Is It True That The Stress Response “Overreacts” Sometimes?

We are taught that the stress response is unwarranted when our brain perceives things in our environment which are not a real threat to safety. It happens when we’re in a traffic jam, struggling with tight finances, and when we have a major test coming up. These things won’t kill us and therefore the stress response that we experience from them is something unnecessary and maladaptive. This is stress theory 101. It’s what you learn within the first minute of any stress-related psychology class: sometimes the stress response is silly.

Lately I’ve found myself questioning this premise.

We know that the stress response was designed to occur in the face of some perceived danger. When we need to “fight or flight,” a body full of stress hormones prepares us. The second our brain detects a threat it is triggered. ACTH and cortisol do their thing. Epinephrine sharpens our senses, makes our heart pump faster sending blood to our organs and muscles, the lungs expand so that we can inhale more oxygen for alertness, and triggers the release of glucose so that we have more energy. This temporary systemic imbalance equips us for serious action. But sometimes it gets triggered when we don’t need to act. That’s what we’re taught.

But let’s say we’re at work and we’re stressed out about work. Let’s say we’re stressed out because we’re not passionate about what we do or we’re surrounded by assholes. No, we’re not at the immediate risk of death, but is it really true to say that this poses no real threat to us?

Obviously our needs for food, air, water, and not-being-eaten-by-a-huge-scary-animal are essential for life on Earth. The stress response undoubtedly protects us when we’re at risk in that department. But we also have an inherent need as human beings to self-actualize and to thrive. If we don’t feel that this need is being met, isn’t it rational to assume that being stressed is a legitimate response? Maybe the stress response is our body simply telling us that we are in some general situation which is not good for us and that we need to get out. Maybe it’s not a threat to our life but it is certainly a threat to our identity, our authenticity, and our wellbeing.

Who was it that decided only a select few of our needs as human beings merit our bodies responding in an attempt to help us get those needs met?

I call your attention to the multitude of research studies that have a very straightforward conclusion: psychological stress is literally a threat to our life.

  • Chronic stress is associated with cardiovascular disease (CVD) and the evidence is strong (Dong et al., 2004; Gruska et al., 2005, Kawachi et al., 1995; Niaura & Goldstein, 1992; Steptoe, 2000). One study even showed that higher amounts of work stress were associated with a whopping 50% increased risk of developing coronary heart disease (CHD) (Kivimaki et al., 2006). Researchers Landsbergis and his colleagues (2001) concluded that the most consistent predictor of CVD is a particular source of this stress known as low decision latitude – in other words, having a low degree of control over your work. Considering CHD is the leading cause of death in the world, this is kind of a big deal.
  • Chronic stress is associated with inflammation and other immune-related conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and autoimmune disorders such as systemic lupus erythematous (Affleck et al., 1994; Brody, 1956; Danese et al., 2007; Dube et al., 2009; Straub & Kalden, 2009).
  • Chronic stress is associated with skeletal muscle conditions including headaches and bruxism (De Benedittis and Lorenzetti, 1992; Biondi & Picardi, 1993; Giraki et al., 2010; Ficek & Wittrock, 1995; Sauro & Becker, 2009; Venable et al., 2001; Waldie, 2001). Luckily, treatments for these conditions are more often aimed at addressing stress levels.
  • Chronic stress is associated with gastrointestinal (GI) disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), chrons disease, ulcerative colitis, and peptic ulcers (Hertig et al., 2007; Searle & Bennett, 2001; Talley & Spiller, 2002). For this reason serotonin treatments are currently being investigated but if you are experiencing symptoms of a GI disorder your doctor will most likely just tell you to exercise more and eat enough fibre/probiotics…
  • Chronic stress is associated with atopic disorders like rhinitis, asthma, and dermatitis (Chida, Hamer, & Steptoe, 2008).
  • Chronic Stress is associated with type 2 diabetes (Charmandari, Tsigos, & Chrousos, 2005).
  • There is even some supporting evidence that chronic stress is associated with cancer (Scherg & Blohmke, 1988; Levenson and Bemis, 1991; McKenna et al., 1999).
  • This list does not even include the annoying problems like weight gain, obesity, hormonal imbalance, and mental illnesses which can also be triggered by stress.

