Discover more from Chloé’s Newsletter
On Gluttony & The Good Doctor
On my way home from the pharmacy, on what must have been the first scorching hot day of summer in New York this year, I saw an elderly woman — lets call her Alice — walking ahead, cane in one hand, roller bag in the other. She was walking slowly and had a very pronounced crook in her walk, perhaps caused by some hip surgery or accident. When I saw this, two thoughts flashed through my mind: first pity which made me think that I should ask her if she needed some help; and then something else, a different value system that emerged from what I had learned from the teachings of Helen Luke, a Jungian writer whose specialty was the responsibilities of womanhood. Her book, ‘The Way of Woman’ changed my life because it demanded that we take responsibility for our lives as women, mind, body, and soul. And I had always seen this message in books directed to men, but never to women.
To take responsibility was not some vague throwaway political line as it so often appears today in contemporary life; rather, it was a calling unto wholeness, what Carl Jung called the individuation process, which can arise only if we learn to bear the sufferings that we encounter in our personal lives with honor and integrity, sufferings that are not necessarily caused by some external force but which are innate to life itself. It would be easier to fall into illusionary thinking or self-pity as a way to escape this suffering instead of learning to face the disappointments, imperfections and shortcomings of our own characters. But this would be adolescent, and in the words of Barbara Hannah, a refusal to grow up.
And so my feelings flickered from pity to a more hopeful notion that whatever this woman had suffered, perhaps she had the strength, courage, and wisdom to endure it in which case it would be me who needed to ask her for her guidance, and not the other way around.
I walked around her, but instead of rushing inside, I stopped to check the mailbox outside my home, in the hopes that I would get a chance to speak to her.
“How you doing?” she asked.
“I’m doing fine, how are you,” I responded.
“I’m great, enjoying this warm weather.”
“Haha me too,’ I said smiling, happy to meet a kindred spirit who was desperate for the summer and grateful for its arrival, at long last.
“I know some people are complaining, but not me”, she said.
I laughed again and she wished me a wonderful day. I wished her the same and thought to myself, wow. Here is a woman who is partially crippled, a slow walker, and by all accounts unhealthy. And yet her spirit is zesty and full of life and she clearly has access to something that so many people, physically healthy, or not do not have: Joy. As I entered my house, I smiled grateful to know the depth and double meaning of Alice’s last greeting.
When I saw Dr. Jordan Peterson scathingly refer to Yumi Nu — one of the first plus-size models to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit issue — as ‘not beautiful,’ I did a double take. I hadn’t been on twitter in three weeks, on purpose. Wanting to do some deep self-work required being off social media for a prolonged period of time. During my absence, I began to dive deeper into the teachings of thinkers like Helen Luke, Marion Woodman, Barbara Hannah, and Irene Claremont De Castillejo, all writers who explored the depths of womanhood in their books and essays. I’d also deepened my study in wisdom traditions from the far east, picking up books on tantric Buddhism, the tradition of Bodhicitta, Taoism, and the transmutation of desire. One of the most important things I learned, specifically from a conversation between Marion Woodman and Robert Johnson, was about the concept of the divine feminine, or Yin as it has been termed in Eastern wisdom traditions.
When it comes to explaining what these concepts mean, words are often insufficient, especially given the West’s commonly Cartesian, inert worldview. So I will use metaphors to try to point to what I mean. You can think of Yin not as a gender, but as a primordial characteristic of the fabric of the universe; its attributes include receptivity, resonance, and the capacity to contain. (Ironically, Dr. Peterson talks about this in his book, “Maps of Meaning.”)
You may have heard of the idea of “holding space for” something or someone. This is an element of Yin. In contrast to Yang which is complimentary to Yin and concerned with doing, Yin is associated with the art and passive practice of being with someone, emotion, or thing, for the sake of relating to it. Here, passive does not mean apathy or aloofness, but comes from the latin pati, which is where we get the term patience. The idea here is that relationship requires a capacity to be receptive towards someone as they are, warts and all —a skill that is crucial in industries like hospitality and other caregiving lines of work.
I got off social media for a while ( and will continue to do so periodically) because it was harming my capacity to be receptive. Relationship as an art form is something I’d like to master, and social media platforms with their attention hoarding algorithms incentivizes us to crave likes, retweets, shares, and reposts. This flattens our capacity to be in relationship with ourselves and with others. Relationship, is, after all, goal-less. It exists for its own sake. It is not a utilitarian, consumerist act; it is not entered into for the sake of trying to get the other person to do something or even become something, because as it turns out, being receptive to someone naturally changes them, and it also changes the person who is being receptive. This is a subtlety easily lost in our pinball machine-like culture with its flash in the pan viral sensations and its addictive algorithms that confuse amassing followers with speaking the truth.
You may be wondering what all this has got to do with Yumi Nu, Dr. Jordan Peterson’s take, and conservative takes on the body positivity movement in general. If I was practicing what I preached and being receptive to these takes, I would have to note that they have some truth in them. It is true, for example, that a person is more likely to be hospitalized from coronavirus if they are obese, and this alone should inspire society to treat excessive consumption patterns as a health concern, not a fashion sense.
But Yumi Nu is not obese, and the good doctor’s response to her suggests he has been indulging in excessive consumption patterns lately, patterns that one can all too easily conform to by being on social media for far too long. (I know he announced he was getting off Twitter, but his team continues to tweet messages of the same merciless caliber.) Social media, especially Twitter, has a way of warping a person’s attention, causing what neuroscientist Marc Lewis termed, ‘reciprocal narrowing’ which is essentially how all addictions work.
For example, with an addiction to, say, alcohol, a person may drink to alleviate a stressful situation. This may cause short term soothing but will also reduce cognitive flexibility which in turn reduces the number of options the person perceives he has in a given situation. This produces even greater anxiety and increases the likelihood of a scarcity mentality taking over. My hypothesis is that this is precisely what’s happened to people who stay too long on social media — especially to people who perceive that the sky is falling.
If, like Dr. Peterson, you see the problems of the world and conclude that the forces of darkness are allayed against you —and if you, in an attempt to make sense of that reality, constantly tweet on a mimetic platform that rewards outrage, anger, and callous indignation with other people’s attention spans— you are likely to fall into a reciprocal narrowing loop with your environment, one in which everything you see in the news is rigidly defined as either ‘for you or against you,’ and one in which you will interpret everything in an us-vs-them fashion.
Then and only then will a plus size model gracing the cover of a sports magazine become an illustration of “authoritarian tolerance,” and “conscious and cynical manipulation” by the politically correct. The nuances of beauty, which are always changing with the ages, the relationship between physical health and inner well being (remember Alice?), the responsibilities of a man who is not only a powerful and influential doctor who has implored millions of followers to “pay attention to your words”, but also a father to a daughter — none of these can be considered in an ossified landscape that has undergone reciprocal narrowing.
I write this as someone who is a fan of Dr. Peterson. He was gracious enough to have me on his show a few months back and I loved his book, ‘Maps of Meaning, which I consider to be a masterpiece. But in his remarks on Nu, the good doctor fell prey to a reverse kind of gluttony, an anorexic perceptive inflexibility conditioned by bipolar infighting endemic to social media. This causes us to see each other as abstract instruments serving a conspiratorial plot against each other, instead of human beings who are imperfect, who have shortcomings, and who must learn to bear them. If we do not painstakingly develop an ability to relate to each other, our capacity for relationship with each other will become impossible, and, inflated by a kind of psychological obesity that reduces our opponents to fodder, we will become cruel and callous.
Ironically, Dr. Peterson exhibited the very same qualities he shunned. This ought to serve as a warning to us all.