August 13, 2021

In 1951, scholar-guru Alan Watts published a book called The Wisdom of Insecurity.  No security is possible in this world, Watts said, and the quest to achieve it leads only to an anxiety about the future that prevents us from living in the present.  The book was a precursor of the current philosophy of mindfulness that says more or less the same thing.  (Watts was a pioneer in introducing Eastern religion and philosophy to a Western audience).  But without wanting to be condescending, I wonder whether it is as relevant now as it was during an era of an era of peacetime affluence that is at times looked back upon with nostalgia, despite the paranoia of the Cold War and McCarthyism.   Watts was addressing an “age of anxiety” that had lost traditional values but had nothing better to replace them with than consumerism.  The anxiety he spoke of was a sense of emptiness amidst peace and plenty. 

During this same period, in 1954, Abraham Maslow published his landmark Motivation and Personality, describing the still-famous “hierarchy of needs.”  The first level of the hierarchy is physiological needs, for food, drink, shelter, and the like; the second is safety needs.  “The healthy and fortunate adult in our culture is largely satisfied in his safety needs,” he says. The fact that this sentence now sounds dated is exactly my point.  We are an age of anxiety beyond what the 1950’s dreamed of, and we no longer feel safe.   The worst thing is that our fears are not neurotic, or hypothetical, like the Fifties’ fear of nuclear war, but absolutely real.  We face not just one serious threat to our safety and security but a half dozen interrelated threats: Covid, the rise of fascist authoritarianism, an out-of-control financial system that came within an inch of bringing down the world economy in 2008 and which ruined the lives of many common people, a monopoly capitalism that has produced a “gig economy” of exploitation not seen since the Gilded Age, and, biggest of all, climate change.  

Our society suffers outbreaks of myriad forms of psychopathology, each one of which seems mysterious in itself.  We wonder why so many people are obsessed with guns, and why some of them are obsessed with killing as many people as possible with them before killing themselves.  We wonder how millions of people can possibly believe QAnon’s conspiracy theory of Satan-worshipping pedophiles.  We wonder how evangelical Christians, of all people, should more or less worship Donald Trump, of all people.  We wonder how people can deny climate change even as it increasingly devastates the world; how people are forced to manufacture increasingly absurd sounding theories about magnets and altered DNA to rationalize not believing in vaccinations, or even in Covid itself, sometimes when they are actually dying from it.  We wonder how working class people can die deaths of despair from opioids, the same kind of people who thought we hippies were depraved for smoking marijuana when I was young.   We who teach wonder why perhaps a third of our students suffer from depression or, increasingly, chronic anxiety and panic attacks.  

Much as I distrust single-cause explanations, I think the first step in confronting these pathologies is to realize that examining individual cases is fruitless:  the cause is systemic.  These are all reactions to a pervasive feeling of danger, threat, lack of safety.  The second step is to give up the futile attempt to reason all these irrational people back to sanity.  It does no good to tell them they are not facing reality when the whole purpose of their symptoms and delusions is to escape from a reality that is utterly, impossibly frightening.  If we want to curtail the outbreak of this pandemic of mental illness—and “pandemic” is the right metaphor, because mental illness is highly contagious—we are going to have to make the social environment much safer and more secure.  Simple as that.  Difficult as that. 

