In my last post, I defended my recent lack of blog posts on spending time learning about ways to draw more attention to my blog. While that did take up a lot of my time, another reason is that I had an idea I wanted to talk about but kept struggling on how to talk about it. In short, that topic is about accepting disappointment.
I started to think about writing some thoughts about disappointment as a follow on of my earlier posts about marriage and divorce. In particular, I wondered what makes marriage arrangement unique from other types of contracts between individuals. Although we have reduced the significance of marriage as type of contract, it remains unique in that we are allowed to have only one such contract at a time and with only one other person. I also recalled earlier restrictions in particular that made divorce much more difficult than it is today. Something other than religious ideals motivates us to make this contract so constraining and in the past we made it so difficult to terminate.
I came up with an explanation of the uniqueness of marriage contract is how it deals with the idea of disappointment. In any other kind of contract, the terms are fairly well specified and enforceable. In particular, a disappointment where one party fails to meet the conditions can result in terminating the contract or to invoke some remedy. My thought was that marriage is different because for the most part the contract terms are not written down at all. This was not because the terms were implied, but instead because this commitment was fundamentally different. Part of that difference was the expectation that union must accept any and all disappointments about the partner: a commitment for-better or for-worse.
A marriage may start with a person with a promising career but later that person drops out and refused to work at all. This would be a major disappointment. This is the kind of disappointment I’m conjecturing would have been expected to be accepted. At the start of the arrangement, there were dreams and expectations. The frustration of those dreams and expectations would not grounds for divorce. Instead, the agreement was to accept such frustrations.
I thought of the analogy of most parent’s unconditional love for their children. No matter what the child attempts to do, his failure can not cause disappointment to the parents. I’m speaking ideally, although I believe this is common. Marriage is a similar kind of unconditional commitment.
The reason why we restrict marriage to just one partner at a time is because of this unique quality of unconditional commitment to accept any and all disappointments about the partner. This is a very exceptional kind of contract and in a way that it is impractical to meet beyond just a single such contract at any time. As noted, modern marriage laws are flexible to permit divorces with relatively minor disagreements compared to the requirements that were required a century ago. In old laws, people would have to accept the marriage even if they were no longer able to live together. The older view of marriage was that it was a commitment to never be disappointed.
One thing we lost with newer divorce laws is this notion that we must accept disappointment in our partners, even very major disappointments. To be clear, I’m glad to live under the modern rules. However, I still think there is something we may have lost in the interim.
I began to think more broadly about this idea of an expectation of accepting disappointment in another. This concept is far more general than just marriage. In each case, the modern answer is to discard the notion that we must accept disappointment.
I recall reading a book on psychology about the modern epidemic of mental illness. The message of that book, was that before the industrial revolution, there was a very narrow concept of mental illness. With the start of the industrial revolution, mental illness suddenly grew in prevalence and in kind. The book pointed out that nothing really has changed to the human condition but we see diagnose mental illness much more readily today.
We’ve always had people who didn’t quite fit in or were unreliable. We just didn’t label it as mental illness. In extreme cases, we may have incarcerated some people who were dangerous to themselves or others, or we may have ascribed some supernatural explanation for their condition. These were relatively rare. The vast majority of the population was accepted as being normal. It just happened that some people were more reliable or capable than others. We didn’t dismiss the less reliable or less capable, we merely set our expectations accordingly. We accepted the disappointment in a way that doesn’t even recognize it as a disappointment. It is like the way we see our children struggling in some areas and excelling in others. Instead of even thinking about the concept of disappointment, we accept the fact that this is just the way the child is. Likewise, we unconditionally accepted people as they were in our communities.
The idea of that book is that this attitude was not compatible with industrialization where work required punctual attendance and and consistent productivity. Suddenly the previously acceptable differences in people became unacceptable. We started to be less accepting in disappointing behaviors. One way to answer this was to identify mental illnesses as something that may be treated or at least as a criteria to separate the productive from the unproductive.
I see a parallel with my example of the unfortunate couple stuck in a later part of the marriage where one of the partners is disappointing the other. The old marriage concept was to accept this disappointment or even to not recognize it as a disappointment at all. It is part of life to accept that this is the way things turned out. This seems similar to that image of preindustrial culture where people just accepted the mix of people in their community just the way they were.
A good illustration of the concept accepting disappointment (or not even acknowledging it) is when we evaluate our own persons. I accept the disappointments of my own life and body. I’m now older and I am no longer able to do what I was capable of doing when I was younger. For example, no matter how much I may wish it, I’m not going to be able to train and to qualify for a spot on the US Olympic team. For that matter, I may not have been able to do that when I was younger if I wasn’t a citizen of the US. There are a lot of traits we can find disappointing in ourselves. However, unlike the above examples, we have no choice but to accept that we have the body and life that we were born with and that have weathered the years. We can work on improving certain things, but there will be limitations. Often we motivate ourselves by willfully ignoring our limitations, but those attempts will often fall short of expectations. Although there are many ways to see disappointments in ourselves, for the most part we believe that it is unhealthy to dwell on those disappointments. The healthy ideal is to not even think at all about the disappointments and instead to put all of our attention on what we are good at.
The concept of marriage also makes an analogy of two people becoming one: two bodies becoming one body. We still talk this way about marriage, but I think it had a more practical meaning in the past. To become one body means accepting the reality of the partner just like we accept our own reality. We accept that there will be ways we will disappoint each other, and sometimes that disappointment can be profound. We accept that we’re stuck with this body and the healthy thing is to make the best with what we have.
