Being constrained by a civilization’s laws and regulations, combined with a low tolerance for emotional expression, produces discontents for some if not all of that civilization’s inhabitants. Underneath our fashionable veneers we are still animals, and some of us happen to be more moody, rebellious, angry, predatory, ferocious — and less domesticated — than others.
In contrast to its responses to the clearly delineated list of prohibited acts, such as murder, rape, and theft, each culture builds in an approach to somewhat forbidden yet ultimately forgivable or at least ignored offenses that allow people to indulge in guilty pleasures and receive a slap on the wrist or a frown, rather than an electric chair: these guilty pleasures are what Philip Rieff called remissive acts or remissions. To describe remissions, I like to use the analogy of a pot of boiling water blowing off steam lest it blow its lid.
Remissions allow us occasional emotional and psychological releases from the constraints and constrictions of society. Celebrations such as parades and fraternity parties, football games in packed stadiums of sixty thousand revelers, soccer games, hockey games that sometimes spill over into the seats, violent video games, pornography, all allow people to feel things that most of us are prohibited from feeling during our normal work weeks. If we all acted like drunken, raucous football fans all the time, then there would be complete disorder, chaos, anarchy. But visit a sports bar on Sunday afternoon or Monday evening, or a heavy metal or hard rock concert, or Burning Man, or a rave or ecstatic dance party, and watch normally civilized adults release heightened emotions that would not go over well in offices or at most jobs, at Starbucks, at the mall, or in other public places.
Applying Ancient Philosophy To Modern Video Games
If you are not offended by the application of ancient philosophy to modern video games or cage fights, we can discuss Plato and Aristotle’s debate: Plato thought that art and entertainment were mimetic; Aristotle thought art and entertainment were cathartic. Plato believed that if people saw violence they would imitate it; Aristotle believed that viewers would vicariously live that violence or sadness and, just by observing it, be less prone to act it out.
The jury is still out on this. James Holmes dressed as “the Joker” and murdered twelve people during a Batman film; bar fights during football games supply evidence for Plato’s case; millions of people playing violent video games or watching professional wrestling and not abusing their partners or pets lend credence to Aristotle’s case.
The point is that our society has interdicts against citizens committing acts of violence and sex publicly; yet if we turn on the television or computer or go to the movies we see little else. This is not good or bad any more than an iPhone in itself is inherently good or bad. But if everyone checked his or her iPhone all the time, there would be social disorder, chaos — car crashes, plane crashes, pedestrian accidents, and so on.
We need rules and laws in order to coexist. But when rules and laws become too repressive, people revolt. Does the Sturm und Drang we view in film, at the theater, and on television — cage fights, boxing matches, and mixed martial arts competitions — allow us cathartically to feel emotions we are not allowed to express in polite society? Or does it cause some people to imitate bad behavior that they would otherwise be unfamiliar with?
When Our Minds Create Resentments
Jumping back to Aristotle, it seems as if the real issue in our society concerns moderation. Some people fail to understand the concept of diminishing returns. When some Americans hear that French people on average drink one glass of wine per day and live longer, they assume that if one glass per day is good for our health then two glasses must be better. And this is the type of circumstance where remissions tumble into afflictions and then addictions.
Anyone who has worked a twelve-step program knows that addictions relate to resentments, which are usually uncovered in the fourth step, when the addict makes “a searching and fearless moral inventory” of himself. And I believe that most other transformational, educational, and personal-growth seminars and workshops — such as those on the Hoffman Process, Emotional Freedom Techniques, Kabbalah, and primal therapy, or those offered by Landmark and Tony Robbins — also teach that our minds create resentment when we want things that we cannot change to be different.
Overcoming resentment entails:
- learning how to forgive others.
- learning how to forgive ourselves.
- learning to accept who we are.
- learning to accept our lives.
- being grateful for whatever privileges, freedoms, and gifts we enjoy.
- taking responsibility for and cleaning up whatever messes we have made.
- learning how to be of service to others (preferably while releasing our expectation of reciprocation).
All of these are tools designed to help us overcome the resentments (quite often about our supposedly imperfect childhoods) that often result in self-sabotage and self-harm.
Another part of the solution is discipline, which correlates with self-worth. If we do not have the discipline to abstain from a second or third drink or make commitments to regular healthy practices such as yoga, meditation, hiking, swimming, and so on, then there is probably an underlying self-worth issue. If we find the voice in our head saying, “What does it matter if I do a bong hit on Saturday morning?” then we probably resent something about our lives that makes us rebel against everything, including our own well-being.
Being Proactive About Our Thinking
Left to their own devices our minds run amok, awry, and aground. We must be proactive about our thinking if we want to be happy. Indifference is a cop-out. I have heard fellow teachers try to justify indifference as the Buddhist understanding of nonattachment, which is lovely if you live alone in a cave high on a mountain and people leave you enough food to survive. Then there is no harm in mistaking indifference for awakening. But those of us who seek personal equanimity and inner peace within Western civilization must try to be congruent — mitigate hypocrisy and have our outer worlds match our inner worlds.
