Thursday, November 22, 2012

Choice anxiety and religion.

Dostoevsky famously wrote that if God does not exist, then everything is permissible. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan reversed this into 'If God does not exist, nothing is premitted any longer'.

Central to Lacans thought was the insight that humans do not like making choices. A choice involves researching the options and evaluating the pros and cons before finally making a decision. Then the anxiety starts : Did I make the correct choice? Perhaps option 2 was better. Will other people approve? Choices come with responsibility and anxiety.

So it's perhaps unfortunate that our culture is saturated with choices. We are told that more choice is good; that the consumer is king. But our capitalist society thrives by creating dissatisfaction and then preying on our insecurities while simultaneously pretending we are free to create our own future by choosing between different lifestyles and personal transformations : You can be who you want to be. Fulfill your potential. Happiness and self-fulfillment are a right. You're worth it.

The evidence of this assertion is visible everywhere in our culture: The walls of self-help books offering a ten point plan to become a wealthy self-made man; a dvd promising a 10 day bootcamp to transform your body into a celebrity A-Lister; positive thinking and neural linguistic programming dangling the elusive Mecca of ethernal happiness and wealth if only you could banish those pesky negative thoughts; spiritual journeys through ancient wisdom of the mystical east; rags to riches reality TV shows; ugly to beautiful make over programs; books promising how-to leverage your potential for self-realization in the work place; consumer is king marketing ploys; personal employee evaluations; self-mediation. It's everywhere. On television screen, on billboards, inside the workplace, outside the workplace and inside our heads.

And it doesn't work. The sole achievement of self-help books is rather than curing unhappiness, these books have strengthened the idea that misery is everywhere and it's our own fault because we made the wrong choices.

Things have progressed so badly that some now out-source decision making by hiring lifestyle coaches or out source willpower by employing personal  trainers. Even our homes are viewed as living extensions of ourselves with potential to unleash our hidden creative potential, if we only buy the correct furniture.

Thus capitalism presents life choices as consumer choices and this introduces a sense of overwhelming responsibility, a fear of failure and guilt over making the wrong choice.

Returning to Lacan : 'If God does not exist, nothing is permitted any longer'. Lacans theory was the collapse of authority and the imposition of the capacity of choice ideology resulted not in freedom, but in the creation of new self-imposed limits to cope with the responsibility of self-construction. People turn to self-help books to limit their choices - don't think like that, don't eat that food, you must exercise, you must do X,Y,Z. After the sexual revolution for example, new celibacy movements began to appear along with more complex dating rituals.

Economic behavior theory asserts the premise that people will rationally act in their own self-interest to maximize their pleasure and minimize their pain. But psychologists claim although choice appears rational, it is essentially linked to how people think others see them and how they want to be seen by others. Therefore the choices are very much bound by what an individual perceives as society values as the right choice. This is irrational but that irrationality makes it more powerful, not less so.

Religion is one such response to this anxiety. Christians believe they must submit to the will of God, that everything happens for a reason as part of Gods plan. They speak of Gods Kingdom where all humans are equal, of sin and forgiveness, of heaven and hell. For Lacan this is the classic irrational response to the anxiety and pressure caused by endless choices.

"Deliver me from the belief
that I am self-sufficient.
Show me my need of you.
Give me the grace to reach out to you."
 - Prayer of St Therese of Lisiux.

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