• Posted: Oct 27, 2013 11:08:05
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Human motivation is so puzzling. Why, for instance, does a 14 year old allegedly murder his math teacher in a school bathroom and then wheel her body out to the woods in a trash bin? And why, for instance, does a seventh grader bring a gun to school, shoot a teacher, along with two fellow students, and then shoot himself? Or, why does a female Muslim blow herself up on a crowded Russian bus? Or, why do radical Republicans insist on congratulating themselves for interrupting scientific research and nearly crashing the world's economy? And, why is Kim Jong Un, the head of the poorest most repressive nation on earth, so pleased with himself for receiving a completely unearned honorary doctorate in economics from a Malaysian university? Or, even more puzzling, why are most people across the globe content to go about their daily lives while such horrors and abominations go on about them?
If you take a look at the Wikipedia page for Motivation, you'll get a sense the topic is not simple. Philosophers, writers, and researchers have been puzzling over it for centuries. Everyone struggles for a way to reduce its complexity down to simple understandable terms. And many illuminating insights have been offered, yet no one, it seems, has completely nailed it. But there is hope. The more we question and the more we offer ideas up to each other for consideration, the more comfortable we become with both what we do understand and what we still do not understand. One of the most powerful potentials we humans have is the potential for developing communities based on shared understandings, which then can become basis for flexible coordinated actions of enormous mutual benefit. This blog, in fact, is an effort in that direction.
Take a look at the images above. That smile on the woman's face in that top image, what is going on with her? She isn't just smiling at the entertainment, engrossed like the guy behind her. She is smiling as she leans toward the old man next to her. Most likely, she is smiling because she is sharing something with the old guy, something she hopes he will enjoy. She is seeking to give him pleasure, perhaps bring back a pleasant memory or two. (The entertainer is singing Johnny Cash songs.) Her smile seems both an outward encouragement to him that he will enjoy, and a sign to anyone looking at her that she too is poised to experience satisfaction, or joy, that her plan for him is succeeding. But, how exactly would you describe her motivation? What is at stake for her? What is to be gained? And why has she both made those choices and acted upon them?
Take a look at the boy, now. He is obviously pleased with himself for having finally caught something. But what brought him to the point of wanting to do such a thing? And why should the end result be that look of joyful satisfaction, instead of sadness for the fish? And then, take a look at the shadow of the couple. They are about to kiss. There is anticipation in the girl's posture, and in the guy's too. Anticipation of pleasure? Or, perhaps, of reassurance? Or, of commitment? No doubt there will be joy on both their faces upon consummating that kiss. But, what exactly are their motivations?
The physical evidence in all three images is of anticipation or experience of joy. But, does the outward appearance of joy tell us anything about the underlying motivation? If we were looking at that evidence from an outsider's point of view, as if we might ponder the behavior of insects, plants, or fish, probably not. But that isn't the case. We have an insider's point of view upon which to draw. We know what joy feels like, and what it means. So, based upon our own experience, what does joy mean?
Many words come to mind as we think about "joy". No other words are exactly equivalent, but many come close, like delight and relief, gladness and elation, rapture and triumph. All those words, including joy, seem to be about something anticipated finally coming true or coming into being. In other words, joy seems dependent upon the idea of some constellation of external events coming together. It is not merely about the easing of pain or discomfort, or about the enjoyment of pleasurable sensation. Instead, it is about the fulfillment of something planned or wished for.
Well, if joy is about the fulfillment of an idea, where do those ideas come from? Take, for instance, the case of someone shivering from cold. No doubt, the idea will pop into their head that they need to find someplace warm. And if they do, joy will undoubtedly ensue as discomfort eases. But where does that idea of finding warmth come from? From memory of a previous experience is our most likely guess. At some point in the person's past, in all of our pasts, we began to feel ourselves shiver from cold. Someone witnessed our predicament and helped us to find relieving warmth. The idea that such a thing could happen was then added to our notions of what life is all about, how it works, and to what is both possible and desirable. And ever since, shivering recalls the idea for us of finding warmth.
Okay, so where do the ideas of catching a fish, taking a lonely elderly person to a concert, or kissing our significant other come from? And why do at least some of us deem those ideas desirable? And why, then, do we exert directed effort, sometimes extreme effort, paddling through all of reality's obstructions with some notion or dream of realizing those ideas?
Once again, those ideas, like the idea of finding warmth when we are cold, were at some time in our past introduced to us through social experience, assessed by us as both doable and desirable, and then added to our knowledge of what life is all about. By virtue of those past experiences, we can now look at a picture, like those above, of someone experiencing a rather specific kind of joy, brought about by some rather specific desire to realize something, and not only understand, but sympathize. Rather cool, don't you think?
Something else, though. For many of us, there are times when conflicting ideas pop into our heads. On the one hand, there are ideas from our cultural experience that suggest a certain action or behavior would be appropriate within a particular situation. On the other hand, there occur to us other ideas that suggest a different course of action would be even more appropriate, possibly less deleterious and more positive or responsible in consequence. Within those moments, we must choose, or create compromise acceptable to all concerned. Within those moments our strength of character is tested, our abilities to explain and argue our point of view come to bear, the status quo of culture is made to feel pressure toward change, the future becomes differentiated from the past, and the legacy of our individual lives is set.
May your demonstrations and arguments as to what is both safely and joyfully possible serve to inspire others toward ever more enriching experience, and away from selfish angry fearful desires to hurt, exclude, and destroy.
Saturday, August 10th, 2013