Stress as Slow-Motion "Susto"
Recently, I received a series of phone calls from a distraught migrant woman pleading for a restraining order.
In the past, I've dealt with restraining orders, chiefly to keep abusive husbands at bay.
In this instance, the woman's request was based on an allegation of "susto" against three female relatives. The plaintiff sought restraint of her mother-in-law and two daughters who had "conspired" to inflict "susto," allegedly causing the plaintiff to miscarry.
"Susto" - which literally translates as "fright" - is grounded in the belief that human beings can invade and degrade the psycho-spiritual integrity of others, and in the process, cause physical injury.
Although certain characteristics of "susto" are similar to witchcraft, the phenomenon is taken seriously by Mexican health practitioners, whether backwoods "curanderos," or western-trained M.D.s.
Our modern inclination is to dismiss any pre-scientific assignation of "agency." However, Paul of Tarsus and Y'eshua the Nazarene asserted that belief was central to the quality of one's being. If a person believes something will happen, there is far greater likelihood that it will. According to Paul and the Nazarene, belief has the power to induce change inexplicable by western science. Interestingly a recent Duke University study revealed that prayerful believers require four days hospitalization for medical conditions which intern non-believers for a week.
As Henry Ford observed: "Whether you believe you can or can't, you're right."
However, it is not my intention to argue that the Mexican plaintiff suffered "miscarriage by susto."
Rather, I intend to investigate whether "susto" can be easily dismissed. I want to probe the hypothesis that "susto" is the cornerstone of modern American culture, a cornerstone that is all the more influential for its subterranean invisibility.
Three years ago, after long struggle with the bureaucratic absurdities of public instruction, I was suddenly confronted with a de facto ultimatum: 1.) either submit to the mounting foolishness of bureaucratic mandate and shoulder a load of dishonor, broken morale and morally-compromised collusion, or, 2.) resign.
Overnight -- and shouldering a mortgage that had just risen from $475.00 to $850.00 -- I quit, no job prospect in sight.
Without probing the many benefits which eventually accrued from resignation, I will focus on two epiphanies that accompanied my decision.
In the immediate wake of resignation, it became clear that most people cling to their jobs --- typically buro-institutional jobs where "someone else" sets the agenda, makes the rules, calls the shots, pays the bills, and hires/fires by criteria designed to enhance the survivability of the institution -- because most people are afraid of unemployment and loss of benefits.
Clearly, unemployment does -- and should -- inspire real fear.
However, like other real fears, the prospect of unemployment should be confronted squarely, not justified by the familiar mechnisms of quiet desperation.
Our world is not so much afflicted by lack of important work, but by institutional mandates that saddle us with so much fictitious work, simultaneously alleging the intrinsic intractability of real problems. Our obsession with "jobs" disguises the fact that most jobs are created to foster someone else's commercial or mercenary belief system. Our blind insistence on the creation of MORE JOBS -- as distinct from the creation of culturual/educational opportunities that encourage people to define their own work in the world -- will, in hindsight, be seen as a grave philosophic and political error. To demand the creation of generic JOBS while ignoring the social, political and ecological context of these jobs is a form of idolatry not far removed from the worship of golden calves.
All over the world, bureaucracies have grown adept at creating meaningless jobs to pre-empt dissent among the "educated" classes. The very people who might otherwise dismantle the age-old primacy of money and privilege are reduced to docility by the self-justifying importance of job security and the benefits accruing therefrom.
Impertinent "make-work" schemes are generated to occupy -- and pre-occupy -- "the best and the brightest," simultaneously insuring the disenfranchisement (and subsequent brutalization) of people whose physical labor is no longer needed in an economy driven by information, automation and intellect.
Just as settled agriculturalists eliminated the livelihoods of hunters and gatherers, we now witness the destruction of the global peasantry through automated production procedures which -- according to the official boast -- enable 2% of the population to produce as much food as was formerly produced by the concerted effort of the overwhelming majority. (The Amish and certain clusters of unaffected peasants still bear witness against the philosophic monstrosity that divorces intellect from earth, while supplying the dubious "benefits" of self-satisfaction, civic carelessness, psycho-economic dependence and moral indifference.)
However, unlike the earlier displacement of our nomadic forebears --- and their subsequent re-absorption as settled agriculturalists --- there is deepening doubt whether economic globalization and monocrop agribusiness can bring about any results that doesn't accentuate the rift between rich and poor, between the "gated" few and the goaded many.
I wish it weren't necessary to quote Wendell Berry so often: "The only escape from this destiny of victimization has been to "succeed" --- that is, to "make it" into the class of exploiters, and then to remain so specialized and so "mobile" as to be unconscious of the effects of one's life or livelihood." ("The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture")
We have created a global culture in which widespread unemployment - or underemployment - is required by the structure of our (post)industrial economy. The fact that unemployment in the U.S. has dipped below 4 per cent creates widespread complacency since most Americans don't see the relationship between the favorable employment picture "at home," and mounting idleness in the rest of the world.
