What is making the present presidential election very stressful? Some humdrum psychologists have an answer. Here is what these experts have to say: "Feelings of stress are a direct result when something feels out of your control." In the US, this explanation is popular because it has a solution that can be offered without much effort. If you feel you have lost control, what you must do is find and focus on things that are under your control and then control those things. I recall hearing this advice on a radio talk show that boomed from a speaker placed on one of the shelves behind a beefy man preparing a salami and turkey sandwich for me in a Greek deli near 23rd and Lovejoy, Portland, Oregon.
My recollection of what I heard at that time, maybe the fall of the election year of 2004?
CALLER: I do not know what to do, the oil prices are rising. There is the war in Iraq. Wages are just not growing like they used to.
HOST: Listen to me. You are talking about things that are out of your control. What you need to do is focus on things that are. Like what you spend on your groceries.
If this does not sound like bad advice to you, it is because your mind has confused individualism ("I'm the sum of my decisions") with what it actually is, a cultural construction.
Margret Thatcher once said "there's no such thing as society" there are only "individual men and women." But, of course, the opposite is exactly true: there are no individuals; there is only the cultural production of socially-supported individualism. In this fact, we find an explanation for the preference among contemporary French philosophers to describe individuals as singularities.
The injunction to control only what you can control is popular because its essence is disempowerment. How can you feel like a citizen (in that French sense of citoyen) if what you command are the few pennies you might obtain from being spartan about the kind of cheese or milk you buy? This meaning-weak control can only end with you being stuck like that man in the supermarket scene near the end of Hurt Locker.
You really do not want to go there. Also, the stress you are experiencing is not about a loss of control but a concentration of time.
Now, what is time? It is the now in motion. Or, as Plato put it 2,000 years ago, the moving image of eternity. Nothing exists anywhere in the universe but the now. But the now is entered at different points. The now is one, but the experience of it (points of time) is multiple. The blowing style of the great saxophonist and philosopher John Coltrane is often described as sheets of sounds. The now, similarly, is composed of sheets of time. These sheets never leave the film of the now but we have the feeling that they do. The past and the future are only in the now, but we feel them in time.
Dub music does something similar to this feeling of time. When, say, a sound engineer like Kingston's Scientist echoes the tap on the head of a drum or the chop on a guitar, we here it diminishing into the past. But in fact, this is an illusion. The diminishing repetition of the tap or chop is heard as the music moves in the present into the future. This movement forward is visible with a cassette tape or a record, but not so with an MP3 file. And so we can only feel the past and feel the future in the present. And it's easy to mix future feeling with past feeling.
Take for example this startling passage in a play, Radio Golf, by one of America's greatest philosophers and economists, the late August Wilson: "Tomorrow's been following me for a long time. Everywhere I go, it follows me. It ain't caught me yet. Today is faster than tomorrow."
This is the kind of thinking that breaks into shimmering pieces old and tired and bland habits of thought. The future follows the present. The now is haunted by the future, not the past. Indeed, if we feel in this other way, then we can see that the ghosts of the present are not from the past but from the future. The past does not judge you. The future does. The present does not judge the future, it judges the past. We are the ghosts that roam in the rooms of the slave owners of old. This is why it's tomorrow that follows you, that looks for you, that flickers at the foot of your bed in the last hours of night.
The now is all there is. And if you are sick, you feel the heaviness of the now; if you are healthy, you feel free from it. You can even completely forget it (the moments that zip by). But our pandemic times feel very sick all around, and so we are chained to the now like a sick person who finds breathing hard, swallowing difficult, and walking painful. To be in the now is to be too tied to the body of being, which is a point in time. Think of this line from "Uptown Girl" by Billy Joel: "And when she knows what she wants from her time..."
Her time is her body, her, to play with the language phenomenology, being with other sheets of time. When she finally knows what she wants from her time, she, a rich girl, will wake up and make up her mind: She wants a downtown boy. But Joel is right to describe what she is looking for in life as her time. Time is being. But being five days from the election that could radically change the world is not fun at all. Tomorrow it will be four days from the election. The day after that, the virus will erase 1,000 more American points from the now. And the closer we get to Nov 3, the smaller the prison of the now will shrink.