Social Epidemics – As You Were

As You Were – looking for connections between the work of Brené Brown and Daniel Quinn as I revisit them in book clubs. See the introductory post for what this is all about. In this post, I look at:

  • Daniel Quinn Book Club — The Story of B, session 2: Friday, May 17; Saturday, May 18; The Boiling Frog: 18 May, Schauspielhaus Wahnfried, Radenau
  • Brené Brown Book Club — I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t), finishing session 1 reading: One – Understanding Shame

The Story of B

Friday, May 17


Saturday, May 18

“The natural thing is always the unstudied thing, the unselfconscious thing.” Connecting what is “natural” to what is non-neurotic/non-shamed on the individual level.

The Boiling Frog: 18 May, Schauspielhaus Wahnfried, Radenau

“Systems thinkers have given us a useful metaphor for a certain kind of human behavior in the phenomenon of the boiled frog. The phenomenon is this. If you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will of course frantically try to clamber out. But if you place it gently in a pot of tepid water and turn the heat on low, it will float there quite placidly. As the water gradually heats up, the frog will sink into a tranquil stupor, exactly like one of us in a hot bath, and before long, with a smile on its face, it will unresistingly allow itself to be boiled to death.” Compare this week’s discussion of the many aspects of the shame web that pile on over time.

“Totalitarian agriculture was not adopted in our culture out of sheer meanness. It was adopted because, by its very nature, it’s more productive than any other style (and there are many other styles). Totalitarian agriculture represents productivity to the max, as Americans like to say. It represents productivity in a form that literally cannot be exceeded.” Compare Brené writing about the dysfunction of productivity as a measure of status.

“When more people start competing for less, they start fighting.” Compare Brené’s various zero-sum observations, such as this week’s notions of the double-bind and power over.

“Whatever the trouble is, whether it’s bad manners or murder, they handle it themselves, the way you handle an interrupter.” Compare Brené’s discussions of choosing to do/face uncomfortable things. How much of civilization/statism is an attempt to help at least certain people avoid doing/facing uncomfortable things?

“For the first time in history, people were beginning to suspect that something fundamentally wrong was going on here. For the first time in history, people were beginning to feel empty, were beginning to feel that their lives were not amounting to enough, were beginning to wonder if this is all there is to life, were beginning to hanker after something vaguely more.” Compare the midlife unraveling. The culture of civilization took a long time to get to this, and it never faced its unraveling. Now, we take it all as just the way things are without realizing that it was not always this way.

“Quite suddenly, after six thousand years of totalitarian agriculture and civilization building, the people of our culture — East and West, twins of a single birth — were beginning to wonder if their lives made sense, were beginning to perceive a void in themselves that economic success and civil esteem could not fill, were beginning to imagine that something was profoundly, even innately, wrong with them… It was easy for them to envision humankind as innately flawed and to envision themselves as sinners in need of rescue from eternal damnation.” Compare discussions about individual sense of unworthiness.

“It would not, I think, be too fanciful to suggest that the hopes that had been invested in religion in former ages were in this age being invested in revolution and political reform.” Always attempts to address a symptom and “fix” something rather than address the fundamental design. Parallels Brené rejecting “how to” answers as too easy, seeing escapism/numbing as contradictory to genuine self-care, acknowledging that there is hard work to do to get to the root of wholeheartedness.

“What are we looking at here? I’ll give you a name and you can tell me if I’ve got it right. I’m prepared to name it… cultural collapse.” The inevitable end result of an unraveling not addressed, of refusing the call to a hero’s journey.

I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t)

One – Understanding Shame

“You cannot shame or belittle people into changing their behaviors.” Belittle — direct connection to broader concerns about hierarchy.

“I think it’s important to understand that its not just ‘plain folk’ who avoid the topic of shame. It’s also mental health professionals, researchers, physicians and other professionals who are often the ones we depend on to identify and spark the first discussions about social epidemics.” Compare last week’s “The Great Forgetting” chapter in which Quinn talks about the great thinkers of the eighteenth century failing to revise their thinking in response to the revelation that humans existed for ages prior to civilization. Compare this weeks’ “The Boiling Frog” which outlines one social epidemic after another piling up.

“The ‘professional silence’ is important to understand because there are studies that identify shame as the dominant emotion experienced by mental health clients, exceeding anger, fear, grief and anxiety.” Shame as central to individual mental ills, parallels hierarchy as central to social ills.

“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” Flawed and unworthy connect directly to hierarchy, to sense of “less than.” Absence of belonging relates directly to absence of tribal social structure.

“… the difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the differences between ‘I am bad’ (shame) and ‘I did something bad’ (guilt). Shame is about who we are and guilt is about our behaviors.” Fixed vs. growth mindset, connected to social paradigm of “creation has come to an end and we have always been this way and always will be” vs. a paradigm of participating in the universe’s ongoing processes which inevitably yield change.

