Human Interaction: Blossoms and Thorns

[3000 words]

I propose we think of our relationships in the following way.

Every interaction can be boiled down to two elements: radiating softly outward like a blossom, or retracting back while leaving behind one’s sharpest points, like a clam or a thorn.

I would say that this is the easiest way to see beyond all the surface-level noise of social interaction, and into the fundamentals.

The key lies less in the specific concepts I’m proposing, but rather in what they are replacing: in not viewing interactions in our usual way.

Blossoming means acting, speaking, or holding oneself in a way that exudes warmth, security, good humour, non-violent interest. It manifests itself in the softening of one’s tone of voice, in the relaxing of muscular tension, in the non-argumentativeness of one’s words.
Its main feature, however, is internal: in the fact that the words and actions spring from a feeling of love or simple curiosity.

The thorn is just the opposite. It manifests from the emotions of fear and anger. The fear causes one to retract, to expose less of oneself (physically and emotionally). This aspect is best communicated by reference to a clam: when you clam up, you recede, retire, so as to protect your soft spots from someone else.

However, unlike a clam, it is not sufficient for us to simply retract. Humans do not have much physical or emotional armour: if the object of our fear calls us on our bluff and tries to get in close, we will surely be wounded. And so, we leave a threat behind us when we retreat, like a landmine. In other words: a thorn. Something which says “don’t come closer, or else”.

In other words, it’s about speaking or acting out of fear and anger… or, more accurately, out of habits initially born out of fear and anger, and now simply maintained by automatic sequences of mental and physical tension.

At every moment — whether we’re talking, doing something, or just standing or sitting there — we are basically doing one of these two actions. The middle ground between them is paper-thin.

And this is the main point: I would suggest that the blossom/thorn dynamic is the central, core, root activity, and the actual actions and words we use are simply the peripheral leaves and branches.

It kinda goes like this:

  1. Receive input from the person we’re interacting with.
  2. Decide on whether to blossom or thorn.
  3. Decide how to blossom or thorn: what action or line of thought to begin carrying out.
  4. Decide how to continue with the action or line of thought decided above; do I adjust a little this way, adjust a little that way?

They key point is that self-awareness usually only kicks in during Step 4.

Steps 1, 2, and 3 are (generally speaking) all done subconsciously.

It also kinda goes like this:

  1. A blossoms to B — takes one step closer.
  2. B blossoms to A — takes one step closer.
  3. A gets spooked and thorns at B — takes two steps back and says something sarcastic.
  4. B freaks out, and clams right back up — takes five steps back.
  5. A freaks out at B freaking out — takes ten steps back.
  6. A and B both leave, and spend all evening wondering what went wrong.

The key point here is that we are risk averse. The consequences of failure (death) are more dramatic than the consequences of success (increased chance of averting death at some later point). Thus, we are programmed to react more dramatically to a thorn than to a blossom. It’s like the classic Machiavelli line: if you were the head of a state and absolutely had to choose between them, it is better to be feared than loved. This is the more direct path to our ensured survival.

The problem is that very few interactions in our daily lives actually have our survival at stake. So our instincts are not very useful to us here.

The second key point is about surface and fundamentals. The way we usually look at these things, we get stuck on the content of the particular thoughts or words we were exchanging. Sometimes, that’s the right thing to be looking at; in which case, no problem. But if we consistently fail to make sense of it on that level, then the best approach is probably to switch registers. To look at a simpler, and less immediately visible part of the interaction: that is, the extent to which we were exuding warmth out at them versus reacting out of insecurity and fear.

A lot of our pain in the moment, and rumination after it, arise from looking at the wrong place: at the “surface” rather than the “foundations”.

This will be best illustrated with examples. But I think I can get away with sticking to a single one, and just stringing it out slightly.

I’ll return to my favourite topic: the schizophrenic homeless.

I’m walking down Cowley Road.

I notice one of the schizophrenic homeless guys, in full flow of talking to himself.

As I pass by, I wave hello and smile.

He gives me a strange look and says:

“What do you mean ‘hello’? What, you think we’re friends or something? You think you can just wave a bit and everything’s all cool? A smile doesn’t help me pay for food. Either give me some money or fuck the fuck off, why don’t you?”

I let out an inaudible yelp, look down at the ground, and increase my pace.

Out of the corner of my eye, I notice him flinch back, and I can almost hear him thinking:

“Oh no, I’ve done it again, haven’t I? The way he reacted means he was a nice guy just being friendly, and I just stuck my foot in it again. Oh no, why do I always do this, I’m the worst—wait, wait, the social care worker said that when I start to say that, then my condition starts to deteriorate… OK, whatever, whatever, don’t think about it, just–“

This, friends, is a classic example of Freaking Each Other Out.

In other words, the conversation proceeds until one person freaks and sends out a thorn, which causes the other person to freak, which in turn causes the first person to freak more, until the whole interaction becomes very fraught and tiring.

To elaborate a little more: most interactions start with a neutral opening. The ice is not yet broken. You’re feeling each other out.

