This is another post in my ongoing personal exploration of ‘who we (human beings) are’, how we got that way, and how, at the individual level, we might learn to better heal, better adapt, and better prepare ourselves for what’s to come.
I‘m a pretty fearful guy. I spend a lot of time trying to work up the courage and/or energy to do important things, and not much actually voluntarily doing anything important (I’m comfortably retired from paid work, so I am fortunate to not have to do anything).
At the risk of appearing to rationalize my unproductivity, I have a theory for why I am this way: Our culture wants us fearful and (emotionally) flattened. Here’s my thinking:
Back when there were only a few million of our species, we had no real need for culture. When I observe wild creatures, I see them living “in the now”. They will do what is needed to help the flock/herd/group in the moment, and most wild creatures are a lot more generous and altruistic than we might think. What they are not is anxious or fearful about the future, or in thrall to their collective culture. That’s in part because they ‘know’ they have no control over the future, so there is no evolutionary point in them imagining it or worrying about it. Their fears are immediate, and require a quick fight/flight response, after which the anger and/or sorrow they felt when the fear was realized, is discharged, and they return to living joyfully in Now Time. That’s not to say they don’t feel grief at the loss or suffering of a loved one — just that they are not fruitlessly consumed or debilitated by these feelings.
Wild creatures have cultures (read Bernd Heinrich’s works on corvids if you want to learn more about avian cultures), but these cultures are simple emergent properties of the reality of their lives; culture is not necessary to their evolutionary success and does not impose itself on individuals in the group. Wild creatures do what they do because their instinctive, intellectual, sensory and emotional ‘knowledge’ guides them. They may scrap with others in their group, and may not always get what they want, and they are able in the moment to collaborate brilliantly to achieve a shared goal, but ultimately they make their own culturally-unencumbered decisions.
When human populations started to outstrip the carrying capacity of our ecosystems (the reason why we did so is a subject for another essay) it became necessary for our species to ‘settle’, and to create new political, economic and social systems just to survive in unnaturally large numbers and concentrations. Democracy and personal freedoms don’t scale well, especially in situations of horrific and unnatural overcrowding, so as these human systems grew larger they had to become ever-more coercive — we had to be forced to conform, to obey others and cultural “rules”, to “settle” for less than what our wild selves had always been accustomed to, and will always yearn for.
As our human numbers accelerated and soared past a billion, the levels of human violence and oppression have ratcheted up commensurately. So have the numbers physically imprisoned — in jails, ghettos, camps, and (in Gaza for example) even whole nations.
But physical violence and physical constraints have not been enough to keep us in line. To submit more and more of the ever-increasing plague of human numbers to the necessary levels of restraint and suppression of our natural behaviours, psychological violence has been required as well. What I see, all over the world, are two now-endemic forms of psychological violence invoked to keep seven billion people in our culture’s thrall:
- the social construction and constant triggering of a new set of crippling fears via learned helplessness, and
- the emotional flattening of the human spirit through social prohibitions and inurement.
To inure is “to habituate to something undesirable, especially by prolonged subjection” or acculturation. If you are subjected to something long enough and often enough (e.g. spending time in slaughterhouses or jails or emergency wards or factory farms or “old age” homes or street gangs or torture prisons or refugee camps or ghettos or the armed forces or police forces, or living with an abuser, or watching violent “entertainment”) you become habituated to it. You become unable to feel the strong negative emotions and visceral revulsion that you would if this were a rare or brief event. You cannot. You emotionally detach, disengage, dissociate. No one can sustain that intensity of emotion indefinitely. The emotion gets suppressed, turned inward, and eventually the chemical reaction that occurs no longer has the same effect. You become emotionally flattened, numbed.
From the perspective of a massive human culture that is trying to get all seven billion of its members to work hard without anger, grief, outrage, or complaint, such emotional flattening provides a huge evolutionary advantage. If you can be inured to not care, or to not care to know, you can be made to do anything. Or, in the face of continued cultural atrocities, to do nothing.
But there is an even more powerful tool that can be brought to bear to wield control over billions of people — fear. Fear is a natural phenomenon — most creatures have evolved instinctive fears of injury, and of being trapped, and of imminent harm happening to their loved ones, and these instincts have helped them survive.
