February 8, 2012 § 20 Comments
“To offer the leadership and vision our times require as individuals, professionals, change agents in any domain, and even as spiritual leaders, wisdom dictates we move beyond unconscious polarization – not just intellectually, but in the very words we speak and the actions we take.” ~ Ragini Elizabeth Michaels
“[T]he thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion” ~ Soren Kierkegaard
“To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind.” ~ Jianzhi Sengcan
If one extreme presents itself, such as a predator, it’s logical to put as much space between you and that danger as possible, to go the opposite direction. It makes sense to label the saber tooth tiger “unsafe” and the cave where he can’t reach you “safe.” In situations so basic, locations which are “somewhat safe” are ineffective to ponder.
But we no longer live in an age where this kind of thinking serves us. In fact, the cognitive distortion brought on by viewing a complex world through the simplistic lens of “this or that,” “all or nothing,” “either/or,” can harm relationships, diminish well-being and limit our overall understanding of the world. In viewing a multi-faceted situation through a binary lens we are bound to miss essential details.
In the modern era the ability to perceive nuance, ambiguity and paradox is considered the height of cognitive vitality. Finding balance between seemingly contradictory elements is believed by many to be the road to inner peace.
Language itself promotes dualistic thinking. ‘Difficult’ and ‘easy’ define each other. What would ‘calm’ mean without ‘anxious?’ ‘Up’ makes ‘down’ distinguishable.
Even the simplest, most everyday question — “How are you?” — pressures us to pick a side. If, for whatever combination of reasons, our focus happens to be on the pleasant, enjoyable, fulfilling aspects of our lives that day, we will likely answer, “good!”
If, for whatever combination of reasons, our attention has been brought to the difficult, frustrating, undesirable aspects of our lives, we may say the social equivalent of “bad” (“not so good,” “seen better days,” etc.)
Yet, our lives at all times contain both pleasant and challenging aspects. What has changed, more often than not, on the days we say “good” from the “I’ve had better” days is simply our focus.
Middle ground responses will likely provoke an interpretation veering towards the negative. For instance responding with a shrug, “So-so,” “I’m okay,” or the unlikely but far more accurate, “I’m both good and bad,” will be read as unspecific and inspire detail pressing. The most honest answer (“I am”) would be considered highly uninformative.
“While we speak to the unity and harmony of the whole as our desired goal,” writes Ragini Elizabeth Michaels in her article “Managing a Paradoxical Life,” “our language itself too often reveals an unconscious choice of one pole of a polar pair as more important, or more right, than the other – spiritual over material, peace over conflict, trust over doubt, unity over diversity, harmony over discord.”
A false dilemma (also called a false dichotomy, or black-and-white thinking) is a type of logical fallacy that involves a situation in which only two alternatives are considered, when in fact there are additional options. (“It wasn’t medicine that cured Mrs. X, so it must be a miracle.”)
Marked by a logical leap and the oversimplification of a more complex matter, a false dichotomy may be presented intentionally, in order to manipulate a perspective (“You’re either with us, or you’re against us,”) or unintentionally, due to an assumption (“He wouldn’t do that if he loved me.”)
Social systems reinforce this kind of polarized thinking. For example, if you want to identify with a political party of any influence in the United States you have two choices: either you can identify as pro-peace, pro-gay, pro-tax, pro-regulation, pro-choice and anti-gun or pro-military, anti-gay, anti-tax, pro-free market, pro-life and pro-gun.
What if you are pro-gay, pro-free market, anti-tax, pro-life, pro-peace and pro-gun? Too bad. Pick a side or your vote yields no power. Cultural splitting such as this encourages people to think in unnecessarily polarized terms.
In structuralism (the sociological study of cultural context) dividing the world into two opposing categories, known as binary opposition, is seen as a fundamental organizer of human philosophy, culture, and language (for example, we need the idea of “evil” in order to conceive of the concept of “good.”)
