Friday, July 14, 2006

Two Voices

You know how we sort of have these two voices in our heads?

No, this is not about crazy people hearing things. And it's not about the devil or angel on our shoulder, the aftereffects of intoxication or sleep deprivation, or even split personality disorder -- no, this is all quite normal stuff.

One voice is what some people refer to as the voice of conscience or reason. And the second voice is the one that we mostly associate with the self, the so-called real you that is living in the here and now, and suffering or enjoying the moment.

So what happens is, we end up having these dialogues in out heads, pretty much unconsciously. But we hear the two voices become distinct only during particularly important decision points in our daily lives -- the moments when we have to choose one thing or another, one way or another.

The "higher" voice of reason is usually making running commentary when we are unsure about what to do, when we are torn, lost, confused, hurting. It keeps is from jumping off a cliff or eloping to Vegas with the cute bartender. In the process of this mental dialogue and weighing of options, we justify our behavior or decisions to ourselves.

One of our voices -- the immediate self -- is usually emotional, impulsive, the one most in need of help or guidance. The other voice -- which is also the self but a bit more detached, it seems -- is consolatory, helpful, or critical, judgmental, supervisory. One is weak, the other strong. They constantly talk to each other, a sort of director's cut commentary track of our lives. But instead of being mere commentary, they are in fact making that movie on the fly.

Both of these voices are us -- two equal sides of ourselves. Psychologists might assign various labels to this, our daily process of internal reasoning, while popular culture has other terms such as common sense, impulse, guts, dick.

How about a new pair of terms, using metaphor?

Let's think for a moment of the self as a team of two techs on a mission. One tech is actually sitting back at the dispatch tower, watching the terrain. The other tech is down in the field, armed and equipped, and running through the jungle. The tech up in the dispatch many miles away -- let's call him the Voice of the Absolute -- sees the big picture and the progress of the tech who is on site. The tech in the jungle -- let's call him the Voice of the Relative -- is fully immersed in the moment, in the dangers of the jungle, the snakes and the vines and the bugs and the humid heat, and also the pleasures -- the fresh balmy air, the song of the forest.

It's rather easy for the jungle to overtake all senses, which is what happens to us in life as we live it. We are overwhelmed and forget the reality of the big picture beyond us when we can only see the mud at our feet as we wade through the swamp and the mosquitoes.

However, the guy at the dispatch tower, an equal part of our team, can see all this too, except he also knows the reality of the sterile control tower and the equipment, the panoramic vista of land for many miles around, and he is also connected to a huge communication network. When he sees a snake hanging on a nearby branch he can warn us without panic. But he also does not feel the heat or the painful rocks beneath our feet as we run -- that's up to the guy on site to figure out and handle.

The Voice of the Absolute is our voice of greater perspective -- reason, common sense, conscience, reality, and grounding -- and he can give great mission support to the Voice of the Relative, the one who's in the thick of it all.

At any given moment of our lives we can chose to listen to that distant team member or not. If we do, we usually feel less lost and more in control. We also can avoid pratfalls and reduce the amount of stupid mistakes we can make if we're stuck only within the narrow immediate perspective.

For best results, we're a team.

Next time we hear that dialogue in our head, let's not discount it. Instead, let us take the moment to listen to both voices -- not only do things sound clearer in stereo, but it can be a great relief when we are feeling most alone.

And no, we're not crazy, merely human.