A Nonfiction Book
Belonging Again (Part 26)
Surrounded by possibility, it’s hard to trust stability
Where it isn’t “given” that everyone in a family is close, decisions to go see a movie together suddenly become statements about if members of a family love one another. If it isn’t “given” that people like each other, a day where one family member is stuck at the office longer than expected suddenly enters the mind as possible “evidence” that the relationship is broken. Where it isn’t a “given” that people believe in Christ, failure to attend Church becomes a statement on if they are Saved. And so on.
Marriage is an establishment of “givens,” for traditionally neither spouse will have sex or children with people outside the marriage. The possibility of intercourse or childbearing with others is gone, which establishes existential stability. The spouses no longer need to think about having children with other people, and if that thought drifts into their minds, they immediately know what to do with it (cast it aside). Thanks to this existential stability, when the spouses interact with members of the opposite sex, talk with friends, and the like, not only do both spouses not have to worry about if the other is “falling in love” with someone else (though as trust wanes, this thought can appear), but also each spouse independently knows what to do with such thoughts. Considering possibilities can cause existential anxiety and lead people into decisions with terrible consequences, but since we can never know what will happen in the future (there is always a gap between knowledge and decisions), there is always room for choice. Thanks to “givens” though, we don’t have to worry about that “gap,” and the likelihood we are tricked by it reduces. At the same time though, “givens” can oppress, and maybe that “gap” could be an avenue of freedom. Indeed, but the trick is realizing that if we remove “givens,” we don’t go from “one life course” to “four possible life courses” (for example); rather, we go from “one life course” to “infinite possible life courses” (practically). The removal of “givens” doesn’t increase our options slightly, but radically, meaning we go from little existential anxiety to “infinite existential anxiety,” per se. Freedom doesn’t increase gradually but suddenly.
But what will happen if the couples around me begin practicing polyamory? Suddenly, I may begin wondering what my spouse thinks about polyamory and if it’s acceptable to have sexual relations with others. Even if my spouse claims sexual exclusivity is moral, my mind can still wonder, and this can increase the likelihood my trust wanes along with my happiness (surrounded by possibility, it is hard to trust stability). I could also begin wondering if perhaps polyamory would be enjoyable and even help my marriage (undoubtedly that is what some people will claim, and across large enough of a population, surely there will be some for whom this proves to be the case, for the larger the number, the more probable that whatever is possible is realized). Since I cannot know for sure what is the case without doing it, for “ideas are not experiences” (there is always doubt regarding unrealized possibilities), I must exist in a state of existential anxiety precisely because of what other “consenting adults” choose to do (a matter of “high order causality”). In this way, the choices of others do in fact impact me: how others choose to be married impacts how I am married. Freedom is never limited.
Similarly, marriages entail difficulties, but if it is a “given” that divorce isn’t an option, when I encounter these difficulties, the way I experience them will be different. The thought, “I should get a divorce,” will not cross into my mind, and this can have emotional ramifications. Perhaps feeling like I can get a divorce will make me calmer because I won’t feel like I’m in a prison, but perhaps it will make me more upset because I won’t have the “big picture” in mind. It’s hard to say and likely axiomatic: the point is that the loss of a “given” impacts everyone profoundly, and how a “given” is lost is due to the choices of free people that don’t seem to impact others but do. We are all in this together, and unless totally isolated, all of us existentially impact one another, stabilizing or destabilizing. Neutrality seems impossible.
It could be argued that individuals should be able to make choices on their own and not require the support of the people around them, and there is certainly truth to this point. Indeed, there is something to be said about being able to make a choice and stand by it even if the whole world is against you, but unfortunately, speaking in terms of probability, it is unlikely that the majority of people will be able to do this without being overwhelmed by existential anxiety. This includes many people who think they don’t mind choosing something by themselves (perhaps we all overestimate our capacities to handle this state), but I don’t deny the possibility of “Deleuzian individuals” (discussed in “Beauty Saves” by O.G. Rose) who are able to be themselves and alone with themselves as such and not be existentially overwhelmed. Unfortunately, I don’t think the majority can be Deleuzian as such — most will turn to totalitarianism — precisely because certainly is mostly impossible (as discussed in “On Certainty” by O.G. Rose). If we could be certain of x, not just confident, then perhaps we wouldn’t need social support: x itself would provide us with all the support we needed. But this is not our lot.
Berger, Hunter, and Rieff warned that the loss of “givens” increased destabilization and the likelihood that freedom was used to “escape freedom” through authoritarianism. But does this not mean then Berger and Rieff would support arguably oppressing and discriminating against minorities and suppressing consenting adults? This leads us to an important and elaborate question.