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Self-Referential Conditioning

Nuff: On setting examples – Part 1.

“I learnt two things while growing up: don’t be evil, and never get caught.”

I still remember the day I heard this. A good friend (Nuff, of course) was explaining his outlook on life in general. We were alone, and he seemed nostalgic for some reason. I didn’t see why he would be – we were trying to find a gift to buy for his cousin’s birthday. It seemed like a dissonance at the level of ideas; after all, buying gifts was supposed to be a celebratory commercial indulgence. But somehow, Nuff always had a way to make you think about something you didn’t really think about thinking about, if you see what I’m saying.

Nuff had just seen this advertisement online; he always found time to peruse the collection of unrelated advertisements online. See below:

It seemed to evoke a need to introspect in him. He hadn’t told me much about his childhood. All I knew about it seemed to have been brought up when he was in one of these moods. But what he said really seemed to strike a chord in me. Here’s what he said:

“I don’t remember much of my childhood – I don’t think it would help very much. But, this ad did make me think: how much of my behavior is me emulating my parents? I grew up with just the two of them as role models, and the passing flow of relatives didn’t add up to much of an influence in the end. What did influence me, though, was how my parents reacted to the presence of said wandering relatives. In fact, I would say that the passing milieu of friends were treated in an interesting way as well; it all stemmed from these dual-edged ideas of theirs that still linger in me.”

“So much about my parents shapes the ideas in my head; always conflicting, always resonating, ever interfering. Even those two things I learnt, if you notice, are mutually-conflicting. Don’t do wrong things, but don’t get caught as well. That extends to how people should/could be treated – don’t think bad about people, but don’t let them hear you say those bad things. Don’t judge people, but don’t let them know they’re being judged. Respect people and their capabilities, but don’t trust them to do the work for you. If I took these lessons literally, and I really did, then I’d be one messed up guy. I am.”

At that point, I had to tell him that he was completely off track. I knew his parents – they were really good people. They had always treated my parents and me really well, and everyone who knew them didn’t find a single thing to complain about. That’s where Nuff really got excited:

“That is the problem, dear fellow. This dual-natured armor of theirs was impenetrable – no one could figure out it’s on. It took me so long to realize it myself, and by the time I did I was so confused that I still didn’t fathom all that I had learnt from them. They were really good people, and I was blessed to have them in my life. But I’m trying to say that the trickle-down effect of all of this may have crafted me in their image – AND I actually know that. I actually know how duplicity is forced upon the best of us. I know why it is forced down upon me – any semblance of acceptable behavior has got to arise after such a conflict of ideas. And it’s not just for me, it’s for all of us who had a good and stable childhood, where we were taught how to be good and amiable people. It’s just that we’ve buried all the effort that goes into making us seem that way to the observing masses.”

“So I may end up being a great son, but a bad father. I may end up seeming to be a nice guy, but really bad at keeping friends. My jeans may be torn, but I may have actually bought them that way. You see what I’m saying?”

I told him that I was trying to, and I still didn’t see how all this was tied to that ad video he had shown me earlier.

“Ah, now here’s where it fits in. You see the ad, and you see really questionable and some downright unacceptable stuff happening. But you also see how good the children are at impersonating that same behavior. When you’re growing up, your parents are your reference models to living. All of their strengths are yours to aspire for. So much so that you really do imbibe the good things about them if you’re a nice and conscientious chap – like the two of us are, obviously. But when it comes to YOUR turn to step up in your parents’ shoes, you channel ALL of their behavior into you. That’s where this ad is relevant. Come on, no one is going to grow up swearing at ALL of the people on the road when you’re driving. But when you’re pushed to face an event that you’ve seen your parents face before, chances are you’re going to do what you saw them do back then. So if your father was an all-round good guy, but he didn’t pay too much attention to you, you’re going to grow up thinking that’s an acceptable way to live. Even the smallest things leave an impression, however real or unreal they may seem. That ad points out the harshest ones, but it really made me think about how much I imbibed from my parents.”

“So now, I have to think twice before I make my big moves. Once to react, and a second time to analyse if my first instinct is the right one. If my first reaction was simply because of conditioning, what am I supposed to use as a frame of reference to objectively judge it…?”

I had to stop him there, it was getting much too far away from a casual conversation. He agreed, and decided to focus on buying that gift.

I always knew he thought about things too much, and sometimes unnecessarily. But still, I’m glad he didn’t bring up those horrible portrayals of domestic abuse in the ad. I know for certain that he has very strong views against that, and his rant about “chemically castrating violent husbands” was a vitriolic monologue on “social activism” (in his own words). That is for another time.

It was only when I reached home that I started to formalize what he was really saying. “Don’t get caught”. I wondered what he meant when he said he had learnt that from his parents. The entire conversation we had was about the “don’t be evil” part, and he hadn’t really gone into how his parents had given him this second insight.

In his own way, without even realizing it, Nuff had prevented himself from catching himself saying something to implicate his parents. That conditioning he had mentioned seemed to be working on him even while he was investigating the conditioning itself…

The connotations of erroneous grammar and a formidable bewilderment brought that thought to a close, but not before I had made a mental note to stop myself from bringing this up the next time I met Nuff. After all, there are only so many levels of self-reference I can keep up with.