• Brendan

The Antidote: Ataraxia in the Age of Social Anorexia

Anorexia as we know it is marked by: extreme restrictions of food intake, bodily emaciation, a disturbance to self image, deep fear and profound compulsion - all despite the physical cravings for sustenance and the psychological pangs of hunger. From the Greek, anorexia refers to An (a word of negation) and Orexia (the appetite).

In a wholly non-clinical but still critical sense, it appears as though we have entered an age not only of anxiety, but of “social anorexia.” I propose that this condition which we experience both collectively and individually is established, furthered and enabled by totalizing social, cultural, political and economic systems that enshrine painful endurance, self-denial, asceticism, image disturbance, fear, austerity, and restriction. It is made all the worse, to my mind, by currently fashionable philosophical and psychological orientations that purport to alleviate these anxieties but can inadvertently feed them instead, by constructively privileging the linear, the cognitive, the behavioral, the Stoic and the Mindful over the non-linear, complex, dynamic, experiential, passionate and pleasurable.

Contra an easy and popularly received take, it is not an epidemic of narcissism that bedevils us socially. Cultural observers profess to be greatly troubled that we as a society are suffering as a result of the proliferation of TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram, the Kardashianization of culture, the Tindering, Bumbling and Hinging, and the surfeit of selfies. They then proceed to posit that this is all a crisis of selfishness, solipsism and navel gazing. That is, by my lights, wrong.

We are not enamored of our own reflections, like Narcissus. These social-cultural platforms and forms of engagement are more indicative of our being, instead, like wolves clenched in traps, devouring our own limbs in an attempt to escape and be free - from something. The garishness of our self-representations, the repetitions and compulsions of the selfie and social media are painful howls and primal cries - they are vain attempts at filling a void. An existential void, at root. And make no mistake, even those who do not indulge the selfie or frequent social media as posters or commenters are trapped nonetheless. Everyone who is on and in a social media platform already has paid their ante at the table of social anorexia by virtue of being present and observing. Everyone is implicated, because everyone is engaged — even if only as mere voyeurs. And sometimes, the experience can be most crushing for those who only “watch.”

Be honest with yourself for a moment: Do you ever feel miserable visiting this, that or the other social media platform?

More directly and pointedly, do the invisible algorithims that track your activity, that sense your moods or that sniff out of your desires, those secret sauces suggesting to you and following you — do they not seem to work in a kind of dark and reinforcing tandem with forces of what seem like staggering phoniness, extreme insincerity and herd mentality, such that you feel like they are stealing a measure of your joy? Your honesty? Your free will?

Too hyperbolic? Not hyperbolic enough, perhaps.

For all of the attacks upon the alleged incivility, invective, combativeness and vitriol of social media — the more damning indictment is its total and utter lack of realness. Cinéma vérité it is not. Rather than a stewing and festering mess of passions, it is actually a sterile, anodyne and bleak landscape full of marionettes — presenting, posing, posturing and pretending. It is an absurd bazaar of carefully edited and curated images and words, where unhappy people depict happiness and no one rocks the boat for fear of being thrown overboard. It is an exercise in self-preservation by artificial means and requires a fundamentalist's level of self-censorship against the obvious.

And I do not mean here mere political self-censorship. Certainly, we observe daily the highly dogmatic and committed partisans churning out their canned takes, which never vary from their party’s line. Because these takes are ALWAYS reliably calibrated to the person’s known ideology - even the most outlandish or vociferous of these takes is nonetheless banal, because it is unoriginal, uncritical and unthinking. At worst, these are boorish takes, more often simply boring. Instead, I refer here to a more material form of self-censorship - an excessive rhetorical, emotional and psychological restraint that was not as thoroughgoing and total in the early days of these platforms. Over time, incentives have made hitting the center of the fairway the target. Over time, the impacts and effects of parasocial engagement have made the latticed webs of these platforms more shallow and thin — indeed, emotionally emaciated to an unhealthy extent.

Beyond this, when someone does dare to engage in the authentic, are your nerves ever frayed by the response of: subtle shaming, stony silence, passive aggressive one-upsmanship, public but low grade hectoring, delicately executed brow beating, performative preening, gaslighting and memory holing? These are all done by the Debbie Downers, Negative Nellies and self-loathers with exquisite dexterity, given the unwritten rules of the road. Is silence your response to these observed phenomenon? One must suppose the sterility makes a kind of sense then — as it better to say or show nothing, to self-restrict rather than to risk. To never be seen even supporting another in taking a risk.

These are heavy times, to be sure - in the age of social anorexia.

Let me ask: do you ever wake at 4:00 a.m. in a cold sweat of existential dread about what you will soon see on your device or on TV or in the news? Do the sounds of notifications and the feel of vibrations give you a shiver?

Have you come to know well the feelings of irritability, fear, loathing or resentment?

