Thursday, April 17, 2014

Why The USA Abhors Existentialism

     If you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself.  -- Rollo May

     The World Congress for Existential Therapy is hosting a conference in London with dozens of existential therapists I would gladly have lunch with. If you are interested in learning more about this, click here. The flight, hotel, and entrance cost are prohibitive to me attending, but I hope one day to present there and have them foot the bill!
    
     In the meantime, something struck me as odd: Why are there so few existential therapists in the States? When I tell people I am an existential marriage and family therapist, they either stare at me blankly or ask what an existentialist is. They get bonus points if they pronounce "existential" correctly. I do not mean to disparage the intelligence of my fellow Americans. After I explain existentialism to them, they seem to understand. What frustrates me is how the term existentialism has been extricated from our vocabulary. The following is my theory why existentialism has such difficulty putting down roots in America*.

     This is just a theory, but here it goes: In 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, landed in America, and insisted the people living there were Indians, even after they told him otherwise, a path of dominance and brutality was begun. Nearly 400 years later, a zeitgeist of American desire to expand geographically, economically, and ideologically across as much of North America as possible occurred. This "God Blessed" right and desire was identified by John O'Sullivan as Manifest Destiny.

     Manifest Destiny is not compatible with existentialism. At its core, existentialism is relational and requires reciprocity and egalitarianism. At its core, Manifest Destiny subjugates and requires control and dominance. Manifest Destiny is a reason while existentialism requires reasoning.

     There is a vast difference between reasons and reasoning. Reasons are why we do what we do or believe what we believe. Reasoning is the process by which we arrive at our reasons.

     If we garner someones reasons as our own, without going through our own reasoning process, our motivation will be fallow and hollow and shallow. However, if we reason out why we're doing what we're doing or believing what we're believing, then our reasons can easily be adapted when our reasoning is shown to be wrong. It is not an issue of dogma when we discuss our reasoning, it is an issue of dogma when we discuss our reasons. This may seem like splitting hairs, and in truth it may be. However, these hairs start wars. People kill and die over reasons. People can discuss reasoning. Creeds are reasons, prayer is reasoning. Reasons are static, reasoning is dynamic.

     It's the difference between dialectical discussions and debates. Dialectical discussions are designed to allow two or more people to arrive at a general conclusion of truth. Debates are designed and constructed to prove one opinion correct and an opposing or different opinion wrong through the weight of arguments. Dialectical discussions bring two people closer together while debates encourage separation and exist as a zero sum game.

     And this is where the rubber meets the road: Life does not offer answers. Truth, understanding, knowledge, acceptance, all must be sought out via difficult means of self-discovery. Many Christians struggle with the idea of existentialism because they believe it is postmodern relativism and that it allows room for people to get away with anything; that it makes everything justifiable. Here's the truth: Thinking in terms of black and white, reasons without reasoning, creates a festering fear that is threatened by anything different or new. It is the type of thinking that lead to the Spanish Inquisition, the Holy Wars, and the conversion by force applied to "savages". There is no reasoning behind a suicide bomb, only reasons.

     Reasoning, like love, is a process; not a goal. This is where fear often emerges. If we trust the process, we must be willing to consider its results no matter how different they are from our own beliefs. The Disciples failed to trust the process while Christ was being crucified. I believe the argument could be made that extremist groups do not trust the process of their own beliefs and instead take the power and control into their own hands.

     My religion tells me to love my enemy, my neighbor, and myself, equally. My Christian community has failed to show me even how to love myself. This is because, too often, the Church has been more obsessed with being RIGHT, with its own Manifest Destiny, with its self, than it has been with the process it claims to promote and defend. Can we trust the process of love, of existentialism, of dialectical reasoning, or do we lack that bravery? Until we we can be brave enough to do so, Americans will continue to abhor existentialism because it threatens our right to be right at all costs. Existentialism calls us to be in relation. Can this be done when my needs exist to the exclusion of others? As long as being RIGHT in all of its forms (driving the right car, owning the right house, or having "the best") remains more important than being in relationship with others, existentialism will continue to be perceived as a threat and generate anger and aggression.

     What's the answer? Individuals choosing genuine relationship over, but not to the exclusion of, self. I do not expect America to change. I do expect you to change. The only question now is, are you brave enough?



World War No.
(C) 2014, Nathan D. Croy

























*Just to be clear, I realize I'm being ethnocentric, or egocentric, or some type of "centric" when I say "America" instead of The United States of America. I know the term "America" could mean North or South America. It's just easier to type, so leave me alone.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fix

“If anyone on the verge of action should judge himself according to the outcome, he would never begin.”
                                                                      ― Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

     Most people are aware of the fight or flight response that people may have to a stressful event. An animal perceives a threat to its safety and must decide: Can I fight this threat or can I outrun it? I use the term "decide" here to describe the automatic process of the amygdala and hippocampus (click here for more). There's no conscious decision making going on. Even a bunny will attack if there are no means of escape.

     Then, a few years after I graduated high school, the freeze response was added to the mix. This is when the amygdala and hippocampus go, "uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh" and nothing happens. Technically this is a survival response. It can work for prey animals with effective camouflage; like deer. However, it can also be an abysmal survival mechanism when a deer sees two headlights bearing down on it and it thinks, "uhhhhhhh, I'm gonna go ahead and not move then the car won't see me standing in the middle of the road and it won't try to eat me". We've all heard/seen the outcome of that particular strategy played out. All animals (and humans) have all three of these responses programmed at a genetic level.

     Humbly, I would like to add a fourth option. Fight, flight, and freeze are all processed in similar areas of the brain. None of them rely heavily on the frontal lobe and/or the prefrontal cortex where our higher level reasoning and processing occurs. In fact, humans have a very difficult time calming their anger when these areas are not engaged (click here for more info). Which got me to thinking: what if we get really stressed and are able to override our natural reactive responses (fight, flight, freeze) and engage our higher level thinking processes (fix)? This would in no way be reflexive; it would require training and intentionality and a level of self-control that, if I'm being honest, I don't really have. Still, the possibility is there for a fourth response to a stressful event: Fix.

     In truth, when faced with a stressful situation our primary/reactive responses will remain the same: Fight/flight/freeze. However, we can exercise a secondary/active response: Fix. Fixing a situation necessarily requires the activation of the higher thinking/limbic areas of the brain. This cannot easily happen when people are highly stressed or threatened. The irony, then, lies in the fact that until a stressful situation is corrected or until the threat is has been alleviated, it is very difficult if not impossible, for us to really think about the situation we actually need to fix.

     All is not lost. We can learn how to accept the fear which triggers our primary responses, acknowledge it, and then begin to process it. Some times this takes years of therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes before we are able to begin really processing our fear. It is all worth it. Until we process the fear, our options will be limited to the reactions of flight/fight/freeze. We will run from healthy relationships, we will fight those who provide aid and support, and we will freeze in the face of new threats. But, when our fear is identified, when it is named and recognized for the projection it has always been, it becomes smaller and less threatening, and this allows us to grow. Once we process our fear, we add a fourth option to our repertoire: Fix. Having the option to fix empowers us, broadens our horizons, and allows us to live an authentic life. Fixing is active, fighting/flying/or freezing is reactive. If you feel out of control of your emotions, your life, or your relationships, ask yourself how you respond to threats. Are you reactive or active? Empowered or threatened? Prey or predator? If you do not feel in control, find someone to help you figure out the source of fear which holds you back and begin to be a fixer.

Flight, Freeze, Fight, & Fix
(C) Nathan D. Croy, 2014