When two paths diverge, we must choose. One may lead to disaster. The other may lead to new vistas and novel opportunities. Having chosen, we cannot go back and see what might have been. Worse, we might not get to choose our own path, but instead experience the consequences of someone else’s choices. A Nexus, or moment of transition, contains elements of both creation and destruction. The creation of a new future implies a corresponding destruction of the past. And from that moment on, nothing is the same any more.
Grandma recalled hearing about the Pearl Harbor attack on the radio, and then listening to the radio broadcast piped through loudspeakers at her school the next day as President Roosevelt declared war. My father remembered as a boy in elementary school hearing that President Kennedy was assassinated. For my generation, I suppose the equivalent moment was that terrible day, September 11, 2001, sitting in class and watching the images of the jet plane crashing into the Capitol building, with the pillar of smoke from the still burning White House in the background. Everyone wondered what it all meant. Then a few days later, everyone was watching as newly-sworn-in President Lieberman vowed “never again,” pledged to wipe out the terrorists’ Afghan training camps, and promised to bring their Saudi backers to justice.
The most significant moments of transition in our lives are not necessarily so abrupt nor of such global significance, however. I remember one moment with particular clarity: a moment that shaped my destiny and guided all that was to follow. When I was 16 years old, I wanted to see a hypnotist perform. He was the featured guest at our high school assembly in March of my junior year. The hypnotist regressed one girl to five years old and had her singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” Another hypnotized guy became as rigid as a board. These and more were just samples of the show he promised us, if only we came back that evening for the deluxe performance, for only a modest admission fee. Everyone in my debate class buzzed with excitement afterwards. I was absolutely sold. I wanted to go with a passion I had previously reserved only for making good grades and clever arguments.
My parents did not share my fervor. When I explained the hypnotist had pledged to “unleash untapped mental powers,” Mom was adamant that my mental faculties were just fine as they were and did not require unleashing by an itinerant entertainer. Dad was similarly skeptical about the idea. He thought it was a complete waste of my time, and that stage hypnotism was little better than a confidence game disguised as entertainment. My irresistible enthusiasm crashed headlong into their immoveable disapproval.
Defeat was inevitable. Sure, I could change my parents’ minds on trivialities – what I should order at a restaurant or which T-shirt met their standards of propriety. But when they laid down the law, the best I could hope for was for them to deign to give me a reasoned explanation of why I was simply not going to get what I wanted. Still, I had to try. My informal approach was not working, so I imposed structure on my argumentation.
I led off with a classical thesis-antithesis-synthesis. I noted that hypnotism was a technique widely accepted in both psychology and forensics and of great potential value in dialectic and rhetoric. Skeptics might argue that presentation in a traveling show cast doubt on the technique’s validity, yet traveling lectures and demonstrations were critical in building awareness of emerging fields of study. Even Dad’s own field of electrical engineering could trace its historical roots back to electrical performers giving informative lectures and spectacular demonstrations to enthusiastic audiences. No particular dangers from hypnosis were evident in the scientific literature. Therefore, the potential value clearly outweighed any potential harm.
My parents were unmoved. Turning Dad was my best hope. When I was a kid there was a time I wanted to go on a overnight camping trip. Mom insisted I carry a nutritious lunch and extra food in case I was out longer than expected. Dad, on the other hand, noted that a pound of body fat is the equivalent of 3500 calories and that I was probably good for several days of starvation without significant impairment. “It’s painful as your body adjusts to starvation and starts burning your own tissues for fuel, but once you adapt I understand the discomfort is minimized. It’s good that you’re taking risks and stretching your limits. Builds character.” When he started talking like that, I knew I’d better shut up and bring the extra food. He’d be just as happy to let me suffer the consequences of my poor judgment ‑ at least to a point. There was the time my big sister, Kira, didn’t want to wear a coat on a Christmas trip to Atlanta. Sure enough, we got a flat tire and Dad insisted we all get out of the car and stand off the road while he changed the tire. When Mom started to offer Kira her coat, “No,” Dad said. “When we make poor decisions we must be prepared to accept the consequences.” She wasn’t out long enough to get too cold, but I don’t recall her second guessing Mom or Dad’s judgment on clothing again. If I could convince Dad that the consequences would be good for me he might yield.
