Let’s begin with a dream. Goodness, it’s exhausting when people talk about their own, right? Well, not to worry: I have highly coherent ones, for better and for worse.
In a recent one, I’ve had to return to Canada because of all the struggle to get a visa here. (Currently on Day 39 of being undocumented.) I’m on a street with two Starbucks: one where everyone’s in queue, waiting for it to open, and the other, with no line at all, because no one seems to realize it’s back in business, too. I enter the second, and to my astonishment only one person is working — which goes against corporate policy of having two people at all times. As I inquire about this, the shift manager realizes I have some experience with the franchise and slyly turns the conversation into an interview, because she’s desperately short-handed. We get to the part about extra skills, which is where I mention being bilingual because I’ve lived in Colombia for 2.5 years. And I try to give an example — speaking Spanish at this part in my dream — but I’m bothered by how poorly I’m pronouncing my “r”s when switching between English and Spanish. I start repeating a classic tongue-twister, “erre con erre,” to fix them, but they’re gone. My beautiful Spanish “r”s are gone. The Canadian Starbucks shift-manager reassures me that it’s fine; that Spanish isn’t necessary for me anymore. I’ve got a job as a barista if I want it. And I’m ready to cry when I hear her say this.
Then I wake up.
Now, obviously this bit of nighttime mental processing reflects anxieties about being forced back to Canada if the purgatory of my visa status doesn’t end before Colombia reopens… but I was amused by its reminder that it’s the little details we tend to focus on, when trying to combat our worries and griefs. I’m sure you have examples of your own: a specific quirky behaviour that you’ve just realized you’ll never again see in a deceased loved one; a small delight in your daily routine, pre-COVID, that you lament ever getting to do or witness again; an extremely minor complaint about the state of the world that nevertheless stands in for the whole, and so sets you off every time you see it.
These are all parts of the curious agony of the human condition: the horror, that is, which allows us both to process and be moved by more sweeping social madnesses — murders, massacres, rapes, rigged elections, system racism, police brutality, cultural genocide — and still, day by day, find ourselves grumping over the “little things.”
And I suspect, too, that this seemingly skewed focus sometimes bothers a great many of us. It certainly bothers me. How am I supposed to be a “good humanist,” I often wonder, when I’m so busy sweating the small stuff?
Sitting with Our Stressors as Humanists
Lots of spiritual traditions try to tackle anxiety: some by meditation, some by prayer, some by renewed commitment to community service, family, and jobs. If any of these work for you, great!
But I’d also like to suggest that, when we think about the world in an empirical manner, and when we move beyond the traditions of empiricism most often targeted in atheistic circles (e.g. evolutionary biology, geology, cosmology, and archaeology), we have at our disposal a far wider range of data sets. In this column, I often talk about the importance of including human behavioural sciences in our development of informed analyses and public policy… but the same holds on an individual level, too.
The biochemical body is incessantly producing effects caused by interactional stimuli.
And rather than mysticize them, or otherwise shroud what’s happening in ourselves with abstract phrasing, we’d do well to treat these outputs as measures of concrete needs, as well as levels of habituation/addiction to specific activities and behaviours.
Now, certainly, this is easier said than done (did anyone else get frustrated the first time they discovered their body’s “sleepy” signalling could mean either “need sleep!” or “need exercise!”?), but it is vital to train ourselves as empiricists of ourselves while we’re also going about making assertions about the surrounding world.
To this end, you might be familiar with one of the oldest philosophical aphorisms on record: Know thyself. Perhaps you even know that it’s not Socrates who first said it — because that common myth, drawn from Plato’s description of Socrates’ applications of the term, is a convenient elision on the part of Christian history of anything that emerged from the worship of another god. Rather, it’s a Delphic maxim, one of many that were assumed to have been passed down to humankind by Apollo, which is why it was reported to have been inscribed in the Temple of Apollo in Delphi.
But do we always know how to apply this concept well? Right now, perhaps, amid so many external stressors in the world, I wonder how many of us feels up to the challenge of measuring just what all our “worrying” signals mean.
A Multitude of Hypotheses
I’m sure you’ve read plenty of “takes” on our worrying already: We’re in a perpetual “fight or flight” state, filled with nervous energy, absent agency over our circumstances. We’re in the middle of “anticipatory grief” for the world we once had that we might never see again. We’re shocked and angry over how quickly some aspects of a supposedly intractable world order did in fact budge the moment that a massive pandemic hit (most) countries. We’re despairing of our personal futures — in work, in various countries of residence, in terms of life goals. We’re straining against the sea of contradictory information, as well as a multitude of simultaneous global crises, and have thus lost all confidence in traditional authorities to give us the truth and stick to their convictions.
