Economic and planetary collapse: Is it a therapeutic issue?
By Kathy McMahon, Psy.D.
Panglossian Disorders and Their Subtypes
Panglossian Disorder: “The neurotic tendency toward extreme optimism in the face of likely cultural and planetary collapse.”
Scarlet O’Hara-ism- “I’ll just have to think about that tomorrow.” A strategy of denial that allows the person to temporally compartmentalize the feared event(s).
Futurism: “Sure, that will happen, but it will occur after all of us are long dead.” A belief that something that might happen in the distant future is no concern in the present.
Y2K features : “They said everything would collapse with 2000, and it didn’t.” A belief that any prior concern about societal problems that didn’t occur demonstrates the impossibility of any others happening in the future.
Rhett-Butlerist Features - “Peak Oil? Planetary Collapse? Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Aggressive denial of information not in keeping with one’s world view.
Kill the Messenger Redirection : “Why are you telling me this? What kind of sicko focuses on these kinds of facts? You need help!” The belief that those who bring bad news are doing it for malevolent reasons.
Rigid Cheney-ism: “The American Way of Life is non-negotiable.” The belief that any undesirable change can be avoided by a sheer act of will.
Survivalistic features : “Hey, if the rest of the world is doomed, I don’t worry about it, because I’ve got mine.” A belief that personal preparation is adequate.
Religiousity : “God/The Planet/Mother Nature loves humans. He/She/It would never permit massive die-off.” Or “If that happens, I just put my faith in my Savior.”
Neoliberal Econo-manic Tendencies : “The market will sort it out.” A belief that market forces control all--- including geological realities.
Nascarian Features : “People love their automobiles. A solution will have to be found to keep us driving.”
Subtypes with Denial or Minimization as the Central Feature:
Pure Denial: “That can’t be right. It’s just impossible.”
Minimalization as a primary defense : “There may be some shortages, but I doubt it will be as bad as you say.”
Subtypes with Histrionic, Helplessness, Acquiescence or Submissive Features:
Submissive Features : You're probably right. [Shrug]" Too hard/scary to think about... A response that acknowledges the reality of the threat, but is emotionally frozen or unwilling to devote emotional time and energy to the matter.
Histrionic Features : “I just don’t know anything about that. Oh, Golly, I hope you’re wrong. That’s all I can say. Oh Golly, I just can’t think about it.”
Subtypes with Delusional or Magical Thinking:
Meglomatic Features :“This simply won’t happen to me.” A belief in one’s specialness, which will save them from the consequences affecting those around them.
Paternalistic Features : "The government/corporations will sort it out." A belief in the infallibility of organizational structures to resolve problems they aren’t willing to even acknowledge.
Doubting Thomas Features : “Peak Oil is a scam by the Oil Companies to raise prices!” Minimizing the possibility of the crisis by the belief that some one or some group has ultimate control over its happening.
Pure Cornucopian Features : “The more we need, the more they’ll be.” A belief that continued progress and provision of material items for mankind can be met by advances in technology.
The Flinestonian : “The stone-age didn’t end because they ran out of stones.” A belief that modern innovation is eternal.
Frank Zappa-ism : “As soon as things get really bad, they’ll come up with something.” A belief that necessity is the mother of invention.
Magical Thinking : “Don’t worry, we can build a car that can run on air!” Proposes solutions that are clearly outside the realm of physics.
McGiveristic Features - A belief that massive planetary problems can be solved with ordinary/common items found readily at hand. Eg.: “Pig dung will be the next fossil fuel.” Or “Coke Cans can be turned into solar panels.”
I have spoken elsewhere about the label “Doomer,” and I’ve come to believe that this frame is outdated. Instead, I would like to suggest that we must stop asking ourselves, given the lateness of the hour, why there are those pessimistic about the future, and begin asking, instead, why there are those still blindly and enthusiastically optimistic about it. We can easily see why those who might be gloomy about the future could feel hopeless and take the path of inactivity. On the other hand, this same fear of disaster can motivate constructive action in an attempt to mitigate the effects. Not so, however, for those who see no NEED to take action, because they live in the best of all possible worlds. Indeed, I might argue that it is the very blind hopefulness and inaction of the masses that leads many of my readers to assume a more hopeless posture toward world events.
