by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - November 20, 2006) Karen, working for the first time in a large corporation, began experiencing severe stress symptoms. The schedules were brutal and no sooner had she met one deadline than she was obliged to meet the next. Often they came in great clusters and she found it necessary to stay long hours and take work back home with her. She rapidly grew to dislike her office manager, who was something of a martinet and believed that "the job" was supreme and "private life" must always be subordinated to the needs of the Company. As for her fellow workers, Karen found she had very little in common with them. The job, however, was very well paid and, as she was seriously in debt, she needed to keep it. To suppress her hostility and depression, she developed a perky-breezy facade, and her co-workers thought of her as a cheery, amiable girl who was easy to get along with. But away from the office with her mask off, she fell into black doldrums, cried for hours for no apparent reason, and found it difficult to interact with new people she would occasionally meet. Once back at the office, her chirpy exterior would reassert itself.
One day, about ten months into the job, she found it impossible to get out of bed and go to work. Friends brought her to a doctor where she was diagnosed with a severe case of exhaustion caused by stress. She was urged to apply for disability leave, given heavy doses of anti depressants, and spent the next six months in the care of a psychiatrist. During this period, she found it virtually impossible to converse with even her closest friends and regularly sought refuge in television and food. As her moods became even darker and more worrying, her family decided to place her into a sanitarium. It took two years before she gradually began to climb out of her black pit -- at least to the point of conversing easily with friends and family, but whenever it was suggested she might be well enough to return to work, she would suffer a relapse. At this writing, she is still in the sanitarium.
Karen, like many people voluntarily trapped in pressurized corporate structures, had to find a way of coping with a depression that was tinged with bitterness and aggression and, like many people in such situations, the way she found was to project a personality that belied her true state. Eventually, the chirpiness and levity, originally assumed as a convenient facade, hardened into an armor. Inside that armor the real Karen was still in great pain, but there was now a buffer between herself and the circumstances that had caused her depression. In her joviality and casualness, she was telling both herself and the world that she was neither miserable nor enslaved. Gradually, she constructed a social self that would enable her to function despite the misery and emptiness she was actually experiencing.
To some extent, all of us suffer from Karen's Complaint. We all occasionally find ourselves in situations from which we wish to be freed but, like Karen, devise compelling reasons to stay put and so resort to rationalization. The personality we "project" in such situations spans like a bridge between the sufferer and the rebel. The joviality that is adopted superficially diminishes the suffering and takes the anger out of the rebellion. Before long, all outward traces of both suffering and rebellion have disappeared and the projected personality appears to thrive in what the sufferer experiences as unbearable circumstances.
"Projected personality" is not like the brave face we put on to get us over some temporary arduous task. It is a series of unmonitored reflex actions which slowly coagulate into a new persona. Little by little, we adopt character traits -- facial masks, social attitudes, selective jargon -- that enable us to persevere in pressured circumstances. Although the posture is defensive and even justifiable, the toll it takes on the original personality can sometimes be devastating. Like The Man in the Iron Mask, the external figure bears virtually no relation to the prisoner trapped within.
Karen opted for a jolly camouflage, but there are innumerable modes of concealment. For instance, there are those who assume a mask of overt suffering, pessimism, and gloom -- the kind of people who always appear to be anticipating disaster. For them, the droopy, despondent, melancholic mask serves as a kind of preemptive strike against the miseries of their life. They persuade themselves that if they are steeled against the worst disasters, they will, in some magical way, fend them off. But they too are layering their true personalities with attitudes and psychic stances which are imposed and therefore run counter to their true nature. Another familiar type is the sardonic wit who uses cutting irony to convert pain into laughter and is constantly upbraided by his colleagues for "not taking life seriously," unaware that for such persons to forego levity would immediately plunge them into despair. Then there is the carefree, devil-may-care, "nothing-ever-fazes-me" sufferer; the benevolent, open-armed, lover-of-all-mankind fraud; the fence-sitting, non-judgmental, always-neutral hypocrite; the crypto-masochist who stoutly contends that no amount of punishment can affect them and nothing can be thrown their way which cannot be borne. Misery, in these cases, becomes a kind of medal of honor that sufferers hypocritically award themselves.
To a certain extent, we all "select" our social persona. Often, it is based on emulations of certain types of people, mythic or real, that we wish to resemble. But because those slender masks, regularly pulled on and off, are inspired by positive rather than negative impulses, they pose no real threat to the true personality, which is merely using them to help formulate itself. Among the young, for instance, role models are frequently exchanged, shifting from one admired archetype to another. But in the case of projected personalities, the accretion of character traits is largely unconscious and tends to harden rather than diffuse. Ultimately, the entire personality undergoes a kind of sea change, and only after many years when the armor cracks does the true personality re-emerge -- although by that time, it has been irreparably transformed.
