Dwelling in Possibility

Epistemic Status: Intuitive, Casual

One of the things I’ve noticed in people who are farther along in business or management than I am, usually men with a “leaderly” mien, is a certain comfort with uncertainty or imperfection.

They can act relaxed even when their personal understanding of a situation is vague, when the future is uncertain, when the optimal outcome is unlikely.  This doesn’t mean they’re not motivated to get things done.  But they’re cool with a world in which a lot of things remain nebulous and unresolved at any given moment.

They’re able to produce low-detail, high-level, positive patter for a general audience.  They’re able to remain skeptical, expecting that most new ideas won’t work, without seeming sad about that.

Talking to someone like that, it feels like a smooth layer of butter has been spread over the world, where everything is pretty much normal and fine most of the time — not a crisis, not a victory, just normalcy.

This isn’t me.  If something I care about is unclear to me, it’ll bother me. Either consciously (in which case I’ll try to learn more until I understand) or unconsciously (in which it’ll be an unpleasant blank spot on my map, that’ll nag at me uncomfortably.)

It also bothers me, as a radical, when I don’t see a path to my long-term goals being possible.  “Business as usual” feels not okay to me, much of the time.  I don’t like having a “forget about it, it’s Chinatown” attitude.  I don’t want to be a naive idiot, but I don’t want to be complacent either.

 

Being okay with vagueness seems to be a prerequisite to managing other people — after all, you can’t know every detail of everyone else’s job.  When I managed people, I struggled with that a lot. I couldn’t be sure a thing was done right unless I checked it for myself.  I’m pretty good at holding large systems in my head, but eventually organizations defeat even the most heroic attempt to micromanage them.

Being okay with uncertainty also seems to be a prerequisite for managing a portfolio of anything high-risk and high-reward — investments, sales leads, technologies to adopt, etc.  If you are elated every time an opportunity appears, and dejected every time it doesn’t work out, you’ll have a very hard time emotionally when dealing with a large volume of such opportunities. (My husband is a salesman and he’s long since stopped telling me about leads because I’ll get over-excited about every one of them.)

This reminds me of some of the stuff leadership coach Bryan Franklin says about paradox.  I don’t know if I can represent his ideas accurately, since he comes from a very different paradigm than mine, but I think he’s alluding to “both/and” thinking, the ability to simultaneously hold, for instance, the frame “this business is bound for incredible success” and “this business will fail unless we solve this problem.”

Consider the common example of a leader who needs to convince her followers that, while the team is experiencing significant challenges and there is a very real risk of failure, ultimately the team will prevail. There are two ways a lesser leader could falter in this moment. The first is to simply pander to neg activism: agreeing with everyone’s feeling that the current situation is rough or hopeless, without offering any vision, possibility, or credible plan. This would be a good display of empathy, but it won’t lead anyone to change. The second mistake would be to hold the opposite view, that the future is bright and the current setbacks are illusory or insignificant. This could be seen superficially as inspiring, but more likely it will backfire because it will be dismissed as being noncredible and unrelatable to the lived reality of the employees.

A superior leader learns how to hold paradox: to believe, at the same time, that the situation is dire and hopeful, meeting employees where they’re at, but also convincing them of the actions they can take that will lead to a brighter future. The evidence is that things are bad (anyone denying this will be seen as a Pollyanna); and also, the evidence is that things are good (anyone denying this would be seen as a weak leader, lacking creativity to produce a positive way forward). Followers need to feel met in the reality that they are scared, yet they also need to be given a realistic expectation of future success.

When you’re confronted with a paradox, you are presented with a choice. You can either ignore it and take a side (believe one side of the statement is true while the other is false), or you can do what we call hold paradox, which is to believe both contradictory statements or implications simultaneously. It’s an expression of faith in a greater truth that is currently invisible to you, but resolves the paradox and allows for the truth of both sides to harmoniously coexist. This is what great leaders do.

Holding paradox is the ability to literally hold in your mind the truth and acknowledge, for example, your utter insignificance on a cosmic scale, and then without allowing that experience to dissipate, add to it the unmistakable truth of your profound significance to those you love.

Believing a literal paradox is believing something that is logically impossible, and so, obviously, I don’t want to do it.  But believing in lots of different possibilities at the same time, believing that a thing can be viewed from lots of different points of view — there might be some purchase in that.

The real world is parti-colored. It doesn’t have a single theme or mood or color scheme.  But to really know in your bones that lots of different things are possible is a deeply scary option to me. It feels like letting go of things that are important to me, like commitment or ambition or rigor or even personal identity. If I care about something, how can I allow myself to chill out about it? How can I allow myself to fully enter into the worldview of someone with the opposite belief?  Wouldn’t that be a betrayal? Wouldn’t that mean losing myself?

There’s a common thread between this notion, and people like Jonathan Haidt who believe in worldview diversity and people at the Integral Center who believe that higher human developmental stages involve the ability to move fluidly between frames, and who sometimes connect this to business through books like Tribal Leadership.

All of them share a view that the principled or systematic person — the person who believes in one truth according to one set of principles — is weaker or less spiritually advanced than the person who sees things through multiple points of view.

In particular, one idea I picked up from Tribal Leadership is that if you believe a particular thing as an individual, you’ll be a weaker leader, because you’re just saying what you personally believe (which is selfish, in a sense, or at least private, and thus taken less seriously by others).  The leader has to be not just John Smith but the voice of Acme Corp.  Expressing your own thoughts (speaking as John Smith) has value coming from an individual contributor, but there’s a different, more facilitator-like, skill where you try to encourage dialogue or distill a common thread between different people’s views, and encourage teamwork and unity — and that’s leadership.

