Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Hat's a Hat, But Is That Really That?

      I awoke this morning from a convoluted, troubled dream in which I realized I'd voted for the "wrong" presidential candidate. I'm not sure what year it was, or even who the candidates or what their platforms were, but in the dream, I had just cast my vote, only to walk away from the polling booth with the nagging feeling that I'd made an irreversible, uncorrectable mistake. I was surrounded by people who were obsessed with hats. I wandered in and out of rooms that were littered with all kinds of hats: baby bonnets, toboggans, beanies, baseball hats, pillbox hats, old man hats, and ridiculously frilly over-sized hats, like the kind ladies of society wear. Although I recognized the various types of hats, I couldn't grasp their individual significance, other than they were things one puts atop one's head, or why people in the dream were so focused on them. It was a relief to wake up and smell the coffee.
     Yesterday was a strange day. A good portion of the morning was spent discussing a particularly distressing work-related personnel issue with a colleague of mine. The situation has been actively addressed: it will either escalate further or get better. The lack of reassurance unnerved me, as it seemed to suggest that the near future almost certainly holds more drama, instead of resolution. I'm not exactly a "wait-and-see" person, nor do I enjoy managing others' emotions. Self-regulation is woefully under-rated, in my opinion. Later in the afternoon, I briefly forgot all about the morning's turmoil during a ninety-minute deep tissue massage at our neighborhood spa, a delightful, unexpected surprise from my husband. In a departure from my customary no-talking-during-the-massage rule, the therapist and I chatted the entire time. We discussed the specifics of her training, ranging from where she studied to how she handles men who have erections during their massages ("You just ignore it, and throw on an extra blanket or towel to cover it up"), but mostly, we explored the inadequacy of scientific observations in explaining all the mysteries contained within our bodies. Aren't we greater than the sum of our parts? Yes, we're composed of elemental particles organized into cells within tissues that form organs which comprise incredibly complex systems, but what is it that differentiates us from any other machine? And, how can something as unscientific as human touch result in definitive healing, when other modalities have failed? As she kneaded away at my sore shoulder blades and quadriceps, I could feel the pain melting into profound relaxation, not just within those muscle fibers, but throughout my body as a whole. My mind became very quiet. I found myself at a loss for words, completely absorbed within the sumptuous tactile experience being visited upon me by her skillful hands.
     Words often detract from an experience more than they enhance it, which brings me back to the hats in my dream. They were all just hats. I went to bed last night, thinking about an online discussion regarding stereotyping that I'd just responded to, the operative question being whether stereotypes constitute a form of prejudice. Although we're not born with a need to organize and categorize objects and people into systems and groups, this tendency is ingrained in us at a very early age. From the time we're born, our parents encourage us to describe our surroundings, using words. That's the point at which we unknowingly become individuals, removed from our experiences, where we lose our "gestalt", so to speak. Our eyes view objects and people in their entirety, but our minds only attend to certain details; what we don't consciously notice is ignored. So, it's really not surprising that we make generalizations. We learn the color blue, and we look up and see the sky, and pronounce with certainty, "The sky is blue", even though the sky can be black, white, pink, orange, red, yellow, brown, or violet. Our observations aren't exactly factual; they're full of errors. Stereotyping occurs because we're so heavily invested in observing, as opposed to experiencing. From that perspective, stereotyping isn't such a villainous thing; it's the failed awareness that our minds play tricks on us by picking and choosing what we notice. Experiencing who and what is around us with all of our senses, instead of relying on our minds to do the dirty work, adds a completely different dimension: we never "see" things quite the same way again.
     What governs the relationship between experience (what we feel) and observation (what we notice)? Both are subjective and objective in nature. Both can be qualified and quantified. While a hat is primarily designed to cover one's head, with any other ascribed purpose being secondary, even superfluous, we generally don't choose to adorn our heads with fur in the summertime. There's a point where form and function naturally intersect to produce balance. While our physical body's chief function is to achieve and maintain the state of equilibrium known as homeostasis, our "selves" are busy processing sensory information from within and without, attempting to coordinate harmony between that which is necessary for survival as well as gratification. We shiver when we're cold, not only seeking out, but delighting in the warmth of a good snuggle. Yet, experience reminds us that not all hugs are created equally, for there are cold hugs, awkward hugs, forced hugs, and half-hearted hugs, the majority of which are perceived as unpleasant interactions to be avoided. Being the non-confrontational person I am, it comes as no surprise that I wish to avoid yucky hugs and drama in the workplace. Being confronted with such unpleasantries really messes with my homeostasis. Perhaps, instead of contemplating the intricacies of millinery, I should give more serious consideration to locating a pair of big girl panties...

