From the Pulpit: Talents
For those who aren’t familiar with the story, a Lord gives a number of servants some money (i.e., the talents) to manage. When the time comes to account for their stewardship, all of those who made a profit were praised and received a reward. One servant buried the money they received, and was chastised at the time of accounting.
Bob finishes with a few observations, including:
- “All of the Lords servants received talents”
- “None of the Lords servants received the same or the same number of talents”
- “All those who magnified their talents received the same praise”
I think these are all true and useful observations, but I want to take a slightly different tack. I want to defend the servant who buried her talent. In particular, I want to address what I see as a moral blind spot in society that contributes to many people feeling misunderstood, anxious, and depressed. Specifically, I want to discuss neuroticism.
For those of you who are not familiar, research about human personalities generally agrees that there is evidence for five primary personality traits:
- openness (curiosity/creativity)
- conscientiousness (determination/efficiency)
- extraversion (outgoing)
- agreeableness (friendly/compassionate)
- neuroticism (sensitive/unstable)
One of these things is not like the other. All of them are basically positive terms except for neuroticism, which basically means crazy. So, let’s go back to the idea that God gives everyone different gifts, and chief among these gifts is a personality:
Here, servant number 1, you get the gift of openness. Go forth, explore new ideas, and create amazing things!
Servant number 2, take the gift of conscientiousness. Work hard and you will succeed!
Servant number 3, your gift is extraversion — you will go far with your great social skills.
Servant number 4, take this gift of agreeableness. Go forth and make friends. They will make you happy.
And you, servant number 5…unfortunately I kinda ran out of gifts. Oh, wait, I have one more. What is this? Oh, well, I guess it’s all I have. So, take this ‘gift’ of neuroticism, and go fuck yourself.
Doesn’t really sound fair, does it? And unfortunately,there is pretty sound evidence for a bleak outlook. People who are high in neuroticism are more likely to suffer from nearly all forms of psychopathology.
But the thing that troubles me is that if neuroticism is so bad, why is it even a thing? Why would God (or evolution) make people neurotic? The evidence seems to suggest that neuroticism is basically a heightened threat-sensitivity. It is clearly valuable, from an evolutionary perspective, to be able to sense threats and respond accordingly. I believe threat sensitivity is especially important to pregnant women, and those raising children. This would explain why high neuroticism is one of the only statistically significant personality differences between men and women. In other words, women are more likely than men to express neurotic personality traits because it is a good reproductive strategy. Although it is a part of everyone, for simplicity I will occasionally refer to neuroticism as if it were primarily an issue affecting women.
So I can understand why people might have developed threat-sensitivity, and why women might be more sensitive to threats than men. But why does threat sensitivity make people crazy?
One possibility is that we evolved to be sensitive to certain kinds of threats, but now those instincts are maladaptive. What used to be a good reproductive strategy is now just crazy because the same threats that we faced on the savannah don’t really exist anymore (but we still see them).
Maybe. But there is a more sinister interpretation — a post-modern, bring-down-the-patriarchy kind of interpretation. Namely, people who are threat sensitive have increased anxiety and develop other forms of mental illness because we call them crazy. That is, neuroticism is maladaptive because men have made it so. And I am as guilty as anyone else.
When I first got married, Mercedes and I would get in these arguments. She would feel threatened by something (e.g., my family) to an extent that I didn’t understand. I was totally baffled by it, and so I basically just dismissed it as irrational. In other words, I was acting out a tried and true patriarchal role that I now believe has caused major psychological harm to a huge portion of humanity. I interacted with a sensitive person, and instead of attempting to understand and engage with it, I just dismissed it as crazy.
Society in general is baffled by neuroticism and instead tends to glorify something called the Growth Mindset — the willingness/ability to take risks and learn from failure. Interestingly, this term was popularized by a woman who wrote a book that basically says to other women: don’t be neurotic. This is the same message that has been fed to women since the dawn of time.
Is it any wonder that if you are given the gift of ‘crazy’ that you will want to bury your talent? You will be ashamed of your neuroticism because society tells you it is evil. You will hide it from yourself and others, and you will feel like an impostor. Because deep down inside you will know who you are, and occasionally your crazy will escape its cage and you will lash out in an even more destructive fashion because you have no healthy outlet. Or, like Mercedes, you own it, double down, and demand to be heard in your rage.
The results can be painful, dangerous, and unnecessary. As a society, if we don’t want our daughters to bury their talent for threat sensitivity, and to experience all of the psychosis that comes from doing that, we need to find another way. We need to create relationships and institutions that don’t dismiss threat-sensitivity as craziness. Perhaps we can start by avoiding the term neuroticism.
I believe that threat sensitivity is a useful adaptation even in the modern age. One interesting fact to ponder is that married men make significantly more money than single men. There are likely some underlying personality traits of married men that cause them to both get married and make money. But another possibility is that being accountable to a threat-sensitive partner makes men more responsible.
It would be nice if I could also make the argument that married women are substantially less anxious than unmarried women (e.g., because their husbands not only provide for them, but understand them and encourage them to express their anxieties in productive ways). Unfortunately, the evidence shows that married women are just as likely to experiences symptoms of depression and other mental illness as unmarried women. Maybe being married provides women with some financial security, but any security they get from that is negated by needing to put up with a husband who thinks they are crazy.
Interestingly, the evidence does suggest that working women are more mentally healthy. Perhaps our workplace institutions are actually better equipped to find a productive outlet for threat sensitivity than our marriages. This might be due to selection bias. That is, if my evolutionary hypothesis is correct, women who are pregnant or caring for young children might be subject to a heightened threat sensitivity. And women with small children are less likely to be working.
It also may be true that being a stay-at-home mom promotes anxiety, or that something about having an external job relieves anxiety. Mercedes’ experience bears this out. She really values being able to spend time with our daughter, but at the same time she feels less anxious when she has a job (and, perhaps it goes without saying, when I have a job).
So there it is, the last servant can be compared to a threat-sensitive (and therefore cautious) servant who is marginalized by her husband because he wants her to adopt a growth mindset. This is has been played out so many times over the course of history that even reputable psychologists have fallen into the trap of calling threat-sensitive behavior neurotic.
To summarize, consider the following argument, and if you agree, let’s start building a world where our daughters don’t have to hide their talent:
- Threat sensitivity is one of the primary attributes of personality, and it is more common in women.
- It is difficult for many men to engage productively with threat-sensitive behavior because it doesn’t always seem rational.
- Therefore, society (including both men and women) marginalizes threat-sensitive personality — equating it with crazy.
- The marginalization of threat-sensitive personalities results in a lack of positive outlets, which contributes to actual neurosis.
- Heightened threat sensitivity is not maladaptive. It is an important reproductive strategy, and it encourages others to be more responsible.
- We have a moral responsibility to create institutions and relationships that can incorporate threat sensitive people without dismissing them as crazy.
*Credit to Mercedes for helping me develop these ideas. She was the one who, after reading the Growth Mindset, had the insight that society doesn’t appreciate the alternative mindset. Her thoughts and our conversations set me down this path of thinking.