What I worry about, in all these kinds of philosophies, is that if I gain this balance, this ability to stay cool in the face of uncertainty and ignorance, this ability to engage with multiple perspectives, then I’ll no longer be able to be an individual with a particular point of view and set of goals and detailed knowledge of my areas of expertise.

Is it possible to love something, or pursue something, without freaking out about it?  Doesn’t equanimity trade off against passion?  Wouldn’t a person who kept their cool all the time be boring?  Wouldn’t a person who tried to “diversify worldviews” be inherently an unprincipled pragmatist?  Doesn’t the chillness of leaders sometimes look uncomfortably like privilege or elitism?  Isn’t there a lot of potential for manipulativeness when people try to “facilitate” for others?

And yet, pretty much every book about business success counsels equanimity — to a very high standard, from what I can see.  Seriously, flip through something like Emotional Intelligence 2.0 the next time you’re in an airport bookstore. Apparently ordinary middle managers have to be unbelievably good at handling emotional stress just to scrape by.

I have definitely seen chillness coexist with strong technical skill; quite a few people with that relaxed, leaderly affect are also top-notch at engineering or data science.  Accepting that some information “lives” in the “collective mind” of a group clearly doesn’t preclude knowing some things very well in your own mind and being able to execute well individually.

I’ve even seen a certain kind of chillness coexist with radical commitment. Rick Doblin, the founder of MAPS, has been steadily working for forty years on trying to promote research into the therapeutic use of psychedelics.  He’s a pleasant, mild-mannered family man; despite his controversial mission, he seems to bear no ill will to anyone, including the regulators he’s been trying to persuade to ease up drug restrictions.  He’s willing to collaborate with anyone, from any perspective or background, if it’ll help psychedelic research.  He’s my role model for how someone can be profoundly committed to a cause without being an angry or rigid person.  His way is like water wearing down a stone.

But I definitely have heard people tell me that equanimity cost them something — that they lost the chance to have a personal perspective and to want things for themselves when they learned to see things from all possible angles and be a facilitator for others.  I’ve seen people who are very good at sparking “interesting” conversations complain that they have a hard time connecting personally rather than remaining a third-party observer.

I’ve had occasions myself when I deliberately “took myself out of the picture” in order to hold space for others — and it worked pretty well, and was fun in its own way, and people responded well to it, but I had a strong intuition that this wasn’t what I wanted to spend the majority of my life doing.  I have a self, and it’s not going to like being cooped up forever.

So I’m genuinely uncertain.  Maybe leadership is fundamentally incompatible with stuff I want to keep? Maybe I just have hangups about harmless stuff, or resistance against working on things I’m naturally not good at? I wonder what older and more accomplished people would think about this issue.

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The Gunas: A Model For Mental States

Epistemic Status: purely speculative play

Sometimes we learn the most from books we want to throw across the room.  The Bhagavad Gita was like that for me.

It’s a tiny section of the Mahabharata, itself embedded in a truly enormous tradition of Indian spiritual and philosophical thought that I have come to accept I will never make any appreciable headway on.  I have difficulty engaging with that tradition, because a lot of the shared presuppositions in the Eastern religions are so alien to my present values — basic things like “worldly daily life is inferior to ascetic spiritual life” or “the physical world isn’t real.”  It’s intensely frustrating, but in a way that sometimes seems productive, to bump up against a radically different worldview and try to extract value from it.

On the other hand, this means this post requires a warning. When I extract an idea that seems valuable to me from a tradition I’m this unfamiliar with, I’m almost certainly not representing that tradition faithfully.  You’re getting the asshole Western syncretic version.  I am nowhere near equipped to provide the Sanskrit-scholar version.

(If you have not been exposed to quite how big the Hindu tradition is, consider this guy, who, if Wikipedia is to be trusted, has achieved incredible fame and preeminence in philosophical traditions I’d never heard of and in art forms I’d never heard of.)

The Gunas

The Gita speaks of three “gunas”, translated variously as “qualities”, “virtues”, “properties”, of which everything and everyone consists, in different proportions. These are sattva (wisdom, harmony, purity), rajas (passion, activity, ambition), and tamas (ignorance, chaos, destruction).

The Gita says (Chapter 18, verses 23-25):

Action that is virtuous, deliberate, free from attachment, and without craving for results, is considered Sattvic. Action that is driven purely by craving for pleasure, selfishness, and with much effort is Rajasic. Action that is undertaken because of delusion, disregarding consequences, without considering loss or injury to others or self, is called Tamasic.

Likewise there are Sattvic, Rajasic, and Tamasic personality types (which are supposed to correspond to castes).

According to the Gita, “there is no agent but the gunas.” A person has multiple parts, multiple sub-agents, which each have their own agendas, and these sub-agents cycle around ceaselessly, doing their thing, unless one learns to master them through meditative practice.  By default, you are a Markov chain bopping around from state to state.

This seems to ring very true.  My own lived experience has been that I seem to experience multiple different states or moods, which come and go, have their own distinctive qualities, and have conflicting goals with one another.

This also matches a lot of concepts in psychology or cognitive science: Haidt’s elephant and rider metaphor, Minsky’s society of mind, and George Ainslie‘s thoughts about hyperbolic discounting as an expression of conflict between multiple selves.

Parallels and Differences in Western thought

These three gunas are echoed in George Dumezil’s trifunctional hypothesis, a theory of three archetypes that he were believed were common across all Indo-European mythologies:

  • Sovereignty (judges and priests)
  • Military (warriors and nobles)
  • Productivity (herders, farmers, and artisans)

Sovereignty would be associated with the head, and the intellectual virtues (wisdom, justice, etc); military with the heart, and the warrior virtues (courage, honor, etc); and productivity with the belly or gonads, and qualities like fertility and luck.

