“Logic Is Not Enough”

From the Corbertt Report.

Morning thoughts on our personal/social psychologies and inequalities

The “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” expectation continues to bother me. How realistic is that, really? As social beings hugely impacted by our social spheres, when we pretend that each individual ought to possess the internal fortitude to simply rise above all of life’s challenges and pain by oneself we’re just fooling ourselves. Those who manage to pull themselves up typically do have social support networks in place (regardless of how much they might take those for granted) OR perhaps they possess a different kind of drive altogether that propels and motivates them, like placing faith in the acquisition of money to help set things right. But to expect this of anybody and everybody I do believe is asking too much.

And when one comes out and tells others of their suffering, there’s always the risk of being given a hard time for not playing stoic. The phrase “personal accountability” gets bandied about oftentimes. While I can grasp that we each make decisions that play into what arises among our own set of circumstances, no human is an island. Plus, pain appears to be cumulative and has the nasty habit of paying forward even in ways we might not be personally aware of.

This makes me think of two things I reread recently. One being an excerpt from Otto Rank where he talked about the love-ideology and how being loved makes us feel as though we are “good” while not being loved gives us the feeling that we are “bad.” That being a bastardization of the notion of God’s (agape) love where it’s reduced down to our interpersonal sphere and we wind up playing the role of “Personal Jesus” for one another. The other pertains to an excerpt from Erich Fromm where he discussed how the choices we make at any given point in time (whether as individuals or as collectives) limit the options available going forward. When we open this door it then closes behind us and we’re left only to deal with the options presented beyond that point. I can see where such a situation could lead an individual into a labyrinth they eventually can’t escape and are severely limited in their options to improve.

For example, let’s take someone who grew up in rough conditions and learned escapism as a strategy from a pretty early age. In this hypothetical situation this person, through his/her escapist ambitions, winds up affiliated with people who use drugs to achieve that aim. Once this person begins taking the drugs as well, not immediately but eventually he or she is likely to wind up addicted to the substance(s) in question. And let’s say one of the drugs he/she ingests regularly is PCP. Now, perhaps 5 years on down the road this person wishes to clean up and change directions, but due to years of routine use of a damaging substance, he or she isn’t quite the same person anymore. This individual’s faculties are permanently altered and he or she may be experiencing health problems as a result. So this individual is no longer at the starting place he/she once was and is unable to return to that point. That door was closed, others were opened, time moved on, and the person in question wound up permanently affected as a consequence.

The drug analogy makes this more clear to understand, but such happens to all of us in all sorts of complex ways just in terms of our social relations and interpersonal pain both experienced and inflicted, plus in terms of how we navigate in general. I’ve often wondered how someone can come through so much pain as a child and quite miraculously seem to move on and rise above it, whereas someone else remains mired in it and unable to develop sufficient coping skills despite years of trying. This leads me to acknowledge that individual differences in personality must also play an important role, since it’s quite obvious we’re not all constituted identically and thereby don’t all possess the internal reserves and resources needed to arrive at the same place on down the road.

And another consideration that often gets left out of such talk is the role luck plays. Never underestimate the importance of luck — it can prove tremendous all unto itself because it provides new options that we can’t necessarily manufacture for ourselves through our own solo strivings. Yet people like to downplay this aspect, as though it somehow were trivial. While I recognize that it’s also a matter of how one plays his/her cards once a lucky opportunity presents itself, that still doesn’t negate the good fortune of having been presented with a lucky opportunity to begin with. Can people make changes so as to help improve their odds? Sure, but even that doesn’t come with a guarantee.

That makes me think of a close friend who exercised and remained very active his entire life while eating right and avoiding harsh drugs and alcohol and a high-stress lifestyle, only to wind up plagued with a series of major health problems on down the road anyway. Not his fault — just the luck of the draw. Some of his ailments are believed to be genetic in origin and others probably pertain to how environmental substances acted on his unique biology, but either way, they are not a direct result of anything he did or failed to do. And yet, he still must cope with this outcome.

