Saturday, October 31, 2020

Election Anxiety

I've had the following conversation dozens of times recently with liberal friends:

Friend: I'm sick with anxiety about this election.

Me: Relax. Trump can't win.

Friend: But 2016!

Me: He won 2016 by tens of thousands of votes in certain swing counties. He has not added a single new supporter since then, but he's activated a massive opposition and repelled a critical mass of 2016 supporters (a great many of whom were specifically anti-Hillary). He can't win...which, of course, doesn't mean Biden will be president.

Friend: You're hedging.

Me: No, I'm specifically speaking to the issue you said was making you sick with anxiety. You can relax on that one. The election goes to Biden.

Friend: But, as you noted, that may not be enough.

Me: What's ever "enough"? What's the scenario where you fully exhale and decide you like the world? Have you even fleshed that out? For example, if Biden's sworn in but Jared Kushner escapes jail and Don Jr comes to lead a zombie army, would that be enough? If AOC becomes president, all the guns are melted, and no man ever explains anything ever again, but the Supreme Court remains 6-3, would that be enough? What's the "All Better!" point? 

The first thing, I think, is to untangle blurry fears and issues into specific strands, and address them, realistically, one strand at a time. You say you're afraid about the election, and you can check that off your list. But, really, you're only feigning specificity. Your fear is a big amorphous blob. It will never fully resolve, because that's not how the world works. This isn't a movie, so there's no "living happily ever after".

Armenians I've known never stop obsessing over the Armenian genocide early in the 20th century. I asked one why they remain so immediately hung up about it. I rarely think about the Jewish genocide, which was a generation more recent. "Because, unlike the Germans, the Turks never admitted it even happened, much less apologized,” she replied.

Fair point, but something still didn't sit right. I pondered it for a long time, and finally began asking Armenians this question:
"If the Turks formally apologized, what then? What would your life be like? Would it feel, like, great?"
This question is what's known as a stopper. It turns people into frozen statues. As such, I've never received a coherent reply. Only confused stammering.

The genocide issue is the leading edge of an amorphous blob of trepidation and loathing. It seems quite obvious to me that an apology from Turkey would barely move anyone's needle. Some new voracious struggle would immediately replace it, like a vending machine pushing forward the next candy bar.

The proverbial dog-who-caught-the-car swiftly finds another car to chase. Our big huffy issues here in Utopia are merely mill grist. They're hot-swappable expansion packs for our life-game console.

We don't want what we say we want. Your current "Ask" is just a disposable wrapper covering gurgling oceans of indefinite Need. Give a kid the lollipop he's whined for and he'll immediately start whining for something else. What we really want is for it all to be good; for nothing to be disquieting or discomforting; for all those rotten bastards out there to get what they have coming; and to live happily every after.

Even an obliging genie couldn't make sense of such a vague and infantile wish.

Your current Ask - whatever you're making yourself sick over - is your ballast; the load you turn to when you notice you're straying too close to happiness; to comfort; to gratitude; to safety; to freedom. Having chosen a happiness level in early childhood (as part of our personality selection process), we maintain a psychic dungeon we go to to ballast ourselves back down to a more appropriate level of discontent.

And there's always some handy ballast we can grab, even if an old favorite goes out of stock (e.g. an election is won, a lollipop appears, the Turks apologize, or Kushner's jailed). I explained it here:
Everyone, at a certain point, decides how happy they will be (as with most such choices, cues are taken from the happiness of family members and others around them). This decision becomes a bedrock part of identity - the "I am this kind of person" inner narrative we all maintain.

Aside from truly dramatic life events, people maintain a remarkably consistent happiness level over time. Even moody "up-and-down" types are consistent in their range. We maintain the equilibrium our self-image requires by taking on and discharging ballast - like a ship. And, just as we choose our happiness level, at some point we choose our ballast of choice: worries, anger, sadness, aggravation, etc. The ballast enables us to maintain our happiness at the correct level.

The world does not lack for ballast. In fact, potential ballast is infinite. Yet isn't it interesting how people vary in their eagerness for the stuff?

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