Friday, August 18, 2017

On the Absurdist Victory: All is Well

A while back I wrote about a video comparing Stoicism and Existentialism. The video also touched on different psychology principles developed from each philosophy. Stoicism is easily seen in CBT and REBT, which all start with the premise that when we're upset it's because of our perception of things, not the things in themselves, and we often have an irrational view. Through reality testing and viewing the situation in a detached way we can be less emotionally affected by anxiety around events. It's been very effective in reducing anxiety levels in a good 70-80% of patients.

Existential psychoanalysis took a different path:
"The basic thrust of existential psychoanalysis, if it aspires to be at all existential, must in turn be rooted in the sensibilities of existential philosophy. That sensibility may be characterized by two principal themes: a) all human knowledge is rooted in personal experience; b) the weight of experience is so exasperating that we seek to escape it through self-deception....Every one of us employs deceptions for the same reason. Whenever we're thwarted in our endeavors we feel disappointment and frustration. We may fear that we won't get our way by being honest and resort to guile and manipulation - the principal source of neurotic guilt....On a deeper level it entails the patient's willingness to plumb the depths of experience while accepting responsibility for whatever comes to light, for better or worse."
Instead of our view of externals provoking upset, tumults are from the struggle for people to accept the truth about themselves and recognize their various attempts to escape it. Instead of looking at individual daily triggers, existentialists look at that big one: We search for meaning and purpose in life, but the reality has to be faced - that there simply isn't any. We've been thrown here randomly, and it's up to each of us to make the best of things. The "curative power lay in the patient's capacity for honesty." Upsetting experiences are useful for taking us outside ourselves and possibly provoking a transformation of consciousness that leads to maturation. No pain, no gain. Suppression of experiences is the problem: not an inaccurate assessment, but a refusal to actually see what's there. We need to give voice to our darkest truths, no matter how ugly. From an early age, we devise pleasant fantasies to override potential traumas as slight as disappointment, and then we become anxious that there's something deep within that we don't really want to know. Self-deception and deception by others (as they might help us remain in denial) are part of every issue. We're all inherently devious and deceive one another as a matter of course. The solution is acknowledging our radical freedom, digging past the deceptions to find our authentic selves, and recognizing the absurdity of it all.


Don't get me wrong. Stoicism is often helpful when things get really tough. Way back when, the tenets helped one Stoic cope with a master who tortured him by breaking his leg, and another with an order to kill himself, which he had to do a few times for it to take, and all the while he dictated his philosophy without remorse or complaint. The belief that it's all a matter of perspective is very useful for developing calm integrity in the face of adversity. To apply it to my situation, instead of thinking I've lost my breasts and full capacity of my arm, I can remind myself that I merely returned them, holding on to all our possession, even our own body, as if they're just on loan to us to make losing them far less impactful. We should be pleased to have had some use of them:
“This is what you should practice from morning to evening. Begin with the smallest and most fragile things, a pot, or a cup, and then pass on to a tunic, a dog, a horse, a scrap of land; and from there, pass on to yourself, to your body, and the parts of your body, and to your children, your wife, your brothers. Look around you in every direction, and cast these things far away from you. Purify your judgements so that nothing that is not your own may remain attached to you, or become part of yourself, or give you pain when it comes to be torn away from you. And say while you’re training yourself day after day, as you are here, not that you’re acting as a philosopher (for you must concede that it would be pretentious to lay claim to that title), but that you’re a slave on the way to emancipation. For that is true freedom.” (Epictetus)
And if bits of our body are bitter, then we should throw them away without then adding "And why were such things made in the world?" It is what it is. Deal with it. And if that doesn't help, we can look to people worse off than ourselves, like Aron Ralston hacking off his own arm after being trapped by a boulder. I've got it great by comparison! I've used Stoicism at length over the years coping after Sandy Hook, and contemplating climate change and parenting and death from climate change, and for plain old boredom.  So it was my go to with this lymphedema stuff, and then, when it wasn't helping, I got advice on dealing with regret from a more learned Stoic. But that still didn't quite do it for me.

