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Not Just Clawing Back to Zero
or, Beyond the Disease Model of Being
You likely know this already, but: the field of Positive Psychology didn’t take its name from positive as in happy yay nice thoughts; it took its name from positive as in being defined by presence rather than lack.
The movement was reacting against the main currents of psychology—which also happen to generalize pretty well to a dozen other aspects of life in society.
In psych, these currents manifested as a primary focus on what’s wrong. They study mental illness, neurosis, trauma, and general dysregulation. You know, the baddies. The intent in psychology is to help patients claw our way back to zero—to undo trauma and neurosis and approach that crystalline asymptote named Mental Health.
I spent my 20s living in Hanoi hovels, earning 3-4x more than I spent, expressly so that I could pay off my student loans as early as possible. I was eating at $1 street buffets, renting closets with cots in them for $200/month, renting the cheapest motorbikes available to get to and from jobs.
I was far from the only one living like this, though I did take it to an extreme. There was a whole generation there, Americans living and working in the explicit recognition that their current economic gauntlet was to claw our way back to zero. Or as close to it as we could get before our Next Big Debt Adventure found us.
I’ve seen the mindset in debt, in psychology, in friendships, in diet, in self-esteem, in spirituality. At core it’s fundamentally the mindset that The Main Thing is to fill in the hole. Maybe you catch glimpses of other people piling dirt into a hill, and you hope to get there someday—but for now, where you are, The Main Thing is to keep filling in the hole until you’re back to ground level. Back to zero.
It’s an appropriate mindset sometimes, I’m not knocking it. Gotta pay off your debts. And even if you are actively building a staircase, maybe you need to fill in some holes along the way to get the ground steady.
One thing that does seem weird to me—and that I think is often deleterious—is when Clawing Back to Zero starts to become a virtue. Or, more still, when Clawing Back to Zero becomes the source of all virtue.
Not to call anyone specifically out here, but the most vivid examples I’ve seen have come from spirituality. The pitch goes something like this:
Once you straighten out your neuroses, heal your traumas, and generally do away with the obstructions blocking the flow of your Natural Being—the un-obstructed nature of your mind reveals itself to be [love/ wisdom/ courage/ authenticity/ faith/ whatever]
Here, the transformation of Clawing Back to Zero is complete. It’s gone from “shore up what’s lacking in you and you’ll be Normal finally” all the way to “get rid of excessive obstructions, and [virtue] flows freely from you.”
The ideas are nearly mirror opposites, but the inner experience swinging from one to the other rings true.
I think it’s an incredibly useful teaching tool, by the way. When you tell people to “notice something happening on its own,” the idea slips past their defenses in a way that telling them to do something just doesn’t.
In other words, you’ll usually get better results telling someone “as you release your pain, notice how loving-kindness rises up in its stead” than you would by telling the same person “as you release your pain, try also cultivating a sense of loving-kindness in the space it leaves.”
Something about the effortlessness of “noticing” it happening on its own. It makes it actually happen.
Of course, then the people the teaching tactic worked on start to mistake it for a facet of reality. They start to think that once you Claw Back to Zero, what’s actually waiting there for you is [their preferred virtue].
I do actually have a point here, beyond riffing on the dynamic.
There’s a toothlessness in zero. You undo a lot of the neuroses, trauma, debt, self-esteem blocks, whatever it is, and once you’ve undone enough of it to be baseline pretty much fine, you can coast.
It’s fine. It’s nice. I’ve spent a lot of time there. More than the current version of me is comfortable with, if I’m honest.
yes, you caught me: here as ever, i’m talking to myself
The two dynamics (Clawing Back to Zero & Growing Forward into Being) aren’t necessarily separate—but they are distinct. You can’t just do the Back to Zero stuff and assume that everything you need will be there at zero, just as you can’t ignore your deficits, forge forward, and expect the poor foundation not to collapse on you at some point.
I’m not saying anything new here.
I’m just reminding myself: This dynamic has intrigued me for awhile, the possibility that if I remove all the obstructions, fill in the holes, shore up my shortcomings—that will somehow naturally allow the presence of virtues I feel a need to grow in myself.
I’m just reminding myself: I don’t buy it. There’s actual growing and building and doing that needs to take place.
The two dynamics are complementary and synergistic. But they are two dynamics, not one.
It would’ve been nice if they were one though.