French philospher Jacques Derrida agrees that binary oppositions often marks “a violent hierarchy” where “one of the two terms governs the other.” For instance, in the West, the idea of presence occupies a position of dominance over absence, because absence is traditionally seen as what you get when you take presence away. (If absence were dominant, presence might be seen as what you get when you take absence away.)
In this way, binary language can be linked with hierarchy and oppression. For instance, male can be seen, according to traditional Western thought, as dominant over female because male is the presence of a phallus, while the vagina is an absence, and therefor seen as a loss.
“Black and white thinking doesn’t just hurt ourselves, but also the relationships we try to build with other people. When we view the world in strict and over-simplistic terms, we are less likely to compromise and cooperate with others to meet common interests,” notes psychology writer Steven Handel.
“We lose in black and white thinking because we are never going to be everything we want to be. We’re always going to be lacking something if we’re trying to measure ourselves on some black-and-white scale where x is good and y is not good. We’re never going to be able to be completely x. It doesn’t happen, because we’re human – we’re unfinished – and we’re not simple.”
“A black and white viewpoint often creates artificial ‘needs’ in our life that lead to disappointment and depression,” continues Handel, adding that the cognitive-based psychotherapist Albert Ellis called one example of this ‘musterbation.’ “This is our tendency to think that we must have something, or we must do something, or life must be a certain way – or it will be awful.
“Black and white thinking doesn’t open us up to the possibility that even if life doesn’t work out exactly the way we think it should, we can still find happiness.”
Ragini Elizabeth Michaels agrees: “We may think that by eradicating the pole we don’t want, we are creating a non-dual universe, or ‘fixing the problem.’ We may believe that the dilemma, or duality itself, with its conflicts and tensions, will then somehow disappear. Or worse yet, we may begin to perceive the spiritual as the solution to the problems of the material world – which, paradoxically, it is and it is not.
“In contrast, depolarizing the mind frees us to perceive war and peace, anger and compassion, freedom and responsibility, and even duality and non-duality, as partners, and to perceive the friction or tension between them as creativity in disguise. This shift in perception changes everything.”
German philosopher Hegel saw history as a merging of opposites, creating progress: one viewpoint (the Thesis) merges with another, seemingly polar, viewpoint (the Anti-Thesis,) creating a new entity altogether, the Synthesis. This process is known in philosophy as the Hagelian Dialectic. For Hegel, dialectic tension is inherently creative and capable of union.
Great thinkers have always embraced paradox — looking past black and white simplification into a world where seemingly contradictory forces can co-exist. Kierkegaard said:
“…one must not think ill of the paradox, for the paradox is the passion of thought, and the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion: a mediocre fellow. But the ultimate potentiation of every passion is always to will its own downfall, and so it is also the ultimate passion of the understanding to will the collision, although in one way or another the collision must become its downfall. This, then, is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think.”
In Asian philosophy, the concept of yin yang (referred to in the West as “yin and yang”) describes how seemingly contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world, giving rise to each other in turn. Yin yang are not opposing forces but complementary opposites that interact within a greater whole.
Paradox is the heart and soul of Zen philosophy. As Lau-Tzu said, “If you want to become full, let yourself be empty…Look, and it can’t be seen. Listen, and it can’t be heard. Reach, and it can’t be grasped… seamless, unnamable, it returns to the realm of nothing. Form that includes all forms, image without an image, subtle, beyond all conception…You can’t understand it, but you can be it. The Tao is beyond is and is not…”
Next time you find yourself feeling anxious over some perceived reality, take note. Are you making a logical leap that if X is true, then so must Y? Are you boxing yourself or someone else into an all-or-nothing false dilemma, considering only two alternatives where there are many? Ignoring seemingly contradictory aspects in order to create the illusion of a more manageable whole? In the end, the dualistic world view is not more manageable. It is more prone to distortion.
Am I saying to abandon discernment? On the contrary! By releasing preconceived dualistic notions we open ourselves to perceive a greater spectrum.
So take off those black and white glasses and behold the multi-colored world!
