Tag Archives: Carl Jung

Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: Hindsight Bias

The two books I’m currently most engaged with are Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide and Carl Jung’s Man and his Symbols. Setting Jung aside for a moment, allow me to discuss Lehrer a little. Lehrer is one of those names that pops up if you read Wired or Scientific American, which I do–and The New Yorker, which I don’t. His writing sounds young, as well as a little soft.* He writes soft science. That’s fine. I don’t always know when he (or any writer of his ilk) commits factual errors, but I have a heightened sixth sense for manipulation that prevents me from being completely duped. However, I can look past even blatant manipulation because I engage with this sort of writing for its squishiness and not despite it. Yes, you read that correctly. I want glimpses of hard science, even illogical ones, in order to engage my imagination.

What does this say about how I make decisions [that is, after all, the subject of Lehrer’s book]? I’ve long relied on what I thought were my analytical faculties and suppressed my instincts as inherently wrong. But as I examine my life decisions, I wonder how many of them I’ve actually made, or continue to make, by primarily using my prefrontal cortex, which is supposed to be the party spot for rational thought. In hindsight, I appear to be nothing more than an imagination junkie searching for the feeling mix that juices my life. But as you might already know, hindsight is nothing if not biased.

In the grand paradox of how I view myself today, I’ve relied too much on imagination in my decision-making processes, and I’ve simultaneously neglected the creative spark in my soul–the essence of who I am. My assumed reliance on imagination gives me pause and takes me back to those early years of my adulthood, the ones that turned me into a barista rather than a student.

While still at Linfield College, I had a number of friends who were studying physics. I don’t remember how it happened, how my creative writing studies attracted me to these people in a magnetic way. To my current biased way of thinking, I imagine [there’s the imagination again] that they were rational and I was creative, and so we fed off each other for those missing parts of ourselves. The ideal of myself as creative fed my energies and still feeds it, even if the truth is something so apart that it unsettles me to consider it.

What if none of the above is true? What if imagination has nothing to do with my decision-making properties at all? What if my choices in science literature and friends have more to do with fear? What if all my decisions have bloomed from the seed of anxiety planted in my soul by early failures to live up to my expectations? Perhaps I stood by physics geeks because I desired to be like them, but was afraid to study anything more difficult than creative writing. Maybe I (present tense) read soft science magazines because I’m still afraid of the incomprehensible nature of the world around me.

Now turning for a moment to the Jungian book on symbols, I have to admit I’m reading this book for the direct purpose of understanding myself better, and not for the purpose of understanding the world around me, although the net effect has added up to a little of both. Recently, I’ve dreamed a series of vivid stories, all of which have contained what Jung would call the Divine Child archetype. My divine child, according to Jung, is the essence of my pure self, or, as I view it, the core of my creativity unspoiled by the world. In my dreams, I’ve neglected this child and, furthermore, I don’t recognize the little person in his diaper and blue sleeper who wanders into my space unbidden.

What I’ve failed and continue to fail at is perceiving my Divine Child as my personal potential, which may have nothing to do with my dampened creative spark. As a young adult, I squelched my potential by quitting school and finding the first job available at an espresso shop. I convinced myself, in the forefront of my nonunderstanding mind, that writing poetry would save me from the disaster I had become. In the recesses, I convinced myself that studying the finer points of roasting and growing coffee would suffice as knowledge of the world.

As humans, we all suffer from disjointed thinking that we mistake for clarity, even if not all people suffer from my particular problems with anxiety and pretense. And, in a moment of clarity, I’ll proclaim that to be the purpose of this memoir. The books I’m currently reading have revealed truths about myself that I hardly expected when I turned over the first pages. We could all use a little honest self-examination now and again. Your book choices or lack of them reveal truths about who you are. Your dreams reveal the parts of yourself your outer ego is attempting to suppress.

In a choppy kind of conclusion, I seem to have stumbled on memoirs as a way to understand how memory works, which is ironic, to say the least. Hindsight isn’t 20-20. Hindsight carries with it biases I don’t know how to lobotomize from my understanding of self and the world around me. When given the opportunity, I look falsely at my past in order to integrate my cognitive dissonance. But hindsight can pierce deeply with that double-edged sword of truth if we stop overriding our egos and allow it to accomplish its healing job.

*To be fair, I believe Mr. Lehrer is young. And he’s obviously quite intelligent, but by writing for a general audience, he’s softened the science.

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The Ego, the Animus, and the Twelve-Headed Hydra

From a multitude of thought, the hydra sprang. It sprang from a sea of words—a black beast, twelve heads writhing in every direction, eyes that followed my progress and watched carefully for intruders. By adulthood, I’d learned to ignore its vast presence across my landscape, even if it virtually occluded true vision of the world around me.