Borrowing Voltaire’s character Pangloss in his novel Candide, we might speak of a Panglossian Disorder as the belief that “all is well and everything in the world is for the best.” In adopting a Panglossian philosophy, Candide accepts situations and tries not to change or overcome obstacles. Instead, he passively accepts whatever fate has in store, and shrugs off his personal responsibilities. The name Pangloss is actually a pun: pan = Greek for 'all', relating to the whole universe
(English); and 'gloss' (English) = both an explanation and an interpretation, which is deceptive in its external appearance. There is also a medical definition: Panglossia: abnormal or pathologic garrulousness, usually of a trivial nature.
While I was initially rather ‘tongue in cheek’ in proposing a new diagnostic category called “Panglossian Disorder” which I defined as “the neurotic tendency toward extreme optimism in the face of likely cultural and planetary collapse,” the more I thought about it, the more sober I became. A Panglossian perspective denies the need for constructive action, and leads to complacency and a worsening of our world’s woes. I’ve come to think about the Panglossian perspective as not optimism itself, but as a defense against pessimism. This defense takes many forms, which I’ll describe later, but first, I’d like to describe why so many of us NEED a defense against pessimism, and how, unfortunately, my profession of psychology has been so instrumental in fueling that defense.
Depression as Epidemic
Depression in the US has reached epidemic proportions. In contrast to a half-century ago, when it began well into adulthood, we now see depression in our children and adolescents. We can speak of clinical elements such as feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. Basically, depression is a disorder in which a person feels thwarted or is thwarted in pursuing her or his most important life goals. Unlike simple unhappiness, depression can be thought of as a sort of ‘burst balloon’, in which inflated desires are deflated fully and completely.
There are those who argue that this condition is caused by a radical imbalance between the “I” and “We” of our culture. As we’ve shifted away from a connection to our communities, our natural environment, and the responsibilities these entail, and focused increasingly on consumeristic and narcissistic pre-occupations, we’ve become cut off from a sense of meaning and richness. Paradoxically, we’ve also become more cut off from self-directed community aspirations that build virtues not found in modern psychological language---features such as “character” and “soul.”
Education, according to Herbert Spencer, “has for its object the formation of character” and yet today, our focus is not on building the character of our nation’s children, but settling instead for promoting their “self-esteem.” Whereas character is a complex of attributes that determines a persons moral and ethical actions and reactions, self-esteem is a feeling of pride in yourself and your inherent personal worth. While character is an active process of development, self-esteem is a passive satisfaction with what one has already achieved. Character is interactive with the world, while self-esteem is internal satisfaction with oneself.
The problem with this frame in our self-congratulatory back-slapping, is that while it promotes an “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” attitude,” it overlooks the question of whether collectively, WE’RE Okay, and if we aren’t, what is our social responsibility to change it.
In other words, the message “feel good about yourself” appears to be removed from why someone SHOULD feel good about themselves and the cultural imperative to do something to feel good ABOUT. This is a perversion from what true self-esteem is: a positive feeling in RESPONSE to effective action. What is being promoted is what Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D. calls “unwarranted self-esteem:…feeling good as opposed to doing well in the world.”
In the US, self-esteem is the primary outcomes assessed in youth development intervention evaluations today, and questions about self-esteem are the only positive (versus problematic) measures of mental health currently included in national surveys, according to Dr. Seligman. We want to know, essentially, “How do you feel about yourself?” rather than asking “How do you engage with the world around you?” We’ve come to believe that children who feel good about themselves will come to care about the people and planet around them. This has proven to be a faulty, incomplete analysis, but one that works well if our goal is to encourage consumers to buy products that make them feel better about themselves. Our schools tell our children how important it is that they feel good about themselves, and the television commercials they watch tell what to buy that will make them feel better and even more 'special.'