Thus, Dumezil sees trios all over the place.  For instance, Odin (wise king of the gods ), Thor (brave warrior god), and Freyr (fertility and agricultural god).

The trifunctional hypothesis is a pretty close match for the parts of the soul in Plato’s Republic:

  • Reason (associated with the guardians in his ideal city)
  • Passions (associated with warriors)
  • Appetites (associated with commoners)

Plato’s view is hierarchical: polities and persons function best when reason rules, passions execute on reason’s judgments, and appetites are subdued.  A lot of effort has to be put into educating people and organizing states in order to keep this organization in place.

This is not exactly the same model as is described in the Gita.  Tamas is mostly associated with lethargic or passive qualities: sloth, ignorance, apathy, confusion.  The appetites, in both Dumezil and Plato, are more associated with food and sex and active impulsiveness.

And the Gita is not exactly hierarchical in the way the Republic is; there’s some notion of getting beyond all three gunas, passing beyond the cycle of death and rebirth, going outside the frame through meditative insight.

There’s also a parallel with Freud’s id, ego, and superego, though that’s not quite exact either. The superego is a parental or societal inner voice, which is kind of a corrupted version of a voice of reason.  The ego is the locus of self-narrative, which isn’t quite the same as the locus of the emotions, though “egotistical” behavior is probably rajasic.  And the id is the seat of powerful, instinctual passions, which is a better fit with Plato’s appetites than with tamas.

If Plato envisions a monarchy of the soul, Freud envisions the possibility of revolution — if you suppress the id too brutally, there’s a chance it’ll rise up and cause chaos.

Parallels with Biology

The gunas seem to roughly match to different neuroendocrine processes, according to Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory.

According to this theory, the dorsal vagal nerve and its branches, which are evolutionarily ancient (found in reptiles and amphibians) and unmyelinated, governs autonomic processes like digestion and breathing, and the “freeze response” to danger.  The sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic/pituitary/adrenal axis govern the “fight-or-flight” response.  And the ventral vagal complex, which is evolutionarily recent and myelinated, governs social and exploratory behavior — sucking, looking around, sniffing, listening, speaking, etc.

Porges describes

three distinct subsystems, which are phylogenetically ordered and behaviorally linked to communication (e.g. facial expression, vocalization, listening), mobilization (e.g. fight-flight behaviors), and immobilization (e.g. feigning death, behavioral ‘shutdown’, and syncope).

“Vagal tone”, or the ability to calm down physiological arousal and also make it more flexibly appropriate to the occasion, has experimentally derived associations with  emotional intelligence and secure attachment.

The systems in the polyvagal theory seem to correspond to three kinds of mental states: frozen passivity, anger/fear/excitement, and calmness/curiosity/affection/communication.  These seem to correspond well with the three gunas.

Perhaps there literally are, in some biological sense, different parts of the mind — that is, processes that are only active one at a time, and correspond to different global patterns of behavior and affect, so that it makes sense to ask “is this person in mode A, B, or C right now?”  An uncontroversial example would be “awake vs. asleep” — you can tell, both behaviorally and with an EEG, whether a person is awake or asleep, and while we don’t know fully what sleep is for, nobody questions that “sleep” is a well-formed concept.  Maybe there’s something analogous for the gunas that has to do with mood and parasympathetic activity.

Gita Plato Freud Plain English Element Body Part Polyvagal Theory
Sattva Reason Superego Thinking Air Head Ventral Vagal
Rajas Passion Ego Doing Fire Heart Sympathetic
Tamas Appetite Id Being Earth Belly, Gonads Dorsal Vagal

Sattva from the inside

Sattva wants to understand everything and optimize everything. Sattva wants to feel clear, calm, insightful.  When you’re in a sattvic state, you’re always asking “How could this be better?”  How could this idea be made more precise, how could my behavior be more correct, where do I find quality and excellence?  Sattva’s traditional color is white, and its mood is bright, rarefied, elevated.

Sattva virtues:

  • wisdom
  • awareness
  • reflectiveness
  • insight
  • justice

Sattva failure modes:

  • pedantry
  • paralysis through abstraction
  • control-oriented forms of malice (criminal masterminds, totalitarian governments, gaslighting and isolation as tools of abuse)

Sattvic activities:

  • introspection
  • writing
  • planning
  • learning
  • reorganizing or improving systems

Rajas from the inside

Rajas wants to do stuff and do it hard.  Rajas wants to feel active and exhilarated and victorious. Rajas wants to win, to beat the other guy, to be special and important, to push through obstacles.  When you’re in a rajasic state, you’re trying really hard to do the thing; there’s a quality of fierce intensity, of “gotta gotta gotta gotta do it!”  Rajas’s traditional color is red, for obvious reasons — it’s about blood, both in the sense of “violence” and the sense of “getting enough oxygen for intense activity.”

Rajas virtues:

  • courage
  • passion
  • energy
  • ambition
  • determination

Rajas failure modes:

  • violent aggression
  • drama-seeking, picking fights, ego-trips
  • annoyingness
  • dogmatism, obsession
  • dominance-oriented forms of malice (e.g. bullying someone until they cry)

Rajasic activities:

  • fighting
  • dancing
  • competing
  • passionate romance
  • hard work
  • taking initiative

Tamas from the inside

Tamas is the hardest of the gunas to pin down. It seems to want a state of rest: no obligations, nothing to attend to, no active consciousness, just a comfortable, womblike cave.  It’s a sense that the world is intrusive in its demands, and one wants to retreat from it, or find palliatives from it, or hide from it.  When you’re in a tamasic state, you’re trying to get relief or hide from painful things or be at peaceor maybe just to sleep.  Tamas‘s traditional color is black, which makes sense if you think of it as the nighttime state, the hide-under-the-covers state.