If one were a sociologist, one might trace the cause of these personality projections to a society which prizes security and desperately strives after the material rewards that social subjugation often confer. If one were a Marxist, one might conclude that the disintegration of one's true nature is simply the logical consequence of dedicated exploitation in the workplace. The Freudian might contend that consciously-induced suppression breeds a nation of neurotic phonies. But surrounded as we are by people who are figments of their own imagination, we recognize there are also people who elude such snares; people we admire because, in all circumstances, they are no one but themselves.
The only remedy for people imprisoned in projected personalities is the bitter one of self-revelation. Once the truth of their condition has been openly confronted, the defensive mechanisms can begin to be disassembled. But that assumes enormous powers of self-awareness on the part of people who are by nature vulnerable, impressionable, and weak-willed. It is the kind of psychological problem that no amount of medication can ameliorate. The only true restorative is a "shock of awareness" and the people best suited to administer it are loved ones, close family, and brutally-honest friends.
The terror that many of us feel in a political climate in which we, or our loved ones, may at any moment be blown up, encourages a kind of inner flight, a "taking refuge" in illusions of domestic and personal security which enable us to elude the terrible realities that engulf us. It is comforting to "take a break," "have a vacation," "reminisce with old friends," and avoid the feelings of helplessness that current events inflict. Escapism can sometimes be a means of escaping madness. How often do we hear people say: "If I don't get away from all the terrible things that are happening in the world, I will just go mad." Escapism is a legitimate anodyne against madness, and to one degree or another, we all resort to it. But the next step is to construct a mindset that refuses to acknowledge the dangers and evils with which we are continually confronted -- to make diversion a way of life.
Ostensibly, there is a gulf that separates politically-conscious people from those who are not. Political consciousness can take several forms. Persons who studiously follow the burning issues in the daily headlines may become rigidly opinionated, prone to argument, and committed to changing people's minds; that is, converting them to their own viewpoint -- but often, that is the end of the process. Confirming personal perceptions becomes the true objective of such people rather than acting upon convictions that lie at the root of the issues. People like that fall into the category of "talking heads" rather than political activists. Less articulate people who feel strongly about the same issues may demonstrate support of them by joining like-minded groups, donating money or, in some cases, planting themselves into the midst of the actual crises that deeply concern them. During the Spanish Civil War, many Americans, endangering their lives, went off to Spain to fight against Franco. In World War II, men over draft age volunteered to take part in whatever military organizations would have them because they felt strongly that the Axis threat was the paramount issue of their time.
American life is constructed in such a way that flight from reality is a convenient option. The "declaration of opinion" is often mistaken for action itself, as is signing petitions, donating money, or proselytizing friends and loved ones. There are innumerable ways of sidestepping unbearable realities and, with our highly cultivated gift for rationalization, myriad ways of avoiding "inconvenient truths." The greatest of these is that we care about "burning issues" (e.g., Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Darfur, North Korea, etc.) when all we are really doing is metaphorically donning a T-shirt bearing the right slogan. The helplessness of helpless situations (e.g., Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Darfur, North Korea, etc.) is our "out." If politicians all over the world cannot solve these problems, how can a powerless, ordinary citizen?
Some connection has to be established between grievance and remedy that will harness people of goodwill everywhere if goodness is to rout evil. We assume it should happen in the political arena but clearly, it rarely does. Every election we hold in America proclaims our national apathy. If the mechanisms that make the nation rotate can't do it, some other means -- people power, community initiative, media reform, grass roots re-education, spiritual awakening, open rebellion, have to be found. A changed consciousness is the first step towards a changed society.
Many Americans today are trapped in a kind of psychic haze; Karen's Complaint writ large. We constantly feel overcome by events and their insolubility nourishes our inertia. Calls-to-arms are answered by shrugs that say, "what's the use?" Eloquent editorials, well-reasoned op-ed pieces and convincingly argued books intellectually penetrate the heart of national and international crises and, although they may stir our passions, they do not foster meaningful action. The "media" is like a non-stop repertory theatre whose attractions change daily and, like theatre, generate a variety of strong emotions that -- again like theatre -- dissolve as soon as they are over. Internet publications, even like this one, maintain varieties of discourse that prod differing expressions of opinion in letters and articles but tacitly assume these are simply part of the commentary which accompany, rather than affect, events. Ironically, as crises escalate inertia increases. We have endless reasons to vent self-righteous indignation and regularly resort to them. Our enemies are clearer than they were before and, even if not directly confronted, can be readily identified. Our convictions are crystal clear, our principles regularly reaffirmed. We return, bruised, angry, enlightened but unchanged to our "lives of quiet desperation."
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