The Seeing Eye

PTP4 Excerpts - Emotions



     Finger Pointing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 59
     Concerns and Affect . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 60
     Half Full, or Half Empty? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 63
     An Entirely Different Angle. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .65
     Spiritually Sick  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .66
     Disease and Responsibility . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .67
     Life View  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .70
     Virtue and Perception . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 72   

     “Our troubles, we read in the Big Book, are basically of our own making. Or as Shakespeare puts it in Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Not that we blamed fate for our woes when we drank. But neither did we look inside ourselves for the fault. Step 4 offers us a way to do that. 

     Our inventory is an examination of our defects of character and associated emotions in relation to the damaging experiences we have had in life. The “Cause” component of this examination is where we begin to understand what causes these defects and emotions in us and how they in turn cause us to act in ways that bring harm to ourselves and to others. 

     What is the cause of our anger, resentment, and fear? What is the cause of our guilt, our shame, regret, depression, self-pity, and other troubling emotions? What is the cause of our pride, our jealousy, our envy, our greed, our dishonesty, and our other defects of character? The cause is the question. 


     The answer, as C. S. Lewis would say, depends on the seeing eye. For Anonymous John, that answer is obvious: “them.” It is our default answer as well. In this we alcoholics are no different from anyone else. The attitude is universal. It is memorably captured in a line from Sartre’s play No Exit: “Hell is other people.” They are the cause of our misery. What we don’t see, what we cannot see, is that for those other people we are the other people. Such is the depth of our self-centeredness. 

     Finger-pointing is something we may pursue with brazen self-righteousness or with the most exquisite subtlety. The result is always the same. We deceive ourselves. We can’t see in us the flaws we so easily detect in others.1 We deceive ourselves even when, going to the other extreme, we seem to absolve others and take all the blame ourselves. For that is just another way of avoiding the responsibility of having to examine exactly what it is that is wrong with us and what we have to do to change and set it right. Beating up on ourselves is no more conducive to constructive action than beating up on other people.

     In the Big Book sample inventory of resentments, John gives a number of reasons why “them” is the cause of his anger. Three of these reasons state what various people allegedly said or did: Mr. Brown told Jane about John’s mistress, Mrs. Jones committed her husband for drinking, and John’s employer threatened to fire him. His other reasons describe the way he saw those people and situations: Brown is after my wife and my job, Mrs. Jones is a nut and a gossip, my boss unreasonable and unjust, my wife, a nag who doesn’t understand me, is attracted to another man, and wants the house for herself.

     For John, these reasons are indistinguishable from each other. They constitute the undifferentiated cause of his anger. He is unable to see that they reference two entirely different things. There is first of all what was supposedly said and done. This constitutes the objective (and in principle empirically verifiable) data, what presumably took place in the outer world. And then there is the way these things were taken by him. This constitutes his subjective processing of that data, what took place in his inner world. There is a situational or circumstantial event, and a personal response. 

     Like John, we naturally tend to think that there is a direct, cause-and-effect relation between the two, that what other people say and do is the cause of the emotions we feel. If they hadn’t said X or done Y, I wouldn’t be feeling Z. The logic seems irrefutable. And of course, it does contain an element of truth. Emotions don’t take place in a vacuum. Something has to “happen.” 

Cause and Affect 

     But words and deeds don’t produce emotions. We are not passive recipients of stimuli which automatically trigger emotional reactions in us. Instead, we filter and process events. As we do this, various aspects of a situation come together to form a mental construct, or what we have called a construal. 

     As we use it here, a construal refers to a kind of immediate cognitive experience where we perceive or “see” a situation (or any object of perception) in terms of a configuration of elements that coalesce or come together for us in that situation (or object). The Gestalt images below are commonly used to illustrate the concept. Each is made up of graphic marks (pixels if digital) which, upon first impression, form into visual patterns of what appears to be a certain kind of woman and a certain kind of animal. Upon further examination, however, another visual pattern emerges in each image and we come to view it from alternative perspectives: we see two different women, two different animals.

. . . 

     We may use a variety of phrases to describe a situational type of construal: it is the impression that a situation makes on us, the way it appears, the way we apprehend, take, or read it, how it comes across or presents itself to us, the way we grasp, sense, or are struck by it. 