We probably all know examples of this sort, as well as examples running in the other direction. Like those who receive great fortune purely by chance, whether it seems they deserved it or not. Life’s not fair — never was and never will be. That’s a fact of life it’s best to come to terms with, and the sooner, the better.

So, in a round-about way, we’re all “victims” of circumstance to whatever degree. Divvies up differently across the board, but the fact still remains. Some say we shouldn’t view life in such a way, that to do so is disempowering. But I find it just as disempowering to incessantly berate people for the circumstances they happen to find themselves in. There’s always a series of causes involved, whether we have access to that information or not. I can understand where some people deserve more sympathy than others, but I also see how people have a tendency to operate according to their biases and preferences rather than assessing the individual situation as it personally stands. In other words, we are inclined to project onto others in accordance with our own ideals or in an attempt to not zone in on areas that make us uncomfortable about our own luck of the draw.

Just some thoughts this morning…

One more thing before I head off. The topic of “strength” and “weakness” is very often mired in illusions. Because one adapts well doesn’t automatically mean they are “strong,” just as the reverse doesn’t automatically signify someone is “weak.” It’s generally a matter of perspective. Strengths and weaknesses play out in different ways even within one individual. One can be strong in this setting, and yet fall apart in that one. Such is life, apparently. And plenty who play the game well aren’t necessarily self-starters who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps but rather are simply those capable of adapting to a scheme they gained access to. That’s not meant as an indictment of anyone in particular, just something that runs through my mind over the years.

Repressing emotions in the age of consumption and “science” (an excerpt from “Escape From Freedom”)

Feeling like transcribing this afternoon since I have the rest of the day off and it’s pleasant enough out to sit with the window open and just the fan on. Picking up again today in Erich Fromm’s book Escape From Freedom (1941; 1969 edition), beginning this time on page 270:

In our society emotions in general are discouraged. While there can be no doubt that any creative thinking—as well as any other creative activity—is inseparably linked with emotion, it has become an ideal to think and to live without emotions. To be “emotional” has become synonymous with being unsound or unbalanced. By the acceptance of this standard the individual has become greatly weakened; his thinking is impoverished and flattened. On the other hand, since emotions cannot be completely killed, they must have their existence totally apart from the intellectual side of the personality; the result is the cheap and insincere sentimentality with which movies and popular songs feed millions of emotion-starved customers.

There is one tabooed emotion that I want to mention in particular, because its suppression touches deeply on the roots of personality: the sense of tragedy. As we saw in an earlier chapter, the awareness of death and of the tragic aspect of life, whether dim or clear, is one of the basic characteristics of man. Each culture has its own way of coping with the problem of death. For those societies in which the process of individuation has progressed but little, the end of individual existence is less of a problem since the experience of individual existence itself is less developed. Death is not yet conceived as being basically different from life. Cultures in which we find a higher development of individuation have treated death according to their social and psychological structure. The Greeks put all emphasis on life and pictured death as nothing but a shadowy and dreary continuation of life. The Egyptians based their hopes on a belief in the indestructibility of the human body, at least of those whose power during life was indestructible. The Jews admitted the fact of death realistically and were able to reconcile themselves with the idea of the destruction of individual life by the vision of a state of happiness and justice ultimately to be reached by mankind in this world. Christianity has made death unreal and tried to comfort the unhappy individual by promises of a life after death. Our own era simply denies death and with it one fundamental aspect of life. Instead of allowing the awareness of death and suffering to become one of the strongest incentives for life, the basis for human solidarity, and an experience without which joy and enthusiasm lack intensity and depth, the individual is forced to repress it. But, as is always the case with repression, by being removed from sight the repressed elements do not cease to exist. Thus the fear of death lives an illegitimate existence among us. It remains alive in spite of the attempt to deny it, but being repressed it remains sterile. It is one source of the flatness of other experiences, of the restlessness pervading life, and it explains, I would venture to say, the exorbitant amount of money this nation pays for its funerals.

