Election ’16

In my latest article at MercatorNet, I play “spot the pattern” with Australian politics.
Why don’t you play? It goes: Rudd-Gillard-Rudd; Abbott-Turnbull…?
One has to wonder if the participants in this grand farce of Federal politics ever stop, stare at the heavens and ask themselves what immense and powerful forces are directing their movements. Because it seems too improbable that having lambasted Labor for its leadership woes, the Liberal party could unwittingly steer itself down the exact same course.
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Good Friday notes 2016

Reaching the end of your tether can be a positive experience. It’s a little cliche to say “the darkest night is before the dawn”, but I’m okay with letting the cliche stand when it’s this important.

Today is Good Friday in the Western Christian calendar, and though it isn’t the darkest night – the dawn being still two days away – it is nonetheless a grim entry into the event that epitomises the principle of reversion.

Reaching the end of your tether can mirror this principle of reversion to greater or lesser degrees once we realise that our old ways, our old efforts, our old self is just not going to cut it; when we recognise without caveats or excuses that something more is required.

For me this has translated into a sincere conviction that without some kind of spiritual/mental discipline I am in danger of being entirely depleted by the demands of daily life.

When it comes to such disciplines, I’ve done a lot of window-shopping and a lot of test-driving. I’ve seen and read enough to make me cynical of some people’s aims, methods and intentions as well as pessimistic about the benefits that accrue.

But a sincere effort requires a careful retreat from cynicism and pessimism. It’s true that there’s a lot of rubbish being sold, and a lot of things presented as one-size-fits-all solutions. That hasn’t worked for me in any other area of life, so why would it work in this one?

Struggling to learn a martial art has taught me that I can’t afford to take anything for granted. Nor is it simply a matter of asking lots of questions. We have to bear in mind personal idiosyncrasies, temperament, life experience, and individual circumstances, and the more you diverge from the mean, the more the onus is on you to recognise and understand where and how you diverge.

We are all individuals, but some of us are more individual than others.

For this reason I wouldn’t try to sway other people any more than I would let myself be unduly swayed. I have to practice a kind of philosophical autarky.

This also means I need to advance on the basis of what I know to be true, not on the basis of what I can prove to others, and on the personal level of overcoming compulsions and dealing with harmful emotions it is far more important to adhere to a discipline that works than to seek theoretical certitude of its metaphysics and merits. Just as you can accept life-saving help from a stranger without first establishing an internally coherent and externally robust theory of charity, reciprocity, and justice.

I once read a description of a philosopher as someone who worries that what works in practice might not work in theory. It’s especially apt in my context, though a little more defensible than it sounds. Nonetheless, the prevailing theme of 2016 for me appears to be one of putting aside theoretical doubts about things I have known for many years to be useful, valuable, and true.

Melancholic resentment

One of the drawbacks of studying religion at an early age is lacking the maturity or the intelligence to distinguish between personal conditions and universal ones.

For instance, all the religious traditions of which I am aware are pessimistic about worldly goals and prospects. Whether it’s being crushed beneath the wheel of samsara or being dashed to pieces in the shipwreck of worldly desires and cares, our religious traditions use pessimism to encourage us to find the permanent, unchanging spiritual centre of all existence.

We are not supposed to take this pessimistic view as a justification for resentment, a sardonic defence against feeling let-down by life or the people in it.