We can account for widespread ignorance of the effects-of-our-livelihoods by examining a certain similarity between modern economics and modern warfare. Both "behaviors" are perpetrated over long distances via the mediation of machines interposed between "us" and "them" (i.e., the unidentified dark-skinned peoples affected at ground zero.)
There is little substantive difference between launching a rocket toward some distant target and obliging third world backwaters to undertake economic austerity measures.
It is a curious coincidence that citizens are systematically taught to be dependent (particularly upon institutions) while simultaneously downplaying acculturative mechanisms that foster creativity, resourcefulness and courage --- three characteristics essential to the health of any body politic, but which are indispensable to individuals wishing to create their own work in the world.
Not long ago, most people plied trades and crafts that permitted them to infuse their handiwork with artistry, personal pride and a vision of "the good."
Now, most moderns are content -- in fact, eager -- to relinquish the self-determination of craft and artisanship in exchange for the dependable pay-check issued by institutions, corporations and bureaucracies whose true - and often inhuman - purposes they don't even glimpse.
Why is it that moderns pine for the comfort of cubbyholes in organizations so large that they can't, don't or won't perceive the imperatives that drive them?
150 years ago -- before Nicaragua had any system of public instruction -- there was no unemployment. Today, the law mandates universal instruction, while the unemployment rate is at least fifty percent (50%). Abysmal as that sounds, Nicaragua's socio-economic status --- as ranked by the United Nations --- is 125th among the world's 174 nations, placing it in the 70th percentile.
Compare these statistics to any tribal/peasant culture where "unemployment" is not only non-existent, but where the very word rings as an unintelligible misnomer.
Notably, back when everyone occupied a valued place in society, there was little, if any, fear for one's personal security. Now, fear for one's personal security is the uppermost political consideration throughout Latin America, with the rest of the "developing" world not far behind. Peaceable backwaters like Oaxaca, Mexico, have been unsettled by kidnappers who sell infants on the international "adoption" market. In Brazil, the killing of street urchins is widely believed to fuel a black market in "body parts."
As recently as 1967, I could walk freely - without misgiving - in any part of any major Latin American city. The intervening thirty years have witnessed the collapse of civil society. Now, any foray beyond the most rigidly policed tourist districts imperils life and limb.
It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that industrial (and post-industrial) societies have deliberately conditioned their members to depend on the ersatz security provided by institutional centralization as the "upside" of making the rest of the world an extraordinarily risky arena, a place where "plain folk" can no longer survive on time-honored margins. (It would be wonderful if "plain folk" participated in the real benefits of science and technology. Lamentably, (post)industrial culture seems bent on repossessing "the subsistent margins," thus degrading the traditional peoples who live there. (See: "Ladakh, A Study in Globalization")
Knee jerk acceptance of centralization is good for consumer culture. Intrinsic to ongoing centralization is the proliferation of "new and better toys," which, in turn, establishes the primacy of "The Pleasure Principle." Unfortunately, the primacy of pleasure destroys the capacity for transcendence which has sustained tribal and peasant people for at least 100,000 years.
Admittedly, subsistence agriculture is often a cruel way to live. Nevertheless, it is demonstrably less cruel than supplanting traditional livelihoods with false promises that corral bedazzled peasants in open-sewer shanty towns where human aspiration settles on alcohol, drugs, consumer goods, promiscuity and gaming.
It is often said: "You can't keep 'em down on the farm."
However, "the farm" is exactly where native Chiapans - and other indigenous people - want to be.
Although the motivation may be unconscious, it appears that North America's military might is deployed against Chiapan peasants precisely because they're determined to remain peasants, thus defying a globalizing system determined to surrender the countryside to agribusiness, resource companies and gated communities while herding peasants into degenerate urban favelas.
Whatever the globalizing ramifications of massive institutions -- and the inevitable tendency of these organizations to re-make the world in their own image -- my resignation from compulsory government schooling (the largest of all U.S. institutions including the United States military) persuaded me that institutional employees are almost always motivated by deep-rooted "susto."
The fear at the core of buro-institutional employees --- a fear for their very "lives" --- is motivated by the threat of losing the institutional work for which they've trained, and from which most of them see no way out.
It's as if we "play along" with the game --- regardless its morality --- so long as we can "collect $200.00 whenever we pass GO."
Tragically, modern "specialist" training - and the credentialling processes which keep professionals "in line" - disable most of us from participating in anything but the narrow band of activity for which we've been trained and certified. Thoroughly unprepared to create our own work in the world, we adhere to "the world's" work.
Adolph Eichmann could touch, feel, see and smell the results of his employment. Admittedly, we now have sanitized factories and "scrubbed smokestacks," but is our systematic projection of evil onto ghettoes, inner-city shelters and distant favelas any less culpable than Eichmann's?
All of us are "doing our job" because we are good citizens and responsible providers.
Is this not true?
