spirituality, psychology, and philosophy for an age of anxiety
The Rock and Roll Philadelphia Half-Marathon starts at the Philadelphia Art Museum, loops through Center City before making a 3.5 mile jaunt up the Schuylkill River river and back to Elkins Oval. Seen ahead of time on this course map, it seems innocent enough.
Note: this is what is known as a “scale map,” which means that this is actually just a proportional representation of the actual course. A real half-marathon is much longer. Bear this in mind, because this fact would become VERY important to me later on.
We’ve all had “could’ve/should’ve” died experiences. You know what I’m talking about. You’re driving along in your car and suddenly realize that you just drove right through a stop sign and across a busy intersection. Without getting hit. “Wow, that was close,” you think with relief, and then “Wow, that was really close. Holy crap I should be dead.” Depending who you are, you are either mildly alarmed, or seriously freaked out. At the very least, it is a very strange, disturbing experience.
The reason you’re left with such unsettled feelings is because your brain, in its attempt to process what just happened, is a bit confused and is sending you two contrary signals.
Anxiety and depression suck. So much, in fact, that a lot of times you don’t even know how bad they are until they are gone. Now don’t get me wrong: when you have anxiety or depression, you know it. But the crumpled condition that they leave our spirit in is often really only seen when is lifted from our chest. Like when a head cold suddenly dissipates, and its like being in an instant reborn. Although afterwards we are keenly aware of how big and wondrous the world is, while we are in the midst of it we can’t see much of anything. In other words, we are hopeless.
Hope is the ability to see where we want to get to, and the confidence that we will be able to get there. This is a natural ability that we take for granted. Our behavior as humans is driven by the fact that we can think about where we want to be, compare it to where we are, and devise a plan to get from here to there. In the state of anxiety or depression, we either don’t have confidence that we can get there, or we are only dimly aware of where it is we want to be at all. There is a disruption of the natural ability to set our sights on some desired goal or dream.
“…I should warn you that the chamber we are about to pass into does not literally exist within our planet. It is a little too… large. We are about to pass through a gateway into a vast tract of hyperspace. It may disturb you.”
Arthur made nervous noises.
Slartibartfast touched a button and added, not entirely reassuringly, “It scares the willies out of me. Hold tight.”
The car shot forward straight into a circle of light, and suddenly Arthur had a fairly clear idea of what infinity looked like.
It wasn’t infinity in fact. Infinity itself looks flat and uninteresting. Looking up into the night sky is looking into infinity – distance is incomprehensible and therefore meaningless. The chamber into which the aircar emerged was anything but infinite, it was just very very big, so big that it gave the impression of infinity far better than infinity itself.
~The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
I have to confess an embarrassing fact: I don’t believe in things I can’t draw. This includes such things as quarks, anti-matter, magnetic fields, and god. I do not consider this to be a virtue, though it is probably the result of a stubborn, rather insistent desire to know “what something is.” Scientists say that leptons, quarks and bosons are the fundamental material of the universe – but I still have to believe that you could cut one in half and scoop out the inside.
Now in the case of quarks, and anti-matter, and other hard-to-conceive of parts of the physical universe, it is still possible to get a description of them – even if you can’t draw them. You may have to do some mental gymnastics to get to that description, but it’s still possible. But when it comes to God, what would such a description look like? We are talking about something which is not really a something at all.
What we’re searching for tells us a lot about ourselves. The internet, with its combination of anonymity and sprawling mass of information, is the perfect context for even the most arcane quests. Google searches are like pennies cast into the well: they reflect our hopes, our dreams, our anxieties, our most pressing concerns.
But, unlike the wishes we throw into the well, Google, because it is evil, doesn’t keep them a secret. This is bad for obvious reasons. When you tell someone your wish, it doesn’t come true. But on the plus side, we have an imprint of the kinds of things people are most curious about.
These are screen shots of Google suggestions taken on my iPhone. It is interesting to see the kinds of things people turn to the internet for. Some are funny, some are relatively banal, and some are quite sad. Makes me wonder if, in our modern time, Google plays more the role of an oracle, rather than a wishing well, a depository of accumulated wisdom that we hope will magically give us clarity and direction when we have none.
Depressive Realism: Why depressed people may be more accurate in how they see the world, and why it’s not that important.
A little knowing is a dangerous thing. Never is this more true than when someone takes their first course in psychology. O psychology, you fickle mistress! Is there anything that fills us with more misguided confidence than 16 weeks of introductory psychology?
I was the unfortunate victim of this danger when I was an undergraduate. A friend of mine was taking Psychology 101 and, in passing, informed me that studies have proved that people who are more depressed actually have a more accurate picture of themselves and the world than non-depressed people. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t really be a big deal. But I was a sensitive, overwrought student then, mired in my own bout of dysthymic depression, and these words were like a nail in the coffin. I had clung to the idea that depression was distortion of reality, not a confirmation of it, and now things seems rather hopeless.
One theory of self-esteem is that it is derived from comparison with relevant peers. We seek out cues from the people that seem the most like us, and use that information to evaluate ourselves. And there’s no better way to compare yourself with others than on Facebook. Therefore, Facebook should give us lots of opportunities to improve our self-esteem. Here’s five.
1. Be mindful of your appeared success quotient. This is really pretty basic, but it’s amazing how often we neglect it. It doesn’t matter if you think you’re successful, and it doesn’t matter if other people think you’re successful. It only matters if you think other people think that you’re successful.
Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung are widely seen as the two seminal figures in contemporary psychology. Yet, for good or for ill, the American academy has clearly given the nod to Freud. He is the Paul Simon to Jung’s Art Garfunkel; the Penn to Jung’s Teller; the Garfield to Jung’s Odie; the Huey Lewis to Jung’s News. Freud is the most cited author in the psychology literature, while you could conceivably get a PhD in the field without ever needing to seriously grapple with Jung.
There is one place that Jung has exerted considerable influence: the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). But, in a cruel twist of irony, most people don’t even know that it’s based on Jung! Say “Oedipus Complex” or “id, ego and superego” and people know who you’re talking about, but try “dominant extraversion” and people just stare at you blankly. This is unfortunate, not only because Carl Jung is freaking sweet and provides a nice counter-balance to the bleak pessimism of the Freudian tradition, but because he had a very helpful and healthful way of looking at personality types, which is often not captured in modern-day presentations of the MBTI.