I applied Rogerian argument: I explained my parents’ position back to them so they knew I understood it. I noted the validity of their position in the context of an ill-educated, weak-willed son unable to properly judge the performance and incapable of withstanding the blandishments of a potentially deceptive presentation. I pointed out they had done such a good job raising me, molding my character, and setting me on the right path that they – and I – had nothing to fear from the hypnotist. I further argued that the experience would advance our mutual goals in developing and strengthening my character by giving me practical experience in evaluating the methods employed by the hypnotist.
Dad seemed more amused than persuaded. “I see your debate coach introduced you to Rogerian argumentation. But I thought the point was to establish a common ground with your opponent before you antagonize him with your overly strident advocacy. You should try leading off with the Rogerian approach instead of using it as a last resort.” Nothing is more demoralizing than an opponent who ignores your strongest blows and instead critiques your style. I’d have to remember to use that technique sometime.
I was out of brilliant dialectic contortions. And I knew better than to try rhetorical tricks. They wouldn’t move my parents in the least. Fortunately, my efforts had proved enough to wear Dad down. Not that his opinion of the hypnotist changed at all, but I think he saw how much I wanted to go. He turned to Mom with a half smile and said, “Sometimes there’s no telling someone the truth. You have to show them. Mind if I go with him?”
Under assault from both sides, Mom relented. “If that’s what you both want to do, dear,” she acquiesced to Dad. Nevertheless, I saw her shoot him a look that both clearly disavowed any responsibility for the consequences and promised further words with Dad once we got back.
The performance that night was an extended version of the daytime show. Finally, the hypnotist called for anyone in the audience who wanted to be hypnotized to come up on stage. I turned to Dad with an unspoken plea, and he frowned in disapproval. Finally he said, “OK, you can go.”
As I was standing up, he grabbed my arm and said, “One more thing. Whatever you do up there, I want you to remember: be honest with yourself.”
“Sure thing, Dad,” I said casually as I eased past him to the aisle.
There must have been nearly fifty people on the stage. I joined them, as the hypnotist spoke. “I’d like everyone to listen very carefully to what I’m saying and focus on my voice,” the hypnotist began. “As I am talking to you, I will be moving around the stage. If I tap you on the shoulder, please step down from the stage and take your seat. Not everyone makes a good subject, so please don’t feel bad if you aren’t among the elite few left on stage at the end.” I was positive I was going to be among the elite few.
“Close your eyes,” he commanded with his smooth and confident voice.
“Relax. Focus only on the sound of my voice. Now I want you to clasp your left hand with your right hand and pretend they are stuck together. Try to pull your hands apart, but it is as if they are glued one to the other.”
I enthusiastically pretended to pull apart my hands as I heard the hypnotist winnowing down his field of subjects. He continued with similar commands, relax, focus, suppose this, imagine that, relax some more. I focused on his voice, tuning out everything else. Finally, there was a subtle change in his patter.
“Now, I want you to imagine your eyelids are stuck shut. If I told you right now to open your eyelids, you would be able to. In a moment, however, I will be asking you to open your eyelids and you will find that you cannot. If you tried right now you could. But I am going to count slowly to ten, and when I have finished counting to ten you will find that you cannot open your eyes.”
He counted to ten.
“Now, you will find that you are so relaxed that you cannot open your eyes.”
I remembered what Dad told me – be honest with yourself. I opened my eyes. I was one of only a dozen or so people left on the stage. The hypnotist was looking at me. I didn’t need a tap on the shoulder to know that I was certifiably hypnotically deficient. I returned to my seat next to Dad. There was a strange look on his face I couldn’t decipher. The show continued without my active participation.
The hypnotist led his subjects through a phase in which their hands were stuck together, for real instead of pretend. One by one he continued rejecting the least enthusiastic hypnotic candidates. He progressed through successive maneuvers, each one just slightly more elaborate than the last. By the time he was done, he was left with one girl quacking like a duck, a guy barking like a dog, another guy with his arms up like a tree swaying back and forth in the wind, and another girl who had become a washing machine spinning back and forth. I would have felt embarrassed for them, except the hypnotist’s progression was so gradual that their behavior seemed almost natural under the circumstances. I felt not quite right, but I couldn’t explain why. I was not the elite subject I had so desperately aspired to be, and I wasn’t sure whether to be disappointed or relieved.
