Ain’t I Enough?
It’s becoming normal to carry a delusional sense of agency. What are you personally responsible for? Where do you have room to act? What actions of yours have an impact? It is nuts how much we each think we must do.
“Huh?”, you may be thinking, “don’t we live in an age during which unbelievable human effort is required to fix the carbon mess we made during the golden age of capitalism? Shouldn’t we harness our huge egos for this purpose?”
Yes. And not exactly. The size of the problem might not mean we have to play David to the Goliath. Or, put more precisely, the question of the “scale” of agency is crucial here. It seems we are so conditioned to inflated individualism that we do not think to broach the powers that be. We tend to take things on alone rather than use collective pressure against corporations and governments. Is what I do with plastic bags more important than the toxic waste created by our collective technologies? Probably not. But we all do it. We seem to have traded in collective power and collective action against the worst offenders for obsessive focus on our own habits and lifestyle decisions. The toxic imperative to "pull yourself up by your bootstraps," has morphed into the requirement to "fix the wicked challenges of the world...with your lifestyle".
Why do we do this to ourselves? Psychologically, the answer may lie in a simple notion with complex consequences: it's easier to feel guilty than to admit powerlessness. Basically, I would rather feel bad about plastic bags than admit that, alone, I can’t change what is happening with toxic waste even though I believe that the toxic waste is much more of a problem. What is going on here? Is our individual self worth, our sense of enoughness, so fragile and achievement oriented we cannot do hard things together because we fear our own failure? Well, yes.
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Living in what the philosopher Han calls the “achievement society” means that the treadmill of consumption mirrors the treadmill of achievement. With achievements: you think doing X will make you accomplished, then you do it, and you feel basically the same (after a little enthusiastic lift). Then you also think that whatever you want to buy will make you happier or more complete, yet usually results in a brief spurt of excitement and then a caffeine-like crash. For Han, this is how discipline now works - as a society, we’ve forgone physical punishment for a punitive internalized never-enoughness that makes our superegos vicious, terrible forces to be reckoned with. Not enough achievement and not enough stuff because neither satiate us.
What’s worse is that trying to counter these feelings by finding meaning and higher moral and ethical purpose bears the risk of transferring these dynamics to a higher level: the broader groups we belong to. It scales up. This is how this same punishing cycle comes to affect social and environmental justice movements and groups. We see this in movements that fail to stand on past successes, instead focusing obsessively on what needs to be done next - so much so that it’s hard to tell whether problems of the past (e.g. acid rain, toxic smokestacks) have been resolved or not! WTF happened with acid rain?!
The simplicity we need to satiate our enoughness doesn’t fit the complexity of our collective challenges. We want strong wins from clear goalposts. Yet the challenges we face are much harder to measure and more complex to track. It's not clear which predictions will pan out and in what time frame. The complex problems that define our historical moments makes it especially difficult to celebrate successes and mourn failures.
Individual ‘enoughness’ fails to recognize these struggles as ongoing, with their pendulum swings, their requirements for maintenance and upkeep, and how even just keeping things ‘status quo’ entails massive effort. There’s no finality to be found here in the marathon of the good life. Our appetites for positive feedback grow in the face of unclear definitions of success and moving goal posts, and this extends from an inner experience to a group phenomenon.
Wicked Problems Don’t Make Wicked People
When it comes to the wicked problem of climate change, there’s a fog that is so daunting that it’s hard to imagine anybody up to the task. Yet, the narrative is “it’s on you”, “be the change”, etc. and still the need to get rid of plastic bags isn’t changing. Are we running in place? When taking stock of successes and failures, these tend to be activities that individuals do alone while thinking about themselves. There are so many statistics and social markers that could be involved here but aren’t. We could make it visible how many of us are adding our efforts to others to shift both the practice (using plastic bags) and the upstream drivers (plastic bag manufactures and stores using them).
What If You Aren’t Willfully Wicked?
We need to be aware of when we are tempted to take responsibility individually and when it extends far beyond us, yes. But also when we shy away from acknowledging that we are part of a systemic problem to which we contribute. Scale shows up again. It’s the difference between subjective and objective morality: just because you do not will something does not mean you do not contribute to it. In social justice, for example, it’s often the case that when people get together to understand the systemic problems (think of the boatload of workshops about systemic racism) they tend to place energy into taking stock of what it is they are *secretly* willing, or attached to, that makes this continue (e.g. failing to make eye contact with your brown neighbors or supporting a business with a blue lives flag in the back room). Focusing on individual failings around openness to diversity, though important, will not address the way that laws perpetuate systemic racism. Self-flagellation becomes performative when it lacks strategic action to shift the broader systems.
What are we looking at?
We tend to look for our wins under bright lights when it’s obvious we have not lost them there. Why? It’s easier. It’s easier to get a quick win, to have the feeling of doing something personally, through our guilt, rather than sitting with the feeling of powerlessness. We tend to berate each other about what kind of diapers we buy or if we have tendencies to leave the lights on, when this sort of perfectionism actually distracts us from the fact that it’s Walmart who leaves their factory lights on all the time and puts plastics into the supply chain to begin with.
Making our desire for change more visible to producers can drive change. Look at the growth of fair trade, organic, and other performance metrics that allow us to indicate our values in our purchases. Pressure can be put on local governments in an exemplary way that creates an outgrowth or “trickle up” of the model resolution to an issue. There’s much better two way communication than there used to be, and even though this creates a lot of noise it also opens up the possibility of sending strong signals en masse.
Who are we calling out, now?