The pathways involved between these illnesses and stress are irrelevant and even deterring to the point. Here’s the thing…

The conclusions in the literature tend to reflect this pattern: chronic stress is associated with illness because of the stress hormones themselves wreaking havoc on our bodies over a prolonged period of time. Shortened telomeres, depleted vitamins, androgens, backed up livers, etc. are to blame. In other words, the problem is a malfunction of our BIOLOGY and if only we could just handle uncomfortable situations without experiencing a stress response then we would be just fine. We “can’t avoid” stressful events so we just need to meditate more often or develop better coping strategies.

Literature like the article “Too Toxic to Ignore” by Blackburn & Epel (2012) suggests that we focus on medical treatments or help people change certain maladaptive behaviours in order to address the the issue of stress.

But, what if instead of blaming ourselves and our biology we blame our shitty system which forces us to do things that don’t feel good in order to survive? Are we being inadvertently brainwashed to ignore something serious that our bodies are trying to tell us?

Low socioeconomic status (SES) is one of the strongest and most consistent predictors of disease and mortality and stress is a key mediator (Cohen, 2007; Kristenson et al., 2004); the lower you are on the social ladder, the poorer the health you can expect. Very few diseases are an exception to this fact. It makes sense – low SES individuals tend to face unhealthier living conditions and more stress.

In response to this, a lot of people will say “But look at all of the opportunities we have! We can go to university, or get a better job! We are free to choose whatever path we want! If someone is stuck in a shitty situation, it’s their fault for being lazy and not working harder to get out of it.” If you fall into this category, I’m afraid you’re a victim of the postmodern brainwashing. Getting out of a low SES bracket is incredibly difficult – so difficult in fact, that staying in the situation is sometimes healthier than going through the amount of stress required to get out of it. Ergo, low SES individuals DO NOT have true autonomy. Try getting good grades when you also have to work 25 hours a week and come home to cooking, cleaning, and possibly even caretaking everyday. Add a dance class, a modest beauty regimen, a workout, a meditation, and an occasional evening out on top of that. Good luck. Try getting a better job when you show up to the interview looking like shit because you had to take a 2-hour public transit trip in extreme heat, after running 10 other errands, going to class, doing a shift at your other job, and by the time you finally get there you’re so tired you can’t even respond properly to the interview questions so you’re perceived as “unmotivated.” This is the shit that the middle class will never understand. To them it sounds like bitching. That’s what they’ll think as they read this, probably sitting in an uber on their way to an avo toast brunch.

And the government, who so devotedly caters to the middle class, designs initiatives to address the issue of psychological stress by targeting individuals who are already suffering. They develop campaigns to reduce stigma, crisis support lines, support centres, and training programs for employers to help them support mentally ill employees. There are also wellness workshops and educational programs to teach people how to reduce stress and live healthier. But what the hell does enhancing education do when poor people still can’t afford to buy fresh produce or relax in a car ride home after a stressful day? What if you don’t have the time to meditate because you need to work for 12 hours a day to make ends meet? And if you think about it, this approach is kind of ironic because the very act of participating in such programs means more things added on to an already-stressed-out person’s to-do list.

In Canada, leaders are attempting to implement such “organizational changes.” The Mental Health Strategy for Canada outlines the initiatives. Nowhere does it talk about addressing the mental health crisis by increasing autonomy. Essentially, it talks about how we can improve the lives of those already living with mental illness. In a way we are being force-fed the idea that low autonomy is a fact of life and if you’re faced with it then you basically just gotta learn to deal with it and get support.

