Husband: We’ve been over this so many times. I think it’s fine that he plays those video games.
Wife: Well I don’t, and more and more I wonder about your parental judgment.
Husband: Jeez, you are so incredibly stubborn. Listen to me: IT’S NO BIG DEAL!
Wife: Actually, it may be a bigger deal. I’m sick of it. All we ever do is argue.
Husband: You’re out of your mind. We argue because you make a big deal out of everything.
Wife: This is exasperating. You know, I hate to say it but I think we’re done, I mean as a couple. I think the deal has gotten as big as that.
Soon-to-be ex-husband: Oh, you’re just crazy.
In conflict like this we find a pattern that fascinates psychologists, logicians, mathematicians and philosophers: Unresolved conflict over particulars tends to shift our attention to the more general. Here for example, a couple’s unresolved argument about video games has persisted so long it becomes an argument more generally about their arguments, which in turn becomes still more generally an argument about staying a couple. Call it Doom and Zoom, this tendency for arguments seemingly doomed to stay unresolved, to zoom our attention out to more general issues.
We experience Doom and Zoom with internal conflicts too. On a personal project or campaign, in your search for love or your transition to a new career, when you hit a snag, you might debate within yourself, asking “Am I going about this right?” If things go wrong so long that your inner debate persists, seemingly doomed to stay unresolved, your attention naturally zooms out to the more general “Is this effort doomed?” or even “Am I doomed?”
This last question is a killer, deeply paralyzing to linger on long, so paralyzing that I suspect it motivates way more spirituality and psychological questing than we realize. Whatever virtue there is in mindfulness practice, the mind that most craves its quietude is one that’s too prone to big picture self-doubts.
The same goes for meditation, being here now, surrendering into wonder, letting go of ego, seeking insights, epiphanies and enlightenment, or some definitive explanation for what our parents did wrong--any of the popular active quests for inner peace. I suspect that the demand for these is driven largely by dread of the ominous alternative, zooming out from specific problems to the more to fear about one's big-picture worth, a neurotic endless loop internal, “I’m a winner/I'm a loser” debate.
At least I’ll say this: The people I’ve met who most enthusiastically promote the virtue of quieting the mind are people who seem to have a whole lot of mind to quiet, people who tend to associate thinking with stress, I suspect because that’s what thinking has been for them.
People typically promote techniques for quieting the mind as a way of controlling that pesty trivial chatter that otherwise fills our thoughts--to-dos, errands, litte hassles--relatively trivial noise. I suspect we yearn for a quiet mind far more because of the looming risk of doom and zooming all the way out to global self-doubt. Existential angst it’s called. Seeing our personal potential for wholesale failure cuts cripplingly deep into our mojo.
I can relate. There have been times even in my recent life when local doom zoomed me up to global self-doubt, my inability to quiet my small doubts eventually leading me gut-first toward doubts about my overall self-worth. These have been the times when I most craved the kind of peace promised by spiritual and therapeutic services.
I’d still be in existential angst were it not that my life is going generally well, well enough that I’ve gotten over, at least for now, the question of whether I’m a good or a bad person. That and thinking itself—the stuff that tortures me when it gravitates toward global self-doubt, the stuff discouraged by spiritual practitioners has become my great consolation, but only because thinking by now is, for me a more reliably promising activity, paying off in reflections I welcome, my mind at play in the playground of curious ideas.
I love feeling resilient, immune to internal debate about my personal potential for wholesale failure but I also recognize that total immunity is dangerous. Give me fifteen minutes and I could easily list over hundred people who I think are actually wholesale failures, doing the world vastly more harm than good, people whose mojo and malfeasance are working overtime in tandem. I bet most, if not all of us could make such lists.
To be fair, people like me are on someone’s list, and for all I know they’re right about us. For whole cultures to square off like ours do means some of us are probably way off, our life’s work not just a failure but practical evil. We are all trials life’s trial and error process, which means all of our actions and indeed our whole lives can be potential errors.
Some might say “don’t talk that way” either about “us” since our kind of people are obviously on the side of virtue, or about “everyone” since everyone is inherently good.
Out of respect for others I won’t exempt “us,” and out of respect for nature which imposes exacting standards on what's good and bad for our long term sustainability, I won’t exempt everyone. None of us should feel ourselves permanently immune to existential doubt.
Still, many of us are too quick to doubt our overall selves and it really cuts into our productivity, to say nothing of our welfare and happiness. How then to stay open to the dreaded big picture angst without zooming up to it too quickly. This time I have just two suggestions:
1. Don’t want to be a jerk? Expect some anxiety: Don’t subscribe to any of the many popular programs that offer immunity to existential angst. You don’t deserve exemption any more than your worst enemies do. We all need to be open to the possibility that we are wholesale failures. Just not too open.
2. Be multi-level headed: Pay attention to Doom and Zoom phenomena, tracking shifts from the particular to the general both in external and internal debate. Indeed, they’ll often dovetail, for example the way that in external debate, the husband tells his wife that she’s crazy as if to stick her nose right into her own internal existential angst.
If you understand how Doom and Zoom works, you can look for the appropriate level of analysis for the situation. Sometimes local trouble spells global trouble, problems within the campaign spelling problems about the campaign or even more generally about the campaigner.
But often, local trouble is just local trouble. So instead of zooming gut-first from the local to the global, stop to ask: what in this particular instance is the right zoom level?
To some extent you control the zoom lens on your life. The multi-level-headed can zoom in and out, and don’t let little stuff lurch them automatically toward bigger doubts when they can help it.