Against ambivalence

Ambivalence is feeling both love and hate, pleasure and disappointment, etc. all together, at the same time, about something, and not being able to get rid of what causes the feelings of hate, disappointment, etc. without also losing what offers the love, pleasure, etc. The more important to us is the thing which arouses these conflicted feelings, the worse the ambivalence can be, due to the anticipated loss being greater, if one foregoes the goods to get relief from the bads.
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In this essay, I argue that much ambivalence is unnecessarily caused by social customs which foster instead of minimizing it, and that our lives would be better if we changed our social customs to minimize rather than exacerbate ambivalence. Specific examples are examined.
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Today (Friday, 13 October 2000), "it" happened, again. I think it's important to write about "it". "It" is that: When I feel ambivalent about something, the ambivalent feelings themselves lead me to do things which make the bad parts of what occasioned the ambivalence even worse, and also to place the good parts in even greater jeopardy than they already were. My ambivalence even, sometimes, leads me to ruin the good parts altogether.

There are many social customs and attitudes which foster the production of ambivalent situations, e.g.: "You wouldn't appreciate the good things if you had never experienced anything bad", "It's important to not make it too easy for [whomever]", "No pain, no gain", etcetera far beyond nauseam.... People in our society think they are overweight because they are bombarded with advertising which shows svelte bodies enjoying all the goods of life; these same people gained the weight they wish they didn't have because they are bombarded with advertising urging them to eat [aptly named:] fats and sweets. Much ambivalence is in varying degrees "unconscious" (a child generally cannot "afford" to become aware that he or she hates their parents, e.g.) -- it is only a mild exaggeration to say that all of psychoanalysis is an attempt to lessen the damage unrecognized ambivalences cause in persons' lives.

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Case study: An ambivalent situation

I recently bought a fine wristwatch which has some flaws (which I have diligently been trying, for some time, to get remedied; for more information about the watch, click here). I cannot look at the watch without seeing both the good things about it, and also the bad things -- i.e., I am ambivalent about it. I cannot be indifferent to the watch, because that would mean giving up caring about quality, as well as giving up on a large part of my relatively meager financial resources which I have invested in the watch ("I wear my BMW on my wrist, and drive a leased Corolla...").

Here's the problem: Since I cannot think about the watch without thinking about my dis-satisfactions with it, I cannot freely elaborate constructive fantasies about it -- including, e.g., how to avoid doing anything that might hurt it --, without being reminded of the problems and disappointments I am still not sure I will be able felicitously to get resolved. Of course, I try to protect the watch in every way possible, but the dis-satisfactions keep "getting in the way". I get distracted. And "will power" is no substitute for unalloyed "good will".

This morning, I checked the watch against U.S. Naval Observatory time, as I do most mornings, and found it had "lost" about 3 or 4 minutes since the previous day. At first I thought: "More things the factory did not do right!" Then I thought some more, and I remembered that I had set the watch's moon phase the night before -- probably during the period from 9PM to 1AM, when one is not supposed to do this. The manufacturer's press release for the watch specifically says it has a built-in safeguard mechanism to prevent any harm from occurring due to setting the watch when one is not supposed to set it, but I would rather not test this mechanism. I was furious at and discouraged with myself, for possibly having hurt the watch, and for myself thereby possibly contributing even the least iota to the dis-satisfactions and dis-appointments which I could previously blame 100% on the manufacturer ("They did it to me!", versus: "I hurt myself! -- And I could have avoided it, if only I had been more careful....").

I am pretty well convinced that the reason I had this lapse was that I was distracted from elaborating constructive fantasies about the watch, due to frustration and disappointment (etc.) thinking about the problems it has (including thinking how wonderful the watch would be if only it did not have the problems...). So, there, in a nutshell, is the message of this essay:

The more something means to me (to you?), the more any flaw or other infelicity in it will put me (you?) at risk of my (your?) further exacerbating the problem [presuming, as in this case, that I (you?) cannot correct the problem -- I am not a master watchmaker...].
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Ambivalence and non-ambivalence compared

If, on the other hand, I was not thus distracted -- i.e., ambivalent -- then, I think I would have been far better able to elaborate in many directions fantasies of ways to further protect and enhance my unalloyed treasure -- including, "pretty basically", remembering not to set the watch during the times it should not be set.

