Fear and Trembling in America

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I just noticed the the New York Times has started a blog devoted to discussing the impact of the recession on people's psychic and other parts of their lives. Here's their own description.

The severe economic downturn has forced many people to reassess their values and the ways they act on them in their daily lives. For some, the pursuit of happiness, sanity, or even survival, has been transformed.

Happy Days is a discussion about the search for contentment in its many forms — economic, emotional, physical, spiritual — and the stories of those striving to come to terms with the lives they lead.

Today's entry is entitled, "What You Don’t Know Makes You Nervous." So what's new? Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard university psychologist, says it's the uncertainty about the immediate future, not the damage that has already been done that is creating waves of anxiety in the public's psyche. I thought fear and anxiety were a result of not having some coping strategy at hand, even when the situation is dire and the probable outcome not wonderful.

Why would we prefer to know the worst than to suspect it? Because when we get bad news we weep for a while, and then get busy making the best of it. We change our behavior, we change our attitudes. We raise our consciousness and lower our standards. We find our bootstraps and tug. But we can’t come to terms with circumstances whose terms we don’t yet know. An uncertain future leaves us stranded in an unhappy present with nothing to do but wait.

The key to maintaining some sort of equilibrium is the presence in our body of some set of coping strategies, even simply waiting patiently until the situation changes to a state we can deal with. Can someone flourish in the middle of a metaphorical mine field? I think so, but not if their embodied coping strategies are limited. And that's exactly what happens when having replaces being as the over-riding leitmotif. In having, coping strategies are largely based on the use of technological objects, including money, and, unfortunately, people appearing through an instrumental lens. When this kind of system breaks down due to changes in the outside world, the remedies are limited because the functions of all the elements are restricted. Currently, the big societal breakdown is the evaporation of money, causing a cascade of troubles including many that cannot be predicted. Hence, the anxiety according to Gilbert.

In the being mode, satisfaction comes more from the relationships of the central (less anxious) actor with things and people understood more for their own characteristics rather than merely as providing some function. The central actor is able to develop richer worldly understanding, and can deal more broadly with the uncertain without producing fear and trembling. In spite of this, the being mode has been, according to cultural norms, less desirable.

Much of the news about the recession and its impacts on people is focused on issues like that in the Gilbert piece. How are people holding up? Will they return to the same state after the inevitable (but uncertain) recovery? My guess is that the answer to the first question is badly, and to the second, yes. Having is a form of addiction. Many addicts (in the guise of consumers and Wall Street moguls) have experienced the shock that forces them to confront their habit--the first step in recovery. But there is no 12-step program out there to guide them any further. Only a societal message that everything is going to be all right. Exactly the wrong thing to say to an addict. Rahm Emanuel had the right idea when he said, just after the election, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste." I am afraid that this "opportunity" is being missed by those who are able to mold our societal beliefs and values.

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