Amazing What People Get Used To

Prisoner-labourers in an African open pit mine (photo by Jean-Claude Coutausse/ CONTACT Press Images, for Amnesty USA).

The title of this post is a quote from the narrator of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. One can live in a paradise, or in a hell-hole, and after a while that just seems to be the way things are, what’s expected, what’s normal. You get used to it.

Old people lament the loss of things from “the old days” or “when I was growing up”. Those “old days” may have been during the Great Depression, or a war, or a famine, but that was what they were used to. Lottery winners and amputees get used to their new lot, and research suggests that a year after it happens, the lottery winners and amputees say they are equally happy with their lives.

I’ve tried to figure this out from a perspective of our conditioning, but conditioned behaviours are all about what we do, and “getting used to” things is about how and what we think and feel, not about what we do.

Wild creatures never seem to get completely used to being imprisoned in cages, zoos, factory farms and other confinement operations. If they’re fortunate enough to taste real freedom, their reaction usually seems to be one of complete and unrestrained joy. That’s probably why the confiners prefer to confine animals before they’ve gotten used to freedom.

Likewise, if a life of slavery is all you’ve ever known, you are probably more inclined to get used to it than if you’ve lived part of your life free. That’s true regardless of the institution of slavery — public or privatized prisons, refugee ‘camps’, work ‘camps’, ‘detention’ centres, ‘special’ boarding schools, for-profit old-age homes, or hopeless, bullshit-job workplaces. For some, freedom can even be scary if they’re not “used to it”.

And then there are those subjected to abuse in the family home, or the workplace. For many, it’s all they’ve ever known, or they’re afraid that if they flee, they’ll be abandoning other family members and pets to even worse cruelty. And for many, there is no safe place to go anyway.

Humans are (probably) uniquely blessed with the capacity to imagine things being very different from how they really are. But our modern western culture has starved us of the need and opportunity to practice imagining, and without exercise, that capacity quickly gets stunted.

When you can’t imagine anything else, you get used to what is, faster.

And our political, social and economic systems are now so huge and complex that we can no longer fathom how or why they are the way they are. It’s not like when you’re ridiculed as the fool of the tribe because you’re not well coordinated or you’re funny-looking or slow to learn things. You can get used to that because you kinda know why it is how it is. And you know the tribe is likely to look after you anyway.

Instead, in our modern complex world, you get used to the unknowability, the seeming arbitrariness, the unfathomability, the everyone-for-themselves-ness, the learned helplessness, and the seeming hopelessness of how things are. Things just happen, and everybody tries to make sense of it (“he’s just pure evil”, “it was a conspiracy by those guys”, “it was the gods’ will”, “we were stupid”, etc) but usually it’s all just a guess, or a lie, or it doesn’t make sense at all. So you wake up anxious, glance through the daily doom-scroll, convince yourself that what they say happened somehow makes sense, and why it might have happened, or why it didn’t and they’re lying, and you get on with your day. You get used to it all, because there is no choice.

If a tribe member were badly misbehaving, the rest of the tribe would take it into their hands to diagnose and remedy the situation, for the collective good. They would have no choice but to act.

But if people are apparently behaving badly and you have no power to do anything about it, and no way of reliably knowing what’s behind it and what an appropriate remedial course of action might be, you don’t do anything. You make sense of it as best you can, you grouse or cheer or sign a useless petition accordingly, and you get back to your life, where you can actually, perhaps, do something. When it comes to most of the things that concern and imperil us today, we have no choice but to not act. We get used to that.

This is an insane way to live. It is in many ways indistinguishable from the life of a prisoner, or a slave. We share with prisoners and slaves the incapacity to act. This is the phenomenon the authors of The Dawn of Everything referred to as the loss of the three ‘basic freedoms’ in any society: the freedom to move elsewhere if you’re unhappy; the freedom to disobey if you disagree with what you’re told; and
the freedom to imagine, create and explore other and different ways of living and being.

The thesis of The Dawn of Everything is: “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make, and could just as easily make differently.” 

But could we? I will concede that theoretically it is possible for us to do so. We could suddenly cease the behaviour we’ve mostly gotten used to, which is the antithesis of the three basic freedoms: Stay, obey, and accept that this is the only way to live.

The alternative of walking away, refusing to conform, and exploring other ways to live that do not require “getting used to”, but which are rather natural, healthy ways to live that most human and more-than-human societies have always lived, sounds exciting. Given the accelerating collapse of our civilization, that alternative is probably also inevitable, since we will, within decades, no longer have anywhere to stay, or any viable authority to obey, or any pretence that the way we live now is even possible, let alone the only way to live.

