Saturday, April 14, 2007

We don't know how to write down a person

Have you ever been outside and seen the tee-shirt that says "It's not who you are, its what you wear?" That shirt always makes me laugh because it's so obviously a joke but I always see people with that stern "the youth of today are lost" look on their face. I just want to feel the wind in my hair and the sun on my skin and enjoy the irony of the joke. The youth aren't lost, they're just youth. Listen to this quote...

"I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words... When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly disrespectful and out of control"

Here is another one

"What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?"

One of these is from Plato and the other is from Hesiod -- 2800 years ago! Why do we remember only how good we were? Why can't we somehow record what we are like or what our friends are like. Being able to write down a person's state would be amazing, and for more reasons than merely recording youth culture. If I had a template that could be filled in to record a person I would use three of them. I would fill out the first one to describe someone who knew everything I could imagine and who could do everything I could imagine. This one would be a "possibilities" document -- a sort of 'roadmap' of where I could go. The second document would be an "actuality" document. That one would let me chart where I actually am at this moment; the good, the bad, everything. Perhaps there could be little quizzes I could take that would help me to fill in the blanks. Lastly, I would create a "where I want to be" document. I would fill in the blanks to describe the 'ideal' me -- what I want to become.

Doesn't it seem like such a document would be so complex that it is impossible? It feels like a person is so complex that you could never capture everything in a document. Of course we don't have the technology to scan our brain and infer the tiniest detail about our skills, knowledge, likes and relationships. But think back to when you were really young; before you learned that there are three primary colors because there are three types of sensors in our eyes. Didn't it seem like there were so many colors that you could never really classify them all? I remember imagining that in heaven there would be colors that no one had ever seen -- it had to be so if heaven was as beautiful as I had heard. Even on Earth there could be such colors if we could create a fourth color sensor in our eyes! (I know, someone is designing custom stem-cells that will do that, right?)

When we understand that there are three primary colors for people with eyes like ours, suddenly the infinite profusion of colors on autumn leaves and in the plumage of the birds flying by seems more relaxing. Here is a pattern that I have used which really helps me to see the beauty in the universe and even in the people around me: confusing data + a good theory = relaxing into life. The theory of colors lets us "write down" any color. We don't have a perfect theory of how to "write down" a person. Plato, Aristotle, and that whole bunch had access to a theory that captures some aspects of a person. It's sort of a 'form' that you can fill in. You'll see that those Greeks certainly weren't dumb to have created it, but there is also a lot that their form misses. Let's take a quick look at it.

If the "record a color" form looks like this:

amount of red______;

amount of green____;
amount of blue_____;

then the Greek's "record a personality" form looks like this:

state of body____________;
contents of mind_________;
contents of spirit_______;

It is easy to extrapolate that the body would have sub-entries for body parts and for health, strength, agility, and so on. The mind would have entries for what things you know, what are your skills, and what habits you have for solving problems or otherwise. The Greeks didn't think of the 'spirit' as a sort of non-physical ghost. For them, the sub-parts of the spirit were your dreams or goals and desires. The spirit was what motivated you to action.

Today, people who study personality would say that we have "beliefs and desires." Essentially they've replaced "contents of the mind" with beliefs, and "contents of the spirit" with desires. I like the Greek model better because I think that the mind holds more than beliefs. There are also skills and habits. As for the spirit I think it is useful to distinguish mental desires from spiritual desires or dreams. I have a dream of building a home that produces its own energy and food. But I want money only for those dreams. I don't care about money for its own sake. So I like the Greek form with its body, mind and motivating spirit better than "beliefs and desires." Another thing, what about the body? Hello?

Still, there is a lot that seems to be missing from the Greek model.
The Greek form records people who dream about a house so they use their knowledge and skills to have their body produce one. What about the fear of people who disagree with us? What about the worries that can easily paralyze us in life? And what about the joy?

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