Tamas virtues:

  • endurance
  • patience
  • survival in traumatic conditions

Tamas failure modes:

  • depression
  • procrastination
  • addiction
  • neediness
  • self-sabotage
  • apathy, lethargy, sullenness
  • brain fog
  • willful ignorance, evasion
  • patheticness

Tamasic activities

  • sleeping
  • eating rich foods
  • drinking alcohol
  • being entertained
  • cuddling
  • vegging out

Take-Aways

If you have this model of the gunas, you can simply ask yourself: which am I in at the moment? How do my gunas change over the course of a day or a week?

You can consciously change from one guna to another (I’ve managed to switch from tamas to sattva a few times).

You can also consciously try to offer nice things to the much-maligned lower gunas: take up martial arts to satisfy rajas, or have a fondue-and-wine night to satisfy tamas.  I have the rough “pagan common sense” intuition that you should be nice to entities if you want them to be nice to you, and this includes parts of yourself.

I’m not yet aware from first-hand experience about the “going meta” thing that meditation supposedly offers, but I’d expect that there’s probably something to it.

Sane Thinking About Mental Problems

Epistemic status: exhortatory and personal, but pretty confidently my true belief

CW: suicide mention

When I was a teenager, I was depressed.  And the way I thought mental illness worked, the way I had learned from novels and from some of the adults around me, was as follows.

You are in pain. You try as hard as you can to hide this from others, keep up with all your responsibilities, be a “good girl.” But you are in pain, and eventually something’s gotta give. At some point, you “hit rock bottom” — you express your emotional pain through some act of self-destruction that is impossible to hide. At that point, people around you will be horrified, and will send you off to an inpatient clinic, where you will rest, recuperate, and be healed by wise and sympathetic doctors and therapists.

This is really not how it works, and it is a destructive myth that I think is actively wrong to teach children.

The reality is that mental health care is hard to get. For various economic reasons, there is a shortage of therapists, a shortage of beds in hospitals, and so on. A lot of people really struggle to get mental health care.

And mental health professionals are not magic. There is no guarantee that going to therapy, or taking medications, will solve your problems. It’s still often worth doing, but it’s not a “happily ever after,” and in some cases will be useless or harmful.

Moreover, there is a lot of discrimination against the mentally ill today. The stigma of mental illness can impair your ability to get an education, or keep a job.

All of which means that people with mental health issues are constantly in the position of making practical tradeoffs, sometimes quite painful ones, sometimes ordinary uneventful ones, between taking time to focus on getting well and just keeping the business of daily life running. The myth that, as soon as you acknowledge that you have a problem, that your life will be swept away into a therapeutic cocoon, is laughably unrealistic for pretty much everybody.  Life goes on, even when you’re crazy.  You go on.

And everybody, from people who just struggle with the odd neurosis to people who are severely disabled, has to more or less muddle through with the good humor, determination, and common sense they already have, and without any absolute answers from on high.  Even if you wind up needing help — and needing help is normal — you’re still driving your life.  You can’t pass the steering wheel to anybody else, and even if you could, that would be incredibly dangerous and you really don’t want to do that.

This is nothing new to people who have already been around the block.  But it would have been news to a younger version of me, and I’m writing this for her, and for anyone like her who might be reading.

Letter to a Young Depressive

You’re wondering if this is real.

It seems like life shouldn’t be like this. Surely not everyone spends long nights at the lab wondering whether acrylamide or ethanol or the strong bases are the best way to go.

But you’re fine, your grades are still good, god knows you’re managing, you don’t want to wreck your chance at college by going to the school counselor, and anyhow it’s not clear whether your problems are real or fake, so for now, you do your best to keep your head above water.

It has not occurred to you that one could try to stop wanting to die.

So: yes, it’s real.

If you looked up the DSM definition of depression, you would very definitely meet criteria. But that’s not the point.

The point is that you are unhappy, and that in itself matters. It turns out you are allowed (actually, required, but that’s a long story) to care about your own life and achieve your own happiness.  It also turns out that’s possible even for people who have made bad choices. It turns out you always have the right to live.  It turns out you are good.

That’s a lot of impossible concepts, I know, and it’ll take you a long time to work them out, and that’s also fine.

The accessible part is this: you can start trying to be happier, now.  You don’t have to take big risky steps like therapy or meds if you’re not ready for that. You can write in your diary, you can read the odd self-help or psychology or philosophy book, you can talk to a friend.  You can do more things that make you happy and fewer things that make you unhappy.  The incremental, DIY, trial-and-error forms of self-care that you work out on your own are not futile.  In fact, there’s a chance they’ll be the only things that work.  And even if you do get professional help eventually, you’ll be doing the “homebrew” stuff anyway.  That part never goes away.  Recovery just means getting good at it.

It is a bad idea, if you can avoid it, to “hit rock bottom”, but if you do crash spectacularly, the reality is that it’s just more life, with some added inconveniences.  Actually going to a mental hospital is not very much like it’s depicted in YA novels.  It is a liminal space that gives you time to recuperate, but it’s often mundane, sometimes shitty, and quite short-term, and afterwards you still have to go on with life.  If you’ve damaged yourself physically, or damaged your relationships, or whatever, now you have to go on with life while damaged, which is why it’s generally a bad idea.  Regardless of your degree of involvement with mental health professionals or the psych system, you’re going to be making tradeoffs and practical choices.  That part also never goes away.

The Big Lie

The mantra taught to young people today is “If you’re having trouble, get professional help.”  And also, “If you see someone in trouble, don’t try to help them yourself, get them professional help.”

In college, I had a barrage of orientation sessions where we were told that if a classmate or friend was struggling with an emotional or psychological problem, that we should not attempt to handle the situation on our own, but should refer them to the school’s mental health facilities.

