The Secret Mission: Reflections on Our Time
July 15, 2016
In January, I visited Prague for two weeks, a city I chose because it’s the gothic center of the universe, a place where love and death converge and mingle and endlessly recombine.
Prague is home to ancient, darkly sinister and intricate architecture and narrow, endlessly winding cobblestone streets. Prague birthed the Protestant Reformation, Franz Kafka, and the ancient Bohemian Jewish community annihilated by the Nazis during World War II.
The Czechs have figured (mostly incidentally) in every major European war and revolution. They have contributed (more directly) to most of the major cultural moments in European history. Czech folk and artistic traditions and habits of mind inspired the Bohemian lifestyle, which in its purest form celebrates an artistic and personal secession from convention and the “lightness of being” introduced by Czech author Milan Kundera as an alternative to Nietzsche’s themes of eternal recurrence and will to power.
The Inward Turn
Prague has never been about enlarging or improving itself. Unlike Paris, with its (mostly) flat topography, broad boulevards, and iconic monuments to power and conquest, Prague’s historical center has not been radically transformed and remains small, undulating, inward, and intimate. Ubiquitous statuary celebrates individuals – not the imperial man on horseback, but the artistic native son – and amusing explorations of sexuality and death.
While nominally in Prague in my guise as flaneur and literary dilettante, in reality I traveled there to ponder my next move, to get perspective on myself, as well as on my own homeland, and to devise some creative recombination in my own life. Here are the shards of my thinking, as they define for me a path forward in thinking about how to live and act in the world that has been given us, and more importantly, that we bequeath to our children.
We live in dark times. Or so it seems. With a bit of historical perspective, however (and touch of Buddhist humility, Confucian irony, Hobbesian realism, Old Testament retribution, and existential howling), we realize that all times are dark, or at least shadowed with threat. In this context, each generation faces anew the basic challenge of defining what it means to be human, and what that definition tells us in our darkest night of the soul, individually and as a species, about how to use the time that is given us. That is the secret mission assigned to our species. Maybe this quest for self-definition is what makes us human.
My starting point as I wandered the wintry, graffiti-emblazoned streets of Prague, was that the inner life of individuals is deeply salient in our experiences of things that happen openly in the world, and that historical traps (things that happened to us in the past) can damage or limit our ability to respond productively and appropriately to these things happening in the world, now or in the future. I understand these historical traps, then, to be largely a cognitive issue, the challenges created when we anchor ourselves to past emotional experiences that become our lens on current reality.
The rabbit hole signifies many ideas, including distraction, digression, and folly, but also the bending of reality and mental illness. I identify rabbit hole with entanglement or entrapment that occurs when we are yoked too closely to events of our past, either personally or as members of groups. The rabbit hole, in this sense, becomes the cognitive and emotional disorientation that happens when we struggle to manage or adjust or escape from history as we understand it, and only find ourselves more deeply and grievously trapped within the narrative of the past to which we (or others) have attached ourselves, allowing no genuine opportunity to live securely in the present moment and actively author our futures.
Recursion (or Self-Similarity)
The concept of self-similarity used in chaos theory and visualization of fractals also captures nicely this rabbit hole entanglement effect, relevant features of which are endless recapitulation of the same experience, even as one is flung every more deeply into a maze-like fractal web that carries one ever-further away from a center point that allows a personal perspective freedom from the trap of self-similarity. Self-similarity in recursive environments is almost literally a hall of mirrors.
In his short story The Depressed Person, David Foster Wallace writes about depression as a similar kind of subjective, self-recursive entrapment (or entanglement). When his depressed person talks about her depression – it’s causes, consequences, its meaning – to her therapist and to her “friends support group,” she invariably sinks more deeply into this depression and sees no way clear of it. Ironically, talk therapy reinforces her depression, which becomes like a hall of mirrors from which she cannot flee, or a skein of yarn wrapping more tightly and confusingly around her the more she struggles to free herself from it.
The Depressed Person instructs on entangling risks of talk therapy – which can trap our view of the world in recursive, self-similarities and deepen pathological states of mind. DFW’s ironic take (moreso when one considers he was likely writing about himself) applies to many conversations we might have about how we address and care for each other – from how to be an adequate parent while managing the shitty behavior of our children, without razing their souls to the ground, to how we imagine and perpetuate, unwittingly or not, social pathologies such as racism or sexism.