On the drive back home, Dad spun one of his fatherly yarns. To my regret now, I often tended to tune out what he had to say. That night though, I listened attentively. “You know, son,” he began, “they say that if you throw a frog in a pot of boiling water, he’ll recoil at the heat and jump out, but if you put the frog in a pot of cold water and slowly turn the heat up, he’ll stay in until he boils to death. Your character is a lot like that frog. People make little compromises all the time, slowly chipping away at their sense of right and wrong, slowly expanding the bounds of what they consider acceptable behavior. Finally, they’ll do things that they never would have done if they hadn’t let their standards and morals slip away from them.”
“Are you saying my friends on the stage were immoral for barking or quacking?” I asked.
“Not actively immoral,” he said. “Call it immorality by negligence: willing to let themselves be nudged and talked, wheedled and cajoled into something that they wouldn’t ordinarily do. If the hypnotist had asked them when they first got up on the stage to believe they were a dog or a duck or a tree or a washing machine, do you think they would have complied?”
“No,” I agreed. “He started us with pretending and acting. When he said my eyes were stuck and I couldn’t open them, I remembered what you said about being honest with myself, and I opened my eyes.”
“That’s right,” Dad said. “But your friends wanted so much to be part of the show, so much to be the mental marvels that the hypnotist was looking for that they were willing to lie to themselves just a little bit and pretend that their eyes actually were stuck shut. Having lied once, the hypnotist was able to get them to lie to themselves just a little further with his next command, slightly further still with his next command, and so on. By the time he was done with them, those boys and girls on stage would have done almost anything he asked of them. They became hypnotic subjects through their willingness to comply with the hypnotist. I’m proud of you for setting a line between acting and pretending on the one side and self-deception on the other, and then refusing to step over it.”
“Thanks, Dad.” I said. And I really meant it. He could be distant at times or consumed in his work. But every once in a while when we were together, my old man would take things that were a confusing jumble, then he’d impose order on the chaos with a keen insight that left me aspiring to be as wise as he appeared.
Be honest with yourself.
“So, how do you figure out stuff like that?” I asked him.
“Observation,” he said. “Years of experience dealing with people. Lots of reading about techniques of persuasion.”
For months, I’d been thinking hard about what I wanted to study in school and what I wanted to do with my life. “If I want a career where I get to figure stuff out, what would I do?”
“Stuff? Like that hypnotist’s act? Probably psychology. Maybe marketing. You might get the practical aspects in studying interrogation techniques in criminology or in military training like your Uncle Rob’s. But any job that’s worth anything is going to involve lots of figuring ‘stuff’ out. You just have to decide what kind of ‘stuff’ you most want to figure out.”
“What if I want to figure out how things work at the most fundamental level?” I asked.
“Then, you should take a look at science in general and probably physics in particular.”
“Can you help me get started?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” Dad said.
Resolving to figure out fundamental stuff, and deciding always to be honest with myself: that is how I decided to become a scientist. Looking back now with the benefit of hindsight, I can see how fateful was that decision. The first steps to becoming a scientist took an enormous amount of time and effort. I had to overcome my youth and my inexperience. However, I had the advantage of boundless energy, burning curiosity, fierce determination, and most of all an open mind.
That’s probably why just a few months later I was able to spot the subtle clue that countless others had overlooked. Enormous effort had been spent to hide all the traces and cover up the hidden truth. If you looked hard enough though, the hints were right there, in plain sight, seen by many, yet understood by very few. My experience with the hypnotist left me primed and ready. Having found the clue, I wouldn’t let it go until I’d puzzled out what it meant and followed where it led. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
On Friday, April 6, look for Chapter 1 Notes: On Hypnotism and Frogs
On Wednesday, April 13, look for Chapter 2: The Discovery.
New chapters post on Wednesdays, notes post on Fridays.
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