Indeed, the connection between my dis-satisfactions and my contributing to them is even "tighter" than so far explained: The reason I was setting the moon phase at that moment was partly because I was bothered that the moon phase display did not seem to have an exact full moon position, but shifted from slightly less than to slightly more than full without stopping at a 100% full position in between. Had the watch not exhibited this particular infelicity, I probably would not have been so anxious (etc.) to try to set it as closely as possible to the real moon phase. I would have seen the discrepancy between the real moon phase and the phase the watch was showing as an easily remediable consequence of my not yet having set the watch exactly (i.e., something which I would be confident I could always do at my future leisure...), instead of worrying about whether the moon phase could be correctly set and therefore trying by doing, to ascertain if there was [yet another...] problem in this regard.

"To those who have much, more shall be given. From those who have little, what little they have shall be taken away."

It really does not matter much to you, my reader, whether my little story which I have just shared with you is accurate or not, nor how it shall finally turn out for me. The story is simply an example, for you to imaginatively elaborate for your own purposes (including, possibly, by thinking about it, now, to avert real future regrets by learning from present fantasies).

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Trying to deal with ambivalence

This is not an isolated episode in my life. Some 20 years ago, I once ruined a nice piece of pottery by trying to fix a flaw in it. That taught me a big lesson: If I find something that bothers me in something of value, I should:

(1) Stop.
(2) Think.
(3) Take any action ("Do anything...") with extreme caution, but
(4) Bias myself toward doing nothing, as far as possible.

But this self-advice is more succinct to state than simple to apply. Back to my watch: The watch has a power reserve indicator. No matter how long I wore the watch (it is self-winding), the indicator did not seem to go above about 27 hours power reserve (whereas it is supposed to go to at least 38 hours!). I think it was reasonable to wind the watch up somewhat further, to see if that might help the situation (etc.). I did this. I did not wind it too far. I did notice what seemed to be some unevenness in the "tension" as I gently wound the watch. I would not have been able to report this to the dealer and/or manufacturer had I not tried it, and I could not count on the manufacturer and/or dealer noticing it by themselves. If I had not tried it and they did not notice it, I would have no way of knowing they had missed a possible problem.... So sometimes careful probing is not a bad idea (of course, no probing, with its risks of hurting something, would be needed if everything was right in the first place!). More importantly, sometimes one cannot "do nothing" -- especially when a problem threatens to make itself worse if one doesn't "do something" to stave off it further damaging itself.

Surely the carpenter's dictum is generally good advice (although, to repeat myself: no decision is ever risk-free!):

Measure twice, cut once
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Oops!.. I did it again!
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Friday night, November 3rd, I was feeling increasingly beset upon by ambivalent situations (which, it goes without saying, I could not bring to satisfying resolutions, since, as I have argued above, that inability to get what one wants and needs without losing what one wants and needs is the definition of ambivalence.) I had a fan running next to my computer to try to keep the computer from overheating in an overheated room where I was not free to turn the heat down. As the last step in my regular "shutdown procedure" before turning the computer off, I was defragmenting the computer's hard drives. But -- and this is not part of my carefully thought-out procedure!, I was also wishing the defrag operation would hurry up and end, so that I could turn the computer off (because of the other persons' pressure on me to stop working on the computer and to "pay attention" to them....

In my ambivalence-driven rush to shut down the computer as quickly as possible to get surcease from the increasing pressure on me to "get off the computer", I thought that, since the heat was not now on in the room, and the disk defragmentation utility was almost done, I could shut off the fan now to try to spare myself a few seconds of the inexorably increasing ambivalence -- instead of in a leisured way following my normal and well-thought out shutdown procedure: to (1) verify that the computer has finished all its active processes. (2) switch off the computer and then (3) switch off the fan. Instead, as soon as I reached in distracted ambivalence to switch off the fan....

I saw that I had turned off the master power switch for the computer instead. I had never done such a thing in 4 years of working with the computer. I always try to be careful with the computer, because I know power failures can mess up hard drives (the computer is on an Uninterruptible Power Supply, so that, in four years, it had never even once suffered the possible damage attendant to a "power glitch"!). I felt crushed. I wondered what damage might I have done. I wished so hard that I could undo it (Sorry, kid, reality doesn't give you a second chance to undo what you wouldn't have done had that same "reality" not put you in a tight spot to give you an opportunity to "test your character"!)