July 6, 2011 § 41 Comments
“…if you are not like everybody else, then you are abnormal, if you are abnormal , then you are sick. These three categories, not being like everybody else, not being normal and being sick are in fact very different but have been reduced to the same thing.” Michel Foucault
Perhaps you noticed it, too. The word ‘anxiety’ appearing more and more in conversation, ads and media. People talking, not about ‘being anxious,’ (a moment that can pass) but about ‘having anxiety’ (a permanent affliction).
In “The Age of Anxiety,” a poem written in 1947, W.H. Auden links modern angst with man’s quest to find substance and identity in a shifting and increasingly industrialized world: …It is getting late / Shall we ever be asked for? Are we simply / not wanted at all?
Writer-philosopher Albert Camus dubbed the 20th century “The Century of Fear.” One wonders what he would say about the 21st.
Writer Herman Hesse, exploring the age of angst in his novel Steppenwolf, attributes the feelings of isolation and loneliness in his protagonist to the breakdown of repressive bourgeoisie values, which let loose the wild, irrational forces within man without offering a new standard or value system for support, thereby creating an uneasy limbo, lacking guidance and direction.
Though the subject has been explored for centuries by writers and philosophers, social anxiety disorder did not officially exist until it appeared in 1980′s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the DSM-III — the psychiatrist’s bible of psychological afflictions — under the name “social phobia,” the same book which once classified homosexuality as a mental disorder.
Not that the problem didn’t exist before — it was the ancient Greeks, after all, who coined the word agoraphobic — but during the latter half of the 20th century, anxiety seems to have shifted culturally from a covert issue to an overt one.
By the 1990′s pharmaceutical companies received F.D.A. approval to treat social anxiety and poured tens of millions of dollars into advertising its existence. In 2002, Anxiety Disorders Association of America reported that 19.1 million (or 13%) of adults ages 18-54 were affected with a form of anxiety disorder. Now the percentage has climbed to 40 million (or 18%) of the population.
The current version of the DSM-IV describes diagnosis as warranted when anxiety “interferes significantly with work performance” (italics mine) or if the sufferer shows marked distress about it.
So in other words, according to the DSM, if you can’t adjust to your life as an employee, you may have a disorder. If it affects your productivity within the system, that’s the true indicator of a problem.
Of course, this makes sense on an individual basis — why wouldn’t job performance be an issue for individual workers? We all have bills to pay.
But on a broader level, from the perspective of analyzing cultural trends and messages, it strikes me as eerily dystopian that humans should be viewed like malfunctioning robots who need repair because their efficiency has faltered, rather then looking into possible problems with the work places themselves (environment, demands, etc).
Not “Maybe we need more breaks to maximize efficiency,” but “Maybe you have a problem. Take a pill and get back to work.”
There is a lack of humanity in the description, an emphasis on product over person.
Before having the medical meaning we give it, or that at least we like to suppose it has, confinement [of the insane] was required by something quite different from any concern with curing the sick. What made it necessary was an imperative of labor. Our philanthropy prefers to recognize the signs of a benevolence towards sickness where there is only a condemnation of idleness.
I want to be clear that I am not criticizing individuals for taking anxiety medication. I am not telling anyone to stop taking their medication or saying it’s weak or wrong to do so. It’s a personal choice. We need all the help we can get, and I understand that medication is one form of help for many people.
My interrogation, rather, is aimed at our perception of anxiety as a society — our knee-jerk reaction of repression over investigation, of labeling the feeling a disorder, rather than seeing it as a potential initiation into deeper mastery of ones will and character, or as a symptom of an imbalanced social system.
”I would say that learning to know anxiety is an adventure which every man has to affront if he would not go to perdition, either by not having known anxiety or by sinking under it. He therefore who has learned rightly to be anxious has learned the most important thing.”
In that context, there begins to appear something ominous about the medication of such a feeling, which may be uncomfortable, but also suggests the presence of our own grand possibility. If anxiety is a natural reaction to the experience of our own overwhelming freedom, what will it mean to repress that sensation?