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As Jordan Peterson put it, “Everything improves when the poor get richer. We need to make them richer as fast as possible.” I agree. Money is a resource which can buy you time therefore increasing autonomy and giving you the freedom to pursue your passions. And it has been well theorized just how amazing and prosperous this world would be if we could all pursue our passions.

So what if the source of much illness is not within the people but in system that enslaves them? Despite the wealth of opportunity that capitalism has brought us, things are still imperfect. But is the lack of autonomy solely to blame?

Earlier this month, fashion designer Kate Spade made the decision to end her life. She was a highly successful, wealthy entrepreneur with a significant level of autonomy. Those who were close to her knew that she suffered from depression and a great source of it was relational. She and her husband had been living quite separate and unaffectionate lives and he eventually wanted a divorce. Being a family oriented woman, she didn’t. That was the very reason why she left the company in 2006 – to raise her daughter and focus more on the family. According to her sister, Spade didn’t even care that much for her massive fame and success. It stressed her out more than anything.

Spade is far from alone. I draw your attention back to the fact that we are in the midst of a mental health crisis, particularly with respect to depression. It makes sense given that depression is a mental illness which is often attributed to a perceived lack of control over one’s life – and in our current society, many of us are forced to put aside our passions in order to make a living at jobs where we are told what to do. What the death of Spade shows us however is that lacking control over your own life isn’t just about being held back from expressing yourself or achieving personal goals.

Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for people aged 15-34 (Millennials) in Canada, with depression being the most common illness among those who die (Statistics Canada, 2017). Coincidentally this is also a pivotal phase of life for developing long lasting intimate relationships. It’s when people tend to think the most about dating, love, and marriage. Erik Erikson’s famous theory of psychosocial development calls this the stage of Intimacy vs. Isolation, where the biggest psychological conflict that individuals are faced with is the task of forming loving relationships. Successfully making it through this stage results in fulfilment, whereas failure results in isolation and depression.

Among the suicide statistics, we do see that married people in this age range have a much lower death rate than those who are single, widowed, or divorced. It is theorized that the companionship and social support offered by marriage are the factors which decrease the risk of suicide (Kposowa, 2000). Keep in mind that these are fatalities, not attempts (women attempt suicide two to four times more often than men. Men are more successful because they tend to use more aggressive means [Krug, 2002]). Also worthy of noting is that cohabitation without marriage does not tend to show similar benefits.  I will discuss this further in a separate article.

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Back in 1983, Dr. Aaron Beck and colleagues presented a theory which suggested that there are two personality styles which make a person vulnerable to developing depression. More specifically, individuals with a high need for belonging, or those high in sociotropy, would likely become depressed when their social needs are not met, and individuals with a high need for autonomy would likely become depressed when their needs for personal achievement are not met. With this theory, they created the sociotropy-autonomy scale which was designed to predict a person’s likelihood of developing depression. Sato & McCann’s (2000) study used this scale and found that sociotrophy was in fact a risk factor for depression.

I would also like to emphasize however, that sociotropy is not a psychological disorder or symptom but a personality trait and it simply indicates a natural desire to connect with others which is higher than average. In other words, it is not, in itself, something maladaptive, or “wrong.”

Fast forward to today. Not only are we in the midst of a mental health crisis, we are also in the midst of a social crisis. Under the influence of postmodernism, we are being taught that autonomy is the be-all end-all of our existence. Traditional values of family and belonging go ignored, even shamed. To feel the need to belong is considered “needy” in our current culture. We see it everywhere – just go on any dating app and read a few profiles. The most sought after qualities in a woman are “a mind of her own,” “ambitious,” and “strong and independent.” Dependency is the most feared quality with very few people caring whether you’re mean or apathetic. Marriage is seen as outdated and relationships as transient.

Of course those who feel the need for connection are depressed! They are stuck in a situation that they have little to no control over due to the fact that they live in a society which makes them feel like their need for belonging IS NOT OKAY. Furthermore, it is a need that cannot be achieved through personal development – it can only come through positive relationships with other people. We can do our best to make relationships work, but ultimately we are not in control over the decisions that other people make. We cannot control whether our dates call us back, whether our family abandons us, or whether our partner asks for a divorce.

