Monday, March 12, 2018

Mourning Becomes Electra

Why do we mourn?  What purpose does it serve?

There is no operating manual for the human brain.   So in understanding human behavior - including your own - you don't have a lot to go on, other than to read what other people have managed to divine or what other folks think is normal behavior.  About half of that, of course, is mumbo-jumbo and the other half hogwash.   As I noted before, the human brain trying to decipher the human brain would be like a toaster telling you how it works.   Any device is incapable, by definition, of storing enough data to define itself.   The human brain will never completely understand the human brain.  That would be like divide-by-zero.

But this does not mean we should not try, of course.  And I think, in my uneducated opinion, that one way of looking at human behavior is not to think of it in terms of "normal" or "abnormal" behaviors, but rather treat all human behavior - laudable or despicable - as aspects of normal human behavior in a quantum manner.  We judge some to be better than others.  Some abhorrent, some commendable, depending upon societal values or even circumstance.

The desire to kill, for example, is seen as criminal.  Unless of course, it is during wartime, in which case you get a medal and are deemed a hero.  Same urge, same society - different circumstances, different outcome.

There are also behaviors which seem at first to have little use to us personally, but have some evolutionary function to alter our behavior to insure our personal survival or survival of the overall species (the latter being far more relevant).   And some of these behaviors may have a constructive social or personal use, but when taken to extremes, can be damaging.

Mourning seems to be one of these.  Why do we mourn?  Why would we be sad?  At first blush, from a logical perspective, it would seem these emotional responses serve no function at all.  And to an emotional thinker, to even analyze this is deemed unsavory.  Emotions are beautiful things that should not be analyzed logically!  But of course, emotional thinkers love damning and shaming, as it is part of their bit - as opposed to thinking, of course.

But everything has a function or a reason for existence - even tits on a bull.  The reason for some things may not be readily apparent, but there is a reason they are there.   We may never see the reasons for some of these things, in our lifetime, to be sure.   Mourning seems to be one of these things that serves no purpose, other than to make us feel awful.

That is not the case, however.   We mourn loss as a means of remembering loss, which serves as a programming function for the neural network of our brains.   And we mourn a lot of things - and people - in our lives.

I noted in an earlier posting that regret is not a viable investment strategy.   Many people make investment mistakes in life, or suffer setbacks, and spend the rest of their lives regretting their mistakes.  And you've met people like this, too.  They had a business that went bust, and instead of moving on with life, they become bitter and angry, and after a few drinks, blather on about how they used to be a player, before misfortune overtook them - which they often perceive as someone else's fault.

Successful businesspeople, on the other hand, dust themselves off, and get right back into the fray, learning from their mistakes the first time around and moving on to take future opportunities as they occur.  When you read the biographies of famous and successful people, their lives are often marked by one setback or tragedy after another.  But they never gave up.  As Alexander Graham Bell put it, they didn't spend their time woefully looking at the door that closed on them, but instead looked upon the new door that opened.

For Bell, the door that closed was the "harmonic telegraph" - the idea of taking multiple telegraph signals and putting them on one set of wires using harmonic frequencies.   Today, it is something we take for granted, and indeed, the forefather of "spread spectrum" that underlies all communications today, such as DSL, cable modem, and so forth.   But in an era before oscilloscopes were even invented, Bell could not make the idea work.   That door was closed to him.

But the idea of sending variable frequency signals over a pair of copper wires - as opposed to the digital on/off signals of the telegraph - lead to the open door of the telephone.  And arguably this was a much more important invention than the harmonic telegraph would ever be, years later.

Mourning is important to do - and work through - but it should not consume your life.   In every deathbed scene, the dying spouse always says, "When I die, honey, I want you to go on with life!  Find someone new and live your life to the fullest!  I don't want you to mourn me for the rest of your life!"   And that is a notable sentiment.  My Mother said that to my Dad as she lay dying in her dramatic deathbed scene - a scene that sadly, one only gets to play out once.

Well, maybe not.  We did have a sweet old lady here on the island who managed to play it out five times or so - calling for her last rites on more than one occasion.   "Death scene, take two!  Action!"   She finally got it right the fifth time, however.   God Bless!

But getting back to mourning.   You never hear a spouse on their death bed say, "Honey, I want you to mourn me for the rest of your days, be depressed all the time, and wear black!  Anything less would say you never loved me!"

And indeed, that seemed to be an attitude in an earlier Century, when wives would often don black and become dowager widows-in-mourning for the rest of their lives.  Of course, lives were shorter back then, so "the rest of your life" and "a respectful period of mourning" were probably the same in length.

Mourning serves a useful function for our brains.   It helps us accept loss and move on - and often learn from the experience.   It becomes damaging only when - like any other natural human emotion or behavior - it becomes an obsession.   When the brain gets "stuck" in mourning mode, it creates a stasis situation from which a person cannot move on.

And we mourn many things, other than people.  As I noted above, people mourn the loss of businesses, or jobs, or money, or friends, or loved ones.  And when this mourning becomes an obsession and we spend all of our time looking back, missing the past - or worse yet, trying to re-live it or wondering how we could have done it all over better - we miss out on the opportunities of the present.

In the Alex Bell quote, he noted that when one door closes, often another is opened.   However, he doesn't say the new door will be as large as the old one.   Often, when we lose something or someone in life, our remaining opportunities may be more limited.  However, that is not to say you have no opportunities left whatsoever.   Maybe you lost that lucrative business.  That sucks.   And maybe your new opportunity will never be as big as your old one.  But it is better than nothing - and nothing is what you will get if you spend all your energy mourning things that are lost, rather than see what still remains.

Because sometimes, what still remains is pretty damn good.