And then one person blossoms. They make some micro-signal which indicates non-threatening friendliness. And the other person reacts accordingly, blossoming out in turn. This is a virtuous cycle, but it can be a surprisingly slow one. If one person has a tendency to hide deep in their shell, it could take years.

At some point along this process, some dissonance is bound to happen.
One person is bound to say or do something that subconsciously reminds the other person of something they don’t like, or otherwise rubs them the wrong way.
And thus you get into a vicious cycle of mutual flinching.

If you are very strong, and are having a good day, you can potentially put a stop to this downwards spiral by resolutely refusing to lash out or flinch back, and instead hold your ground and very gently blossom back outwards.

To sum up:

  • Our conscious minds naturally work to get immersed in the content of our conversation with someone.
    • Thus, the fundamental blossom/thorn dynamic is largely pre-cognitive and sub-conscious.
    • Therefore, the attempt to alter this dynamic consciously usually backfires. It just makes us self-conscious, halting, awkward.
      • (And this arises simply from the nature of the process itself. This is what is inherently tricky about adjusting pre-cogntitive, sub-conscious processes.)
  • Furthermore, our minds are risk-averse.
    Thus, we react more strongly to thorns than we do to blossoms.
  • Now all we have to do is add the previous steps together.
    • It’s a sub-conscious, habitual process where negative feedback is reacted to more strongly than positive feedback.
      • Therefore, we fall into this behavioural pattern of Freaking Each Other Out, and all end up lonely, in our own solitary corners, when all we wanted was to be happy together.
      • Having fallen into this pattern, it becomes habitual, and thus self-reinforcing.

Alright. Then what is the way out of this conundrum?

Jesus, basically.

(Gimme a second with this one, k?)

As far as the story goes, Jesus of Nazareth is the perfect example of someone who managed to make their way out of this trap we find ourselves stuck in.

He taught that, if someone strikes your cheek, then simply turn your head and present them with the other one.

In other words: never thorn. Always blossom.


Jesus was (again, according to the story) capable of being literally crucified — having his hands and feet nailed to a plank of wood and slowly suffocated to death in the beating Middle Eastern sun — …all while feeling no hatred or resentment at his torturers or the world at large. Not only that: he was capable of being tortured to death while feeling boundless compassion and forgiveness for the ignorance and suffering of everyone who ever existed or will exist.

And that, basically, is what we want. Not just because it’s an inherently valuable and desirable thing. But because it holds the only real solution to the problem of our daily loneliness and frustration and personal suffering.

There are two reasons Jesus was able to do as he did.

This first is that, according to the story, he was God.
Not “a god”. Not just “a part” of God. He was God. He was a unity with the unifying principle of everything. As such, he had access to infinite resources.
We are not in this position. Every single day, there are points where we do not have the emotional energy to hold back our instinctive urge to retreat and warn people off. We can arrange things so that our reserves of energy increase a little bit, day by day, month by month. But by and large, as things stand, there’s just not much we can do about this. In some ways, it would be foolish for us to aspire to be precisely like the Jesus of the gospels.

But the second reason was far more important. Namely: he thought that he was God.

Allow me to illustrate this through an example.

Let’s say you’re interacting with someone, and they give you a funny look.

At this point, a normal person might wonder: “Have I done something wrong? Have I said something weird? Have I somehow hurt or offended this person?”

But for Jesus, that thought is either nipped in the bud, or does not arise at all.

Because Jesus is not only perfect — he is Perfection itself.

It is absolutely impossible that he could have done anything wrong. “Jesus doing something wrong” is like dry wetness or a sharp sphere.  It is — by the definition we’ve provided — a meaningless, absurd thought.

The rest of us don’t get the luxury of believing ourselves to be Perfection in every possible way. But you see the general point:

Self-love and self-esteem are the necessary underpinning of the love and esteem of others.

You see how this works, right?

The key to successful interactions with sentient beings who do not pose a major danger to us (and who have evolved in similar enough conditions to share some basic signals) is to always act out of love for them (or innocent curiosity). In this way, we can be sure that all the subconscious signals we’re sending are positive, friendly ones.

And we simply cannot rely on a conscious effort or act of will; the decision points are too many and too subtle to try and directly control.

So we have to form a sense of identity which is totally benevolent and supremely stable. That’s pretty much what an identity is for: it’s a simplified version of our selves which we use to autopilot some of the million tasks the conscious mind doesn’t have the time and resources to do itself.
It’s like a kooky inventor who makes all these little robots to clean up the workshop and interact with any but the least annoying visitors. You can’t expect the inventor to do all these tedious tasks — they have inventions to be getting on with! Our conscious self is like the inventor, and our various identities are the little robots.

[…now, in practice, this probably won’t work out for most of us, most of the time.
No matter how much we intend to keep it as a passive rather than an active process,
we’d end up exhausted from the effort of summoning up goodwill and lovingkindness by noon.
So, generally speaking, it’s probably best to aim for equanimity and neutrality —
a default mode of non-reactive observation.

