Self-Preservation, Musings on Imagination

We’ve been living through the dissolution of our instincts for self-preservation. Why is that?

One explanation leans on our habit of looking for a polarity; that there is a good nature and an evil one and that we are caught in a perpetual struggle between them.

The trouble with this way of looking at it is that, as with any polarity, this one holds us within an assumption and keeps us from examining it, or being able to see anything about our situation that might point us in a different direction.

Perpetual struggle assumes that we must fight or lose; fight and lose, more likely. We insist that we must align our thinking with one side or the other of some binary and shape our efforts to defeat an opponent. What happens when we are fighting ourselves?

Damaged beings disassociate from their surroundings. For a Gazelle in the jaws of a Cheetah this is a mercy. For an Ape, the same. Our situation has been confused by a loss of connection with the power of acknowledging futility. For the Gazelle, for the Ape, the futility of struggle beyond the point when it does any good is instinctive. This ultimate test of an ability to discern futility is essential, but there is also a more subtle relationship any living creature must have with the question of futility. Every time we confront the gap between what we desire and what is possible in a given moment we come up against the question of futility: Is this, whatever I want to happen, possible?

What we do at such a moment, over countless such moments in the course of a lifetime, shapes our lives.

There is an intrinsic connection between a recognition of futility and honesty. Our relationship; or whether we even have a relationship with the question of futility beyond simply reacting wildly and refusing to accept it when it arises; shapes our relation to honesty, to what is… true. Without a relationship to honesty we are un-moored from a capacity to, not only deal with what-is, but to be able to have any relationship with what is true.

In situations of immanent fatality, two things occur in quick succession. Resistance, flight, the fear that drives these reactions, all cease in a succumbing to massive, irrefutable trauma. “Death staring one in the face.” Brings us to the realization of the utter futility of continuing to struggle at the same moment as the violence of the encounter takes us to a point of unbearable pain, resulting from massive physical damage that overwhelms one’s abilities to respond. As anyone who has had massive physical trauma and survived knows, at this point the perception of pain and the will to struggle against what is so clearly an unwanted result dissolve away. The perception of pain disappears and the will to continue to struggle ceases and is replaced by…, nothing? Acceptance? Peace? This is a time when it pays to disassociate with sensation as a penultimate step towards the end of life.


Our self-awareness has been shaped by a particular culture lacking in the maturity required to avoid compounding our miseries. We suffer a state of chronic confrontation with futility while we have been losing our capacity to accept it and be transformed. This brings about a compounding sense of ever deeper disassociation. What is a mercy in a moment of fatality becomes a barrier to any possibility of confronting and accepting futility as it arises. We lose the capacity to sharpen our perception in these encounters with a futility we wish to avoid. This destroys our relationship with truth.

We today have most likely been born in a disruptive, violent manner and then have been raised in varying degrees of traumatic disruption in ways that break sharply from the way creatures have been evolved to develop. This leaves us damaged and at the same time disassociated from, not only what has brought us pain, but how we could possibly relate to anything except from within our degraded habits of reaction. We are exhausted by this chronic debilitation; immersed in stress; and lacking in any means of addressing our suffering.

Such a life is often felt as not worth living. We react with varying levels of self-destructive behavior in ways that, for the most part, mask our desperation, even from ourselves, in our attempts to dissemble. All of our energies go into keeping an awareness of futility at bay. We leave honesty behind and enter into a realm where the possibility of honesty of any sort evades us and we lose the capacity to even imagine honesty could exist. Or, that we might imagine any conception of why we might want to work towards an honest approach to futility. We are left corrupted. Not by losing a battle with Evil, but as an inevitable result of this process of disassociation.

What shapes our inner-world creates our outer world. And, in this way we have created the Hell-on Earth confronting us at every turn.

We tend to think of Imagination in terms of some un-moored capacity to fantasize. We see it as the opposite of being Realistic. This confusion is a symptom of our disassociation.

What if we looked at Imagination differently? There appears to be a connection between a capacity to imagine consequences and an ability to maintain self-preservation. What if Imagination developed as this capacity to uncover with the mind’s eye how a situation might bring us into danger?

As a hyper-vigilant survivor of early trauma I’ve always had a strong imagination for how things could go wrong. In a given situation potential dangers play out their possible consequences in my minds eye. I have always been amazed when others seem oblivious to what to me are blatant signs I could not ignore if I tried.

