The Unity of Opposites
8 October 2018 at 7:30 am
Beware the perils of great expectations, writes psychologist Adam Blanch who warns having a utopian goal is a set up for despair and robs us of the ability to be satisfied with real life.
“Dear Adam, as far as anyone else can see there’s nothing wrong with my life. I’ve got everything that most people want, which is a pretty good achievement for someone who came from a violent and abusive family. I’m living proof that you can get past this stuff, and I’m proud of that, but I periodically have bouts of despair where I can’t see the point of living. I’ve noticed that this usually happens when I see something horrible happen in the world, particularly when I see corruption and abuse of power. I see a world of pain and feel powerless to do anything about it.”
I do have some ideas that might help. Firstly, well done on triumphing over the trauma of your past – it sounds like you have gotten stuck in and done the work to create yourself and your life. Just a little bit further to go.
One of the most common ways that a child protects itself when experiencing dangerous and abusive environments is through fantasy. They can’t fight, they can’t flee, freezing doesn’t help and appeasing is usually not much better. So, they escape into an imaginary world which is exactly the opposite of their real-life experience. In this world they are powerful, loved, safe and valued. In this world they are in control and can overcome any threat.
This is a powerful thing to do, because even though they may not be able to protect themselves physically they are protecting their core self – their values, dreams and aspirations. They are keeping their humanity alive for a future time where they can be free and empowered.
However, when they grow up this fantasy can become projected onto the real world as an expectation, a demand for a utopian reality in which they are powerful and safe and the world is just. This is often expressed through political actions and philosophies. It seems to me that people who have survived tough times by fighting tend to go a bit right-wing and demand the freedom to do whatever they want in life, because they only have faith in their own self to keep them safe, and they distrust power in the hands of other people. People who survived through fantasy seem to go a bit left-wing and try to create a world in which rules and regulations provide safety, justice and protection to all.
But of course, neither of these are realistic or achievable expectations. Too much individual freedom encourages too high a level of self-interest and creates inequity, which tears society apart. Too much collective control can stifle creativity and make a society stagnant and unable to adapt. History is littered with the corpses of cultures that could not adapt to change because they were too bound in tradition and rules.
Having a utopian goal or expectation is a set up for despair, and it robs us of the ability to be satisfied with real life. No matter how much love and goodness there is all around us, we cannot see it because all we are focused on is the small percentage of life that is malevolent.
Utopians dreams require absolute control over almost eight billion people. This is what psychologists call a dialectic schema, meaning that we are trapped in a black and white expectation of life that can never be resolved and can never allow for shades of grey. This one is about power. I’m either all powerful (fantasy), or I’m powerless (trauma memory). Neither of which is true.
Power is limited. We cannot control life, but we can influence it. We cannot save the world from bad things, but we can improve our corner of the world. We cannot prevent suffering entirely, but we can prevent some of it, ease some of it and make a better future. In short, we can make a contribution that makes life better for ourselves and others.
A metaphor I use for this is that being human is like being a cell in the body. The first responsibility of every cell is to stay alive, to take the nutrients it needs to survive and be healthy. If a cell is dead or sick it not only doesn’t help the body, it becomes a burden on that body.
The second responsibility is to do its job so that the whole body can survive. Liver cells do liver functions, heart cells do heart functions, brain cells do their thing and so on. Like cells, human beings each have specialised talents and abilities and it is our responsibility to find out what they are and use them for the greater good. Fortunately, we also enjoy doing this – we call it vocational satisfaction.
The third responsibility of a cell is to maintain the health of its direct neighbours, to pass on the nutrients they need to survive. Think globally, act locally. This is important, because cells that are too ambitious are called cancer, and they destroy the body. Similarly, people who want to have too much control become tyrants, and they destroy their societies.
The fourth responsibility of a cell is to reproduce, to replace itself before it dies. Epigenetics is teaching us that cells don’t just replicate themselves, they also pass on their learnings and adaptations to their offspring through recoding their own DNA. They continue the process of adapting to their ever-changing environments and pass that on.
The final responsibility of a cell is to die. Without cell death there cannot be renewal and the environmental toxins we ingest would spread and contaminate the rest of the system. When a cell dies it makes way for a newer, better more energised replacement, and it takes its own injuries and toxins with it. People are the same. We have to vacate the premises so that our children can have their turn at shaping the world.
So, our job is not to solve all the problems of the world, but to make what contribution we can, take pride in our accomplishments and have faith that life knows better than we do about what needs to happen. Evolution is a slow process and we are a tiny blip in the course of history. This idea can seem discouraging to begin with, but it also frees us from the burden of impossible responsibilities which lead to existential despair.
Forget about saving the world. It’s impossible and depressing to try, and we don’t have the right to impose our utopian fantasy on others. Instead, we can stay in our own business. Are you a better cell than the ones you replaced? Will your children be a better cell than you? Have you achieved a healthy balance between self-interest and the interest of others. Is the body healthy because of your participation? Are you doing your job to the best of your ability?
If you really want to make a positive difference, blow up the ideal, resolve the past, and concentrate on being the best cell you can be. As Gandhi said: “Be the change you want to see in the world”.
About the author: Adam Blanch is a Melbourne-based psychologist, who supports clients around Australia. He provides support for individuals and group trainings for organisations through Good-Psychology, and a specific service for men’s health and wellbeing through Mentor Psychology. He is also a member of The Xfactor Collective community.
Do you have a question for Adam? Adam Blanch writes for Pro Bono News every fortnight. He will be answering all your people and culture questions. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Please note the views expressed are the opinion of Adam Blanch and do not necessarily reflect the views of Pro Bono Australia, its staff or contributors.