimist or optimist ? Is there any way to anticipate the future without being influenced by our moods ? The answer to these questions is partly yes and partly no. Yes it is possible to think of what future holds for us without being influenced by our emotions. In fact, this is precisely what modern management teaches us. However, the problem with such strategic thinking is that essentially it is amoral. Therefore, there is a risk in following such methods because it leads us to morally grey behaviour. This is where the answer no comes into picture. We cannot act in a totally rational manner unless we are willing to overlook the moral perspective of our plans. However, in order to think in moral terms, we need to invoke our emotions. It is not obvious at the first sight, but our emotions arise basically from our morality. Therefore, we can not act rationally and morally unless we involve our emotions. As a result, we are back to square one. If we involve our emotions while thinking about our future, we run the risk of compromising our ability to think what the future holds for us. On the other hand, if we want think rationally as well as morally, we have to involve our emotions.

Therefore, it seems that whether we like it or not, we condemned to live with the duality of pessimism and optimism. More importantly, there is no way to escape this predicament.

In my next blog, I would discuss the duality of free will and destiny.

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THE DUALITIES OF LIFE. BLOG #4.

THE DUALITY OF PAST AND FUTURE.

In continuation with my earlier blogs on the dualities of life, I would discuss the duality of past and future in this blog. This duality is not obvious at the first sight, but it is a duality that shapes our lives, particularly our present. As mentioned earlier for the duality of good and bad, this duality is also a continuum. It is our awareness of present moment that gives rise to this duality of past and future. Strangely, present moment is a fleeting experience. In contrast, both, the past and future seem to exist permanently. Of course, we know a lot about past, but we are blind towards what future holds for us. This asymmetry between past and future is the foundation of the human angst. It is this angst that I would discuss in this blog.

All most of all of us are familiar with a strange feeling that we experience when we are conscious of the present moment and its transient and evanescent existence. This consciousness of a present moment happens when we experience acute emotions. What changes during that awareness is the type of emotions but not the acuity of emotions. In the moments of joy and happiness, we desperately want that present moment to last forever. Similarly, in the moments of agony and pain, we desperately wish to get over with that moment. However, what we fail to realise is that both these desires arise because our past and future dominate our present moments. The present moment, which philosophers call specious present, is without any emotional content. It is only because our past memories and future expectations colour this specious present differently that we react to it differently. This is the crux of the human predicament. We are torn between this duality of past and future and the duality of hope and fear.

The present moment, the specious present, has no emotional content of its own. It is we, or rather our subconscious mind, that impose the emotional content and meaning to this specious present. Therefore, our emotional experiences during the specious present are not absolute. They are manufactured by our subconscious mind. This possibility is so unnerving that instead, we choose to believe that these emotional experiences are absolute and struggle to make sense of our lives. Thus, the duality of past and future shape our lives without any one of us being aware of it.

There is one key difference between past and future that is not only stark but it plays heavily on our minds. The past, as we all know, is fixed and known to us. The future, on the other hand, is totally undetermined and unknown to us. Of course, those who believe in destiny, however insist that future, like past, is predetermined. Therefore, instead of discussing whether there is something like destiny, I would focus on the knowability of past and future. This is because I believe that our knowledge of our past and our ignorance of our future have a strong impact on our perception of the specious present.

The most common feature of our past is that it is unalterable. It seems to exist whether we like it or not. However, it is not same for our memory of our past. Our memories of our past are altered by the emotional state of our mind. Therefore, the way we recollect our past depends our emotional state during the specious present. As a result, not only our specious present is influenced by our past, but even our recollection of past is also influenced by the specious present. On a moment’s reflection, one would realise that this is a disturbing situation. One would never really know whether one’s conscious mind selects a memory of some past moment just to suit itself or our subconscious mind would throw up a memory of a past moment to fulfill its own desire. No matter which of these possibilities is true, it is clear that what we think to be certain is not that certain. Our past is not cast in stone, at least its recollection is not. Therefore when we decide what to do next, our specious present, together with the selective memories, influences our decision making without us being aware of it. This is insidious indeed. Our freedom to decide is really not a freedom in a true sense.

As if this is not enough, our ignorance about our future also contributes to our predicament. Since we don’t know what the future holds, we try to imagine what future could be. Rational part of our mind tries to work out various scenarios and then makes an assessment of what the most likely scenario would be. Accordingly, our mind acts during the specious present. This is a routine procedure that we follow without even being aware of it. However, since we don’t know what future would be, we depend on our past experiences and their memories to build these scenarios. Since the recollection of these memories, as mentioned above, is not in our control, we act according to the emotions that the selective recollection of memories have generated. As a result, when we act proactively to actualize the future that we wish for, our actions are already biased by our selective recollection of our past. Therefore, our actions in the specious present are biased by our emotions. Even when we feel that we are acting rationally, we are actually acting emotionally. This is because our emotions eliminate some of the rational choices that would otherwise be available to us. Thus, our so called rational behaviour is in reality, a partially rational behaviour which is restricted by our selective recollection of our past memories.

It seems reasonable to think that it would have been simpler if our future too could influence our specious present. In that case, at least we would have a better chance of success. However, Nature does not trust human nature, at least not totally. Therefore we have sometimes intuitions about what is going to happen in future. However, such intuitions are rare and we are left with an unfair consequences of our past interfering our specious present. It would be an ideal situation if we could live only in the present moment uninfluenced by our past and unafraid of our future. However, we would not be human any more. Our existence is characterised by our imperfections and our struggle to overcome them. Maybe God could stand outside the cycle of time and decide impartially. However, for us, we are destined to be governed by this asymmetry between knowable past and unknowable future. Thus, our lives are governed by this duality of past and future, notwithstanding our angst.

In my next blog, I would discuss the duality of pessimism and optimism.