I have a fear of authority and rulebreaking. The fear is so strong that it sometimes interferes with my life – I have anxiety about being in the wrong cabin in a train, trying to jump turnstiles makes my body physically seize up, and I meekly accept unfair Comcast bills.
I know myself pretty well, so I know the amount of effort it would take to fix this particular fear would be pretty huge. It might take therapy, both the sit-down-in-a-chair and the exposure kind. It would take extraordinary mental effort and discomfort on my part. Would my life be better if I fixed this fear? Yeah, probably – but a better question is, would it be worth it?
My rulebreaking-anxiety doesn’t give me trouble that often. I’m pretty happy being a rule-follower, most of the time. So – should I fix it?
I think there’s a common idea that personal growth is always the correct option, and in a way this makes a bit of sense. If there’s a problem inside of you that limits your ability to enjoy life, then fixing that problem would be better, right? We frequently heighten this idea to a nearly moral imperative – if you’re dating a shitty person who you think you deserve, then you need to break up with them and upgrade your self worth. If you are doing drugs to feel better, you need to quit and get fulfillment out of exercise and good eating or whatever it is normal people do these days.
This imperative applies even if the problem isn’t actually much of a problem. If someone isn’t a drug addict, but rather gets horribly drunk a few times a year whenever they encounter a severe emotional problem, we see that they’re not dealing with things in a healthy way. And even if their alcohol-for-emotions habit is rare enough that it isn’t causing serious damage, we know that this might not last. Emotions can always get worse, and there’s a good chance that in the future, the mild habit now might lead to serious problems down the road.
In this situation, the fact that our occasional drunkard is okay right now seems just a matter of chance – that his life isn’t okay because of his internal strength, but rather because his life isn’t bad enough to turn him into a drunkard… yet.
We could say the same thing about my rulebreaking anxiety. The fact that my life is okay right now might be just a matter of chance – that it’s not because of any strength, but rather because I have the leisure of keeping away from authority figures most of the time.
But of course we can take this idea to extreme conclusions – everything good in our lives right now is just a matter of chance. The fact we are happy and functional might not be because we have the internal strength to tolerate being insulted, but rather because nobody is insulting us. We have a thousand weaknesses hidden by everyday convenience.
And so if we really wanted to become someone who would be okay with everything, we ought to go endure torture and loss in order to reveal and deal with those thousand weaknesses.
But we don’t, because it’s not worth it. To really rid ourselves of every potential weakness would take an inordinate amount of effort – of spending every waking moment practicing strength, practicing for battles that you might never actually fight in your lifetime. Every day we make judgments about what is or is not worth it, and every day we forego personal growth because doing so would be too hard. When I make the choice not to “go to therapy so that I can hop on trains”, I’m deciding that the pain of expanding myself is not worth the benefit I would get from occasional rule breaking. It would just be too much effort for too little a reward!
Most common is lack of empathy when we overlook the great cost of self improvement in others. Years ago, I thought my friend should break up with her boyfriend and improve herself so she could get a better boyfriend – but in recommending this to her, I wasn’t taking into account the pain of loneliness she would endure by being single. When I recommended my friend to quit drinking in response to pain, I didn’t understand that he was making a value judgement in much the same way I was when I meekly paid Comcast an extra 33$ instead of protesting the unfair charge. In drinking, he was making the judgement that working to fix himself without alcohol cost too much pain for the benefit of decreased alcoholism risk.
And obviously risk assessments go wrong all the time. Sometimes people do become alcoholics, or get into abusive relationships, – but that’s what is meant by risk. If they understand the risk they’re taking, then we must conclude that the benefit they gain is worth it, for them – much as people who drive cars understand very well that they might get into an accident, but decide that the benefit they get of transportation is worth it.
And so how can we blame anybody for avoiding “fixing themselves,” even if it goes wrong? The most we can do is make sure they understand the risk they’re taking, and if they do understand, then they are making an educated decision about their own values, and “you should quit drinking” is a recommendation that comes from a position of ignorance.
And so when I say people who are monogamous are monogamous because they are insecure, I in no way mean this as a judgement. They have made the decision that going to the effort of getting rid of jealousy – of dealing with the pain of their partner spending the night somewhere else – is not worth the benefits they might gain from nonmonogamy. Maybe it would take them ten years of intensive therapy to be able to handle their jealousy – but when weighing this against “Or I could just agree to monogamy with someone who’s down and live my damn live thriving in other ways that I value”, this is an absolutely valid decision.
(edit: i should clarify that my definition of monogamy is “when you place a restriction or expectation on your partner’s engagement in sexual activity.” In a situation where two people are totally okay with their partner fucking/loving other people, but just happen not to due to lack of desire or interest in other people, I consider this just passive polyamory.)
But I think it is also useful to be honest with ourselves when we are making these value judgments. Monogamy is due to insecurity, at its heart – that your partner will leave you or that you’re not good enough, and cloaking it under the guise of romantic notions of commitment is disingenuous. My anxiety about rulebreaking is about fear, not about anything noble, or about respecting people in authority, or supporting society. It’s just me being scared. People in mediocre relationships just don’t want to be alone, people who drink during hard times aren’t doing it for fun.
We all are succumbing to weakness, and that’s okay, because we have to make judgment calls with limited resources. We should look our flaws in the face, and if we have full understanding of the value decisions we’re making, then there is no reason to be ashamed.