Sunday, March 31, 2013

Divinest Sense

Much Madness is divinest Sense -
To a discerning Eye -
Much Sense - the starkest Madness -
’Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail -
Assent - and you are sane -
Demur - you’re straightway dangerous -
And handled with a Chain -
--Emily Dickinson

I read an amazingly good book this weekend: Elyn R. Saks' autobiography, The Center Cannot Hold (2008).

Saks holds an endowed professorship at the University of Southern California's Gould School of Law. She has written extensively on the legal and civil rights of both children and the mentally ill. Upon being awarded a 2010 MacArthur Foundation fellowship (known as the "genuis grant"), she established The Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy, and Ethics.

In her early twenties, Saks was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Despite being given a "grave" prognosis and warned that she would never be able to hold down a job or have a family, Saks has had an extremely successful career and is happily married.

Her autobiography documents her decades-long struggle with psychosis, forced hospitalizations, medications (and their side effects), and the stigma of mental illness.

Saks is an amazingly eloquent writer. As she points out, individuals who suffer from schizophrenia often suffer from an inability to connect to others, a symptom that frequently manifests itself in extreme apathy. Saks notes that luckily, she does not experience this symptom.

I think her luck is ours too.

Saks offers a compelling insight into what it means and how it feels to experience the complex illness that is schizophrenia. Well over halfway through her autobiography, she writes,
Right now, wherever you are--in your room, in a library, on a park bench, on a bus--literally hundreds of things clamor for your attention. On the outside, there are sights, sounds, and smells; on the inside you have your thoughts, feelings, memories, wishes, dreams and fears. Each and every one of these, both inside and out, is knocking at your door all at once. 
But you have the power to choose which thing, or combination of things, to give your attention to. (228)
But what if you could no longer choose? In schizophrenia, Saks observes, the brain's sensory "regulator" no longer functions correctly and as a result, the individual is bombarded with input--sounds, smells, thoughts, memories, ideas, feelings--that cannot be ignored, organized, or sorted.
Immediately, every sight, every sound, every smell coming at you carries equal weight; every thought, feeling, memory and idea presents itself to you with an equally strong and demanding intensity. (228-229)
People with schizophrenia often suffer from psychosis: they may see and hear things that aren't there. Sometimes, they suffer from paranoia as well: they fear the things they see and hear, even though those things may not really be there for you and I to see and hear.

As Saks simply and poignantly puts it, "Psychotic people who are paranoid do scary things because they're scared" (97).

That said, as Saks points out, most people who suffer from schizophrenia harm no one except themselves. And the things they would most benefit from--friendship, understanding, connection, predictability, support and affection--are often the very things they are denied by virtue of their illness.

Saks describes being forcibly medicated and put in four-point restraints at one point during her psychosis. She also points out that, in Great Britain, physical restraints of the kind that are standard practice in the United States have not been used in over 200 years.

One sentence in Saks' account particularly resonated with me: "When you're really crazy, respect is like a lifeline someone's throwing you. Catch this and maybe you won't drown" (79).

We rarely respect the dignity of the mentally ill: we assume the right to judge and prescribe what's best for them, based on appearances. We don't bother to ask what they want, because we assume they can't ("won't") tell us.

But more often than not, it is perhaps simply the case that they won't tell us what we want to hear, or that we won't take the time to try to understand what they're saying.

One of the things I found most compelling about Saks' autobiography is that, given the chance to spend time "inside her mind," many of the components of her psychosis make complete sense. They have their own logic, perhaps, but they can be decoded.

Stress often triggers schizophrenia. At one point, Saks describes being overly stressed by the law memo she needed to write during her first year at Yale Law School.

In her psychosis, she talked about "lemons." Law memo. Lemons. When I see the words, I see the connection. But if I simply saw a law student suddenly ranting about lemons, I would assume, "They're crazy. They're not making sense. Watch out. Lemons? What the hell is that about?"