Have you reached a point where you feel beaten down by the crushing weight of preference falsification around you? It is not possible that EVERYONE you know thinks, feels, likes, loves and enjoys like everyone else. People are hiding the ball. We are hiding the ball from ourselves and others.

Be honest, you don’t REALLY like all of those things you Like, you often Like them because you feel compelled to appear to like them.

And you often do not Like things you actually do like, because you fear what Liking them will signal.

Do you occasionally sense that, over time, you have been chiseled into a form of conformity and are operating on a kind of semi-automatic pilot, only vaguely and occasionally exercising full independence (under any meaningful sense of that word)?

Seeing the absurdity of it all, does even common sense strike you as something that is very uncommon these days?

Would you even know how to tell anymore?

Omicron. Inflation. Climate. Protests (or Riots, depending on your stance). Supply Chain issues. CRT, Gender and Culture Wars. Crime. Homicide. Rage. Invective. Vitriol. Pitched political, cultural and social battles at every single turn. All of it handled like Kabuki Theatre. Via Live-Action-Role-Playing.

The world often appears to be moving too fast of late, and life to be happening too quickly to make any real sense of it. Everything is real-time, immediate and now. Fast food. Fast fashion. Fast takes. Fast breaks. Breaking News. Speed Kills.

Against this anxious and socially anorexic backdrop, and turning to something that will lead to a positive close (Happy Endings Are Required By Law Here), the recent popularity of Stoicism is not surprising. Like Mindfulness, it has become an oversold tonic and balm for all that ails us. It is pitched and positioned as a curative for modernity’s crisis of the soul. Both are popular because both can reside comfortably within the existing economic, political and social orders. Stoicism and Mindfulness are A-OK with HR Departments and governments around the globe. Together, they preach a gospel, philosophy and mindset of endurance. They are the intellectual embodiment of Elihu Smails’ retort to his nephew Spaulding in Caddyshack: “You’ll get nothing, and like it.”

Don’t worry too much about your circumstances, think your way out of it. It’s all how you look at things — says Stoicism. Alternately, but relatedly, pay close attention to your senses and you’ll realize your condition is fleeting, just like your thoughts — says Mindfulness. Even now, our political and economic grandees ask us to set our sights lower — to get used to less. Like broccoli, it is going to be good for us.

In this setting, it is not coincidental that Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is the main game in Therapy Town, with adjuncts and offshoots like DBT, REBT and ACT in the mix. Problem focused! Action oriented! These therapies get right to the meat of things, without all that fussing around with painstakingly (and sometimes painfully) unpacking a backstory, exhuming a complex past and delving deep into drives, motivations, conflicts and desires. Down with analysis, up with praxis. These are fast, practical and pragmatic therapies. They even have workbooks, grids, point systems, apps, charts and flash cards. You can study your way to better mental health, just like cramming for the MCAT, LSAT or GRE. Upshot for insurance and government - they’re short term and cheap to boot. Down side for those who don’t benefit - you feel like a failure.

Gone are the days of the meandering hours spent on the analytic sofa, exploring the vagaries of a single dream, conversation or interaction. There is no time for such “selfish” indulgences now. You need to get back to school, back to work, back to productivity. The social anorexic needs soul-level sustenance, but the treatments are often just more of what ails us.

It is precisely this world of forced endurance, obdurate commitment to efficiency, and severe emotional austerity that wears against and weighs upon souls which still seek something more, better or different from life. Mind you, many people have benefitted from Stoicism, Mindfulness and CBT/CBTish therapies. I count myself as one who gives one and a half cheers for them. I have Marcus Aurelius, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus and Seneca on my bookshelf - their works have enlightened and moved me. I learned Mindfulness meditation over 20 years ago - and I recognize it can have value, particularly for physical pain management. I also saw a talented and well-intended CBT therapist for a time at one point, until we both agreed I should return to something more psychodynamic in nature. Different strokes for different folks.

Is there, then, another or any other way - for the person who cannot or will not succumb to mere endurance? Of course there is. There are many. One in particular comes from the very time and terrain of Stoicism. The ancient philosophical school of Epicureanism offers one route, although it has endured a bad rap for a couple thousand years. Ever since the louder and more vigorous band of Greeks known as the Stoics formed themselves into a shock-troop for resiliency, the Epicurean system has been derided, mischaracterized and relegated to the back benches of human thought.

Despite the ways in which the words Epicurean and Hedonist have been twisted and tortured over centuries into something they are not, the concepts have real world value and practical merit for postmodern humankind. They are a kind of antidote; and they offer a way both to seek ataraxia (i.e., tranquility and freedom from fear) and also obtain aponia (i.e., absence of pain). They are, I suggest, a treatment for social anorexia - not to mention basic individual discontent.