     This involves first of all what a person may have said or done. But it may also include the motives and intentions we automatically, almost instinctively, ascribe to her. Additional factors such as thoughts, beliefs, and past experiences may operate unconsciously in the background and influence the content of the construal. All of these things combine to form our perception of what happened. This perception may, to varying degrees, approximate or diverge from the actual facts surrounding the situation. That is, it may approximate or diverge from external reality. 

     An emotion results from our construal of a situation when that construal is based on a personal concern. The concern is the governing factor, the term on the basis of which we effectively perceive the situation. As with construal, we may describe a concern using a variety of expressions. We may say it is something that is important to us, something that matters, that we are attached to, that we care about or have an interest or stake or are invested in, something to which we attribute significance or meaning or that we impart with value. What the particular emotion is depends on how we perceive that something to be affected, impacted, or impinged upon. 

     All of this happens literally in a flash and with little if any conscious awareness of how the picture that has formed in our mind has actually taken shape. As a way of seeing, an emotion is immediate, spontaneous, and experiential. It is something like a snapshot of an event, a sort of instant photo taken through the lens of our inner eye. This absence of reflection, of considered judgment or deliberate thought, explains why we generally tend to believe that emotions just happen to us and that we have very little to do with how they come about. All we can do, according to the conventional wisdom, is to try to control ourselves, avoid reacting, and manage their expression so that they won’t get out of hand and cause too much trouble. Hence the “anger management” approach. 

     What occurs next also seems to take place almost instinctively or reflexively: our mental tapes begin to turn and we proceed to weave a narrative, a story that we tell ourselves that explains—and reinforces—the image that initially impressed itself upon us. Out of this interior monologue or self-talk emerge the “reasons” we formulate propositionally as to why we feel the way we do. 

     Yet these reasons are not the effective cause of our emotions. Rather than explain the cause, they reveal it. John was angry and fearful because he saw what people said and did in terms that affected or “interfered with” (Big Book, p. 65) matters of vital import to him: his marriage and sex life, his job status and security, and his sense of self-worth. Where he perceived an offense (Brown outing him), he felt anger, where he perceived a threat (Brown taking his job and his wife), fear. Our character and emotional defects issue from the interaction of these two things: what we care about and how we perceive it to be negatively impacted. The stronger the concern and the construal, the stronger the defect and the emotion. 

     This interaction accounts for the fact that the Big Book makes “Cause” and “Affects” the two cornerstones of our inventory. For that is where we find out how defects in our “seeing” and “caring” are tied up with our defects of character and emotion, how they can be alternately both their cause and their result, and how, taken together, these defects are the real cause of the harm that we bring to ourselves and to our fellows. 

     In the short term, our inventories aim at a modest adjustment of the way we see things and the things we care about, enough to get some relief from the immediate and most troublesome expressions of our character and emotional handicaps and be able to stay sober. In the long term, they aim at a radical transformation of our perceptions and valuations that will enable us to surrender those handicaps and replace them with the strengths of character and emotion that make for emotional sobriety and a happy, useful, and productive life. 

     Correcting the way we view and value things is central to the process of correcting our defects of character and our emotional liabilities. Every troubling situation we examine in our inventory requires that we question our perception of that situation and the attachments that are informing or shaping it. In every instance we need to ask ourselves: How am I looking at this? What is it about it that is important to me? How are these two things bringing out my defects and affecting how I feel and what I do? What spiritual principles can help me change this dynamic so that I may be able to see and care rightly and so that my emotions and actions may therefore be rightly ordered? 

. . . 

     Our inventory, the Steps, and the spiritual awakening they are designed to bring about all have an ultimate purpose which rests upon but which reaches beyond the primary purpose of the AA program. This is nothing less than to effect a total transformation in us. We have discussed how this involves a radical change in perception. In the next chapter we discuss how it also involves a deep change of heart. For we see in terms of what we value. Change that and we change not only the way we see, but the way we are.”

– From Part I: Taking Inventory, Chapter 5: The Seeing Eye, pp. 59–63, 75

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