Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Psychological Clutches: Lead-Foot Disengagement As a Crutch

Beware of popular, sweeping “Don't Worries” touted as solutions to all problems.

Woody Allen said, “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering—and it's all over much too soon.”

Before it’s over we often find relief from all that misery, loneliness and suffering by taking a break, disengaging the clutch and cruising, who cares where. Just pretend that life’s a game, or that it’s game over already and it doesn’t matter whether you won or lost (Allan’s losing badly lately what with accusations of pedophilia flying.)

Pull hard on the psychological clutch cable and it disengages the gears that mesh us to reality.  We can think of the clutch as the translation of a desperate “Please, who knows what I should do here, because I’m at my wit’s end?” into a dismissive rhetorical “Who knows?,”  a “maybe yes; maybe no? I can’t decide but I’ve got to!,” into a dismissive “Maybe yes, maybe no? Who cares?” The clutch affords us serenity not gained by answering our anxious questions but by getting over them. 

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There are plenty of times when we worry about things that end up not mattering, but an equal number of times when we ignore things that end up mattering. Our interpersonal debates are largely over what’s worth fussing about. One man’s “Who knows, cause I’ve got to figure this out?” is another man’s rhetorically dismissive “Who knows?” as though the question debated is trivial, not worth thinking about.

So of course, for each of us there are situations in which engaging the clutch is the right practical solution—just get over it, move on, let that sleeping dog lie—times when we bet that anxiety is unwarranted.

And there will be times too when it’s hard to just get over it, your gears whirring and worrying even though you wish you could stop them.

So we come up with lots of rhetorically persuasive ways to try to convince ourselves and others to just let it be. One way to get more rhetorical heft is to treat the clutch as though it applies universally, not just applicable to certain situations that you think call for the clutch, but to all situations. There are many of these universal clutches floating around these days:

  • Don’t worry, be happy
  • It’s God’s will
  • Everything happens for a reason
  • You can’t change anyone; all you can do is change your self
  • Loving tolerance is the answer to every problem
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff and it’s all small stuff
  • It's all good
  • Life is but a dream
  • It’s all illusion
  • The self isn’t real.  It’s impermanent. To think otherwise is egotistical 
  • Be here now
  • Don’t be judgmental
  • Stay positive
  • Accept everything and everyone
  • Compassion for all beings; acceptance of all behaivor and outcomes
  • Thinking is the source of all our problems and suffering
  • It’s all beyond us to understand, so settle into wonder. Give up on trying to figure it out.

The serenity prayer is interesting on this. It’s the most perfectly crafted advice I’ve ever found, and yet it does come covered in a thin coating of slippery rhetorical lubricant. 

It’s called the serenity prayer, not the courage prayer though it gives serenity and courage equal weight. Counseling serenity about everything resonates with our craving for the universal clutch. Serenity and Courage both sound like universal all-purpose virtues, but as the prayer makes clear, they can’t be. If they were, you wouldn’t need the wisdom to know what situations call for which sometimes-virtue. 

In practice, none of us really act with serene acceptance always. Some say they don’t because they fall short of the ideal, an ideal still worth striving for.

I think striving for total serenity is an unworthy goal and that claiming to strive for it stunts personal growth. We’re hypocritical when we say the equivalent of “convince yourself that there is no self,” “It’s important to realize that nothing is important,” “Let me persuade you that no one can be persuaded of anything,” “You should not be judgmental," or “You’ll have a better future if you stay in the present moment.”

Better to admit that some things are worth sweating and others aren’t and to focus on guessing well which are which.

Ways of pretending nothing matters have a long history:

The Upanishads (7th century BCE) say “That is perfect. This is perfect. Perfect comes from perfect. Take perfect from perfect, the remainder is perfect. May peace and peace and peace be everywhere.Whatever lives is full of the Lord. Claim nothing; enjoy, do not covet His property. Then hope for a hundred years of doing your duty. No other way can prevent deeds from clinging, proud as you are of your human life.”

The Tao Te Ching (6th century BCE) says, “Stop thinking, and end your problems.

What difference between yes and no? What difference between success and failure? Must you value what others value, avoid what others avoid? How ridiculous!”

Buddha (also about 6th century BCE), as the history goes, was looking for a way to get off the Hindu reincarnation wheel that over lifetimes lofted you to the highest heights only to drop you back down to the beginning again. His solution: Stop thinking you’re a self. You’re not. You’re impermanent. Thinking you’re real is egotistical madness. Surrender.

In the West, ancient philosophical skepticism (around 3rd century BCE) was to some extent about knowing that we cannot really know anything (another hypocrisy), but was largely promoted as a way of dodging bulletins of bad news. When they tell you, you have cancer, say “Maybe I do, maybe I don’t. There’s no knowing.”

Martin Luther (1525-1546) took heaven and hell literally and was anxious to win a ticket to the former, not the latter. His “terror” was about a catch 22: He wanted to prove to Jesus that he was worthy of a ticket to heaven, but to Jesus his petitioning for heaven would make him look like an egotistical striver. His solution? It’s all in God’s hands. Game is as good as over and God already knows who’s among the elected to get into heaven (Protestants are pretty sure, they got a ticket). Taking this to extremes the Calvinists bought into complete predestination. On the day God created the universe he decided where you (yes you) would spend eternity, and there’s nothing you can do about it. No say about your future? No terror.

I’ve begun to develop a taxonomy of all-purpose clutchwork. Here are some basic categories:

The Doctrine of Foregone Inconclusion: You can’t know anything at all, so what does it matter what you think?

The Doctrine of Real Unreality: The reality is that nothing is real so it doesn’t matter what you do.

The Doctrine of Chosen Determinism: Chose to admit you have no power over how anything goes. Fight for total surrender!

The Doctrine of Significant Insignificance: It’s important to remember nothing is important. So relax and float wherever.

The Doctrine of Intolerant Tolerance: Be intolerant of all intolerance. The person who wins the debate is the one who agrees with everyone about everything. He’s the most all seeing guy in the room.

The Doctrine of Potent Impotence: The potent truth is that work you do isn’t real. You have no power. To think otherwise is egotistical. Get over yourself.

No one who applies these evasive platitudes acts like they really believe them. They have the courage to try to change things as much as the next guy, even more so because these clutches can be deployed to bully people into submission, for example accusing them of being egotistical bullies or of being closed-minded because they don’t agree with you that everything is equally true. The self-proclaimed clutch-universalists are stubbornly lead footed with their clutch pedal but still employ it selectively, the clutch applied only where they want it applied.

I say get a grip sometimes. Engage the clutch selectively but admit that you’re calling your shots on where the clutch and the gears are best engaged.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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