“The danger of telling ourselves that we are bad, a cheat, and no good, is that we eventually start to believe it and own it.” Certainly has happened to Taker culture.

“When we experience shame we feel disconnected and desperate for belonging and recognition… Recognizing we’ve made a mistake is far different than believing that we are a mistake.” This points to the adaptive origin of shame, to preserve the tribe’s safety and integrity, to restore belonging for all in a way that is sustainable and safe for all. I’d conjecture: anyone shamed in such circumstances likely had a very powerful motivation to “come back,” and likely would have been met with enough compassion to heal the shaming. Perhaps it took the form of shame being recharacterized as guilt. Perhaps even the initial shaming may not have been explicitly “you are bad” but, rather, you will be exiled and lose your sense of belonging and safety. In civilization, on the other hand, there is simply shaming, and no need to heal it, because the social structure is seldom if ever threatened by anyone, and because there is no threatening with exile from the social structure to motivate anyone to change. The conditions are there to make shame common, chronic, endemic, instead of it being rare, acute, and not-lightly deployed. Perhaps, in civilization, “you are bad” is the twisted result of shame not being connected to life-or-death situations and therefore going unhealed, to the point where now a person has to start believing something new about himself/herself.

“Once entangled in this web, women feel flooded with feelings of fear, blame and disconnection. I think it’s safe to say that each of these three concepts alone is overwhelming. But if we understand fear, blame and disconnection as intricately woven together to create shame, it becomes very clear why shame is so powerful, complex and difficult to overcome.” Parallels the intractability of Taker culture, and these three elements relate directly to the what I just conjectured. The adaptive use of shame in a cultural environment in which the culture actually may be threatened by someone’s actions would involve the group’s fear for its survival, the blaming of the threat, the threat’s sense of disconnection from the group and, in turn, the threat’s fear for its survival.

“Shame is all about fear.” Fear is all about death. Shame is all about death, the fear of death, the threat of death. It means something and can have purpose in situations where death may actually be on the line. In civilization, it no longer is — and yet, at the same time, psychologically, there are ways in which the fear of death underlies mental illness generally.

“This fear is fueled by the sense that we are somehow trapped in our shame.” Again: what if shame was never meant to be trapped in? What if the only time in which someone was meant to be trapped in shame is if they chose exile from a tribe over mending fences to regain belonging with the tribe?

“It is easy to see how quickly expectations become layered, competitive and conflicting. This is how the shame web works. We have very few realistic options that allow us to meet any of these expectations. Most of the options that we do have feel like a ‘double bind.'” See Quinn’s statement above (and others) that reflect Taker culture as chronically engaging in zero-sum thinking.

“One of the issues that fuels our uncertainty about power is the fact that there are at least two forms of power — I call them ‘power-over’ and ‘real power.’ Unfortunately, when most of us here the word ‘power‘ we automatically jump to the concept of power-over — the idea that power is the ability to control people, take advantage of others or exert force over somebody or something. We think of power as finite — there’s only so much, so if I’m going to get some, I’m forced to take it away from you.” Ditto zero-sum thinking, as well as hierarchy.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines power as ‘the ability to act or produce an effect.’ Real power is basically the ability to change something if you want to change it. It’s the ability to make change happen. Real power is unlimited — we don’t need to fight over it because there is plenty to go around. And the great thing about real power is our ability to create it. Real power doesn’t force us to take it away from others — it’s something we create and build with others.” Echoes many things discussed above and elsewhere — fixed vs. growth mindset, connected to social paradigm of “creation has come to an end and we have always been this way and always will be” vs. a paradigm of participating in the universe’s ongoing processes which inevitably yield change, contrary to hierarchy and zero-sum thinking, relation to belonging and connection and creating.

“If feeling connected is feeling valued, accepted, worthy and affirmed, then feeling disconnected is feeling diminished, rejected, unworthy and reduced.” Connection between individual feeling of disconnection and social hierarchy — “diminished” and “reduced” are “less than,” hierarchically.

“‘We believe that the most terrifying and destructive feeling that a person can experience is psychological isolation. This is not the same as being alone. It is a feeling that one is locked out of the possibility of human connection and of being powerless to change the situation. In the extreme, psychological isolation can lead to a sense of hopelessness and desperation. People will do almost anything to escape this combination of condemned isolation and powerlessness.'” This certainly sounds like Taker culture, feeling alone in the world, disconnected from the rest of the community of life, creation (i.e., change) being seen as ended, seeing humans as inherently flawed and unable to change, and acting with continued desperation to conquer the world — destructive, to be sure.

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