Gregor Mate – Who We Are When We Are Not Addicted
“We are such a medicated, comfortably numb society,” Bainbridge says. In her own life, she sees loneliness not as a problem to be fixed, but a complicated, ambivalent state that adds depth to the experience of being a social creature in a fragmented world.
At least for now, there remain nonpharmacological strategies to rely on. If you’re feeling the pain of social isolation but have a support system, it can pay to tell the people closest to you what you need. Last spring was a particularly lonely time for Bainbridge. She had recently moved from New York City, where she had a solid group of friends, to Atlanta, where she knew virtually no one. And so she requested a favor from her mom. The ask was simple: Text her every day in the morning with an update, question, or random thought. The content mattered less than the act itself. “It really helped me,” she says. To this day, her mom still texts every morning.
Actively searching for meaning in your life, whether it’s by joining a volunteer organization, movement, or religious group, also helps. It’s less about meeting other people, at least at first, and more about finding purpose and taking part in something larger than yourself, Cole says. “Self-focus promotes negative emotional states,” while there is robust evidence that the “neurobiology of helping others is one of the most rewarding things a brain can do.”
That we think so well of untrained intuition is because (without realising it) we are the inheritors of what can be summed up as a Romantic view of emotions. Starting in Europe in the 18th century and spreading widely and powerfully ever since, Romanticism is a movement of ideas that has been deeply committed to letting our emotions play a large and untampered role in our lives. Instead of nuancing or educating them (as earlier, Classical theories recommended), Romanticism has suggested that we learn to surrender to emotions with confidence and trust that they have much to teach us in their raw, untrammelled forms. If we feel joyful we shouldn’t necessarily try to analyse why. Reason can harm or distort feeling. If we are sad, we shouldn’t seek to moderate our passions. Anger should be vented, not bottled up; you should tell other people how you feel, without worrying about the consequences of emotional honesty. When choosing whom to love, you should be guided by instinct; it is the best way to choose a partner. Being true to feelings is, Romanticism insists, always a virtue.
Romanticism was a deeply well-intentioned movement, but it has had some extremely tricky consequences, because attempting to navigate our emotional lives by intuition alone has to it some of the recklessness of trying to land a plane or perform a surgical operation without training. Our emotions, if left unexamined and unschooled, are liable to lead us into some profoundly counter-productive situations in regard to our love choices, our careers, our friendships and the management of our own moods.
The task before us is therefore how we might acquire a set of emotional skills that could reliably contribute to a capacity for ‘emotional intelligence’. The term sounds odd. We are used to referring to intelligence without necessarily unpicking the many varieties of it a person might possess – and therefore do not tend to highlight the value of a very distinctive sort of intelligence which currently does not enjoy the prestige it should. Every sort of intelligence signals an ability to navigate well around a particular set of challenges: mathematical, linguistic, technical, commercial and so on… When we say that someone is clever but add that they have made a mess of their personal lives; or that they have acquired an astonishing amount of money but are very tricky to work with, we are pointing to a deficit in what deserves to be called emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence is the quality that enables us to negotiate with patience, insight and temperance the central problems in our relationships with others and with ourselves. It shows up around partnerships in a sensitivity to the moods of others, in a readiness to grasp what may be going on for them beyond the surface and to enter imaginatively into their point of view. It shows up in regard to ourselves when it comes to dealing with anger, envy, anxiety and professional confusion. And emotional intelligence is what distinguishes those who are crushed by failure from those who know how to greet the troubles of existence with a melancholy and at points darkly humorous resilience.
At various points in the past, there have been forces at work which hoped to teach us emotional skills in systematic ways. They didn’t always do the job ideally well – but they did keep the general idea on the agenda. It is noteworthy that none of these forces are currently very powerful in our lives today.
The first of these forces was religion. At their best religions sought to retrain, and improve, the quality of our customary emotional responses. In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, St Paul (the decisive figure in the development of all the Christian churches) sought to teach people to be ‘Slow to anger and quick to forgive’. The project was based on the wise assumption that better emotions are by nature highly teachable and that we are, of course, usually swift to fury and extremely stubborn about forgiving. Yet St Paul knew there might be another way – and believed that a retraining programme could belong to one of the central ambitions of his new religion. Therefore, for centuries, week by week, congregations were asked to reflect very seriously on their own failings to be humble rather than proud; to feel pity and tenderness in directions they normally wouldn’t consider and to refocus feelings of admiration away from worldly success and towards sacrifice and renunciation.
The point isn’t to insist that churches were always successful at or ideally focused on emotional education – but to highlight that they were peculiarly and inspiringly devoted to trying. The capacity for churches to keep up this project has now badly withered. Religion may still be a major force in the world but it suffers from the insurmountable drawback that it is perceived as being built upon incredible suppositions; it simply feels too strange to a great many sensible people to believe that a cosmic deity might be in control of the destiny of human beings and yet, for reasons we are not equipped to fully comprehend, would allow the world to roll on in endless, grotesque suffering. However nice some aspects of its emotional education programme might be, religion cannot now be a force suited to conveying it.
When religion first declined in the West in the 19th century, a widespread assumption was that universities could take up some of the slack. Culture could replace scripture. But these hopes too have been conclusively betrayed. A range of academic subjects – philosophy, history, literature – are in principle highly connected to the task of educating our emotional lives; they capture the course of human experience in all its complexities – and the leading universities have often been hugely well resourced and housed in majestic settings. From the outside they have looked like places that would have the authority and the opportunity to help individuals and even whole societies becomes emotionally wise. But, this grand promise has been tragically undercut (or, more bluntly, betrayed) by an academic obsession with abstraction and obscurity. If an individual turned up at one of the great universities frankly asking for help, they would be regarded as deranged and forcibly removed.
A similar betrayal has happened around art museums. Here too the hope was that these could take over some of the tasks of religion: that museums could become our new cathedrals. The great galleries of the world may sometimes look the part, but close up they harbour no comparable ambitions to guide and elevate us. Cathedrals were intended to provide very specific courses in emotional education and guidance, taking us in ordered stages through a process of training leading to a specific and admired conclusion. No such ambitions attend galleries. One would be equally unwise to show up in sorrow at a museum asking for help in knowing how to live and die well.
The idea of emotional education therefore remains at once deeply relevant and widely neglected. The challenge before us is to break down emotional intelligence into a range of skills, a curriculum of emotional skills, that are at work in wise and temperate lives. We should be ready to embark on a systematic educational programme in an area that has for too long, unfairly and painfully, seemed like a realm of intuition and luck.