And as a result of this lack of control we seek love in manipulative ways – evident by the hoards of mainstream dating advice which are essentially different spins on how to play hard to get. They’re not wrong – people are wired to want more of what they can’t have. But what is the social cost of normalizing this behaviour? We are all suffering. We play these games to achieve power and control and in the process we leave others in a position of lacking control over aspects of their own life. Great relationships suffer, fail, or perhaps never even start because people are too afraid to be vulnerable.

The praise for autonomy is also reinforced by almost every higher education advertisement. Every other poster on the subway tells us to “Be a Leader!” and go to such-and-such university because we’re “Born to Make a Difference.” This advertising plants subconscious beliefs in people’s minds that it’s not good enough to be who they already are and want what they want. If anything it perpetuates the mental health crisis. It’s annoying at best and harmful at worst. What if I don’t really care about making a difference in the world? What if I am happy as a barista, or a mom, or a hairdresser? If I feel like being a “leader” I will fucking google nearby MBA programs. I don’t need someone else to tell me how I “should” be living my life…

Disney movies, TV shows, media – it used to be about saving the world or finding love. Now it’s all about finding yourself. As a rude awakening, get over “yourself.” Newsflash: We are SO much more similar than we are different!

Autonomy is incredibly valuable but it isn’t the whole story. As humans, we also need to feel connected to others. Abraham Maslow acknowledged this back in the 1940s when traditional family-oriented values were not only socially acceptable but something to be proud of. In his model the need for belonging was represented as being even more important than our autonomous needs:

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And we all know this model is legit.

Honestly though, how many stories have you heard about someone achieving great success only to become depressed because they realized they had no one special to share it with? Or someone who was so ambitious that they lost the love of those around them and ended up regretting it? They were looking at their needs backwards.

We are suffering because our society is suffering. We want to love and to be loved, and we also want to pursue our passions, but we are held back from those things because of the false widespread beliefs that a) it’s not okay to need others, and b) you need to work for a living and sometimes that means getting a job you don’t like.

So essentially, we have a mental health crisis as the result of imbalanced social values and we are addressing the problem with band-aid mental health programs targeted to individuals and their behaviour. We are praising autonomy while simultaneously refusing to address the fact that so many of us simply don’t have it. We are also devaluing belongingness while simultaneously ignoring that it is a massive buffer against stress and mental illness.

Back to the topic of disease – this problem goes beyond the social and psychological. We aren’t just depressed and naive. People are literally physically ill and dying as a result of illnesses which can be attributed to the stress caused by unfilfilment and a perceived lack of control over one’s life.

So what can we do about this?

Part 1 of the solution is balancing our values. We need to see the merit in both autonomy and belongingness. I believe that having personal autonomy and the freedom to pursue what you are passionate about is absolutely integral to health and wellness. However, I also believe that we need to start acknowledging the fact that we are social creatures with a deep need for connection, who need each other, and who can’t always do everything on our own. Not only that, but there is no real reason why we should have to. We evolved as homo sapiens because we learned how to work together. We are wired for it. Deep down, we all want (and need!) love and connection. It’s time we start acting and talking like it. Just as autonomy acts as a buffer in the stress-illness relationship, so does social support (in fact to an even higher degree). And if there is anything I’ve learned from psychology, it’s that we need to know when to ask for help. I’d add on that we also need to learn when and how to ask for love.

Part 2 of the solution is changing how we encourage people to contribute to society. Notice I didn’t say “work.” That’s because I don’t believe it should be work. We should be pursuing something that we are so passionate about it’s akin to breathing. I’ve met CEO’s, engineers, hairdressers, and mom’s who all loved what they do for a living and they were perfectly content – all except those who couldn’t afford to live decently. Why aren’t people working at jobs that give them purpose and fulfillment? Why don’t they have access to them? Why are only some jobs considered socially desirable? Why do more difficult and laborious jobs often pay less? Why do artists have to struggle? And more importantly, how can we change this?

