Trading Shadows

In every trip there comes the heated moment: the exchange. We peruse, we barter, we make our best attempt at issuing our request in the local tongue before we fall back on the tried and true method of pointing and smiling while nodding along politely. Whether it's shopping for souvenirs or ordering lunch, ever travel engages in this age old custom. But there's more on the table than colorful crafts and full bellies. 

Long before we swapped food, cattle, and precious stones, mankind's greatest exchange was that of metaphor. In outlining his theory of consciousness emerging from a bicameral mind, Julian Jaynes takes us back in time to describe a prototypical encounter between men on the verge of consciousness. 

Two strangers meet on a barren field. Each appears alien to the other. Their dress, their posture, and especially their language is a mystery. Yet, in that moment, an important decision must be made. They must each choose between our most fundamental impulses, flight or fight, with nothing more to go off of than the strangeness of the other.

Happily, the mundane culture shock that tourists encounter in their rounds about the marketplace are far less intense. Nonetheless, the dilemma faced by our hypothetical ancestors illustrates a truth that lingers with us even to this day.

As we grapple with what is going on in our own heads, the need to understand what might be ticking behind the studious eyes of others cannot be escaped. Just as they did in surviving the hazards of the wilds that surrounded them, our ancestors learned to group their peers into self-constructed classes and make assumptions, crafting potential scenarios and forecasting outcomes to respond to them more quickly. We built a world of shadows to better navigate real world. It's a map that many travelers still follow to this day.

Theses processes of generalization and prediction are the pillars upon which very sense of consciousness rests. As Jaynes argues, our repeated reliance on metaphors to make sense of our world hardened into something far more lasting. Surrounded by reflections of what we could recall around us, we built a mental space to more clearly view the world around us. We plugged the holes in our understanding with references to what we could easily see and logically assume from past experiences. When they encountered a new face, our ancestors relied on such stored perceptions to quickly determine whether it belonged to a friend or foe. 

In the initial moments of their meeting, each would assess the other to construct their own mental road map for the impending interaction. Surface layer qualities such as appearance and posture would certainly be taken into consideration. They relied heavily on these stereotypes and generalizations collected from prior encounters to inform their reality. 

The meanings tagged to these compiled memories were entirely subjective. They were all metaphors. Their significance was rooted entirely in the perceptions of their beholder. A marking worn as a sign of "peace" for its significance in one culture might bear a striking similarity to the symbols that prompted fears of war and conflict in the hearts of another. Our ancestors did not respond to the realities of their world, but the shadows that they constructed to fill its emptiness and mask its uncertainties. 

The wilds of the tundra didn't afford our ancestors the time to get to know the personality behind their perceptions. Their understandings of one another were marred entirely by these shadows of assumptions, the hopes and fears they projected on the blank canvas of an unfamiliar face. For many travelers, its an ingrained haviut that we still struggle to overcome today. But our ancestors did find one way to bridge a common ground and shine a light on the cultures hidden in the darkness that veiled their eyes, keeping true connections just beyond the reach of their understanding.

We first set out to explore our world that lied outside of our heads through stories. 

More accurately, it was language, our ability to convey ideas orally, that allowed us to debate, barter, and align meanings with one another. Finding an option beyond flight or fight required such an exchange. With a common meaning agreed upon, both sides could reach a point of mutual understanding, and thus impart upon one another a sense of security. And in comprehending one another, they each became a part of the other's stories. 

The ways in which warring tribes and distant cultures learned to co-exist came not only through the bartering of goods, but the sharing of experiences. Our stories, legends, and fables communicated from fireside to bedside, helped to open our eyes to new world views with each telling. They enabled the economic exchanges to take place, blending societies in myriad ways. 

Their stories placed them in the shoes of epic heroes, transported them to distant lands the likes of which our ancestors might never have actually seen in their lifetimes, and carried the customs of peoples who were only as real as the words that embodied them into the hearts of strangers. In bringing context to these figures that shared their world, stories helped our ancestors to chase away the shadows, easing them into the light of objective reality.

Continuing this tradition of impactful communication requires us to recognize that we are not entirely in control of what we transmit. This can be a hard pill to swallow in the age of social media, where we're accustomed to pruning and fine-tuning our individual profiles to our liking. But once the perfect picture has been selected to represent our mood, our adventures, a current snapshot in our life stories, it is passed on to its observers for interpretation. Even selfies have a social component.

This can be an important lesson for travelers to bear in mind. Only in opening ourselves to others, and recognizing the shadows cast by our own biases, can we begin to see the full picture. Accepting this natural impulse to apply our own perceptions to the inherent blanks in life enables us to also recognize the influence that our own assumptions and prejudices play in our evaluation of others. The way forward is not in eliminating or condemning these biases, but questioning them, challenging them, and overcoming them. Stop yourself. In every interaction take a moment to call out perceptions and sort out what you think you know from what you can honestly decipher. Invite your conversational partner to fill in the missing pieces and be prepared to do so yourself. Only in inviting another perspective, and learning to curb our own, can we see through the shadows, together.

-MJ


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Photos by Canva.