Saks also describes how, in her own case, she will frequently invoke images of violence and speak threateningly when she herself feels stressed out and threatened. It's an unusual, but in many ways understandable coping mechanism, given the faulty functioning of her brain's "regulator": respond to feelings of being threatened with overt threats to others.

As Saks repeatedly points out, she is by no means suggesting that we should simply ignore the potentially dangerous behaviors of the mentally ill. Rather, we should try to understand them in order to better support and protect everyone involved.

All too often, American hospitals forcibly restrain the mentally ill in the absence of any signs of danger, to a degree that can be quite absurd. Thus, Saks describes how, working as an advocate, she once encountered a mentally ill patient who was put in restraints because he refused to get out of bed.

?????

Who's the crazy and illogical one in that scenario?

Saks tells a similarly sad and amusing story of a mentally ill patient who was systematically documented as "delusional" because, although he refused to speak to the doctors or hospital staff, he spent hours on the phone talking to his "imaginary lawyers."

Imagine their surprise when Saks and a co-worker introduced themselves as the man's legal counsel.

At the end of her autobiography, Saks cautions against an overly optimistic reading of her story and her experience. Like every brain, every experience of mental illness is different. She cannot speak for "all" of the mentally ill, because mental illness is not a single, simple thing--although many often treat it as such.

How many people know the difference between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder? Between multiple personality disorder and schizophrenia? Too few. And even fewer realize that what a diagosis "means" for one person's quality of life is in no way predictive of what it will "mean" for another.

This is the note that Saks' autobiography ends on: the challenge of finding one's life. As she points out, "If you are a person with mental illness, the challenge is to find the life that's right for you. But in truth, isn't that the challenge for all of us, mentally ill or not?"

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Vulnerability, Shame, Connectivity, Empathy

Friends have turned me on to Brene Brown's work on vulnerability and shame.  (Click on the links for her TED talks on each.)

So I spent the week reading her recent book, Daring Greatly (2012).  (It actually goes quite quickly: it took me the whole week because I had, you know, work and other stuff I had to do instead...)

I really liked this book and what it has to say about how so many people--so many of us, I should say--function, particularly in American culture today.  I love when a book makes me self-aware and gives me food for thought about how we interact with one another, and Brene Brown's TED talks and her book did both of these things for me.

Brown talks about the prevalence of narcissism in contemporary culture.  We all seem to have a bit too much grandiosity (I call it a "love of drama"), we're a bit too inclined to consider ourselves the necessary center of attention, and we're a bit too quick to judge each other negatively.

Empathy is fast becoming a dying art.

Brown argues that, "What almost no one understands is how every level of severity in this diagnosis is underpinned by shame.  Which means we don't 'fix' it by cutting people down to size and reminding folks of their inadequacies and smallness.  Shame is more likely to be the cause of these behaviors, not the cure" (21).

We judge the person, not the choice.  This is something I am TOTALLY guilty of.  It is just so, so, SOOOO much easier to do.  As Brown points out, "Labeling the problem in a way that makes it about who people are rather than the choices they're making lets all of us off the hook: Too bad.  That's who I am" (22).

If we look at choices, we see patterns of behavior, not people or personalities.  And patterns can change (which means that, over time, people can change too).  But that can't happen if we label the person, and if we shame them into thinking they're just bad people.

Brown systematically looks at patterns of behavior through the lens of her research on vulnerability.  People are afraid of being "ordinary," they're afraid of going unnoticed because they think they might be "unnoticeable"--in effect, not "worthy" of love, somehow. 

The underlying emotion in all of this is a sense of shame.  Shame shapes our experience of vulnerability--from our essential unwillingness to experience it to our reaction to its presence in our lives.  Brown distinguishes "shame" from "guilt": "guilt" is feeling bad because of something you've done.

"Shame" is believing you yourself are (or might be) "bad."  So when we experience shame, we fight back, or hide, or both.

As Brown observes, "When we apologize for something we've done, make amends, or change a behavior that doesn't align with our values, guilt--not shame--is most often the driving force" (71).

