Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 79

My Pet Demon

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Hi, this is Reinhard from Everyday Systems.

Why do we keep our problems around?

Why do we continue to eat too much, drink too much, et cetera too much. Why don’t we simply get rid of these problems, once and for all, and be free of them? Exorcize these demons. Solve our problems instead of endlessly futzing around with them?

On the surface, this seems like a silly question: we don’t want to keep our problems around obviously. Surely they’re temptations that we can’t resist. They keep themselves around. We desperately want to get rid of them. We just can’t.

But I wonder sometimes: do we on some level want to keep them around? Do we feel like we need to keep them around? Do they serve some purpose for us? Is there something we get out of them? Or think we get out of them?

I’m not talking about whatever sensual pleasure we may get from giving into a temptation, the sweetness of a cookie, or the anxiety dissolving with a drink, but something we get out of the problem because it’s a problem. Because we need a problem.

Again on the surface, this sounds crazy. Why would we need a problem?

Well, for one thing, we might need a problem to distract us from a worse problem that we’d rather not face.

Specifically, I wonder to what extent I do this with my everyday problems of eating too much, drinking too much, fussing over and getting caught up in the spider webs of my little anxieties, meticulously tracking my mundane habit problems in spreadsheets, with their little ups and downs. I wonder if I don’t even want, on some level, a final victory over them because then I would be left only with problems that were too painful, too confusing, and awful to consider.

“Eating too much” is actually not something that I spend a huge amount of time fussing over these days – No-s really has more or less nailed both that problem and the fussing over it for me. But I know there are some of us that haven’t yet attained this level of No-S enlightenment, and I certainly haven’t attained it in other areas, so I’ll let it stand.

What I’m talking about today is a lot like the procrastination principle, which you’re probably familiar with. It’s when you have a job you really need to do, it’s urgent and important and not fun, and you don’t even understand it fully or know where to begin, then and only then does it occur to you that you really ought to start tidying up your office. All of a sudden this lesser, clearer responsibility occurs to you.

In the same way, when you have deeper, darker problems you want to forget, you distract yourself with lesser, less scary problems that you at least know how to engage with. Dieting, for example, gives us clear goals, we always have something we know we should be doing or avoiding, we can measure progress or lack thereof in myriad ways. The whole process, which can sometimes be exhausting, can also be engaging. And then we can fail. And that little failure and its drama can distract us from deeper feelings of failure.

Nothing distracts from responsibilities like other responsibilities, and nothing distracts from problems like other problems.

Sometimes this can be good. What on earth would ever motivate me to tidy up my office if not for a looming deadline? We can harness aversion to deeper problems to at least solve some more superficial ones. That’s something. At least the office gets clean. And maybe that feeling of progress will then spur us on to swing our guns around and face the more important problem.

But of course, there is the danger that we never get around to wrestling with the deeper problems, distracted by these lesser ones. As C.S. Lewis wisely put it, “you can’t get second things by putting second things first, you can only get second things by putting first things first.” If we never get to first things, those second things will never really get solved.

If our troubles with diet and exercise and drink and what not are really just (or in large part) manifestations of some deeper trouble, or evasions to avoid thinking about some deeper trouble, (or both!) we aren’t really, truly going to solve them until we can get to the bottom of that deeper trouble.

On the other hand, the tricky thing about the deeper problems is that it isn’t clear that they are always soluble. If I can’t clean up my room until I’ve figured out the meaning of life, well, maybe it’s OK to put the meaning of life on hold for a bit. I’ve got bills to pay, people who are depending on me. Most people who go into the desert to fast for 40 days starve.

Where am I going with this?

Well, I do think we have certain demons, pet demons, that we could probably get rid of, but keep around at least in part in order to distract us from deeper, more fundamental problems that are painful but perhaps important to face. And that it’s important for us to consider this possibility, and to ask, to what extent is it true, what can or should we do about it now, and if not now, when?

So if you suspect you have such a pet demon, or perhaps a legion, consider doing some investigating into what those problems they are helping you avoid might be. They may be worth facing. Facing them may be the only way you can truly solve your more superficial problems as well. At the very least, they are worth being aware of.