Racism and White Privilege
An example. The current focus on white privilege in debates on college campuses is intended to develop awareness that somehow leads to the possibility of removing bias by exposing the one-way effects of power and privilege. The problem with this approach is that it assumes the value of talk therapy, of language, to change our reality – our perceptions and our behaviors. Which makes sense. After all, these are college campuses. Where language and discourse mean everything!
But as for the Depressed Person struggling to master and transcend her trauma, endless rumination and recrimination about racism generally only intensifies the state from which one is trying to escape, deepening anger and confusion, and collapsing the future into the past. This kind of entanglement is like a toxic stew, a tragic illustration of ways that interior states of mind can limit and even undermine how effectively language can remedy environmental, not behavioral, conditions.
One of our human paradoxes is that we do swim in the sea of language and do depend on language to communicate our emotions, thoughts and needs. But language may itself limit the effectiveness of our communication and our dependence on words may lead to the emergence of closed-loops in our thinking and emotional processes. It is probably no accident that mindfulness and meditation rest upon a core of stillness and silence. But we may nonetheless underestimate the extent to which communication with language actively sends us deeper into self-similar rabbit holes, rather than helping us to steer clear of them.
From a Buddhist perspective, suffering is the defining essence of our status as mortal human creatures. One way to understand human life is as a kind of shedding, or as a series of losses, failings, and afflictions – small dying’s. But suffering is not evenly distributed, and one of the tipping points on any scale of justice would be focus on limiting or reducing (not eliminating) suffering for those who are most vulnerable or who have not yet plunged too deeply into their own rabbit hole and so have the most to gain over a span of life from the benefits of more limited exposure to environmental suffering and its entangling, rabbit hole effects.
The focus of my thinking is not on limiting suffering, but on limiting unnecessary suffering. Life involves enough necessary suffering, without piling unnecessary suffering on top of it. Of equal importance, unnecessary suffering is not evenly distributed, at least not according widely accepted norms of justice and fairness. While one could easily identify many candidates for this campaign, my focus would be on children and historically disadvantaged minorities. More specifically, my focus would probably be on the intersection of children and disadvantaged minorities, which in the United States would most logically include African-American children.
I am especially interested in targeting psychological effects of racial difference on African-American children, specifically the stress that results from the chaotic circumstances of life and the omnipresent sense of threat. Factors I want to consider include the psychology of racial differences, cognitive difficulties with breaching those differences, and the impact within marginalized racial groups (particularly African-American youth) of environmental stress.
A large body of clinical research captures details of this environmental stress and its origins in historical and structural racism. My intention is to draw more attention to this research, discuss its meaning in broader social and historical terms, and catalog policies and practices that might more effectively break down root causes of this distress and build new structures that emotionally support minority youth in their critical and most vulnerable developmental years.
I define structural racism as disparities in social outcomes for different racial groups with causes and solutions that run more deeply than surface attitudes and opinions of individuals (which is, unfortunately, where most people focus attention). The metaphor I’ve developed for visualizing the effects of structural racism is the rabbit hole. Rather than concern ourselves (overmuch) with the superficial realities of racial difference generally rolled-up into the term white racism (and encompassing aversive interactions, “micro-aggression”, and insensitivity), I suggest considering these experiences as effects, not as causes.
Data indicates that environmental circumstances such as structural racism can literally stress people to the degree it makes them crazy. And of course this makes sense intuitively. So it is frustrating that we tend, in simple-minded, self-defeating ways, to focus on behavioral racism, which requires us to disregard environmental harm, and only addresses effects, not causes, and so misses the larger point.
Language exchanges about racism that emphasize guilt for past transgressions or for an eternal, fixed status rooted in power, privilege, or racial essence, offers no true of hope of escape from the entanglement of the self-similar rabbit hole. Until we address the causes in terms that transcend race and scale our perspective to what it means to be human, to what we share as humans, not what separates us, we cannot really hope to change the environment that produces racial harm. This approach can over time offer the promise of a socially and psychically beneficial disentanglement.
Human life may well mean little in any cosmic sense, and any purpose we identify that extends beyond the intimate stage of our closest relationships is likely to quickly founder. But there is also something between nothing and everything, and in that space we have room to reasonably imagine and shape the scale of our thoughts and actions to try to reduce or minimize unnecessary suffering and its cascading effects.
