Monday, June 22, 2009

An example of the modern expert

In this earlier post, I wrote about how modern experts serve the same cultural function that priests once did: As the interface to the mysterious powers that dominate our lives.

There is a timely example of this in the latest issue of The Atlantic. The author even explicitly compares the modern therapist to a priest or a shaman:

And yet at the end of the day—literally during a five o’clock counseling appointment, as the golden late-afternoon sunlight spilled over the wall of Balinese masks—when given the final choice by our longtime family therapist, who stands in as our shaman, mother, or priest, I realized … no. Heart-shattering as this moment was—a gravestone sunk down on two decades of history—I would not be able to replace the romantic memory of my fellow transgressor with the more suitable image of my husband, which is what it would take in modern-therapy terms to knit our family’s domestic construct back together.

Sandra Tsing Loh is talking about her decision to divorce her husband of twenty years. What is interesting is the manner in which Loh describes the situation in terms of abstract concepts and forces that have almost dictated her decision. She has committed adultery, apparently, and according to the therapist the "domestic construct" can survive only if Loh can replace the romantic memory of her lover with that of her husband. Can she do it? Well, she seems not to think so, saying that "I would not be able" to replace it. I wonder.. how does she know? Has she tried? And why does she so uncritically accept the therapeutic assertion that replacing romantic memories is the decisive act in restoring a marriage? Well, because the expert says so, and in the modern world, only experts know things, not ordinary people.

It's the fatalism of the passage that strikes me. The marriage cannot work unless Loh can peform the ritual memory replacement prescribed by the therapist. In the old days, evil spirits might roam the world looking for the ruin of souls, but there was nothing inevitable about their effect. Evil spirits ruin man through tempting him to sin, but through prayer, the sacraments, and the practice of ordinary virtue, temptation could be overcome and evil spirits thwarted. Even if man succumbs to sin - by committing adultery, for example - there was nothing inevitable about the result. Sin triumphs only if man allows it to triumph, which, unfortunately, man sometimes grants. But the inevitability of the triumph of sin, that there is a time when sin decisively undermines our freedom to overcome it and its effects, is something the modern therapist apparently accepts but the old priest would have resisted with every fiber of his being.

One difference between the old priest and the modern expert is that the priest never allowed that the mysterious powers were powerful enough to fully undermine the freedom of man. His main function, in fact, was to administer sacraments that restored man's freedom in the face of the powers that would dominate him. This includes every kind of power; the power of demons to tempt us to sin, or the power of political authorities to corrupt our conscience (see St. Thomas More and King Henry VIII). Now you may dismiss the angels and demons the priest believed in as fantasy - fair enough. But the point is that the priest always thought that man had the wherewhithal to side with angels against the demons, no matter his station or education. The wealthiest king was still as subject to the temptation to sin as much as the poorest peasant, and both had access to the sacraments that would save them both in this world and the next; in this they were perfectly equal. Not so much anymore. Now the poor peasant is the powerless victim of social and economic forces beyond his control, forces that are known only by the experts and those with the money to pay them. Only the woman with money is able to pay for the expert advice that would tell her how to knit her domestic construct together, unless she is lucky enough to get on the Dr. Phil show.

It's not just mysterious psychological forces that dominate us in the modern world, but chemical forces as well. Loh refers to a book that reveals the manner in which our romantic destiny is determined by chemistry (literally):

Why Him, Why Her explains the hormonal forces that trigger humans to be romantically attracted to some people and not to others (a phenomenon also documented in the animal world). Fisher posits that each of us gets dosed in the womb with different levels of hormones that impel us toward one of four basic personality types:

The Explorer—the libidinous, creative adventurer who acts “on the spur of the moment.” Operative neurochemical: dopamine.

The Builder—the much calmer person who has “traditional values.” The Builder also “would rather have loyal friends than interesting friends,” enjoys routines, and places a high priority on taking care of his or her possessions. Operative neurotransmitter: serotonin.

The Director—the “analytical and logical” thinker who enjoys a good argument. The Director wants to discover all the features of his or her new camera or computer. Operative hormone: testosterone.

The Negotiator—the touchy-feely communicator who imagines “both wonderful and horrible things happening” to him- or herself. Operative hormone: estrogen, then oxytocin.

Some of the combinations work and others don't. An Explorer marrying and Explorer, for example, isn't likely to work, but a Builder marrying a Builder will be boring but permanent. Loh's friend Ellen discovers through the book the reason that her marriage never did and never could work:

Exclaims Ellen, slapping the book: “This is why my marriage has been dead for 15 years. I’m an Explorer married to a Builder!” (Ron literally is a builder—like Ian, he crafts wonderful shelves and also, of course, cooks.) But what can Ellen do? Explorer-Explorer tends to be one of the most unstable combinations, whereas Fisher suspects “most of the world’s fifty-year marriages are made by Builders who marry other Builders.”

But what can Ellen do? In the modern world, nothing at all but accept the inevitability of the chemical forces that dominate her life. Dopamine and Serotonin are gods who brook no appeal.

P.S. Don't you just love the way Ellen identified herself as an Explorer? Why, I must be an Explorer, because I'm "creative"and an "adventurer." My boring old husband, however, is just a "Builder", attached to his "traditional values", his loyal but boring friends (friends, you see, are either loyal or interesting, but can't be loyal and interesting), and really is just a selfish boob, because he's mostly worried about taking care of his possessions (i.e. polishing his BMW). Fortunately for Ellen, chemistry dictates that she can do nothing but rid herself of this boat anchor of a guy.

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