In the process of tabooing emotions modern psychiatry plays an ambiguous role. On the one hand its greatest representative, Freud, has broken through the fiction of the rational, purposeful character of the human mind and opened a path which allows a view into the abyss of human passions. On the other hand psychiatry, enriched by these very achievements of Freud, has made itself an instrument of the general trends in the manipulation of personality. Many psychiatrists, including psychoanalysts, have painted the picture of a “normal” personality which is never too sad, too angry, or too excited. They use words like “infantile” or “neurotic” to denounce traits or types of personalities that do not conform with the conventional pattern of a “normal” individual. This kind of influence is in a way more dangerous than the older and franker forms of name-calling. Then the individual knew at least that there was some person or some doctrine which criticized him and he could fight back. But who can fight back at “science”?

The same distortion happens to original thinking as happens to feelings and emotions. From the very start of education original thinking is discouraged and ready-made thoughts are put into people’s heads. How this is done with young children is easy enough to see. They are filled with curiosity about the world, they want to grasp it physically as well as intellectually. They want to know the truth, since that is the safest way to orient themselves in a strange and powerful world. Instead, they are not taken seriously, and it does not matter whether this attitude takes the form of open disrespect or of the subtle condescension which is usual towards all who have no power (such as children, aged or sick people). Although this treatment by itself offers strong discouragement to independent thinking, there is a worse handicap: the insincerity—often unintentional—which is typical of the average adult’s behavior toward a child. This insincerity consists partly in the fictitious picture of the world which the child is given. It is about as useful as instructions concerning life in the Arctic would be to someone who has asked how to prepare for an expedition to the Sahara Desert. Besides this general misrepresentation of the world there are the many specific lies that tend to conceal facts which, for various personal reasons, adults to not want children to know. From a bad temper, which is rationalized as justified dissatisfaction with the child’s behavior, to concealment of the parents’ sexual activities and their quarrels, the child is “not supposed to know” and his inquiries meet with hostile or polite discouragement.

The child thus prepared enters school and perhaps college. I want to mention briefly some of the educational methods used today which in effect further discourage original thinking. One is the emphasis on knowledge of facts, or I should rather say on information. The pathetic superstition prevails that by knowing more and more facts one arrives at knowledge of reality. Hundreds of scattered and unrelated facts are dumped into the heads of students; their time and energy are taken up by learning more and more facts, so that there is little left for thinking. To be sure, thinking without a knowledge of facts remains empty and fictitious; but “information” alone can be just as much of an obstacle to thinking as the lack of it.

Another closely related way of discouraging original thinking is to regard all truth as relative. Truth is made out to be a metaphysical concept, and if anyone speaks about wanting to discover the truth he is thought backward by the “progressive” thinkers of our age. Truth is declared to be an entirely subjective matter, almost a matter of taste. Scientific endeavor must be detached from subjective factors, and its aim is to look at the world without passion and interest. The scientist has to approach facts with sterilized hands as a surgeon approaches his patient. The result of this relativism, which often presents itself by the name of empiricism or positivism or which recommends itself by its concern for the correct usage of words, is that thinking loses its essential stimulus—the wishes and interests of the person who thinks; instead it becomes a machine to register “facts.” Actually, just as thinking in general has developed out of the need for mastery of material life, so the quest for truth is rooted in the interests and needs of individuals and social groups. Without such interest the stimulus for seeking the truth would be lacking. There are always groups whose interest is furthered by truth, and their representatives have been the pioneers of human thought; there are other groups whose interests are furthered by concealing truth. Only in the latter case does interest prove harmful to the cause of truth. The problem, therefore, is not that there is an interest at stake, but which kind of interest is at stake. I might say that inasmuch as there is some longing for the truth in every human being, it is because every human being has some need for it.

This holds true in the first place with regard to a person’s orientation in the outer world, and it holds especially true for the child. As a child, every human being passes through a state of powerlessness, and truth is one of the strongest weapons of those who have no power. But the truth is in the individual’s interest not only with regard to his orientation in the outer world; his own strength depends to a great extent on his knowing the truth about himself. Illusions about oneself can become crutches useful to those who are not able to walk alone; but they increase a person’s weakness. The individual’s greatest strength is based on the maximum of integration of his personality, and that means also on the maximum of transparence to himself. “Know thyself” is one of the fundamental commands that aim at human strength and happiness.

