Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Waking Up in the Dark Forest

The woods across the road from my home
CC Jean Stimmell: 2014

How the world changes. I have an anxiety disorder. In the psychological stone age that existed sixty years ago, I repressed that knowledge so thoroughly I didn't even know I had it. That was the age of John Wayne,' when anxiety was –to use the lingo – found only in 'pussies,' not in 'real men.' 

The healthy choice at the time would have been to accept I had anxiety and learn positive coping mechanisms to diminish it. Because that option was unknown to me – and unacceptable if I had known – I went in the opposite direction, covering up my symptoms with bravado, risk-taking, and alcohol.

Anxiety was the antithesis of traditional masculinity, which portrayed men as strong, silent, and emotionless – except for rage and anger. Even sweating was prohibited. I remember an incident in boot camp when I was called out by my drill instructor for being a wimp because my hands were sweating.

Now, fast-forward to the present, and the pendulum has swung 180 degrees in the other direction to a point where anxiety is now hip, particularly for the young: kids share their symptoms openly in group chats, rattling off their diagnoses "with a casualness once reserved for high-school gossip.⁠1

Acknowledging that one has an anxiety disorder and seeking help for it is, of course, significant progress, but today, things may have gone overboard. Darby Saxbe, a clinical psychologist, sees evidence that anxiety has swung from being stigmatized to being a status symbol: "I worry that for some people, it's become an identity marker that makes people feel special and unique.”⁠2

But that notion that anxiety is immutable, forever able to determine who a person is, is a harmful myth. On the contrary, because anxiety is modifiable and malleable, it is highly treatable – the opposite of a fixed identity. 

As a former psychotherapist, I am pro-therapy. But I am on the same page with Saxbe when she writes “we may have overcorrected from an era when mental health was shameful to talk about to an era when some vulnerable people surround themselves with conversations and media about anxiety and depression, which makes them more vigilant about symptoms and problems, which makes them more likely to problematize normal daily stress.” 

That’s never going to work.

It’s universally acknowledged that rumination and social avoidance only make anxiety worse. Saxbe has a radical solution which she calls the principle of opposite action: “I would tell people to do what’s uncomfortable, to run toward danger,” Trust yourself: “You are not your anxiety. You’re so much more.”

Strangely, her solution sounds like my old macho stance, which, I have to say, had some good points: Forcing myself out into the world to confront what scared me was successful in many objective ways.

But the way I did it came at a high cost, numbing my feelings, empathy, and ability to relate to others. It took many years to have the courage to run toward danger, not on some macho dare but to express how I really felt and to stand up more often for what is right – in a world that has increasingly run amuck.

That's the secret to real success! To run straight into danger, not in a macho manner like John Wayne, but in the even scarier system suggested by Socrates: “Know thyself.”



1 https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2023/12/therapy-language-anxiety-mental-health/676325/

2 Ibid.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Who is Donald Trump?

"Walking into the Unknown"
CC Jean Stimmell: 2017

I valued the time I spent as a graduate student in sociology for what I learned about society. While attending, I earned money building stone headers for a construction company. In fact, I enjoyed my time outside doing stonework in the fresh air so much that I quit my studies at UNH. 

But, even to this day, I am awed by the achievements of sociologists, like the one who, during the 1940s, uncovered the dynamics behind authoritarian leaders. He would tell us, if he were alive today, that the Trump phenomenon resulted from primal psychological urges brought to the surface by the conditions of modern society.  

I will try to transcribe his findings from his ponderous, dense academic style into contemporary language as follows:

While we may think we have made progress, moving from the Middle Ages to the Age of Reason, we remain mired in myth. And during this transition, the average person has not gained ground but lost. That’s because of the nature of modern, mass society, which keeps track of the collective through statistics and remote technology while ignoring the individual’s worth as a unique person. Instead, they become lost in a faceless crowd.  

In the Age of Reason, by definition, a strong incentive exists to become educated, which has inevitably led to the rise of a meritocracy in which the highly educated have prospered at the expense of the working class. All these conditions have resulted in an increasing resentment among a significant minority of the voters.  

These feelings of discontent and disrespect have paved the way for Trump, a charismatic master at stirring up resentment in the masses. He acknowledges the pain of those who feel spurned, shifting the blame to the deep state and educated elite. 

Who was the person who initially made such claims? It was Theodor Adorno, one of the foremost philosophers and sociologists of the 20th century. 

According to the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, he contended that complex modern capitalist societies were morally wrong to “the extent to which, despite their professed individualist ideology, these societies actually frustrated and thwarted individuals’ exercise of autonomy....” And he lamented that we had become “a mass, consumer society, within which individuals were categorized, subsumed, and governed by highly restrictive social, economic, and political structures that had little interest in specific individuals.⁠1 

He correctly predicted that such conditions would attract ‘charismatic’ authoritarian leaders to seize control. In fact, Adorno’s book, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,”  sounds so contemporary it sounds like it was written about Trump.

Knowledge of Adorno’s work is essential to prevent another Trump presidency. First and foremost, we must understand that attempting to defeat him through facts and logic will fail because his platform is not based on reason or facts. His power radiates from the same kind of charismatic authority in which Hitler excelled, lulling his followers to bask in his narcissistic glory as he promises vengeance on all those whom he says are their enemies.

This dynamic, according to Adorno, is irrational, bubbling up from the human subconscious whenever “economic anxiety and failure are pervasive” and “affirmative ideals, norms, and identities fail.“ What can no longer be positively affirmed is achieved negatively by fostering social hatred.

Whoever has been targeted as the out-group becomes the negative source fueling self-affirmation. Whatever out-group becomes identified “as stranger, alien, threat, and danger, that difference can be sustained through hatred–” whether that group is minority, black, Jewish, migrant, LGBTQ, – or the whole Democratic party.⁠2

What can we do to resist this rising tide? 

Our best hope would be to nominate an exciting, non-authoritarian candidate who can generate hope like FDR did during the Great Depression, the last time right-wing authoritarian leaders were on the rise around the world. 

The question is, can Joe Biden step up and become that candidate?



1 https://iep.utm.edu/adorno/#:~:text=Adorno%20coined%20the%20tern%20%27identity,uniqueness%20is%20allowed%20to%20exist.https://iep.utm.edu/adorno/

2 https://publicseminar.org/2017/10/adornos-uncanny-analysis-of-trumps-authoritarian-personality/