How to survive the age of fragility
About a year ago, I was pretty anxious.
I wouldn't slap the "crippling" sticker on it, but it was severe enough to make me seek help.
I heard that cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT, was an excellent way to banish my jittery demons. I found a highly rated therapist and started to step on the slow path to exorcise the excess stress hormones from my life.
CBT isn't psychoanalysis. There's no deep, probing chat about childhood trauma, no uncovering of daddy issues, no chaise longue. It's a wartime therapy, a bombardment with a series of highly practical tools. The main lesson of CBT is that emotions may look like reality, they may feel as real as a brick, but they are merely a bodily function, like burping. Emotions might feel like they are the result of deep thought, but they are more like the pain you feel when you stub your toe. They are alarms to jolt you into performing the evolutionarily required action. Fight, flight, negotiation, appeasement, utter despair.
CBT offers instruments for unpacking the convincing magic of emotions.
And not only that - it provides a new lens with which to look at our culture, at our current reality.
Marinating in your own truths
Live your truth.
Get in touch with your feelings.
"Have it your way."
This is the new conventional wisdom.
The truth isn't some agreed upon, fact-based, external thing, it's "yours", it's personal.
This idea obviously comes from a kind, compassionate place, where everyone's experience is worthy and should be validated by wider society. But how is your experience validated? It isn't questioned. Your truth, your feelings - your business.
At the moment, the attitude that's running through our culture is a mixture of non-judgementalism and sheer terror. We want to be free from other people's judgement, be seen as non-judgemental AND are scared shitless to say anything critical to anyone about anything, because new categories of sensitivity are springing up every day. You don't want to be the guy with his foot in his mouth 24 hours after it's been collectively decided that Gorgonzola-kin is the new group that's been excluded from having a sense of humour.
The problem is that these extremes of compassion have a dark side. If there is such a thing as too much chocolate cake, there is such a thing as too much compassion. Or, at least, too much surface-level compassion.
In their book, The coddling of the American mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff address safetyism, the pursuit of physical and psychological safety at any cost. This, among other things, means not exposing people to potentially uncomfortable or triggering ideas. The authors lean heavily on CBT to explain why this insulation from challenging emotions makes you psychologically vulnerable, as emotions are given too much power over the individual.
A good part of what CBT teaches is how to recognise and resist "cognitive distortions". These are ways of looking at the world that pack an excessive or skewed emotional punch. The list of cognitive distortions reads a bit like Buzzfeed's content guidelines and includes: catastrophising, black and white thinking, jumping to conclusions, blaming, highlighting the "unfairness", emotional reasoning and labelling. These are feelings, everyday feelings.
They might be real, but they're often toxic.
Outrage culture is the natural outgrowth of our emphasis on feeling.
It's rampant because of our compassionate agreement to lift emotions to the status of truth. Why? To be nice. Aaaand because it might make people lash out on social media and destroy your reputation via outrage mob.
People are feeling things. Nothing new about that. But now is the only time we've deliberately culturally dismantled the difference between feeling and fact. In our quest for inclusivity, for equality, for personal freedom and freedom from ostracism, we've taken down most of the cultural mediation systems where, for better, for worse, you "had to pull yourself together".
Also, if the personal is political, what does that look like in a world where everything is personal?
It looks like 2018.
It's unsurprising that society is fractured straight down an ideological middle, with both factions feeling like the other will usher in the end times.
In a world where every feeling is cherished, is nurtured, is validated, talking about facts just makes you a lousy speechwriter, a crap storyteller. It's like putting on NPR while the Real Housewives is booming on the jumbotron.
The virtue of frailty
The importance we place on emotions has naturally led to the concern we give to protecting them. Feelings are like the last of the Dodo bird, precious, sensitive, easily spooked. This need to protect feelings is starting to weave itself into one of the bloody 20th century's favourite concepts: oppression.