By contrast, "shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we can change and do better" (72).  After a while we think, "Oh well.  Whatever.  This is who I am."

Brown also distinguishes "shame" from "humiliation."  I had a personal experience with this recently: a conversation that I found downright humiliating.  It made me beyond upset.  I walked away feeling beaten down and sad and frustrated and judged for who I was.

But as the day wore on, I began to feel what one of my friends once referred to as my trademark "very healthy sense of anger."

I don't bottle things up.  I speak.  Or write.  Usually, write.  Because when I speak when I'm in this mindset, I cuss like a sailor.  (Another friend once told me, "It's downright shocking the extensive vocabulary you possess--at both ends of the spectrum.")

Brown cites Donald Klein's observation that shame is something we believe we deserve; humiliation is something we realize we don't deserve.

This was the realization I came to in the aftermath of this conversation, and it enabled me to write to the person who had done the humiliating and politely say, "Hey, hold on a second.  Look.  I didn't deserve that."

Brown argues, "Humiliation feels terrible and makes for a miserable work or home environment" (73).  If you live or work among people who function on the principle that shame is "good" (somehow) and that humiliation is the way to instill an (allegedly) "healthy" sense of shame in those around you, you will find yourself doing one of several things: shutting down, acting out, or fighting back.

It feels like you're beating your head against the wall, quite frankly.  But it's still not as corrosive as shame, because shame is internalized and eats away at you from the inside out.

I have an odd, but effective policy.  I write, and I often get feedback from people about what I write.  Even an email from me is an epistle.  I write.  That's who I am: a writer.

Over the years, I've become very aware of others' insecurities on this issue.  When someone complains about my "long emails" or laughs at them, I no longer internalize that, because I realized years ago that this would render me unable to write.  It would foster a sense of insecurity that would slowly and insidiously eat  away at me and eventually, I would stop writing.

I'd be letting people make me feel ashamed of the fact that I write--and yes, I write prolifically.  (So did Dostoevsky, actually.  So do a lot of wonderful people.)

Writing makes me happy.  It's how I define who I am.  I write and I read, and I define my life's purpose in sharing those ideas and experiences.

If people don't want to participate in that, there's a delete button.  Hit it.  Okay?  Great.  Bye.  Or you can skim.  There's always an option available to you. 

The point is: control your own voice and behavior, don't try to control mine.  Because shame is a power-play, plain and simple, in which people try to get you to eviscerate yourself.

This leads me to my odd but effective policy.  I don't allow anything negative about me to enter my home.  So, if you write me a scathing email or scathing comments, I delete them.  Instantly.  I read, but I don't reread.  GONE.  If I open a rejection letter, I scan it, and if it has any useful criticism, I put it in a folder and set it aside for a while, because usually, if someone is offering you helpful criticism, the sting of rejection will pass quickly and you'll be grateful for the input.

If it's just someone giving me a trashing, I throw it out.  Immediately.  As I tell friends, "I refuse to have anything with hurtful or negative comments about me or my work in my home."

For me, this behavior is symbolic of my unwillingness to internalize humiliation or negativity, to turn it into shame.

As Brown points out, if you're able to realize, "This isn't about me," you're better able to "stay aligned" with your values "while trying to solve the problem."

Recently, as part of the conversation I found humiliating, I was given a lecture about compassion.  As this "advice" was unfolding, I was of two minds.  Compassion doesn't mean you don't hold people accountable for deceitful or hurtful behavior.  You don't pretend it never happened because you'd rather not deal with conflict.  And if you're compassionate, you practice it with everyone.

I was not being treated compassionately in that moment.  Not at all.  I was being humiliated and shamed.

So what to do?  In my experience, you often find yourself embroiled in conflict when you attempt to assert your self-worth in the face of humiliation or shame-spawning conversations.  It turns into a drama of competing narcissisms.

This isn't useful or healthy, in the long run.  It's exhausting.