There are clear similarities to existentialist ideas: they both compel us to stop comparing to others who are better off and to stop complaining about every little thing.
"Consciousness can never objectify itself into invalid-consciousness or cripple-consciousness, and even if the old man complains of his age or the cripple of his deformity, they can do so only by comparing themselves with others, or seeing themselves through the eyes of others, that is, by taking a statistical and objective view of themselves, so that such complaints are never absolutely genuine: when he is back in the heart of his own consciousness, each one of us feels beyond his limitations and there-upon resigns himself to them. They are the price which we automatically pay for being in the world, a formality which we take for granted....This is why our freedom is not to be sought in the spurious discussion on the conflict between a style of life which we have no wish to reappraise and circumstances suggestive of another: the real choice is that between our whole character and our manner of being in the world" (Merleau-Ponty 504). 

But this recent health issue was a real stopper for my love affair with stoicism when I just couldn't get over the remorse of deciding to go through with that second surgery. I can tell myself these stoic things over and over, yet just won't stick, and I started getting that walking under water feeling as I fought to make it through each trivial event of the day. The stoic mindset suggested I just need more practice to get beyond desire. Except I still did desire these things; I really wished to be able to do everything I used to be able to do even though it's impossible now with a chronic condition. It wasn't helping the desire decrease one iota. I continued to have that sinking feeling whenever I considered how it would affect the rest of my life. This shines a light on one problem with this aspect of Stoicism and of CBT by extension: there's no falsifiability criterion. If it's not working, it's just because you haven't practiced enough. If you practice more, it will work. Hmmm....

This was all finally unplugged only with a more existentialist attitude. I realized that part of the problem was not completely closing the door on the other option. I had made a choice, but part of me was holding back on accepting that path as if it could be changed by willing it to be so, and part of that was due to annoyance with the medical community for not clarifying the potential drawbacks. Stoics say just let it go. It can't be fixed, so practice detachment to preferred indifferents like our health. That is, don't hold on to the things you hope to have or to happen. Within a stance of detachment to all things outside our control, we can choose goals, but shouldn't desire them. It's just a matter of being rational. But I just can't will myself to let it go. Existentialism helped by presenting the decision-making differently.

One key difference is existentialism focuses on taking responsibility for the choices I freely made. Regardless the many discussions with doctors, I didn't have to do the surgery, but I freely chose to. I wanted it done. And I wanted it because I wanted to be free from cancer. The idea that cancer could be travelling throughout my body which might require guesswork to treat just in case it was everywhere was a frightening idea relative to just removing and scrutinizing those lymph nodes. This perspective helps to take away any resentment towards others in the process. Pigliucci thought it best for me to recognize the lesson to be learned about making wise decisions (to get even more opinions before deciding), which I don't find remotely helpful - not just because I had about a dozen doctors involved already, or because I'm unlikely to ever be in a similar situation again, but because it doesn't help my current situation at all. It keeps me too caught up in what should have happened, and that's exactly what I'm trying to escape. By contrast, existentialist ideas suggest recognizing that the choice was an act of freedom and a gamble. It helps me remember why I made that choice. And in the end, if a choice isn't clear, then our instincts show the way. What we find ourselves doing is what we're choosing to do. Sartre's reminds us, "What happens to me happens through me."

The second key difference is bringing that gamble to the forefront. Life is random. Whenever we start thinking in terms of 'why me?' we should instead consider 'why not me?'.  It's all a crapshoot. That helps me almost laugh at it all. Of course this would happen. Something's going to happen next, and why not this! Instead of practicing detaching from outcomes, which I don't seem to be very good at when it comes to things of this magnitude, I just have to remember that life, the big picture, is inherently absurd. There's no rhyme or reason to it all. Before this surgery, I could bike 140 km in a morning and build a studio and garden and play with the cats and cut vegetables all without a second thought, and now I can't. It doesn't help me to consider that I should never have desired those things in the first place, or that I should think of it as giving that lifestyle back, or that we should be cautioned not to expect to be healthy all the time and to stop holding on to that outcome, but it does help me to recognize that it's all a toss up.

