The cost of not living in the present
I have been thinking lately about the social, financial and emotional costs of not living in the present – more to the point: the cost to society of not dealing with the negative emotions and experiences that can come at us on any given day. If we are truly honest with ourselves, I think we would all admit that at times when facing difficult experiences or negative emotions – we choose to avoid, deny or seek forms of escapism into fantasy worlds of some form or another. Everyone deals with this differently. Some people call out to their closest friends for comfort and emotional support. Some people opt out of life or take a sick day (or three) off work. Some people over-work to take their mind off things. While others resort to comfort food or comfort habits that make them feel good when they feel emotionally down or depressed.
For me personally, one of the ways I have coped is through comfort music (if you can believe that!) – I often delve back into my old 80s/ 90s era music collection when feeling down! This usually gives me some comfort – reminding of better days, those fun times as an adolescent /young adult when I dreamed of playing in a band!. Although this can ease the negative emotions I may be experiencing at the time, it doesn’t tend to resolve the underlying issue I face. So, why do we tend to avoid, deny or escape reality that is unpleasant, difficult or charged with negative emotional experiences?
As humans, we all have an inbuilt desire or default condition to retreat to safe places when we feel under threat. In our current world experience, there are many things to make us feel threatened – ironically; most are not threats to our physical wellbeing or safety these days (for instance, most of us don’t face life or death threats every day or week thankfully – unless of course you are living in one of many conflict zones around the globe…). The fact is that for the majority of us living in the developed world; the threats we tend to face consist of threats to financial independence and security, professional reputation, self-image /self-worth and the myriad of identity issues that can crop up. When we are criticized publicly, fail in front of our peers, are made redundant, rejected or do something shameful – we feel an attack to these critical attributes of who we are – our self-image, reputation and identity.
Protecting our deeply internalized and valued attributes of self-worth and identity is hard wired into our brains and psyche. Thanks to our social natures, we programmed to strive for acceptance and affirmation in and through relationship with others – which all works fine until something goes wrong! When things turn nasty or when our relationship expectations are not met, and we don’t receive this affirmation – we tend to internalize negative emotions and seek ways to isolate, deny or act out in ways that might recover more positive feelings of self-worth. So what do most of us do to deal with this? We all tend to compensate for this lack of affirmation by finding things, experiences or people that will make us feel good about ourselves again – so, we look for an emotional high. Typically, this can include all number of modern addictions and vices: we take up extreme sports, we over-work, we consume too much alcohol, explore drugs, get caught in gaming, Internet or pornography addiction, we start flirting or explore different partners. Some people even try to redirect or resolve these negative emotional experiences through physical means such as sexual abuse or violence against others, or alternatively through self-harming, eating disorders, depression or suicide attempts.
There is clearly a cost to not dealing with the present reality of our negative emotional experiences. The more I think about this issue, the more I realize the magnitude of the cost to society as a while, when we continue to not deal well with present negative experiences in life. And when I think about the future, I can only imagine that this may well continue even further in a downward slide. With the increase in virtual reality technology, advances in medical sciences (biotech, genomics and neurosciences leading to personalized / designer drugs), body enhancements and plastic surgery – one can only wonder at whether as a society we are dealing better with our reality (including those negative experiences, poor self-worth and identity issues); or are we simply finding more and creative ways to avoid, deny or escape reality.
In my opinion, I feel that as technology advances and the cost of these alternatives become more affordable for the masses, there will be even more people actively seeking out opportunities to escape reality!. Now, don’t get me wrong – I am actually all for the advances in VR and other tech sciences, in particular those genuinely seeking solve real life problems and help advance social wellbeing. However, what I am concerned about are those new technologies that deliver forms of escapism from the real world without improving it! In this regard, a number of these new technologies are actually helping people avoid, deny or escape the existence of their pain of living in the present. As most of us know, when we develop patterns of avoidance or denial we often end up feeling worse off in the long run.
So, I come back to original question of this post: What is the (collective, society-wide) cost of not living in the present? What is the cost to society of our collective avoidance of negative emotional experiences in the present – of opting for life lived in avoidance, denial, distraction or escapism? Well – I would imagine that it would be staggering! For example, it is believed that mental illness is now the main reason that Australian workers take extended sick leave or become incapacitated – resulting in an estimated cost of close to $10billion per year (Source: UNSW and the Black Dog Institute). The amount of people all over the world who are now living dependent on both prescription and illegal drugs to numb out emotional pain (many due to trauma, abuse, neglect or depression) would be massive. I don’t have a handle on the statistics.. but what I have read on this topic certainly blows my mind!
My musing today is this: I wonder if we could all take time to reflect on how we routinely or habitually deal with those negative emotional experiences in life… Are our ways of dealing with the negative aspects of our present reality leading us to become more whole and integrated people? Or are they leading us to live more fragmented and disconnected lives emotionally and relationally?