Have you ever had a cramp? It is an exquisitely painful, suddenly experienced contraction and hardening of a muscle or muscle group. From what I learned online, the precise mechanism by which it comes about is not yet fully understood. I feel fairly confident, however, that it is often caused by tissue acting out to prevent further use or engagement, in order to protect it from lasting damage.
When I look at the process humanity is currently going through, I am reminded of a cramp. People have accumulated quite a bit of historical baggage — many generations of humans that felt a lack of liberty and autonomy, compared to how nomads had very little experience of being told what to do, and how to behave by others.
Environmental scarcity paired with our vastly increased mental abilities created just the conditions necessary for a rapid development of human culturally mediated abilities. There are hardly any day-to-day activities humans engage in today that still bare any close resemblance to what life looked like a few centuries ago.
And all of these changes required that individuals go along with the pressures exerted on them by cultural norms of ever greater collectives. This all started to lift just a few generations ago. Several shifts are contributing to the decrease in pressure:
Scientific advancements have made many people — especially in Western democracies — wary of religious dogma and doctrines. And without a centrally organized religion that makes a claim of “if you do not live a virtuous life sanctioned by your belief system, you will end up in hell,” people are freer to choose how they want to express their individually held preferences.
At the end of World War II, people came to the painful realization that following orders is not a particularly good defense when it comes to having committed violent acts. This created a serious problem for people — a kind of collective cognitive dissonance: in many situations, we want for others to do what we want them to do, and we exert some force to get them to do it. And we put them into a paradoxical bind. Following orders in the past relieved them from the responsibility of their actions. Nowadays, following orders robs you of freedom, but sticks you with the responsibility. A pretty bad deal.
The wild 1960s with its anti-authoritarian movement was a fairly direct out-growth of that realization. Since people are now responsible for what they do as individuals, they no longer wanted to follow orders at all.
Added to the overall backdrop to these developments: resources needed for physical well-being — food, heated homes, clean water, electricity, and even recreational entertainment in the home, such as cable TV or internet — have become not only available but incredibly abundant, again mostly in Western democracies.
In other words, humans have gone through a couple thousand of years of being over-worked, and have over the past two or three generations experienced an incredible freedom to express their individual desires far beyond anything their ancestors were allowed to explore.
Suddenly, the paradoxical response happens — the cramp!
It is difficult, on the level of humans in a society or a culture, to pinpoint a precise cause. But the experience, to me, presents itself like this: despite our shared understanding that we do not want to live under constant external influence — that is other people telling us what to do and how to live — we are still burdened by our evolutionary history of having gone through a very long stretch of relative resource scarcity. Not too long ago, a large number of people regularly died of starvation and malnutrition.
This has left us emotionally vulnerable to anxiety, caused by the thought that we might not survive. It explains, to me at least, the very weird pattern that despite greatly increased lifespans of humans at the end of the 20th century, people seem to be much more afraid of dying now than they ever seemed in the past. That is, the actual risks experienced by people in their 20s and 30s have decreased by orders of magnitude, but the attitude people have towards death is not so much a relaxation, but a tightening.
And it is this tightening that creates the cramp. People seem to have an inner experience that I would put into the following idiom: “I want to live a life of freedom, but everyone around me poses a risk, either by wanting to hurt me, or by stopping me from living as free as I want to live. I have to fight back!”
This starts with small things… Other people do (not) wear masks, or they pollute the environment, they let their dogs poop everywhere and do not clean up. And it goes all the way up to the really big ticket items, like your boss threatening to fire you, or nations engaging in threatening posturing, or actually opening war on one another.
This will continue for quite a while, I suspect. Like a cramp in your muscles, what needs to happen is for a sufficient minority of cells to relax, which will propagate through the tissue, until it has reached pretty much the entirety of cells in a given muscle. At that point, it can turn into a painful episode in the past.
How would relaxation look like for humans in Western democracies circa 2024?
It is not a message that I hear anywhere or that I imagine anyone I know personally would find appealing. All the same, I believe that not having this attitude prevents people from relaxing, and being able to switch back into a mode of collaborative effort over self-preservation:
“It is OK for me to die.”