The Exalted “I” and the Problematic “We”
The imbalance between the “I” and the “We” has shifted so dramatically, in fact, that we blame our families and our developmental milieu for thwarting our “potential.” Pop psychology is filled with popular bestsellers that have told us for twenty years how to get the love we want, how to overcome toxic parents and how to triumph over the effects of our wounded past. This focus on the historical forces that have limited us, sends us the implicit message that the “We” in our world has constricted the unfolding that would have otherwise taken place, and is central in understanding our current troubles in life. Implicit in it, is an image of some idealized culture, family, planet that is loving, patient, reliable, safe and kind. It’s a world that loves us and all we are capable of, and we are mad or sad that we didn’t grow up in it.
Because of this ‘loss,’ we can't be all that (we imagine) we are capable of, because we’ve suffered damage as children. We know, from research, that the rate of things like suicide attempts, drug abuse, smoking, drinking, and being overweight are all elevated in those who have experienced abuse as children. Therefore, we make the leap that says that if we have been badly treated as children, and continue those self-destructive acts, we are not to blame. We are victims of circumstance. And if we turn inward, and away from the world in an attempt to recover from such a cruel series of events, who can blame us?
We've become a society of "discontents," looking for satisfaction. We turn both inward and gaze backward in our attempt to find a ‘cure.’ Our view is fixed, frozen, and reified. It is both suffocating and reassuring. We don’t seek to participate in the world, because the world is to blame as the source of our troubles. "Lifestyle" is what we start to search for, as a trade for being stuck with a "life." We cling to our professional identities because they provide us with a sense of self. We project a "professional image" because image becomes more important than who we actually are.
We read books to assure ourselves that “bad things happen to good people,” because these “bad things” appear somehow to be an undeserved punishment that someone else has inflicted on us, instead of just “what happens.” We attempt to distract ourselves from feeling anxiety and discomfort, with television, movies, music and internet. Cybersex and 'mind fucks' take the place of messy entanglements. We seek out those that will match us in our values, social class, religious beliefs, our fashion sense, our views, and we scorn those who fail to mirror us. We get married hoping to find someone who will "really know us," and we divorce when they actually start to, and have the nerve to tell us what they see. We look for a community to worship that is equally "fitting" of us and what we need and expect our spiritual leaders and our God to be sympathetic and undemanding. If not, we keep looking.
We are freed from the constrictions of being born in a particular place, during a particular time, in a particular climate, growing particular foodstuffs, surrounded by a set of particular people. We are free to be You and Me, and we get to mold it, as if we are the creative force itself. We no longer have to believe in a creator, because WE are IT.
The Anxious Creator
Yet, we are an anxious, restless creator, always trying to tweak our self-created images. When we imagine that there is such a thing as a Magic Muffin,’ and the world we currently live in, isn’t it, we happily join a “Second Life” that will show us pictures of rain forests so we can pretend we aren’t losing the real ones. We can construct our world of make-believe friends and make-believe communities, because the face-to-face kind are just too much trouble or require social skills we just don’t have. We can always click off or change our screen names or change our image if we run into make believe interpersonal difficulties. That’s harder to do in “real life.” And, as if to make it all more real, we have Second Life Shrinks we can visit to talk over our Second Life problems.
We reject the notion that we are "stuck" with a genetically impacted body type and we diet and exercise, or seek out plastic surgeons to shape our body to "look just right." We reject the aging process or the dying process itself, and instead choose the magic of the knife or the "fast freeze" to save our special selves until we can live forever. And always we are told that true contentment and satisfaction comes from this special candy bar, this marvelous diet, this fabulous lifestyle, this new therapeutic approach.
And yet, we still aren't told that if we do succeed in ‘healing our wounded Child,’ we still remain children--frightened, lonely, isolated, misunderstood. And so we keep looking for the right therapist and the right cure.
