On Double Jeopardy

The process of providing school pupils and college students with positive experiences from which they can learn quickly throws up the challenge that many projects initiated by young people seem as if they fail. There are many reasons why this happens: poor conception; poor planning; lack of determination; serendipity; excessive ambition; unrealistic expectations; and so on. The reality is that even when a project apparently succeeds, there remains the possibility that whatever is achieved will quickly evaporate. A good example is cleaning up litter, where the sites chosen frequently return to their earlier state because the habits that caused the problem in the first place have not changed. Students can grow very dissatisfied as a result of these disappointments, and will ask themselves the question “What’s the point?”

This blog is not however about these “failed” experiments and projects, although it is necessary to remind ourselves of what we have said elsewhere on this topic, namely that these projects only fail if we refuse to see the learning that can accrue even from a project that ostensibly fails. Reflection on why the litter clear-up does not produce lasting change will teach us a lot about human behaviour and how to deal with such an idea in future; it may even suggest that our efforts would be better directed to changing the attitudes that create litter than to clearing it up, or that a dual approach is better than one or the other. So we learn from our failures, perhaps more than we learn from our successes.

Double Jeopardy as we have used it here refers not to a principle of law but to the common human habit of doubling the burden of disappointment attendant on failure by blaming ourselves for that disappointment or failure in addition to suffering it. Not only, for example, do we experience the disappointment of a failed litter clear-up, or at least a clear-up that has only a temporary effect; we also berate ourselves for being foolish enough to have conceived of such a short-lived project in the first place, or perhaps for having planned it badly or failed to take the necessary steps to ensure its greater success. We double the impact of “there is litter there again” with “and I am a fool/incompetent/a useless human being” and even “it/life is all a waste of time” or some such.

Originally conceived as an antidote to this kind of negative reaction to disappointment and failure, conceived, that is, as a way of saying that when interpreted effectively and reflected on deeply there can be no such thing as a failed project, however disappointing, the same principle can be extended to everyday human life. In other words, it is not necessary to restrict the range of positive thinking, to borrow Norman Vincent Peale’s phrase, to specific projects and enterprises: we can apply it to the most everyday of experiences, too, and to similarly good effect.

Consider, for example, “having a bad day”, which happens to all of us, some more often than others. If we are gazing into oblivion one afternoon wondering what on earth life is about and what we are to do with the next few hours or even the rest of our lives, a state of mental affect that most experience at some time in their lives, there is always a tendency to succumb to Double Jeopardy: not only is my life empty of meaning and purpose, but it is all my fault because I am such a failure.

The first thing to say, as I have said many times before, is that there is no necessary connection between the experience and its interpretation and effect: nothing about an empty afternoon or a sense of emptiness forces us to understand it in terms of general emptiness and our own incompetence. Thinking this way is learned behaviour, even if it is also habitual (which just means well-learned and ingrained). There are other possibilities.

The second thing to say is that we need to guard against the temptation to enjoy being miserable, enjoy feeling sorry for ourselves, enjoy or revel in the sympathy that our misery sometimes evokes from others. This amounts to playing what was once called a “script”: we rehearse a pattern of behaviour that is scripted in that it is learned and habitual; we come to expect the supposedly “natural” response to a given circumstance to be to evoke or trigger misery, dejection, disappointment or even despair. We play the record that says “life is a bitch; this sort of thing is always happening to me; somebody somewhere has really got it in for me” or some such. Sometimes a certain kind of narrative structure even tells us that whatever misfortune we have experienced is “a punishment from God” for some putative misbehaviour in the recent or distant past.

This is of course all nonsense. There is no repository of natural or supernatural reprisal, vengeance or balance that doles out misfortunes either deliberately or randomly. Stuff happens. That is all there is to it. We cannot control what happens in more than very limited, local ways; we can control how we respond to what happens. And the golden rule here is the first mentioned above: that there is no necessary connection between what happens to us and our response; there is no necessary interpretation of our experiences; many things may be learned and habituated, but nothing is forced or natural. To put it at its most extreme, there is nothing that prevents us from laughing at disease and death but social convention; neither, in a more mundane way, is there anything that forces us to react with anger, resentment, sadness or self-loathing to disappointment and putative failure but our own learned habits of mind.

There is nothing that forces us to react with anger, resentment, sadness and self-loathing to disappointment and putative failure but our own learned habits of mind.

Consider a different example. We may apply for a job and feel that we are uniquely and perfectly suited to it, certainly far better than any other conceivable candidate; it is made for us. But we are rejected at the first cut without explanation. We feel personally affronted, as if we have been told that we are worthless. Reaction can be, as in bereavement, the usual cycle of denial, anger, depression, resignation, reconciliation, recovery; but we can also blame ourselves or some cosmic power that hypothetically “has it in for us” – deus sive natura – for the misfortune and throw ourselves into minutes, hours, days or sometimes even years of self-destructive behaviour as if it will in some strange way compensate for the disappointment.

