Part I: The Invisible Enemy
Anxiety is a fear without object: if I am afraid of spiders, then it’s relatively simple, I avoid being around spiders as much as possible. Anxiety, therefore, is a fear that somehow, at some unknown point in time, something bad will happen and we have no control over it. In other words, anxiety is, as some politicians referred to COVID-19 threat, an “invisible enemy”.
In fact, this is precisely why some of us tend to “warify” (the war on drugs, war on terror, war on climate change, etc.) threatening things that are bigger than us. By objectifying anxiety, we give a ‘face’ to an otherwise faceless threat.
It is indeed true that by immediately giving an identity to an otherwise identity-less threat, we appear to reduce anxiety. In reality, however, we are just numbing ourselves, and we end up missing the whole purpose of anxiety: to gain crucial information about our vulnerabilities and hidden fears, which is the only path toward building resiliency and truly getting rid of anxiety. Think about this as a process of immunization: you do need to directly confront the virus in order to get immunity. As it happens, I see my work with people with anxiety similar to a vaccination process.
Boris Cyrulnik is a French neuropsychiatrist and ethnologist, worldwide renowned for his research and writings on resilience. He defines it as the ability to not only survive, but actually thrive when faced with visible and invisible adversity.
“Anguish, sorrow and suffering can never completely take over us, or at least not more than happiness does it. A single word allows us to create a different way of understanding the mystery of those who manage to successfully go through grief and anxiety: resilience. Resilience designates our ability to succeed, to live, to grow, despite any adversity […] The paradox of human condition is that we can become our individual selves only under the influence of others.”
But resiliency is crucial not only in managing our personal life and social relationships. In the era of artificial intelligence and automation, we need to keep in mind that the machines we develop are as resilient as those who program them. Moshe Vardi is Computational Engineering Professor at Rice University. In his recent article Efficiency vs. Resiliency: What COVID-19 Teaches Computing, Prof. Vardi writes:
We must recognize the trade-off between efficiency and resilience. It is time to develop the discipline of resilient algorithms.
It is relevant to note that Boris Cyrulnik and Prof. Vardi have something very important in common, yes, they both talk about resilience, in humans and algorithms, and they both are survivor and, respectively, son of survivors, of one of the most atrocious acts done by humans to fellow humans: the Holocaust.
A few days ago, I read what I consider to be one of the most complete, balanced and effective assessment of the current global crisis. Marc Andreessen’s It’s Time to Build is, from my point of view, a kind, yet merciless invitation to not glaze over our anxiety and then collapse when the proverbial thing hits the fan. It is, overall, a courageous invitation to build:
If the work you’re doing isn’t either leading to something being built or taking care of people directly, we’ve failed you, and we need to get you into a position, an occupation, a career where you can contribute to building.
I feel honored to be in the position to be “taking care of people directly”. Similarly to building a resilient nation, building your internal resiliency has to be a thoughtful, meaningful process. It takes time and it is done best and fastest under the guidance of an experienced, skilled and knowledgeable professional.
The presence of anxiety indicates vitality. Like fever, it testifies that a struggle is going on.
I am fortunate to be part of #i4j, an amazing network of thought leaders who exchange ideas and look for solutions to global problems, including, of course, the current #COVID-19 world crisis.
This piece is inspired by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox article about the fact that some of the countries who responded well to the COVID-19 crisis have something in common: women leaders. And what are some qualities that mattered for these leaders? Truth, Decisiveness, Tech, and last but for sure the most important, Love. However, what really rang a bell for me (as a licensed psychotherapist, culture consultant and human being) was a comment of another i4j member, Mei Lin Fung: “Women are biologically attuned to the physical and well-being of the family - and beyond”.
For this is the absolute key word: ATTUNEMENT. After working individually with hundreds of people to help them manage their personal crisis, anxiety, etc., and after reviewing the afferent research, I believe that some of the biggest problems of humanity would be solved or would not exist if we elected leaders who have the ability not only to empathize with others, but also to be genuinely attuned to their needs (instead of, for example, obsessing about printing their name of the COVID-19 crisis stimulus checks).
As research shows, genuine empathy cannot exist if leaders are unable to be truly attuned to others’ needs. On the other hand, a leader’s lack of attunement seems to be directly proportional to his or her level of personal insecurity, as well as with their inability to genuinely relate to their constituents, versus using them for personal financial and political gain. As Dr. Gabor Mate, MD points out, attunement has nothing to do with the mechanical imitation of a caring behavior. Moreover,
“[Attunement] cannot be simulated, even with the best of goodwill […]. Attunement is necessary for the normal development of the brain pathways and neurochemical apparatus of attention and emotional self-regulation”
Emotional self-regulation is the key word from my point of view. If a toddler lacks self-regulation and hits or bites the other kids on the playground, that is one thing. But when the leader of a nation lacks emotional self-regulation, consequences are social, economic and ecological tragedy and death.
In a world where every single challenge is framed as a "WAR" (on drugs, on viruses, on terrorism), intuition and attunement are playing a crucial role.