You may wish, if upon reflecting your deeper problems you realize that for now at least you are not in a position to make much headway against them, to embrace the pet demon-ness of the situation and consciously and with a good conscience allow yourself some playtime with them. Just don’t completely forget what you are doing. There may come a day, energized with your success against these lesser foes, or worn out by your lack of success against them, or inspired from an unforeseen direction, when you can or have to go deeper and engage with the prince of demons at your core.

There’s one more reason we may keep pet demons around besides the distraction element. There’s a certain kind of pet demon who isn’t content with mere distraction, and with merely being a pet. I already talked about this guy, this particular Demon Lord, or rather, Arch Devil, in my episode Demogorgon vs. Asmodeus. This twisted part of our psyche needs something for us to fail at and condemn us for. On the surface, this sounds even more far-fetched, counterintuitive, baroque, and demeted than the distraction motivation: I’m saying we not only need a problem to distract us but we need our failure in confronting the problem to sado-masochistically relish. One evil isn’t good enough for us, we need this multiplication of evils. That’s our good. It sounds preposterous.

But think about it for a moment: why else are you constantly sabotaging your own self-help efforts? Nietzsche wrote “he who despises himself still respects himself as a despiser.” If we don’t like or respect ourselves otherwise, we can at least like or respect ourselves for not liking or respecting ourselves – for doing it well, as viciously and mercilessly and ingeniously as possible. We can glory in being our own worst critics. There is something, we think, to admire in that. We can redeem our lost selves by judging ourselves, save ourselves by damning ourselves.

Plan A, spectacular success. Plan B: spectacular failure – or at least the most exquisite self-torture. Plan A: straight up being special. Plan B: dysfunctionally being special. But at least we’re still special.

I’m not saying this is a good plan – at all. But it does make a certain kind of psychological sense, and I’m pointing it out so we can recognize it and hopefully not allow ourselves to be carried along by it. We need to not give Asmodeus that satisfaction. If we can’t stop him completely, because he’s too brutally powerful, let’s at least whip out our metaphorical cellphone cameras and observe him. Let him know that we’re onto him, that we see what he’s doing, that his self-crimes are being recorded.

It’s another mindfulness exercise, like I talked about last episode with Spider Hunter. Demons don’t like having the light of attention shined on them. It inhibits their style. You won’t be able to self-hate as effectively if you are aware of what is going on. Asmodeus can no longer pretend that he’s doing this for your own good. It takes some of the fun out of it for him.

What we really need is plan C, how to dispense with the need for being special at all, how to be ordinary – the subject of yet another episode I did, and I have found, an outlook that is surprisingly difficult to attain. Or if the hunger for specialness is ineradicable, as I sometimes feel it might be, we need to be Mr. Rogers special, there’s a providence in the fall of a sparrow special, to open ourselves to a universal specialness accessible to all people. Not just to 10exers and celebrities and rockstars, not just to rockstar librarians even, but to everyone.

I guess this episode is about the limits of Everyday Systems. What to do, or what to remember, when you’re tired of not quite ever being free of some of your everyday problems, even after seeming to have come infinitely close. It’s not easy. And it’s beyond Everyday Systems. But I think the exercise of considering this image of a pet demon can help us face something necessary and important, even without any up-front solutions. At the very least it can help explain what is going on.

Maybe we’ll determine, in some cases at least, that it’s worth hanging on to our pet demons. That there isn’t anything better we can do than to distract ourselves just yet. But maybe in other cases we’ll be inspired to tackle those deepest, most fundamental problems, and make the real progress we need, or to take a big step back and accept something we need to accept, and finally be free of both our pets and those barely understood, untamed monsters.

There’s a really cute 19th century-looking “portrait of a girl with pet demon” that I’m going to stick on the transcript for this episode. I can’t believe I found it. It’s too perfect. It’s half Alice in Wonderland, half Sigmund Freud. And that’s really the title of the piece. Take a look if you get a chance – give it a good hard stare. I’ve found it’s really helped cement “Pet Demon” for me. It flashes into my mind and helps me remember what might be going on when I catch myself in the presence of my own pet demons.

And it turns out the artist, Omar Rayyan, is not a 19th century artist, but a Rhode Island School of Design grad who now lives and works on Martha’s vineyard. I may just have to buy a print of this one.

That’s all for today. Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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