Saturday, March 28, 2009

Aristotle on Rehab

As with most things in life rehab can be good or bad.

Good rehab takes its inspiration from Aristotle. It works to replace bad habits by good ones. It will involve 12 step programs, add exercise, meditation, and yoga, and will allow physicians to make human connections with their patients.

12 step programs assume that you do not need to know Why you became an alcoholic; they want to show you How to overcome your addiction. And they want you to develop the good habits that involve improving your character, the better to improve the quality of your social interactions.

12 step programs substitute daily meetings for daily trips to the local tavern. They avoid introspection about the root causes of guilt and tell you instead to make amends to those you have harmed.

As I wrote in a previous post (link here)counseling for people who have completed rehab should focus on the difficulties of reconstructing a life around better habits and routines, and around more ethical behavior. To my mind that involves coaching more than insight-oriented therapy.

Saying that addiction can be treated by replacing bad habits with good ones ignores the possibility that addiction involves a mental struggle with temptation, and thus, that it can be solved by learning to resist temptation.

12 step programs teach people to avoid temptations, and especially to avoid the people, places, and things that have been associated with alcohol. It is an outside/in, not an inside/out approach.

Some therapists believe that some people are psychologically predisposed to addiction. Whether they were improperly breast-fed or harbor unresolved toilet-training issues, these people become addicts because they need to find a way to express their unresolved issues.

So, when we see so many financial professionals flocking to rehab, are we to think that they were all incipient alcoholics, waiting for an occasion to express their unconscious tendencies, or that they simply developed a bad habit?

If the latter, this is what the psychology looks like. When someone loses a job, he loses a good part of his social network, he loses the schedule that organizes his time, he loses the space that has become a home away from home. Also, he loses the income that has allowed him to maintain a certain lifestyle and community standing.

He has been cast adrift without a compass or a motor. Telling him to enjoy his family life sounds empty when he is suffering because he can no longer support it as he used to.

This former financial professional is suffering anomie, and there is no easy fix for it.

At the least he has to reconstruct his life. He needs new routines, some new friends, a new schedule, and a new daily path through the city. He needs some purpose in his life, some sense of order, some place to go where he will feel comfortably at home.

He might well find it at Cheers. A familiar bar can provide a sense of belonging to a group. You know everyone there; everyone knows you; you participate in the rituals that signify membership.

In the past the place might have been an adjunct to the high-stress world of work. Now it has become life itself.

Thus, bad habits develop. Worse yet, these professionals were involved in a culture that promoted bad behavior. They did not have the moral resources to cope with their new circumstances.

Bankers and traders were adrenalin junkies. They lived for the thrill of risk and reward; they were high even when they weren't high. Once the party stopped, they could not stop moving. They simply changed the venue.

I would attribute this thrill-seeking to a fundamental absence of ethical behavior. Thus, to a culture that encouraged and enforced bad habits. See my post on learned rudeness. Link here.

Many banks were inflicted by a lack of decorum, an absence of the kinds of everyday rituals that would ground them in reality and connect them with other human beings. They learned never to say thank-you.

Others see this differently. One Connecticut executive bemoaned the fact that there was not enough empathy on Wall Street. People did not run around the trading floor telling each other how they felt your pain. According to this theory, the financial community needed more sensitivity training.

Evidently, this executive has used his rehab experience to absorb some elementary psychobabble.

Now, I understand why this thinking is taking root. The Bear Stearns bankers who forbid everyone to say thank-you were trying to make them into fierce competitors, even amoral predators.

Clearly, they were fostering an absurd caricature of manliness. But how did they buy into it? Shouldn't they have known better.

I imagine that they were reacting to an assault by the sensitivity trainers and the empathy police. The time that Wall Street went off the rails was also the time when sensitivity training was the rage, on the Street and in the culture at large. Men were being implored to get in touch with their feminine sides. They were encouraged to indulge in the most promiscuous forms of empathy.

Naturally enough, this provoked a reaction. Empathy makes you a weak competitor. When you feel the pain you are trying to inflict on your opponent, you are going to hold back, not to compete as hard as you would if you were merely trying to win at all costs.

Some bankers seem to have concluded that they were going to be turned soft by the invasion of the empathy police. Thus they tried to immunize their staff against it by making them cruel, rude, brutal, and ruthless.

These bad habits also made it impossible to promote team spirit, company loyalty, and the proper feeling of gratitude toward the company.

They had not learned how to enjoy the camaraderie of working with their colleagues on a common mission, and had to compensate by seeking out the most intense thrills.

Financial professionals who had been cured of their good social habits were easy prey for demon rum.

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