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Sunday, April 23, 2017
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Not long ago, I listed to a Teaching Company audio course on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT is an interesting psychotherapy technique, in that it puts emphasis on getting the patient to “pull up their own socks” instead of relying on the therapist to evolve a plan (after long analysis) for the troubled patient’s mental salvation. Of course, CBT is more subtle than that, but it certainly does try to encourage the patient to build up their own social and mental resources. One of the important resources that the CBT therapist attempts to foster is an inner sense of “meaning in life”. CBT includes exercises whereby the patient identifies things that they find very important, and that give meaning to their lives. These exercises might consider family relationships, social belonging, personal achievement, financial success, religious or spiritual beliefs and expressions, learning and discovery, fame and acknowledgement, feeling needed, etc. Those are the kinds of things that would probably occur most frequently to many modern suburban Americans if asked what do their lives mean.

I was reminded of the CBT “meaning in life” exercise recently while I was reading an article in the April, 2017 issue of The Atlantic on ancient Athens (“Making Athens Great Again” by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein). In this article Ms. Goldstein discussed what some of the great thinkers of Athens said about “meaning in life”. She concludes that they clearly rejected spiritual transcendence. “The cosmos is indifferent, and only human terms apply: Perform exceptional deeds so as to earn the praise of others whose existence is as brief as your own”.

However, the ancients recognized that there was big problem with this way of finding meaning in life for most people. According to Ms. Goldstein, “most people are, by definition, perfectly ordinary, the ancient Greeks included.” Most people aren’t going to perform very many exceptional deeds in their lifetimes. Still, the Greeks “found a solution to this problem in propounding a kind of participatory exceptionalism, encouraging a shared sense of identity . . . merely to be Greek was extraordinary”.

So, it was a sense of nationalism and patriotism that supposedly gave the average Athenians their “meaning in life”. They might just be faceless bureaucrats or garbagemen, but the nation that they supported was in fact great and exceptional, much more advanced than most of the world. They had their democracy and their great architecture and their growing wealth and importance in the world, along with their great artists and writers and accumulated learning and wisdom. When the call to war came, ancient Athens was certainly held out to be worth fighting for. Why not, when simply being a citizen (for those who achieved that honor, which excluded women and slaves) in itself is probably the most meaningful thing in life.

Wow, how times have changed!!! I could hardly imagine anyone I know here in suburban NJ contending that being an American, being part of what America has achieved in the world, is a big part of what gives them meaning in life. I myself never felt much patriotic pride; as I came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s while the Vietnam War raged on, I certainly did not consider the chance to fight for my nation’s interest in Southeast Asia to be an opportunity to accomplish something meaningful with my life.

Now don’t get me wrong, I never hated America. I always recognized my responsibility to be a dutiful citizen; I vote, I pay my taxes, I occasionally engage in political expression regarding the big questions of the day. Despite our nations many flaws and inequities, I still feel that it’s better than most of the rest, and there are still a lot of good things worth preserving about it. But as to gaining a feeling of meaning in life from being a loyal American citizen, that just never occurred to me. And obviously, as a young man, I could hardly foresee any situation where I would be willing to lay down my life for my country, short of say the Red Army storming the beaches along the Jersey shore or the People’s Liberation Army overwhelming Big Sur.

And yet, my father and uncles were part of “the Greatest Generation” who served in World War 2 and did indeed offer to put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of the nation (luckily, the Navy and Army Air Corp found relatively safe places to utilize their services in 1944 and 1945; many other families who lived in the neighborhoods where my mother and father grew up weren’t so lucky). I suppose that for them, being an American really was a big part of their sense of self-worth. And yes, I recognize that here in America today, we still have a lot of people for whom national identity plays a big role in their sense of self.

Perhaps this is one of the big fault-lines in America right now. This fault line may well be same divide between those who enthusiastically supported Donald Trump in the recent Presidential election, and those who favored Hilary Clinton (of course, I was a bit of an odd duck amidst the college-educated suburbanite circles — I certainly wasn’t going to get on board with Trump, but I never enthused much about Ms. Clinton either). Trump supporters resonated with the notion that America should become “great again”. They rely on national identity as part of their own personal self-worth, and thus they take very personally the nation’s failures in recent years, especially when some of those failures (e.g. the increasing accumulation of wealth and divide in opportunity between rich and everyone else) were hitting home in their own communities.