So, I walk away when I realize what's happening, and I'm trying to get better about achieving that realization sooner rather than later.  There's no shame in any moment in which you learn something about yourself and about others--in which you begin to understand what's best for yourself and for others.

And thanks to Brown's book, I now have something I can think about when I'm away from such situations: cultivating what she refers to as "shame resilience."

When we cultivate shame resilience, we see shame and shaming words or behaviors for what they are, products of "biology and biography" (74).  We run reality-checks on what we're being told and on what others' expectations for us are.  We identify why we ended up feeling the way that we did.

And then, we reach out.  We tell others our story.  This is what I do, both with my good friends, and here on my blog.  One of the greatest realizations I've come to over the course of the past several years is the extent to which people would read my blog and try to use it as a way to play on any expressions of vulnerability it might contain.  In short, they'd try to shame me into silence, through fear or humiliation, or fear of humiliation.

So what I've learned is, discretion is one thing, but empathy is another--and if you value being an empathetic individual as part of your life's purpose, you have to be willing to put yourself out there.  To be vulnerable.  And if someone tries to shame you for doing that, to make you regret the fact that you were vulnerable, you have to see that action for what it is.

It is not a reflection of your self-worth.  If I don't feel guilty about what I've written, why should I be ashamed?  It isn't "bad," and therefore, neither am I.

As Brown argues, "Shame resilience is a strategy for protecting connection--our connection with ourselves and our connections with the people we care about.  But resilience requires cognition, or thinking, and that's where shame has a huge advantage.  When shame descends, we almost always are hijacked by the limbic system" (76).  We go into fight-or-flight mode.

So this has been my mantra lately: don't fight, don't flee.  Step aside and think.

For the past few days, I've been thinking of a favorite song of mine, sung by Edith Piaf, called "Cri du coeur."  It means "Cry of the heart" and the lyrics were written by French poet Jacques Prevert.  One of the verses I especially like reads,

D'autres voix chantent un vieux refrain
C'est leur souvenir, c'est plus le mien
Je n'ai plus qu'un seul cri du coeur:
"J'aime pas le malheur! j'aime pas le malheur!"
Et le malheur me le rend bien
Mais je le connais, il me fait plus peur
Il dit qu'on est mariés ensemble
Même si c'est vrai, je n'en crois rien.

In English:

Other voices sing an old refrain
That's their memory, it's no longer mine.
I have nothing left but a single cry of the heart,
"I don't like unhappiness!  I don't like unhappiness!"
And misfortune repays me in kind
But I understand it, it doesn't frighten me anymore
It says that we're married to each another
But even if that's true, I don't believe it. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Exercising Executive Function

After writing what I thought would be a bit of a throwaway blog post yesterday, I happened to stumble upon a post by Annie Murphy Paul entitled, "Improving Executive Function."

Paul writes about what is known as "executive function"--the mental skills that enable us to effectively organize our time, pay attention, deliberate and make reasoned choices.  They're the skills that help us to function as "executives" in our own lives; without them, we would dither and procrastinate, getting little or nothing done.

If you've just read the last sentence and wondered, "Where can I acquire these skills?  I dither and procrastinate like a pro and nothing ever gets done...", you're not alone.  As Paul points out, valuable as these skills are, figuring out how to instill them in ourselves or in others has proven to be a bit problematic.

Over the long term, children who are given consistent structure (rules or behavioral guidelines) and support (meaningful praise and mental stimulation), coupled with a sense of autonomy and self-determination, will develop strong executive function skills.

Short-term attempts to instill such skills, however, typically prove insufficient or problematic.  Computer programs designed to "exercise" the skills needed for executive function don't really work all that well--in most cases, people get so that they can ace the program, but they never really develop the ability to transfer the computer-simulated skills to real-life situations.

What I found interesting (and relevant to yesterday's post) is that, according to Paul, recent research has suggested that  regular aerobic exercise can help.

