image from piqsels, CC0
I don’t handle stress well, and don’t like surprises. The three words that probably best describe me are lost, scared, and bewildered. Small upsets may cause me to overreact and to stew for hours or days. My phobias sometimes make me hyper-vigilant.
This is not a plea for compassion or reassurance. Compared to what most people live with, caught up in their thoughts and beliefs and feelings and reactions, struggling with unending anxiety, shame, anger, distress, exhaustion, guilt, grief, longing, loneliness, dread, and so on, my life is a picnic.
My last post, which a lot of people found refreshing, raged against politicians, religions, the medical profession (psychiatrists especially), the legal profession, and “do-gooders” (devout humanists who still buy into the myth of personal and cultural progress). Doesn’t sound like someone who repeatedly asserts “No one is to blame”, does it?
I should, of course, have made it clear that they can’t help being assholes — that’s just their conditioning, much of it informed by trauma and other forms of mental illness brought on by what I’ve called Civilization Disease. And in the narrow circles they move in, they condition each other and reinforce their fiercely-held, pain-induced beliefs, as they are themselves conditioned, by endless negative reinforcement.
Like all of us (*sigh*) they’re doing their best. Though I know it’s illogical and needlessly stress-making and not their fault, I can’t help getting annoyed by what they do. My biological conditioning is for freedom, and my cultural conditioning is for “fairness”, and being told that restricting people’s freedoms of choice over their own bodies is somehow righteous, offends both these sensibilities. But there is no choice, really, on their part or mine, so apologies for my accusations. The relentless cognitive dissonance of our modern world sometimes makes me behave foolishly.
I could have blamed “the system” (as I did for most of my life), instead of the people who have no choice but to be entrapped by it. But that’s just a scapegoat, too. There is no system — a system is just a name we use for what emerges from the collective actions of some subset or other of 7.8B people, each conditioned by their biology and their cultural conditioning to do the only thing they could have done in the circumstances of the moment.
So my recent rant was just me playing a role that I’ve played often, and sometimes to applause, a role that I have no choice in, and for which the script is just given to me, as it is for everyone, one line at a time, just in time to be delivered, with the appropriate degree, or lack, of passion and conviction, before yielding the stage. It’s actually rather comical. Except of course for our selves, those intense, exhausted judgers of everything, like dogs in the stands barking furiously at us actors, not understanding that none of it means anything and they should not take it seriously. But they’ve been conditioned to bark, our poor, tragic selves, to bark from infancy until death, in the belief that their barking should make a difference. That’s what selves do.
My rants, my essays of joy and lament, my stories, are all just different ways of barking. We get encouraged when other selves join in and bark furiously with us, and dismayed when they do not. We all want reassurance from the other dogs, all around the stage, that our barking is appropriate, useful, and meaningful. Though it is not.
But something strange has been happening lately.
I’m barking less often, and when I do, it’s less noisily, less passionately, and for a shorter time. My heart’s just not in it like it used to be.
Despite the fact this past year’s events have caused many calm people to become unsettled, and many anxious people to feel as if they’re living on a knife edge, and despite the fact that CoVid-19 is preventing me from doing some things that I really love to do, I seem to have become less anxious, and more equanimous. What’s wrong with me?
I’m still watching the stage intently, watching “my” character play its strange roles, alert to any perceived threat of danger to it, or to the other characters I care about.
This has all been happening very slowly. In recent years when I go on a trip I don’t plan things much anymore, and am not really fussed about doing anything. I am much less inclined to get upset with myself, even when I’ve done something unwise or unintentionally hurtful. When stressors arise, I still react as quickly, but not as intensely, and I don’t get as overwhelmed, overreactive and dysfunctional. And I get over it much sooner. Things that once would have caused me to lose sleep for a week, now I get over in a day.
I seem to need less — less reassurance, less attention, less appreciation, less encouragement. With less reactivity and less self-destructive behaviour there is less need for self-reflection, less need for thinking, freeing up more time to just notice, pay attention, and be. And I seem to need less stuff, stuff which is no longer, for me, a reflection of who I am or what I represent.
I don’t think this reduced reactivity is a result of being less engaged or more dissociated from the world and what is happening in it. Indeed, I seem much more prone to bouts of crying, not in distress but in joy, such as when I hear moving music or read an exceptionally powerful story (Read this story for example; it’s long but magnificent and worth the time, and I cried through much of it).
I’m still an insensitive, unobservant and inattentive person, but perhaps slightly less so than I once was, and I think there’s a chance that’s because I’m less frightened to really see and understand things that are awful for others, or for myself. I still care just as much, but I don’t get as personally charged about it, or take it on as something I have to fix or do something about. We’re all doing our best. Even me.
I could ponder what changes in my conditioning might have wrought this apparent growing equanimity: Quitting social and mainstream media and similar doomscrolling, except for a quick glance at headlines in more trustworthy publications, and, instead, reading more thoughtful, well-researched articles and books, and local news only where I can take useful action. Spending my time with more intelligent, creative, curious, less reactive, less judgemental, less damaged people. Slowly internalizing my changed worldview, even though it hasn’t changed my essential nature. (Those who have reconditioned me thus know who they are — thank you!)
It is awareness of these changes, whatever is behind them, that has allowed me to accept that we have no free will, and to do so without becoming a determinist, fatalist, nihilist, or gloomy or depressed about that (and I spent much of my earlier life struggling with grinding, devastating depression). Although I remain a terribly slow learner, my conditioning, from deep within my genes and instincts, and from those whose company I now keep and who condition me, as I condition them, is somehow making me a healthier, more joyful person, even as the world is accelerating full-tilt towards a ghastly civilizational collapse.
I think I have good reason to call myself the world’s most blessed agnostic. Perhaps I am less my self than I thought. This dog almost looks like it’s ready to settle down and enjoy what’s left of the show.
This character, the one I presume to inhabit, is up on stage, doing what actors do, doing the only thing it can do, waving surreptitiously to my self as it whimpers and covers its eye with its paws, way up there in the stands — willing it silently to understand: It’s hopeless, but we’ll be fine.