The Reactionary Mindset

“Reactionary” is one of those words that leads towards a certain amount of political heat. This article discusses it in a larger and more elemental context. I use “reactionary” here to describe thoughts and actions that are emotionally – perhaps reflexively – opposed to an initiating event.

In the political realm this can be a long process with a great deal of words and thought. In the day-to-day realms of the road and the office it can be brief or even unconscious. Whatever scale it occurs in, it is a response to the trampling of sacred ground, something tied to one’s space, self, or belonging.

It feels good. Boy does it feel good. Finally whipping ahead of that jerk in the fast lane, giving voice to that perfect comeback when they complain (again) about the coffee, or taking back that little piece of Europe that really belonged to you the whole time, being reactionary feels so very very good. It feeds those lizards and monkeys the psychologists say are lurking just out of sight in the back of our minds.

But it comes at a price.

The Price of Being Reactionary

Being reactive means that one’s self is defined by external factors. If he jumps, I duck. If he moves left, I move right. While the mind perceives this as fighting the good fight, this is an illusion; in reality I become a flailing accessory to the real actor, my opponent.

In the end I will be nothing more than a shadow complement to all the things I react against.

The natural human instinct to band together against opponents results in strong lines of communication between the members of the group that results. This results in feedback loops that reinforce certain ideas while drowning out others. The ideas that resonate will be ones that touch on strong emotions – anger, fear, superiority, schadenfreude – and are easy to transmit; in short, memes. Ideas that resonate less will be less transmitted and will fail to become central to the group consciousness.

Simple but meme-y ideas will have an advantage over fact-based but less resonant ones. This feeds the in-group social economy while drawing attention away from long-term real-world benefits.

Whether one reacts as an individual or as a member of a group, reactions become habitual and therefore thoughtless. When you find a reaction that gives you enough of an anger hit you will tend to return to it day after day.

There is nothing inherently wrong with having reactions to events. Used correctly and in their proper place they are helpful, even essential. If we had to think deeply about every event that ever happened we would all have been eaten a long time ago.

There are relatively few situations that always call for only one reaction. If we always react the same way, sooner or later it will be a mistake. It is difficult and rare enough for a man to scratch his head and evaluate himself. If he is part of a group that culturally reinforces the same set of reactions, how much more rarely will he step out and change when a new situation calls for it?

The man who spends his life responding to events with the same set of reactions will never strengthen the mental skills necessary for higher work. His reactions will be all he knows and the little culture to which he belongs will uphold that as a fine thing. He will vigorously defend himself against mental growth and reward himself for succeeding.

With the affirmation of his peers and the heady rush of his own success, how likely is he to grow beyond such low thinking? The borders in his mind will not be the result of thoughtful choice and deep reflection; they will be little more than the fault lines of whatever conflicts and dichotomies happen to surround him and he will wave his self-limitations as a triumph.

Treating Reactionary Thinking

There is a difference between having a response to a situation and being defined by that response.

The man who has a response is larger than the situation. The man who is defined by his response is smaller.

Neither man chooses to be large or small; it is simply who he is. Each believes himself justified in his position and actions. What a man becomes is determined largely by the choices he makes, and those choices are not independent of the values, beliefs, and perceptions he already has when he makes them.

None-the-less we can choose between differing paths of development as they are presented to us, and knowledge of final consequences can inform those choices. Of two men with the same character and values, the one seeing far and thinking deeply will often come to different conclusions than the one who plunges ahead with bold ignorance.

The difference is reflection.

Question: Do I derive value from engaging in conflict itself, or do I engage in it only when it is a necessary chore in the service of a larger goal?

Both victory and the comradeship of conflict provide reinforcing pleasure. If you serve no higher motive than that is all you are.

Question: Do I take meaningful time to sincerely learn on my own and to derive conclusions?

Peer groups do not only provide company, they provide input and reinforcement. The information and beliefs transmitted by your peer group will always be biased towards the social and emotional energy flows that hold the group together. Acquiring outside data is more difficult and often confusing.

Question: Am a willing to step away from the social structures that support me?

It is easy to say ‘yes,’ but if you have not yet done this you do not truly know who is in charge of your life.

The man who makes space and time for his deeper self will find it easier to avoid the reactive mindset because he trains himself to be regularly introspective and independent.

