My perimeter—my world as I live it and relate to it—has a definite structure. In other words, my perimeter is not an arbitrary collection of unrelated facts, but is organized in some specific manner. The walls of my world have a particular shape.
We can think of the structure of the person’s perimeter as composed of three elements:
The first element is patterns: patterns of behavior, emotion, thought, attitudes. A pattern means repetitions of the same theme. A simple example is a person who distrusts other people. Again and again this person protects himself from others, attributes to them suspicious motivations, and puts them to test.
The second element in the perimeter’s structure is the power of those patterns. We feel this power when we try to change our patterns. We then discover that change is difficult, because the pattern ‘wants’ to continue, so to speak. It offers resistance. We need a special effort and determination in order to overcome it. For example, the distrustful man needs a conscious effort to overcome his pattern of suspicion. Often he succeeds only for a limited time, and then slips back.
The third element is the conception which the pattern expresses. When I follow a pattern, this means that I interpret the situation in a particular way. For example, if I get angry every time my wife disagrees with me, then my anger can be understood as saying: “Love means that we are the same.” My behavior and emotions and expectations express a certain theory about the nature of love. Similarly, if I have a pattern of suspicious behavior towards other people, then this behavior can be understood as saying: “People are unreliable.” In other words, I have a theory about the meaning of the Other (perhaps similar to Ortega y Gasset’s theory of “the Other as danger”). In this sense, we all have philosophical theories about basic issues of life, although we are usually not aware of them.
In subsequent lessons we will examine in detail each of the three elements.
Mike is a mysterious young man. It is hard to know what exactly he thinks and feels. When you ask him: “What did you think of the movie?” he may laugh and say, “It was definitely a movie.” And when you ask him how he feels, he might say: “So you want to put a label on my feelings?”
He has never had a steady girlfriend. Recently he took Sylvia out to a movie, but his mixed messages confused her and she couldn’t figure out what he wanted. Later he confided to a friend that he couldn’t decide whether he liked her—and immediately regretted saying these words. Indeed, whenever he has to make a decision, he feels anxious. After making a decision he often feels frustrated and sad. But when his friends tell him: “You look sad today, Mike,” he gets annoyed.
We can see a definite pattern in Mike’s behaviors, attitudes, and emotions: He does not identify himself with any specific feeling or opinion. He tries to remain vague and ambiguous—not just in the eyes of others, but for himself too.
This pattern has power over him. He follows it automatically, without thinking. And when he becomes conscious of it and tries to resist it, he feels how difficult it is. A special effort is needed to overcome the anxiety, the sadness, the disturbing feeling of being labeled.
This pattern also expresses a certain conception, because it says something like: “I am not a definite thing.” In other words, Mike has a philosophical theory about the nature of the self: that the self is (or should be) ambiguous and indeterminate. This is not a theory that he thinks in his conscious thoughts, but a theory that he lives in his emotions and behaviors. A philosophical counselor could help him explore the details of this conception, examine its validity, and investigate alternative ways of understanding himself.