In sum, the stress response is telling us something very important. We feel out of control, not only because we lack autonomy in a society that glorifies it, but we also lack the freedom to reach out and ask for love in healthy ways. Our needs as human beings are going unmet to the extent that premature death is sometimes the result. In the meantime there is a wealth of research on society and its impact on health. Maybe we should start talking more about that.

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References

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The Meaning Of Perfection

As a self-proclaimed perfectionist, I identify all too well with the struggle to discern which are truly the best ways to conduct myself and live my life.  Us perfectionists do it for a valid reason – we know that the best things in life are the things which make us feel happy and fulfilled.  So naturally we strive more and more to obtain those things and achieve so-called “perfection”, whatever that looks like for us.

But if you consider the modern depression epidemic that western society is currently faced with we are forced to question whether our approach to happiness really makes sense.  The statistics speak for themselves – we are clearly facing massive rates of mental illness. But why is this happening?  Do we not live amongst some of the most successful, conscious, people of our time, here in our cosy first world countries?  Although there are a few possible explanations, I would like to discuss one in particular right now.

I argue that the concepts of perfection and goodness have been mistakenly conflated and obscured by society.  This has lead to perpetuating beliefs that, firstly, the world in its current state is not perfect, and secondly, supposing that there is a God who is perfect, he must therefore be incapable of anything which is collectively believed by society to be “bad”.

This article will attempt to re-define goodness and perfection through a more holistic lens, by critiquing Plato’s philosophy as well as touching on some scientific and spiritual principles.  It will argue that, contrary to implicit premises in Plato’s theory of Forms, all appearances of the “unchanging and eternal” forms are perfect – not only the forms themselves.  In conclusion it will state that God exists, God is perfect, perfection is a concept that is unrelated to our perceptions of goodness, universal morality does not exist, and western society would benefit from practicing a better discourse.

In case that was a lot to digest, let’s start with some background:

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato believed that what is good can build the foundation of an ideal, or otherwise “perfect” society.  This is ultimately based on his Theory of Forms, which posits that objects and phenomena in the real world resemble an ideal, “perfect” form which is non-physical and can only be understood philosophically.  In other words, tangible objects in the physical world are merely imperfect appearances of that more ideal, metaphysical form.

In the context of a society, this is actually very problematic as it relies on the premise that every person within that society agrees on what is of the highest good.  If you read the news, you know that this is seldom, if ever the case.  Every day intelligent people fight, argue, debate, and even kill each other over their differing needs and beliefs.  So in the real world goodness is actually something transient, relative, and subjective.  How can you have a perfect society if the people within that society all have different beliefs about what is good?

This flaw can be highlighted by the following argument:

1. Perfection is a state of flawlessness

2. Flawlessness is a result of completeness

3. Completeness of a thing can only occur by virtue that all aspects of it have binary opposite aspects that also exist (i.e. darkness cannot exist without light)

4. If the good exists, then the bad exists (since they are binary opposites)

5. The good exists

.: 6. The bad exists (from 4 and 5)

.: 7. Completeness also constitutes the bad (from 3 and 6)

.: 8. Any perfect entity can, and must be both good and bad (from 1, 2, and 6)

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Plato also believes that the forms do exist in some other dimension, but he does not specify where.  He adds, in Parmenides, that things such as “hair, mud, and dirt” and other “natural effects” do not have forms but the reason why is never made clear.  This raises even more questions as to what perfection is.  Does Plato suppose that hair, mud, and dirt do not have forms because they are intrinsically ugly (bad)?

Well, if we are to entertain the idea that the forms are perfect in the sense that they are the most “good” representations of things in the real world then we must specify what it means for something to be good.