The man who inspects and prunes his relationships has better control over his life than the man who does not. A relationship is an open gate in the wall of your mind. Be careful who gets the keys and don’t be afraid to confiscate them based on bad behavior.

Changing Habits Big and Small

You are a bundle of habits. They come in many sizes. Some you are aware of, many you are not. They are behaviors that survived long enough to become ingrained and are therefore on some level successful – but probably not optimal (though they may have been when you developed them).

Habits – good habits – are beneficial because they solidify successful behaviors while leaving your conscious mind free to work on more novel problems.

Your habits are reinforced by one another and the environment in which you life and move. An action prompts another action which sets the stage for another. Habits form a stream of actions that sweep you along rather smoothly. After all, when the transition from one action to another is jarring it is soon replaced with something easier.

You are a bundle of habits, and sometimes you want to change.

But that’s not always easy.

Your habits feed into each other. Each habit is maintained not because of its usefulness to you but because of its usefulness to your entire behavioral system. Like a stray cat it will stick around as long as you feed it. Unlike a stray cat it will bring along a friend, who will bring another friend, and so on.

Behaviors may be thought of as costing two things; time & decision-making. Time is a hard limit; we have so much in a day. Decision-making is a “softer” cost but mentally taxing and therefore annoying.

A behavior that becomes a habit does not cost less time (though you will probably figure out a way to do it faster), but it does cost significantly less decision-making.

And because that habit is always part of your behavioral system it will smoothly feed into the next decision-minimized habit, and so forth until you run out of time for the day. When the alarm rings the next morning the stream of habits begins to gush again, rushing you through the day until you trudge back to bed wondering what happened.

You are a bundle of habits, and sometimes you want to change.

Changing behavior is easy in theory but a new behavior must replace an existing habit – an existing habit that has already been optimized for easy transition. The new behavior will be a jarring one because it clashes with the existing flow.

How to make it happen?

Repeating the new behavior until it becomes a habit is the obvious answer. The comfort of routine will help with most anything once you get it going. If you keep it up it will eventually become an element in your behavioral system.

But remember that your behavioral system was optimized for the lifestyle you had before the new behavior. Unless the transition to the new behavior is as or more smooth than to the one it replaced you will find the new behavior jarring. Someday you might slip back into old habits. It’s always easy to justify the first lapse, but it is the beginning of a trend.

According to the book “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg, people find it easier to quit smoking while on vacation. Why? The schedules and triggers developed over time are absent on a vacation, removing many of the prompts that lead to a smoke.

If you want to make changes in your daily life, consider the following guidelines:

  • Change the beginning of your day. Your behavioral cascades probably begin with an alarm. By making changes at or near the beginning of the processes you will face fewer triggers and expectations set up by prior actions and habits.
  • Make big changes rather than small ones. Because your habits and actions form a reinforcing system, a single small change will often seem uncomfortable and out of place. Replacing large sections of your behavioral system allows you to construct something that reinforces itself.
  • Identify keystone habits that set the stage for everything else. Changing these will have disproportionate effects downstream.

Conclusion

We like to think of ourselves as rational and independent beings. If we want to see real results we need to lay our egos aside and look at the real mechanisms of our lives. One of those mechanisms is the habit.

Habits and environmental prompts are inevitable. Rather than fighting them or pretending they aren’t there, use them to your own advantage.

Every new habit dwells in the ruins of an older habit. If you want it you have to earn it.

Government School Alternatives, Part 4

As a strong proponent of homeschooling I suggest that all parents at least consider the practice, but homeschooling can have downsides as well – potentially big ones.

Because homeschooling can have downsides it is important for parents to keep their eyes open both when considering homeschooling and while continuing in it.

Finances

The most obvious downside of homeschooling is its financial impact. Supplies and activities cost money that would otherwise be covered by tax money. Most homeschooling schemes require a large commitment of time from one parent, potentially reducing income. These two considerations will work hand-in-hand to strain family income. Furthermore, a single-income household is exposed to having 100% of its income at risk of an unemployment event while a dual-income household has half the exposure.

Solution: Talk to other home-schoolers to determine average and unexpected costs. See if hand-me-down curricula are available. Verify it can be done by living on a single income before homeschooling while socking away money from the second job.