I had books to write. Distractions of expository dragons meant nothing at all. But in a sense, work was my only method of defeating the hydra and all twelve of its heads. At least, that’s what I came to understand—to believe on. Work followed this model: Researching–>Knowing–>Understanding–>Writing. No other model existed in this worldview, in this landscape. And that’s what speculative authors are concerned with, aren’t they? They’re concerned only with the landscapes they create in their minds.

Work wasn’t, to put it bluntly, working. The hydra’s heads grew larger, its necks longer and thicker, the supporting torso less like a serpent and more like a dinosaur from the deep of the sea. In fact, I had to admit, that even understanding the hydra’s place in mythology meant little to its defeat. I could write the Herculean story any day, and the words would make no difference. I could place it firmly in its proper Jungian archetype and, actually, I did. The dragon symbolized the ego that I must conquer; its blackness the shadow of the unconscious psyche.

No, work wasn’t working. I had to construct a new model. By a quirk of fate, I took a vacation at the coast—North Bend, Oregon, a place fraught with rearing sea dragons. It rained the entire two weeks I was there, but that’s a usual detail.

Throughout the drizzle, I sat on driftwood and devised calculations in the sand. If I used brute force, I calculated, I would have to chop off each of my hydra’s heads in .33 seconds, or more heads would sprout by the time I had reached the twelfth. I could practice, of course, on cords or ropey structures. I could time my axe-wielding techniques. But, no, I could never succeed.

Maybe I could smudge the heads out with new or different words. Maybe, I thought—and this was an entirely new idea that seemed to drift or, more violently, explode from the mind of God. I could write myself a new landscape, where the twelve-headed hydra didn’t exist.

Meanwhile, as I camped on the driftwood, my knees drawn to my chest, the night blackened as a shadow behind me. The air seemed groggy, somehow, and I furiously drew my calculations in the sand. I would build a fire once the work was complete. My work. Once my work was complete, I would build a fire, and I would think about food or drink or other substantive things.

If I could reconstruct my first words, the hydra might disappear. I wrote a new sentence in the sand with the twig I’d taken up as my pencil. I crossed out the words. Why couldn’t I determine the beginning? That was the issue. Beginnings were impossible to calculate.

I pressed my forehead against my knees. I was incapable. What did the word incapable mean? It had something to do with the Latin root of taking in, which could conversely be given out. And I thought about that, and I wrote cap in the sand, using capital letters, and it occurred to me that cap might be related to capt or capit, meaning head. If that was the case, I could only reach capacity if I defeated the hydra and all its twelve heads. On the other hand, I might need twelve heads in order to produce anything of merit.

I heard a strike, a thwack, and I relaxed on my driftwood. These were usual sounds to me. They were camp sounds. Soon, I heard the crackle of fire, and I smelled wood smoke. Either I could make my own fire, or perhaps the fire-starter would allow me to share his. Meanwhile, I could continue my false starts.

Oh, God, the fire felt warm against my skin. I dreamed a new landscape, a new worldview of warmth and life, an impossible place. And then I heard a series of whacks. Whack-whack-whack-whack-whack. The noise distracted me, and I leaned in closer to the sand, which hit me with its damp fishy odors, and the darkness created confusion. How could I finish, or yet begin?

I looked to my right and watched the flames of a bonfire spark up into the smoky, cloud-stricken air. Thunk-thunk-thunk. Charred heads dropped and rolled against each other in the fire, not two feet from me. My breath caught, smoke in the lungs, and I coughed convulsively. I leaned back, taking in gulps of the clearer air.

A man stood in silhouette behind the fire, my axe in his hand. He raised it—thwack-whack, roll, sizzle. The smell of salted, singed flesh tickled my nostrils. Why had this man invaded my campsite?

“What are you doing?” I yelled at him.

“Only what needs to be done,” he said, and he slammed the axe head into the nearest fallen log.

The hydra had collapsed, its heads cut asunder—all twelve, plus the small ones that sprouted in the intervals between whacks. He’d destroyed my hydra.

“But how did you manage?”

The man, dressed as a woodsman with flannel shirt and coarse work pants, barely moved a muscle. The cutting down of ancient archetypes hadn’t winded him.  “I chopped them off as fast as I could until they were gone.”

Oh. Without another word, he departed, his boot heels scuffing over the sandy earth. He disappeared in the trees.

“Wait!” I called to him, but he didn’t stop.

Eventually, I rose from the driftwood and followed him, though I didn’t really because I had no idea which direction he’d disappeared. Desperation filled my soul. In the distance, though, I caught the bobbing light of his torch, which moved forward without hesitation.

I would never catch him, I knew, because my hero—my woodsman knew the way back home, and I could only navigate by unfamiliar stars that rarely revealed their faces from behind dense clouds. He’d destroyed my hydra, but my world was still occluded. How would I begin? And how would I begin again?

In the grip of my fist, I still clenched my twig—my pencil—and I threw it down like a gauntlet. We would see who knew the way. We would see. And I crossed the threshold of darkness in pursuit of a knowable world.

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