Many pundits regret the increasing political polarization that appears to have been happening in our country in recent years, which the Trump-Clinton contest brought into sharp focus. I’ve heard and read some political and psychological theorists talk and write about the need for people on each side of whatever this political dividing line is to reach out and try to understand what motivates those on either side. But I’m not sure if we really know just what this line is, e.g. what is so fundamentally different about a white working-class family supporting Trump in Webster City, Iowa or Canton Ohio versus a college-trained professional family in Scarsdale NY or an immigrant Hispanic family in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. Why do the Democrats seem to have a natural constituency with the latter, and the modern GOP an easier way of relating to the former?

Sure, there are plenty of social factors and economic factors, but what we would really need is a forum where these people could talk heart-to-heart. Right now, I don’t think we have any places of common ground to start such a discussion. So let me suggest, the question of “what gives you meaning in life” might be the place to start. The important sub-question to that is, how does your citizenship as an American fit in with your sense of personal meaning. What do you expect from America, and what would you give up for America?

I suspect that natural Republican-favoring families would generally expect more and would give up more, at least for the “Great America” that they supposedly remember and want to see restored. But yes, there is a paradox in that these same people are more likely than the “unpatriotic” educated coastal Democrats to hate paying taxes and continue to lobby their politicians for less tax and less government regulation (in keeping with “Tea Party freedom”). They might say that they first want to see a return to civic virtue as a driver of political energies, and not a mix of elite bureaucracy and legislation driven by financial institution contributions. To be honest, the ancient Greeks might have sympathized with this feeling.

What I’m suggesting — or asking, as I’m really not sure about this theory — is whether there is a sociology factor at play in the big red state / blue state rift today. Among the “elite” of the blue states, I think that national issues are very important; there is clearly not a sense of national nihilism. Liberal factions and Bernie Sanders supporters want more government, not less, and thus care a lot about it. But as to where that position stands within the “hierarchy of needs” of their own self-identity, it’s probably not usually in the top rungs. They have their relationships and their spirituality and arts and learning, which may or may not be grounded on American soil. The elite are very internationalist, they appreciate Chinese philosophy and African art and European soccer and Middle-Eastern cuisine, along with Indian yoga. Where as, for many red-state people, the need to have a nation of civic virtue that they could feel proud of is still a big inner motivation, and not unrelatedly, most of their other concerns and joys in life are very firmly rooted within the boundaries of the USA. E.g., NASCAR.

Are there any potential bridges here, any possible means toward greater understanding and wisdom on both sides? You would think that educated, internationalist Clinton supporters might appreciate the ancient Greek bias towards national identity and virtue as a source of personal value, and consider whether Trump supporters in the heartlands are in some ways in synch with these ideas and ideals. I’m sure that a lot of Hillary people would love to talk the Trumpians out of their vision of whatever a “Great America” would be. But maybe they need instead to try to understand what that vision is, and why it might be personally important, just as it was similarly important to Athenians in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BCE.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:41 pm      
 
 


  1. Jim, As usual, I’m commenting with random tho’ts on what I think about the topic; no well-tho’t-out piece of work here.

    I see what you are doing and think it’s a good idea; at least I think I understand what you want to do: i.e., understand the “Trump people” and be able to see why they voted for him and what they expected from him; such an understanding would lead to more and better relationships among people in our country in the next say “100 days”, rather than the disparity and chaos we’ve had in the last “100 days”. If I’m wrong, please correct me. Or perhaps I simplify your idea and lose important aspects of your concept.

    This idea is similar to what I’ve been thinking about lately, myself. Why did the “Trump people” vote for him? Can they not see that he’s NOT about to do much to help the people who voted for him? Why, for that matter, were my own parents strong Republicans in a time when the Democrats had the answers my parents wanted? The answer to that seemed simple in later years with perspective: FDR got us into war, and my parents wanted nothing to do with war; in fact in my own family a young cousin of mine was killed at 19 years old; a tragedy of massive proportions for our family; and there were so many like that in the 1940s. Yet, what to do? Let Hitler take over? But I digress. The situation, altho the details are different, somehow seems to have the same underlying concepts compared to what is going on today.

    When I saw the election results for Illinois last November, I almost fell out of my chair. The entire state looked RED!; I had to search for where the BLUE was: Chicago was Blue; a few counties that I had to search out were Blue. Illinois voted for Hillary; but if it were not for Chicago, Trump would have easily gotten Illinois’ vote. Twelve counties in Illinois out of 102 voted “Blue”; one was Cook County which also includes Chicago. Without Chicago the state would have gone to Trump.