While intuition and attunement are arguably inherently feminine qualities, there are many men who use them in their leadership roles. The problem seems to be that this kind of leaders do not care much about publicity, for they do not experience the desperate need to trumpet their qualities. To reframe an old saying: ask not what the size of the crowd should do for you, but what you can do for the crowd.
If we really care about our security and prosperity, it is crucial to support and elect intuitive and emotionally attuned leaders, who tend to make long term, sustainable decisions, instead of focusing on short term and individualistic -not to mention narcissistic- gains.
HOLLY TRUITT and ELYSA FENENBOCK are two fascinating thought leaders with a solid sense of humor and a very elegant way of assembling information, images and possibilities into a beautiful, wholesome puzzle.
The Expressive Arts department at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) hosted on January 17, 2020 Elysa and Holly's Shuffle the Deck, a pop-out course out of the Satnford's d. School.
Shuffle the Deck Workshop is:
- an opportunity for instructors, professors, teams to play with new content;
- a way of teaching participants to play with new content, prototype and rapidly iterate;
- at the intersection of design thinking and design process and focusing on navigating ambiguity and designing one’s own work method.
- based on using the model of Tarot cards to reimagine countless decks and guides.
HOLLY TRUITT is a social innovation expert who helps organizations catalyze community-based change.
ELYSA FENENBOCK is a former IDEO (and current Google Artist in Residence) designer who applies the medicine of creativity to projects at the intersection of design, art, and education.
RUMINATIONS: What is the Difference Between Problem-Solving Thinking and Circular, Sterile, Exhausting Thinking?
RUMINATIONS are endless, circular thoughts, which rotate on and on in our minds, vicious circles creating or increasing stress, anxiety, and anger. Listen to this short podcast and learn how to reduce or eliminate one of the most common and powerful sources of stress.
No human being can build a sense of self if they do not have a "mirror" to reflect back their thoughts, behaviors and emotions in a meaningful manner.
That is particularly true in the case of children. Whatever they do, feel or say -the very fact that they exist!- needs to be genuinely acknowledged by their parents, educators and caregivers.
And yes, the key word here is genuinely. For acknowledging does not mean praising their every little move ad nausea, nor criticizing and correcting them continuously. Acknowledging means being fully, genuinely present with your child, and celebrating together with him/her the happiness of being. The miracle that, despite so many billions of variables, he or she appeared in the world. More precisely, in your world.
Of course, it is difficult to genuinely celebrate being if we learn to view life as some sort of inert mush that needs to be populated with "exciting" stuff. Being, without the obsessive need of doing, is generally considered "unproductive", "boring". However, there is a reason we are called Human Beings and not Human Doings.
Children are happy just to exist. They do not need to be continuously entertained, in fact it is precisely "boredom" what stimulates their imagination and creativity. By buying them stashes of toys, by scheduling every minute of their lives for "activities", by letting them stare for hours at various screens, we drag them further and further away from their own selves. We prevent them from creating, exploring and learning about who they are. We -in fact- deprive them from the most appropriate, most affordable and most reliable resources that they could have: the resources within themselves. We teach them to only look outwards, and define their identity in terms of what others believe and say about them.
When Identity and Sense of Self are defined mostly by external achievements, insecurity, fear, anxiety, and the possibility of being manipulated by others increase exponentially.
Initially (that is, before getting hooked on the endless Pleasure-Reward cycle built in certain technologies) when given the chance a child will always choose the validating, genuine presence and interaction with a carrying adult over staring at their new iPhone.
In fact, smartphones, tablets, computer and TV screens are nothing but pseudo-mirrors, which return (to children and adults alike) not an understanding of our own selves, but the subtle truth that we are stubbornly, unsuccessfully searching for belonging and mirroring in the wrong place. For it's only the intentional, authentic and empathetic human presence what creates a true mirror, allowing other humans to successfully build and sustain a healthy and meaningful identity (and not a merely functional, utilitarian identity, which often leads to confusion, cognitive and emotional dissonance, alienation and illness).
Many of us do not realize until late in life (if we ever do) that we have never truly been seen, and therefore no one in our family, culture or community reflected back to us glimpses of who we are, or who we want to be, or who we think we ought to be. It is that moment when we feel that our whole life has been nothing but a search for that initial, original (archetypal) reflection and acknowledgement. For that gaze in which we instinctively longed to reflect ourselves, so we can receive the absolutely necessary reassurance that we exist, that we are important, that we matter.
Narcissus (not unlike Instagram 'influencers') was somehow lucky: he could afford to just sit by the lake and admire his image in the water all day long. And let’s be honest, we all have inside us a little Narcissus who's chasing “likes” and ego-approval in the mirror of our 'social networks' accounts.
There are other lifetime, systemic implications of lack of mirroring, most of them represented by either withdrawal, either an obsession with being “first” or “best”, and an investment in titles and objects that are said to guarantee our visibility in an insanely fast paced society.
In their search for meaningful mirroring, humans exhibit a series of behaviors that often lead to unnecessary (even highly damaging) diagnostics and chemicals intake. Anxiety, attention deficit, fidgeting, irritability, anger and aggression, are often signals that they are struggling to make sense of who they are and what their place is in a world that reflects nothing -absolutely nothing!- back to them.