Thoughts and Thickets - 1
A Blog By Carol Jeffers
“Thoughts and Thickets,” I said, stepping from the shower. “It just came to me--what my blog should be called.” Indeed the title arrived unbidden in a rare moment of clarity that parted the warm clouds of steam billowing in my head.
“Like the oleanders along the freeways,” said Gene in an apparent reference to my “thickets.” Also getting ready for the day, he seemed to offer an observation, rather than to pose a question, and it made me smile.
Oleanders, a lovely analogy, I thought, embracing the pink-and-white aesthetic of their thick mounds found in the median strips and along the shoulders of Southern California’s freeways. A welcome image, too, is their resilient and shock-absorbing botany that helps protect drivers from having more serious accidents.
But no, my tangled thoughts land me in thorny thickets where ideas collide unprotected, and any pink-ness and white-ness they may have had is mercilessly (mercifully?) shredded. The better analogy is a briar patch, and mine embraces me as if I were Br’er—Sista’—Rabbit, born and bred among the happily, randomly criss-crossing brambles. My only hope is that the Tar Baby—seductive and sticky as ever—still lives to tease out the serendipitous discoveries waiting to be made, its tarry goo still ready to snatch the fortuitous connections rewarding such efforts.
Mostly, though, my thoughts are stuck on the thorny question of empathy that demands a daily, if not a book-length response. Just the other day, for instance, NPR reported on a study investigating what the human voice sounds like and how it is heard when volunteer speakers were asked to read two different scripts. One prompted speakers to believe they were confident, powerful, and in control of the hypothetical situation, and the other gave them to believe they had no options, and thus, no sense of power or control (report aired on All Things Considered, January 5, 2015). The results were predictable; the two prompts affected the sound of the voice and the way it is heard, as measured by six criteria.
Though I listened closely and with great interest, my thoughts were tangled in the unacknowledged, but tightly-held assumptions on which the research seemed to be based. Why had the study focused on the sound of power, I wanted to know. And why had it relied on what I consider to be a false dichotomy —one that values power and sees it as something you either have or you don’t. Clearly, you want to be strong and powerful, not weak and powerless. What else would call you or me—us—into being? My thoughtful brambles puncture this dichotomy’s glib assumption, and reveal what in my opinion is the better question—the one hung up on the criss-crossing branches that asks us to contemplate the differences between having power over someone and sharing power with someone. Which scenario makes us stronger?
Then my thoughts were snagged on other prickers, capitalism and the emphasis it places on competition and dominance. And I wondered if social science research has been co-opted by a political and economic system that would trick researchers into believing that social and cultural systems are capitalistic, not humanistic. Where is the continuum that positions competitive instinct at one end of human experience, and cooperative instincts at the other?
Researchers in the natural and social sciences know that our survival as a group-living species depends on striking a balance between competition and cooperation. We need to move to (toward) the midpoint on the scale, and learn to hear the dynamics, the resonance, the timbre of a cooperative-competitive duet. Would we even know how to measure such a sound?