We have all learned at one time or another that sometimes it is important to postpone gratification if we want to achieve the greatest rewards in life. But sometimes it goes further than that. Sometimes not postponing gratification can lead to negative unintended consequences. If a child eats his desert before his main meal, he loses his appetite for the truly nutritious part of the meal. If Congress cuts taxes without cutting expenditures, the national debt can rise dramatically. If a couple decides to make love before they can have access to protection, an unwanted pregnancy or the transmission of disease can result.
What we are talking about here is thinking in the short term vs. thinking in the long term. In many areas of life today, people are focused on short term desires rather than long term desires. One can simply write this off as hedonism, but hedonism is a descriptive moral term rather than an explanatory term. If we are concerned about the effects of these attitudes, then we have to try and understand the causes behind them.
I think that there are two approaches that we can take to this situation. First of all, there is the idea that as life becomes more and more frictionless, as a result of more and more labor-saving devices in the external world and as a result of living more and more in screen reality, both of which create a vacuum-filled alternate field of experience, that we simply become used to a life that gets easier and more frictionless. And this totally distorts the way we sense things in our lives. So short-term cravings fill our minds, fill the numbness in which we increasingly live, in order to reconnect to the external world, even if only for brief moments. People in the American Congress can pass a tax bill that doles out a lot of benefits in the form of tax relief particularly to wealthy people. This is thinking in the short term. In the long term, the deficit explodes. But obviously the people who passed this bill weren’t thinking in the long term. In order to get some temporary financial grounding in the present, the people in the American Congress have created a big tension-pocket for their children’s generation. Some incredibly abrasive friction in the form of an enormous addition to the national debt. On the surface, on the one hand, that will certainly pull the children’s generation out of experiential numbness. But the experience of dealing with paying off even a part of the debt could be so painful, as in the government having to cut many benefits particularly for the middle class and the poor, that the debt could drive the average citizen into the internal numbness of a deep depression.
Another angle is to start more from the flavor of the experience within the person rather than on the interactions between the person and modern technology. As a person today sinks into numbness, he becomes increasingly a free-floating figure in a vacuum. In order to pull himself out of his numbness, he intermittently takes jabs at solutions within the situation where he finds himself, in order to generate enough friction during isolated moments and in order to relieve himself from his numbness and in order to feel more fully alive during these moments.
When one is numb, one is in great psychological discomfort. The discomfort is in itself a defense, although not a healthy one, to help one feel more alive within the numbness. A terrible tension pocket of abrasive overstimulation to help a person fight the numbing understimulation of a vacuum. The only defense against the discomfort is to push the causes of the pain into the external world.
So we can say that thinking in terms of the short term is a way to simultaneously ground oneself intermittently by landing on short term solutions to different abrasive irritations, both real and imagined, as well as a way to create stimulation through the process of generating organic friction in order to get rid of perceived abrasive friction. The only problem is that short-term solutions to abrasive friction, are, in the long run, just temporary solutions to secondary problems. The real problem is the experiential numbness that underlies a lot of human life in the modern world. Yes, tension-pockets of overstimulation – the waste products and unintended consequences of the technology we use to make life easier and more frictionless – are not forms of abrasive friction we purposely search out. But other forms of abrasive friction are forms of stimulation that we do search out to pull us out of the fundamental numbness that is the experiential foundation of modern technological society. Most obviously motorcycles, hot rods, motorboats, and modern electric guitars among other sources. But also there are those situations that we call self-destructive where we do things to defeat our ostensive goals and then have to live with the ongoing abrasive emotional stimulation of disappointment as well as the uncomfortable external world situations that result. Big chronic problems can result, which, on one level we welcome to fight the numbness from a perfectly frictionless life. On another level, these chronic problems not only offer a defense against numbness, but they offer opportunities to find short-term solutions through generating organic friction to temporarily eliminate the effects of abrasive friction.
It is sad that people need to find ways to self-destruct in order to dedicate themselves to find solutions to the problems they have created for themselves and then, using the combination of self-created problems and self-created solutions to pull themselves out of their numbness and feel alive. Maybe what this tells us is that a certain amount of healthy organic friction from grounded more traditional more natural environments is necessary in order to live psychologically more healthy lives. The search for a perfectly frictionless life is one that can only lead to continuing major problems for people.
© 2018 Laurence Mesirow