13 comments:

  1. Did you attend the Kentucky Derby? (Hat reference.)

    You write about the sky being blue and stereotyping. I taught preschool many moons ago, and the curriculum and lesson plans were geared toward teaching children that any object could be any shape or color that they could imagine in their minds. We were not allowed to use predefined worksheets or color pages. The purpose was to teach the children not to be stereotypical and tolerant to to what people perceive as "different."

    Very interesting post.

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    1. I have attended the Derby in years past, but not this year...good call, Kristina! I LOVE hearing the way in which you taught preschoolers...that is such a cool way to instill creativity, imagination, and open-mindedness. Glad you liked the post. I am anxiously awaiting the second installment of Tales from the Hen House (hint, hint) :-)

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  2. This post is extremely interesting. I don't like to be put into boxes or stereotyped but at times I do the same to others. Although I sound hypocritical I do this because through years of experience I have learnt to firstly, trust my natural instincts and secondly, draw on my experience especially when I feel that something is wrong. Every time I have gone against this method, I get myself into serious problems.

    This may sound weird but on occasions after about 15 minutes of meeting someone, I have instinctively known that person was no good, even though I knew nothing personal about them. I can't explain what it is, but I have so far been proved right many times as they openly expose what I originally thought in a period of time (hope this makes sense).

    So for me, its about my experience, observations and my natural instincts. People say that I'm too observant and see too much. But that's exactly what has saved my life at times.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, RPD. You seem to have an excellent grasp on the equilibrium between observation and experience, with natural instincts being a key element. I'm with you, the only times I seem to get in trouble are when I don't listen to my intuition. I think the gut feelings we pick up about others often prove correct...we all project energy of some sort, and just like "lower" animals, we have a sort of radar that instinctually senses danger. I don't think one can ever really be too observant.

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  3. This was a great post Kris. However, I did find myself thinking of the Cat in the Hat and the Mad Hatter as my mind drifted a bit, as it tends to do. I have a bad habit of stereotyping. I have no excuses, I just know that I do it. No harm is meant in it. I people watch for fun. I see traits in people and their behaviors all the time. The best examples I could ever give are the people I see at the club when I am working. Most people, in general, go thru an evolutionary curve as the hours tick off. A persons comfort level either goes way high or sinks real low, there is no middle ground. Why do I do it? Just how my brain works I guess.

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    1. Steven, I thought twice before naming this post, but this was the only thing I could come up with! Actually, it's good to hear that what I wrote inspired some mind-drifting. I think stereotyping receives lots of attention because of the power people give words and classifications. We're sort of programmed to make observations, which often lead to generalizations of some sort. Assumptions may be faulty, but that doesn't mean they're intended to be harmful.
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  5. I really like this post. There's so much to think about! Though I'm a huge fan of words, I understand what you mean about their inability to fully express a feeling or image. Perhaps that's why I get so giddy when someone does accomplish that with words: an interesting turn of phrase or observation that crystallizes a situation perfectly (like a type of hug ;) ). Still, there are so many more ways to experience life than through words.

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    1. Thank you, Janene! I have to admit, I'm a fan of words as well, and spend an awful lot of time trying to get them to precisely convey whatever it is I'm thinking about, or as you said, to crystallize a situation. This is one reason I love writing about dreams, because dreams have no words, just a mood of some sort. How's your book coming?

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  6. The problem, Kris, is that people rely too much on their memories to make sense of their experience. So they're always seeing some image from the past rather than the actual object or person standing in front of them.

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    1. So true, Marty. Keeping the "mind cup" empty permits new input, new observations, for a truly new experience.

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  7. Kris, first of all, I Love the post title, it reminds me of a Dr. Seuss story. In fact, all those hats in your dream reminded me of a Dr. Seuss story. I had the image of all these people in a room and suddenly they all began exchanging hats with each other...LOL! I find dream images fascinating. Oh and that massage made me want to have one...now! LOL!

    I think the relationship between experience and observation is governed by the sum of our individual experience. There are keen observers and there are casual observers. I have always been a keen observer of things. So using the hat example, in that room full of hats, I’d notice the different types of hats, and I’d also notice the colors and styles. And even though I don’t like to stereotype, thinking about it honestly, I’d probably have an idea about each person (without actually knowing them) by the hat they wore. I definitely agree that words often detract from an experience more than they enhance it.

    A very interesting post, Kris! Btw, have you had hat dreams before? Just wondering because sometimes we have recurring dream images.

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    1. Madilyn, yes, I believe I was channeling Dr. Seuss, instead of Hippocrates, for this post's title. I am also a keen observer who tries not to take my filtered perceptions too seriously. I think that's what the dream was about...I felt as if I was really seeing the whole picture. In general, I think stereotyping is more or less unavoidable because unless our minds are pretty empty, we don't see things without some sort of attached expectation or assumption. I have never dreamed about hats, but I do have recurring dreams about flying and dreams in which I realize I've missed a high school or college credit, and had to go back to school.

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