Me in Finnesterre, Galacia (Spain) in 2006. The end of the world in Roman times.
I have been reading about uncertainty. Part of my effort to develop some new research ideas, although to be honest, as an agnostic it is also sparks my thinking about living with unanswered questions.
Today I finished a book about the intersection of psychology and anthropology, What Really Matters: Living a Life Amidst Danger and Uncertainty by Arthur Kleinman. I picked it up because I thought it would address how people respond to uncertainty (which it did). However, it wasn’t a psychological or anthropological monograph. Kleinman wrote about 7 people living in uncertain and dangerous conditions and how they responded to such – a soldier in combat, an aid worker, an HIV/AIDS positive artist, a minister with a sex problem, a doctor in communist China, a Victorian/Eduardian era anthropologist, and the author himself.
After the second chapter, I was wondering how applicable the book would be to my research, but I kept reading because I was intrigued at a personal level. But then it came back together again for me and I realized that the life portraits illustrated Kleinman’s point that history, culture, politics, and political economy shape the way we respond to uncertainty. Nothing new (or at least it shouldn’t be) for an anthropologist, but sometimes we need a reminder.
His chapter on W.H.R. Rivers, the Victorian/Eduardian doctor, psychologist, and anthropologist, spoke the most to me. Maybe because he was an anthropologist; maybe because he took such a meandering path; maybe because he worked in an interdisciplinary context that gave him insights that might not have been available to those who don’t cross boundaries. Rivers’ work allowed him to see that power and knowledge were inseparable, but also that “[d]ifferent models of how to live in the world were needed that challenged the established moral culture before it proved too late” (Kleinman 2006: 214). This was after WWI where Rivers worked as a psychologist treating shell-shocked British soldiers – i.e. troops with PTSD – that ‘needed’ to keep a stiff upper lip and head back to the front for England. Because, you know, they were faking it to avoid duty. Rivers disagreed with the idea of sending men back to the front who had mental health problems, and thought that the British cultural ideas of how men were supposed to be made the whole situation worse. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Kleinman then goes on to talk about anti-heroes. Unlike the traditional hero that falls or travels into danger and returns with a new idea or tool or thing that helps the community rise above the challenge, the anti-, or negative, hero holds up a mirror and challenges us to think about how we see ourselves. The moral choices made to survive in the grey landscape of horrible and terrible things force us to think about how we would or would not act in the same situation. Can we forgive? Refuse vindictiveness and revenge? Offer assistance at the potential cost of our own life? How do the horrible acts we’ve committed drive us to fix our mistakes or make up for what we’ve done later? How do we actively choose to do “better” than those who’ve come before? Our culture’s morals can have a dangerous side effects – ones that we need to be aware of so that we can make active choices in living so that others (with perhaps different morals) can coexist. The national obsession with religion and politics in our current presidential race seems to fit this situation well.
We can’t know what the future will bring with certitude. That’s just how life is. As Master Yoda says, “Always in motion the future is.” But in meeting uncertainty, Kleinman offers the following,
“Commitment to others, struggling to bring some good into our close-up worlds even while acknowledging that our coping skills are barely adequate, being passionate about projects that build the self and others, being serious about critical engagement steeped in self-reflection and aimed to rework or stop moral processes that intensify danger, mobilizing aspiration in defeat and finding the courage and endurance even when experiencing the hollowness of victories not to completely despair – those are the kinds of things that, no matter their trite and conventional ring, still feel authentic and useful… that acknowledgement and affirmation of the other precedes inquiry and enables a readiness for the unexpected transformations, which do occur and can be revitalizing if seized hold of and properly directed. We must see moral experience for what it is: all that we have and all that we will ever have that defines our humanity and makes us and our worlds real.” (pp. 233-4)