I’m a mojo junky. I would guess that you are too.
I live for signs that it’s still springtime in me, that there’s many a dance left in my life, signs that I am and will continue to be of value, signs that things aren’t falling apart for me just yet, ample promise and prospects ahead. That feeling puts a spring in my step, and when I lack it, there’s lead in my heart.
I’m a lifelong mojo addict. Having been at it this long, I’ve got my mojo sources, reliable enough that I rarely have to face the fact that I’m a mojo addict. I usually know where my next mojo meal is coming from. I’ve positioned myself for access to mojo reliable enough that I’m forced to think about my addiction almost as rarely as I think about my addiction to air, food, and water.
Having ready mojo supplies is doubly good. I get my daily fix and I don’t have to notice how needy I am. I’m like a heavy smoker who says he could do without it. If I were forced to go cold turkey on mojo, I’d have to humbly admit, that actually, I’m addicted
Like any of us, I do sometimes have to go without, which is why I know I’m an addict. Losing my mojo hurts.
We all know what it’s like when our mojo drains away, for example when we look in the mirror and see ourselves aging when we’re trying to fall asleep and the future looms dark and unpromising, when we feel slighted or abandoned, or when we’ve had an unnerving run of bad luck. When the mojo drains goes dry, we get that vague premonition that we’ve finally lost it. Or maybe never had it – maybe our fatal flaw is finally exposed.
Mojo is a painkiller. It frees us from worry about our future, confident that we’re still in for a promising one.
We live, I’ll argue, for a sensation that I’ll call "endorphment," the morphine/endorphine-like painkilling sensation that we’re endorsed by something vital and growing, something that by association, makes us vital and growing. To get our endorphment rush, we identify with larger things – tribes, philosophies, ideologies, love relationship’, priorities and projects – anything that came our way and inspired us to latch onto it and hitch a ride to ongoing greatness. We may think we latched on simply because it was sensible and right. More than we notice, we latched on because it gave us a promising identity, a way to keep ourselves supplied with endorphment, mojo.
Psychologist Ernest Becker called these larger things our immortality campaigns, ways to feel, in the face of death, as though we’re immortal. He argued that every bump in the road of life reminds us of our mortality which we need to deny since really, it’s awful. It’s awful to care and love and want as much as we do all the while knowing that one day we have to surrender everything we value, falling into the eternal void.
I embrace Becker’s view though I would put the emphasis more on our decline than our mortality. Death is one thing; a slow death by diminution is another. It’s not fun to feel like the best times are behind us, that we’re fading to insignificance with no escape route.
Becker argues that there’s no alternative to these immortality campaigns. We all have them, ways to reassure ourselves that our lives are meaningful by associating with something larger. I agree though I would say that not all immortality campaigns are equal, at least by my standards.
I want my immortality campaigns to keep my mojo high, to float my boat of personal identity atop the roiling sea of anxiety, but to do so in such a way that leaves my mind free to face reality.
Not all immortality campaigns do that. For example, religions, which Becker sees as the most common kind of immortality campaign often limit one’s ability to face reality. They have their sacred, parochial texts that discourage exploring some possible facets of reality.
This morning I talked to a bright young Mormon teenager who aspires to be a writer. He believes climate change is real and his Mormon parents, in keeping with their faith, do not. I sensed that this teen gets a lot out of his Mormon faith and his tribe, including his parents. It’s a great comfort, a major source of mojo or endorphment. But to be the writer he wants to be, he said he needs his mind back, free to face possibilities that Mormonism rejects.
Romantic partnership can also be a great immortality campaign, providing, through mutual love and devotion, the sense of having been granted everlasting life. Nothing drains mojo quite like a breakup. As McCartney sang, “Suddenly, I’m not half the man I used to be.”
But then romantic partnership with an incompatible person can make us half the person we used to be. To partner with a person of firm faith or ideology, the price for admission can be abandoning one’s capacity to learn and grow from reality at the door. We see it in the partner who can’t afford to rethink anything that would disturb their partner.
I get my mojo mainly through self-expression, through saying what I see, think and feel (writing, teaching, music). It’s a lucky combination. It an immortality campaign that encourages me to face reality as best I can.
Now, I could be kidding myself about it. Maybe I’m just another religious missionary promoting my biases for a daily lick of self-soothing mojo while pretending to be in touch with reality.
I can’t rule that out. Still, I have a check on it. I hitch a ride on the great and growing scientific quest, which encourages one to identify not with what one knows but how one grows. This frees me to change my mind when convincing new evidence comes along and to do so without a big loss of mojo. I can stand corrected, proud to be the kind who can learn from mistakes. I can afford to upgrade to a more accurate reading of reality, more than I could if I had hitched my heart to some absolute faith.
I get my mojo fixes when my work feels productive – high output getting traction, getting noticed, getting rewarded. I lose that sensation when my work feels unproductive – losing traction, unnoticed, unrewarded. Sometimes the endorphment trickles away and I’m down to the pain it covers, the dread sense that I'm losing my touch.
One of the ideas I’m stoked to be associated with is an explanation for what we living beings really are that escapes the old well-trodden traps, that we’re energy, DNA, souls, computers, etc.
It’s an idea in complexity theory, often called self-organization though I call it “emergent constraint,” which I think is a more precise term. It’s easiest to think about emergent constraint, as what it feels like when you’re trying to thread yourself through congested traffic and in the process, you contribute to the congestion, thereby constraining others.
Emergent constraint is a source of change that scientists overlooked for centuries. It explains how whirlpools form. The spiral form isn’t imposed (for example with a spiral funnel constraining water flow). Rather it emerges from the traffic congestion in turbulence, water currents getting in each other’s way. I’d argue that we living beings are a different kind of emergent constraint. Here’s a video explaining the approach I'm hitched to.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the ways that emergent constraint plays out in our pursuit of mojo. It’s very much like congested dynamics. We race around this crowded world, each of us trying to keep anxiety at bay, hitched to different immortality campaigns. In the process, we get in each other's way since one person's rush to escape anxiety will block other people's path to a difference source of mojo.
Talking with the Mormon teen this morning, I knew his father, a client, was nearby. There I was, getting in the way of the father’s hope to raise a fine and true Mormon.
I talk to Trump supporters who find in “make America great again,” a vital movement to hitch themselves to with hope that their and America’s best days aren’t in the past. We thwart each other. That’s how it is – whole streams of people rushing toward their next mojo meals getting in the way of whole other streams of people rushing toward their next mojo meals.
The combination of mojo addiction and emergent constraint explains a lot – flocks of people in political, spiritual, or interpersonal conflict, the congestion of mojo addicts trying to escape signs of imminent decline, the emergent constraint of our collective necrophobia – all of us craving the next sign from something immortal saying, "It ain't over yet!"
I wish for all of us mojo fixes that don't compromise our minds too much, mojo supply that leaves us free to try to observe reality as clearly as humanly possible. Because really, if we get our mojo by those means that constrain our ability to face reality, the signs that give us confidence that we’ll be fine are the very signs that mean we won’t.
Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. A. (2015). The worm at the core: On the role of death in life.
Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York: Free Press.