“Damn it, it’s MY Body That’s at Stake”: Autonomy, Sociality, and Imperfect Choices

My family were swapping medical grievances one evening: flawed diagnoses, unwanted side effects, useless procedures. “Damn it, it’s my body that’s at stake” was one protest. As a species, we are quick to feel protective of more than just our health. Insert “my life,” “my rights,” “my money,” “my freedom.” When alarmed, we rush to defend our autonomy from relatives, employers, government, banks. Don’t tread on me.

But we work the other side of this interaction too. We uphold—because we benefit from— social codes and expectations against would-be rebels. “Don’t forget to invite that cousin you don’t like. Family first.” “You’re going to wear that?” “Showing up is eighty percent of the job.”

We carry both the autonomous nonconformist and the social enforcer inside us. The roles take different forms in different cultures, but they are in our genes. Our autonomy is our expectation that we can exist independently from others, that we can make our own decisions, solve problems ourselves. But that doesn’t mean we expect to go it alone. We are groupies, as contradictory as that seems to autonomy. The biological term is sociality. Sociality doesn’t refer to being sociable or friendly. It refers to the inherited tendency to form groups, sometimes highly organized groups. Social ants work for the queen, bees signal each other how to get to honey, wolves hunt in packs. Stronger together.

But as inherited traits, autonomy and sociality aren’t so perfect together. Most species inherit more of one than the other. Cats go solo, while ants hatch already equipped for their roles as workers, soldiers, or queens. The blessing and the curse for humans is that we have high levels of both. It feels right to us to decide what is best for our self—at the same time that we’re reluctant to risk our social support. The result is ambivalence. “Should I take the statin/invite the cousin/change my shirt/get my lazy self to work?”

Here, says sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, is our spiritual turmoil and our humanity. When our loyalty to our clan, party, religion or other group clashes with our sense of our individual well-being, we feel angry, sad, confused, frightened, or betrayed. Near the close of the fifth chapter of Sociobiology (2000 edition), Wilson summarizes the dilemma with a passage from the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu epic from 300 B.C. E. Here, the god Krishna steers the chariot of the reluctant prince Arjuna to an impending battle in which Arjuna’s relatives and closest friends will be fighting not with Arjuna but for the other side. Wilson writes about

ambivalence as a way of life in social creatures. Like Arjuna faltering on the Field of Righteousness, the individual is forced to make imperfect choices based on irreconcilable loyalties—between the “rights” and “duties” of self and those of family, tribe, and other units of selection, each of which evolves its own code of honor. No wonder the human spirit is in constant turmoil. Arjuna agonized, “Restless is the mind, O Krishna, turbulent, forceful, and stubborn.”

Krishna-Arjuna-battle (hinduhumanrights.info)

Arjuna hesitates on the Field of Righteousness (hinduhumanrights.info)

I first read that passage years ago but it comes back to me when I hear protests and arguments. We are Arjuna, come to the field of life with two strengths that work to our advantage but also get in each other’s way. I understand people better, myself included, when I listen for the rumbling, ageless tension of self versus group beneath our “imperfect choices” and “irreconcilable loyalties.”

Black Body and Soul

In his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates often refers to himself and other black people as bodies. The central fear of blacks in America, he writes, is and has been that their bodies will be destroyed. The fear pervades the bravado of black youth as well as the steely hope of the elders. Instead of using an I or we or you, Coates writes such sentences as “Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed” and “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage” (103).

In the middle of the book, this theme of the body takes a turn.

I believed, and still do, that our bodies are our selves, that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh. (79)

I have no praise anthems [in memory of the deaths of slaves], nor old Negro spirituals. The spirit and soul are the body and brain, which are destructible—that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings. The soul was the body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton. (103)

For Coates, soul and spirit exist as mortal, not immortal, attributes, present in us when we live and gone when we die.

(africanamerica.org)

(africanamerica.org)

Coates surprised me when he argued for the thoroughly bodily nature of spirit and soul. I have had the luxury of holding secular views of life without feeling the threat of bodily destruction hanging over me and those close to me. But Coates has the courage to put aside the consolations of the immaterial and the supernatural despite believing that the bodies he cares about are never safe from violence. I’ve never been put to that test.

Coates is not fully comfortable with his secularism, however. He writes to his son, to whom the book is addressed, that he, Coates, worries about having “missed something” by rejecting religion.

I thought of my own distance from an institution that has so often been the only support for our people. I often wonder if in that distance I’ve missed something, some notions of cosmic hope, some wisdom beyond my mean physical perception of the world, something beyond the body, that I might have transmitted to you. (139)

But Coates does find a kind of transcendant hope and wisdom in a different collaborative setting besides the church. He writes to his son that his life has essentially been happy, “that I drew great joy from the study, from the struggle toward which I now urge you” (115). Perhaps the shared purpose and collective energy of his political activism is a portion of what he fears he missed in rejecting religion. If so, I think his son has the message.

“Comparison Is the Thief of Happiness”

“Comparison is the thief of all happiness*,” says former NFL star Joe Ehrmann in denouncing the pressures on boys to “be a man,” in the film The Mask You Live In. Messages overt and covert from fathers down to video games leave males of all ages struggling with loneliness and fury. Similar pressures, certainly, weigh on females and most other human groups. Comparing ourselves to others haunts and hurts us all.

comparison (fitzvillafuerte.com)

(fitzvillafuerte.com)

But there’s a catch: Comparison brings pleasure as well as pain. In How the Mind Works, psychologist Stephen Pinker concurs with the popular wisdom that “people are happy when they feel better off than their neighbors, unhappy when they feel worse off….You open your paycheck and are delighted to find you have been given a five percent raise—until you learn that your co-workers have been given a ten percent raise.” Happiness often lasts no longer than the tingle of the flattering comparison that brought it on.

So how are we to understand happiness if it is so frail, so dependent on where we stand in relation to others? Many people don’t puzzle over the nature of happiness very much; they view it as a self-evident goal that they can pursue, find, and remain in, as if it were a job or a house. “I just want to be happy.” I remember my surprise decades ago when a friend mentioned off-handedly that perhaps happiness is not the goal of life. The possibility had never occurred to me.

Happiness looks a little clearer quickly when we separate the two broad meanings of the word. One is satisfaction, as in “Overall, I’m happy with my life so far.” The other meaning is the emotional flush of joy or excitement, as in “happy dance.” Another kind of understanding of happiness and how to reach it, one that does not depend on comparison to others, is the practice of mindfulness that many find to be a path towards contentment and joy.

For me, the evolutionary perspective is also enlightening. If unhappiness comes at us in so many shapes while happiness remains so elusive, a reason may be that for any organism, many more things can go dangerously wrong than can go blissfully right. Pinker: “There are twice as many negative emotions (fear, grief, anxiety, and so on) as positive ones, and losses are more keenly felt than equivalent gains….[P]eople’s mood plummets more when imagining a loss in their lives…than it rises when imagining an equivalent gain….[H]appiness tracks the effect of resources on biological fitness. As things get better, increases in fitness show diminishing returns: more food is better, but only up to a point. But as things get worse, decreases in fitness can take you out of the game: not enough food, and you’re dead” (392).

So it’s not that happiness eludes us soley because comparisons steal it or we are incapable of finding it. It’s that we come into life in the first place equipped with alarm bells for all the gritty dangers and with only a selection of pleasures.

 

*Teddy Roosevelt is credited with the original version: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”