Should We Work on Ourselves – or on the World?
When we’re struck down by emotional issues, like depression, anxiety, or love troubles, we’re frequently – and often very wisely and kindly – advised that we should spend some time working on ourselves. If we visit a doctor, we may well be directed to take pills of one kind or another to restore our relationship to the world.
This is – in certain cases – evidently by far the best way, but we may also at points be a little too quick to seek to repair ourselves rather than look out to explanations beyond our own minds. It may be that the greatest cause of certain setbacks lies in an area that self-aware, moderate and modest people are instinctively loathe to blame: the system we live within.
Take anxiety: it is sorely tempting to pathologise ourselves for falling prey to a state of high and runaway alarm. It feels like an illness, but when we look at the world through sober eyes, we might legitimately wonder whether it isn’t occasionally simply the height of sanity to be close to anxious breakdown. Our panicked moods may be a profoundly sane consequence of living as a halfway sensitive human on an exceptionally chaotic and committedly tragic planet.
Much the same could be said of depression. We experience this condition deep within ourselves, but a share of its causes must lie beyond our own neurochemistry: in jobs that cannot give us the creative, autonomous feeling all humans require to be content; in the disappearance of community and the atomisation of the modern individual in the soulless vast metropolises of modernity; in commuting distances that put a reckless strain on our relationships and our time with ourselves; and in exposure to media that promote unfair feelings of envy and comparison.
When it comes to relationships, our inadequacies too can’t all be of our doing. They are in addition caused by the notion that we must be capable of being madly and beautifully in love with one other person for the whole of our lives, that our lover should be our best friend, confidant, sexual partner and co-parent for friction-free decades, that we should be able to feel constant sexual desire for them and that our tendencies to sleep around, get furious or bored are signs of madness or (that modern equivalent) ‘commitment phobia’. Against such deluded expectations, it may be just normal to end up failing – as most of us will.
We should at points be ready to make a frank admission that life is collectively rather than just personally difficult, for reasons that extend into the political, ideological and existential spheres. Our solutions must therefore stretch beyond pills to encompass an acknowledgement of a range of species-wide challenges. We shouldn’t just work on ourselves for not being well; in certain areas, we need also to work on the world for making us so.