Law in Contemporary Society

A True Test of Resolve

-- By MikeCarson - Edited 1 June 2017

At times this course was as much about understanding subconscious thought as it was anything else. I saw in Veblen an argument that subconscious fear drives us, and over the weeks I couldn't let it go. It felt immediately and intuitively true, though I wasn't completely sure why. In Veblen's talk of “emulative efforts” and “predatory efficiency,” I saw the results of a fear that was adaptive and primal. It also suggested to me was the lengths a person will go to avoid the pain of subconsciously feeling weak.


I think that I’m reasonably introspective but I've always been deeply uncomfortable writing in a first-person, self-reflective style. It makes me feel self-important, or even self-indulgent. But my last two drafts failed in part because I didn't care to delve into my own emotional perspective on the subject matter; Veblen seemed important because the idea of being motivated by unconscious fear resonated with me.

Thinking about Veblen and the subconscious made me worry about the ways I might be afraid. It made me wonder how over time I may have reinforced portions of my self-conception as unshakable to protect myself from feeling weak, pushing insecurities out of my conscious mind as though ignoring them made me stronger. Relishing miserable work has always been one way I proved my worth and character to myself; I took a lot of pride in being able to endure more misery than anyone I knew. I thought about how much of my self-image was designed simply to block out subconscious thoughts; it left me wondering about what it would even look like to remake these parts of myself.

To be clear, I don't feel disordered, or maladapted; it's often downright functional to shut out fears and concerns and focus on making marginal progress and winning small, manageable victories. If some parts of the self-image I sell to myself serve only to shelter me from having to feel self-conscious fears, I still feel productive and balanced on the whole.

But I've also plowed myself into jobs I've hated, working for candidates I didn't believe in because I'd decided that doing unpleasant work without complaint was what made me who I was. I've let many personal relationships rot in order to give a few more hours to some election, because I'll be damned if I was going to ask for a break.


Still, when I first heard “risk-adverse control freak,” I didn't think it much applied to me. Its not just that there's no day planner in my life; much of the time, there's no plan at all. I made a living as a campaign rat in part because I liked living my life in tunnels a few months wide, committing totally to the task at hand with no idea where it might bring me next.

I reconsidered the point recently, while listening to the story of Bowe Bergdahl, the young soldier who walked off a military base in Afghanistan and paid for it by spending the better part of five years locked in a cage by the Taliban.

In a portion of the piece I listened to, Bergdahl discussed his thoughts about military life: “I wanted to be a soldier, but I wanted to be a soldier back then. I wanted to be a World War II soldier. I wanted to be an 1800s soldier. I wanted to be a samurai soldier, a fighter, warrior. I wanted to know, more than anything, I wanted to be a kung-fu fighter. Honestly. I love the idea of just, basically, your hands and that's it. You know?”

If Veblen is right that modern industrialized people carry around vestigial fears, evolved for a world more violent and uncertain than our own, Sgt. Bergdahl, is a young man who lived with that fear writ large. By his own telling, both his enlistment and his desertion were conscious choices made to live up to a mythologized, anachronistic ethic he styled for himself. Bergdahl claims his motivation for walking off was to win an audience with senior military leadership to raise concerns. Perhaps. But the means he selected speak to a eparate insecurity: “Doing what I did is me saying that I am like, I don't know, Jason Bourne...I was going to prove to the world that I was the real thing.” Bergdahl was so motivated by a fear that he wasn't strong and tough and competent enough, that he felt absolutely compelled to put himself into a situation that would absolutely prove it.

As I listened to the program, it made me deeply uncomfortable to hear the way Bergdahl channeled his insecurity into a kind of impossibly dangerous test that he was sure to fail from the start. I also saw enough of myself in the compulsions of Bowe Bergdahl to make me want to look away.


If we believe his story, then what is Bowe Bergdahl if not a control freak? What could show more dedication to needing control than doing something almost suicidally dangerous in order to demonstrate to yourself the deepest possible commitment to not questioning your own principles? That's the kind of control freak I worry about being—someone so afraid of controlling feelings of weakness and helpless that I'll feel compelled to walk off into the desert alone to avoid them.

I have reason to think I can be resourceful and disciplined when I have a conscious objective. But so could Bowe Bergdahl. The will to press on to a conscious goal through emotional tumult can be a powerful thing. But even if it's willfully ignored, unconscious fears have a strong pull.

Running away from one's own subconscious insecurity can be a real test of resolve, particularly when the cost of doing it is so obvious. I know I'm capable of wearing those blinders, of putting my head down to push through something difficult and unpleasant. I need to keep learning when to take them off.

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r8 - 02 Jun 2017 - 07:17:44 - MikeCarson
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