Humans, however, thanks to our exceptional imaginations and memory and our invention of “Clock” Time, are capable of whole sets of additional fears about things that are either outside our control or are about the future. It doesn’t matter whether we are able to do anything useful with these fears. If they are invoked, we will fear nonetheless — and groups that are able to invoke widespread fear among others can capitalize brilliantly on it. Here are some of the things we humans fear (the taxonomy is mine, and is not intended to be complete or scientific); the ones on the right are those fears our culture has added to our instinctive repertoire, and thence exploited mercilessly and relentlessly to keep us in line:
Fearful and flattened. That’s what our industrial growth culture wants and needs of its members, now that it is a global monoculture strained to its absolute limits. Unless exercised in a culturally-approved way (such as “competitive” sports, wars, or abuse of one’s work or social “subordinates”), or locked away behind closed doors where there is plausible deniability, anger is now met with quick and violent suppression. Peaceful but angry demonstrations are met with heavily-armed stormtroopers. Anyone who even discusses angry resistance to the ecological desolation of our planet, to the theft and pillaging of Earth’s resources for the benefit of a tiny rapacious 1%, or to wars over oil or ideology, is branded a “terrorist” and subject to “disappearance”, extraordinary rendition to torture prisons, and/or indefinite imprisonment.
Likewise, feelings of debilitating grief, which I think are perfectly normal in our terrible world, have been pathologized and are now treated with large doses of anti-depressants or, failing that, ostracism and/or incarceration or other institutionalization. Our industrial culture teaches us to self-victimize. We are to blame, we are told, for our own unemployment and poverty (due to personal laziness or lack of moral fibre). We are to blame, too, for our own chronic illnesses (due to our poor eating and exercising habits). Suicide is, of course, treated not only as a sign of irresponsibility, but as a crime.
Our culture employs propaganda not only to divert responsibility for our anger and grief to ourselves, but also to keep us fearful. The propaganda machine creates a worldview of danger and scarcity, consuming us with fear of attack, of failure, of loss (especially loss of love), of uncertainty, of not fitting in and “not having enough”. And, of course, of death.
Because of our brain’s vulnerability to these future, unpredictable, easily-exaggerated and unactionable fears, our culture can exploit us by playing on our anxieties — re-triggerable dreads that precede fear and subside when those fears are not realized. Anxieties are conceivable fears. Any fear that can be conceived — terrorists, foreigners, rejection, threats of all kinds — can be blown up and exploited and used to control us and our behaviour, and even to immobilize us.
This cultural immobilization runs deeper than most of us ever realize. People on their death-beds, asked what they most regret in their lives, overwhelmingly cite things they regret not doing rather than things they did, and most of those ‘inactions’ are the result of cultural constraints or personal self-constraints, self-censorship of action, rather than the result of never having the opportunity to do those things. Daniel Gilbert‘s research shows that (thanks to our cultural programming) we have a tendency to overestimate the impact of current and future events and decisions on our future happiness, and this makes us timid and risk-averse in making those decisions, and overly preoccupied with the future instead of our current happiness. And many people’s reaction to Derrick Jensen’s relentless urging of us to act on our instincts in defence of our suffering and dying planet, is resentment at being pushed to do what is culturally-prohibited, rather than anger at the culture that is, with our own complicity, holding us back.
There are two cycles, which I think are unique to our species (or at least to large-brained species), that can be provoked with appropriate propaganda, as shown in the diagram below.
Because our brains create stories (mental representations of what is, was, may be or will be, and of who we are and why we are that way), we can and do constantly ‘re-enact’ situations which caused us pain and suffering — what I call the grief/inurement cycle. We feel the pain, we create a story to explain it, that story is so vivid and memorable that recalling it re-invokes the pain, and so on. We can become incapacitated by such suffering, until enough cycles have passed that we begin to forget these stories and heal. This aids a coercive culture in two ways: through the initial debilitation that prevents us from acting against the perpetrator of the outrage that produced the pain, and through the inurement that comes when we become so desensitized to the outrages, and the pain and suffering, that we begin to accept them as normal, the only way to live.
And then there’s the feedback cycle from anger and sorrow to chronic anxiety, as our brains imagine situations in which the atrocity that caused our pain could recur again and again, to the point this anxiety begins to immobilize us, and makes us pliable to cultural forces that promise to relieve us of or protect us from the things we have learned to fear. As Robert Sapolsky‘s research has shown, this anxiety/fear/pain/anger/grief feedback cycle is an emergent property and unintended consequence of our brain’s exceptional ability to imagine and recall, and the anxiety, especially in situations where events are outside our control, is unhealthy and useless — except to the culture that wants to use it to control us. This cycle also produces “learned helplessness” — the invalid but propaganda-reinforced sense that there is nothing we can do, except hope and trust that our ‘leaders’ can ‘save’ us.