There’s an oppressor/oppressed narrative that runs so deep through our culture that now it’s not necessary to prove oppression. It's just enough to notice unhappiness. That's all you need to conclude that the person experiencing the unhappiness is not only oppressed but virtuous *because* they are oppressed.
There are many sorts of unhappy people. Some feel like their status is too low. Some feel unattractive. Some feel unpopular. Some feel undervalued. Life is tough, and it isn't fun most of the time for most of the people.
“We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off.”
Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk
We're now comparing ourselves to the entire world, rather than our five closest neighbours, and it's driving us insane with expectation.
Our culture is rigged in such a way that we're all meant to be looking for a scapegoat messiah, a default oppressor to relieve the performance pressure. We don’t have to wait too long, because, now more than ever in historical time, our world is bursting at the seams with highly visible examples of the lean, rich and famous.
Fuck those people. Amirite?
The cultures of old had an inbuilt fix for this problem. Sure, this was partly for crowd control, but had some underrated benefits too.
They had traditions and customs that were inherently stratified. There was a ruling class, but it was appointed by God, by nature itself, and there was an underclass, similarly cosmically arranged. The system was set up so that there was virtue in both.
In secular modernity, there is no more "blessed are the meek".
There is no acceptance, metaphysical or otherwise, of the fact that lives will be filled with suffering and inherent, try-as-we-might, government-intervention-proof inequality. There is no acceptance of the simple fact that talents, beauty, fame and (sometimes) money will be distributed pretty much scattershot. Staring at one's own inadequacy harbours no consoling myths anymore. There is no virtue in sucking. There is no redemption in modestly living your days out.
There is no more big payday in the afterlife.
The world starts to look like a zero-sum game, where my inadequacy feels like it has to be someone else's unfair advantage.
The compassion of facts
Shielding people from uncomfortable feelings won't make them safer.
Just like shielding a generation from contact with peanuts has made peanut allergies rampant, telling your friend she doesn't look fat in those jeans won't make her a smash success on Tinder.
And, if we're to look at what's happening on university campuses all around the world and on the listicle media, it seems that protecting a whole generation from emotional discomfort has made them go berserk.
We can't ignore people's emotions, that's not what I'm advocating.
Emotions are essentially the loud, inelegant farts of the soul, not something we should be using as a guide to mould society. To raise them collectively to the status of truth to be "nice" means driving gently and considerately off a cliff. Pure rationality is a myth, of course, but it's useful in so far as it is an objective. Striving for objectivity, for the discovery of facts, as jarring as they might sound, is one of the most robust and hard-won legacies of the enlightenment, and we shouldn't let it be extinguished because we risk being offensive in the pursuit of truth.
What's the opposite of being fragile?
It's not resilient. Resilient is just something that doesn't break with stress. It's antifragile. Antifragile is something that improves with pressure, something that gets better with repeated impact.
Nassim Taleb coined this word in his book Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder. The human body is naturally antifragile. We can see that in the workings of immunity and the strength of bones after being subjected to stress.
The human mind, though, is much more fickle. It can both be fragile or antifragile. Studies have shown that how people react, even physiologically to stress, is controlled by the mindset people have about stress. People who interpret it as grinding experience it as grinding. People that see it as a healthy challenge experience it as energising.
So, understanding that stress is part of life and that it's a part of growth is the key to everything. Understanding that challenge, not comfort is the key to antifragility, to using challenge as a stepping stone for becoming better. And sometimes, the challenge comes in the form of hearing things you disagree with or of being told that yep, those jeans are about two sizes too small and pear shaped is still better than muffin shaped.
There is no final cure here, it’s just awareness and exposure. What doesn’t kill you should make you stronger, not make you melt into the mental health equivalent of jello. It’s a mind game you need to start playing with yourself.
P.S. Also, please, for the love of all that is holy, stop reading listicles about how, where and who’s oppressed. Advertisers have just figured out that milking guilt and irritation is good for the bottom line, but the tide is turning.