(I can hear people now: "Oh, THANKS.  Once again, I'm being told to exercise.  Great."  I know.  I hear you.  Why does it always seem to come down to that?  Why can't studies show that we should all sleep late and then have a bracing cup of coffee laced with caramel and chocolate, followed by six different kinds of pastry?) 

Exercise doesn't just keep you physically fit, it seems: it helps you develop (or maintain) mental fitness as well.  Regular aerobic exercise appears to help individuals at all ages maintain strong problem-solving skills and quick reaction times.

People who exercise are often more adept at task-switching and better able to pay attention.  They can often "hold multiple items in working memory," in contrast to those who do not indulge in regular exercise.

I'm no expert, so I can only observe and randomly speculate on the basis of my own experience.  To my mind, it makes sense that making sure you're getting the blood pumping and sending more oxygen to your brain on a regular basis can only be a good thing (provided you don't overstress your system, of course).  After I exercise, I not only feel terribly virtuous, I often feel a bit more focused and organized, and this typically translates into a willingness to get all kinds of small-scale tasks done and out of the way.

In short, it translates into the kind of behavior I described yesterday as part of "life's maintenance."

I also find that, if I'm going to make time to exercise, I have to manage my time and my work a bit more thoughtfully and effectively, particularly during busy periods of my life.  So, I find that I'm organizing and problem-solving and operating a bit more efficiently simply in anticipation of the actual exercise itself.

All of that said, I can't help but feel that, in my own case, it helps to come out of hibernation.  I tend to maintain a solid exercise regimen in spring, summer, and fall, and it always, always falls off during the dark and chilly months of winter.  I often feel that this is my most unproductive time: I feel sluggish, sleepy, disorganized, and, by the end of February, downright chubby.  I develop habits that would strike me as positively ridiculous on a sunny, breezy day in May.

And so, every year, right around the time of Spring Break, I give myself a late-winter talking-to and tell myself to "wake up!" and "cut the crap!" and "get moving!"  And then, daylight savings time kicks in and I get it in gear--and spend all kinds of time wondering, "What was so hard about that?"

Paul's article was interesting to me because it makes me feel a bit better about the short-term "damage" I worry that I do to myself every winter.  Perhaps it's not all that "damaging" in the long run, if it's regularly countered by three seasons of executive functioning efficiency.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Life's Maintenance, Midpoint

Well, so much for having more time to blog this week.

It's been a good week, though.  I've been working on catching up on all the things I spent the past six weeks falling behind on, and I'm almost there.  A few more days, and I'll have it all caught up.

It warmed up ever-so-slightly last week, after a somewhat cold and snowy winter, and whenever that starts to happen, I go on a bit of a fitness kick.

Gone is the impulse to curl up under blankets by the fire, glass of wine and book in hand.

Instead, I start taking walks.  I went swimming (indoors).  I went skating (indoors).  I did weights (which I hate, so that's how I know it's the season).  If it warms up even a bit more, I'll be out on the bike.  I started thinking about restarting my boxing and my Pilates classes.

I also planted spinach, since it has to go into the ground early.  Last year, I put it in too late when I planted in the spring, and when I tried again in the fall, it was also too late.  So, no spinach last year.  We'll see what this year brings.  I planted onions and there's still asparagus and garlic from last year, so believe it or not, the garden is already underway for this year.

I confess, it hasn't been a very interesting week for me to tell the world at large about: very much an introvert's paradise this week.  I cooked.  I read.  I walked.  I played.  I fixed and finished and refined.  I touched base with friends, but unfortunately, none of us had time to get together, since my free time didn't coincide with theirs.  Life does this sometimes.

So I did all of the little life-maintenance tasks that we all have to buckle down and do at some point in our little lives.

And now that those things are (nearly) done, I'm hoping I'll have more time to read and think this spring--and hence, more interesting things to blog about.  Dewey's Readathon is coming up at the end of April, and I need to get cracking on my Classics Club List again.  I'm about halfway through a whole bunch of things.