The Insanity of Being Our Own Creator
Therefore, if the real world collapses around us, it isn’t our fault and it isn’t our problem. We don’t ask if what we do and what we devote our lives to, is “sane,” and whether or not it ultimately benefits not only ourselves, but also our world. We only want reassurance that we aren’t “crazy.” Fitting in and not standing out is a hard enough job. So many of us have lost an internal compass that is grounded in an external reality, and have settled, instead, for trying to believe other people when they tell us over and over “You are really okay.” And, as long as we don’t look outside or don’t believe those who tell us that our world is dying, we just might believe it.
This stubborn self-focus and pathologizing people and actions become culturally endemic. We begin to see all acts of great charity as a “reaction” against a cruel parent or early poverty. Social activists are “angry people” with a “father complex” they try to resolve by trying to change the world. We diagnose Mother Teresa as having a “Savior Complex” or worse. No one works so hard to heal and repair the world, Tikkun Olam, unless they have some sort of psychological disorder. A notion of a common commitment to the civic good is a distant, quaint concept. We do so only if our “neurosis” drives us to it. And we've watched the show "Survivor," so we know that nice guys and gals finish last.
The Matrix Around Us
It is, therefore, while simmering in the pot of this cultural soup, that my readers write to me at www.peakoilblues.com. They describe a sensation of having lived in a ‘Matrix,’ an illusionary world constructed in the movie by the same name, and have woken up to find themselves in a very different reality. Unlike those who continue to mourn the “paradise lost” of their pained childhoods, my contributors have woken up to confront real troubles in the world in real time. They have stopped looking into their past, and started to see a future that is both horrifying and compelling. Instead of seeing a “wounded child,” they see a wounded planet that they are killing.
In contrast to the Panglossians among them, who find such a view all too much to bear, they look directly into their futures and feel the despair. For indeed, when we absorb the full impact of our current world situation, and our place of having contributed to it, the sane response is, at least initially, despair. Doom, dreadful fate, or utter ruin, isn’t a view that they embrace joyfully, but one they are left with, when they recognize that the solutions are not individual, but collective ones. Here, we feel ill equipped, because collective solutions seem to fly in the very face of our “I” worldviews. Those “I” solutions, like changing a light bulb, appear inanely inadequate, and the more they are put forth as collective solutions, the gloomier my readers become. They recognize that we won’t “buy” our way out of this one.
It shakes them to their very core, as they realize that they ARE an element of their planet, and THEY are fully responsible for their futures, even more so then their past. They shake, they grieve, they feel the shock. Gradually, then, they wake up to realize that they are still standing on the same wounded planet. They begin to face and learn to manage the anxiety they feel. They start to grow themselves up. No, they soon won't be able to eat bananas on their cereals if they live up North. No, there is no single solution they can buy, to remove the Great Turning. They do not live in a Magic Muffin, but here on the Earth, in a particular place, in a particular time, and they are surrounded by a particular set of people. They have a body, a set of skills, a set of world views and no one will rescue them. They don't need to believe in a god, only that they aren't him/her/it. What a shock to realize that we are born in such a unique place and time, and that our wealth has left the rest of the planet barren, starving, and terribly polluted. We overlook the fact that it takes intense strength to feel so vulnerable, so blind, so frightened, so inept. And for many, they do look inward once again and they grieve hard, for months or sometimes years. But the grieving subsides and in its place remains the multiple decisions about how to act now, in the real world.
Most have attempted to enlist the cooperation of those around them in examining the extent of the problem, and pondering the solutions. Many have been met, instead, with a variety of Panglossian defenses. They see that for so many of their loved-ones, they cannot allow psychological room for the inevitable despair and pessimism, without feeling overwhelmed. These wounded souls, “at risk” for pathology, wounded as children by an unkind planet and careless parenting, cannot bear to view that which is outside themselves---TPTB, government, Big Daddy, the planet---as deeply flawed. And, if it is flawed so dramatically, it isn’t their fault, and it isn’t their problem. We are okay, and the world is okay. It has to be. We have enough to worry about, thank you very much. But what’s wrong with YOU?