In addition to the factors just mentioned there are others which actively tend to confuse whatever is left of the capacity for original thinking in the average adult. With regard to all basic questions of individual and social life, with regard to psychological, economic, political, and moral problems, a great sector of our culture has just one function—to befog the issues. One kind of smokescreen is the assertion that the problems are too complicated for the average individual to grasp. On the contrary it would seem that many of the basic issues of individual and social life are very simply, so simple, in fact, that everyone should be expected to understand them. To let them appear to be so enormously complicated that only a “specialist” can understand them, and he only in his own limited field, actually—and often intentionally—tends to discourage people from trusting their own capacity to think about those problems that really matter. The individual feels helplessly caught in a chaotic mass of data and with pathetic patience waits until the specialists have found out what to do and where to go.

The result of this kind of influence is a two-fold one: one is a scepticism and cynicism towards everything which is said or printed, while the other is a childish belief in anything that a person is told with authority. This combination of cynicism and naiveté is very typical of the modern individual. Its essential result is to discourage him from doing his own thinking and deciding.

Another way of paralyzing the ability to think critically is the destruction of any kind of structuralized picture of the world. Facts lose the specific quality which they can have only as parts of a structuralized whole and retain merely an abstract, quantitative meaning; each fact is just another fact and all that matters is whether we know more or less. Radio, moving pictures, and newspapers have a devastating effect on this score. The announcement of the bombing of a city and the death of hundreds of people is shamelessly followed or interrupted by an advertisement for soap or wine. The same speaker with the same suggestive, ingratiating, and authoritative voice, which he has just used to impress you with the seriousness of the political situation, impresses now upon his audience the merits of the particular brand of soap which pays for the news broadcast. Newsreels let pictures of torpedoed ships be followed by those of a fashion show. Newspapers tell us the trite thoughts or breakfast habits of a debutante with the same space and seriousness they use for reporting events of scientific or artistic importance. Because of all this we cease to be genuinely related to what we hear. We cease to be excited, our emotions and our critical judgment become hampered, and eventually our attitude to what is going on in the world assumes a quality of flatness and indifference. In the name of “freedom” life loses all structure; it is composed of many little pieces, each separate from the other and lacking any sense as a whole. The individual is left alone with these pieces like a child with a puzzle; the difference, however, is that the child knows what a house is and therefore can recognize the parts of the house in the little pieces he is playing with, whereas the adult does not see the meaning of the “whole,” the pieces of which come into his hands. He is bewildered and afraid and just goes on gazing at his little meaningless pieces.

What has been said about the lack of “originality” in feeling and thinking holds true also of the act of willing. To recognize this is particularly difficult; modern man seems, if anything, to have too many wishes and his only problem seems to be that, although he knows what he wants, he cannot have it all. All our energy is spent for the purpose of getting what we want, and most people never question the premise of this activity: that they know their true wants. They do not stop to think whether the aims they are pursuing are something they themselves want. In school they want to have good marks, as adults they want to be more and more successful, to make more money, to have more prestige, to buy a better car, to go places, and so on. Yet when they do stop to think in the midst of all this frantic activity, this question may come to their minds: “If I do get this new job, if I get this better car, if I can take this trip—what then? What is the use of it all? Is it really I who wants all this? Am I not running after some goal which is supposed to make me happy and which eludes me as soon as I have reached it?” These questions, when they arise, are frightening, for they question the very basis on which man’s whole activity is built, his knowledge of what he wants. People tend, therefore, to get rid as soon as possible of these disturbing thoughts. They feel that they have been bothered by these questions because they were tired or depressed—and they go on in the pursuit of the aims which they believe are their own.

[Italicized emphases his; bold mine.]

Stopping there on page 278. Excellent book. So thought-provoking to where I never tire of rereading and copying these portions for sharing with others. Erich Fromm’s works remain lamentably underrated, IMO.

