10 November 2016

Alain de Botton's response to post USA election fallout

Whether you were for Trump, Clinton, other or no one, there is no doubt that the recent USA election has had a profound impact on many individuals and on our collective psyche. The post-Brexit fallout was certainly something tangible in my therapy room and post US-election angst is, unsurprisingly, cropping up this week.

On a general note I have noticed this general state of unease can make us feel incredibly vulnerable and we can go into a more child like state. Our historical psychological tendencies might pop out during these precarious times. This can be seen all over social media with people exchanging either Critical Parent or Adapted Child responses rather than retaining an adult position. I have found myself drawn into it and it's sometimes a challenge to keep the frontal lobe switched on and calm down the amygdala before responding to an inflammatory comment.

Amongst the Facebook responses to the election I saw the following post by Alain de Botton, author and co-founder of The School of Life, which I found some comfort in. I found comfort in his belief that facing reality is the only way to navigate reality, in his assertion that optimism is not always healthy, helpful or appropriate and in his vision for us to engage our frontal lobes and think longterm.

As a therapist with a distinctly existential edge...actually as a person with a distinctly existential edge, I wanted to share those words and hope that others also find similar, authentic comfort.

With kind thanks to Alain de Botton for permitting me to share directly on this site.

It is an enormous and very rare privilege to have lived in the days of good government. Across nations and centuries, few people have ever done so. By a rare bit of luck, certain groups in a few corners of the globe tasted decades of this remarkable, anomalous blessing. They might, foolishly (especially if they travelled little, seldom read history books or had a very high estimation of their own populations) even have started to assume it was a natural or god-given norm. Yet the default state of almost all nations is quite other, it is authoritarianism, bullying, demagoguery, corruption, monopoly, racial segregation and state sponsored aggression and murder. We will not now, it seems, be living in dramatically unusual times; it was the years before that will be remembered as unusual: a daring bet against the facts of our nature. We aren’t sliding into a new age of darkness, we are reverting to a mean. Civilization was always, simply, an unlikely concept.
Those who are afraid are typically reassured by optimism: all will, eventually, be well, the kindly tell them. But we need stiffer and darker counsel. We should explore not what might ideally happen (which leaves us oscillating painfully between hope and despair), but what will happen if the worst comes to pass. We need to make ourselves entirely at home with catastrophe, looking it squarely in the eye - so as not to keep catching glimpses of it here and there and so taking fright anew every time. We stand to see that whatever comes to pass will, in a desperately reduced and pitiful form, still be survivable. A home could be built among the ruins. There might be some sort of life to be led, despite everything. Nothing is ever properly unbearable, not least because we always retain access to the best escape route. The Stoic philosophers of Ancient Rome, those pour souls agitated beyond compare by the the antics of their hysterical, thin-skinned murderous Emperors, were known to calm themselves down by holding up their veins to the light and calling out ‘Freedom!’ - knowing it could, if it came to that, all be over in minutes. 

We shouldn’t be surprised by our fellow citizens. That is what the human animal is really like: very sweet at points from close up, usually generous to small children and the elderly, hard-working, but highly prone to delusion, tribal, offended by strangers, uninclined to rational analysis and with a fondness for slaughter and reckless messianic plans. The elite, routinely derided as ‘out of touch’ are not so on the basis of forgetting how much milk or the rent costs, rather on the basis of forgetting how dark and fragile human nature is.
There’s a natural longing to do something quickly and angrily. There’s an equal longing to give up and hide, the counsel of quietism. Neither feels right; neither endurance nor explosion. The only true avenue is to commit ourselves to years of careful, adroit plotting to bring about a renewal of that now ever more implausible dream: a land governed for a little while longer by a spirit of wisdom and love.

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