Another Week Ends

Denial, Emotional Intelligence, and the Failure of Modern Stoicism.

Todd Brewer / 4.16.21

1. Perhaps it’s because of the changing, warmer weather. Or perhaps it’s everyone getting vaccinated after a year of Covid winter. But the feeling of optimism is hard to miss. At least for some people, that is. Others are feeling, well, stuck — vaccine or not. Being immune to a disease may change our social calendar or enable us to go to church, but that’s about it. Medicine can’t change the human heart or the accumulated scar tissue months (and years) in the making. The suggestion that life might be fundamentally different after just two injections only amplifies the awareness that the past year has been a collective trauma that isn’t going away anytime soon.

Writing in Jezebel this week, Molly Osberg wants to pump the brakes on all the premature celebratory optimism. Close to a third of Americans know someone who has died during the pandemic. Eight million more people are now living in poverty. And — I had to read this one twice — researchers have found that as many as 1 in 3 Covid survivors have been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder within six months of getting sick. Osberg writes:

Even if a person has survived the pandemic, people they love are dead, permanently altered, completely f**ked. Four months ago I was drawn to individual memorials because I craved a sense of human proportion. Now, staring down the oft-invoked “return to normalcy,” I don’t know how to metabolize such a towering sense of collective grief, and one that’s infused practically everything I’ve ever known. The only thing I’ve seen that comes close to capturing the feeling is a recent viral meme: a collection of paparazzi photographs featuring haggard-looking celebrities staring into the middle distance. “Just got vaccinated,” the caption reads. “This summer is about to be lit!”

Looking out at the current media landscape, Osberg notes that the rush to optimism in the typical “advice columns” is a practice in cognitive dissonance:

To deal with the disquiet of the “After Times,” Vogue recommends exercise and journaling. Buzzfeed spoke to a variety of Americans concerned about resuming commutes and losing the focus social isolation allowed. In Vox, psychologists provide readers with tips on managing their new fear of crowds by practicing mindfulness. A reader writes to The Cut’s “Ask Polly” column and is told to practice radical acceptance, to acknowledge she prefers to be “picky” in her relationships and would be happy spending most nights in front of the television curled up with her pets.

The existential terror hovers to varying degrees around the edges of these stories, and the anxiety about what comes next is real. But there’s still such a lack of useful language to describe what the hell happened, and what we’re supposed to be doing now. In the place of a shared sense of reality or collective expression of mourning, I see a torrent of advice on how a person who managed to survive can feel more self-actualized once they return to the shuffle between the office and after-work drinks. To me, this looks like denial, the first tentative step towards what I’m told are seven distinct stages of grief.

Maybe feeling stuck is just where we are now. And while the Harvard Business Review believes that the way beyond burnout is to “identify the sources of [one’s] burnout,” what can be done if that “source” is out of your control (as it so often is)? For now, it seems the go-to is to calmly face misfortune with a smile and a song:

2. Humor can help, and McSweeney’s has some hilarious pandemic-meets-Good-Friday themed advice: “How to Manage Anxiety Around Reentering Society After Your Crucifixion and Resurrection“.

Give Yourself a Break
Start by naming and acknowledging the trauma: you’ve suffered, been crucified, died, been buried, and descended to hell. Now you’re about to rise from the dead, and you’re feeling ambivalent at best. Are you expected to just emerge from the tomb and greet your disciples like nothing happened? It’s normal to feel annoyed at the angel who’s coming to unseal your tomb, but bear in mind that he’s just doing his job. […]

Don’t Fret About Remembering Names
When in doubt, call her Mary.

Wear Whatever Makes You Comfortable
Will people notice you’ve been wearing the same linen shroud for so long that sweat, grime, and blood have precisely imprinted your figure and features onto it? Of course not: they’ve got their own clothes to worry about!

“Naming the trauma” is precisely the aim of the New Yorker‘s “I Am Trying to Decide if I Should Buy Two Rolls of Paper Towel or Three.” It’s a near textbook illustration of anxiety. Reductress has its own solution to self doubt, namely, “How to Stop Judging Yourself While Continuing to Judge Everyone Else.”

3. When faced with burdens or difficulties, the usual go-to impulse is to try and fix them, which of course sounds perfectly reasonable. If one feels stressed, they might add meditation to their morning routine. Or exercise. Or both at the same time (like yoga). Feeling distant from God might lead one to pray more. If our back hurts, we take medicine or do physical therapy. But if you ask behavioral scientists, our instinct to “add” to our lives to fix things is problematic. As outlined by a recent Washington Post article, less is often more:

Across a series of studies that we published this month in the journal Nature, we demonstrated that people tend to overlook the option to subtract parts, when asked to change or improve something. We asked research participants to make changes to designs, essays, recipes, itineraries, structures and even miniature-golf holes. Our studies show that people’s first instinct is to change things by adding. When they are able and willing to think a little longer, they are perfectly capable of finding subtractive changes. But they usually don’t think longer. They quickly identify an additive idea that is good enough, put it into action and move on.