It has been a theme elsewhere in these newsletters that the imagination, disturbed by fear, breeds horrors.  It is a vicious circle, because the nightmare images in turn elicit additional fears, the circle spinning ever faster towards sheer hysteria.  We see it in the media, on both sides of the political spectrum.  On the right, it is of course deliberate, with outlets such as Fox News doing everything they can to whip their viewers into a continual frenzy of fear and rage, like the villains in the old Westerns who deliberately stampede the cattle.  But I also see it at times in the contents of my left-leaning political websites, whose articles with some frequency bear headlines clearly designed to be cattle prods.  The Republicans have a plan that is almost surely going to work to overturn election results in 2022; the far right will learn from the failure of January 6 and launch a better-planned coup attempt that may well succeed; Biden’s attempt to address [fill in blank] is probably doomed to failure; an expert that we interviewed says that the present crisis could very well lead to complete social collapse.  The attempt to catalyze anxiety seems to have affected the journalists themselves, with more than one commentator dispiritedly repeating that we are most likely witnessing the end of American democracy, and with at least one speaking with apparent assurance of the end of the entire West, or perhaps just of the end.   Is it any mystery why even many “normal” people live in constant dread, fighting an urge to cower in bed and wait for it all to go away?  On the day I write these words, the comic strip Pearls before Swine, which regularly satirizes this syndrome of fearful vulnerability as the new normal, featured a cartoon version of the creator, Stephen Pastis, running in one direction in the first panel, crying, “Everything in the world is falling apart!  Run for the hills!”  Two panels later he returns, running in the opposite direction, shouting, “Can’t run for the hills!! The hills are on fire!!”, as the wildfires are burning out west, and the temperature rises into the triple digits for the third time. 

Of course, the Old Testament prophets turned out to be correct, their kingdoms eventually dismantled by larger empires.  However, their jeremiads had the purpose of attempting to turn both kings and people back to God before it was too late.  But, as Alan Watts observed, reliance on a higher power is no longer a liberal or progressive option.  So the media merely become what Dylan Thomas once called the town crier in Pompeii.   The liberals seem to be all too successful, at times, in triggering themselves. Fiction is presently inundated with dystopian and after-the-apocalypse narratives, by which some people seem to be captivated like a rat mesmerized by a snake.  

From there it is one more step to the anxiety narratives taken to be truth, the various paranoid conspiracy theories.  These range from the demonstrably false—that cities are hotbeds of nonwhite violence, that immigrants are criminals, rapists, and spreaders of Covid—to the utterly bizarre.  At that point, the ego and its reality principle are swept aside by sheer intensity of terror, and what Jung called the collective unconscious throws up the mythological imagery of the demonic.  If you want a counterpart to the imagery of QAnon, look at the Book of Revelation, or some of the non-Biblical examples of the genre of “apocalyptic writings,” which are typically produced, scholars tell us, in times of social crisis, if not social breakdown. In his powerful poem of 1921, “The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats, channeling the apocalyptic mood between world wars, says that “the center cannot hold,” that “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” that “the best lack all conviction while the worst / Are filled with passionate intensity,” and ends by saying that the Second Coming will be that of a demonic beast in the desert, “moving its slow thighs,” and “slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.”  In other words, not the Nativity but Rosemary’s Baby

The other place to look is the delusional imagery, often mythological, of mental illness.  If depression and anxiety are the signature neuroses of our time, the psychosis du jour is paranoid schizophrenia, as prophesied a generation ago by two important novelists, Thomas Pynchon and Philip K. Dick.  As C.G. Jung warned a hundred years ago, psychosis is not a matter of a few weird, dysfunctional people in institutions:  it can easily become a collective phenomenon, and within a few years the Nazis proved him correct.  It is noted with some frequency that the Republican party has pretty much become by this time an authoritarian cult, the cult of Trump.  The salient fact about Trump cultists is that these are people who, behind their blustering, aggressive manner, are intensely afraid, who feel weak and powerless, and yearn for someone to fight for them against threatening forces, to protect them, to make America safe again.  Maslow clearly described the safety-deprived type in 1954, when it was more an individual than a collective phenomenon: “Their reaction is often to unknown, psychological dangers in a world that is perceived to be hostile, overwhelming, and threatening.  Such a person behaves as if a great catastrophe were always impending, i.e., he is usually responding as if to an emergency.  His safety needs often find specific impression in a search for a protector, or a stronger person on whom he may depend, perhaps a Fuehrer.”   From here it is a short distance to January 6. 