Some might take issue with the fact that I am not drawing a distinct line between philosophical anxiety and physiological/psychological anxiety. I am aware that our society sees them as different issues — one as garden-variety-human-condition-angst, which everyone experiences to some degree, and the other as the more pathological, in-need-of-medication-chemical-imbalance anxiety. This is because I don’t believe they are different. Rather, I think they are gradations of the same experience.
I see the varying interpretations of anxiety by different fields as exactly that: interpretations. The difference between, say, a poet’s description of an elephant and a zoologist’s. The elephant remains the same.
Just because one field has identified the chemicals related to the feeling does not mean the chemicals are the beginning, or the end, of the story.
Social anxiety is often linked with introverts — incidentally, a much misunderstood personality type within our modern culture.
“The day may come,” says Susan Cain in her recent New York Times article, “Shyness: An Evolutionary Tactic?” ”when we have pills that ‘cure’ shyness and turn introverts into social butterflies [...] [But] the act of treating shyness as an illness obscures the value of that temperament.”
As a culture we need both the shy, sensitive introverts to ponder the deeper meanings of things and the assertive, bold extraverts to take action and get things done. Diversity in a species is an evolutionary advantage.
Case in point: evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson performed a simple but telling experiment on a school of unknowing pumpkinseed sun fish. About 15-20 % of animals display introvert characteristics of caution (interestingly, the same percentage as in humans,) called “sitters,” compared to the more curious, assertive “rover” types…
The biologist lowered a metal trap into the water and a large number of ”rover” sunfish went inside to investigate — only to be caught. While the more tentative “sitter” sunfish, who sat back and watched, remained free.
“Had Professor Wilson’s traps posed a real threat, only the sitters would have survived,” points out Cain. “But had the sitters taken Zoloft and become more like bold rovers, the entire family of pumpkinseed sunfish would have been wiped out. ’Anxiety’ about the trap saved the fishes’ lives.”
Wilson then caught all the sunfish and took them back to his lab. The rovers acclimated faster, eating a full five days earlier than their sitter brethren. In this case, the rovers had the evolutionary advantage.
“There is no single best … personality,” Professor Wilson concludes in his book, “Evolution for Everyone,” “but rather a diversity of personalities maintained by natural selection.”
Yet we live in a culture which treats the sitter personality as freakish. “Just do it!” our slogans roar. Action is prized over contemplation, assertiveness over timidity. One way we manifest this bias as a society is by encouraging perfectly healthy shy people to see their tendencies as problematic, needing to be cured.
Studies show that introverts, who tend to digest information thoroughly, do better in school than their extroverted peers, despite having the same I.Q. The careful, sensitive temperament from which both shyness and anxiety can spring is not only rich in observational skill, insight and inner vision, it may well be essential to the survival of our species — a point well illustrated by our friends the pumpkinseed sunfish.
As science journalist Winifred Gallagher points out: ”The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with intellectual and artistic achievement. Neither E=mc2 nor ‘Paradise Lost’ was dashed off by a party animal.”
I’m not saying that people who take medication are doing so to “conform to the status quo,” (obviously they are doing it to feel better and to function more effectively in their life) but the increase of medication use in the Western world does suggest the possibility of an increasingly homogenized human experience.
Though some might argue that such “increased homogeny” is just fine if it entails a more well-adjusted life experience, I am suspicious of terms like “well adjusted,” because they require that we hold a yardstick up against the majority to measure the minority; it fails to account for individual temperament or the gifts that come with eccentricity.
Back to the original thought: being anxious vs having anxiety. This is a shift of language I have witnessed in my lifetime. And what a consequence the simple replacement of “having” with “being” implies: one is an emotion that passes through you, another is something you are stuck with, a state, part of your personality, even your identity.
And could it have anything to do with the multi-million dollar pharmaceutical companies filling the airwaves with the language of “having?”
What great symphonies, works of literature and philosophies would not have been created had the sensitive temperaments creating them been medicated? And what will our society look like in 100 years if it continues down its current trajectory?