I suppose a similar concept applies to community where there is a township or tribe is considered to be a single body. Like our own body, we can’t escape the reality of what we have. We focus on our strengths, we accept our disappointing traits if we allow ourselves to notice them at all. The preindustrial era’s lack of mental illnesses demonstrates that the community was accepting in the range of behaviors that happen to be in the community, emphasizing the strengths and working around the disappointments.
Another way I began generalizing this concept of accepting disappointment is in context of a recent post where I talked about making promises. There I suggested three different ways to approach a project: high confidence with an explicit commitment, low confidence with a secretive plan to surprise everyone if we succeed, and a third option. The third option was to make an explicit commitment with assurance of success despite lack of confidence we can do it.
I separated this third option because today generally this is not as acceptable as the other two (if it is acceptable at all). In that post, I also alluded to ancient stories such as Beowulf or Homer’s Iliad where that is exactly the option pursued. I also described this the motivational advice of aiming high: to try to do more than we are confident in doing. I argued that this is a good advice that recognizes that people are capable of growing, learning, and becoming better than they were previously. We are not machines where past performance limits future capabilities. However, what makes this third option different than the other two is the high likelihood of disappointment. We have no confidence we can succeed but we are letting everyone know that this is what we are going to attempt.
I am imagining that part of our older and abandoned culture was a different expectation in terms of disappointments. Before modern science and practices, most commitments were likely to disappoint. The disappointment may come with some injury to body or wealth, but the disappointment itself was accepted. Today, we are less tolerant of disappointment. Even after compensating for the damages of the disappointment, the disappointment itself lingers in diminished reputation or even suspicion of something like mental disability. The modern options are either commit what you are confident you can achieve, or secretly pursue goals where you lack confidence. Increasingly we reserve the third option only to extreme sports, dare devils, or other pursuits where the potential for failure is part of the entertainment value of the effort.
I imagine that people in older times would be confused about the concept of extreme sports or daredevils. They just assumed everything was risky, and any one can fail at any time. What they valued was the willingness to make an attempt to succeed. If the attempt failed, they’d pick up the pieces and move on. The failures sometimes became entertaining stories to tell.
In addition to the above, I thought about a theme of several earlier posts that explored defining the idea of intelligence and deciding when intelligence should be acknowledged in others. I have a bias that wants to see intelligence in everything. I presume that everything in nature shares the intelligence I experience as a creature of nature. This bias places the burden of proof is on the proposition that something is not intelligent.
I think one of those posts mentioned my respect for intelligence in spiders. I’ll repeat here that as I observe spiders, I see a level of intelligence that is beyond what can be expected from the limited neural system they possess. I take for granted they have this intelligence. At the same time, I observed I can outsmart the spider by tricking it to enter a container so that I can release it outside. Outsmarting something is an observation of disappointment in the area of intelligence. An equal or superior intelligence would instead have tricked me. I selfishly assume that the spider didn’t actually wish for my assistance to take it outside.
I do intend to explore more about my ideas about intelligence in nature. For now, I want to point out how acceptance of disappointment affects the observation of intelligence. Accepting disappointment or even failing to recognize disappointment is what makes possible the observation that intelligence is broadly available throughout all of nature. In the extreme, something as deterministic as an object falling the ground can be considered to be a very disappointing form of intelligence. Obviously, this is contrary to the overwhelmingly accepted view of the complete lack of intelligence.
The primary focus of my posts on this site is to explore the science of data. In earlier posts, I attempted to define a science of data in terms of describing different qualities of data. Using my own (non-standard) terminology, I distinguished different kinds of data as bright, dim, dark, unlit, accessory, forbidden, etc. I focused on bright data as being the ideal of well documented and well controlled observations. Bright data reliably records exactly what was observed in the real world.
Bright data is the least disappointing form of data. All of the other forms of data are more disappointing.
My motivation of discussing this view of science about data is to emphasize the need to invest more scrutiny in the less reliable data. I am confronting the tendency to treat all data as equally good data once it is in the desired data store. I emphasize the need for continuous investment of data science skills in operational scenarios because most data is not fully trusted data. Applying the above discussion of disappointment, I can restate this need for ongoing data science investment is justified in order to find and isolate disappointing data. We need to actively seek out and label as disappointing data that is not very well documented and controlled. Disappointing data is data that does not mean what we want it to mean.
All of the other examples of this post builds a case that the difference between modern and premodern cultures is that old cultures were far more accepting of disappointments. Perhaps one of the defining characteristic of modernity is a broad intolerance for disappointments whether in marriage, commitments, or community. The exception to this rule is when it comes to data. Our attitude toward data is similar to premodern attitudes about everything else: we are blind to the idea that the data can be disappointing. Data is data. We can treat all data on equal terms.
In older times we said the same things about marriage partners, people in a community, attempts for some project. We accepted disappointment. Today, we accept disappointment in data. Data is data. If data shows up in a query, then we treat it on equal terms. This is what makes hypothesis discovery possible: we find patterns in arbitrary combinations of data. This is also what makes an independent hypothesis test necessary, the data is prone to disappointing us.
My attempts to subdivide data into different levels of utility is apply modern sensibilities to the subject of data. We should approach data with the same modern intolerance for disappointments every where else in life.