As our societies lock down and we grow more fearful with each sensationalist newsflash, perhaps it’s time to ask ourselves what we’ve become.
Many decades ago I had the privilege of spending some time alongside an elite group of men. The lessons I learned have remained with me throughout my life. They are oddly at variance with what’s currently fashionable, so I thought it might be interesting to run a compare-and-contrast.
Lesson One: stay on top of my self-administration. What this means is: no matter how crap I may be feeling, I need to continue to maintain good habits. Eat healthy food, remain hydrated, rest whenever possible, keep my essential equipment in good order, and stay fit.
Lesson Two: the mind usually gives up long before the body. When I’m faced with serious difficulties, I just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Look for solutions to problems, improvise and adapt. Don’t feel sorry for myself because life is being deeply unkind. Accept the reality of the situation and determine what I can do about it.
Lesson Three: assume responsibility. Don’t assume it’s someone else’s job to make my life easier. Don’t waste time with blame or with feeling sorry for myself or with making excuses for why I “can’t” do something. If I genuinely can’t do something then look for what I can do instead, that will keep me moving in approximately the right direction. It’s my job to sort out my life.
Obviously there were variety of skills I acquired because I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity and motivation to do so. But all the skills in the world won’t help me if my mindset is wrong.
For the last couple of decades we’ve been subjected to a barrage of messages that tell us it’s not our fault, we have no agency, there are always a thousand-and-one reasons why we’re all victims, and we should embrace our deficits. Why strive to improve who we are (and become happier people in the process) when it’s so much easier to sit back and moan? Far too much therapy focuses on the supposed “why” and focuses far too little on “what to do about it now.”
It’s become astonishingly fashionable to blame everything we don’t like on huge amorphous forces utterly beyond our control: capitalism, the patriarchy, etc. That’s great because it excuses us from taking action. We can sit comfortably on our backsides moaning instead of taking action within our own lives. We get to feel self-satisfied and released from any obligation to make an effort.
Except when we all do this, we truly do turn ourselves into helpless victims. Some may be content to live like that, especially when the modern world makes our lives so comfortable and convenient. Perhaps that’s how we can best remain passive consumers of whatever junk large corporations want to have us purchase this week and whatever lies politicians want to stuff into our heads.
But for me at least, it seems a very sad way to live. I accept that there are a great many things in the world I’m utterly powerless to change. But I don’t accept that this therefore implies I’m powerless in all things, least of all in the choices I make for myself.
Everyone who’s been through a conduct-after-capture (prior to rebranding known as resistance to interrogation, or R2I for short) course knows that the objective of the enemy is to induce learned helplessness. The captive no longer has any control over what will happen: brutalization, torture of various kinds, a persistent assault on one’s physical being, all of which is designed to convince the captive that they’ve lost all agency. Those who best endure such experiences do so because they cling to the idea that although their bodies are helpless, their minds are not. They retain a strong sense of self, relatively uninfluenced by the messages their captors are sending.
Not surprisingly, even hardened soldiers fail this particular course in significant numbers, either divulging information to their captors or asking to be withdrawn from the exercise. For pampered civilians unused to any deprivation more significant than the office coffee machine running out of capsules of their favored blend, it’s probable that the rate of voluntary withdrawal would be around 99% or worse. It’s extremely difficult for us not to conform to expectations, especially when those expectations are backed up by threats, or actual application, of violence.
We humans are a primate group species and we’re hardwired to go with whatever the group is doing. We adapt our behaviors and subsequently our beliefs in order to fit in, because during 95% of our evolutionary history we’d have died very quickly indeed if we’d been unfortunate enough to be expelled from a group. Although today our modern world is quite different from the African savanna and the primordial forests of Eurasia, our brains haven’t changed at all. We automatically conform and obey purported authority figures. We even seek to punish those who don’t conform because they seem (to our ape-brains) to threaten our own survival.
That’s why, during World War I, women stood on British streets handing out white feathers (symbolizing cowardice) to every apparently able-bodied man they saw. It’s why “team building” exercises in the corporate world can rapidly degenerate into the bullying of those who seem not to be “pulling their weight.” It’s why we’re certain to see a lot of media articles dedicating to attacking those who aren’t suitably panicking and losing their heads over the current virus pandemic.
But all of these phenomenon, and so many more, are simply a consequence of the fact we have been induced to adopt modes of thinking about ourselves that are in fact merely arbitrary. There’s no intrinsic reason we should believe we’re perpetual helpless victims than there is to believe the Earth is flat or that all conspiracy theories are true.
We have the option of cultivating our inner selves and developing the kind of moral strength than comes from self-reliance.
As we set ourselves challenges and then diligently work towards overcoming them, we learn to trust ourselves. We discover that some sources of information are less reliable than others. We begin to see the ways in which we’re so easily manipulated. We begin to see how so many people self-limit unnecessarily. We discover we don’t have to do that.
For far too long we’ve been told to embrace our pain, to magnify the things that have hurt us, and to blame externalities for everything we are unhappy with. That counsel leads us only into dead-ends.
Yes, we’ve all suffered losses and harms. And yes, we all have different levels of resilience. Some can cope while others fall apart. Because Justin can get on with his life and be cheerful after having three limbs blown off by an IED in Afghanistan, that doesn’t mean Jenny can pick up and carry on after her miscarriage. We are all different.
But we can all choose whether or not to be defined by the things that have hurt us. We can all choose to strive in our own ways.
“If your legs give out, use your arms to pull yourself forward,” shouted one of the training corporals at the young soldier next to me who, after fourteen miles of carrying a fully-laden Bergen while running up and down hills as fast as his legs would carry him, was staggering and gasping for breath.
“And if your arms give out, pull yourself forward with your eyelids!”
The mind gives up long before the body.
But it doesn’t have to.
And when the mind is strong, fear has much less purchase.