But the other way to feel safe is actually to become the charismatic figure of power, the godlike figure who radiates energy and confidence.  Trump plays this role all too well, as do dictators in other countries, Hungary for instance.  Mass shooters aspire to become such a figure in a cameo role: for one brief scene, they enjoy the intoxicating feeling of absolute power behind the barrel of a gun, making all those other people afraid.  Rejected loners, they are their own cult, and their own sacrifice.   But the charismatic power figure is a temptation elsewhere.  Superstars in the entertainment world, especially male superstars, may suffer from what Jung calls “inflation” by the charismatic energy that floods them from the unconscious and makes them feel “godlike.”  The careers of some rock stars, often ending, like those of mass shooters, in self-sacrificial death, are an attempt to live like the gods, whose behavior knows no boundaries.  Libertarianism of the Ayn Rand variety apotheosized the business titan:  to regulate his behavior is not just wrong but sacrilege, a betrayal on the part of those “parasites” who in fact depend on him.   There is often a sexual aspect to the behavior of alpha males in the business world.  As some people observed, Jeff Bezos recently enacted a charade of self-proving in a rocket shaped like a phallus appropriately spewing hot gases, adding new meaning to Jung’s term “inflation.”  Elon Musk proved his manhood by mocking a heroic rescuer, and thus a potential rival, as “pedo man.”  And on the day I write this, the devil has come to collect in the office of Andrew Cuomo, whose tough-guy combination of bullying and sexual harassment served to make him feel strong, not weak, not like a victimized woman. 

Bezos is on record as saying that the horrible treatment of workers in his warehouses results from a deliberate philosophy:  if you make workers feel too comfortable and secure, they will not strive to perform to their utmost.  They will become slackers, lazy parasites. As a business theory, this was disproved decades ago:  Maslow wrote a whole book, Eupsychian Management, showing that companies that motivate their workers with respect and security rather than fear actually do better in the long run.  In his time, the model of such practice was the Japanese auto makers, whose practice of team-building was copied by Saturn in the United States.  Now, we have the gig economy, which serves the purposes of the powerful (namely, short-term profits for shareholders and obscene salaries for CEO’s) but which leads to an inequality that is unstable and cannot last.  

For those not caught up in collective pathology, the message is this:  None of our problems are hopeless.   There are solutions, imperfect but workable, to all of the threats and dangers listed above.   The knee-jerk response is, yes, but no one will implement them, and most will obstruct them.  To which I say: excuses, excuses.  The lesson I have learned over a lifetime of watching slow but real social progress in many areas is that any improvement will be judged to be impossible until it is accomplished, after which it will be dismissed as insufficient.  We need more utopian imagination, not rational social engineering but possible dreams of humane hopefulness.  We need to get a handle on our tendency to easy pessimism and passive resignation.  

And to deal with our present anxieties, which as I say are perfectly rational, we (and by “we” I will admit that I include myself) need to learn a kind of detachment that is not simply cold, not the Stoic ideal of ataraxia or self-cauterizing of emotion, not the Vulcan ideal of Star Trek.  Many of us perhaps have admired people who have the capacity to remain “above the fray,” who are inoculated (that virus metaphor again) against the anxiety that has caused everyone around them to twirl hysterically.  Maslow says that the more a basic need has been met in the past, the more resilience people have during times of deprivation in the present.  “They are the strong people who can easily weather disagreement or opposition, who can swim against the stream of public opinion, and who can stand up for the truth at great personal cost.  It is just the ones who have loved and been well loved, and who have had many deep friendships who can hold out against hatred, rejection, or persecution.”  They are the ones who can endure anxiety without panic or pessimism, with a calm serenity that is not the same as living in a bubble.  Maslow stresses the importance of safety and security in childhood, but we are all children to some extent, and it is possible to be born again, to die to our old identity and be reborn as a better one, no matter what age we are, no matter how many voices around us demand that we join their shrieking chorus. 

Note:  The Maslow quotations derive from “A Theory of Human Motivation,” collected in Motivation and Personality (1954).