WHY does it make me so much more content to consider it this way?

Even though I'm no longer putting blame in the hands of doctors and instead taking it all myself, it has the curious effect of lifting the weight of that decision off my shoulders because the outcome wasn't anything I could possibly control. I was free to try to succeed and not succeed.  Ha! Life is a crapshoot. It's random and weird and has no sense of justice. The worst shit happens to wonderful people all the time. Contemplating on that helps. And I think it's because we can expect to be as capable tomorrow as we are today, but when we're not, it's hilarious because it's so fucked up!

Camus' Sisyphus depicts the mythological dude pushing a rock up a hill over and over and, he doesn't say Sisyphus is happy about it, but that we have to imagine he's happy about it. If we don't, we'll never try anything knowing that it's all for nought. There is no meaning, but there is still whatever purpose we give to our own existence. And to get to that, we have to get real about it all.
"When the images of earth cling too tightly to memory, when the call of happiness becomes too insistent, it happens that melancholy arises in man's heart: this is the rock's victory, this is the rock itself. The boundless grief is too heavy to bear. These are our nights of Gethsemane [where followers hung out the night before Jesus' crucifixion]. But crushing truths perish from being acknowledged."
Exactly. Maybe read that bit again. Sisyphus was a trickster during his life. He killed some guests who came by, ratted out Zeus after he abducted some guy's daughter, tricked Hades into showing him how his chains work on himself, which caused death to cease and people to show up to dinner parties after battles bloodied and wailing in agony but unable to die. So he got his comeuppance with this punishment. But it's not a punishment as soon as he makes it his own choice, if he acknowledges the futility of anything and yet continues.

This is how it feels. This hits so much closer to home. It's the rock's victory when I begin to drown in the choices I've made and lament the path set before me. The recipe for the absurd victory is in declaring 'all is well' despite all our misfortunes. I put myself here, and it's just all so weird that it slays me. Camus goes on,
"In a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity....that denseness and that strangeness of the world is the absurd....Living is keeping the absurd alive....One of the only coherent philosophical positions is thus revolt. It is a constant confrontation between man and his own obscurity....This is where it is seen to what a degree absurd experience is remote from suicide....the absurd cannot be settled. It escapes suicide to the extent that it is simultaneously awareness and rejection of death....That revolt gives life its value. Spread out over the whole length of a life, it restores its majesty to that life." 
Sisyphus can be happy with his task only in so far as he recognizes he is ever choosing it over choosing death. Every choice except suicide is necessarily life-affirming.

Here's another way to understand it all:



As Morty says, "Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody's going to die. Come watch T.V." (By the way, season 3, episodes 3 and 4 are particularly philosophical.)

When we recognize the truth of the futility of life, yet choose it anyway, and when we see the contradiction between looking for meaning in a world that has none, then we have reached the absurd. And it can be a surprisingly delightful place to wander. As Dostoevsky puts it,
"In short, one may say anything about the history of the world - anything that might enter the most disordered imagination. The only thing one cannot say is that it is rational. The very word sticks in one's throat. And, indeed, this is even the kind of thing that continually happens....It is just [man's] fantastic dreams, his vulgar folly, that he will desire to retain, simply in order to prove to himself (as though that were so necessary) that men still are men and not piano keys....man would purposely go mad in order to be rid of reason and have his own way!...the whole work of man seems really to consist in nothing but proving to himself continually that he is a man and not an organ stop" (40).
Existentialism gets that this existence we've been tossed into is just not rational despite how much reason we try to pack around it all. So we're all a gamble and we're all going to die anyway, but don't you want to be part of it all, in whatever capacity you can, while you're here?

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