“It’s time you realized that you have something in you more powerful and miraculous than the things that affect you and make you dance like a puppet.”—Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and philosopher.
What are you afraid of? What makes you anxious? Losing your health, your hair, your teeth, your looks? If you have children, perhaps you fear for them: for their health, the risk that they’ll get wrapped up in drugs or crime, or that they’ll miss out on a good education. If you’re a parent, as I am, your biggest fear may well be that you’ll lose your children. If you’re not a parent, perhaps you desperately wish you were. Or perhaps you’d prefer to remain childless, but fear becoming a parent accidentally.
Do you fear being alone in your old age, perhaps even dying alone? And what about feelings of inadequacy? About not having a slim, well-toned body, or not being clever enough, or not having the “right” clothes, gadgets, education, luxurious home or several holiday destinations through the year. Fear, anxiety, loneliness, insecurity, suffering. Why should any of this matter to political activists anyways?
Who wants to live in a world where we aren’t concerned about each other? We’re all united in our desire to be happy and free from suffering. Arguing the case for social justice and ecological sustainability with accurate facts, figures, quotes, references, examples and proposals is all very well. It’s necessary, but not sufficient. We bandy around words like “community, solidarity, peace and freedom.” And yet, we so often become uncomfortable or even dismissive if asked, “what motivates you?” “How do you remain committed?” or even “How’s life with you?”
These questions are so often deemed irrelevant to political activism and organizing—an impediment, or simply a distraction, to the primary task of confronting state-corporate power or building a movement from the ground up. Why is it considered strong to be driven by anger at injustices in the world, but considered weak to take time out to examine ourselves and what it takes to make us cry, laugh, sad, happy, enthused or fulfilled?
Something my father said recently struck me hard: “Nobody asked to be brought into this world.”
This was said in the context of how difficult life can be and how, simple and saccharine as it may sound, we ought to look out for each other. It’s not a particularly original observation, but at that moment it really resonated. Life can be hard even for us in the “privileged” and “rich” countries of the West. The fact is, most of us at some time encounter stress, heartache, illness, frustration, ennui, depression, perhaps even despair. We should recognize those all too human frailties and afflictions in each other without scorn or discomfort, and without regarding them as distractions from the political project of building a just and peaceful society. Rather than regarding these issues as distractions, they should be recognized as utterly central to what we would like to achieve—true peace, freedom, happiness.
Fear of freedom
From the day a baby realizes she is a separate entity from her mother, there’s a striving to reproduce that primary tie to connect with other individuals and with human society as a whole. As German psychologist Erich Fromm explained, the fear of being alone—of being an atomized individual in society—underlies the fear of genuine freedom: not so much freedom from things, such as poverty, repetitive work or damaging relationships; but the freedom to do things, to take responsibility for one’s actions and thoughts, to cut the umbilical cord of dependency on “higher” forms of authority, and to grow as a fully-integrated person.
The consequences of this fear can be harmful indeed: “in our effort to escape from aloneness and powerlessness,” wrote Fromm in Fear of Freedom, “we are ready to get rid of our individual self either by submission to new forms of authority or by a compulsive conforming to accepted patterns.” From there it’s a slippery slope of knuckling under, getting on with life, doing whatever our “benign” leaders want, or simply letting them get on with whatever it is they do—whether it be handing over yet more public revenue and power to corporations, introducing ever more draconian legislation to protect domestic security, or pulverizing yet another already impoverished and devastated nation.
I was motivated to put these thoughts down, partly because of an exchange with someone I had on email a few years ago, following the launch of the U.S./UK attacks on Afghanistan in late 2001. My correspondent is a decent person, a loving father and someone with strong environmentalist leanings. And yet he told me, “The world isn’t fair, never has been, never will be, and it’s survival of the fittest whether we like it or not, so if we want to survive and maintain our pampered lifestyles, we stay the fittest—and that doesn’t necessarily mean the nicest if you’re not part of our tribe.” I was quite taken aback by this outburst.
I suspect, and it would admittedly be hard to verify this, that such a cynical pragmatic view is held by a far greater number of Westerners than we would like to think. It’s a selfish notion that seems to accord with Darwinian evolution, with its dictate of “survival of the fittest.” Applied, inappropriately, to human societies, it seems to imply that “might is right.” On this view, competition is what drives human behaviour or, at the very least, it’s a major component in human make-up. Compassion, altruism and kindness are evolutionary adaptations, so we are told, that improved our fitness to survive and flourish. As psychologist Steven Pinker puts it in How The Mind Works:
“Family feelings are designed to help our genes replicate themselves.”
In other words, we might put ourselves out for a close relative, to the extent of risking our lives to save him or her, but we would be less likely to do so for someone not related to ourselves.
Pinker adds in The Blank Slate that the “tragedy of reciprocal altruism is that sacrifices on behalf of non-relatives cannot survive without a web of disagreeable emotions like anxiety, mistrust, guilt, shame and anger.”