And we're already halfway through the month of March, believe it or not.  Seems like just last week, it was New Year's.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Can't Catch Me

At the risk of bringing the wrath of Mother Nature squarely down upon my hapless head, I'm going to offer a few observations about the latest East Coast Storm.

First, and most importantly, to the (otherwise) good people of The Weather Channel: stop naming all of the storms.

I think I speak for all of America when I say this.  It's not helpful, it's just annoying.  Really, really annoying.

In an era in which there seem to be no bipartisan issues left to be found, you have found one, Weather Channel.

I know that, on your site, you claim that "Naming storms will raise awareness."

I'm going to go out on a limb here and argue that people are, in general, quite aware when a storm is taking place.  Whether they are aware that it is "Gertrude" who has blown the roof off of their home and felled the tree that is now lying across the crumpled hood of their car or whether they know that it was "Hepzibah" who was responsible for the fact that they had to go for 5 days without power, is always going to seem extremely irrelevant, in the final analysis, to the people who end up weathering the actual weather.

You also claim that the "goal" is to "better communicate the threat and the timing of significant impacts."  Personally, over the years, I have often felt that, when it comes to the weather, previous communications were not only fine, but already a bit of overkill.

I remember, for example, a significant (albeit nameless) snowstorm in 1993.  My local news channels--ALL of them, actually--preempted all previously scheduled broadcasts in order to bring me "live team coverage" from I-95 so that I could be updated, on an hourly basis, about the fact that it was "still snowing." 

12 inches and 14 hours later, it finally stopped.  I was then treated to elaborate analyses of issues involving snow removal, from how many pounds of various melting agents had been dumped on the the mall parking lot to the number of calories burned while shoveling to the increased risk of heart attack incurred during winter weather in general.  (Shoveling snow is supposedly like moving a piano. I've moved a piano.  It's not like shoveling snow.  If shoveling snow feels that way to you, you should stop immediately because clearly, you're doing it wrong.)

In the end, I was told that a lot of things were closed or cancelled and that they would remain closed or cancelled until they weren't closed any longer, at which point the cancelled things would be rescheduled.

Everything reopened the next morning.  On schedule.

I remember thinking, way back in 1993, that I would have liked to watch TV on a snowy winter afternoon, but that ironically, I couldn't, because it was, in fact, snowing.  Which I knew.  It had been very clearly communicated to me by the air, actually, before I went inside and turned on the TV.

It's clear to everyone everywhere that every blessed channel competes for viewers and ratings, and that this is why we have to hear about the fact that it's snowing.  (Or occasionally that it's raining pretty damn hard.)

It's weather.  It happens every day.  It could be interesting and informative, at times, but updates every 15 minutes for hours upon hours that say the SAME THING are no longer useful, informative, or even remotely interesting.  To anyone.

Really.

The Weather Channel also justifies the storm-naming by pointing out that, in fact, "Weather systems, including winter storms, have been named in Europe since the 1950's."

That's nice.  Europe has also banned animal testing and the inclusion of all kinds of toxic chemicals in food and cosmetics.  They have nationalized health care in a lotta places too.

But this is what we adopt.  Storm-naming.

"Isaac."  "Katrina."  "Sandy."  These names mean something, because they were significant events.  This latest gig is just commercialization.  Of the weather.

Must we?

That said, this latest East Coast Storm has been a bit absurd for me.  I spent Tuesday and Wednesday worrying about it in NJ because, much to my surprise, it wasn't even mentioned as a problem in RI on Monday.  I checked, and the word "snow" appeared nowhere.  "Significant snow" wasn't even mentioned.

But yes, I heard "Saturn."  Over and over again.  And how it was going to be "tough to call."

My attitude is, then shut up for a bit, go get some information, and when you have something useful to tell me, speak.

My mom used to say, "How come, with all this fancy technology and radar and crap (yes, she called it "crap"), they're no better at predicting what's happening than my grandfather was?  He used to just lick his finger, hold it up to the wind, and say, 'Storm's a-comin.  My knees ache.  Gonna be a bad one this time.'"

