How Low Can You Go?
OCTOBER 1, 2022
by David Zahl
Anthropologies can be charted on a continuum from high to low. Think of it as a barometer of human potential. On the “high” end, we find sunnier estimations of what women and men are like. We run into grander visions of human enterprise. The higher we get, the more optimistic the assumptions. For example, any characterization of human beings as basically good belongs on this end. We may not be perfect or perfectible, mind you, but we are generally decent when unsullied by outside forces. The primary limitations we encounter in life are the ones we place on ourselves, and so forth. Such sentiments would fall under the banner of high anthropology.
Graduation speeches may be ground zero for the proliferation of anthropologies. Apple guru Steve Jobs drew on the high side of the scale for just such an occasion: “Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition,” he told graduates. “They somehow know what you truly want to become.”
On the “low” end of the spectrum sit the more sober estimations. We find understandings of the human spirit as something that veers, by default, in a malign direction and, as a result, cannot flourish without assistance or constraint. We find descriptions of people as finite, blind, and, in many cases, quite weak. This lower end does not discount our noble and good impulses but suggests that we are underdogs in the struggle to heed them. Our humanity contains an ineluctable dark side, whatever we say to the contrary. This does not mean we’re incapable of sacrificial love and charity. It just means that the moments we demonstrate those ideals are the exception, not the rule.
Anne Lamott articulates a low anthropology when she observes, “Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, and scared, even the people who seem to have it more or less together. They are much more like you than you would believe. So try not to compare your insides to their outsides.”
A high anthropology views people as defined by their best days and greatest achievements, their dreams and their aspirations. A low anthropology assumes a through line of heartache and self-doubt, that the bulk of our mental energy is focused on subjects that would be embarrassing or even shameful if broadcast, and that our ability to do the right thing in any given situation is hampered by all sorts of unseen factors.
Since this is a continuum, high and low are not the only options. Maybe we try to hew a middle path by maintaining the essential neutrality of the species. We come into this life as a blank slate, and how we turn out has everything to do with the influences we encounter along the way. “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains” is how the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau put it.
Or perhaps we mix and match. There are good people and bad people, and the great task of life is trying to figure out who’s who. Many of our favorite stories—in Hollywood and elsewhere— follow this line of thinking in their portrayal of heroes and villains.
Not that we’re always consistent. After all, many of our assumptions about human nature operate below the level of conscious thought, according to disposition and personality rather than intention or deduction. So maybe we say we expect people to be generally self-absorbed, yet when they act that way toward us, we are shocked. Or possibly we are scandalized by a neighbor’s altruism and insist on locating a sinister motive behind every act of kindness.
Note your responses to Jobs and Lamott. On the one hand, Lamott’s words sound a little harsh at first, do they not? Sure, I may be a little scared and clingy, but everyone? Isn’t that extreme? That guy Darren from high school sure seemed comfortable in his own skin. Plus, if you heard a friend refer to themselves with Lamott’s language, you’d probably assume they were depressed and would want to give them a pep talk: “Don’t be so hard on yourself; you’re just going through a rough time right now.”
On the other hand, Jobs’s invitation must have inspired those graduates, wouldn’t you think? How fortunate they were to walk away with the knowledge that they already possessed everything they needed to become the next Steve Jobs.
But say you had a tough week, spoke insensitively to a loved one, or fumbled the ball at work. Lamott’s description all of a sudden might strike you as more accurate. You might feel recognized by her words and a little burdened by Jobs’s exhortation. After all, you’re no longer twenty-two and don’t always like what you’ve become or where your intuitions have steered you. Where is my courage? My good intuition?
Lamott’s admission conveys compassion. You can feel your shoulders unknot. Jobs’s advice, not so much. His words convey pressure.
This is the great irony of low anthropology: what sounds insulting is actually liberating, and what sounds liberating at first is actually oppressive and embittering.