And as our economy falters, oil supplies shrink, and the climate chaotically changes, our Panglossian world becomes even more steadfast in denying the change. Our job loss, political or banking scandals, mortgage defaults, are all “individual problems,” that have individual solutions. We want to discuss them in the privacy of our bedrooms or our therapists’ offices. But please, we beg our therapists, Don't wake us up. Don't tax us in confronting the real world around us. We are too overwrought to look outside ourselves. We are too worn out. And besides, none of what you say is on the television, so how can it be true? Help us, instead, to manage this anxiety we feel, that has no name. It floats all around us, depresses us, and depresses our children. We tell them that they are Okay, but still they feel pained, anxious, worried, upset. We need a cure, Doctor, a pill, a meditative chant, and we need it now!
As conditions worsen, fear or simply laziness may prevent us from examining whether in our individual case, the “personal is political,” and to reach out to those around us in both discussing our pain and brainstorming solutions that go beyond our individual problems.
Alternatively, we remain like the battered child, convinced that ultimately, WE have caused the abuse, and, as a result, WE have the power to stop it, if and when we feel strong enough or well enough to do so. If we get around to changing that light bulb, or buying that hybrid, the Tsunamis will stop. If we stagger our toilet flushes, the drought will stop. As soon as we find our next job, land that promotion, get back on our feet financially, the US dollar will recover and the depression will lift. If we encourage subsidies of ethanol, our addiction to oil will lessen. Getting back to “normal” is right around the corner. The Emperor has fine clothes, after all.
We do not, and cannot step back and connect the dots, because we might not like the picture that emerges.
Therefore, what I’m proposing is that unlike true optimism, a Panglossian perspective is a reaction to pessimism itself. While a true optimist can consider and plan for a negative outcome, a Panglossian perspective cannot. They aren’t wearing rose-colored glasses, but dark sunglasses that not only block out the harmful rays of the sun, but the sun itself. The view is rigid and unyielding. For some, the Panglossian view is an angry one, once more denied their ‘paradise lost.’ For others, the Panglossia takes the form of helplessness and vulnerability. Still others insist that they are ultimately in control of the entire planet, and what happens to it, is up to them.
Being Sane Is Not Enough
Now, for those of my readers who ask whether or not they are going crazy, as they see a gloomy future when those around them see “the best of all possible worlds,” I'd like to suggest that you are asking the wrong question. Being "sane" is not enough. Your actions are what matters now. Imagine yourself like Herr Shindler in Shindler's List, looking at your watch and saying "I could have sold this. I could have saved more." (Thank you, DRS, for that powerful metaphor.) You are living in an insane time, and you can't use the thinking of those around you to guide you in what to do. You have to start thinking and acting for yourself. You have to start looking around you for like-minded souls, and to be able to accurately identify those who are wrong-thinking, not to pathologize them, but to recognize them as living in a dream-world created for them by psychopathological corporate forces.
As you sit at your Thanksgiving table, open your ears and your hearts, as you listen to the Panglossians among you, and speak your simple truth, without attempting to alter this powerful delusion. It is not your job to fight this delusion. You cannot. But you can speak only for yourself and say what you see, and then listen. Maybe this year, maybe next, you may be thought of as the sane one after all, and they may come to you asking again for how you think, what you know, what you've done. But I wouldn't hold my breath.
Mental Illness and Sanity
Ultimately, it is important to look beyond whether someone is optimistic or pessimistic about the future, and ask, instead, whether this perspective leads an individual to self-directed action, and whether this action ultimately benefits the planet. It isn’t enough to live in a binary world of the “mentally ill” and those “not otherwise specified.” Looking squarely at personal or planetary problems requires more than people who aren’t crazy. A focus on mental illness will not bring us to a greater understanding of what is sane, even if it does provide mental health practitioners clients and grant monies. To define sanity, we need new and larger questions involving notions that go beyond profits and unlimited growth.