Anyway, as far as this latest storm goes, I dodged it.  Got to RI.  Spent two days being told there would be "Significant Snow!"  "Power Outages!"  "Rain!"  Sleet!"  "Something!" "Up the I-95 Corridor!"  "Maybe!"

I waited.  And waited.  Nothing.  Zip.  Zero.  Nada.  Each night I went to bed with promises that in the morning I would be greeted with "8-12  (or 5-8 or 4-6 or  3-5 or 1-3 or a slushy inch) of snow."

Yes, it's been quite windy.  I'll give you that.  I would not want to be out on a boat just off the coast of Boston right now.  And consequently, I am not.

But as far as the weather goes, after days of concerned planning, I stopped listening yesterday.  Only to find out this morning that, in fact, it is finally snowing in a couple of places--and quite heavily--and that this might actually change my weekend plans.

I read emails from friends who hoped I was "warm and cozy."  I stared at the computer screen.

I stared out the window.  It's still not snowing.  I can see grass in the yard.  The porch had all of an inch of snow on it, and it melted.

I can't wait until summer, when I'll be able to learn that it is, in fact, hot outside.  And that this is because we're all feeling the wrath of heat-wave "Cleopatra."

Monday, March 4, 2013

Dialogic

"The idea begins to live, that is, to take shape, to develop, to find and renew its verbal expression, to give birth to new ideas, only when it enters into genuine dialogic relationships with other ideas, with the ideas of others."  --Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics

I've been thinking a lot about the idea put forth by Bakhtin: that ideas only come to life when they exist in dialogue with other ideas and "with the ideas of others."
I think this is something we've lost sight of in American culture, in many ways, and I'm not sure how to get it back.  I think we often think of whether or not an idea is "right" as measured by the extent to which it cannot be countered or responded to by the ideas of others, or other ideas.

It is interesting to think that, in Bakhtin's conception, such ideas are essentially lifeless.  They fail to interact with something outside of themselves and thus, they suppress the life of thought.  As Bakhtin argues, "the idea is inter-individual and inter-subjective--the realm of its existence is not individual consciousness but dialogic communion between consciousnesses" (88).

Perhaps the issue is related to the kind of consumerism practiced in American culture: we are a society defined by possessions, so we tend to think of our ideas as something we own, as entities that somehow "belong" to us and define us in some way.

How different would our understanding of ourselves and our ideas be if we thought of ideas as something to be inherently and necessarily exchanged?  If we considered the fact that they cannot come to life or define or belong to us until we've put them into an interaction with the ideas of others?

Bakhtin analyzes Dosotevsky's artistic representation of the idea and notes how, for Dostoevsky, ideas never exist apart from the individuals who think (or implement) them.  Again, this is an interesting way of conceiving of ideas: as something that is never abstract or divorced from life itself, but as integral mechanisms for operating in the world.

We think, therefore we are.  But perhaps more importantly, We are what we think.  And we can only be what we think--that is, we can only be who we authentically are--to the extent that we think ourselves in relation to others, to the thoughts of others.

As Bakhtin observes, "In Dostoevsky, two thoughts are already two people, for there are no thoughts belonging to no one and every thought represents an entire person" (93).  In the world of his novels, protagonists' thoughts "make [their] way through a labyrinth of voices, semi-voices, other people's words, other people's gestures" (95).

It is so easy to forget the ideas of others in the pursuit of one's own ideas.  We spend so much time attempting to assert and assimilate the thoughts and positions of our own ideas and experiences, that we often don't stop to hear how those thoughts resonate against and interact with the ideas and experiences of others. 

We tend to sift ideas through the filter of our own cognitive biases: we like to think we're open to new ideas, but the fact is, we tend to sort ideas on the basis of whether or not they endorse positions to which we're already cognitively committed.

Changing other people's minds is difficult; changing our own minds is no less so.