My friend, Michael Dowd, sent me a blog post by John Michael Greer, an author who writes on nature, culture, and the future of industrial society from a Druid perspective. Mr. Greer draws a compelling distinction between predicaments and problems. Predicaments, by definition, are not merely unpleasant situations. They are unpleasant situations from which there is no escape. For example, death. Modernist, industrial consciousness is that worldview which does not easily accept predicaments, preferring to turn them into manageable problems—usually through the use of technology. Which explains what Stephen Jenkinson calls the “death trade” of North American culture, treating death as a problem to be overcome. We do not like to accept the limits implied by the predicament. Greer quotes transhumanist, Alan Harrington, by way of illustrating the modernist impulse to change predicaments into solvable problems—particularly that thorniest of predicaments:
Alan Harrington proclaims that death is “an unacceptable imposition on the human race
Greer’s take on Western, industrial society is that we are indeed in a predicament. We may respond to the predicaments, with more or less intelligence, but we are not in a position to solve the predicaments, because predicaments cannot be solved.
Applying this distinction to human psychology and psychodynamics. I wondered whether the compulsive need to change predicaments into solvable problems starts early in life, in the first year, and even perhaps in the birth experience itself.
I’ll use my own life to illustrate. In recent months I have been feeling what would traditionally be labelled depression using psychiatric language. (I’m not convinced that these labels are helpful, and indeed the over-medication with anti-depressants quite likely reflects the very tendency I’m talking about—turning psychological and emotional predicaments into problems that can be “solved” with medication.)
One night I spent some time trying to feel into the source of what was going on. The words, “Something is wrong” surfaced. “Something is very wrong”. It felt like I was putting words that I hadn’t yet acquired (coming from a pre-verbal period in my life) to a predicament. At a very early age I felt existentially trapped, knowing intuitively that there was something very wrong, and not wanting to be there for it. The precise nature of the trauma is less important than that it carried exactly the same imprint as what I was feeling in response to the circumstances of my life as an adult. It seemed clear in that moment that what I was experiencing as an adult was a recapitulation of a memory—different circumstances, same feelings of hopelessness and depression, and that something was Very Wrong.
As I examine my life, I realize that I have been in a multi-year transition during which time I had undergone a complete shift in identity, indeed a death experience—but have not yet been reborn. I’m in this liminal phase, where a new identity has not yet gelled. This is the trigger that constellated the early trauma and surfaced those ancient feelings that something was wrong. When I realized this I spontaneously started to breathe deeply again, anxiety disappeared, and I felt safe and alive. Hope returned. It’s important to note that my life circumstances had not changed one iota.
The psychological/emotional correlation to Greer’s observation that modernists like to change predicaments into solvable problems also became clear. As infants and children trauma is a genuine predicament, in that one’s survival is at stake, and you are not in any way resourced to find your way out. But we make a psychic move that will influence us for the rest of our lives until we bring it into awareness. We find a way to turn the predicament into a problem, and the only way to do that is to conclude that I am the problem. I can’t change this terrible thing that is happening out there because I don’t have a clue what it is, but I can try to solve the problem of me. How? By not being me. By being quieter, not crying, restraining spontaneous gestures, smiling more, disappearing, being stronger, more entertaining. The false self is constructed, and the more successful it is making the dreadful feeling that Something Is Wrong go away, the more entrenched my false self becomes. You can spend a lifetime not living your own life before waking up.
The way out of this is the way through—right back into the predicament, and simply letting the predicament be. Feeling the terror, the darkness, the sense of being out of control, the wanting to disappear or indeed die. (How many suicides are the results of people feeling like they were the problem to which death of self is the solution?) When we consciously allow these feelings, we realize what we couldn’t know as babies and children. That we can survive feeling them. We can let them be the predicaments they are without having to turn them into a problem that we need to solve by abandoning our true, spontaneous self.
The radical edge of this is when we realize that we actually participate in the creation of the circumstances of our life as adults, in order to recreate the predicament, so that we can feel through it and heal. It is indeed very sobering to take an honest look back at our life and see how we’ve recreated these early feelings and predicaments for this very purpose. Some of us need lifetimes to realize this. Some of us won’t make it through a life because these early predicaments are so all-consuming. But through it all, there is an Intelligence biased toward wholeness and healing that is for us, even in the darkest hour