For example, we might well feel anxious about, and even angry towards, individuals who take unfair advantage of our kindly acts in order to accrue benefits for themselves. This may be as simple as resenting inviting a colleague to our home not just once, but twice, and still not having received a dinner invitation in return. Or, to use Pinker’s examples: gaining from, but not contributing to, the public good, such as hunting animals for food, building a lighthouse that keeps everyone’s ships off the rocks, or banding together to invade neighbours or to repel their invasions.
A successful, thriving society requires cooperation and a measure of trust and honour between its members. Those who cheat are an unfair burden on society, and “law-abiding” members of the group must punish them. Otherwise cheaters could end up destroying the cohesion, even the very survival, of the whole group. Consequently, claims Pinker, anger “evolved from systems for aggression and was recruited to implement the cheater-punishment strategy demanded by reciprocal altruism.”
“Go ahead, make my day!”
But is this depiction of anger as beneficial, providing evolutionary advantages, the whole truth?
In his work, Authentic Happiness, psychologist Martin Seligman, pioneer of the burgeoning field of positive psychology cautions, “We deem it honest, just, and even healthy to express our anger. So we shout, we protest, and we litigate. ‘Go ahead, make my day,’ warns Dirty Harry. Part of the reason we allow ourselves this luxury is that we believe the psychodynamic theory of anger. If we don’t express our rage, it will come out elsewhere—even more destructively, as in cardiac disease. But this theory turns out to be false; in fact, the reverse is true. Dwelling on trespass and the expression of anger produces more cardiac disease and more anger.”
Anne Harrington, a science historian at Harvard University, points out the systematic failings of science in the investigation of deep human values such as altruism and compassion. These values tend to be simply eliminated from the scientific analysis, says Harrington:
“Historically, the more deeply our sciences have probed reality, the less relevant concepts like compassion become. Behind altruism is strategizing for genetic fitness.” As psychologist Daniel Goleman notes in Destructive Emotions And How We Can Overcome Them. A Dialog with the Dalai Lama, the scientific reduction of altruism to notions of “genetic fitness” is “how evolutionary theory explains away such selflessness.”
Evolutionary theory is, of course, one of the most successful scientific theories of all times, but one must be careful in using it to explain human qualities, particularly if such explanations are one-sided.
“I believe that evolution has favoured both good and bad traits, and any number of adaptive roles in the world have selected for morality, cooperation, altruism, and goodness, just as any number have also selected for murder, theft, self-seeking, and terrorism”
Seligman explicitly rejects pessimistic depictions of selfish human nature, or of anger being innate. This approach, he argues, is scientifically unsound. “Current dogma may say that negative motivation is fundamental to human nature and positive motivation merely derives from it, but I have not seen a shred of evidence that compels us to believe this [the] dual-aspect view that positive and negative traits are equally authentic and fundamental is the basic motivational premise of Positive Psychology.”
Returning now to the individual, it’s all too easy for personal attitudes to be shaped by our own narrow bundle of inwardly-directed anxieties. The German philosopher Ernst Cassirer expressed it well: “We live much more in our doubts and fears, our anxieties and hopes about the future, than in our recollections or in our present experiences.”
Fear and anxiety so often dominate our reaction to people and the world around us. Isn’t this terribly sad? By looking primarily inwards, at our own problems, which thus tend to multiply and magnify, we can too easily become attached to feelings of negativity, even misery. This almost becomes a badge of honour, a bundle of suffering that we must carry around on our backs wherever we go—excess baggage that we are, in fact, loath to set down.
As psychotherapist Howard Cutler notes, “When it comes down to it, many of us resist giving up our misery—a vexing and baffling feature of human behaviour I often observed in the past when treating psychotherapy patients. As miserable as some people might be, for many there is a kind of perverse pleasure in the self-righteous indignation one feels when one is treated unfairly. We hold on to our pain, wear it like a badge, it becomes part of us and we are reluctant to give it up. After all, at least our characteristic ways of looking at the world are familiar. Letting go of our customary responses, as destructive as they may be, may seem frightening, and often that fear abides on a deeply ingrained subconscious level.”
That fear of letting go of our habitual tendencies can be conquered, or at least assuaged, by focusing on the needs of others, rather than our own. Seligman says simply, “When we are happy, we are less self-focused, we like others more, and we want to share our good fortune even with strangers. When we are down, though, we become distrustful, turn inward, and focus defensively on our own needs. Looking out for number one is more characteristic of sadness than of well-being.”
On the other hand, Seligman points out the evolutionary role of positive emotions: “They broaden our abiding intellectual, physical, and social resources, building up reserves we can draw upon when a threat or opportunity presents itself. When we’re in a positive mood, people like us better, and friendship, love, and coalitions are more likely to cement. In contrast to the constrictions of negative emotion, our mental set is expansive, tolerant, and creative. We are open to new ideas and new experience.”
The conscious effort to undertake small acts of kindness for others is a good place to start. Though such acts may initially feel somewhat forced, it’s worth the effort to weaken the fears, doubts and anxieties that afflict us all. It’s a simple and fun pragmatic scientific experiment, at minimal cost, that anyone can try. When to begin? Now!
As Marcus Aurelius wisely observed: “there is a limit to the time assigned you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return.”