Now. There are two ways to form this new, more benevolent sense of identity: changing the way we think, and changing the way we act.

Changing the way we think

The easiest way to do this is probably the old-fashioned way.

We know, through direct observation, that we are full of fear and anger etc.

And so we section off a bit of our mind and dedicate it to imagining a different person who is absolutely perfect and omni-benevolent and tastes of candy etc. etc.
In other words: Jesus, or the Buddha.

And then we tell the rest of our mind to dedicate itself wholeheartedly to them. We know that Jesus-Buddha is perfect — and thus, as long as we follow them and do whatever they say and direct every action to them, then we will come as close as we can to perfection ourselves.

This is probably the optimal strategy, in terms of how efficiently it taps into the basic features of our primate consciousness. I, personally, find it rather distasteful. Nevertheless, in practice, we probably have to exploit this awkward process of idealization-and-then-imitation in some form or another.

So, long story short: get a role model.

And if you can’t find one, then invent one.

(There are a bunch of other ways to change the way we think — different narratives we can adopt about ourselves and the world that will change our behaviour. But, whatever — I’ll get to them another time.)

Changing the way we act

This is the main one.

If I spend all day hitting rocks with metal objects, then eventually I’ll find myself thinking: “Well, I guess I must be a stonemason.”

If I spend all day (and night) taking care of a child, then eventually I’ll find myself thinking: “Well, I guess I must be a parent.”

If I’m always nice to people, then eventually…. after about a 1.7 million years…. I’ll find myself thinking: “Well, I guess I’m probably not Satan.”

If I find myself thinking that, it’s because my subconscious has started to form a sense of identity as “probably-not-Satan”, and it’s running the idea by me before it goes any further with it. So long as I don’t give it any anxious, self-hating pushback, then it will continue to foster this sense of identity. And as this identity stabilises, my actions will increasingly come into alignment with it. Until, before I know it, I’m finding myself acting like “probably-not-Satan” all the time, without even trying.

The key principle here is, in Confucian terms, 慎獨 (shèndú) — “being watchful and careful while alone”, or “to preserve proper behaviour even in private life”. The idea is we should always do what we honestly consider to be the right thing, even when doing the ‘right thing’ has no discernible positive consequences whatsoever.

The reason why we should do this is extremely obvious: training our spontaneous inclination requires great consistency.

You can’t tell a boxer to dodge left on an opponent’s jab, then have them dodge to the right in training every day, and finally expect them to dodge left on fight night. They’ll just get confused, hesitate, and get punched in the face.

If you muddy the message by doing some things one time and other things another time, then you’ll take the action out of the subconscious muscle-memory, and force yourself to think it through each time.

And for many things, that’s already too much. The moment you hesitate in order to think something through, the moment is already gone. And as we’ve established, this is especially true of these subliminal signals of friendliness and aggression which I’ve labelled as blossoms and thorns.

So what this all means is that you have to stop acting on negative emotions as much, and start acting on positive emotions more. The more you do this consciously, the more you’ll do it subconsciously, until you form an identity around this. Eventually, it will become instinct.

Last key point: as ever, go slow. Your current trajectory has a lot of momentum behind it. If you try to oppose it directly, you’ll get crushed.
So: small adjustments, small adjustments. Soft, soft. Gentle, gentle. Remember the tortoise and the hare.

OK. Before I finish, a question.

Why am I writing this?

For one primary reason: to help you stop overthinking it.

I hesitated extremely long and hard about publishing this, because I was extremely scared of making people self-conscious. No matter how much I emphasize gradual, indirect approaches in the second half, the fact remains that, in the first half, I lay things out pretty bluntly.

The temptation, then, would be to examine each and every one of your actions and statements with the question: “oh, wait — am I blossoming or clamming up?”
Proceed this way, and you’ll end up exhausted by breakfast time.

And so we fool ourselves. We tell ourselves the problem must be more complex — that this can’t be the answer, because thinking of things in this way just makes us miserable!

So we keep thinking about it. Despite the fact that there really isn’t anything to think about. It’s a depressingly simple problem, really.

Thus, we go nowhere with our thinking. And so we turn to a constant stream of books or talks. Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, or the legion upon legion of copycats (as usual, very few live up to the original). Some people even turn to the Pick-Up Artist subgenre.

So basically, I’m writing this to save you time and money.

That’s it. It’s over. You already get it. There’s nothing more to figure out. There’s only the agonizingly slow process of trying to walk back your thorny habit patterns, and cultivate your blossoms. As you do this, all kinds of specific insights will bubble up. But there is no point waiting until they all line up in perfect place before you start. That’s never going to happen. There is no quick fix — and you already have all the tools you need for a slow one.

That being said, we have to keep reminding ourselves of it, and keep finding new ways to phrase and apply the same few basic principles. That’s just life. So, obviously, do keep thinking about it and reading about it. (Hell — I’m obviously going to keep writing and talking about it.)

Just don’t expect anything radically different.

(And please come back and read my new posts, please.)

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