Those who presume to be able to tell us how to deal with and ‘overcome’ our fears suggest six broad approaches to doing so. None of them is simple, or else we would all be using it. But the harder approaches (at least, harder for me: your experience may be different) seem to me to offer more effective ways of interrupting the vicious cycle of suffering, grief and inurement, or the vicious cycle of chronic anxiety and learned helplessness. Here’s a table that shows these six broad approaches to dealing with fear, and my personal assessment of their potential efficacy (again, your experience may be different):
|1. Avoid occurrence||Low||Incapacitation||Moderately difficult|
|2. Discharge||Low||Addiction||Relatively easy|
|4. Learn & prepare||Maybe||Self-deception||Moderately difficult|
|5. Accept & let go||High||Detachment||Very difficult|
|6. Live in the Now||High||Anomie||Very difficult|
The first, and obvious, approach is to try to avoid situations that give rise to fear or anxiety in the first place, but I’m learning that this is futile. The more you try to protect yourself, the more vulnerable you become to events and situations you could not avoid, and in the process you can incapacitate yourself to the point you become afraid to do anything.
Another common approach is to try to discharge, through physical means or through conversation therapies or other behavioural techniques, the emotion that the fear gives rise to. Many people believe wild animals do this when they “shake off” their emotion after averting danger. The theory is that this “discharging” cuts off both the grief/inurement cycle and the anxiety/fear/pain/anger/sorrow cycle by preventing the pain from being constantly revisited and reimagined and dwelled upon. But I would argue that we are incapable of having that much control over our memories and imaginations, and that while discharging might provide temporary relief, in the long term it is more likely to lead to addiction to the act of discharging (especially dangerous if that discharging is expressed as violence or unrestrained anger against others), than to any relief from either pain or recurring anxiety.
A newer method of dealing with fears is conditioning. For those with fear of flying, for example, the idea is to have the fearful person experience many safe flying experiences gradually, so that the mental connection between the experience and the feeling of pain is broken, and eventually the anticipation of the experience arouses no anxiety. I know some people for whom this has worked (and others for whom it has not). The danger is that you can end up being desensitized to real risks based on limited experiences. What happens if you are conditioning yourself to overcome fear of flying and your plane has an emergency landing? Trauma, I would think.
A fourth approach is learning and preparation. The more you know about what you can actually do if a fearful situation arises, in theory the less anxious you are likely to be about its potential occurrence. You are, in effect, combating the learned helplessness by giving yourself something (knowledge and experience) that gives you more control over a potential future experience. The danger here is that you may think you have more control than you really have, and that self-deception may lead to underreaction or complacency when the risk is real.
Now we come to the two methods I’ve been working on most recently. I think they’re connected. The idea of “letting go” of our stories about what might happen (our anxieties) to the extent they are beyond our control is extremely difficult, and I appreciate the skepticism of those who assert we can think ourselves out of our pain and anger and sorrow and fear. But our anxieties and fears and stories about things we cannot really know and cannot control is a ‘learned’ behaviour, so it should be something that, with practice and self-awareness and self-knowledge and self-management, can be unlearned.
And the sixth approach, of simply Living in the Now, and rejecting the stories our minds (and our culture) tell us about ourselves and others, and about what is and was and will be (or may be) in the future, before they even become part of our belief system and worldview, seems to me likewise a means of living more naturally, of being more present. I have had moments when I feel fully present, when I am simultaneously very aware (and self-aware) and very relaxed (and hence more competent and resilient in the moment), and in such moments I feel legitimately fearless. I want that feeling to last forever, and sense that this is the way most wild creatures, unencumbered by diabolically imaginative and past- and future-oriented brains, live their whole lives (except when danger is imminent), joyfully, naturally, and arguably more sensibly than we.
So my sense is that this practising of presence, this learning to live in Now Time and to let go what I cannot predict or control, is what I must pursue with increasing energy and commitment. I see it as being part of rediscovering who I really am, this feral, nobody-but-myself, me. And I think this is essential to cultural liberation and hence to the emotional flatness and fearfulness that is so much a part of the “everybody-else” me I have been acting as for so many years.
Maybe this is what we must all learn to do if we want to be able to do the essential work of preparing ourselves, our loved ones and our communities for the terrible crises ahead, when our industrial-growth civilization culture collapses and loosens its well-intentioned hold on the rest of us. Maybe that preparation is nothing more than this learning, this becoming ready to live without dependence on and coercion by culture. So that when it happens, we will know, as liberated, wild creatures, exactly what to do, in the moment.
Our perhaps it’s just me. Perhaps what I am seeing as the dark constraint of and the emotional imprisonment by our culture, is just my own projection, my own neat and convenient story for my own inaction, now. I don’t know. I’ll let you know if I figure it out.