Will Question Assumptions For Food
I like to think that one of my superpowers is the ability to see, identify, and call into question the assumptions underlying thoughts, beliefs, feelings, ideas, and words.
Part of this superpower is, I think, a natural ability, an inborn proclivity, a gods/genes-given mashup of cognitive gifts (language, working memory, pattern recognition, etc) and the focusing effects of my Aspergers neurology. My finely-tuned attention to language, and my compelling interest in the literal and rational, leaves me on constant alert for those things which undermine, distort, or confuse meaning and hinder communication.
(It also leaves me prone to use such things as “scare quotes” and Trademarks™ and Copyright © symbols to help highlight the fact that the word in use carries underlying assumptions which can or should™ be called into question. Redundant, yes, as all language is metaphor, but there it is.)
(It also, I think, because I understand the rules so well, leaves me with the gift of being able to break those rules, create new associations and new meanings, and enter into the realms of fiction and poetry.)
Another part of this ability comes from training, from doing years of work with Landmark Education, from reading widely, from working with a guru/therapist, from participating in “intentional” communities and dialogue circles, from making so many mistakes, and from processing life on a daily basis with Sally.
And another part of this superpower arises from reactivity and trauma. Being born really smart and acutely observant and “Aspie-logical” into a family and school system and society where the basic rules of human psychology made the identification of underlying assumptions challenging for many, and in which biases and beliefs and associations and expectations and reactions tend to rule the day, I had a hard and miserable time making myself accurately seen and understood. That left some fairly deep scars.
So as I walk through the world, whatever gets said, or written, or believed, or pronounced as “true,” my mind automatically assesses it for both literal and poetic truth, and tries to identify the assumptions which underly it, and calls them into question where appropriate. This is why What a Way to Go and All of the Above. This is why my lifelong interest in “the fringe,” whether it be UFOs, the paranormal, spiritual systems, idealism, quantum physics, alternative history, anomalous data, the philosophy of science, etc. This is why my focus on culture and story and belief. This is why my interest in human psychology. This is why my writing now about Aspergers. In each case, my mind sees a lush field of assumptions at work, assumptions which have fertilized an overgrowth of belief ™or “story” or so-called common sense© or pronounced “truth,” things which, I say, are due for a good trimming.
My mind sees the unwarranted assumptions, the distorted conclusions, the inaccurate communication, and my gut tightens and my face clouds over in the presence of such unfair, unsupportable, limiting thoughts and ideas and I HAVE TO POINT OUT WHY THEY ARE WRONG! When I see the waveform of possibility collapsed into the solid matter of belief, I feel offended. Affronted. Frustrated. Sad. How dare you settle so easily for a concrete reality when there is so much glorious uncertainty out there, so much mystery, so much possibility, so much yet unknown and awaiting discovery? How?
(That’s how it feels. I didn’t say it was pretty.)
I know “how,” of course. I know because I do the same darn thing, over and over. I make pronouncements. I say how “it is.” I assume. I believe, based on incomplete data and faulty evidence. I use labels and names, condensing down the truth™ for easy consumption and more “efficient” communication, painting the whole of the Cosmos with a limited number of brushes and a few habitual hues. It’s almost as if it’s impossible for the human animal to live otherwise. (We might argue that it’s this very experience of limitation™ that serves as “the reason for coming here” in the first place.) At some point, I have to forget that the floor underneath me is™ “composed” of mostly™ “empty space” and tiny blips™ of “vibrating information” or thought or whatever the hell™ and just accept that it’s made of wood©. Otherwise, I might never get up and make it to the bathroom.
But even if it’s “impossible” to live completely free of assumption and belief, it feels possible to be conscious and aware about where I choose to walk the easier, more comfortable concrete path of belief, and where I attempt to keep my balance on the high-wire of questioned assumptions and uncertainty and limited knowing. It feels possible to work at this every day, and to get more proficient. And it feels important to do this work with others, since it’s so much easier for me to see the unquestioned assumptions at work in the people and culture around me than it is to see the unquestioned assumptions at work in myself. Only others can shine a flashlight into “what I don’t know I don’t know.” You show me mine and I’ll show you yours!
Except that this feels much easier said than done. It has taken me a long time to “get” that not everybody wants this, or thinks like I do. It turns out (what a wonderful, neutral phrase) that sometimes people want or need to just work things out for themselves, or not, without anybody else’s help or advice or wisdom or experience or thoughts or ideas or opinions or solutions or answers. And it has taken me a while to “get” that one of the reasons people don’t do this is that questioning assumptions and beliefs can feel uncomfortable and disturbing.
It shouldn’t have taken me that while, because I have all the evidence I need regarding the uncomfortable aspect of this work right in my own body. When Sally points out to me where my own unquestioned assumptions and unwarranted beliefs are at work, I squirm like a worm on a hook. I’ve so identified with being right™ and “correct” and smart© that any hint of a mistake on my part hits me in the gut. I reach out to steady myself, but then grab, instead, the third rail of hot, electric shame that runs right through my center. It takes everything I have not to turn and run.
But I don’t turn and run. Not usually. I stand there and breathe deeply and just sit with the feeling. Because I know, because I have a wealth of experience to tell me so, that this work, as uncomfortable as it can feel, is the work that frees me up. I’m burning away habit and reactivity and ego. Cutting away automatic and unconscious thinking. Peeling off the thick, sticky layer of assumption that I use to protect my vulnerable core. I am, every day, in every way, getting better and better at “relating to what’s so as what’s so.” I feel more sane. More free. More aware, not only of my “Self™©”, but of the world around me.
And that helps me to become more of myself in the outer world. I get to share my gifts, at least with those who want them, and add to the conversations and dialogues in which I participate. In some settings, I am often the one who can point out the cultural assumptions at work in someone else’s suffering, and in so doing help them find a measure of relief.
I get to put my training and study into action, using my skills and knowledge where appropriate to help us make choices and decisions and find new ways to think about ourselves and the world around us.
And I get to reclaim my sense of sanity, as I get more and more clear that the things I see and know, the things I have always seen and known, while limited by my single human viewpoint, are nonetheless a real and valid and helpful piece of the larger “truth.” I get to feel that I am not crazy or wrong or bad or silly or flaky or moody or a worrier, but am instead a highly sensitized soul preternaturally™ attuned to certain bands of sensory stimuli, and in that way, I apply a healing balm to my old wounds.