Thursday, December 31, 2009

Intention: Conscious or Unconscious?

The West Wing

Our life is what our thoughts make it ~ Marcus Aurelius Antonius

If I was a motivational speaker or cognitive-behavioral therapist, I'd probably be more inclined to agree with the Emperor than I am. As it is, I believe conscious awareness is often a terribly poor judge of character, especially our own. The Stoics, of whom Marcus Aurelius was one, believed self-control and virtuous choices could overcome the influence of negative emotions. My problem stems from the fact that even well-intentioned, well-behaved, and reasonable people can act in the most irrational of ways.

They do so because consciousness and intentionality aren't always linked. In one of my favorite episodes of The West Wing, Josh Lyman crosses the line in the oval office and says to the President, "You have to listen to me, please listen to me!" Called aside by chief of staff Leo McGarry, a recovering alcoholic, Josh admits he wasn't at his best just then. Leo responds, "Josh, I'm not sure you were fully conscious of what you were saying."

As the episode (Noel) continues, it's revealed that Josh is suffering from PTSD, resulting from a recent shooting in which both he and the President were wounded. His remarks to the President were fully intentional but not, as he consciously assumed, about policy. "Listen to me," says in effect, "notice that I'm not doing well, hear the meaning behind what I'm saying, I'm in trouble, I need help."

The truth is, we don't always know what we're doing or saying or why. Like Josh, denying his symptoms and rationalizing his behavior, we're so involved in damage control that we can't see our way clear to anything else. The decks are awash and all we can think of is, "where's the mop?" At that point, most of us need a "Leo" to summon us back to reality, someone who remembers what it's like to be in pain.

We think of unconscious intentionality in relation to damage because that's what it often seems to inflict. That wasn't the case with Josh, though if it hadn't been for Leo's intervention, the outcome might have been very different. The things we hold inside, bury deep, and cloak with conventionality, come back to haunt us until we stop telling ourselves there's no such thing as ghosts. Once we can do that, whether at the beginning of a new year or somewhere down the road, we have an opportunity to make a change, try something new, or at least stop doing the same old thing.


(Creative commons image of the west wing of the White House by alykat via Flickr)
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