I "ate" my anger at what the ambivalence causing pressures had "made me do", because to tell the people who were putting the pressure on me to "stop it" would just increase the pressure from them. Quietly and determinedly, I started doing things to see if the computer had suffered any damage from being turned off in the middle of the disk defragmentation operation. (And, of course, running the damage assessment procedures puts wear on the computer which it would not otherwise have been subjected to. "From those who have little..."....)

The "net" was that the people who were pressuring me to get off the computer to attend to them not only aroused unnecessary anger and resentment in me, but, in the end, they had to wait longer for me to turn my attention to them, while I was forced to "detour" to test the now-possibly-damaged computer to see if anything had been broken by my distracted-by-ambivalence mistake. (I will not speculate, in a Freudean way, that maybe I subconsciously hit the wrong switch "accidentally on purpose" to show these people the wrong-headedness of them putting pressure on me to get off the computer to attend to them before I would have felt it was the right time to turn off the computer, and to turn -- undistractedly -- to them.)

"For the mindful god abhors untimely growth." (Holderlin)
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Social implications of personal feelings

Here is where a person who is self-satisfiedly and self-righteously saying to themself as they read this: "What a selfish, self-centered, self-indulgent guy this is writing this cr-p!", may wish to have some second-thoughts? My ambivalence about the object of my concern will tend to make me "make mistakes". I will tend to measure less accurately (because of my distracting thoughts and feelings...), and cut less surely (because the object I am working on is not as "clear" as it might be!). In other words, if you have any interest in this thing I am ambivalent about -- or in anything else I may do while this thing is "eating at" me --, then you should be concerned from the standpoint of your own self-interest (or the selfless interest you have for others...), that my ambivalence may adversely affect what you hope for. A person whose own needs are well met can freely devote themself to helping others.

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Some problems are not problems

There are clichés such as: "Nothing can ever be perfect", and "The product can always be improved", so that: "At some point you just have to stop tinkering and 'ship it', without absolutely everything being right". Also: "If you keep trying too hard to make it better, you will likely end up making it worse", etc. There is merit to keeping these ideas in mind.

My ambivalence-producing watch offers a small counter-example here: Before I bought the watch, I had read extensive complaints by other owners that there was no way to get the second and minute hands synchronized: most of the time, when the minute hand was over an integral minute "tick mark" on the watch's dial, the second hand was somewhere other than at its 0/60 second tick mark. I bought the watch anyway. When I finally got the watch, I carefully checked for this problem. No doubt about it: there it was. However: (1) No matter how hard I tried, I could not make this "problem" feel bothersome to myself, and (2) When the manufacturer replaced the first watch with a second one that did not have this "problem" (I wanted the watch replaced for other flaws, not because of this infamous "tick mark problem"!) -- when I got the new watch without the "tick mark problem", where the minute and second hands were more geometrically accurate -- the watch did not look as good! [I was reminded of how part of the reason the Parthenon looks good is because its base is not geometrically correct (flat), but rather slightly convex, so that, because it is "off" in a certain way, it looks right.] --There are "good" irregularities and "bad" irregularities -- as anyone familiar with hand work in general (and, e.g., Japanese pottery in particular) should well know.... (Most irregularities, of course, tend to be of bad kinds....)

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Sometimes ambivalence cannot be altogether eliminated

There is another engineering analogy: The problem of "double dimensioning". You cannot ask anyone to make a measuring stick composed of two smaller measuring sticks, and require both that each of the two pieces each be exactly 6 inches long, and also that the stick formed by combining the two pieces be exactly 12 inches long. If each piece if 6 inches long, the whole stick will tend to be a little "off" 12 inches total length. If the combined stick is 12 inches long, one or the other of the two component sticks will tend to have to be not exactly 6 inches long. (This has to do with all sorts of things, such as that perfectly smoothe surfaces are unattainable, etc.) There are "zero sum" situations -- or, more directly relevant here: situations in which the best possible overall solution does not yield the best attainable value for each component variable, because there are other possible solutions in which particular parts can be individually "better", at the price of the overall result being worse....