Traditionally, the word “perfect” has indeed been used to indicate the highest good of something.  The problem with this is that “ideal highest good of something” depends on the subjective opinion of the person who is being asked.  For example, a painting made by a child may be perfect in the eyes of that child, but a skilled painter would be likely to find flaws, or imperfections in it.  Likewise, the form of a perfect apple might very well exist, but if that is the case then the form of the perfectly rotten apple is equally as plausible.  Taken one step further, we also know that a crisp and slightly bitter apple is good for eating fresh, while more ripe apples are good for making pie.  So which kind of apple is of the highest good in and of itself?

One of the latter examples dabbles into the metaphysics of identity over time, but I digress…

However one attempts to define the “good”, surely there will be someone who disagrees with them or some situation which demonstrates a different kind of goodness.  Coffee, for example, may be considered good to most people, but not so good to others.  Harvesting and processing it turns out to be good for our tastebuds but not so good for the environment.  In Protagoras, Plato does acknowledge that goodness is a relational quality; something is “good” insofar as it is good for a particular thing.  However, this now presents a contradiction: if perfection is the highest good, and goodness is relational, then perfection cannot be a universal concept (in other words, something that can be idealized by all people, in the same way, eternally).

But supposing God is a single entity which is eternal, infinite, and perfect, then perfection must be a universal concept (he created us all, didn’t he?).

Where is the mistake here?

The mistake is the initial conflation of relational perceptions of goodness with the universal concept of perfection.  Perfection cannot be defined as the highest good in the sense that it represents what individuals tend to think is good, but rather, it is the concept of a universal goodness which consists of neutral phenomena that can be interpreted as either good or bad, depending on the individual’s perception.  This would resolve the debate as to how God can be perfect and yet still create evil, or “bad” things.

It has a lot of other implications too, including the fact that the theory of Forms is moot.

Head in Hands

In Plato’s Charmides, temperance is almost defined as the good and perfection is mentioned but neither concepts are addressed to the point of an infallible and definitive conclusion.  According to Socrates, Charmides “excel[s] others in all good qualities” because he is beautiful, knowledgeable, and comes from a good family.  Socrates believes that since Charmides is such an admirable person, who is temperate by nature, then he should be able to define temperance.  It is firstly established through this discussion that temperance is a good quality to have, and that “the life which is temperate is supposed to be the good”.  Although they never reach a consensus on the nature of temperance, Charmides concludes that the more temperate he is, the happier he is – a “good” outcome.  The problem still remains: what is universally good? And who is it good for?

As we may come to accept from Plato’s Euthyphro, what is good, or admirable must be good in and of itself.  This is concluded as a result of the Euthyphro dilemma:

1.     Does God command something because it is good?or

2.     Is something good because God commands it?

If (1) were the case, then God would be making commands based on some even higher power that is the true authority of morality (which is not possible).  If (2) were the case, then anything could be considered good (and that hardly seems logical in a practical sense).

This new definition of perfection can make things tricky if we are trying to figure out how to best live life or whether or not someone should be punished for committing a crime.  So a new question is posed: what is universally moral?  Well, if there is a God who is perfect, whose nature is supposed to be the standard of morality, then the essence of morality must in fact be present in whatever is commanded by God (this is also known as divine command theory).  However, if that is the case, then morality is another concept which is not necessarily related to goodness in terms of relational perceptions because what God commands is not always perceived to be good. For clarification:

1. God’s nature is the standard of morality

.: 2. Morality must be intrinsic in whatever is commanded by God (from 1)

3. What God commands is not always good in terms of relational perceptions

.: 4. Morality is a concept that is not necessarily related to goodness in terms of relational perceptions (from 2 and 3)

Again, the mistake being made is the conflation of relative and transient perceptions of goodness with concepts that we believe to be universal – namely, perfection and morality.

If logic tells us that perfection is the highest good and that what is good is so by virtue that it is good in and of itself, then everything that exists must in fact be good and perfect.  Likewise, whatever is commanded by God is in fact good and perfect (whether or not we perceive it to be).

