07/05/2012 08:21 am ET Updated Sep 04, 2012

Oh Dearism (Ain't It Awful)

The British cultural pundit Adam Curtis has a YouTube segment about a socially-transmitted disease he calls "Oh Dearism." Its primary symptom is the hand-wringing posture we take after seeing or learning about some particularly abhorrent or disgusting aspect of the human condition or what is going on in the world. At the end of the spectacle we shake our heads and say "oh dear" or "Ain't it awful?" but continue on with life as usual. This inevitably leads to resignation -- giving up on possibility on a personal level -- and turns us into what can be described as a spectator society.

For example, every time we hear about starving children, national disasters, the global sex trade or environmental calamity and feel numbed and disconnected or even disinterested, then we are evidencing the symptoms of overwhelm and resignation.

Resignation is, I believe, one of the more destructive moods that can infect our psyches and our bodies. This is because unlike its nasty sisters resentment and cynicism, resignation lacks much of the emotional force that can allow us to at least isolate and observe its negative consequences. Resignation is more subtle and is often disguised as "being practical or realistic," and justified based on common sense.

Resignation leaves us in a kind of unthinking stupor living day-to-day as if not much matters -- totally unconscious of the fact our point of view and conversations are "closed" and creating a predictable and circumstantially determined future. After all, "why worry" about what will happen when you "can't do anything about it, anyway"?

Resignation is fueled through social conversations in coffee shops, in our offices and at dinner tables. It is constantly reinforced through endless media "commentary" on whatever disaster du jour may grab us at the moment. It is literally becoming the ocean we are swimming in.

As examples, take your "resignation pulse" by thinking about the following statements and listen to your "internal conversation" about it and the mood you have associate with the topic.

  • Most people struggle with conflicts between their home life and their work life.
  • People are caught in a "polarizing debate" between liberal and conservative ideas, which is killing civil discourse and community solidarity.
  • Corruption in governments, especially in developing part of the world, is one of the major contributors to the persistence of hunger and poverty.
  • Most, if not all, of the measurable indicators related to our environment (air, water, climate, lands and oceans, polar ice caps, etc.) show we are at risk and moving in the wrong direction.
  • Violence, including terrorism and other manifestations of "irrational behavior," are increasing globally and millions, if not billions, of people are suffering as a consequence.
  • Businesses, especially big businesses, are primarily about making money, often at the expense of people and the environment.

As you read these statements, no doubt your internal conversation was some variation of "I agree" or "I disagree." Is that the end of the story? Do we nod and shake our heads and move on to the next thing? Or do we look at the implications of what we're talking about and take some action? It makes no difference whether we agree or disagree with something unless it leads to some form of action. If we don't notice this fact (and we don't when we are resigned), then we fall into the trap of thinking that the point is to agree or disagree. Argument becomes recreation or, in the case of most news programming, it becomes entertainment. Moreover, we become blind to the fact that when we relate to the world in an "agree-disagree" state of resignation, we never learn anything and will inevitably repeat the same patterns over and over with no possibility for creating new realities or changing the circumstances.

Oh dear.

For more by Jim Selman, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.