Early hope that social capital, say, on Twitter, would be used to raise awareness of corporate no-nos, for example, calling out the use of palm oil, has been mostly eclipsed by calling out each other (the trickling down of cancel culture from only celebrities being cancelled to it embodying a broader imperative toward guilt and self-censorship for fear of being socially excluded). Not only are you now driven toward achievement and accumulation, now failure to keep up with the evolving awareness standards of our social groups leads to shaming and isolation. Shunning as the ultimate punishment for non-compliance. You not merely risk being ignored, you risk social death sentences.
Our Own Identity Crisis
How can we be pragmatists in shifting this space? It’s not only that we haven’t been strategic, but we are undermined by our own drive for achievement and less capable of seeing the big picture - fighting for little wins just to keep our sense of efficacy intact. The enoughness issue also feels propelled by consumerism and easy credit. We think we are what we buy and do. In these challenging times, it becomes harder to root our identity in place, relationships, beliefs, and work. Our belonging is in question. It’s a floating anxiety.This enoughness crisis may be rooted in dislocation: not knowing what’s “mine” to care about. Championing causes may seem to be a valuable remedy for general postmodern identity crises created by the same but also might perpetuate it.
On Twitter especially, one sees people defining themselves, not just by causes, but by their feelings about various causes: “I am my affect”. The endless drive toward enoughness ramps up through competitive moralistic positioning, which gets in the way of people just expressing their stories, the structure and activities of their everyday life, the kind of events that make us feel connected as individuals as opposed to expressing performative individualism. And when people do do that it feels like a breath of fresh air. Yes, I want to read your tweet about what it’s like at the checkout stand in a town outside of Dayton (or wherever).
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What's the Action to Take?
One possibility is that honestly assessing successes and failures entails, well, acknowledging failures - that’s a part of what’s so scary. Fear of failure is often couched on its own terms as a ding to one’s social status or credibility, but what if this widespread fear of failure is also, perhaps more fundamentally, a fear of the unknown -- of not knowing what’s supposed to come next and whether we will still be loved when we fall off our treadmill. What we need to examine is a loss of know-how here; a culture-wide forgetting that hinders our resilience.
It seems as though we have a lot of energy for taking a tough love, whip cracking approach with ourselves and others and very little for acknowledging and appreciating small steps in the right direction. It’s interesting, really, because we have a lot of accumulated knowledge about the sort of care that works - clear feedback, unconditional positive regard, not withholding compliments and acknowledgment. All of this creates more endurance within individuals to move forward in the long run and is a well-established part of healthy human development. Too much or too little encouragement creates the dramatic failures that one cannot recover from, just as much as it creates the treadmill successes. Again, so much of the solution is in clear goalposts and managing boundaries, and this clarity then gives rise to clear wins and upsets. So, if we know how to help people mature, then why aren’t we doing that within our own efforts and in our collective causes?
Jumping back to Han, one effect of a culture that has moved from physical violence to emotional violence - the violence of negativity versus the violence of positivity - is that the clarity of redemption is lost. Culturally, we are awash in different attempts to find where it may have gone. It’s no small wonder that, thanks to BLM, much of the COVID-19 quarantine was spent thinking deeply about the grim police culture in the U.S. and how poorly it bodes for minoritarian groups’ access to redemption, rehabilitation, and of course, justice. No one wants to be left without a fair shot at being seen in one’s social context and without a fair shot at a chance to demonstrate their capacity to change, learn, and grow. After all, if we do not have routes to redeem ourselves despite failures, the cost of consciously evolving and trying new things (or, as above, simply walking-while-trans or jogging-while-black) becomes way too high.
When the clarity of redemption is lost, the wounds necessitate it become hazy too, making social and collective processes of healing more difficult. It’s almost as if the model of human growth that we implicitly use is borrowed from the financial model of embedded growth obligations: a linear upward trajectory. Hockey-stick growth for the moving goal-post win! The mental health industry really thrives on this - taking on the mantle of showing people that mistakes are okay. The therapeutic relationship tends to be used as a model for future relationships in which incidents, mistakes, and turns that were wrong in hindsight are recognized as such and unpacked rather than punished. While these relationships are often quite healing, the fact that they are cordoned off in the clinic for the privileged few stands as a twisted reminder of our cultural forgetting of how redemption works and why it’s important.
Individuation not Individualism
At the very root of all of these issues, environment, social justice, everything revolves around healing these traumas that are individual and collective that we're all kind of acting out from in various ways. How, then, might we preserve and create spaces for people to explore their suffering in a meaningful way -- one that is divorced from suffering needing to be unique and, at the end of the day, individualized? Healthy individuation rather than individualism.
How can we open up conversations to get to the root, together, of why these movements are so attractive? What is compelling about the narrative to you? How is it personal? Then we can begin grieving together, seeing each other in our struggles, and then see our struggles as collective, as social in their very nature.
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One Thrivable Society pattern we focus on is drawing attention to the scale of agency and its relationship to healing.
We open up questions like:
Our wager is that the differences between these layers are useful. These heuristics are a way to produce insightful connections, but also to greet our modes of understanding as temporal processes: today it feels personal, but tomorrow I might suddenly recognize that this is something that in fact 80% of the women in my organization have experienced.
The important thing is that the lens of each level of scale brings out different angles, irrespective of what you think (or whether you think about) the ultimate truth of each lens. We hold them differently, and each of these levels ask different things of us. We aim toward a harmonic balance, understanding that the feeling of individual efficacy is both a boost and a screen; it should not overshadow the importance of making demands on the powerful and taking care of the collective. Together, let us weave the personal, relational, organizational, and systemic clarity and understanding to be enough already.