Monday, July 11, 2011

Numb and Number

Yesterday, I drew attention to Susan Gregory Thomas’s article about the human fallout from divorce. We all know that divorce is bad for children, but I had rarely seen such a good rendering of the pain that divorce visits on children. It was both a reality check and a gut check.

In my post I glossed over Thomas’s other point, namely, that we have now had so much experience managing divorce that we as Americans have gotten much better at dealing with it.

I didn’t mention it because I had my doubts about it. I do not think it is a good idea to leave the impression that divorce should becoming painless.

The mental anguish associated with divorce is normal. Insouciance about divorce bespeaks moral dullness. I believe that it is not such a good idea to make divorce easier. We would do better to show people how better to conduct their marriages than to compliment ourselves on how well we handle divorce.

Today, Kiri Blakeley takes up a similar question and makes the most salient point. As she sees it, American culture is sending us the wrong message about psychic pain.

In her words: “In essence, no one is supposed to be devastated by anything nowadays. Get caught in a cave and have to saw your arm off? Hey, write a book about it, have James Franco star in the movie, and realize this ordeal is what happens to people who don’t return phone calls. Your husband tells you he’s gay? Sweet! Now you’ve got a new BFF!”

She continues: “Some of this is the times and our present expectation that any tribulation, no matter how horrific or unfair, be quickly glossed over as a hunky-dory learning experience.

Neither Blakeley nor I nor anyone else is suggesting here that we should not to work hard to overcome the pain of mental anguish. But she is saying, correctly, that there is something wrong with a culture that removes the painful emotion from the worst human experiences.

Have we suffered so much therapy and are we so thoroughly medicated that we have come to be liberated from human experience, both its joys and its sorrows, its happiness and its anguish? If so, it is not good news.

If we have, then we are, as Blakeley writes, losing touch with the reality of our experience. If we are not there for the bad, how can we expect to be there for the good?

How can you overcome a trauma when you do not really experience its pain? How can you mend your ways, improve your character, and do better the next time, when your emotions are telling you that you did not really fail?

If, as Blakeley explains, the attitude has entered the lifeblood of the culture, it is making us unserious and frivolous. It will also deprive us of the ability to offer sympathy or empathy to people who undergo painful experiences. If we cannot even feel our own pain, how can we feel anyone else’s?

As a people, we are becoming numb. There are several reasons. One must be Botox. As research has noted, Botox numbs facial muscles and inhibits both the expression and experience of emotion.

How many television stars have faces that seem to have become immobilized as though they were wearing a mask? We see them on weekly dramas, but also on news shows. Most often they are women, but more men are starting to sport that look of surreal numbness.

It may not bother too many other people, but it bothers me to see an actress in a television show have a close-up where she is supposed to be expressing great feeling, but where her face is stuck in a rigidity that says that she feels nothing.

For those who have not had their emotions tranquilized by Botox, our culture offers a cornucopia of psychoactive medication. Thanks to the miracle of science and the marketing efforts of psychiatrists, you can find a pill that will dull just about any emotional pain.

At times, medication is necessary. But, far too often, it us used because it is quicker and easier than dealing with a problem.

As Blakeley suggests, there are times in life when, if you do not feel really, really bad, you have simply missed the point. There are times when, if you do not feel anguish, you are in denial about what really happened to you.

If you do not live the reality of your own experience, then you will lose the motivation to make changes in the way you conduct your life.

In my coaching practice I often see people who make mistakes-- we all do-- and who say that they feel bad about what they did or did not do. And then they make the same mistake again, and feel badly again.

In those circumstances I explain to them that they do not feel nearly bad enough about what they did. Because if they felt true mental anguish they would be making a sustained effort to mend their ways and ensure that they did not make the same mistake again.

Sometimes, of course, bad things happen to people when they have not made a mistake. Blakeley offers examples of being lied to, cheated on, and betrayed. As she suggests, in those situations your anguish should be coupled with white hot anger, lest you make a perfect fool of yourself by turning the person who betrayed you into your BFF.

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