Safety in numbers

Relaxation and waking up

Taking a bath taught me that I hate it when things relax me.

As part of my project to repair my relationship with desire, I’ve been working through the pleasure exercises in the book Pleasurable Weight Loss. These exercises frequently expose me to something that paradigmatically gives pleasure. The intended effect, I think, is to learn to embrace pleasure through habit-formation. The effect on me, however, has been to show me something surprising each time, often through my failure to be pleased by the activity, improving my self-model in a relevant way. I wrote about my experience with a nature walk. Another pleasure exercise was to take a luxurious bath.

When I finally emerged from a long, hot bath, I found my body unusually relaxed. I sat down on the couch and wanted to flop over. I didn’t feel like moving at all. And this was terrible. It felt as though a wizard had cast a spell on me to dullen my mind. I wasn’t thinking, I wasn’t moving, and I didn’t want to, and this was terrible. It was dangerous.

I went for a walk afterwards with a friend, and didn’t wear my jacket. The brisk winter Berkeley air cheered me up, since now I felt like moving, and thinking, and didn’t feel like I had to resist slipping into a restful oblivion.

I dislike warmth, and soft dim lighting, and deep soft couch cushions that threaten to envelop me, for much the same reason: it feels like a trap. It feels like something is trying to lull me into a false sense of security. It feels like one of those scenes in a fantasy story, where the hero’s exploring some underground catacombs, and enters a mysterious important-seeming room and all of a sudden is feeling nice and warm and sleepy, and wants to sit down for a bit, and meanwhile there are the skeletons of previous adventures littering the floor, and you want to shout, “wake up! Look around you! Get oriented or you die!”.  It feels like the warm, comforting, enveloping embrace of - death.

Or, like I wrote:

Imagine that you are a predator, even a pack predator, and you are far from home. You start perceiving empathic signals or environmental cues that say safe, home, warm, relax, sleep. Your guard goes up, not down – you are almost certainly being hacked by a hostile agent.

My preferences are unusual here. Other people like the warm, the soft, spaces dimly lit by flickering lights. These things directly cause them to relax, and they want to relax - so they do.

(I do like deep pressure massage, and in general I don't seem to mind relaxation so much when it's part of a deliberate attempt on my part to relax some specific part of my mind or body that I think is pointlessly tense. It's the ambient relaxers that I dislike. A hot bath and dim lighting even seems nonhorrible if it were the last thing I had to do before bed, and I did it with the intent of incapacitating myself to make sleep easier.)

Just as they like the ambient relaxing agents I hate, it seems that many people perceive admonitions to think as impositions by some external authority figure they need to appease, rather than the way I perceive them, as welcome wakeup calls. Socrates, for example, the gadfly who sought to sting Athens into wakefulness, was executed by those whom he thus tried to serve.

Cold calculations and warm embraces

Making decisions through making considerations explicit - e.g. drawing up lists of pros and cons - or even through mathematizing them, as Effective Altruists like to do - can seem harsh and cold. If you demand that that things be justified explicitly, it feels like demanding that each person in the tribe repeatedly justify their membership, their right to take up space. It implies that you don’t like them enough to help them if there’s nothing in it for you. Safety, in this sense, is when other people feel for you, automatically, so you’re not reliant on your ability to make clever arguments to survive - you’re loved, so you don’t have to worry about being cast out of the tribe and left to fend for yourself, and likely starve.

Safety, to me, is the opposite. My brain will give up on motor control before it will give up on trying to hold onto my full complement of working memory slots, verbal lucidity, ability to consciously track what’s going on. Being able to think feels that important for my safety.

In Atlas Shrugged, there’s a chapter (Part Two, Chapter VII - “The Moratorium on Brains”) where a transcontinental train - the Taggart Comet - is approaching a long tunnel where the signals and ventilation are in disrepair, and the engine car is damaged beyond repair. The train’s carrying Kip Chalmers, an influential politician, and he demands to be brought through immediately, but the only one available replacement engine is coal-burning, and not adequate for the tunnel. The nearby station engineer calls headquarters, but the response from the Vice-President of Operations is:

Give an engine to Mr. Chalmers at once. Send the Comet through safely and without unnecessary delay. If you are unable to perform your duties, I shall hold you responsible.

In other words, caught between the Scylla of displeasing an influential politician and the Charybdis of sending a train and all its passengers into danger, he avoids making a decision and passes the buck downwards. The Vice-President of Operations then goes back home to sleep, and is unavailable for further queries.

The chapter goes on to describe how each person in the chain of command passes along an ambiguous written order to their subordinate, passing responsibility downwards - occasionally supplementing it with a less ambiguous but less verifiable spoken order - until a low-ranking night dispatcher decides to trust his superiors and send the train through. The engine gives out in the middle of the tunnel, all the passengers suffocate to death, and the train is then struck by an army train carrying explosives, destroying the tunnel entirely.

Things like bright lights and explicitly articulating arguments for things, feel safe and reassuring to me. They’re signs that people want to allow me to relax by demonstrating to me that the situation is safe. That someone’s minding the situation, or making it easy for me to do so. When people try to create environments that directly induce relaxation, not thinking so hard, letting one’s hair down, it feels to me as though they’re trying to build a world in which people send an unsuitable locomotive into an unsafe tunnel with inadequate ventilation and broken signals, because nobody could be bothered to wake up and make a decision. It feels like a dire threat to my physical safety.

2 thoughts on “Safety in numbers

  1. Pingback: Physical empathy and channels of communication | Compass Rose

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