So perhaps it isn’t possible to have a universal definition of morality.  It seems that we can only ever have our man-made systems of ethics that are designed by groups of individuals whose majority agree on the same code of conduct.  This has been working for the most part but there are always outliers and it just seems wrong in a lot of ways.  Don’t we want a system that works for everyone?

In the bible when it was said that God saw “all was good”, maybe what that really meant was that everything was in harmony and order – for everything that exists, there exists its binary opposite which allows it to exist and that is all.  Is this a revolutionary thought?  No.  Hegel (1770-1831) pointed out in his oh-so complex way that God simply is reality itself (Robert Wallace, author of Hegel’s Philosophy of Reality explains this very eloquently).  Maybe all we can really do is manage this reality as best we possibly can.

Other philosophers such as Kant, Nietzsche, and Hume have all argued that God does not exist whatsoever (thus resolving this “problem”) but for each argument there are equally valid counter arguments.  In the quest to prove whether or not God exists and to identify universally virtuous ways to live, no one has been successful it seems.  The really big ethical questions like “is abortion equivalent to murder?” and “is it okay to eat meat?” are still up for debate.  And some situations are simply too complicated to support the assertion that certain behaviours are always wrong.  So how do we all go about living our lives in the meantime if we want to live according to truth?  What is the way of life that appreciates this deeper understanding of perfection?

I believe that to answer such questions we would do well to examine an alternative philosophical approach such as Taoism.  Taoist philosophy posits that there is no right or wrong in the workings of the universe; there just is.  Everything exists in the way it does for a reason – to maintain order.  Taoism proposes that the world is constantly in a state of change where phenomena are too complex to ever share the same meaning.  It is therefore a waste of energy to focus on worldly, or “good” pleasures.  The Yin and Yang is a concept in Taoism that is used to symbolize how the good could not exist without the bad: both are necessary for completeness.  In real life and society, this means that the things which are commonly considered to be wrong are also just as necessary as the virtuous things in order for the existence of virtually everything in the universe to be possible.  Put another way: without the bad we would not be able to appreciate the good, nor would we even be here in the first place.

Mathematics and physics also demonstrate that perfection, being a byproduct of completeness, is the sum of everything: the number 0 is mathematically representative of completeness as it stands, numerically, for nothing but also the sum of everything.  This is because the number zero is equivalent numerically to nothing, yet also equal to the sum of all integers (infinity to minus infinity). This is demonstrated by the equation below:

(1 + (-1)) + (2 + (-2)) + (3 + (-3)) +… = 0 + 0 + 0 + … = 0

This rationale has deep implications if it is assumed that numbers represent everything that exists in the universe, which is the case in a plausible theory called the mathematical universe hypothesis, or “theory of everything”.  Physicists are also on the brink of discovering something that is currently referred to “mirror matter”, or “anti-matter”: basically, the binary opposite of the matter that we know as its properties correspond inversely.  Perhaps, this suggests that for everything in the universe, there is literally an opposite entity which is equally part of the “grand scheme”.

In societies this problem is manifested as the belief that the human condition is not already perfect as it is.  In Greek mythology for example, the Gods were sometimes regarded as imperfect because they had human attributes.  Highly religious people fear the impending punishment for their human “sins”, so much so that they often go to great lengths and commit radical acts of devotion in order to secure a place for themselves in their supposed heaven.  This is also contradictory however, because if one looks in the sacred texts of the same religions that are followed by these individuals, he or she will inevitably see a phrase similar to “God is in all of us” or “we were created in the image of God”.  Supposing the bible is meant to be taken metaphorically, this seems to be suggesting that humankind is actually just as perfect as God is since it seems unlikely that something with perfection in it is only partly perfect.

What is the practical significance of this?  It supports the idea that everything is good in and of itself and in consequence it shows us that our modern approach to happiness is wrong.  We are too focused on outcomes which we desire and believe to be good and thus it naturally follows that we think perfection is only good.  But in reality everything that we perceive to be bad is just as perfect as everything that we perceive to be good and it is equally a part of “God’s plan”.

