Thursday, July 13, 2006

Well Adjusted

I dug out some old books that I thought I might be able to use to spice up my lectures. In doing so, I was reminded why I am so fascinated with one book in particular. I’m not actually sure what originally led me to this book. All I know is that it is now out of print and my copy is weathered, torn and more or less falling apart. The book is The Adjusted American: Normal Neuroses in the Individual and Society. It was written by Snell and Gail Putney and was published in 1964.

The preface of the book states, “this is not a book about them (whose foibles we can view with detachment or even a certain relish); it is a book about us – the normal, the adjusted of our society. Its basic concern is with certain neuroses which are normal in America, and with the means of escaping them."

Despite being over 40 years old, the book is surprisingly timeless. It discusses the military industrial complex, which it highlights as a new and marked change in American institutions. Of this phenomenon, the authors state:

“Thus the world drifts toward war, carried along by the momentum of institutional development and individual neurosis, which are both tending in the same fatal direction. To justify its existence, the great military industrial complex continues to expand and elaborate weapons systems (and not only in America). At the individual level lies neurotic motivation: the needful man feels angry, and the angry man welcomes destruction. The end will presumably come with a thermonuclear holocaust (the literal meaning of holocaust is a sacrifice wholly consumed by fire). The downward spiral in which neurotic people create social institutions to mirror and implement their misdirected desires, and in which these institutions in turn perpetuate the neuroses and use them to manipulate the people, will then have reached an irreversible bottom”.
The authors continue:

“However much he may consciously recoil from the idea, the American finds thermonuclear war increasingly credible. This is largely a result of the efforts of the public relations departments of the various military branches, who make war credible to the public in order to justify their appropriations (or personal or familial vendettas)”.

Okay, so I added the last parenthetical bit, but you have to admit it was sounding pretty familiar already.

My favorite chapter of the book discusses the sense of pressure that is/was thought to exist within American society. I think this chapter has taught me more about myself and the actions/attitudes of others than any other source. The major notion of this chapter is that most of what the adjusted American does is undertaken for the effect it will have on other people. The authors state:

“Thus, he imposes on himself a constant concern with what he thinks other people think he should be doing, or how other people evaluate what he has done. Such misplaced concern underlies his sense of an endless striving leading nowhere – which is approximately where his efforts do lead. No matter how hard he works at it, he will never arrive at self-acceptance by doing things to impress other people.”

I feel like this explains some of my struggles in graduate school. This has been my attitude from day one. I have never felt the need to live up to anyone’s expectations, but my own. Because of this I manage to control my stress and understand that my schooling is a essentially a series of tasks of varying difficulties, whose sum does little more than add a culturally valued suffix on to my name. I have a hunch that for others, the stress comes from the feeling of being under pressure from others, rather than the amount to be done.

Putney and Putney extend this idea by pointing out that:

“Moreover, so long as he expends his energy in this fruitless quest, he will remain unsatisfied and tense. The American is prone to misinterpret this tension – which arises from his unfulfilled needs – and to regard it as anger, anxiety and pressure. Believing that what he wants is success, high status, popularity or prestige, he pursues these things, but the pressure never eases.”

In concluding their discussion on pressure, the authors state:

“The adjusted American has learned to interpret most of his own drive as if it were external pressure, and the result is that he feels under pressure most of the time. He may defy what he believes to be pressure from others. But even if he complies with it he is likely to put up a good deal of resistance, and his enjoyment and efficiency both ebb. The things he believes are expected of him seem to stretch endlessly before him, and he may become so dispirited as to believe that he requires external pressure to accomplish anything.

With much of his energy diverted to a struggle against his own drive, he has a sense of running as hard as he can but with little progress to show for his effort. Considering the amount of internal resistance he has to overcome before he moves, perhaps it is remarkable that there is any progress at all.

The autonomous alternative is to move beyond pressure by recognizing that any sense of insistent pressure is one’s own projected drive. The man who recognizes that what he feels is his own drive will neither resent nor resist the pressure; he will act.”

Lastly, I think the book’s views on intimacy and love are also spot on. It is no secret that the most rewarding relationships are those that involve trust, which in turn allows for open, honest and direct communication and feedback between involved parties. These qualities, however, are also the most difficult and frightening characteristics to nurture. In discussing this, Putney and Putney state:

“The adjusted American has learned to expect intimacy only in exceptional friendships. He thus finds it only occasionally. The rest of his association is reduced to role playing in which he seeks to conceal much of himself. Even much of his intimate association is twisted toward misdirected ends as he seeks a supportive relationship rather than the open, candid relationship which could contribute to insight and self-acceptance."

I’m not sure what my point with this was other than to illuminate a truly insightful book and one that is not likely to be pimped by Oprah anytime soon. In other words, thanks for reading this if you made it this far and I hope it gave you something to think about.

3 Comments:

Blogger oldtennisbum said...

Will we be quized on this later???

I just can't stop picturing Ross Geller's dino lectures. :)

7/13/2006 7:57 AM  
Blogger mom said...

It seems that either life recycles itself or the world doesn't change.

7/13/2006 8:12 AM  
Blogger Amy P said...

This is a very Existential view for Mr GQ.

7/16/2006 4:12 PM  

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