The subtractive principle isn’t new — it was Jesus who recommends that if your hand causes you to sin to cut it off (not literally, of course). But Jesus’ command does illustrate something of why it is we tend to want to add rather than subtract. We prefer to underestimate how grave the problem really is. “I’m not overextending myself because I’m insecure, I just need a new day-planner.” “Perhaps a regular date-night will rekindle the romance.”

4. Along these lines, It’s easy to see why mindfulness and an emphasis on emotional intelligence has soared to popularity in recent years. But it’s at least worth questioning whether these tools are as ubiquitously helpful as advertised. Sometimes, as argued by Merve Emre, the problems are too deep to be fixed by mere addition. Examining Daniel Goleman’s book, Emotional Intelligence, Emre sees a gaping hole in the approach:

[R]eading “Emotional Intelligence,” one begins to sense that Goleman’s examples are telling only half the story. For a book whose ultimate goal is to urge people to ingratiate themselves with their colleagues or be a little less shouty in their marriages, a startling number of chapters feature tales of capricious killings and casual violence. […]

Goleman’s diagnoses seem beside the point. This failing is inherent in the self-help genre, whose premise is that the capacity for change always lies within ourselves. Goleman promises to show his readers how to free themselves from the “emotional hijacking” of the brain by biochemical surges, the body’s unwitting tendency to set off its own “neural tripwire.” This language, with its hints of terrorism and home invasion, encourages readers to stay alert, continually monitoring their reactions in order to bring them in line with accepted rituals of emotional expression.

It is a vision of personal freedom achieved, paradoxically, through constant self-regulation. […]

While keeping certain kinds of workers anxious and pliable, the concept of emotional intelligence also renders the emotional lives and the labor conditions of non-service workers wholly irrelevant. One sees this in the limited range of players in Goleman’s success stories; the emotionally intelligent invariably seem to be managers, engineers, consultants, doctors, lawyers, and teachers. For him, the only relevant question is who will come out on top: “the manipulative, jungle-fighter boss” or “the virtuoso in interpersonal skills” who embraces “managing with heart.” His implied reader is someone capable of “dropping the small preoccupations — health, bills, even doing well”; someone for whom “going bankrupt” is as unlikely as “a loved one dying in a plane crash.”

Suffice to say that the success stories of Goldman’s book bear little resemblance to the realities of a global pandemic. The usual ballast of self-control is pretty hard to maintain when most things have been turned on their heads.

5. Whether it be denial of the extreme conditions of the past year or the constant strain of self-regulation, what we’re really talking about here is Stoicism — that ancient Greek approach to life that seeks to maintain a sufficient level of detachment from the world so as to remain unaffected by its ebbs and flows. Gritting our teeth in the face of loss to endure sacrifices made or suffered in order to “Keep calm and carry on” as the Brits might say. Writing in the Spectator this week, Graham Tomlin regards the Stoic response to the pandemic as a departure from Christianity and, more significantly, painfully inadequate:

Augustine believed that this is a world where pleasure and pain are right and proper. Agony and ecstasy are part of a proper response to a world which is both an extraordinarily beautiful creation of a good and generous God, yet at the same time, a world that is broken and damaged, and has fallen a long way from what it should have been. There is pain, injustice and evil in the world, and there’s no point in pretending otherwise. For Augustine, the wise do not face death and evil with calmness and acceptance, but with frustration and discontent. They grieve at their own failures and deliberate sins. They long for the City of God — aching with desire for God and for the future that God will bring about one day, when death will be no more, where tears and sadness will be a thing of the past and they will finally glimpse their Creator, the hidden generous giver that stands behind every good gift. For the Christian, composure is distinctly overrated. […]

For Augustine, we get glimpses of God here and now, which make us long to be fully in the presence of God one day, but we are not there yet, so there is an inevitable sense of longing for something tasted yet not yet fully grasped.

The Christian is therefore not yet quite satisfied. He is always longing, waiting for something more, knowing that this life will never quite satisfy, and it was never meant to. He cannot be stoical, content in inner imperturbability, untouched by the outside world. Yet paradoxically, this longing can lead to happiness, because it is the happiness of anticipation of something that is sure to come. We all know the feeling of disappointment in a long-anticipated event that turns out not quite as good as we hoped, or even if it was, the sadness that it is over. Christianity says that this world can never and was not mean to fully satisfy. Only God can. […]

The theologian Ellen Charry put it like this: Stoicism can produce brave people, but not genuinely happy ones. She may have overstated the case — I’m sure there are many happy Stoics out there — but maybe that happiness is despite their Stoicism rather than because of it. Whether going through a pandemic or navigating the huge social changes of nearly a century of life, human beings need more than equanimity and endurance, they need love and hope, the kind that comes from believing that love conquers death, not the other way round.

Oh course, neither the United Kingdom nor America are explicitly stoic, but its essential ideas persist in different forms. The pandemic has been an extraordinary event — a 100 year storm, if you will — that has broken the levy of our traditional coping mechanisms and the flood water have not yet crested. Yet there remains one levy that has not yet been broken, an ancient wisdom (or better, event) whose capacity to alleviate and give meaning to our sufferings remains ever sturdy and unassailed. All of which is to say that perhaps the youthful Jacoby Tremblay is on to something …


featured image via Mother Jones.