Or, the Cure to Anxiety
Maybe you expected to see this subhead say something like “and here’s why that’s okay” or “and it doesn’t matter”. But this is not some ode to self-care. Nor is it some weird segue into explicating the doctrine of original sin (I’m no theologian, though I am a notoriously bad Catholic). No, it is a simple observation that in general, you are most likely a bad person, on a basis of sheer probability. So am I, though my ego is already trying to assert that if anything I am probably worse than you, in some perverted desire to stand out from the crowd.
The reason why you are probably a bad person is largely by virtue of the classic sin of omission, by the way. You may donate to charity, and yet how much of your income do you actually contribute versus, say, your spending on clothes? Perhaps you could have helped save some lives by buying off-brand, but you did not. Do you donate blood? Oh, you don’t because you are afraid of needles? Well, that blood would surely have been appreciated by that person who just died in a hospital because they had no matching donors. How many times a day do you judge someone silently or aloud, consciously or unconsciously, blithely assigning a complex, unknown person a label, epithet or verdict without taking barely any time to truly know them? If you are scrolling Instagram while you read this with half an eye and little of a mind, did you pause to consider how exploited the labor that assembled your iPhone is?
This series of increasingly inane accusatory questions was designed to lead to the inescapable conclusion that we do not truly have a way of knowing whether we are actually doing as much good as we should. Sure, we can strive for the bare minimum accepted by nearly all cultures worldwide since time immemorial, i.e. not murder anyone. Perhaps we also do not steal, and try to maintain that with the utmost scrupulosity. I’d wager, however, we’ve all stolen here or there, e.g. via a slightly adjusted timesheet, or a purloining of office goods. How bad is that? Well, how bad were any of the notes above? What truly IS our obligation to our fellow people?
A much holier and better person than I, Pope Francis I, would say, much as he did in his most recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti, that our obligation is to love one another. I’d concur, and once again conclude that by that measure most of us once again are bad people. Do you really love even many of the people you interact with? And by love, I mean, knowingly and willingly put their best interests above your own, consistently? I’ll be frank in that I don’t, being relatively selfish.
With the rate of our failures as high as they are, it is understandable why our nature is hardwired to try to think of ourselves as “good” people, deep down. The cognitive dissonance of coldly accepting that we fail most of the time, and are bad people that do not live up to our full potential is ultimately often too painful. But ironically, it is the only path forward to a key insight: Once you accept the daily struggle, it becomes a liberation. Much like how cleaning or exercise or any of the minutiae of rewarding habits can seem too difficult if you think there is a nearby finish line, but find yourself needing to expend effort daily just to keep up, avoidance of the reality that this is your lot in life is likely to culminate in depression. I’d wager that the skyrocketing rates of mental health issues being diagnosed in the early 21st century, the Age of Anxiety, are in no small part driven by the disjunct between this calm acceptance and many business models relying on spurring us into a cycle of endless consumption in pursuit of “end goals”.
To those tragically contemplating suicide, perhaps that does actually seem like an end, the only actual closure. Unfortunately, your life is a hefty amount to wager on such a reality. Succumbing to despair is alien to the essence of humanity; please reconnect with someone, anyone, and learn how much you matter beyond your wildest dreams. And that, interestingly enough, is perhaps the oddest secret of all that you discover once you accept your flaws as well as those of others: You realize that we are all in this together. Rather than expecting more from others, you more often than not exist in a state of astounded gratitude at how, despite all our flaws, so many people end up doing the right thing, in a given moment. Sure, they may fail later, but isn’t that part and parcel of being mostly bad?
If so, maybe the secret of calm, poise, equanimity, whatever you care to call it, is in the simultaneous recognition of personal and external flaws. You don’t cut someone else slack because you are the better person – you cut someone else slack because you look at them and say, with a smile: “I see you, my brother/sister/fellow/comrade.” It is not necessarily that in that moment you find peace because you find yourself to be equal, because it is very easy for many to then follow that moment of clarity with self-doubt, a negation of your personal virtues and pride in favor of returning to contemplating your own flaws. Peace only follows for a time, as long as the balance of that recognition and knowledge of self-worth is maintained. It is a delicate balancing act, one the world’s current state plus the vagaries of human nature are not inclined to tolerate.
But this is not an age of tolerance, despite what woke/social justice movements may want you to think. We tolerate each other less than ever before; we tolerate ourselves less than ever before. Suicides are skyrocketing; children injure themselves; drug abuse abounds; the coldest of cold wars spreads steadily across the globe, sparking internecine conflict in every nation.
There are many symptoms of this intolerance, and even more potential causes. Clergy and demagogues will appeal to the better angels of our nature as the solution, but I propose a more sardonic approach befitting this very nihilistic (if not quite completely) age: Let’s reveal the worse devils of our nature. Let’s begin, not with self-care, but with self-recognition. We are probably bad people, in many ways.
The thing is, if we all are, maybe no one of us can or should feel superior to another, for any reason. And if that’s true, what then follows? I don’t know about you, but when I realize that, I breathe a sigh of relief. The pressure is off, the rat race is a lie, the comparisons are all invalid. No, all I need to do is accept that likelihood, and then go about changing it. And even if I don’t get too far, at least I got somewhere.