We cling to our jobs because "susto" whispers in the night: "If you lose your livelihood, you will begin a swift, certain decline into penury, possible homelessness, uncertain medical care and hard-scrabble retirement."
Unlike the migrant woman to whom I referred at the beginning of this essay, the susto which drives us is rarely related to a particular person. The nature of modern Systems is too depersonalizing -- too corporately diffuse -- to point to a single agent.
Instead, the susto that propels modern economic behavior is "systematic susto." We live with moribund fears so deeply buried in the modern psyche that we are no more conscious of these "corpses" than are of dead masons entombed in the massive bridges we traverse on our daily rounds.
Structural susto is more ominous -- more freighted with hidden causality -- than the palpable susto which allows us to point fingers at Papa Doc, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, or to a migrant woman "conspiring" to provoke miscarriage.
The second epiphany which accompanied my resignation from compulsory government schooling was the sudden perception of how subtly I had conditioned myself to see what I wanted to see; to see what I needed to see in order to justify my role in the abusive system of which I was part. It was susto-driven blindness that enabled me to lubricate the wheels of an organization whose predictable outcomes include the 417 to 5 Congressional vote to bomb Baghdad and the monstrosity of kids killing kids in classrooms.
That I was unaware - or at least ignorant - of the role I played in sustaining the havoc of compulsory government schooling reveals the insidious pathways by which buro-institutional "susto" incarnates as slow-motion stress.
Modern medical practitioners report that half of all doctor's visits are motivated by stress-related disease - whether psychological or pyscho-somatic.
If we posit that stress is ultimately based on susto, we need to ask whether the existence of stress is imaginable in the absence of susto?
"Perfect love casts out fear."
Is it possible that the susto/stress arising from employment-related fears is the essential determinant of a culture that perpetuates fear throughout the socio-economic spectrum, thus preventing us from embodying love in our institutional life.
Or, more accurately, do large institutions, by their nature, erode the human ability to love one's neighbor directly while providing - as a surrogate - what we might call the susto-driven smoke-screen of aid/assistance?
In recent months, several reports have clarified aspects of Guatemala's recently abated civil war, a war which took the lives of 200,000 people, most of them native American peasants.
One study revealed that the Guatemalan army elicited 'ultimate susto' through a heinous policy known as "70/30."
Here's how it worked....
As the Guatemalan war ratcheted up in the early 80s, the military occupied numerous war zones, routinely killing everyone they found. The slaughter was indiscriminate and unrelenting.
Before long, the Guatemalan military realized it would be just as easy to subdue the population - and would require less effort by "mission control" - if, upon occupying an area, operatives simply liquidated 30% of the population. The remaining 70% would then be given a choice: 1.) either the army would proceed to kill everybody who remained, or, 2.) the remaining 70% would form "civil patrols" as brutally repressive as the military itself. (Should there arise any hint of slackness in these civil patrols, the army would return and kill everyone....)
In one ghoulish side-show, elements of the army (under the guidance of an Anglo officer who spoke American-style English) obliged Ursuline Sister Diana Ortiz to kill someone else in order to save herself from torture and death. As Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, put it: 'modern methods of torture have become so effective that anyone can be broken.'
From the System's vantage, the most useful "break" occurs when "innocent" people are obliged to collude with evil. Whether enforced collusion manifests in the formation of "civil patrols," a nun's willingness to kill another human being, or in the person of a Mexican cop who extorts bribes because his salary can't support his family --- or, if the System uses the more diffuse, slow-motion technique of instilling job-related "susto" --- the outcome is equally deadly.
Whatever the pathway, we all collude.
Take a more mundane example.
Recently, Congress approved an extraordinary 15 billion dollar congressional appropriation to finance the bombing of Kosovo/Serbia. The same bill included a billion dollar "rider" for Hurricane Mitch relief.
Even if we view this "mixed bag" as the lesser of two evils, it is enlightening to recall Jerry Garcia's counsel: "To choose the lesser of two evils still chooses evil."
Which brings me to a place where none of us wants to go.
Is it possible that the human condition is so intrinsically skewed that there's no honest alternative but to postulate some primordial moral calamity --- the sort of moral shipwreck which Christians sometimes call "original sin?"
Perhaps we are destined to suffer the cumulative ravages of this innate moral skewedness, a skewedness which catapults us farther and farther from original animal harmony with the Tao.
If collective moral shipwreck is inevitable, then our only duty may be to treat one another kindly while our several ships sink.
Will we send "the poor below where they'll be the first to go?"
Or will we all go together?
And if so, where will we go?
Or, might the universe have a mechanism of remembrance --- an archival mechanism for re-membering ---- that's independent of human agency?
If we go belly up -- and there's no-one "in the forest" to observe our demise -- was it all soundlessness and fury signifying nothing?
If we forswear the narcotizing blandishments of consumer culture, such questions lead directly to Camus' observation that "the only philosophical question is suicide."
Camus killed himself.
Can we find the strength to "stare into the vacuum of his eyes" without saying "hey, Mister, do you want to make a deal?"