It doesn’t, it won’t, and it can’t. Blaming something “out there” is as futile as blaming something “in here”, in myself: nothing dictates that our response to this disappointment should be negative; nothing tells us that any one or any thing is responsible for it at a personal level other than our chosen narrative type. We choose our response, however habituated we are to it, because we choose the narrative structure of our lives; and because we choose it, we can change it.

We choose our responses to disappointment and failure, however habituated we are to them, because we choose the narrative structure of our lives; and because we choose it, we can change it.

Of course, just the same is true of our responses to achievement and success, and sometimes – although we seldom appreciate it – those responses are as self-destructive as our negative responses to disappointment and failure. But both arise from our chosen narratives: nothing forces us as if by some universal physical or biological law to react to anything with either laughter or tears.

But what is “The narrative structure of our lives”? In essence it is the set of stories or, as they used to be called, scripts, that make up the interpretative framework by means of which we make sense of our existence. For example, the interpretation of a misfortune that attributes it to the judgement of God is part of a particular narrative set within a particular theological tradition. There is no suggestion here that it is incoherent, still less insane (which is not to say that it is either coherent or sane, either); the point is only that it is arbitrary rather than necessarychosen (albeit by our society or our upbringing or our parents or whatever) rather than innate; and therefore, because it has by some means or other been chosen, it can by some means or other be changed.

Any interpretation of or reaction to our experiences is arbitrary rather than necessarychosen rather than innate; and, because it has by some means or other been chosen, it can by some means or other be changed.

A pernicious symptom of this kind of habituated learning that makes it very hard to see that it is chosen rather than unavoidable is the notion that, in any given circumstance, or as a result of any given experience, we should or ought to respond in some particular way. People who are riddled by anxiety or guilt – and anxiety is a major modern illness almost as common as depression – commonly spend their lives torn apart by the feeling that whatever they are doing they ought to be doing something else. They may similarly treat the self-destructive behaviour that arises from disappointment and failure as “ordained”, whether by God or nature or some obscure universal law, as something that they ought to endure. But there is no source of this “ought” that has such power because there is no such “ought”.

Social conventions, like some of the most long-established narratives such as religions and political theories, have developed and subtly employ a very clever but very destructive mechanism to retain control over us which a theologian called Hans Albert once called an immunization strategy. Such a strategy is built into the fabric of many narratives and forbids us to question the narrative itself. In other words, a religion may contain as one of its most primal principles a prohibition on doubting the religion, just as Marxism may contain as one of its primal principles a prohibition on doubting Marxism, or Freudianism may dismiss anything that interprets any scepticism about Freud as itself a mental dysfunction caused by something interpreted as Freud would interpret it.

An immunization strategy is the means by which any system or narrative forbids its adherents from questioning or doubting it.

Another way of thinking of this that may be more compatible with modern thinking is to describe certain systems of thought or narratives as creating conceptual black holes that exert a power over our minds so strong – as physical black holes exert gravitational control over their surroundings – that they prevent us from ever escaping their influence.

Conceptual black holes enable some social systems and narratives to exert control over our minds of a kind that prevents us from ever escaping from or even questioning the propriety of their influence.

Conceptual black holes are everywhere, and in the particular example we are dealing with here they consist of the habituated learned practice of personalising our experiences in a way that creates what we are calling Double Jeopardy by making us feel that we are in some sense obeying a necessary universal principle by blaming ourselves for our misfortunes.

And the secret to escaping from all conceptual black holes is of course to give ourselves permission to reject the principles that they advocate and defend. And one of those is the suggestion that we should or ought to respond in this way because it would be somehow wrong, even immoral, not to accept our responsibility for whatever disappointment or failure we are beating ourselves up about.

The secret to escaping from all conceptual black holes is to give ourselves permission to reject the principles that they advocate and defend.

And if we cannot find enough strength or confidence in ourselves to give ourselves permission to reject these principles, we should find someone else whom we respect sufficiently who can give us that permission instead. The power to beat ourselves up over any and every disappointment and failure resides solely and exclusively with ourselves, and therefore the only way we can overcome it is to find a way, coming from ourselves or from someone else, to give ourselves permission to stop.

“Yes”, you may reply, “but others may also beat us up by laughing at us or ridiculing us or treating us as idiots because of our failed projects, and that is not under our control”. Agreed, but the way you respond to their ridicule is under your control, and whether you are hurt by their laughter is under your control, and whether you start to behave like an idiot because of their accusation is under your control. So give yourself permission to ignore them: it’s really not your fault; and even if it is, you still win by learning from the experience and avoiding making the same mistake again.

The first step in freeing ourselves from behaviour that makes us feel responsible for things that are beyond our control is to identify the sources of the voices in our heads that are blaming us for them. Only then can we silence them.

The first step in freeing ourselves from behaviour that makes us feel responsible for things that are beyond our control is to identify the sources of the voices in our heads that are blaming us for them. Only then can we silence them.


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