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How to proceed when ambivalence cannot be eliminated

I am therefore forced to say, for this as well as for other reasons, that ambivalence is not entirely eliminatable after all. What is to be done here? We each need maximal social support to help us endure these dissatisfactions and disappointments and frustrations and anxieties and so forth.... If I was 100% positively, absolutely confident that the manufacturer was going to fix my watch to make it as right as is possible in this world, then I wouldn't be nearly so much bothered by the watch's present problems (for I would know they were only temporary). I would be less ambivalent in proportion to increased confidence in my social support network.[fn.28[ Go to footnote! ]]

Let me here recall Virgil and Michelangelo. In his final days, Virgil apparently seriously considered burning The Aeneid. Michelangelo defaced some of his last sculptures. We know that many lesser artists have wished to have at least their working notes (etc.) destroyed upon their death (etc.). I think I know how Virgil and Michelangelo felt (apart from the relatively insignificant value of the works of my mind and hands, in regard to which I have had these feelings...).

My message here is as unambivalent as anything can be: Anything that increases ambivalence beyond the least amount that we cannot expunge from the world is misfortunate. Of course this is not so simple: A great "flawed" work of art will generally be far more valuable than a "flawless" work of lesser aspiration. (Hermann Broch's novels, for instance, are often said to be flawed, but they are, in my estimation, among the more valuable.) Even here, however, I think we can speak of minimizing ambivalence: The artist should do his or her best to rectify all flaws that can be removed without vitiating the work's merits, and -- and this is perhaps less difficult to measure -- the artist and his or her audience can both be provided with the greatest possible social support to help them cope as constructuvely as possible with their feelings about problems with the work.

We tolerate an evil only to avoid a worse evil. Some say "Better dead than red", while others say "Better red than dead" --but, in either case, the person is accepting a lesser evil when they cannot have what they believe is unambivalently good. We should tolerate ambivalence only to avoid worse things (or to achieve greater goods). Our attitude toward ambivalence, per se, "all other things being equal", etc. needs to be that it is bad and should never exist. Instead of glibly repeating mantras like: "No pain, no gain", we can thoughtfully and sadly say: "Unfortunately, even with our most advanced technology, we still have not been able to eliminate all situations where gain cannot be had without pain. Let us redouble our efforts to make such situations a thing only of the past!"

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Social customs cause much of the problem

Our society -- most societies most of the time --, however, try to do things that are not just indifferent, but often antagonistic to this principle. Unnecessary obstacles are put in persons' paths "for their own good" as well as for the "good" of others. For example: Apparently people think there is some good reason why students should not simply be able to answer exam questions by Xeroxing, cutting and pasting the answers from the teacher's answer book. And the student is supposed to be appreciative of the teacher for placing this obstacle in his or her way -- again, "for his or her own good". Or, at least, the child had better put up with the bad ("reinventing the wheel"...), to get the good (a decent job when he or she grows up, e.g.). Of course things are not simple here: If a child has a curable cancer and tries to run away from the medical treatment, we probably feel the child should be made to suffer for his or her good. But what about a child who does not wish to be genitally mutilated in a culture (I won't name names here...) that thinks that is good for the child?

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Social customs could minimize the problem, instead

I think the best we can do is this: If we always presume that anything that gives rise to new ambivalence, or exacerbates or doesn't eliminate existing ambivalence, should not be done unless we can adduce very good reasons to the contrary, then we will probably do less harm and more good than if we start off presuming beforehand some kinds of ambivalence-"friendly" practices are unambivalently -- or at least "obviously" -- good. If we ask in each case: "Why should this child be made to reinvent this wheel?" (i.e., why should the child have to "discover" for him or herself what is already there in the answer book?), then maybe we will cause fewer children less frustration and raise less resentment in each new generation than if we presume that "learning is hard work", so that we don't find anything disturbing about asking children, over and over, every day for years on end, to reinvent the wheel (i.e., to find by frustrated means what is already in front of the person, but which we block the person's access to...).

If my reader asks: If we give the children all the answers, why will they do anything? Or, perhaps: What will there be left for them to do? --I have a proposal: Instead of over-and-over-again reinventing the wheel, people can get on with discovering things no person has ever thought of -- things which are neither in the answer book nor in "anybody's" head (not the teacher, the parent, or whoever...). Where new wheels have to be made (new persons have to learn old skills...), the process should be made as appealing as possible (e.g., by teaching foreign languages thru cultural immersion instead of making children memorize vocabulary lists and parrot the words back on school tests, so that the penalty for making a mistake will be just the learning opportunity of being misunderstood and having to try again to make oneself understood in conversation, instead of the potential life catastrophe of failing a test...).