We need to be able to calm ourselves down and stand apart from our cultural norms. To be truly sane, we need the ability to grieve hard for the damage done all around us, to focus in on the Party Train as it speeds toward the abyss, and to work for collective change without any assurance that it will do a bit of good. We only adopt such a label when we develop that internal compass that directs us both inwardly and outwardly. It also, to quote airline advice, requires us to put on our own oxygen mask before convincing others to do so. Sanity, to paraphrase John Seed, is pulling our legs back away from the bus tires, and not calling it being “good to our legs.” It means shrinking our Global Footprint and not calling it being “good to the planet.” We ARE a part of the planet, even though the planet is not us. Learning to live as part of the global community sanely is no longer an option. To paraphrase Matt Savinar: if we don’t deal with our global reality, it will inevitably deal with us, whether in Panglossian delusion or not.
We, as therapists, do not need to be heavy-handed in our approach to our Panglossian clients, but neither must we remain silent about what we know and predict is coming. Here is where our therapeutic orientation and skills come in. Depending on their theoretical perspective, some of my Peak Oil savvy colleagues will approach these issues differently. Some, fearful of the impact on their clients (and themselves), will decide not to approach these issues at all. Should we speak up if a client tells us their plans to build a house on swampland, but don't know it? Will it destroy the therapeutic milieu to usher real life into our offices?
In psychoanalytic therapy, Panglossia may be regarded as an obstacle to progress that must eventually be confronted and interpreted at the right time. These therapists might want the client to appear emotionally ready or have some degree of insight into their problems before confronting them with TEOTWAWKI. In the humanistic and existential therapies, Panglossia might be seen as part of a cyclical pattern of life, death and rebirth, and clients may be helped to understand their place in this cycle, and their roles and responsibilities. In cognitive-behavioral therapies, Panglossia would be seen as another in a set of mal-adaptive behaviors used to cope with a stressful situation. Therapists would assist individuals in examining their current thoughts and behaviors and devising strategic ways to make changes. In all cases, the Peak Oil savvy therapist must be clear about the fact that Panglossia IS a defense, and to be firm that such denial IS acting against the best interests of their client.
Panglossia isn't limited to clients, however, and it effectively dulls therapeutic skill. Increasingly, those who are aware of the coming dangers report seeing therapists who are, themselves, suffering from the Panglossian condition, and ask me what they might do to help snap their therapists out of it. Friends, this isn't your job, any more than it is to educate your therapist about racism, sexism or homophobia. Therapists will begin to take these issues seriously when you begin to entrust your therapeutic dollars to those who do. Ask yourself how a Panglossian-diluted therapist can discourage you from some actions and encourage you in more useless pursuits.
Physicians and psychotherapists, Heal Thyself! Ask yourself whether your bright optimism is designed to help your clients or to help keep your own spirits up. Don't expect to be able to be effective in Peak Oil if you are in your own chaotic state after just finding out about it. Take some time to go through your own turmoil and grieving process, and develop your own internal compass about how to proceed.
Confronting major life changes such as Peak Oil, Climate Change, and Economic Collapse is, but a first step in helping the client assess their current life situation and design a new life plan. But as always, put on your own oxygen mask first, find your own sense of sanity and self-direction, before you begin to treat others. Model sanity.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Editorial Notes ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Contributor Kathy McMahon writes:
Psychologists and other psychotherapists have been instrumental in teaching corporations how to promote mindless consumerism. We've promoted our own professional livelihoods in treating mental illness, while too many of us have remained silent about the cost of promoting the "I" culture while minimizing or ignoring the "We." Here, I argue for a need for change. We must re-examine our own concerns about "fitting in," and "being well thought of" and instead focus on being effective advocates not only of our clients, but also the planet we all inhabit. Our profession has done much to contribute to our malaise. It is now time we take the mandate to be 'greater change agents' seriously.
About the author:
Kathy McMahon, Psy.D. is an adjunct professor, a clinical psychologist, certified sex therapist, trainer, and a newbie chicken farmer in Massachusetts.
About Peak Oil Blues:
We assume Peak Oil is real. Our goal here is to talk about the emotional reactions to living in such a time of uncertainty.