Of course, from within my damaged condition my own forms of disassociation have left me blind to many other sources of danger. Many of which I have run into with no sense of fore-warning. You can say that there would be no accidents; if we had a full view; but we don’t and so; when we are blindsided by something that might have been obvious to another, or to us in a different circumstance; it is still an accident.

Over the past forty five years of my adult life I’ve witnessed the erosion of a healthy sense of self-preservation in those around me. It’s not just a case of one set of blinders replacing another. People used to smoke and drink like Mad Men and now they poison their yards with Round Up™ and text while driving. It’s much broader than that. The gulf between science and scientism has something to do with it. We have learned more about the dangers of elective risk but we tend to choose to put our belief in a few talismatic prohibitions as an excuse to avoid dangers we readily assume with what appears to be a willful blindness.

Something much deeper is going on. Even this view that people take on a willful blindness misses the mark. People do not make decisions to avoid butter and drink artificially sweetened drinks out of willful denial. People do not willfully deny Climate Change or the epidemic of Extinctions. They are too stressed to have any say in the matter. Just as; so as not to appear to be aiming this only at the Dumb Right; Neo-Liberals and their followers also feel no need to examine their own failures, “Just blame it on the Russians and make sure everyone gets vaccinated!” They are also too stressed to have any inkling of what might be wrong with them.

“What we have here, Gentlemen, is a massive lack of Imagination.”

Imagination is not Innovation!™ Imagination is an instinctive sense that I’m heading down the wrong path. It’s being able to take this realization in as it floods our mind’s eye and be changed by it instead of demanding Proof! Proofs we are predisposed to ignore anyway before we might deign to act. Dr. Gabor Maté has a stock question he asks his audiences, “Have you ever gone against a strong gut feeling and then later regretted it? If so, raise your hand.” The hands all go up. He asks about the inverse and maybe one in a hundred raises their hand.

Does this point at the core of Imagination?

We fail to follow; we fail to even feel our gut feelings; when we are seriously disassociated from ourselves, our authentic selves. We can easily fall into the trap of an inversion of instinct. We begin to see danger in whatever challenges our disassociation and feel comfort in whatever maintains it. And so, we turn against anyone who might show us a caring look and we rush back into whatever self-destructive addictive behavior we have fallen into in a desperate search for solace.

This is obvious when we look at Evangelical Christians for Trump. It might not be so obvious when we look at Justice Warriors for Hilary. Each is unaware of how damaged their hero is. Each is brought to terminal anger by any effort to show them anything different.

We are at, or nearing, a point of Peak Disassociation; but this process has been at work for Millennia. The institutionalization of trauma has been at the heart of what we call Civilization from its start. Before, and outside of its influence even today, there has always been trauma. There have always been instances of societies or tribes or clans falling into dysfunction as a result of persistent traumatization; but it was not institutionalized; not made into a founding principal for how people were meant to live together in the way civilization has done.

It might be that what we take as the Progress of Civilization has been a deepening dynamic of institutionalizing trauma and the destruction of any and all possible alternative perspectives. The trade-off; buried in the concept of Original Sin at the heart of the earliest transformations from pre-civilized people to what we have today; has been to bury any honest confrontation with futility and replace truthful engagement with what-is with ever more elaborate enticements to go deeper into disassociation, substituting compulsion for adaptation, locking us in dysfunction with a diminishing capacity to feel the danger we put ourselves in through this massive failure of imagination.

This view brings a dizzying perspective. It is so easy to rush in with a flood of anger at any such a supposition, “How dare you!…” Of course, this is just what our disassociation leads us to do. It short-circuits any attempt to look outside the limits of our blinkered points of view. It might be worth the discomfort to keep this question of the nature and depth of our quandary in mind. We don’t necessarily gain anything by focusing our attention on every twist and turn of how this dis-ease has progressed across the ages; but we also gain nothing if we ignore that it has been a persistent source of human misery and at the root of suffering.

My most prevalent gut-feeling for a long time has been that we miss any opportunity to arrive at meaningful change because we fail to recognize the depth and breadth of our dysfunction. At the heart of this dysfunction lies an inability to recognize how damaged we all are. We are the mental equivalents to someone with compound fractures in all of their limbs insisting that they can simply walk away from their predicament if: they try hard enough; want it badly enough….

Unless we can take the time and make the effort – an effort that only seems difficult and counter-intuitive from within our dysfunctional state – to recognize where we are, to see how we got here, and to then connect with…; we could say, with the powers of evolution itself; we will only continue a struggle, pitting ourselves against projected foes, splitting ourselves into ever smaller sub-factions, as we rush in a body towards mass destruction.

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