Resentment is a particular risk for Melancholics. As Conrad Hock writes:

The melancholic who gives way to sad moods, falls into many faults against charity and becomes a real burden to his fellow men.

a) He easily loses confidence in his fellow men, (especially Superiors, Confessors), because of slight defects which he discovers in them, or on account of corrections in small matters.

b) He is vehemently exasperated and provoked by disorder or injustice. The cause of his exasperation is often justifiable, but rarely to the degree felt.

c) He can hardly forgive offences. The first offense he ignores quite easily. But renewed offenses penetrate deeply into the soul and can hardly be forgotten. Strong aversion easily takes root in his heart against persons from whom he has suffered, or in whom he finds this or that fault. This aversion becomes so strong that he can hardly see these persons without new excitement, that he does not want to speak to them and is exasperated by the very thought of them. Usually this aversion is abandoned only after the melancholic is separated from persons who incurred his displeasure and at times only after months or even years.

d) He is very suspicious. He rarely trusts people and is always afraid that others have a grudge against him. Thus he often and without cause entertains uncharitable and unjust suspicion about his neighbor, conjectures evil intentions, and fears dangers which do not exist at all.

e) He sees everything from the dark side. He is peevish, always draws attention to the serious side of affairs, complains regularly about the perversion of people, bad times, downfall of morals, etc. His motto is: things grow worse all along. Offenses, mishaps, obstacles he always considers much worse than they really are. The consequence is often excessive sadness, unfounded vexation about others, brooding for weeks and weeks on account of real or imaginary insults. Melancholic persons who give way to this disposition to look at everything through a dark glass, gradually become pessimists, that is, persons who always expect a bad result; hypochondriacs, that is, persons who complain continually of insignificant ailments and constantly fear grave sickness; misanthropes, that is, persons who suffer from fear and hatred of men.

I’ve been looking into resentment recently and the definition I like best so far is that:

Resentment is a mixture of disappointment, anger, and fear.

At times any one element of the mixture might predominate, but the heart of the resentment is ultimately a sense of injustice – persistent and far-reaching enough to cause not only anger but disappointment and fear.

Failure breeds resentment when it not only feels unjust but also has implications for future hopes and prospects. Failure makes us angry at ourselves or others, it also disappoints us when we realise that the hoped-for success will not come, and it makes us afraid of future failures, or of the missed opportunity to succeed. It’s much harder to feel resentment if the failure doesn’t really hurt our future prospects.

The danger in becoming a pessimist is that we may roll all our small resentments into one big resentment against the world, God, or life itself. This is problematic partly because such a large and all-encompassing resentment is hard to bear and hard to escape or forget. But also because pessimism is often couched as a ‘realist’ perspective. Believing that one’s large, all-encompassing resentment is objectively valid only makes it harder to let go.

So what can we do about this resentment?

The best advice I have found so far (and it came easily, despite my pessimism) is that we need to recognise resentment as a form of addiction, that is, a compulsive activity we indulge in order to escape other feelings or experiences.

Resentment is addictive because it gives us a cheap sense of self-righteousness and vindication, or as the article puts it, an illusion of strength. After all, the anger component of resentment is classically defined as a desire for vengeance: that is, a desire to set right the perceived injustice perpetrated against us.

So long as we hold on to either anger or resentment, we feel that our cause is not lost. The perceived injustice might be decades old, but we can still feel that we are achieving some measure of vindication by remaining angry, where ‘forgive and forget’ feels too much like letting the guilty party off the hook.

Yet for that same reason, resentment is incredibly weak. It’s like saying to your oppressor “See? I’m still suffering for what you did to me!”  The emotional logic is childish: you made me feel bad, and I shall keep feeling bad until you realise your mistake. Naturally, it’s childish because most of us begin resenting people and situations in childhood, the same place we learn all our primary emotional responses.

It’s hard to remain resentful when you realise that you’re engaging in an adult form of sulking.

 

Are you really a cynic?

I thought I was cynical, until I read the following chart courtesy of etymonline.com:

humor

As the table indicates, for me to be a cynic I must be exposing moral nakedness to the respectable for the sake of my own self-justification.

This is not what I thought cynicism was. It’s not what I do.

What I do is much more like privately expressing pessimism in the face of adversity for the sake of my own relief: sardonicism.

A cynic is someone who justifies their own actions by exposing the moral “nakedness” or hypocrisy of others. Like a drug addict who argues that “we’re all addicted to something”, or a thief who argues that “the rich cheat on their taxes”.

