from the world's big
Thinking about one’s birth is as uncanny as thinking of death
Do we suffer from birth anxiety like we suffer from death anxiety?
Many people feel anxious about the prospect of their death. Indeed, some philosophers have argued that death anxiety is universal and that this anxiety bounds and organises human existence.
But do we also suffer from birth anxiety? Perhaps. After all, we are all beings that are born as well as beings that die.
Whereas philosophers have said a lot about our anxiety about death, they have said little about birth anxiety. This is part-and-parcel of the broader neglect of birth in the Western philosophical tradition. The guiding thought has been that 'all men are mortal' ('men' in the sense of 'human beings') rather than 'all human beings are mortal and natal'.
Once we bear in mind that we are natal as well as mortal, we see some ways in which being born can also occasion anxiety. As the bioethicist David Albert Jones writes in The Soul of the Embryo (2004):
We might be telling someone of a memory or event and then realise that, at that time, the person in front of us did not even exist! Someone who is real and significant in our lives, who is the centre of his or her own story … once did not exist. If we seriously consider the existence and the beginning of any one particular human being … we realise that it is something strange and profound. Many philosophers have recognised that the existence of the world is something mysterious … However, if we truly grasp the existence of any one person we see that this too is mysterious …
The same goes for each individual's own existence. I began to exist at a certain point in time, and there is something mysterious about this. I haven't always been there; for aeons, events in the world unfolded without me. But the transition from nonexistence to existence seems so absolute that it is hard to comprehend how I can have passed across it.
To compound the mystery further, there was no single crossing point. In reality, we don't begin in the sudden, dramatic way announced by Ruby Lennox, the narrator and protagonist of Kate Atkinson's novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995): 'I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall.' Rather, I came into existence gradually. When first conceived, I was a single cell (a zygote). Then I developed a formed body and began to have a rudimentary level of experience during gestation. And once out of my mother's womb, I became involved in culture and relationships with others, and acquired a structured personality and history. Yet the zygote that I began as was still me, even though it had none of this.
This might seem to suggest that being born is mysterious rather than anxiety-inducing. But it is disconcerting that my particular existence defies comprehension in respect of its beginnings, and that the Universe contains many people each of whose beginning is likewise mysterious. When we confront these disconcerting realities, we can feel uneasy and uncomfortable. Our everyday, familiar world is exposed as having respects in which it goes beyond our understanding. We cannot feel so straightforwardly at home in the world. This is a sort of anxiety.
Another factor in our difficulties making sense of our own origins is our inability to remember being born. This is part of our more general inability to remember our infancy – a phenomenon that Sigmund Freud in 1905 called 'infantile amnesia'. Essentially, this amnesia is caused by the fact that our systems for forming and laying down memories change during childhood. This process of change is largely complete by ages six to eight. Whereas our early forms of memory are tacit, practical and emotional, the forms of memory we have acquired by age eight are explicit, linguistic and narratival. This change makes the earlier memories unavailable to us, and some of them are even destroyed.
At the same time, the period of infancy is formative for us. This is when many fundamental features of our personalities take shape, under the influence of the particular individuals and circumstances we encounter then and of our relationships with our first caregivers. We form habits, patterns of action and reaction, that will remain with us throughout our lives. Every time I feel scared of a dog approaching me, I exhibit an emotional response I first formed in childhood. As I walk along with a particular gait and style of movement, I re-enact habits I established in childhood.
But since infancy and childhood are formative for us, and yet we can explicitly remember little about them, we are left in the dark about fundamental features of our own personalities. Why do we fall in and out of love with the people we do? Why does a certain song move me to tears and leave you cold? Infantile amnesia means that the rationale for much of our emotional lives lies out of our reach.
To be born, and therefore to begin life as an infant and child, is to be destined to forget much of one's early life, even while it still lives on within one. It is to be limited in how far one can understand oneself and the wellsprings of motivation from which one acts and reacts. This aspect of being born, as well as the mystery of our own beginnings, can arouse anxiety. For, when we pay attention to infantile amnesia, we can feel uneasy and uncomfortable realising that we will never be able to make full sense of ourselves or of our own motivations and impulses. We are bound in important ways to remain strangers to ourselves.
Yet there might still seem to be a basic reason why we cannot feel anxious to have been born as we feel anxious about death. My birth is in the past, whereas my death is in the future. One might intuitively think that we can feel anxious only about future possibilities.
Then again, at times people do feel anxious about the past. Sometimes they feel social anxiety remembering having said or done the wrong thing in a past social situation. And post-traumatic stress disorder is anxiety about traumatic events suffered in the past. Indeed, the psychoanalytic theorist Otto Rank, author of The Trauma of Birth (1924), believed that we all experience birth anxiety understood as a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (although he didn't use the phrase): anxiety prompted by memories of the trauma of leaving the mother's womb.
But taking it that we can feel anxious about past events, the forms of birth anxiety discussed in this piece are not about my birth as a specific past event. Rather, they are anxieties about ongoing features of my existence that it has insofar as I was born – for instance, anxiety about how I am bound to be strange to myself by virtue of having been born. Here, these forms of birth anxiety are not so different from death anxiety after all, because death anxiety is likewise about my ongoing condition as a mortal being – I am always vulnerable to death, which can always intervene to leave my projects interrupted and unfinished. Similarly, in birth anxiety it is my whole condition as a natal being about which I am anxious.
- New Research: Traumatic Experiences Can Cause Epigenetic ... ›
- This incredible meditation will help solve your existential dread ›
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
Most marriages end in resentment. Why should longevity be the sole marker of a successful marriage?
In November 1891, the British sexologist Havelock Ellis married the writer and lesbian Edith Lees. He was 32 and a virgin. And since he was impotent, they never consummated their union. After their honeymoon, the two lived separately in what he called an open marriage. The union lasted until Lees’ death in 1916.
Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.
Scientists uncovered the secrets of what drove some of the world's last remaining woolly mammoths to extinction.
Every summer, children on the Alaskan island of St Paul cool down in Lake Hill, a crater lake in an extinct volcano – unaware of the mysteries that lie beneath.