Hypocrisy is a surefire path to misery. Do you remember Republican senator Larry Craig, who railed against homosexuality and was later arrested in the men’s restroom in an airport for soliciting gay sex? Examples of this type of hypocrisy abound in our culture.
What I am saying is that behavior and the intentions behind it do not manifest ex nihilo. I think a wave of honesty is emerging regarding remissions such as the sexual play shown in Billions or Eyes Wide Shut, dancing all night at Burning Man or a rave, and the intense screaming and sweating in the first few rows of rock concerts. Intentionally creating frames (specific places and times) to let loose and blow off some steam is extremely helpful to maintaining social order — lest the pot boil over.
Congruence Is The Opposite Of Hypocrisy
Incongruence is difficult to reconcile both internally and externally. We need to learn how to proactively surf obvious paradoxes such as “I know that politics today is mostly theatrical bullshit, but I still have to do everything in my power to make a difference.”
A part of being at ease and having peace of mind is understanding that our society and our life situations — including our socioeconomic levels, attachment styles, schools, sex roles, gender roles, friendships — are like the oceans that fish swim in. Unless we are able to gain insight into things that most fish take for granted — namely, capitalism (the way our culture propagates busyness and abhors idleness), religion, and science — then we are really just swimming blindly and should not be surprised if we run aground, end up beached.
Our ocean of highly competitive, consumer-based capitalism mixed with science and religion is extremely myopic. It results in our country coming up thirteenth among all nations on a happiness scale.
Taking Ourselves Off Autopilot
We need to stop considering things to be normal just because they exist. If you watch television and films, dysfunctional relationships are normal. Millennials, in particular, often learn what they know about love and affection from pop culture and pornography — if that is not depressing then I do not know what is! Einstein said the level of consciousness that created a problem will be unable to fix it. Isn’t it time we started raising our consciousness and learn to understand the matrices that gave rise to our problems?
Specifically, we need to learn how to take ourselves off autopilot, take ourselves off the hedonic treadmills that our minds place us on, and decide for ourselves what will let us be happy and lead meaningful lives. There is no chance for equanimity if we either allow other people to decide who we are, or simply react against those we do not want to be like.
We need to figure out our paths for ourselves. As Proust wrote, “We do not receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.”
I am asking you to examine your own comfort zone, your understanding of yourself, to deconstruct your personal identity and start developing new narratives, to strive to be as authentic as possible given the series of nested cages that we are trapped in — namely, our society’s laws and regulations, its low tolerance for emotions, our own attachment styles, the resentments that the mind creates, the way we grieve losses, our way of being in the world, gender roles, money, ownership, friendships, media, and so on.
Learning To Be Authentic
As I said earlier (see Breaking The Chains Of Unskillful Solutions That Were Handed Down To Us), we emulate the characteristics of the caregivers we had when we were young as a way to retroactively subconsciously gain their approval and love; and we also subconsciously incarnate the opposite characteristics of the caregivers we had when we were young as a way to individuate from them.
Becoming something in order to gain approval is inauthentic; being reactive and rebelling against something is also inauthentic. So when the child of hippies becomes a conservative, or the child of conservatives becomes a hippie, it does not mean this person decided who she wants to be. It means she decided who she doesn’t want to be. That is why learning to be as authentic as possible — which may include embracing our shadow side, double life, and other tools we developed in order to individuate — is crucial to our own well-being.
Reacting against authority — via tattoos, self-harm such as cutting as an expression of agency/autonomy, binge drinking into obliviousness, and so on — often results in self-harm. Many of us have not taken the time to consciously decide who we want to be and what lives we want to live, and have become who we are by default. Which is okay if we are 100 percent happy and truly believe that our lives have been and are perfect in every way possible.
Otherwise it is time for us to learn how to own our lives, how to be proactive about who we are and what we will do during our brief time on earth. And then we will be able to consciously create balanced lives full of the love and intimacy we need in order to heal the wounds we have, clean up our resentment, and engage in activities that keep us at the higher end of our happiness ranges.
©2017 by Ira Israel. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
New World Library. www.newworldlibrary.com.
How to Survive Your Childhood Now That You're an Adult
by Ira Israel
In this provocative book, eclectic teacher and therapist Ira Israel offers a powerful, comprehensive, step-by-step path to recognizing the ways of being that we created as children and transcending them with compassion and acceptance. By doing so, we discover our true callings and cultivate the authentic love we were born deserving.
About the Author
Ira Israel is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and Mindful Relationship Coach. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has graduate degrees in Psychology, Philosophy, and Religious Studies. Ira has taught mindfulness to thousands of physicians, psychologists, attorneys, engineers and creative professionals across America. For more information please visit www.IraIsrael.com