We are all perfect as we are and everything is perfect the way it is, even if the reality is not always appealing to us.  True perfection is a concept which does not attribute itself to the moral valence of “good” or “bad.”

Universal morality is an erroneous concept.  We can only deal with individual case scenarios to the best of our ability and knowledge.

We are a depressed society, in part, because we are chasing happiness and refusing to accept that bad things are an inevitable part of life.  This, coupled with the fact that capitalism has us striving so much for achievement.  But the truth is that we are happy when we accept things as they are, not when we achieve a goal, or when things aren’t “bad.” Desire creates suffering.  Mindfulness and acceptance creates peace.

Our health and relationships would improve immensely if we were to abandon ideas of universal truths and accept subjectivity; if we could speak in terms of what we like and don’t like in the moment, rather than what we think is always “good” or “bad”.  This would avoid the conflation of relative goodness with universal perfection that leads to the false belief of a universal morality and black and white thinking (which is often associated with depression).  When we instead choose to speak in terms of what feels “good” or “bad”, right or wrong, true or untrue, for us, in the moment, then we can always be sure that we are speaking the truth.  And when we practice this kind of dialogue as a society it allows us to better tailor the consequences of behaviour so that they are the most appropriate and helpful for each person involved in their unique situation.  If that isn’t practical, I don’t know what is.

We must aim for fairness, not equality, of outcome.

Definitions are certainly always subject to change.  Currently we can see, for example, in a court of law, that what is justice is not always just by the popular definition.  In some areas of the world, many acts considered wrongful are still punishable by death – this is an extremely controversial topic which certainly puts us in the position to debate over the definition of justice.  There is only one thing that can ever truly be defined universally – that is the infinite existence of God itself, a metaphorical symbol for the laws and constitution of this perfect, dualistic universe.

So by this new, universal definition of perfection as “that which simply is”, the perfect God can and must allow killing, lying, and stealing.  He must also be the creator of that which we consider to be cowardly, dirty, and ugly to the highest degree.  Of course this is not what most of us would like to believe; it is not comforting or instilling of happiness.  Yet, if it is true, as Plato suggested, that philosophers who are interested in only the truth rather than in selfish rewards would make the perfect rulers, and if we are to live amongst a truly perfect society, then the more negative tendencies of the universe must be acknowledged as being sometimes inevitable.

How would we, as humankind, come to know that fire burned our skin if we did not at some point touch it?  What if, in our journeys through life, we are touching fire every day through the repercussions of our unhealthy behaviours because it is the only way for us to truly discover what is right and wrong for ourselves?

And we can still choose to focus our mind and energy on the positive: even though our God is capable of terrible things, he also creates life, allows that which is honest and generous, and the existence of breathtakingly beautiful phenomena.  We are here to experience that because the only alternate possibility is to experience nothing at all.  The contrast provided by the existence of that which we perceive to be negative is what allows for the existence of that which we perceive to be positive.

We can and must look at our world through this more holistic lens.  We may see things like injustice and evil in our world as it is today but we can choose to believe that perhaps God commands those things for a reason.  And so the world does not always appear to be fair, yet it is this way in order to maintain balance: a life which humans could not otherwise experience if everything were only “good.”

This article ultimately suggests that this is it – there is no ideal metaphysical world that we should idolize and any attempt to do so is destructive.  Human activities, bodies, and environments exist as products of incredibly complex interactions.  Morality cannot be universal if no two experiences or phenomena can ever be identical.  With everything constantly changing, the definition of the “good” is constantly changing as well.  The definition of perfection being a universal “ideal” is therefore flawed, especially concerning God if he is assumed to be an immortal, infinite being.  Perfection is instead the meld of good and evil working together to align all that exists into a state of oneness and completeness.  Perfection is what is.