Have you ever looked at someone’s behavior and thought to yourself, “I just do not understand how their brain works”? Let’s talk about that!
This week Mission: Zer0 has been very focused on the human condition — particularly the duality of the mind — and how we need to account for it. In Battle Cry I talked about 10 things we have learned from social media and what it teaches us about relationships and each other. In our new segment, Talk-O Tuesday, I talked to my friend Bill about what exactly it is that we, as believers, need to be doing. In The Word With Friends yesterday I talked about doctrine and the ways that we process information we bring in. It is that very subject I want to expand on a bit here today.
Scientists and proto-scientists have pondered the workings of the human mind for thousands of years (if not longer). It’s not hard to understand why: we often confuse even ourselves with our behavior and our decision making, and that is to say nothing of the huge black box that is any other person’s decision-making process. And yet, for all the knowledge we have about these truths, we persist in trying to insist that we know more than we do.
Today we’re going to look at 3 examples of times when all of us — every one of us — decide to masquerade our understanding of the human mind as being much more advanced than it actually is, to our absolute detriment and to the detriment of those in our lives. For the psychologists and philosophers: yes, I know there are formal names for these, but I am not using them because I find it makes them easier to ponder this way.
You Didn’t Hear It
The first fallacy is that of playing the psychic. Let me set it up for you: a friend posts a thoughtful Facebook dissertation on why cats are clearly the superior pet. You, having had dogs all your life and having just told her last week that you bought a new puppy, immediately declare that she posted this as a passive-aggressive swipe at you because of that thing that happened last month. You immediately respond back with all the reasons cats are awful and how people who like them are clearly biased fools.
I would put money on it that any Facebook post with more than 10 comments has one of these threads where both parties are talking about a subject, but in truth they are having a vicious argument about what each thinks the other person is actually upset about.
The clear problem here is that we do not, in fact, have any idea what that other person is thinking. Oh, sure, we can come up with a million reasons and justifications of why we just know that’s what they meant, but that’s nonsense. We do not live in other people’s heads, and we have no idea why they do what they do unless a) we ask, and b) they are honest in their answer. But how often do those two things happen? Right: not often enough.
This is SUCH an easy fallacy to resolve! We just need to be honest with each other. We need only follow the advice of Jesus in Matthew 18:15: “More than that: if your brother or sister hurts you, go to them — alone — and tell them what upset you. If they listen openly, you have deepened your relationship.”
And what, exactly, stops us from doing this? Well, that’s the next example!
The Acid Queen
The classic examples of circular logic are: “I’m right because I’m right” and “The Bible is true because The Bible says it is true.” Literal wars have been fought with little more cause than these exact two sentences. But these are the easy pickings examples, the true, core circular arguments. What I want to look at would, in my mind, be called Möbius strip logic.
Let’s return to that post about cats. The first brick in your reasoning upon reading the post is to mark that it is awfully definitive. Then you decide that it was more emphatic than her normal posts — entirely without actually checking if that’s true. Then you search for the reason she might do that; the only thing you know that has gone awry in her life recently was that thing that happened between the two of you. Then you recall you told her about your puppy. Bingo: the post must have actually been a knock against your puppy. She is trying to attack you through your dog!
Every piece seems perfectly reasonable, and indeed this seems like a neatly tied up scenario, save one small detail: each brick is laid down as a puzzle piece, and the next brick is the only possible one that mates to it. When you decide that your friend’s behavior is abnormal the next step is to decide why that may be. But you never did anything to settle the issue of whether it was actually strange behavior or not. It’s odd because you decided it’s odd, but you decided it’s odd because you decided it’s odd. Circular logic.
And it turns out we do this all. the. time. I don’t like admitting it, either, but I do it, too. My boss says something and I presume I’m in trouble or my wife asks a question and I assume she’s calling me out. The rectification of this silliness is simply to admit we’re making these wrong assertions, to follow the advice of Jesus’ brother (we think) who said in James 5:16, “Confess your faults one to another… that you may be healed.”
