Jan 242013

doggy swimIt can be fun to talk to your dog. You can ask him things like “what the heck are you barking at the door for?” and know he won’t answer, can’t even understand what you want. It can be frustrating to teach a dog a new trick. You can tell a person “If you push that lever, the tennis ball will launch for you”, but you can’t tell your dog. You have to get him to push it himself with all sorts of bribes and trickery until he understands the relation. And you can’t ever negotiate with the dog for anything, even if he wanted to.

I used to think of myself as an agent, rather than a collection of biological drives. I would ask myself “Why am I so depressed?” or “Why can’t I just do X?” and search my internal mental state for an answer. Even when I thought I got one, it didn’t matter. The vast majority of oneself is a kludge of evolved impulses and reactions. A common metaphor used is that of the Rider on an Elephant. The thinking part of you is a Rider that can guide the Elephant – the rest of you – but you can’t force an Elephant to do a damn thing, and you can’t talk to it and negotiate with it. Trying to reason myself into action was like trying to explain to my dog that pushing that lever would get him a tennis ball. It simply doesn’t work.

But that doesn’t mean you’re helpless. A skilled Rider can get his Elephant to go where he wants. Start treating yourself just as you would treat an irrational animal that has to be tricked and bribed into being useful. The first thing I had to learn to do was realize what things hurt, and stop doing them. It sounds easy, but it can be the damndest thing in the world once you’ve lived with pain for so long that you’ve grown to embrace it. Many of the most moving songs will hurt to listen to. I used to love them and turned them up – now I quickly change away. I’ve found that nostalgia hurts the same way, and now I avoid it whenever I can rather than seeking it out. Cityscapes at night are bad – I avoid driving at night, and I keep my shades drawn and my lights very bright after dark.

None of this makes a bit of sense. There’s no reason those things should hurt, many people enjoy them thoroughly. But you can’t talk to your dog and explain why he shouldn’t jump in the pool. Eventually you can train him to stay by your side, but there’s no point in getting infuriated with the poor dog when you haven’t trained him and let him run free and he dives into the water. At first all you can do is keep him away from the pool. That is step one.

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