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Friday, February 10, 2012

Self-Control

Who exercises better self-control: someone who has never experienced the desire to bite anyone else, or the one who feeling an almost uncontrollable urge to bite, nevertheless masters himself? The other day, Bow really needed to bite, but he was determined not to. His mouth opened and his teeth were ready, but then his hand came up and slapped his forehead, and he snapped out of it before actually committing the offense.

He's taking  better care of his blanket, too. He got it for Christmas, and it has a couple of holes in it and a knot on one end. But he gets to have it with him now most of the day, and he takes care not to destroy it, because he knows he will need it at night.

Bow is almost ten now. His birthday is on the sixteenth of this month. Watching him try to master his own involuntary reflexes has gotten me to wondering about human beings and how much of our repertoire of behaviors is also pre-wired.

I used to think that the mind-body dichotomy was an invention of theologians. I now see that it has biological correlates. There are different levels of brain functioning, and they often send conflicting signals to our body. And then there is shame.

Is there a reason for shame? Is it an emotion invented by clerics? Is it something society uses to manipulate people into doing what others want instead of what they themselves want? Or does it come built in?  Is it a way to handle and prioritize conflicting internal signals? Bow does not feel ashamed about the same sorts of things that I might feel shame about. He is not ashamed of lying or trying to deceive. He is not ashamed of bullying or trying to control. But he does sometimes seem to feel he let himself down, when he does something that he did not intend to do. Lack of self-control in that sense is something that bothers him, as much as it would bother anybody.

Lack of self-control is also an issue with language. Most of the chimpanzee cries that have been documented are involuntary. They transmit rudimentary emotional states. Other kinds of vocalizations are less well known.

Lots of Bow's vocalizations are involuntary. He has food cries and cries about someone new arriving, and they are predictable and spontaneous and unpremeditated. He can't stop these cries from coming out, short of clapping his hands on his mouth. These involuntary sounds he makes are not his way of talking to others. They are, instead, the way nature programmed him to transmit information about his internal state whether he wants to or not. These cries are meant to help others, not himself. Nature selected for them as a way to counter deceptive impulses.

Other vocalizations and gestures Bow does control. He uses them deliberately, and he as often uses them to deceive as to tell the truth. So like the proverbial sinning individual in a morality play, Bow has his internal battles to fight: to do what his body requires of him or what his mind tells him would be in his best interest.

Surprisingly, Bow is fighting his baser instinct toward violence by using higher control. But in the area of language it works quite the other way around: his involuntary cries tell the truth. His deliberate communication is often full of lies. Bow is ashamed, if he resorts to violence when he meant not to. But I think he is also ashamed when he tells the truth, when he meant to deceive.

This insight is something that might be of use to theologians as well as sociologists. How many humans feel shame when they lie? How many others feel ashamed only when they tell the truth?

4 comments:

  1. Well kudos to self control, and happy 10th birthday in advance!

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  2. Thanks, Alan. I'll pass that along to Bow.

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  3. Thanks, Victoria! It's in three more days! But I'll pass your good wishes on to Bow.

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