Well why can’t we do that? That’s our final example!
Smash the Mirror
The reason we can’t just talk to each other about how our thinking or theirs goes wrong is that we just know ourselves too damned well. Come again?
See, we know — even if only anecdotally — how we react to things and how we process things. We then project that onto everyone else. Because we don’t know how they work, we just assume the work like we do. And when we look in the mirror we see what we hate about ourselves. That freckle, the 5 pounds over there, the weird asymmetry of the eyes… even for those of us with great self-image the mirror is a place to look for what is wrong.
When we project our thinking on other people, as in a literal mirror, we see an exaggerated version of the traits we abhor in ourselves. And here, again, my old friend the amygdala comes into play. I know, I know; I just can’t seem to leave these little lumps of gray matter alone, can I?
When you see your flaws it causes you pain, or at least bad feelings. This is your neocortex driving you to make yourself invincible, but being trapped in the amygdala’s web of needing you to stay static. The result, in short, is that your brain is trained to recoil from your flaws because they can hurt you. So when you see them in someone else it triggers that same reaction. If, worse, you see that flaw specifically not present in the other person, now your brain decides that person is superior to you and triggers a whole other range of emotions.
Your brain is subverting your ability to open up to people, to ask for help, to confront possible misunderstandings openly, to show vulnerability or weakness. Overcoming this is a matter of retraining your amygdala, but doing that is harder than it sounds. You have to begin to truly gain the revelation of Proverb 27:17, “iron sharpens iron; likewise a person makes their friend more of a warrior.” See, the verse in the King James says “so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend,” but that language is obscure. “Sharpen a countenance” means to make a face more fierce. It’s saying you can help your friend become a more dangerous weapon, a sharper sword.
But we act as though this verse says “as a sandstone sharpens iron.” We are sure that it’s unidirectional, that our friends get to beat us up. That’s not it. It means that we are to recognize that we are all imperfect, but we can help each other to be more than a rusty blade. We can make each other razor sharp and deadly. We can make each other fearsome to the devil. Do you get the power of that? I mean, does it really sink in?
There’s a Doctor I’ve Found
See, the thing about this verse is that there’s no corollary about fixing your own self. It’s not that iron sharpens iron and also iron sharpens itself. A sword can only be sharpened by another blade or a stone. The stone is God, and the other blade is people. Those are the only sources of growth. That’s it. Do you see? You need other people to grow, and they need you!
Our stupid brains tell us that flaws are bad, that change is scary, and that other people will hurt us. But it’s wrong on all 3 counts. Just because some flaws are bad, some people can hurt you, and some change ends up being horrible doesn’t make it the rule! The apostle Paul doesn’t tell us, in Ephesians 4, that we are members of one body or that we should speak only that which builds up others because he liked the sound of the words.
He knew that the only way we move forward is to work together. He knew what I know, and have said before: Babel was not a smackdown for acting as a unit. What went wrong at Babel was not men building a tower, it was that they were just builders. He scattered them and induced diversity so what we would build an entire world to Him!! And that only happens if we work together, if we use our various talents and flaws and uniquenesses and purposes to build each other up first.
Father, I know these ideas keep coming up, keep coming together, because this message is critical for us to hear and act on. I will never tire of saying them, and I will never cease trying to say them better to try and reach people more deeply! I am so thankful that You put this in my heart, and for all that You do for me and for all of Your children. If this knowledge of Babel was the only idea You ever gave me I would cry Your praise for all eternity, but You have seen fit to give me so much more, to give me my very thriving life.
Let them hear it. I know people get tired of reading my stuff, of watching my stuff, but reach through me and through all of that clutter to send Your idea directly into their hearts. I care about nothing save Your Words being spilled across the entire world. Please carry this out to them, that they might be edified!
In the name of Your mighty Son, Your Word, Your chosen Christ and my brother, my King, my Savior, and my Teacher, Jesus, I pray. Amen!