Without wandering off into a lengthy précis on the philosophy, suffice it to say that an Epicurean approach is a highly utilitarian approach to life. Detractors (first the Stoics, then the sex-shaming Catholic church, then the Protestant faiths committed to thrift, work and self-denial, and now basically anyone in political or economic power) belittle the philosophy by braying about its alleged solipsism and selfishness. Anything that is oriented around plaisir (pleasure) must be bad. We call them “guilty pleasures” - don’t we? Hedonism, we are told, is decadent at best, sinful at worst. Even in our allegedly secular times, we still embrace a diluted form of theology that is (in thought and practice) little to no different from older times — it has merely been denuded of explicit theological moorings. This is a matter of changing forms while retaining substances.

The Epicurean is, ultimately, a utilitarian and a philosophical materialist, relativist, contractualist, nominalist and anti-Platonist. The good, for the Epicurean broadly, is in people seeking modest pleasure and avoiding pain, particularly at the expense of others. It is a form of ethical Hedonism insofar as it seeks to define the space where a sensualist and anti-ascetic aesthetic can take root in art, education, philosophy and culture — as well as daily life. Again, even saying these words will sound vaguely louche and risqué to some minds. That is a sign of how thoroughgoing the brow beating on the topic has been for centuries. Sensual refers here to our senses, not merely the physically intimate. What we take in with our sensing abilities: our sight, hearing, touch and taste. Good books, good art, good music, good food, good companionship, good communication, and good things.

What does this mean for the anxious, the moody, the socially anorexic, or the occasionally discontented? It means that there is a gentler, more humane way to navigate emotionally choppy waters. A way that is not simply beating up yourself or others and privileging toughness over tenderness. It is a refuge from bleakness. It is a garden of sorts, away from it all. Many people simply are not constitutionally able to teach, train or will themselves into thinking certain thoughts in order to shape feelings. Recent studies on the long term efficacy of certain therapies seem to bear out that there are many such people.

If any of this is of interest to you, the French philosopher, Michel Onfray, has spent a career writing on these matters and I recommend to you “A Hedonist Manifesto: The Power to Exist.” It is only one of two books of his published in English. Lucretius’ “De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things)” is also vital reading. A good introductory primer is “How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well” by Professor Catherine Wilson. Finally, Epicurus’ “The Art of Happiness” is truly essential reading. Other Epicurean-adjacent writers to consider: Diderot, Bentham, Gassendi, Helvétius, and de l’Enclos. A popular and relatively recent book, “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern,” by Stephen Greenblatt (a self-indentified Epicurean) - won the Pulitzer Prize and touches upon these matters well.

Ultimately, the Epicurean sets his or her gaze upon the achievable and the truly pro-social. Rather than restricting, numbing, repressing, limiting and cabining our creativity, our true commitments or our emotions - we can embrace them. And we can relish when others do the same. Epicureanism is ultimately an anti-competition philosophy of engaged creativity. The modern drive, with its success-at-all-costs orientation leads more of us to ruin than we care to admit. We can’t sleep, we drink too much, we eat bad things, we waste our time. We do not write, grow, build, create or develop - unless it can be monetized.

Our modern minds and bodies consume voraciously all manner of unhealthy things and then settle in to “binge” on TV, as food we didn’t make gets hand delivered to our doorstep. Even our young play interminable “games” on devices and indoors, games that provide only a simulacrum of real experience and a substitutionary outlet for the existential yearning or the joy of unstructured play. Some consume porn, drugs, or gamble - while others perpetually swipe left or right, seeking to fill the void. Others do yet other things, the list is long. Some occupy themselves here online or elsewhere. And although we are now almost 50% obese at the physical level as a nation, we are emotionally and socially anorexic.

The prescription to move out of this abyss is simply described but challenging to do, in my view: scrutinize what leads to pain and avoid it as much as possible. Examine what brings true pleasure and embrace it. Not fleeting pleasantness, but rich and robust satisfaction. Be clear and honest with yourself and others as you do so, as sometimes, short term gain is long term pain. And other times, short term pain is long term gain - as they say. Telling which is which is not always easy.

Relish the artisanal, the local and regional, the diverse, the eccentric, the unique, the craft, the independent, the bizarre, the bespoke, and the creative. More quality, less quantity. Make things. Perform things. Write things. Build, repair, grow and create. Fecundity. Engagement. Captain of your own ship, sailing alongside others doing the same - but not tacking your course to theirs. Less reliance on the views, habits, and ways of others as a default mechanism for choice, taste, approach or mindset. And as I often repeat, keep front of mind the aphorism of Naval Ravikant: “escape competition through authenticity.” Our only opponents in life should be those who seek to control, reduce, define, mandate, situate, patrol, restrict and limit - what we say, think, create, consume, and do or how we live, laugh, love and operate. Our spiritual thirsts need slaking. Our souls seek meaning. Only we can find that sustenance for ourselves, amid the absurdity and against the social anorexia.

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