Sex Wars

A lecture I watched yesterday and appreciated on the topic of the “war” between the sexes, explained from an evolutionary behavioral standpoint by Professor Glenn D. Wilson, a guest lecturer at Gresham College:

“Cracking Depression: It is NOT a ‘Biological Disease'”

SpartanLifeCoach put out a video on depression a few months back:

I’m very much in agreement with his position expressed there. What we’re dealing with in modern times is expanded forms of slavery that have us caged in a sick way of life. This creates life out balance, which should come as no surprise as proving psychologically unhealthy. What’s healthy about it? We’re over-stressed and repressed, with all support networks humans historically relied upon now being actively disrupted and our ways of life being overhauled by new technologies — so is it really that shocking that our existence increasingly feels meaningless? Welcome to the Age of Nihilism.

It’s a question of how to now get out of this maze humans have constructed. Or how to cope if escape isn’t a possibility. For me it boils back down to what power we do possess to make needed changes and how to restore and maintain bonds with select others so that we can make the best of this tough situation we’re all faced with.

The neurotic and the artist — another excerpt from Ernest Becker’s book “The Denial of Death”

Continuing on where we left off on page 181 in Ernest Becker’s book The Denial of Death:

Another way of approaching neurosis is from the opposite end of the problem. There is a type of person who has difficulty fetishizing and narrowing-down; he has a vivid imagination, takes in too much experience, too large a chunk of the world—and this too must be called neurotic. We introduced this type in the last chapter where we talked about the creative person. We saw that these people feel their isolation, their individuality. They stick out, are less built-into normal society, less securely programmed for automatic cultural action. To have difficulty partializing experience is to have difficulty living. Not to be able to fetishize makes one susceptible to the world as a total problem—with all the living hell that this exposure raises. We said that partializing the world is biting off what an animal can chew. Not to have this talent means constantly biting off more than one can chew. Rank puts it this way:

The neurotic type . . . makes the reality surrounding him a part of his ego, which explains his painful relation to it. For all outside processes, however unmeaningful they may be in themselves, finally concern him . . . he is bound up in a kind of magic unity with the wholeness of life around him much more than the adjusted type who can be satisfied with the role of a part within the whole. The neurotic type has taken into himself potentially the whole of reality.

Now we can see how the problem of neurosis can be laid out along the lines of the twin ontological motives: on the one hand, one merges with the world around him and becomes too much a part of it and so loses his own claim to life. On the other hand, one cuts oneself off from the world in order to make one’s own complete claim and so loses the ability to live and act in the world on its terms. As Rank put it, some individuals are unable to separate and others are unable to unite. The ideal of course is to find some balance between the two motives, such as characterize the better adjusted person; he is at ease with both. The neurotic represents precisely “an extreme at one end or the other”; he feels that one or the other is a burden.

The question for a characterology is why some people cannot balance their ontological urges, why they hug at the extremes. The answer must obviously go back to the personal life history. There are those who shrink back from experience out of greater life-and-death anxieties. They grow up not giving themselves freely to the cultural roles available to them. They can’t lose themselves thoughtlessly in the games that others play. One reason is that they have trouble relating to others; they haven’t been able to develop the necessary interpersonal skills. Playing the game of society with automatic ease means playing with others without anxiety. If you are not involved in what others take for granted as the nourishment of their lives, then your own life becomes a total problem. At its extreme this describes the schizoid type par excellence. Classically this state was called the “narcissistic neurosis” or psychosis. The psychotic is the one who cannot shut out the world, whose repressions are all on the surface, whose defenses no longer work; and so he withdraws from the world and into himself and his fantasies. He fences himself off and becomes his own world (narcissism).

It may seem courageous to take in the whole world, instead of just biting off pieces and acting on them, but as Rank points out, this is also precisely a defense against engagement in it:

. . . this apparent egocentricity originally is just a defense mechanism against the danger of reality. . . . [The neurotic] seeks to complete his ego constantly . . . without paying for it.