Think, for a moment, about how wrong this is.

They are teaching kids not to be kind to sad friends, but to report them to the authorities instead.

So I watched my roommate, who had life-threatening mental health problems, as she was  abandoned by all her friends at the first sign of weakness. I saw our little quad talking around the problem, trying to “get her help” that never actually came, passive-aggressively blaming her for being ill.  I watched the laughable incompetence of the mental health people as they did precisely the wrong things for her. I was too socially awkward to do much more than clumsily ask her to stop hurting herself.  She became an evangelical Christian because those were the only people on campus who were actually nice to her.

Even at the time, I knew something was wrong with the culture — it drove me into a despair of my own — but I wasn’t sure it wasn’t just me who was out of step.  It wasn’t until later, until I read Allen Ginsberg, that I got external confirmation that it was normal to suffer along with a mentally ill friend, that it was normal to give a damn.

ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe, and now you’re really in the total animal soup of Time —

The irony was that I was taking a course that semester called “The Politics of Friendship.”  We read De Amicitia and the Nicomachean Ethics and The Four Loves.  And meanwhile, in the real life I saw around me, there was nothing like that, nothing at all, only callousness and falseness and denial.

Ivy League schools in particular deceive students into believing that they can treat mental illness, when in fact they do not have the resources to do so. Colleges tend to encourage mentally ill students to go on leave — and not come back.  A few years ago, an anonymous op-ed from a schizophrenic Harvard student made the news:

Harvard should abolish the present oft-coerced leave of absence imposed on students who admit themselves to the infirmary. Students who decide to go on leave are often unaware that in order to return, they must prove that they have held a job or internship and that they have been seeking treatment. The burden of this policy falls brutally on students from poor backgrounds, students lacking robust health insurance, and students with unstable family situations. Ironically, these are the very students who are more likely to have experienced trauma.

Another Yale undergrad who struggled with mental illness writes of being expelled after going to “Mental Hygiene.”  Another Yalie reports that her psychiatrist said, “Well, the truth is, we don’t necessarily think you’ll be safer at home. But we just can’t have you here.”  As with most colleges, Yale’s mental health services vastly undershoot the demand, and Yale is not entirely candid about this fact, not telling students about the (limited) number of therapy slots available, the long wait times, and the risk of being asked to “voluntarily” withdraw — which still requires paying tuition for the classes you don’t take.  Recently a Princeton student sued the university for violating his medical confidentiality by requiring him to “voluntarily” withdraw after a suicide attempt.  The issue seems to be pervasive.

My closest friend in college was threatened with expulsion, unless he went to therapy, because he wrote a short story for a creative-writing class that involved violence.  Specifically, it was a science-fiction short story about a slave rebellion.  He said that other short stories in the class contained violence too, sometimes much more gruesome; the problem was that he depicted justified, good-guys-fighting-bad-guys, violence.

Not only does this mean that a student’s education can be suspended on highly subjective criteria, but in practice those criteria are profoundly opposed to justice.

The problem isn’t necessarily that schools aren’t equipped to serve the needs of mentally ill students. No school can be all things to all people, health care is scarce and expensive, and a school’s main mission is education, not treatment.  The problem is that schools promise that students will be taken care of.  The message is “don’t worry about solving your problems on your own — we have lots of wonderful professionals to solve them for you!” Which is absolutely the opposite of the truth.

There’s a human cost to not being honest about the limits of mental health care at colleges.

I remember scrolling through Facebook once, while hanging out with a friend who was a student at Yale Law, when suddenly my face fell and she asked “What’s wrong?”  Well, another friend of mine had lost his job, and I was worried about him.

My Yale friend was very impressed and made a big deal about how compassionate I was.

And that struck me as weird. Surely anyone would be sad about a friend who lost his job. A good friend would try to help him get back on his feet, or do some other concrete act of service.

But there are actually a lot of Ivy League types for whom common sympathy is unusual, to whom it doesn’t occur to pause for a moment and be sad for someone else.  We’re taught not to. We’re taught that other people’s troubles are not our problem, unless we can get public credit for some kind of conspicuous charitable work.  The right thing to do is to keep reaching for the brass ring and to resist the temptations of sympathy.

Sad friend? There are professionals to handle that.

A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
  Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
  That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
  Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.

Auden’s world is real today, except that it’s not among ragged urchins, but among privileged and intelligent young people, that integrity and compassion are out of the ordinary.

Frames and Fluidity

There are multiple ways of looking at problems with the mind.  I don’t think that there’s a best one, but that it’s practical to switch between them pragmatically and to be mindful of the local advantages and disadvantages of each frame.

The medical model speaks of mental illness as a type of disease, which can be treated medically.  The mentally ill are sick, and they can get well.  They are patients.

The advantage of the medical paradigm is that it’s largely the only one that engages with the awesome power of psychopharmacology. It’s not an exact science, but there is no doubt that brain drugs affect the brain and can be studied experimentally, which is more than you can say for a lot of other approaches to the mind.  Some medications work spectacularly, some less so, but either way, there’s a tangible concreteness to thinking of mental illness as a physical problem, an engineering problem.  You can get some purchase that way.

One downside of the medical paradigm is that it’s demoralizing to view your situation as a catastrophic aberration, as something that should not be, especially if it’s not going to be swiftly fixed.  This problem also affects the physically disabled and chronically ill.  If you’re living with an issue indefinitely, it has to become ordinary to you, it has to become your new normal. And it usually will, by default. People get used to using wheelchairs and hearing aids. But if you’re constantly rehearsing the thought that you’re broken, or spiraling out of control, and in need of someone to “fix” you — then you’re going to be more miserable than your condition strictly requires, and more passively accepting of medical authority than is safe or useful.

