Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Feeling Responsible but Powerless: the Atlas syndrome

Accidents, assaults, disasters. Fear, grief, terror, despair. Happiness and joy. They all may overwhelm us. We don’t know what to say, what to do, how to express ourselves, how to react to that sudden terror or joy. Or we may feel overwhelmed by expectations too high, a task too great, a responsibility too heavy. Things may simply grow too burdensome for us.
    Thinking of an almost overwhelming situation, I remember a picture from the movie Dr. Zhivago. We see a screen full of wounded men, a wall of human misery and a wagonload of seemingly hopeless work. Zhivago meets the challenge, with his professional knowhow, his bag of instruments, and a supportive nurse. As Arnold Toynbee has so eloquently explained, the successful response to a challenge will lead to a new challenge. Zhivago is no exception to this rule: he falls in love with the nurse and finds himself with a classic love triangle to solve. This doctor, stuck in a hospital barrack just behind the front, short of nearly everything from antibiotics to sleep, offers a vivid example of an overwhelming situation. When faced with any challenge of this magnitude, even if we do not feel up to dealing with it, there is no way to opt out.
    Crises are not the only situations that may feel overwhelming. Life situations - having lost a life partner, being caught and sold as a slave, being forced into prostitution, being blackmailed, having become crippled or blind - all may overwhelm us. We may feel that we just can’t cope with what has happened, but we must go on.

One type of feeling overwhelmed, either acutely or chronically, is that of feeling burdened by a task that is too heavy. We may hold a position of responsibility that is too great for us. Or we may feel a sense of responsibility, an urge to act or intervene, that cannot transform itself into effective, consequential action. In both cases we will suffer - by carrying a load that is too heavy for us, or by failing to carry a load that we nevertheless feel. Constant inability to do what we think we ought to do is a great burden, even if we do not indulge in guilt feelings.
    In Greek mythology Atlas was a Titan, carrying the world - originally the heavenly globe, and later the terrestrial globe. One of the twelve labors of Hercules was to carry the burden of the world for one night. If we carry a load like that, a load of superhuman proportions, we carry it as Atlas did. If we must carry this load for an extended period of time, without knowing when our task is going to end, this long moral overburdening will give us an Atlas syndrome.
How do we react to moral overburdening and a feeling of impotence? First we may experience emotional instability (alternating between hope and despair), energetic instability (alternating between effort and collapse), and general irritability. Then come insensitivity and indifference, and finally depression and morbidity. Precise symptoms depend mainly on the presence and intensity of inferiority or superiority feelings, and on the presence and intensity of guilt feelings.
    The essential condition for an Atlas syndrome is a strong and persistent gap between the weight of a challenge and our power to respond. In the example of Dr. Zhivago, his challenge was great but so was his power to respond. Therefore the gap between his taking on a burden and finally setting it down was temporary. The more we can act, the less chance we have of acquiring an Atlas syndrome.
    Still, babies don’t suffer from this affliction, because they are not aware of challenges to which they cannot respond. A challenge is something we perceive as such. Not seeing and not knowing are often the most common and most effective ways to prevent overburdening. The ostrich, with its head in the sand, may get caught, but at least it wasn’t neurotic beforehand.
    Somehow we feel that it is dishonorable for us as human beings to act like moles or ostriches. We believe that we should face reality. Therefore, raising awareness is a truly human strategy. Still, the more problems we perceive that we cannot solve, the heavier our mental burden becomes and the more chance we have to acquire an Atlas syndrome.
    David Gershon, organizer of the First Earth Run, said that our first problem is not environmental degradation, hunger, overpopulation, nuclear weapons or war, but our doubt that we can do anything about these problems. In his meetings with thoughtful and committed people around the planet, including government leaders, he encountered a singular disabling belief:

‘The planet is out of control and I don’t know what to do.’ This overall belief consists of three mutually reinforcing beliefs: 1. I don’t make a difference, 2. I don’t know how to change things, 3. the problem is too big and whatever I do will not make any significant impact.’

Gershon contends that these three disabling beliefs constitute our major planetary problem. This contention may or may not be true, but surely the prevalence of this set of disabling beliefs is significant. We will come back to it several times. Such beliefs contribute to the Atlas syndrome as well as to a sense of loss of control and to nihilism.
We may be very different from Titans or Atlanteans, but we cannot stop looking around us, unless we want to dampen our consciousness. Working to make people aware of the painful imperfections of society, of misery and injustice, of insecurities and threats does not exactly contribute to their peace of mind. People often advocate for the raising of political awareness, without an inkling of what this increased awareness means in the end - an epidemic Atlas syndrome.
    In a sense there is no escape from the global problems that surround us. All of us, when we look at the society in which we live, can feel our inability to improve its conditions significantly. Even the President of the United States cannot come close to doing all of the things he would want to do.
    Friedrich Nietzsche pointed out that the classic Greeks held essentially a tragic vision of life. The beauty and harmony and peace of mind of the Apollinic world view, and the intense, involving fullness of the Dionysian world experience, are always insufficient attempts to endure the tragedy and terror of the human condition. That modern bourgeois society has lost this sense of tragedy is a ‘testimony of poverty’. At the same time, it is ‘testimony of prosperity’, as only wealthy societies can do this.
    The Atlas syndrome emerges from a persistent gap between perception and action, between awareness of challenges and an ability to respond effectively, between perceived responsibility and having the tools to meet that responsibility. This syndrome manifests in one’s becoming overstressed and morbid. Its presence offers a token of personal integrity, but this integrity hovers on the verge of a breakdown. The Atlas syndrome stands at the crux of both human frailty and human strength.
    When the Atlas syndrome overtakes a person of strong ego and conscience, it can provide recurrent feelings of really carrying the world. Such a titanic, inhuman (and also all too human) mental state may deteriorate easily into a Messiah syndrome, in which the suffering of impotence transforms itself into the suffering of release. Someone is suffering, crushed under the weight of the world, and thereby saves and redeems the world. Such an experience is often framed in Christian terms. Although this thinking pattern is mad, the experience itself is real.

From: The Atlas Syndrome, the first chapter of my book People Make the World

No comments:

Post a Comment