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Am I being "unrealistic"?

Is all this unrealistic? I think several things are pretty plausible here: (1) If my proposed reorientation of social "values" did work, the "payoff" for both each individual and for society would be immense, (2) It has never seriously been tried on a large scale, and (3) Even if it failed, the outcome might not be any worse than the present level of failures (many children "fail" tests, grades and even their whole lives, etc.... already!). Even if the impact on the Gross National Product was not a positive delta (most homework only marginally benefits anything except, perhaps slightly, paper manufacturers and trash carters, etc...), the children and their teachers and parents might enjoy the time they spend doing it more. And, after all, what do we have except our life time and its "quality" ("quality of life")?

I am agnostic. I would interpret: "Prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God", to mean: Clear away all possible obstacles to freely self-selected cooperative human creativity having the very best conditions to do all it can to help improve both individual and social life -- where these two are not necesarily ambivalent vis-à-vis each other -- for, when an individual has his or her own needs met, some of the greatest joys can come from helping others (e.g., teaching).

I have often quoted something from Bertolt Brecht which pretty much sums up my position:

Student: "Happy the land that breeds a hero."
Galileo: "No. Unhappy the land that needs a hero."
[fn.112c[ Go to footnote! ]]
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Tolerance, si! Ambivalence, no!

In the end, I cannot speak for others. Persons have told me such things as: "I need deadlines or else I won't get anything done." Maybe these persons know what they need. So I am willing to compromise: If ambivalence helps you thrive, then, please, "Go for it!" -- for yourself. But, from earliest childhood, it has only hurt me. So, please, let me have what will help me thrive, too, even if your having it would hurt you: To the greatest possible degree, let me have unalloyed facilitation of my needs, interests and desires. It will make me happier, and, by making me more productive, you may end up getting more out of me, too -- unless, that is, what you really want from me is to see me suffer (as an unambivalent good in and for itself, or, at least, for yourself as you see things...). Melanie Klein wrote:

Enjoyment is always bound up with gratitude; if this gratitude is deeply felt it includes the wish to return goodness received and is thus the basis of generosity. There is always a close relation between being able to accept and to give, and both are part of the relation to the good object [prototypically, the nurturing mother] and therefore counteract loneliness. Furthermore, the feeling of generosity underlies creativeness, and this applies to the infant's most primitive constructive activities as well as to the creativeness of the adult. (Envy and gratitude and other works, 1946-1963, 1975, p. 310)

I do not find the more ambivalent alternatives appealing: A person may choose to avoid the pain by giving up the gain -- i.e., just "give up", and cease to care (When anyone is in trouble, they will respond: "Why bother?"). At best, ambivalence-producing social customs do not give persons' more refined sensibilities optimal conditions for maximal development (in response to rough conditions, the person "grows" callouses to desensitize the irritated areas...).

A person may also react by making a proactive but negative choice: Even if the bad is eventually dissolved and the good alone left, they may feel it is "too little, too late", and, embittered, decide the risk of losing the good is worth the chance to take it away from a world that for so long denied it to them. Such a person may commit a crime.

But the person who succeeds in jumping thru enough hoops (e.g., becoming a tenured university professor after long years of "shovelling sh-t" for the previous generation of professors...), may do something entirely legal and even socially encouraged -- what in psychoanalysis is called "displacement": Since they still can't risk using the hoops to throttle their tor-mentors, they seek "displaced" satisfaction by forcing the next generation to jump thru the hoops and watching them suffer (this process constitutes an all too real "wheel of [bad] karma"; Alice Miller's tellingly titled books, including: Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, and For Your Own Good, address this problematic of each generation getting relief from the sufferings the previous generation imposed on it, by inflicting the same sufferings on the next generation).

Thus we see that my proposal does entail a very big sacrifice: One generation must choose to: "Just say 'No!'" This generation must forego the compensation for the sufferings the previous generation inflicted on it, which it can only obtain by passing those sufferings on -- like each generation before it -- to its next generation.

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