Now, this isn’t some quack column that’s going to try to propose the One True Answer — because there isn’t one.
Rather, I’m going to strenuously caution my fellow humanists against latching on to any one trending article that seems compellingly written — seductively so! — to try to explain your feelings to you right now.
By all means, of course, read a wide range of them. Entertain yourselves. Develop talking points for your social circles. Absorb the vocabulary. Build a language of emotional intelligence for yourself.
But as humanists, we then need to prioritize empirical data over vague and sweeping declarations, whether they come from spiritual sources or from feel-good secular clickbait.
And what data do we have at our disposal, to make such a determination?
Why, we have ourselves, of course.
But What Do We Do With That Data?
Some readers might recall, from posts on living with bipolar-II in a country with more stigma towards mental-health concerns, that I draw from the cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) toolkit when I want to assess my moods and behaviours. CBT is one “formula” that can help identify a variety of dangerous processing algorithms — like binary thinking, or fortune-telling/catastrophizing with insufficient data — as well as various biochemical inputs (nutrient intake, exercise, quality and quantity of sleep) that inform my capacity to make fair assessments of my circumstances.
It is not, however, the only toolkit or formula. If another works better for you, to process data-sets of personal experience, then by all means, use that one instead.
The key, though, is that as people who want to think rationally and compassionately about the world, we need to develop for ourselves, first and foremost, “wards” against being sidetracked by our own, habituated preoccupations.
These habits existed before COVID-19, of course. One of the most difficult I have seen in myself, for instance, is a persistent return to thoughts around someone who’s not part of my life anymore. That behaviour is addiction to the hormonal reward-response that comes when I think on this person, and it can only be “broken” by a sharp reduction in relevant exposures, along with the construction of new reward-response routines.
Amid this pandemic, though, we’re not just struggling with internalized habits; we also have to deal with a slew of relevant stimuli in every aspect of our lives: our work, our families’ safety, our entertainment, and our capacity to pursue our hobbies. The potentially negative social interactions with our biochemistry are myriad.
A Ward Against Worrying
Nevertheless, it’s up to us as individuals to monitor ourselves. To become more responsible and carefully perceiving agents in the cosmos, we need to take the time to observe patterns of response within ourselves, and to note what seems to affect us, as individuals, the most. And we especially need to develop ways to “catch ourselves” when we become disproportionately caught up in minor upsets — because even though that minutiae might be pointing to a larger problem, it is not the larger problem itself.
One humanist’s “ward” against worry will, of course, differ from another’s. That’s kind of the whole point. Contemporary essay-writing favours the latest “take” or “spin” on cultural goings-on, providing sweeping overviews of what “we’re” feeling and why; and in so doing, it replicates some of the fluffiest, most vaguely universalized writing that we atheists in particular recognize from a wide range of spiritual writings: everything from astrology blurbs in daily papers, right up to feel-good books explaining how religious texts can be used to make you a better human being.
(And again, spiritual humanists: if prayer works to help calm you, more power to you! The key to our shared humanism, though, lies in recognizing that the body’s biochemistry is an integral part of what needs to be calmed; and taking the time to pay attention to the hormonal reward-cycles in your life, too.)
Humanist agency requires a willingness to take responsibility on a person level, that is, for figuring out what flawed thinking and behaviour sets we’re most susceptible to, due to distinct experiential conditioning’s work upon our base biochemistry.
Please note, though, the care in this aforementioned phrasing — because it might well turn out, once we’ve assessed said personal data, that what’s making us flawed thinkers and actors is not entirely in our control to change. Maybe what we’ll discover, in the process, is that whole systems need to be upended in order for us to be able to operate with improved efficacy on an individual level. That’s a reasonable outcome to expect for all of us, really, during this pandemic, but also for demographics enduring institutional and cultural oppressions above and beyond our shared global medical crisis.
What, then, do we gain by this exercise, if it turns out that we can’t actually fix all the inputs causing us to focus disproportionately on minute details? Just that: self-awareness. And with it, a body of compassion for ourselves that we can then put to work in developing greater empathy for others similarly enduring severe limits to self-actualization. And from those two improved capacities, hopefully? The empirically informed groundswell necessary to advance better public policies for us all.
Some folks think that empiricism is an exercise solely intended to get at the “cold, hard facts” of life.
I say that these folks have prejudged all the facts of life to be “cold” and “hard.”
“Nature” may well be indifferent to our struggle.
But we sentient beings who reside within nature are not indifferent to our own struggles.
It therefore behooves we humanists to pay attention to those struggles well.