Nihilism and annihilation share the same root. Both aspire to negation and nothingness, the existential No that opposes affirmation and somethingness, the existential Yes. Post-Nietzsche, we remain in our God is Dead moment, in which anything is permitted, and the events of the last century make clear that anything indeed has been permitted, whether God is Dead (or, in the case of the Islamic State) God is Death. But here’s the thing. As with any dialectic, the path through No doesn’t have to end with No. It can emerge on the other side as Yes. This is the message in Camus’s The Rebel, in which he posits the only reasonable alternative to finding a way to Yes is suicide. One can well imagine David Foster Wallace would agree.
Without getting too absorbed with ultimate questions of meaning, we can say that even Nietzsche discussed humans as a sick animal pregnant with a future, which he associated, variously with his ubermensch and with concepts of physical, psychological, and spiritual health, and ultimately with a kind of aesthetic approach to life as an ultimate foundation for the moral autonomy he envisioned for our species. For the purposes of my story, the main point is probably to remind ourselves that life itself emerged from not-life, and so there is no reason to doubt that when it comes to how we align ourselves with our age, we also can somehow distill a Yes from No, while accepting that our mission will always be impossible.
My premise here is the ways we construct a personal identity are variable. We can adjust how we think about unnecessary suffering if we adjust the foundations of identity, and link the experiences of anyone suffering unnecessarily for environmental reasons to our own capacities for empathy (versus the crude experience of guilt, as happens with behavioral perceptions of racism). The environmental focus opens our minds to consider emotional and physical harms of life in difficult and dangerous environments. It engages our species-consciousness, not our more limited and artificial tribal identities that normally anchor our sense of ourselves.
What does this mean in practice? We could do worse than to start with our identity, how we name ourselves. And I guess the main thing on my mind during my Prague adventure – where people are both different from me (Slavic features, Slavic language, very weirdly meat-obsessed) and like me (well, not really like me, but like people I know) – is that the way we construct and inhabit our identity as individuals is quite variable. We are a plastic species! And from the perspective of efforts to redress the impact of a structural racism, in which watering some of us requires desiccating others among us (an active harm), reshaping the way we think about identity (our name) would seem to offer some interesting possibilities for at least marginally improving matters with regard to human suffering.
For the moment, let’s assume we can reclaim a more embedded sense of species consciousness as the basis for framing our actions in relation to others. Let’s also assume we can re-frame how we adjust for race (or gender) so that heuristics such as skin color or breast size don’t necessarily go away but certainly don’t so easily trigger emotional responses and cognitive biases that create asymptotic limits in how we understand and relate to each other (which is that what we see in others as truth is really only a reflection of our own personal fears or desires).
If we accept those assumptions, we can begin to see how an escalating awareness of harm to African-American kids that results from structural circumstances of their lives (poverty, police, prison; guns, ghettos, gangs) might trigger a human-sharing empathy on the basis of foundation emotions, rather than emotions of fear or disgust.
My personal goal isn’t to mandate or determine specific outcomes – people are what they are – but to help us actively and consciously and intentionally create environmental realities that improve the odds that more people, rather than less people, will have good lives. Or better lives.
My view is entirely stochastic. I have no interest in individual lives. Truly. I have no idea what will or should happen to anyone in particular. But if my universe is 1,000,000 people, and the suffering index (however you want to measure it – could also be a well-being index for those who want to be less of a Debbie Downer) for these people, all taken together, is 63, I’d like to help make changes that would reduce the suffering index to 62 (or whatever).
Because when you think about it, even though going from 63 to 62 seems like a pathetic little shift, which might just be statistical noise, if it has any reality, that means a shift of about 7/10th of one percent could in a meaningful way affect 7.000 people. If you take the population of the US – say 300 million, you’re talking about meaningful change for 2 million people! Why wouldn’t we make those changes if we could?
Environments and Behaviors
One thing that I experience as a generational difference (or maybe it’s just me) is that most people don’t think about causation in social (as in historical, political, economic, psychological) terms. In other words, most of us aren’t very good or experienced at, or maybe not very interested in, framing and assessing experience using the environmental approach that to me seems compelling. Which makes me think about emergent systems
Emergence describes relationships between simple actors or entities called agents and complex systems, structures, or behaviors they collectively (but unwittingly) create. The distinctive behaviors or properties of emergent systems are not specifically the behaviors or properties of agents themselves. In the absence of any centralized command and control, one cannot easily predict or deduce these behaviors and properties from agent behavior. Shapes and behaviors of insect swarms or bird flocks or fish schools exemplify the properties of emergent systems. Agent-based systems often must achieve a combined threshold of diversity, organization, and connectivity before emergent behavior appears.