The social model of disability frames mental issues as disabilities, in the sense that they are socially discriminated against by a “one-size-fits-all” society.  It emphasizes the right to access, to be treated decently, to have a normal life, even if you’re not neurotypical.

A major advantage of the social model and the disability community is frank talk between disabled people.  The questions become “how do I make my life work while disabled?” and “how do I keep from being jerked around by an unfriendly system?”  And, from the people thinking in this vein, you can get bonding, advice, practical problem-solving, camaraderie, validation, and courage.

A major disadvantage, though, is that the disability paradigm takes permanence for granted, and frequently mental illness involves the possibility of getting well.  If your identity and community are based around disability, then healing can subconsciously seem disloyal.

What I’d call the “skill model” is a family of viewpoints which say that problems of the mind are fundamentally about being weak at a skill, and recovery is about gaining that skill.

Some forms of therapy are straightforwardly skill-based. Cognitive remediation therapy is just memory and concentration practice.  Dialectical Behavioral Therapy is largely about teaching the skill of managing emotions.  Behavioral activation is a concept from cognitive-behavioral therapy that says “if you practice doing stuff, you’ll be able to do more stuff.”   Exposure therapy is literally just practice doing the thing you’re scared of.

Some types of self-help outside the world of formally trained psychology are also skill-based. Some people approach meditation this way, or Stoicism, or a regular exercise practice, as a way of training yourself to be saner. Unfuck Your Habitat is about gaining the skill of keeping your house clean.  Ureshiku Naritai is a very nice, straightforward essay that epitomizes a skill-based way of overcoming depression: the author trained herself to notice which things improved and worsened her mood, and did more of the former and less of the latter.

The advantage of the skill-based approach is that it incorporates the human capacities of learning and trying.  Once you have the lightbulb moment of “wow, I can try to get better on purpose?”, once you start working directly on things rather than waiting for someone to “treat” you, your progress can accelerate quite suddenly. The skill model takes you, meaning your “wise mind” or the part of you that wants to be sane, seriously as an agent, and enlists your effort and intelligence.

The downside of the skill-based approach is that some mental illnesses don’t respond well to it, and if you don’t find a way to engage the gears that bring you to “wow, I can do this!”, it can sound quite condescending. The negative stereotype of the skill model is “I fixed my depression with yoga and you can too!” which gets a bitter chuckle from old pros at the badbrains game.

What I’d call the “spiritual model” is a final family of viewpoints, which are related in that they take the denotational content of mental problems seriously, especially mood problems.

In this model, if you are having a crisis of faith, then your depression is fundamentally about religion, and you’re going to need to figure out your answers to religious questions.  If your problems take the form of extreme guilt, then you’re going to have to engage with ethical philosophy and figure out a form of ethics that is compatible with life.  If you’re experiencing nihilistic despair, then you’re going to have to find a source of meaning.  If you’re having delusions, you might need to build up a stable epistemology.

The spiritual model takes unhappiness as a normal or even universal part of the human condition, not something exclusive to “abnormal psychology.” People get profoundly unhappy; people have to find a way to overcome despair; the way to overcome your despair is to figure out where you have a misunderstanding and gain the insight that will resolve it.

The advantage of this approach is that it is much more individual and fine-grained than the other approaches.  It deals with your mind, not the generic mind that has similar problems to yours. And it engages with your mind, including your mental illness, as a peer — not as something to fix or to accept, but as someone to talk to and listen to. It allows for the possibility that your strange thoughts while depressed or manic or whatever might in fact be true, at least in some facets.  There’s a sense in which resolving inner conflicts is “getting to the root of the problem”, actually untangling the knots in your mind, rather than “merely” palliating symptoms.  The work of life, from the spiritual point of view, is building a valid and life-sustaining personal philosophy, and almost incidentally, this will resolve many “psychological problems.”

The downside of this approach is that sometimes your problems aren’t really about anything discernible, and it’s counterproductive to try to seek meaning in them, rather than just trying to manage or treat or accommodate them.  Sometimes trying a spiritual approach just means getting trapped in ruminating or becoming an “insight junkie”, with no productive effect on your actual problems.

It’s very rare to see discussions of mental illness that treat multiple possible frames as valid and usable.  I’ve seen personal narratives where people shifted from one frame to another and present it as “seeing the light,” but I think that’s not the whole story. I suspect that successfully living with, or recovering from, mental problems involves being somewhat eclectic about frames.

I switch between frames a lot myself. To wit:

My tendency towards anxiety is probably best framed medically — my whole family is tight-wound, I have genetic mutations that mean my adrenaline level is going to be higher than normal, and my anxiety responds really well to medication.

I view a lot of things, like Uber and text-based communication and to-do lists and calendars, as basically assistive tech for my poor spatial awareness and executive function, which is a very social-model perspective.  I use a bunch of hacks like weighted blankets to make myself physically comfortable when it’s practical, without viewing my unusual needs as shameful “symptoms”, which is also a very social-model way of looking at things.

I think about building resilience and fortitude to emotional shocks from a skill-based perspective.  There’s a lot of value in practicing toughness or patience or self-restraint.  Like Ben Franklin, I think you can sometimes reinforcement-learn your way to virtue.

I largely deal with my guilt and shame issues through the spiritual approach. Learning that the things that torment me are illusory and based on bad philosophy has been extraordinarily helpful. Reading and friendship — and I’ve had truly wonderful and wise friends — have allowed me to work towards a perspective on life that promotes my survival and flourishing.

“Shit Happens”: The Value of Normalizing

The one frame I don’t find helpful for thinking about mental problems is the frame of horror.  “How could this happen? This shouldn’t happen!  This is the worst and everything is falling apart!” is unproductive and often cruel.

Here’s the issue:

I’ve had the cops called on me for crying in public.