Sardonicism is instead like bitter laughter during hard times. Pessimism – expecting the worst – becomes a defense against adverse events.

Are you truly cynical, or sardonic?  The two are not mutually exclusive – I can use sardonic pessimism to cynically justify my actions, and use cynicism to justify being pessimistic. None of this is very positive, grounded as it is in defensive and negative perspectives of life. Like any defense, it may well be our least-bad response to danger and adversity, but it’s not good to live for long in a defensive state.

A response to adversity ought, ideally, to free us from adversity. Once we are free we can abandon the response. If we never abandon the response, it is either because we are unable to free ourselves – suggesting the response was futile – or because we anticipate recurrences – suggesting the response is only barely sufficient.

Unpacking sardonicism further: I use my expectation of the worst to provide relief when bad things happen. Adversity is easier to deal with when it falls short of one’s worst expectations. “Is that how hard you can hit me? I’m kinda disappointed.”

But pessimism is a self-inflicted injury designed to dull your sensitivity to disappointment, hurt, grief, and longing. Expecting the worst might limit your disappointment, but it also leaves you mired in a kind of desolation where nothing really good can happen. “Good” is not simply the absence of evil.

Time and energy devoted to pessimism could be better spent cultivating that which our pessimism seeks to defend: the full integrity of our own selves. Yet as a defense, pessimism doesn’t even try to avoid life’s blows, merely to soften them. Like bracing for impact, it hopes merely to not be taken by surprise.  Such a strategy makes sense only if we already believe that the evils in life are unavoidable, that we will be surprised unless we exert the constant vigilance of a pessimistic mind.  Pessimism is an attempt to take control of a hostile and adverse environment by adjusting one’s expectations to it.  It treats fear – the anticipation of evils – as one of life’s indelible characteristics.

That the world is full of evils is hard to deny. That these evils sometimes take us by surprise is also evident. To adopt pessimism in an attempt to at least forestall surprise makes sense, but is ultimately a terrible way to live. I didn’t understand this when I was younger, but time has exhausted my patience with pessimism.  Avoiding sorrow is not the same as pursuing happiness, and rejecting the pursuit of happiness for fear of increasing the risk of sorrow shows an incomplete understanding of happiness and sorrow, good and evil, in the first place.

I have arrived at a position in life where the greatest obstacle to my own happiness lies in my efforts to avoid suffering and sorrow. More importantly, the need for positive direction, for creativity, and an inspiring purpose demands that I put aside pessimism and attend, for once, to the makings of a pleased and happy frame of mind.

 

 

 

Stress and the melancholic temperament

 

Last week I was talking to a friend and fellow melancholic, stressed out in the middle of her Med exams, overwhelmed and fearing the worst.  Why do melancholics get so stressed and what can we do to alleviate stress?

Melancholics are always fearing the worst.  We’re haunted by thoughts of what could go wrong, as if by anticipating it we can avoid it.  But in practice we just end up plagued by worries, anxieties and an overriding pessimism.

It’s a lot like watching my toddler son in a new environment. I take it for granted that I have to watch him constantly. I literally cannot take my eyes off him for a moment. At the same time I’m hyper-vigilant for anything within reach that he might damage or that might damage him.

My wife is the opposite.  She finds herself easily distracted, and is often taken by surprise when our son reaches some precarious object or takes a tumble over an obstacle.

It’s not that she’s any less caring, in fact she’s much more caring than I am, but she doesn’t have the same lifelong practice of expecting things to go horribly wrong.

I’ve found I can’t really help it, but my mind is almost always preoccupied with thoughts of how things could go wrong, have gone wrong, or will go wrong. It’s partly a side-effect of trying to understand how things work: if you know how something works you’re immediately much more conscious of how it might cease to work.

