Apologies for the long winded analysis....
So, I’ve been reading a lot of post apocalyptic fiction lately, to the extent that it’s beginning to impact my daily life. I know that it’s probably bad for me to consume so much fear and anguish, but I love it so much. The real tipping point was when I discovered amazon’s post apocalyptic science fiction section. I just want to read every single book in the genre.
Because it’s totally taking over, I am driven, once again, to explore the psychology of this fantasy scenario in an effort to better understand my own obsession with it. I’ve often thought that the most appealing aspect of the post apocalypse is akin to romanticizing the simplicity of the past. Our world has become increasingly complex, and it’s taxing. A post apocalyptic world, while challenging, has simpler and more attainable goals. It’s much easier to measure the goal of surviving the night than it is to measure the goal of professional success, for example. Steven Schlozman, one of many highly qualified Zombie apocalypse authors, writes about this particular appealing aspect.
Another element of apocalyptic times is related to the type of work required for that environment. Apocalyptic landscapes provide, probably, the most biopsychologically rewarding work possible. The type of work required is building fences, scavenging goods, producing food, clothing, shelter, and comfort. Each of these tasks is vitally important. It’s easy to see the steps that need to be taken. It’s easy to measure progress on the labor providing a visual return on the investment. It’s challenging. You learn as you go. It’s meaningful. You can improve the quality of your labor over time. The apocalypse is the satisfying work lottery: variety, complexity, skill development, growth, autonomy, and meaning. Lots of social theorists are researching the importance of engaging rewarding work (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Barry Schwartz, Dan Ariely, Martin Seligman, etc…). I think this is the aspect of the apocalypse that I find most appealing.
The truth is that I have a lot of these elements in the work I do now; autonomy, growth, skill development, complexity, and variety. But I still to have to calculate and pay quarterly taxes, and ultimately, beard accessories only have meaning to the extent that I gain skill developing them. Beyond that, I find them unimportant. Leather work does give me post apocalyptic value.
I have written only briefly about the apocalyptic justification narrative for skill acquisition among craftsman, but the truth is, I think I’ve given it short shrift. It’s so silly to develop skills for a world that we almost certainly won’t see in our lifetime, a scenario in which we most likely will never exist. The same is true, of course, for stockpiling weapons and shelf stable foods, yet that doesn’t stop scores of people from doing so. Is it possible that I avoid writing about the apocalypse as a justification narrative because it forces me to face the cognitive dissonance that I am subconsciously preparing for a world that I know will probably never exist? It may even be part of the reason I read so much post apocalyptic fiction, constantly driven to mentally rehearse the many possible unfoldings of total societal collapse.
This is where the work of Shmuel Lissek becomes interesting to me. He researches fear systems and evolutionary responses and writes about the idea that alarm reaches the amygdale first and evokes a fearful stress response and is later followed by a higher cortical rational evaluation of the situation. I don’t really like what he says about why people engage the apocalypse, but I do think this evolutionary fear response drives me to prepare. Interestingly, many people associate apocalyptic thinking with times of dire economic and civic strain; however, I wonder if it’s easier to engage apocalyptic fantasies now because there are so few real and urgent threats in modern Western lifestyles. If I were actually in any immediate danger, I’m sure I wouldn’t be preparing for an imaginary future situation, but instead would be faced with the reality of my current threats. The point being here that the absence of threats may be a sort of looming problem. We are programmed from millions of years of struggling to survive, to prepare, fear, etc…. The thing I find challenging about Lissek’s neurobiological explanation of fear is that it seems like it would happen very quickly. Sure, I would have a fearful stress response in fits and starts, but then would quickly progress to a rational analysis which would reverse the fear. So, why doesn’t that happen more effectively?
I have a theory. Maybe I avoid the rational argument and bearing the weight of the cognitive dissonance which would ultimately require something to shift (either believing full scale in an impending apocalyptic doom or abandoning the subconscious justification narrative for my making practices) because the biopsychosocial advantages to the making practices are a net value in a complex and often unrewarding work environment (i.e., modern Western civilization).
I have a theory. Human production practice is a complicated biological, neurological, emotional, and psychological occurrence in which we experience gratification and build resilience, which supports our mental health. This theory is borne out via work being done in the fields of neuroscience (Lambert, 2008), positive psychology (Seligman, 2011). When we are wholly responsible for producing an object of value, we experience psychological capital in the form of resilience (Seligman, 2004). We bank these experiences and measure them against future failures. Making practices lead to flow which is an externally observable manifestation of making in which participants dedicate their full concentration on a task resulting in a lapse of self awareness and a loss of the sense of time (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Activation of the effort driven rewards neural circuit is the neurobiological event occurring when a person engages flow (Lambert, 2008), and the building of psychological capital is the psychological consequence of the engagement of flow (Seligman, 2004). Unfortunately, in a world where we can buy things cheaper than we can make them, we often experience pleasure without gratification. As a result we miss out on gratification, often fail to bank psychological capital, and are lacking in resilience in the face of hardship which leads to an epidemic of depression and general decline in subjective well-being. Further, I postulate that psychological capital has a compound interest. That is, makers continue to bank resiliency over and over, each time they see or are reminded of past successes. Unfortunately, the economic environment of Western culture disincentivizes making practices and encourages modes of economic recovery in which people discard (via gifts or selling) the products of their successes. In a world where we have a ubiquitous decline in physical effort linked to visible meaningful results, we experience lowered resiliency and compromised mental immune systems; hence, the continual rise in mental disorders such as depression, suicide, and anxiety. Gratifications were once a natural byproduct of survival. This theory postulates that we now live in a gratification impoverished culture. We must consciously engage gratification in order to maintain mental health. Being active producers of the goods in our lives is essential for mental well-being. Ultimately, engaging a post apocalyptic fantasy, regardless of its basis in reality, provides a justification narrative for being a maker, constantly acquiring new production skill, which leads to psychological resilience and gratification. It makes me feel good.
When I started writing this, I was trying to talk myself out of reading so much post apocalyptic fiction, but I think, instead, I’ve totally justified my kindle books list.