Why we need to cultivate our attitude towards our situation

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Image credit: Zdeněk Macháček on Unsplash

Most of World War I was, for European soldiers, fought in trenches. As the German advance was blocked by Allied defenses toward the end of 1914, both sides settled into a war of attrition. What all had imagined would be a “short sharp war” became an enduring stalemate in which millions of conscript troops were condemned to lives of utter misery.

Millions of hapless men were subject to conditions we can’t even begin to imagine today. Standing sometimes waist-deep in freezing muddy water through which swam enormous rats and on which floated fecal matter and parts of decaying corpses, these men endured being shelled and shot at daily by opposing forces. Worse still, they lived under the constant knowledge that one day they would be required to leave the relative safety of the trenches and commit suicide by walking across No Man’s Land toward enemy lines in a futile attempt to capture a few meters of contested land.

It’s not surprising that so many men became victims of what was then known dismissively as “shell shock,” nor that so many others succumbed to disease and despair. A significant proportion of the men who were fortunate enough to return home at the end of hostilities were mentally scarred for life.

Some conscripts, however, fared a great deal better than others. Even though ordinary conscripts lacked the many benefits afforded to the officer class, some were able to survive horrors in ways that left them relatively unscathed.

So the question is:

Thanks to extensive albeit belated research that draws not only from knowledge gained during the first World War but also from so many of the other wars we’ve inflicted on each other over the years since, it’s now recognized that self-care makes an enormous difference under conditions of stress.

Military organizations that recognize the importance of self-care and encourage it among their troops tend to see higher levels of performance than those organizations that have failed to understand this important component.

At its most basic, self-care is self-administration.

“Stay on top of your self-administration!” is the phrase repeated by countless training staff and subalterns across the British Army. Over time this leads to a wide variety of habits that include keeping one’s feet warm and dry, getting food and drink down one’s neck at every possible opportunity, grabbing whatever rest is available whenever one can, and generally remaining as comfortable as possible regardless of circumstances. Deploying a (dark) sense of humor isn’t officially on the list but it’s unofficially recognized everywhere.

In the military, the point is obviously to keep as many soldiers at “the sharp end” in combat-ready condition as possible. But the psychological benefits to civilians are also huge. Over time, most soldiers come to see that staying on top of their self-administration is a powerful way of looking after themselves. After all, it’s far nicer to be alert and dry with a full stomach than to be tired and wet and hungry when it wasn’t inevitable to be that way.

Macho military organizations tend to over-stress “powering through” and so very often soldiers in this type of environment make things unnecessarily difficult for themselves. As a result, they suffer much more combat stress and usually do poorly under extremely adverse conditions. Military organizations that encourage soldiers to see themselves as full human beings tend to produce soldiers more resistant to combat stress and, after appropriate training, usually fare better under extreme adverse conditions.

In the civilian world, where our stress factors are rarely life-and-death, we can learn a lot from good military practice. Today, when so many of us are trapped in our own homes due to panic-induced restrictions, self-administration can make the difference between a miserable experience and an acceptable experience. It can reduce rates of domestic abuse and rates of suicide, both of which have predictably begun to rise to unprecedented levels.

So what is self-administration?

At its most basic, it’s self-care. It’s following through on the daily routines that signal to ourselves that we care about ourselves. It’s getting up at the same time every day, savoring one’s tea or coffee, having a shower, and dressing in clean clothes. It’s ensuring one’s diet is healthy and it’s making time for a daily exercise and stretching routine. All these activities signal to ourselves that we care enough about ourselves to make the necessary efforts. Slumping despondently onto the sofa and snacking on cold pizza sends precisely the wrong message to ourselves.

Self-administration is making sure we’re ready for the day ahead. It enables us to feel good about ourselves rather than feeling like helpless victims. It also signals to others that things aren’t as bad as the sensationalist media makes them appear, and thus helps to mitigate the mindless hysteria that’s been induced by ceaseless irresponsible reportage. When we’re all feeling a bit more calm, there’s more room for reason to emerge and less danger of mob violence. So being able to contribute to overall sanity by being fresh and sane is no small thing.

But it goes beyond that. We’ve got to find enjoyment in our lives otherwise, even if we’re washed and shaved, we’ll begin to feel despondent. Here in Switzerland, for example, some of the trees have come into blossom. I spend several minutes per day looking out at a tree across the street that has marvelous white-and-pink petals. I savor the beauty and I smile at the promise of the Spring that will soon be here.

When I drink my tea I focus on each mouthful, savoring the flavor and the sensation of spreading warmth as it slips down my gullet and into my stomach. When I prepare my meals I take time to smell the ingredients, marveling at the fresh crisp smell of the green pepper, the tear-inducing aroma of onion, the strange sweetness of the garlic, and likewise every other ingredient I use. Then while the meal is cooking I savor the scents and when I eat it I focus on taking slow pleasure in every mouthful. Thus I turn a meal into a stream of pleasurable sensations, consciously slowing down time and really in the moments as I live through them. And after I’ve finished eating, I think about how healthy the meal was and how the various components are all going to be absorbed into my body and support its overall health.

