Theory of Knowledge

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Our Relationships Must SING or Die

Suppose innocence, not guilt.

This contribution was authored by Dr. Gary Schouborg, a Life Coach in Walnut Creek, California (email: gary@garynini.com).

There are at least three possible responses to the above title. The first intuitively grasps its point; the second wishfully takes it as promising more thrills than it does; and the third balks at what seems yet another over-hyped promise of happiness. In fact, this blog aims to meet its promise to the first, ground the second in common sense, and satisfy the third with a realistic understanding of spontaneity as the antidote to anxiety.

SING is an acronym for “suppose innocence, not guilt.” It expresses a fundamental principle of life, explaining how we relate to others and the world around us through a triad of spontaneity tempered by caution to produce a reliable trust.

SING tells us that living begins with spontaneity. We could not get out of bed in the morning, let alone get through the day, if our first instinct were caution.  If our first instinct were to question what we were about to do, we would have to question why we are about to question what we are about to do. We would never get started. To act at all, we at some point simply have to act.

Yet only a fool is completely spontaneous. Even infants are sometimes wary of the unfamiliar. The world can be a dangerous place. There is plenty of room for caution, for assessing the risk of what we are about to do.

From spontaneity and caution arises trust. In assessing risk, we estimate reliability. When we hop out of bed, how likely is the floor going to be as solid as it was yesterday? It is usually so likely that SING never raises the question unless the building has just been severely damaged. Whether we are interacting with new acquaintances, old friends, or loved ones, how likely is it that they are going to tell us the truth, keep their promises, treat us with affection and care? Such questions arise according to circumstances. Our life-long challenge is to trust wisely, balancing our primal need for spontaneity with caution: a common sense of the risk involved. That of course is easier said than done, especially since our culture often promotes grotesque and confusing stereotypes of all three elements of the SING triad: spontaneity, caution, and trust.

Gary Schouborg, Ph.D.
When we think of spontaneity, do we think of a wild and crazy guy? When we think of caution, do we think of people afraid of their own shadow? When we think of trust, do we think of a roll of the dice? At best, these images capture only a narrow range of behaviors. At worst, they mislead us into identifying SING with behaviors rather than our innermost attitudes, which generate different behaviors specific to circumstances.

If we are overly influenced by  a common stereotype of spontaneity, we will be surprised to learn that it could involve staying home and playing solitaire on a Saturday night. Everything depends on what we need in the moment. Perhaps we are of a quiet temperament and do not like the loud energy of a singles bar. Perhaps we have no one at the moment whom we are looking forward to going out with. Or maybe we usually enjoy singles bars or have friends we regularly enjoy going out with, but tonight we just need to give it all a rest. What is not spontaneous  is going out because “only losers are found home alone on a Saturday night.”

If we are overly influenced by a common stereotype of caution, we will be surprised to learn that it is not necessarily the sign of cowardice. A smart climber cautiously practices before trying to ascend Mount Everest. Those insufficiently big-boned and muscled are rightfully cautious about playing football. Inadequately skilled military are cautious about volunteering for a dangerous mission. None of these instances kills spontaneity, unless we mistakenly identify it with being loud and reckless. Whatever we decide, SING counsels us not to second-guess ourselves unnecessarily. That is what kills spontaneity.

If we are overly influenced by a common stereotype of trust, we will be surprised to learn that it is not the same as gullibility or slavish dependence. It is the product of a spontaneous impulse guided by a wise caution: an intelligent assessment of risk. Trust is therefore not a passive reliance on another motivating and directing us. It begins with our own impulse to act, proceeds with a reasonable question about whether the consequences of doing so are really beneficial, and ends with a realistic assessment of reliability—that we can count on some object or person to perform as we have come to expect.

The acronym SING is a deliberately created reminder that spontaneity is the foundation of life and therefore of relationships. If we do not come to a relationship from a spontaneous impulse, even if only an innocent cry for help, we bring nothing to the table. The more spontaneous we are, the more we contribute. And, because spontaneity is the opposite of being defensively frenetic, it opens us up to others rather than closes us off from them, making us receptive to what they have to give. That is how spontaneity inherently nourishes mutuality.

When we are overly anxious, our otherwise reasonable need for caution has gotten out of hand. There is of course a natural anxiety, a realistic caution responding to real risks. But exaggerated anxiety indicates something is awry. Either our own lack of spontaneity and consequent lack of initiative makes us overly dependent on others for our happiness, increasing our vulnerability and therefore cautiousness. Or we have not adequately digested and moved on from past painful experiences. In either case, we need to spend some quiet time to access and free up our spontaneity, which in the first case reduces misplaced dependence and in the second case reduces our defensive clinging to the past.

The problem of course is that anxiety reduces trust and provokes caution, thereby inhibiting spontaneity. How do we summon the will to break out of that vicious cycle? Ironically, the image of breaking through our anxiety by an act of will—that is, supposing that spontaneity is itself an act of will—is part of the problem. Paradoxically, spontaneity is an impulse beyond will, beyond deliberate choice. It is inhibited by an exaggerated will to control, by an excessive need for deliberation. This is what SING means when it advises us to suppose innocence (be spontaneous), not guilt (rather than overly deliberate and controlling). Trying to be spontaneous by willfully breaking through excessive control is self-defeating, since our will is the very source of control just when the only solution is to let go of it. 

The problem is that when we are anxious, being told to let go only makes us more so. It is like telling the driver of a speeding car to let go of the wheel and it will steer itself. Initially, letting go of our anxieties is safe only in very small doses. It must be done in quiet time, under circumstances where we can feel safe for some foreseeable while, maybe 10 minutes to begin with. Some people find their own quiet time informally, as in quietly rocking back and forth, walking in the woods, watching the sun set, reading reflective literature, or listening to meditative music. Others engage in formal meditation of some kind.

Whatever its form, quiet time allows us to refrain from feeding our anxious thoughts. We do not suppress them. We let go of them, allowing them to come and go as they will without engaging them. When we find ourselves buying into them, we simply note that and let go. The less we feed them, the more they wither away from lack of nourishment, and increasingly we experience an innocent impulse toward life that is spontaneity. In returning from quiet time to practical life, we gradually find that our anxieties have less hold on us and we can increasingly maintain a balance between spontaneity and realistic caution in ever more challenging circumstances. We proportionately reduce any impulse toward recklessness—spontaneity’s imposter—as well as toward any excessive caution that imprisons spontaneity. In our relationships, we increasingly SING on key.

Gregg Henriques, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at James Madison University.

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