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Anxiety and Depression

David Cowles

May 21, 2024

“Who knew that kids could be trained to put more pressure on themselves than any adult would dare?”

The first half of the 20th century is a bonanza for students of intellectual history; just scratch the surface:

  • Science - Relativity and Quantum Mechanics

  • Psychology - Freud, Jung and Adler

  • Painting - Cubism, Surrealism, Dada, and Abstract Art

  • Literature (English) - Pound, Eliot, Joyce, and Stein

It’s too soon to reflect on the post-War period but suffice to say, when we picked our heads back up after VJ Day, we found ourselves in a very different world. In retrospect, we might as well have been shipwrecked on a deserted island. The old world was gone, wiped away, but the new world was ‘on backorder’. 

Consider a human cell. Most of our cells have prescribed functions, but stem cells are capable of assuming any genetically permitted identity that meets the needs of the organism. Post war society was like a pluripotent stem cell. Anything could happen…

…And it did! The post-war period has no shortage of chroniclers and commentators. To name just a few: Jacques Ellul, Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan, Jacques Derrida, Byung-Chul Han. Who?

Byung-Chul Han (BCH) has written extensively on postmodern culture. In a series of books (e.g. The Burnout Society) he documents our transition from a duty orientation to an achievement orientation. 

Late 19th and early 20th century psychology focused on the problem of neurosis, a symptom of what BCH calls ‘disciplinary society’. Today, we are more concerned with anxiety and depression. According to BCH, these are the wages of an ‘achievement society’.

Byung-Chul Han traces the evolution and impact of this shift. For example, when raising children, we are now much less focused on their ‘following rules’ and much more focused on their ‘standing out’. Once upon a time, the worst thing a parent could say was, “Why can’t you be more like other kids?” Today, a parent might say, “Why aren’t you less like other kids?” The pressure to conform can be stifling but the pressure to stand out…terrifying.

Once upon a time, parents were only too happy to raise a mini-me. If a child graduated high school (or college), stayed out of jail, married, raised a family, and found steady employment, parents were satisfied, ‘proud’ even. It was taken for granted that children who followed this path would be self-sufficient and better off financially than their parents.

Today, parents don’t so much care if their kids are ‘good’ as long as they’re ‘exceptional’. The economic assumptions underlying the pre-war model are no longer generally valid. Playing by the rules doesn’t work. Most young people, despite their best efforts, will not achieve the degree of financial security their parents enjoyed.

My father and I had a contentious relationship; what’s new? One time though, he hit the nail on the head: “I don’t understand your generation with all its talk about ‘finding yourself’. ‘Who am I?’ – I never asked that question; I always knew who I was.” 

Exactly! The All in The Family theme song captured my father’s mind-set: “And you knew who you were then…” Yup! My father was a good citizen who obeyed the rules and was quite happy to follow the path society laid out for him. And it worked for him…more or less.

Neurosis is a product of repression, whether self-imposed or enforced by others. The creative impulse runs up against the prohibitions of the super-ego…or the ‘super-state’, i.e. society’s repressive apparatus, beginning with parents.  

Depression and anxiety, on the other hand, are the product of frustrated self-expectations. While neurotics may harbor rebellion against social constraints, depressives buy into society’s expectations, hook, line, and sinker…and only then find that they can’t ‘measure up’.

Byung-Chul Han traces the transition of Western culture from a ‘disciplinary’ orientation to an ‘achievement’ orientation. Who knew that kids could be trained to put more pressure on themselves than any adult would dare?

We live in a society structured in part by socio-economic class. But the classification scheme has changed. Bourgeoisie/proletariat, white collar/blue, 1%/99%, have morphed into something much, much more insidious: Winners & Losers.

‘You proletarian, blue collar, 99%-er’ doesn’t have quite the school yard sting of ‘You Loser’.  Winners and Losers – it’s not just a matter of comparing 401 k balances. Winners are beautiful, sophisticated, successful, popular, smart, creative, affable; Losers are…losers.

In 1950, a parent who could say, “My son (sic) has a steady job at the local factory,” would enjoy some social capital. Not so today. “My child is a neurosurgeon, an investment banker, a CEO, a published author, a full professor,” generates capital now. Worse, absent the ability to make such claims, you have no social capital at all…you Loser!  Yup, the ‘sins’ of the children are visited on their parents!

Once upon a time, society had room for people all up and down the socio-economic ladder. Everyone made a contribution, and everyone merited respect. Today, losers get no respect.

Industrial can has replaced Judeo-Christian should as our ethical ideal. Worse, can has been turned into its own version of should: should be rich, should be beautiful, etc. The hapless teen today is in danger of self-identifying as a double loser.  I am not just ‘a mess’, I am ‘an immoral mess’. I am immoral because I am a loser.

In a classic display of the so-called ‘Protestant Ethic’, we have come to equate success with virtue. But don’t blame Calvin. As far back as the Book of Job certain folks argued that material success was a sign of God’s favor. 

Our culture bombards us with ‘positive messaging’: “Be yourself, be all that you can be, nothing is impossible!” But what if I don’t know or like myself, what if this is all that I can be, or want to be, and what if nothing else seems possible to me? What then?

“Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?... Maybe it just sags like a heavy load, or does it explode?” (Langston Hughes)


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