Now I have to confess that I didn’t tell you the narrator’s complete sentence from The Handmaid’s Tale. The full sentence was: “It’s truly amazing what people get used to, as long as there are a few compensations.”

And there’s the rub. For some of us, there are still quite a few “compensations” for choosing to stay, obey and accept that this is the only way to live. For others, of course, there are no compensations left, or never have been any.

When journalists go to some of the most unliveable places on the planet — like Haiti, or the slums of Lagos, or refugee camps — what they seem to hear from their residents, over and over, is a remarkable hopefulness that they too could, with the right luck and toil and divine guidance, receive the “compensations” they hear about and dream about that supposedly exist in the lands of plenty. So perhaps the Handmaid narrator might have more accurately said: “It’s truly amazing what people get used to, as long as there is at least hope for compensations.”

Lucky the dog kept coming back to his abusive owner, because that life was the only life he knew. It wasn’t as if he got used to it — he’d never known anything else. He had no compensations, and no hope for them.

So what’s our excuse? I wonder if it isn’t damned hope, instilled in us by the mythologists and the priests and the advertisers and the political and corporate con men. It would seem to be a uniquely human affliction, this belief in hope for a better future (or a better afterlife). Maybe if most of the world started to live in the present instead of in the hope-full future, we’d realize that the current compensations are not worth the cost.

Maybe we’d realize that hoping the politicians and the scientists and the business czars will solve the economic crises and the ecological crises is deluded. Maybe we’d realize that buying massively-subsidized electric cars from a moronic megalomanic billionaire in the hope that he’ll invite us to Mars when the SHTF is stupid. Maybe we’d realize that trying to perpetuate our crumbling planet-destroying economy and endless war-mongering a few years longer, in the hope that our children and grandchildren will be able to “fix” it, is criminal and cruel.

But I wouldn’t count on it. Given the choice between getting used to the current situation, no matter how ghastly it gets, or giving up all our compensations and hopes of salvation before total collapse absolutely forces our hand, history tells me we will opt for the former. Perhaps that’s our nature, and our fate. Perhaps we have no choice in the matter, and David Graeber was just telling us a delightful fairy story.

The “boiling frog” story is a myth. Frogs know better than to stay in water that’s dangerous for their health, and will always jump out of that water, no matter how slowly the temperature is raised. Human beings? Not so much. We keep hoping the temperature will somehow magically level off and go back down again.

Is the set of systems we call civilization so massively propelled onward by its own momentum, and so utterly convoluted, that it is impossibly out of control, even with our greatest, collective, concerted efforts? Maybe. Probably. But not certainly. Would most of us prefer to believe that to be certainly true (or, in the case of deniers, utterly false), and/or hope for salvation by some other, easier means that doesn’t entail giving up what they’re used to, including their “compensations”? The last fifty years of history suggests that’s the case.

Better get used to it.

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4 Responses to Amazing What People Get Used To

  1. Ivor Tymchak says:

    I remember during the financial crash the politicians kept repeating that the banks were too big to fail. It was then I realised humans had created a system that had gotten out of control and was now controlling them.

  2. Jerry McManus says:

    Sometimes I wonder what goes through the minds of people caught in the middle of mass murder. Say, for example, a genocide like the one in Rwanda. It takes weeks and months to kill all those thousands and thousands and THOUSANDS of people, right out in the open where everyone can see it, and yet people just sort of wait their turn to be killed. Are they paralyzed by fear? Or do they hope maybe it won’t happen to them?

    In the case of the collapse of our entire civilization, I wonder if it’s just simple disbelief. Like the folks on the Titanic refusing the lifeboats and calmly going down with the ship because, after all, everyone knows it’s unsinkable! Right?!?

    No Panic on the Titanic

  3. Joe Clarkson says:


    The article you linked to was quite good, but the final sentence, “perhaps this means that if the Paris goals can no longer be achieved, global industrial civilization should be consciously sacrificed in order to improve the chances of survival for as many people as possible”, ignores the fact that the sacrifice of global civilization means the sacrifice of billions of people.

    Of course there are potentially trillions of people yet to be born, so the sacrifice would be worth it from a “greatest good for the greatest number” consideration, but who is going to consciously opt for mass suicide to save the climate for future generations? We can hope that industrial civilization collapses very quickly so the climate is saved, but if it does collapse it will be entirely involuntary.

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