    And I knew the reason immediately: The rest of the state is rural; the “Blue” counties are urban or “more urban”.

    I understand what you are trying to do, but I’m not sure I agree with what the article in “The Atlantic” gives as a reason for people to “regress” (right word? Maybe “return” is better) to conservatism. I tend to think that a lot of the rural poor (and they are plentiful, I think) have succumbed to “Corporate-ism”, as in: Corporations are taking over farming in general and the “old time” farm family is a long gone thing. (One person I know who left a very profitable farm in her day told me her reason for leaving was the “unrelenting work” 24/7/365 that never ended. She had little interest in that.) The only farmers I can see (from what I understand is going on in Illinois) who are making money are those who sell their land to big corporations; those farmers who keep their land and actually FARM, are rapidly becoming dirt poor; and it seems THEY are the ones who voted for Trump.

    I think they voted for Trump because he promised them what they tho’t would help them in their extremity. They are fearful of their way of life. Fear is a “me first” thing, as in “survival of the fittest”. The problems they face and that really have no solution cause fear and anger in them; Trump appealed to both fear and anger in people. He also told them what they wanted to hear; yet he had no clue of the problems they were dealing with or how to solve them. But he SOUNDED as if he did. (And tonight’s news tells me that 96% of the people who voted for Trump would do it again.)

    I tend to think that few people sat down and had an actual “logical” tho’t about whom to vote for; I tend to think they voted more from their emotions; and Trump surely appealed to the emotional side of humans.

    It struck me that your last sentence (which I fully agreed with): “But maybe they need instead to try to understand what that vision is, and why it might be personally important, just as it was similarly important to Athenians in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BCE.” would appeal more to those who long to have Obama back in office. It’s easy to see Obama saying, let’s sit down and talk about this, understand each other, and come to some sensible conclusion that’s fair to all.

    Trump says “Build a Wall”, “Lock her Up”, “get ‘em [protestors] out”; and people respond to those emotional words that express simple ideas, but the very complex realities of trying to put such ideas into practice that has very real and serious consequences. Tonight on the new I also hear he wants to “build the wall” again and have the tax payers pay for it initially and then Mexico will pay the taxpayers BACK. Sure! And I am rich and will never have to worry about money.

    He says whatever comes to his head, makes up things (as in the sending of ships to North Korea that are actually going in another direction), anything that appeals to what people WANT to hear and what their emotions are and what will make their emotions feel better, regardless of whether or not there’s any reality to what he says.

    You are right that the “elitist” and the “liberals” are very “internationalist”. I think that the “non-elitist”, the “conservatives” are more isolationist; they are the ones who are feeling the serious consequences of the “elitists”; and here by “elitists” I mean those who have money, influence, power, etc.

    There are so many serious problems facing so many countries. France seems the next that just might go very conservative in the person of Marine La Pen. As I see it, simple solutions to serious problems may have really bad results, as in: 1) nuclear “problems” (read war) with North Korea 2) dropping the “Mother of all Bombs [they HAD to make it female] which was NOT used by Obama due to the fact that they KNEW there were many unforeseen “collateral” (read “civilian”) side effects (read people dead) for two mistakes I think Trump has recently made.

    Furthermore, Trump has little inclination to help the “poor farmer”, the “poor immigrant”, the “poor anybody; he seems to care only for himself. Those who are being “consumed” by corporate-ism (as in small business no matter how seriously it’s touted as the solution to our problems) get little, if any consideration; the reality is big box stores WILL prevail and the little businessman is out. (Just watch one episode of “Shark Tank” and that becomes clear.)

    When I think of Athens and the “great thinkers” there, I think they had little consideration for the “poor person”; women and slaves (male or female) had no voice in what was decided when it came to democracy. It seems to me that in those days “democracy” was the “elitism” of its day. But in those days likely women and slaves gave no tho’t whatsoever to having a voice in anything political.

    At this point, not only in our country but in the world as a whole, I’m not sure what the answer is. Hope and pray? If Obama’s rational, considered, thoughtful approach to serious problems was so easily thrown out, will the populace that voted for Trump listen to and want to have a “logical” approach to solving America’s problems. The latest town hall meetings seem to indicate they won’t. They want to have a quick and easy “feel good”, America’s Great, solution. I’m not sure at all what the solution might be to what are becoming world problems, not only U.S. problems. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — April 24, 2017 @ 6:13 pm

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