Last Tuesday I participated in a mini-retreat organized by the Church Pension Group devoted to Planning for Wellness. The retreat was surprisingly well done. One of the presentations noted how, for purposes of survival, human beings were more inclined to focus on the negative. True that. The facilitator then went on to tell us that during her hellish commute she assiduously avoids listening to the news — negative — and, rather than focusing on fellow drivers cutting off and honking at one another, she instead focuses on fellow drivers who make way for one another and appear to be enjoying their commutes. She arrives at her office feeling more refreshed than when she left home.
One slide in the presentation asks: “It’s All in My Head?” No. But you do have a choice on what you will focus your attention. (In my head I am hearing Ponty Python’s Graham Chapman —Brian — strung up on a cross between two criminals while the chorus sings “always look on the bright side of life.”)
The very next slide displays a quote from eminent psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. . . . The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”
Freedom: the absence of constraint. The definition is pure Immanuel Kant. It is a definition of freedom on the boundary, which is to say at the extreme. When all our other freedoms have been stripped from us, what remains is Kant’s transcendental subject. Kant’s definition of freedom is perfectly suited to the death camps of Germany. No doubt, at this extremity, it works. Between German death camps and Napa County retreat centers I am sure there are plenty of boundary experiences.
And, yet, it strikes me that invoking Dr Frankl during a wellness retreat seeks to place every unpleasantness — e.g., a hellish commute — on the same level as a death camp experience. The two, I would argue, are incomparable. Or, more accurately, when I cast my daily displeasures as boundary experiences from which I should divert my attention, do I not also ignore the practical causes and potential solutions from which these displeasures arise?
Put differently, if focusing on the negative is, as the presenter noted, an evolutionary adaptation designed to protect us from harm, then what is the harm I am inviting into my life by “ac-cent-u-at-ing the pos-i-tive”?
Transforming all experience into the extreme case, inviting me to enfold myself entirely back into my transcendental subject, strikes me not simply as terrible practical advice, but also as empirically false. Yes. It might improve my attitude; who wants to hear about war, misogyny, oligarchs, climate change, refugees, and the opioid epidemic? “Always look on the bright side of life.”
But then there are the real-life threats that positive thinking — and breathing — cannot eliminate. To be sure, I can block them from my mind. But they are still there. Right? They are still threats. Right? That I am ignoring. Right?
So, let me offer a different definition of freedom, this one from the Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen: freedom is the conditions that make for freedom: education, good health, security, companionship, time, and reasonable wealth. Not then the absence of constraint, not the transcendental subject; but constraints that hold and bear me forward, valued and well cared for, but also valuing and caring for those around me.
If ever I should find myself against the existential wall, as Dr Frankl did, I will no doubt need to draw upon my inner resources to carry me through. Yet, in some measure, I will only find myself in that extreme place because others have retreated into their own transcendental bubble. In the face of war, misogyny, hatred, and mismanagement of the world, they have turned the channel, or simply tuned out.
Put differently, the good that I seek is not within me. Rather is this good found in relationship to the world. Indeed, were this not so then focusing on the negative would have no positive benefits with respect to survival.
Now it might be that I am a victim of abuse, that I have experienced some physical or mental trauma, and that I require therapy to help me overcome this trauma. Or it might be that my brain functions in such a way that I see danger and feel threats where there are none. In such cases, I might require pharmaceutical assistance to help my brain to more accurately distinguish real from imagined danger. Yet, it strikes me that, absent organic or traumatic cause, our focus on the transcendental subject invites the very dangers it seeks to avoid.