Delusions, Big and Small

This week, I’ve spent a lot of time looking back at old Montaigne Project essays and tried to put them into the context of the very weird times we’re experiencing and the ways I’ve changed since I wrote them. I’m going to get back to that below, but I want to start today by returning to the frame of this group of essays, which is Hypernormalisation, a sense of the unreal altering our sense of reality and weakening our ability to deal with chaos and complexity.

We all woke to the new that President Trump has the Coronavirus. This comes as we enter the homestretch of a Presidential race that has been largely defined by the virus. Democrats have staked out the public health and compassion side of the argument while Republicans have grabbed onto everything else — ranging from a semi-coherent view that public policy needs to be balanced between health and economy to bonkers “COVID is a hoax” conspiracies and everything in between. This hasn’t gone well for Republicans and they’re losing badly as a result.

But in typical Hypernormal style, we now have an event that threatens to upend this dynamic, because the Democratic commitment to compassion is immediately tested by Trump now having the virus. No doubt smart politicians will say the right, humane things under these circumstances, but it’s inevitable that some will not and Fox News and the Republicans will work overtime to amplify those voices, damaging the Democrats’ COVID-compassion brand.

The Republican gameplan now will be to pretend that they were never against social distancing or that they took any position whatsoever that led to outbreaks, it was all inevitable, and the fact that Democrats are showing so much hatred towards Trump as he recovers (it will only take one voice to make this charge) proves that this has been a politically motivated attack on him from the start.

You wouldn’t think that this would work, but it’s not hard to feel bad for a human who is ill and recovery is an opportunity to emerge triumphant, with renewed energy and perspective. We’re talking about Trump, so attaching compassion to him seems like a bad gamble, but you never know. He could be humbled or at least have enough sense to know that he could milk this for sympathy if he plays his cards right.

My guess is that people will feel a little less antipathy for Trump over the next couple weeks, but he’ll get back on the trail and will start insulting people again and the old feelings will return. Trump would have been much better off catching this two weeks from now, he needed a full recovery right on time for election day, without enough time for him to blow the narrative.

Politics is something of a mass delusion. By now, we all know who Trump is and what he’s capable of … but voters can do weird things. Everyone knew who Richard Nixon was in 1968, but they rationalized a belief that he had somehow changed a bit and, who knows, maybe we need those qualities he brings now. I guarantee you that there will be pundits who say that catching Coronavirus changed Donald Trump in some way. This is his last, perhaps only, chance to change the dynamics of a race that looked lost yesterday.

So, that’s taking a metaphor of “personal growth” and displaying a really dark side of it — how it could be used to shape a false narrative and to manipulate people on a grand scale. I want to flip that over now and look at genuine personal growth along the lines of how I discussed it here on Wednesday in my Experience essay and today in the Annotations blog on the subject of Emotional Ambivalence.

My essay on that other blog today was a bit harsh, on purpose, because it was in the frame of a movie and characters in it. It easy to be tough on fictional characters in a way that you shouldn’t be with real life people. And the differences are really important too. You can show a character on screen who is emotionally ambivalent and you are free to judge that trait without repercussion or caring why that trait manifests — it exists purely because the filmmakers say it does.

In real life, people who struggle with relationship issues are due compassion, including self compassion, because it’s not something that happens due to moral inadequacy or even immaturity. Sometimes really positive traits can lead people to behave this way.

Seeing complexity in things and being skeptical is a generally healthy way to approach life. It’s really easy to turn that back on yourself and the loved ones in your life, especially if your childhood was filled with those kinds of mixed or complex feelings.

Speaking for myself, the original Montaigne Project plowed a lot of ground on issues of authenticity. It was the core of the work I was doing then, becoming more honest in the way I dealt with others and myself. The project was useful in that regard, but as I noted on Wednesday, I hadn’t made as much progress as I thought by the end of it.

It took me many more years to become more authentic, but along the way, I detuned my emotions quite a bit. Maybe that was necessary to complete the authenticity work. A little over a year ago, I thought it was time to turn my emotions back on … and then I screamed “oh dear God, doc, turn that thing down. Is that how it feels?” Ok, that’s not really true. It actually felt really good to start to feel things.

I discovered, however, that when you add authenticity and feeling together, my outlook towards people radically shifted. I could see that I was deeply enmeshed in a strategy of keeping people confused about a lot of things — what I felt about them, the nature of my core relationship, and what I actually desired and didn’t desire.

And so, I’m recovering from that emotional ambiguity virus I wrote about on my other blog. I think I’m making progress this year. It’s a really hard year to open yourself up to honest feelings, but I think the way I’ve approached it has brought clarity to my life and others.

I’m probably still prone to this kind of behavior, however, and need to keep checking myself to make sure I’m not practicing it or if I am, to catch myself before it goes too far. There’s a biochemical component to being ambivalent. Getting positive feedback from people, especially when that came sporadically in youth, really pumps up the endorphins. It can feel like being drunk. When that kind of chemical rush is combined with fantasies, it can feel like something akin to love or delusion, and it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference as it’s happening.

I know this about myself and the conclusion of my other essay was a gentle warning to others in my orbit. People with these kinds of interpersonal traits tend to find each other, sometimes in the short run, sometimes over decades. So if you’ve been in contact with me, you might want to consider whether you too have some of these emotionally ambivalent traits and how they might affect your other relationships.

That kind of self reflection could require lots of therapy or it could take five minutes. I just think it’s better to take a glance at yourself, and be safe.

Note: if my description of emotional ambivalence sounds a bit, well, ambivalent, I think I describe it better in this post.

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