A friend of mine, who has dyspraxia, has had the cops called on her for walking funny.

We’re mild-mannered white women, so we got off easy. If we weren’t, those encounters could have been deadly.  When somebody has a panicked overreaction to seeing someone behaving weirdly, the consequences can be quite serious.

The reality is that about one-fifth of Americans experience mental illness in a given year.  This is a medical-paradigm statistic so obviously there are reasons to be skeptical of it; but the point remains that having problems with your mind is common. It is so common that it does not make sense to freak out about it.  It has to be acknowledged as part of the landscape of life.

When a person with mental problems freaks out about them, it’s usually self-destructive.  Self-pity or internalized ableism or a victim mentality are not conducive to getting better.  Feeling like “OMG this is terrible!” is understandable, but it’s not an aid to recovery.

When people freak out about others’ mental problems, they can range from callous (abandoning friends because they’re “crazy”) to frankly evil (violating people’s rights and committing violence against them because they’re “crazy”).

The antidote to freaking out is the acknowledgement that “shit happens.”

You have to expect that misfortune is pretty common, you have to account for the fact that most people you meet will experience misfortune at some point in their lives, and you have to learn a sort of reasonable tolerance about that.  Otherwise you’ll be in denial about reality, and that’s inevitably going to hurt someone.

Denial-followed-by-freakout is how we got into the mess that is campus mental health policy, and probably a lot of other systemic problems as well.

If we take a pragmatic, balanced, trial-and-error, “shit happens”, kind of perspective on the problems of the mind — if we accept that they’re very common and we have to make the best of them, both individually and communally — we’ll be a lot more prepared to deal with life as it is.

Haidt-Love Relationship

Epistemic status: personal, exhortatory, expressive

Jonathan Haidt has an ideology.  In his academic life, he poses positive questions, but he definitely has a normative position as well. And you can see this most clearly in his speeches to young people, which are sermons on Haidtism.

Here is an example.

In it, he contrasts “Coddle U” with “Strengthen U,” two archetypal colleges. He’s clearly arguing in favor of psychological resilience, and against fragility. Let’s leave aside the question of whether feminists and other activists are actually oversensitive weenies, and whether trigger warnings are actually coddling, and engage with his main point, that it is better not to be an oversensitive weenie.

Haidt seems to see this as self-evident. The emotionally weak are to be mocked; the emotionally strong are to be respected.

I don’t find it as obvious.

Fragility can have a certain charm. Sensitive, romantic, tender spirits can be quite attractive.  The soft-hearted can be quick to show kindness. The easily-bruised can be alert to problems that more thick-skinned folks ignore.  We usually trust people’s sincerity more when they are moved to strong emotion.  A frail, innocent person is often a lovable person.  And who wouldn’t want to be lovable?

“Do you want to be strong or do you want to be fragile?” takes us back to Nietzsche’s old conflict of Herrenmoral and Sklavmoral.  Is it good to be successful, skilled, strong, powerful (as opposed to weak, cowardly, unhealthy, contemptible)?   Or is it good to be innocent, pure, gentle, kind (as opposed to oppressive, selfish, cruel)?

Of course it’s possible to be both kind and strong.  Herrenmoral and Sklavmoral are both pre-rational viewpoints, more like aesthetics than actual ethics.  It’s a question of whether you want to be this:
1920px-john_everett_millais_-_ophelia_-_google_art_project

or this:

Ultimately, the consideration in favor of strength is simply that the world contains threats.  Fragility may make you lovable, but it can also make you dead.  You don’t get to appreciate the benefits of sensitivity and tenderness if you’re dead.

Being strong enough to do well at the practicalities of the world — physical safety and health, economic security, enough emotional stability not to put yourself or others at risk — is, up to a point, an unalloyed good.

Think of it as a gambler’s ruin situation. You have to win or save enough to stay in the game.  Strength helps you stay in the game.

And because strength is necessary for survival, there’s something to respect in the pro-strength aesthetic.

From the outside, it can seem kind of mean and elitist. You’re scorning people for failure and pain? You think you’re better than the rest of us, just because you’re pretty or smart or tough or happy?

But another way of looking at it is having respect for the necessities of life.  If you consider that starvation is a thing, you’ll remember that food is valuable, and you’ll feel gratitude to the farmers who grow it. In the same way, you can have respect for intelligence, respect for competence, respect for toughness, respect for all skills.  You can be glad for them, because human skill drives out the darkness of death, the hard vacuum of space that surrounds us, and excellent humans are pinpricks of flame in the dark.  You can love that hard brilliance.

And if respect can tinge into love, love can shade into enjoyment. You can enjoy being awesome, or knowing people who are awesome.  It can be exhilarating.  It can be a high and heady pleasure.

And from that vantage point, it’s possible to empathize with someone who, like Haidt, scorns weakness. Maybe, once you’ve been paying attention to the high points of human ability, anything else seems rather dingy.  Maybe you think “It’s so much nicer here upon the heights, why would you want to be down in the valley?”  Maybe some of the people who seem “elitist” actually just want to be around the people who light them up, and have developed high standards for that.

Not to say that there doesn’t exist shallow, vindictive status-grabbing.  But there are also people who aren’t like that, who just prefer the excellent to the mediocre.

Or, on a smaller scale, there are those who seek out “positive people” and avoid “toxic people” — they’re orienting towards success and away from failure, towards strength and away from weakness, and this is an understandable thing to do.

An addict trying to get her life together would try hard to avoid weakness, temptation, backsliding — and this would be a good thing, and any decent person would cheer for her.  That kind of motivation is the healthy thing that drives people to choose strength over fragility.

So Haidt’s basic premise — that you want to be more strong than fragile — is believable.

His prescriptions for achieving that are risk tolerance and minimizing the negative.