Parent-Child Relationships

Homeschooling adds a new relationship between mother and child, as well as more pressures on each. Parenting will not become easier because of it.
The teacher relationship is different from the mother relationship and the two roles can come into conflict. So also for the child, who has to switch between student and son with the same person.

Solution: ensure that explicit boundaries between school life and home life are made at the beginning and respected by both mother and child. Lines will change as the family figures things out but they must be clear.

If the child already has a difficult relationship with his mother homeschooling may serve as a source of resentment, conflict, or just too much time together. Alternatively, an overly-dependent child will find it easier to not learn independence.

The mother’s relationship with her child can see similar stresses. The additional exposure and demands may push a successful relationship into damaging territory.

Solution: know not to force a square peg into a round hole, and have backup plans in case what you are doing just doesn’t work.

Only Fish in the Pond

The traditional home-school environment can be isolating in unexpected ways. A student without a classroom peer group to measure himself against may develop an incorrect – and inflated – view of his own abilities. While overconfidence can be an asset in some situations the inevitable crush that comes with the truth will be hard to take.

Solution: Ensure your child has exposure to people and challenges he cannot easily compete with. Recognize hard work and commitment over aptitude-based results.

A child who grow up in an overprotective environment will have a lot of catching up to do when he enters the real world. The shock of transition can lead to social withdrawal or inappropriate compromise. The naif will be the recipient of ridicule and abuse, especially if male.

Solution: Be sure to expose your child to the realities of the world. Mothers will tend to overprotect – it is their nature – so ensure your child has opportunity to learn the rougher customs of the world and how to navigate them. Peer-group slang and innuendo is an important survival skill.

The tiny environment of the home school can nurture the perfectionist, who will spend too much time at his skill level when he should be pushing the edges of his abilities. This looks good in grades and science fairs but is of little value in the adult world.

Solution: Live a non-perfectionist life in full view of your child. Make sure he understands that mistakes are the stepping stones to success.

Rebellion

Most children rebel. It is an important part of becoming an adult and etching out an identity. Handled well, relationships will weather the storm and become stronger (though different) on the other side. Parents who do not have the knowledge or maturity to handle rebellion will amplify it and the damage will be greater.

The causes and solutions to rebellion are difficult topics with no universal answers. Overbearing parents and too much family time can be issues in the home-school environment.

Solution: Do not exasperate your children – there is no correct way to control a child into a healthy adult. Children need a certain amount of space to make mistakes.

Another connection between homeschooling and rebellion is exit from and entry to junior high and high school. Children pulled from school with feel the loss of their peer groups and can feel like weirdos. Children put into government schools from a home-school environment do so without a network of relationships in the new environment to draw upon and are alien to the school’s many cultures.

Solution: Homeschooling should be a voluntary choice on the child’s part if possible. Try to avoid disrupting social connections during the teenage years, when non-family social connections are deeply important.

Stress

Both parents and children can become over-stressed as homeschooling progresses. Because education takes place with family members in the physical space of the home it will tend to “grow” until stress itself provides a boundary. Mothers especially will feel stress because they can always do just a little bit better if they sacrifice just a little more.

Solution: Physical and time boundaries are essential, as are a good relationship between husband and wife. Clearly defined goals will relieve a lot of stress. There is a reason why good enough is called “good enough.” The most important lessons in life are taught by living.

In an attempt to do just a little bit better mothers may be tempted to shift goals as children approach them. Not only does this create increased work it consumes time and exasperates children.

Solution: Children need consistent boundaries. This includes educational goals. If children complete their work early let them enjoy the reward of their labor (usually free time).

Conclusion

Homeschooling and other alternatives to government school are important for any parent to investigate, but they do come with certain drawbacks and challenges. By learning those challenges ahead of time you can better build an education that works well for your family and your children.

The single best piece of advice I can give is this: don’t go alone. Find others in similar situations for comradeship and mutual support.

Government School Alternatives, Part 1

This is the first article in a multi-part series focused on homeschooling & other alternatives to government schools.

The world being as it is, many parents are looking for alternatives to the standard government school system. Based on everything I have seen and experienced, I encourage it.

Perhaps some parents are not yet convinced of the problems, their magnitude, or their pervasiveness. In this article I will present reasons why all government school systems are unhealthy for children – no matter how Continue reading “Government School Alternatives, Part 1”