Maybe this sounds overly simplistic… I reached this short-hand formula after a friend of mine recently posed a challenge: how would you respond if someone came at you with a drawn gun, making either seemingly incoherent or criminally demanding threats? It is a formidable challenge. On some level, I sense that most people feel as though that is their daily experience with others in their environment. They would like to hide or run away or, if they happen to have a gun of their own, pull it out and subdue the other person.
All of these reactions — fight, flight, freeze — are responses related and predicted by this tightening in attitude. The alternative that is available (still) seems extremely unpalatable.
“It is OK for me to die.”
When I start from this unlikely candidate for a solution — given how even I feel when I read this sentence — I come to the following train of thought: if I were able to hold this attitude when facing a person who points a gun at me, the next thing that appears as a logical consequence is that I accept, without resistance, that my life may very well come to an end in the next few moments.
I do not struggle against this realization. Instead, I can become open to questions such as, “being fully OK with my life ending soon, what can I still do to make things better for everyone else around me, including the person who seemingly is so deranged that they are willing to take my life for some hard to specify overall benefit?”
In that moment, and from that vantage point, the next thing that comes to mind might be telling and asking the person, “hey, you seem incredibly tense and distressed. I cannot say what precisely is going on for you, but I would love to hear how you are feeling. Do you have a few minutes before shooting me, so you can tell me what has happened to you — whatever made you desperate enough to point a gun at me?”
This kind of response goes contrary to what humans have come to believe about the world. If someone threatens you, the natural — and culturally programmed — response is to consider such a person a criminal. And a criminal needs to be dealt with accordingly. Certainly it makes no sense to inquire with such a person about how they got there. In all likelihood, they will not tell me the truth anyway. So, there really is no use in such an approach.
Or is there? The lines between good people and bad people seem to get really hazy these days. And my hunch is that the cramp is just beginning to form. We have not seen the worst of it yet. The ultimate cramp is probably a condition of open civil war, in which people start shooting one another over their political disagreements. It is somewhat curious that the last time this happened, it also was related to a large group of people not so much successfully demanding freedom for themselves, but another group making demands of freedom on their behalf.
In 2024, to pick just one example, it seems to me that people on the one side of the spectrum of experience demand total freedom from sexual norms and the pressure that cultural expectations put on people related to their gender and sex at birth. Democrats — as a party — seem to support an ideal by which people are completely free to choose a lifestyle, free from any biologically and culturally demanded norms of behavior and experience.
On the other side, we see people who, for lack of a different description, believe that these norms are inescapable. Women simple are different from men, and struggling against this reality is pointless. It also is undesirable and would lead to a rapid deterioration of our ability to sustain human life if women, collectively, were to abandon their responsibility of growing the next generation of human beings.
I do not feel qualified or called to judge which side comes closer to the truth on this particular issue, but so long as both sides feel that their respective cause is the just one, this tightening will continue, the cramp will further solidify, and the experience of people will not become any better.
From the conversation that ensued with the friend who posed the “gun challenge,” I can say I learned a lot about the value of submission — if it is taken as a voluntary approach, that is. Submission that is demanded and extracted against someone’s will seems very likely to come with a price tag of revolution somewhere down the line. And I hope that that is a path we do not have to repeatedly explore again and again…
The way out, in my mind, requires a complete relaxation. Or of course, we could find a kind of temporary exit route. If one side “wins”, the losing side will have to regroup. This may take a century or two, but eventually I believe humanity will have to decide: how do we want to live in the balance between absolute freedom and cultural cohesion, in a way that maximizes individual liberties while at the same time not making it impossible for people to communicate with one another whenever they are in pain.
Importantly, I am not suggesting it is necessary to let people who care little about others get away with activity described as criminal. I am not suggesting submitting to all force. What I am suggesting is that by not even considering submission and relaxation, we are contributing to the cramp. Each situation requires a unique response, and by clinging on to the hope that every situation is best dealt with by attempting to control it, we are adding our own little bit of force into the mix. This will continue until we are all exhausted from this over-exertion.
Whatever happens next, my prediction is that it is going to be a rough ride for a while. The cramp is still very much happening, and it may take a sufficient number of people willing to relax before it comes to an end.