It is interesting to consider the effect on consciousness of people living through a series of world and national crises. I'm thinking particularly of the ongoing crisis of terrorist attacks against innocent civilians, with the perennial possibility of even more stunning tactics in the future, and of the ongoing financial and economic crisis in the United States and the world. What effect does the experience of living in the midst of such upheavals and threats over an extended period have on people's state of mind?
I imagine there are studies in clinical psychology and public health that address this question in terms of things like the incidence of depression, anxiety, alcohol abuse, and suicide during protracted periods of mass stress -- the Blitz in London, post-9/11 in New York, the Great Depression .... But here I'm more interested in thinking about the subjective side of the question. How do people feel during these extended periods of stress and threat? And this comes down to two different things: mood (how one feels in the moment) and emotional frame (how one is disposed to emotionally interpret the future). Sadness is a mood on this definition and pessimism is an emotional frame.
There seem to be a couple of possibilities in how people respond to a period of extreme stress -- detachment (it's not so bad, this will pass), immersion (watching CNN all day for more bad news), pervading anxiety, cheerful resilience, pessimism, ... All of these are perhaps best understood as coping mechanisms -- the ways that people construct their inner lives so as to make violence and fear endurable. And I suppose there are some deeply engrained differences across personalities and cultures in terms of which emotional frame a person comes to.
It seems intuitively clear that there should be some effect on mood and emotional frame that is created by a persistent environment of anxiety, fear, and uncertainty. But how is it actually working in today's time of crisis? So far the twenty-first century seems to be mostly about frightening uncertainties. How are the people of the twenty-first century absorbing this historical reality? How are Michigan auto workers reacting psychologically to the constant threat of plant closure and job loss? How are students reacting to an economic crisis that raises doubts about their career futures? How are people nearing retirement reacting to the sudden decline on value of their retirement accounts? And how are Mumbaiers experiencing the trauma and continuing threat of violent attack and mass murder?
I suppose the psychological mechanisms may be different depending on the timeframe of the crisis. An acute but time-limited trauma probably has different effects on the psyche than an extended and apparently endless period of risk and uncertainty. The punctuated crisis may affect the emotion but not the frame. Here I'm mostly interested in the second situation -- because almost everyone on the planet is currently in it.
One emotion that seems to be a common response to ongoing instability in the world around us is nostalgia. "Wasn't the world of the fifties a simpler and happier world?" Thoughts about a simpler past may be a refuge for some people from the anxieties of the present. Another response may be a blend of pessimism and resignation.
Perhaps the most common response is a kind of deliberate forgetting -- more of less deliberately averting one's gaze from the source of anxiety. People can focus on the immediate necessities of everyday life and simply tune out the ominous news.
But it seems that there are other emotional responses that are humanly possible as well. A degree of optimism and resilience seems to characterize some people's inner responses to anxiety and hardship in even the worst of circumstances. A recent NPR interview with some Iraqi widows, living in the most extreme and uncertain conditions, illustrates this register of response. These women showed remarkable courage and resilience in face of the terrible circumstances they face daily.
For some reason I think of Kierkegaard’s brief words about Abraham after the trauma of being forced to sacrifice his young son in Fear and Trembling. God relented and Isaac was spared. But Kierkegaard describes Abraham’s mind in words something like this — “But the old man returned home and his vision was darkened forever.” ["From that day on, Abraham became old, he could not forget that God had demanded this of him. Isaac throve as before, but Abraham's eye was darkened, he saw joy no more."]
I suppose part of the appeal of Barack Obama is his message of measured hope. He communicates clearly and strongly -- we can address the problems that confront us. We can make a better world. And to that what better refrain than -- yes we can.
Friday, December 5, 2008
Posted by Daniel Little at 5:24 AM