But it’s also because melancholics are a little slower at forming impressions and reaching conclusions compared to some of the other temperaments. In practice it might mean that a conversation with a choleric, a sanguine or phlegmatic unfolds with the melancholic experiencing a definite but incomplete sense of something wrong with the other person’s logic or intentions.  It might take days or weeks for the melancholic to unravel the errors and clearly define the problems in the other person’s proposal.

This increasingly wary attitude to human interaction seeps into everyday life. Whether I’m driving, working, going to the shops, not going to the shops, talking to people, cooking, exercising, reading, or just sitting still – I can’t help but be acutely aware of the possibility of error, an awareness of all the possible threats, dangers or pitfalls in what I am doing, not doing, or planning to do.  The resulting hyper-vigilance is a little like having PTSD but without the flashbacks.

I’ve found it is possible to ‘switch off’ this wariness, but it requires a concerted effort. Doing nothing is hard work.

In times of acute stress it’s not the fear per se that makes life unbearable, it’s the effort to avoid the feared outcome within a condition of uncertainty.  What stresses us is the effort to, for example, avoid failing an exam when the precise requirements for avoiding such an outcome are unclear.  ‘Study hard’ is the obvious answer, but how hard is hard enough?  For a melancholic these situations become a terrible trap because we tend to err on the side of excess, downplaying the costs of stress, and demanding of ourselves an impossible effort as though feeling stressed and exhausted is itself the only valid evidence that we have worked ‘hard enough’.

Unfortunately this extreme and idealistic approach actually blinds us to more creative, considered, and efficient methods.  It doesn’t allow us the space to reflect on how best to prepare, and is especially difficult for young melancholics who are as yet unaware that their most efficient methods of studying might differ markedly from the mainstream approach.  It takes a great deal of experience before we learn to rely on our own idiosyncratic ways of learning.

The best way to make space for reflection is to embrace the underlying fear of failure: to identify the worst, most humiliating outcome, and embrace it as a possible reality.  If you fail your exams you will indeed be humiliated and set back a year, but as undesirable as such an outcome would be, it would at least bring certainty and with certainty an end to the stress.

Taking time to really face such fears soon shows that they are not as dire as they seem.  Remember: it’s not so much the feared outcome that causes stress, it’s the self-imposed effort to avoid the outcome without really knowing whether one’s efforts are efficacious.

Another way to diminish the uncertainty is to build a sense of context, or a set of parameters which might give at least an approximate sense of certainty.  For example, you may not know if you’ve studied hard enough to avoid failure because you expect that studying ‘enough’ should bring with it some magical sense of competence and sufficiency.  But you can start to build a context by asking yourself whether you have consciously chosen or allowed yourself to not study as much as you usually would, ie. are you slacking off according to your own usual standards?

Alternatively, you can imagine what it would be like if you were trying to fail.  How different would that be from your current level of work?  It’s often reassuring to realise that you would find it hard to do nothing; you would struggle to really give up and let yourself fail.

There’s a measure of self-honesty required here, but I think for melancholics self-honesty is not a problem, rather the problem is knowing what questions to ask ourselves, or the broader context we need in order to put our problems in perspective.

The ultimate perspective for a melancholic is the idea that we are all going to die one day, and that nearly every stress we face in life pales in comparison to our final destination.  As morbid as it might seem to other temperaments, the thought of death can help a melancholic regain a healthy perspective on otherwise stressful situations.  The fear of failing an exam is ultimately misguided once we realise that no exam result, medical or other career, nor most of the things that cause us daily anxiety and stress will matter at all when we are gone.

As Marcus Aurelius wrote:

Soon you will have forgotten the world, and soon the world will have forgotten you.

And:

Consider thyself to be dead, and to have completed thy life up to the present time; and live according to nature the remainder which is allowed thee.

As idealists and perfectionists, life for a melancholic is never straightforward or easy.  We need these creative and eccentric approaches to help us navigate a complex world replete with sources of anxiety and stress, a world increasingly dominated by the worst tendencies of other temperaments.