To live is to engage in experience at least partly on the terms of the experience itself. One has to stick his neck out in the action without any guarantees about satisfaction or safety. One never knows how it will come out or how silly he will look, but the neurotic type wants these guarantees. He doesn’t want to risk his self-image. Rank calls this very aptly the “self-willed over-valuation of self” whereby the neurotic tries to cheat nature. He won’t pay the price that nature wants of him: to age, fall ill or be injured, and die. Instead of living experience he ideates it; instead of arranging it in action he works it all out in his head.

We can see that neurosis is par excellence the danger of a symbolic animal whose body is a problem to him. Instead of living biologically, then, he lives symbolically. Instead of living in the partway that nature provided for he lives in the total way made possible by symbols. One substitutes the magical, all-inclusive world of the self for the real, fragmentary world of experience. Again, in this sense, everyone is neurotic, as everyone holds back from life in some ways and lets his symbolic world-view arrange things: this is what cultural morality is for. In this sense, too, the artist is the most neurotic because he too takes the world as a totality and makes a largely symbolic problem out of it.

If this neurosis characterizes everyone to a certain extent and the artist most of all, where do we cross the line into “neurosis” as a clinical problem? One way, as we saw, is by the production of crippling symptom or a too-constricting life style. The person has tried to cheat nature by restricting his experience, but he remains sensitive to the terror of life at some level of his awareness. Besides, he can’t arrange his triumph over life and death in his mind or in his narrow heroics without paying some price: the symptom or a bogging down in guilt and futility because of an unlived life.

A second way of crossing the line into clinical neurosis follows naturally from everything we have said. Rank asked why the artist so often avoids clinical neurosis when he is so much a candidate for it because of his vivid imagination, his openness to the finest and broadest aspects of experience, his isolation from the cultural world-view that satisfies everyone else. The answer is that he takes in the world, but instead of being oppressed by it he reworks it in his own personality and recreates it in the work of art. The neurotic is precisely the one who cannot create—the “artiste-manqué,” as Rank so aptly called him. We might say that both the artist and the neurotic bite off more than they can chew, but the artist spews it back out again and chews it over in an objectified way, as an external, active, work project. The neurotic can’t marshal this creative response embodied in a specific work, and so he chokes on his introversions. The artist has similar large-scale introversions, but he uses them as material. In Rank’s inspired conceptualization, the difference is put like this:

. . . it is this very fact of the ideologization of purely psychical conflicts that makes the difference between the productive and the unproductive types, the artist and the neurotic; for the neurotic’s create power, like the most primitive artist’s, is always tied to his own self and exhausts itself in it, whereas the productive type succeeds in changing this purely subjective creative process into an objective one, which means that through ideologizing it he transfers it from his own self to his work.

The neurotic exhausts himself not only in self-preoccupations like hypochondriacal fears and all sorts of fantasies, but also in others: those around him on whom he is dependent become his therapeutic work project; he takes out his subjective problems on them. But people are not clay to be molded; they have needs and counter-wills of their own. The neurotic’s frustration as a failed artist can’t be remedied by anything but an objective creative work of his own. Another way of looking at it is to say that the more totally one takes in the world as a problem, the more inferior or “bad” one is going to feel inside oneself. He can try to work out his “badness” by striving for perfection, and then the neurotic symptom becomes his “creative” work; or he can try to make himself perfect by means of his partner. But it is obvious to us that the only way to work on perfection is in the form of an objective work that is fully under your control and is perfectible in some real ways. Either you eat up yourself and others around you, trying for perfection; or you objectify that imperfection in a work, on which you then unleash your creative powers. In this sense, some kind of objective creativity is the only answer man has to the problem of life. In this way he satisfies nature, which asks that he live and act objectively as a vital animal plunging into the world; but he also satisfies his own distinctive human nature because he plunges in on his own symbolic terms and not as a reflex of the world as given to mere physical sense experience. He takes in the world, makes a total problem out of it, and then gives out a fashioned human answer to that problem. This, as Goethe saw in Faust, is the highest that man can achieve.

[All emphases his]

Let’s stop there on page 185.