30 July, 2008

Ghost in the Shell

"It is entirely unprecedented that evolution should
provide a species with an organ which it does not
know how to use; a luxury organ"
    –A.Koestler
 
I don’t want to spend the rest of my life
Looking at the barrel of an Armalite
I don’t want to spend the rest of my days
Keeping out of trouble like the soldiers say
I don’t want to spend my time in hell
Looking at the walls of a prison cell
I don’t ever want to play the part
Of a statistic on a government chart
             Invisible Sun, The Police 

In computer science lingo, a ‘shell’ is a structure which allows you to interface with the computer without directly accessing the program behind it. What most people think of when they think of Windows is the GUI (graphical user interface), not the whole operating system. The GUI is a shell. It protects the operating system. I think a lot of people wear masks, and some of us put on entire suits of armor. That is the way I look at what I did. I never learned to deal with emotions as a child. I grew up in a dysfunctional family that did not know how to deal with the honest expression of emotion. All I knew about emotions was that, if I acted the way I felt, they seemed to get in the way of getting what I wanted.
I think it is at this point that many sociopaths would learn to control the expression of emotions in order to manipulate their environment. I wasn’t a sociopath, so I just learned to stuff them down. I think learning how to deal with emotions is what we are doing when we are ‘developing a thick skin.’ We learn to accept and express our emotions without letting them cause a melt-down, a run-time error, or systems crash. I never learned how to deal with them, so I developed my ‘shell.’ But a good programmer (and I wasn’t; I was a child) would instead look towards making a robust program that isn’t as prone to crashing. An interface is somewhat of a cheat, and a dangerous one, at that. If something gets inside the shell, there is usually no protection, because all of the defenses were put into the shell. 
My shell, my suit of armor, was an interface of stoicism with which I interacted with my environment without having to deal with all the messy syntax of my emotions. I rationalized that I was making the best use of my intellect. I think it was Hume, but maybe it was Blackburn, who said that we are self correcting creatures, that we adapt to our environment. To some extent I have to disagree with this assertion. I don’t think that we always adapt to the sensory input.
We don’t always change the way we look at things when new evidence suggests our original calculations were wrong. I think sometimes we choose to ignore something that is right in front of our faces because it fails to match what we believe is true. That is why the term ‘rationalization’ leaves such a dirty taste in your mouth, even though supposedly we are rational creatures and that is supposed to be a good thing. Rationalization means to use the power of our mind to deny reality, instead of to understand it. 
Though this armor allowed me to do some pretty incredible things throughout my military career I ask myself now what it cost me. I think there is a reason that we have emotions, and it is necessary for many more functions than being able to cry at the end of Old Yeller. My (perceived) lack of emotions allowed me to focus only upon my mission without regard to how I felt about anything. Cognitively, I told myself that what I was doing was right, and it didn’t matter how I felt about it. I told myself that it was an important part of being able to be cool under pressure. And it works; except it is a lie.
The emotions are there, whether we acknowledge them or not. I don’t think anything short of severing the limbic system from our cerebral cortex could remove emotions from us The frontal lobotomy of yesteryear may have served to sever us from the effects of emotion, the memories of emotion, and the thoughts of emotion, but even that drastic incision did not remove emotion from us. My attempt (my proud attempt) to contain my emotions behind a firewall of stoicism was basically an attempt at a software (or virtual) frontal lobotomy, rather than hardware (or physical). I tried to reprogram myself to not feel, but I couldn’t change the way I was wired. 
It was a long time between the realization of my error and when I finally broke out of my self-imposed emotional gulag. The armor I wore so proudly to demonstrate the triumph of reason over emotion had become pitted and scarred inside from the emotions eating away at me; but it was familiar. It was tarnished and discolored on the outside, also, because in the end, I was afraid to polish it for fear that the pressure would crack the weakened alloy and I would be exposed, vulnerable and unprotected. In the end, that was the choice I had to make: to be exposed and endangered rather than feebly protected, because I felt that I would be trapped inside if I didn’t get it off of me. It burned with the caustic emotions that I had vainly tried to subvert to my will.
Skin takes a while to develop resiliency, but it can happen. We can develop skin that protects us, and it is better than armor, because skin has the ability to bend. I can admit now that I am weak, where once I deluded myself I was strong. I revel now in my vulnerability, instead of taking false pride in my emotional detachment. I feel like I have scrubbed off the residual layers of filth and death and I lay exposed but clean. Like a burn victim, occasionally I have to scrub off the newly formed scabs of the minor damages done to me so that the whole of my skin will develop scar free. It hurts, but I think it is necessary. There is even part of me that enjoys the pain, because it means I am feeling.
I need to work on the emotional weight I place on some things, perhaps, but I have a lot of catching up to do. Sometimes the beauty of the world makes me weep, not so much in bitterness at how much time I had wasted, but in appreciation that I finally seem to have arrived at where I want to be. My emotional skin is thin, and sensitive to many things, and I am sure this makes me difficult to deal with in certain situations.
But it is real.

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