I intentionally avoid most social media and nearly all corporate media even at the best of times because it’s merely toxic sensationalism. Now that the degree of hysteria is amplified beyond even the silly norms of the quotidian, my “quarantine” from toxic inputs is even more rigorously enforced. Fortunately YouTube provides access to a wide range of great content (I can recommend Leonard Susskind’s physics lectures in the Stanford Continuing Education series, and Walter Lewin’s lectures on basic physics, as well as a variety of history and music and mathematics lectures that provide both insight and aesthetic pleasure).

There’s no need to sit slumped in front of some mindless Hollywood-style entertainment from which nothing can be learned and little of value can be obtained. Others will find pleasure in other things such as painting or playing music or learning a new skill. The point is to avoid harmful inputs. It’s no good complaining about feeling unwell if we’ve spend years cramming ourselves with McSlop and Kentucky Fried Cancer; it’s equally no good complaining about feeling fearful and helpless if we’ve spent years consuming Hollywood nonsense. Self-care means we seek out things that are good for us and spurn things that are bad for us.

Self care also spills over into our interactions with others. When I’m out shopping or taking exercise I make a point of looking people in the eye, smiling, and cheerfully saying Now that we’ve all been encouraged by foolish politicians to regard everyone else as a potential threat to life, it is essential to find ways to reassert our common humanity. I’ve found that most people are relieved to be and to be greeted rather than to be shunned, and I’ve lost count of the many shy smiles I’ve received in return.

When we’re trapped indoors with family or friends, self-administration includes keeping track of our emotions so that we can find healthy ways to depressurize rather than using those nearby as lightning-rods. It may provide temporary relief to scream at one’s children or partner, but it creates greater pressure overall, and that’s not a good thing. Conversely, accepting that we’ll feel awful sometimes and finding ways to acknowledge and release these feelings enables us not only to avoid making things worse but can also act as a powerful example to those around us, thereby creating a positive feedback mechanism that can help mitigate the inevitable stresses and strains that result from many people being cooped up in one place for weeks on end.

In other words, self-administration isn’t about trying to make things perfect; it’s about making things better than they otherwise would have been, and taking pleasure in that simple fact. It’s about sending signals to ourselves and those around us that despite the constant barrage of irresponsible sensationalism, things are in fact not anywhere near as bad as many have been induced to believe.

It’s about taking a measure of control over our lives, even in adverse circumstances.

Ironically, the less we have the more important self-administration becomes. For those who are relatively comfortable and whose livelihoods remain assured, our present condition of lockdown is reasonably tolerable and the inconveniences are relatively minor. But for those of us who have little or nothing and whose livelihoods are in grave doubt, self-administration can make the difference between life and death.

It’s far too easy to focus on the darkness, the fear, and the hopelessness of the situation especially when the media is overwhelmingly dedicated to spreading and reinforcing such messages. And so we’re likely to lash out at those around us or seek relief by means of self-harm.

Thus the worse off we are, the more important good self-administration becomes, even though it seems such a difficult thing to accomplish.

Sometimes small things can make very big differences. Sometimes, simply taking the time to really savor a drink of water or listen to the sound of an insect buzzing nearby can change the course of a day, or a life.

Of course there are times when attitude makes no difference. Trying to think good thoughts while being assaulted would be absurd, and that’s not what I’m arguing for here. I’m simply saying that even when things are difficult we can often make a difference by means of our attitude to what we’re being forced to experience.

An example may help make this clear. British Army combat infantry regiments train regularly in tropical jungles. As anyone who’s spent time in such an environment knows, these are extremely unforgiving places. One hundred percent humidity, constant heat, daily rain, and a wide variety of plants and insects all seemingly intent on making life as difficult and uncomfortable as possible mean that the jungle requires a certain cast of mind. Many soldiers hate the time they spend under the green canopy. But some thrive.

After another long day of executing contact drills, the troop returns to camp. Everyone’s made their own “basha” (an A-frame arrangement by means of which one’s sleeping platform is raised off the forest floor and a tarpaulin protects the man underneath from rain) and after last light the men change into their dry kit, setting their sweat-soaked clothing aside for the next day.

The night is nearly 100% dark, and all around the sounds of the jungle are loud and strange. Mosquitos are everywhere. Feet are often in bad shape from a combination of perpetual sweat coupled to strenuous movement up and down muddy slopes. Some of the men are very noisy sleepers, making it difficult for others who aren’t trying to reach the semi-finals of the Snoring For England competition. And yet, some are smiling to themselves in the darkness despite the military habit of “other ranks” (those below the rank of subaltern) complaining about everything whenever possible.

“I like jungle training,” one thinks to himself. “Enough food, water always within easy reach, nice and warm, and twelve hours of total darkness so I always get plenty of rest. I’d say this is a very way of life.”

We should never under-estimate the power of small things.

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Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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