October 1, 2017

BENITEZ | Some Original Self-Help

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This summer, I attempted to “re-program” some aspects of my thinking. In accordance with psychological literature promoting gratitude journaling, mindfulness and the like, I resolved to following proactive steps that would hopefully offer a sense of emotional groundedness. In periodically following these steps whenever I’ve remembered them over the past few months, I have begun to see how some of the abstract theories I’ve been exposed to at Cornell may actually have an applied purpose.

The other day, on the commute home, I found myself ruminating on a view called “event-causal determinism.” To summarize, under this view, it’s inaccurate to claim that other people — agents — cause phenomena. For instance, in the event that a car speeds over a puddle, splashing muddy water all over your beautiful outfit, how would you answer the question: “What caused your outfit to become dirty?” While most of us would instinctively claim it was the driver, under event-causal determinisim, blame for ruining your outfit isn’t specific to the driver. Instead, in accordance with contemporary scientific accounts of physical phenomena, it was an event, rather than an agent, that caused your misfortune. In that instant, you just so happened to be standing at a specific spot at a certain time, next to a puddle, over which a car happened to spatially coincide. Hence, it is more accurate to say it was multiple intersecting circumstances that together caused your misfortune: an event, of which an agent, the driver, was a mere part.

Applying these more accurate semantics to our everyday lives, it’s inevitable that each of us has felt wronged in the past and will again feel wronged in our lives. What’s even worse is that we’ll likely believe we have been wronged more times than we’ve actually been wronged. Consequently, a lot of us shuffle through life carrying the emotional baggage of what we perceive as past violations against us, whether we intend to or not.

However, adopting this philosophical insight of event-causal determinism, regardless of whether you accept it as metaphysically true, can helpfully pivot our mindset toward a more forgiving, empathetic one. Instead of saying that Bob directly caused you to spill coffee, why not re-orient your thinking so that it becomes second-nature to describe the antecedent physical forces, of which Bob as an agent is just one of many, combined into an event that caused your unfortunate spillage. This isn’t just more accurate, at least to someone who accepts event-causal determinism, but also leads to a healthier mindset. I find it easier to forgive Bob, because I remind myself it was an event, rather than Bob, that caused me to spill my coffee. On a broader scale, I am also able better recognize how a lot of those who “wrong” don’t even mean to in the first place.

It wasn’t until recently that I recognized the extent to which adopting this practice has calmed my mind. I no longer seethe at the Bobs of my life, but rather recognize his past “violations” against me as, fundamentally, events, over which Bob himself didn’t have total control. Bob, like me, is an agent, with his own never-ending series of events, some of which coincide to create unfortunate outcomes for him too.

Similarly, instead of simply saying “I dislike Bob,” this semantic particularity can helpfully extend to other descriptions. When describing other people I dislike, we should do away with such anachronistic, generalized statements and instead pinpoint that which bothers us about the person. Rather, I might dislike being around Bob because his mannerisms are discomforting, or because he holds certain political views I find disagreeable. By distancing ourselves from a mindset that considers others to be intrinsically dislikeable, disagreeable or wholly despicable, not only can we better identify the source of our discomfort or dislike, thereby making us overall better evaluators of character, but also appreciate their separate, redeeming qualities. Indeed, I’ve been surprised by the number of arbitrary characteristics that have defined my dislike for the Bobs of my life, and now realize that there are many more people I simply dislike being around who I still believe are intrinsically decent.

By describing our attitudes with less emotionally-charged language, we can better evaluate whether such emotions have any rational justification. And, more often than not, our justifications are less rational than we once supposed. After all, while agents persist through time, events are temporally-defined. Bob may be standing in front of me right now, but the particular event of knocking my coffee is firmly in the past, likely instigated by multiple factors beyond just the negligence or intent of a single agent. Therefore, any time you feel your chest tighten with anger at another person, ask what specifically about that person bothers you. Based on my own experience, this will aid in that grand project of unshackling ourselves from the past, improving our substantive sense of freedom, or, at the very least, will make us less reliant on periodic commencement addresses or TED Talks to remind us our innate capacity for empathy.
Lorenzo Benitez is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at lbenitez@cornellsun.com. Not a Cop appears alternate Mondays this semester.