Kathleen Parker: Certainty soothes in face of fear
Freud recognized that human beings have a sex drive and even a death drive. Is it possible that we also have an aphorism drive?
We do seem attracted to pat answers and pithy summations – especially from our politicians. It isn’t enough to be wise or effective; one must be quotable.
Les bons mots tend to make us feel better, lending form to our thoughts and order to our emotions. They’re especially useful in times of duress. Eulogies and editorials invariably feature those three little words: “As (fill in the blank) said.”
Here comes one now: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Ahhhh. Feeling better already.
Then again, more often these days, a politician’s happy turn of phrase makes me feel worse. I don’t know whether to clap my hands or clutch my wallet. Why does the very thing intended to make one feel uplifted and inspired make me feel manipulated and skeptical?
Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, writing recently in the the New York Times, inadvertently may have offered a clue. He was explaining that people are happiest when they are certain. We don’t like not knowing, apparently, even when what we know is awful.
Gilbert cited various experiments to make his point, including one involving the certifiably awful colostomy. People who knew their colostomies would be permanent were happier than people whose colostomies might someday be reversed. Gilbert’s conclusion: People would rather know than not know. Knowing, they can make psychological adjustments.
“We find our bootstraps and tug,” he wrote. “But we can’t come to terms with circumstances whose terms we don’t yet know.”
Gilbert’s observations were in the context of our current economic woes. As soon as we know how bad things are (or aren’t), he said, we’ll adapt and get along just fine.
He may be right as far as it goes, but the same uncertainty that makes human beings unhappy also stimulates the creativity that makes us happy. Was Leonardo da Vinci happy? Homer? George Washington? Man’s drive to create isn’t born of contentment, but of anxiety attached to the unconscious agitation that comes from the greatest certainty ever devised: Death.
Here is a truism, if not an aphorism. Without death and the certainty of physical finitude, Homo sapiens would never have left the cave. Unhappiness and uncertainty – rather than happiness and certitude – are what get us off our duffs. No misery. No Sistine Chapel.
So what happens to the creative spirit when government steps in to soothe our anxieties? Without unhappiness, what happens to culture? Without adversity, what happens to motivation? Parents know. Suffice to say, the work ethic is not strong among the coddled.
Most important, with all needs met, what happens to freedom – that human recoil against imposed order?
When Rahm Emanuel said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” he wasn’t the first or the last to express the sentiment. George W. Bush was accused of taking advantage of Americans’ post-Sept. 11 terror to expand executive power. Barack Obama will be remembered for creating budget-busting social programs while Americans were caught in the headlights of unemployment and economic reversal.
The citizen’s fear is the politician’s elixir.
Certainty may be the promise of government, but uncertainty is the grease of free markets. Uncertainty was also America’s midwife. Without a tolerance for uncertainty – and unhappiness – our nation’s founders might have remained in their rockers.
Previous generations understood that life is a gamble of uncertain returns. They were sometimes sad because life is sometimes sad. They were good at coping in bad times because downturns were more familiar than upticks.
Today, we apparently trade liberty for certainty and our once-swashbuckling spirit for contentment, preferably in pill form. All we need is a nice aphorism to help the medicine go down. Here’s one beloved by conservatives to get things rolling: “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.”
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.