In routine cognitive processing, we direct 90 percent of our attention to the agent world, with a focus on actions and behaviors of individuals, with the assumption that we are, each one of us, autonomous and self-contained units. Highly specific and condensed personal narratives that dominate social media intensify this focus on individual behavior, to the exclusion of more complex or sophisticated storytelling that lack a personal storyline.
But 90 percent of what actually matters in our lives is in the systems world! We swim in oceans of specific relationships and interactions, and are buffeted and shaped and cruelly determined by environmental influences. Causation is the product of those relationships and interactions, and only to a limited degree reducible to autonomous actions of individual agents. Hence the focus on stochastics. Which really changes our perspective on everything.
Goods and Bads
I don’t think these ideas about redress are about comparing goods in life. They are not fueled by envy. They are probably more about comparing bads. The idea that if we share a common humanity, there are baseline levels of humane living, for everyone, that we ought to aspire to. Probably, most people wouldn’t disagree with that principle. But the range of responses as to what putting this principle into practice would mean is huge, and many of them reduce to people worrying that if we do anything for someone else, we are taking away something equivalent from them.
Here’s an example. Some months ago, a guy named Jason Cawley, a big-shot at the math software company , Wolfram Alpha, published an article on the investing website Seeking Alpha (no relation to Wolfram Alpha) about inequality in the US. The article was ridiculous for many reasons. Cawley’s conclusion was that inequality hasn’t changed, and would never change (in a “free” society) because the distribution of outcomes in life correlated almost perfectly to the distribution of abilities.
As you might imagine, this article inspired a shit storm, even on Seeking Alpha, which is notoriously right-wing. Hundreds of comments, mostly having to do with commenter personal experiences with inequality, and the author, who is smart in his own technically narrow, officious, smarmy way (but perhaps not nearly as smart as he thinks he is), batting away these comments like so many badminton birdies. Around comment 200, I posted a question. Which I thought cut to the heart of the matter, both in terms of methodology and in terms of substance. Here was my question.
Jason Cawley. How do these distributions break down by race and gender? If women and minorities are more deeply embedded within the lower income percentiles and less well-represented within the upper percentiles, does that suggest they are more limited in skills and abilities than the white males and Asian-American males (another untold story worth exploring) who predominate in the upper percentiles? If not, what policies would remedy these inequities? A related question would be how recursive are your power laws? As one examines data subsets organized around demographic categories, at what point do these laws break down? Be interesting to see how this data would look when disaggregated into sub-units, visualized as fractals.
The interesting thing was, not his answer, which was a punt, but that in the previous 200 comments, and in the 200 that followed, not one other person asked about the race / gender / inequality question. No one. Even though it’s obviously more important than the individual narratives (as if each person’s story represents pure truth) or debates about the merits and demerits of capitalism and socialism / communism (a surprisingly large number of people on Seeking Alpha – mostly older white men, a surprising number engineers – routinely call anyone who is to the left of Ted Cruz a communist).
Which makes me think two things about the distribution of goods and bads. Most people can’t address this subject except with reference to themselves (the only distribution that matters being what affects my goods and my bads). And women and minorities simply don’t exist for this audience – an aspirational one percent – in any way that matters (beyond sex and servants, I assume). It was a weird experience.
The corollary to this kind of self-involvement, I think, is that most people simply don’t know how to listen. Conversations aren’t about honoring everyone’s subjectivity by respecting the space between each of us. They are about obliterating that space. But maybe we don’t need to become big and loud like Donald Trump. Maybe we need to become small and quiet.
Finally, I don’t assume or know that I have the power to make a change. So I’m not sure why I’m motivated to think the best way to make the world better is to help womb-fucked kids. Maybe why not help them? Especially since I’m pretty lucky myself. And I’d like someone else to have a slightly larger shot at random bliss.
What I’m Leaving Out
There’s more, clearly. What I’m leaving out are other related thoughts on humor, preserving the spaces between us, writing and talking, behavior and language, showing and telling (in life as in art), and self-editing (in life as in art). But it’s good to leave out stuff. That’s the final thing I learned in Prague.