I’m going to reframe his ideas somewhat so they refer to individuals.  He’s talking about a top-down perspective — how schools can make students stronger. I have an issue with that, because I think that “improving” people against their will is ethically questionable, and especially trying to “make people tough” by exposing them to adversity, if they have no intrinsic desire to toughen and no input into the type of “adversity” involved, is probably counterproductive.  However, people self-improve all the time, they make themselves tougher, and that’s a more fruitful perspective, in my opinion.

Risk tolerance is the self-motivated version of “we’re not going to coddle you.” It would mean seeking out challenges, looking for criticism, engaging with “hard truths”, going on adventures.  Trying things to test your mettle.

It’s pretty obvious why this works: small amounts of damage cause you to develop stronger defenses. Exercise produces micro-tears in muscle, so it grows back stronger.  Vaccines made of weakened virus stimulate immunity to that virus.  Intermittent, all-out efforts against fear or failure are good for you.

(You’re still playing to stay in the game, so an adversity that takes you out of the game altogether is not good for you. This is why I think it works much better if the individual’s judgment and motivation is engaged.  Voluntary choice is important. Authorities trying to “toughen kids up” against their will can kill them. )

Minimizing the negative means mentally shrinking the sources of your distress. Haidt cites Marcus Aurelius, Boethius, the Buddha, and the tenets of cognitive behavioral therapy as pointing at the same universal truths.

Now, of course, Stoicism, Buddhism, and modern psychology have very different visions of the good life. The ideal Stoic is a good citizen; the ideal Buddhist is an ascetic; the ideal psychological subject is “well.”  The ideal Stoic is protective of his soul; the ideal Buddhist is aware that his “self” does not exist.  Trying to be a serious Stoic is quite different from trying to be a serious Buddhist, and it’s not clear what it would even mean to try to be the “ideal person” by the standards of cognitive behavioral therapy.

What these philosophies have in common is a lot simpler than that: it’s just “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”

Don’t freak out over trivial shit. Remember that it’s trivial.

Stoicism and Buddhism both use meditation as a tactic; both suggest focusing on impermanence and even death, to remind oneself that trivial shit will pass.  CBT’s tactic is disputation — arguing with your fears and frustrations, telling yourself that the problem is not that big a deal.

Marcus Aurelius in particular uses pride a lot as a tactic, encouraging you to view getting upset as beneath the dignity of your soul.

Of course, “Don’t sweat the small stuff” imposed from without is a bit insulting.  Who are you, authority figure, to say what is and isn’t important?  Aren’t you telling me to ignore real problems and injustices?

But seen from within, “don’t sweat the small stuff” is just another perspective on “focus on your goals and values.”

You want to stay in the game, remember? So you can win, whatever that means to you.  So survival matters, robustness matters, because that keeps you in the game.  Freaking out takes you hors de combat.

Haidt tends not to push too hard on Christianity, perhaps because his audience is secular, but it is a very common source of comfort that does, empirically, make people happier.  My impression of Christian positivity, from a non-theological perspective, is that it says the good outweighs the bad. The bad exists; but the good is stronger and bigger and wins in the end.  And this is another way of not freaking out over trivial shit, which is quite different in aesthetic from the others, and maybe underappreciated by secular people.  Instead of trying to shrink your troubles by minimizing or disputing them, you can make them seem less important by contrast to something vast and Good. In a similar, albeit secular, spirit, there’s Camus’ famous line, “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”

Stripped of the sneering and the political angle and the paternalism, what we have here is a pretty solid message.

It’s a good idea to become stronger; in order to do that, try hard things, and don’t freak out about trivial shit.

Now, I immediately imagine a dialogue with my Weenie Self resisting this idea.

But…that sounds AWFUL!  I don’t want to!

Well, the thing is, “I’m not currently doing X” is not a valid argument against doing X. If it were, nobody would ever have a reason to change their behavior.  We’d all just follow the gradients of our current stimuli wherever they led.  There’s no choice in that world, no deliberate behavior. “But I’m currently freaking out about trivial shit!” doesn’t actually mean that you shouldn’t want to freak out less in future.

I know. It’s weird.  This is a way of thinking about things consciously and explicitly, even when they feel kind of awkward and wrong.

How can it be right when it doesn’t feel right?!  I am currently experiencing a sense of certainty that this is a bad idea! You want me to trust a verbal argument over this overwhelming feeling of certainty?

This, believe it or not, is what people mean when they talk about reason!

Trusting an argument that is correct as far as you can tell, over your feelings, even very strong feelings.  Being consciously aware that a thing is a good idea, and doing it, even when it’s awkward and unnatural and feels wrong.  You’re not used to doing things this way, because you usually discipline yourself with more feelings — guilt or fear, usually.  But there’s a way of making yourself do hard things that starts, simply, with recognizing intellectually that the hard thing is a good idea.

You can make yourself like things that you don’t currently like!  You can make yourself feel things that you aren’t currently feeling!

This bizarre, robotic, abstract business of making decisions on the basis of thoughts rather than feelings is a lot less crazy than it, um, feels.  It’s a tremendous power.

Some people luck into it by being naturally phlegmatic. The rest of us look at them and think “Man, that would suck, having practically no feelings.  Feelings are the spice of life!”  But we can steal a bit of their power, with time and effort, without necessarily becoming prosaic ourselves.

My overall instinctive response to Haidtism is negative.  The ideology initially comes across as smug and superficial.  But upon reflection, I have come to believe that it is right to aim towards self-transcendence, to do hard things and not sweat the small stuff. And I’m resolving to be more charitable towards people who support that creed even when they rub me the wrong way stylistically.  Ultimately, I want to do the things that are good ideas, even when that means awkward, deliberate change.