The Bottomless Man

Workaholic MottoWe all give off false impressions. The man who seems crass may be trying to protect a sensitive side. A person who appears to be overly ambitious may actually be very fearful. The strong are often weak, the commanding are sometimes morbidly uncertain, the happy are frequently morose. Human society is based on an amalgam of truth and fiction; we frequently reach for fantasies to make reality better than what it is. It’s no wonder a divergence between perception and fact often occurs.

In my case, I time and again give off the illusion of being bottomless or more precisely, having endless capacity. This tends to lead to heavy workloads, and an expectation that regardless of the actual stress in a situation, that I can just “take it”. In many periods in my life, I’ve been asked or inspired to “get on and do it”, without reference or care to anything else that may be going on. I presume some of this is a tribute to my productivity, perceived durability and outward calm; this appearance is also not always a reflection of my actual state of mind or being. For example, while doing my PhD full time, I also worked full time. Additionally, I taught a class for two semesters. A health professional later described my situation as “mentally overheated”; others less inclined to be restrained in their prognosis suggested it was “bonkers”. I did not have an actual holiday during this three year period, nor were the weekends restful. After I defended my thesis and the minor edits were accepted, my health was shattered for several months: in the end, I caught Swine Flu and was bed-ridden for three weeks.

I would not present myself as a metaphor, but I believe there is a prevalent fiction with “the bottomless man” at its centre; specifically, there exists an irrational faith that somehow individuals and societies can just “take it”, “do more” and there won’t be any breakage as a result. Lurking within is a pernicious belief that somehow human beings can be something other than what they are, namely limited and flawed. There appears to be an excessive reliance on this assumption and it is preventing progress and denying compassion to those in most need of it.

Ponder over Greece. Germany and other creditor Eurozone nations seem to believe that they are “bottomless”, that somehow they can absorb austerity package after austerity package without anger and torpor crashing in. They are dismayed and outwardly shocked when it does. Greece is in economic freefall: recent statistics suggested a year on year decline of GDP between 6 and 7 percent. Prime Minister Samaras is trying to find out if an extension on debt repayment is possible. Angela Merkel likely tells herself that the Greeks can “take it” even when all empirical data suggests otherwise. The Far Right is also on the rise, a terrible sign of societal collapse. The xenophobic passions stirred by the Neo-Nazis are already translating into government policy: human rights groups have condemned Greece as an unsafe place for migrants. It would seem that Greece is downing the intoxicating liquor of insalubrious falsehoods to ease its sorrows and imbibing it more regularly.

Consider President Obama. If the Republicans are to be believed, he is a one man or part of a one party juggernaut to prevent American revival and greatness. Talk radio hosts suggest he is mendacious from head to toe: they never point out that the powers of the Presidency are often limited. They don’t say that it is difficult to turn back an economic tidal wave. He can do some things to shore up the nation’s financial defences, but in the face of a Lehman’s or Euro collapse, he would be largely powerless. In such a situation, he would be reduced to being like the Persian king Xerxes, only able to whip the waters of the Hellespoint for turning against him. This is the truth: but it doesn’t matter.

Take a look at the British public. Austerity demands that we swallow galloping NHS privatisation, the tripling of tuition fees, an increase in Value Added Tax, cuts to public services, a giant increase in rail fares and suggests somehow we will have enough resources left over to cause the land to overflow with the green shoots of prosperity. This is an unrealistic expectation of resilience and ambition from a frail and weakened nation; it is no wonder that the most lingering British drought is that of confidence. It is also no surprise that the sporting heroics of Team GB appeal: desperate, our political leaders cling to an irrational belief that the atheletes’ success will somehow ripple out to wider national benefit, aside from a mere, albeit much appreciated lift in morale.

Belief in “The Bottomless Man” can take on more sinister forms than just being afflicted by economic malaise. In 2011, a Multiple Sclerosis sufferer named Peter Greener was subjected to a hate campaign by his neighbour, David McGregor. Among other things McGregor said and inspired his children to repeat, was that Greener was “scum” and a “benefit scrounger”. This case is not at all isolated: a May 2011 survey for ComRes stated that 56 percent of disabled people had experienced “hostility, aggression or violence” from strangers. If things can be in perfect harmony and we are all supposed to be bottomless in our capacity to cope, the differently-abled perhaps strike a dissonant note in indication of a limit; the response of some is to demand the music stops or at least is shouted down.

What’s the source of this misapprehension? Could it be that the emphasis on the supremacy of markets for the past thirty years has implanted a belief in human perfection? If the acolytes of Ayn Rand and old-style Stalinists have something in common, it is a faith that somehow man or the product of man can be wiped of significant flaws. Neither could cope when their suppositions were proven incorrect: Alan Greenspan, a Rand disciple par excellence, was stunned that companies didn’t behave rationally, even when it was in their own self-interest. His and Rand’s idea was that markets were self-correcting, i.e., they would eliminate imperfections without outside intervention. This is a supposition of a perpetual machine, something which all the natural sciences tell us is impossible. This faith has persistence even when shown to be false: I recently heard a right wing American talk radio host state that things would be “perfect” if the state would merely get out of the way. It may very well be that if we retain a belief in some form of perfection, however misguided, we apply that yardstick (albeit subconsciously) to assessing a society or individuals. Unsustainable loads are then poised upon their backs, and when the burden breaks them, we blame the carrier and not the weight.

Detail of a Poster Showing Soviet WorkersIn the end, there is only one perfect truth: reality will assert itself, one way or another. Reality wove its way into the dogmatic ghetto of the Soviet Union: eventually, even the most hardened Politburo member was forced to recognise that humanity cannot have all its flaws and blemishes erased and mindless slogans and phony production targets will not make it otherwise. Once understood, it was time to dismantle the Berlin Wall: without a pristine society, there is nothing for it to protect, apart from a pointless, authoritarian cesspit whose only manufactures were misery, dissidence and lies.

Reality hit the markets too: no, they don’t always know best. They get caught up in enthusiasms which in comparison make Thomas De Quincey’s “Confessions of an English Opium Eater” seem like the reflections of a chartered accountant who refrains from imbibing caffeine. After the hit and the high came the crash and the seemingly endless shaking fevers of withdrawal. The markets and the politicians who do their bidding still linger in opiate dreams, perched on the back of “bottomless” societies and people. But reality will assert itself here too: patience ends, merely coping feels like being oppressed, and then one loses the capacity to stand it any longer. Even the insomniac must surrender to sleep, a society will fall if pushed too far, Athens will burn. Best to stop before that point, best to go to bed before excessive wakefulness leads to psychosis and endless demands lead to explosive anger. We are not bottomless, nor are we as strong as we think, nor can we perfected: perhaps paradoxically, by understanding this, we may get better.

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