August 1, 2014 2:56 pm

The Shrink & The Sage: Is the whole really greater than the sum of its parts?

‘While we can easily take individual problems in our stride, when they exceed a certain load it can all become too much’

The Shrink

The idea that the whole is more than the sum of its parts is often seen in a positive light, such as when individuals complement each other in a way that enhances the creativity of everyone concerned.

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The Shrink & The Sage

But the whole may also be more than the sum of its parts in a negative way. For example, when life throws a variety of niggles at us all at once – things like relatively minor ailments, unexpected expenses, awkward neighbours, builders or colleagues – which may amplify each other.

We may be perfectly aware that each of these is just a normal part of life and that some people have much bigger problems to deal with, and we may therefore feel we have no right to complain. But that kind of pep talk won’t necessarily lessen our stress.

It’s certainly true that while we can easily take individual problems in our stride, when they exceed a certain load it can all become too much. It’s a kind of resource depletion: every difficulty requires a certain amount of emotional energy and psychological strength. When we’re severely tested we may end up feeling we’ve run out.

Illustration of an injured man working in bed by Laura Carlin©Laura Carlin

There isn’t really a neat solution but some perspectives may be helpful. One is remembering the impermanence of all things: like everything else, this particular set of irritants will pass. Of course we don’t know whether what will replace them will be any better, but that’s a different story.

Another point is that while we should take what small steps we can to move forward on the issues that are bothering us, we also need to accept that we can never be totally in control.

We can avoid creating extra problems if we refrain from berating ourselves for feeling upset and overwhelmed. Telling ourselves that we “ought to be coping better” doesn’t usually help. If at other times we’d be able to just shrug some of these things off, so be it.

Finally, it’s good to make a note of all the little things that make us smile. They may be tiny and infrequent but even they may add up to more than the sum of the parts.

. . .

The Sage

“He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none.” This sounds like a sensible piece of New Testament moral mathematics. It also sounds rather like utilitarianism, which demands that we do whatever has the best consequences for the greatest number.

But I’m suspicious of any attempt to reduce ethics to simple algorithms. Nothing is good or bad in a vacuum. It is affected by what surrounds it, and this moral ecosystem is far too complicated to be captured by sums and numbers.

The problem with utilitarian calculations is not just that it is hard to compare, say, the value of an artistic experience against that of cleaner air or alleviating toothache. It is also that the moral sums would seem to oblige us to forgo even the simplest luxuries for the sake of the greater good.

Comic Relief, for instance, tells us that “£30 could pay for six young people in the UK with a disability to take part in sport” and “£50 could pay for a child living in poverty in Peru to attend pre-school for a whole year”. Spending sums like that on you or your family would rarely increase the general welfare of humanity half as much. And so it seems we are all obliged to give away virtually everything we have, keeping only as much as we need to maintain the same level of nutrition, shelter and healthcare as the poor would get if we shared our resources according to need. The Bible’s moral arithmetic no longer looks quite so self-evidently sound.

A world in which we turned ourselves into welfare machines, doing only what we think will make everyone better off, would arguably be a joyless one, where ties to friends and family counted for nothing. This is where we end up if we reduce the richness and complexity of welfare and happiness to tradable, quantifiable units. Start with a wrong idea of the parts and, good though they may seem, the whole you try to build from them just won’t add up, and the cool, rational pursuit of the abstract general good will not lead to the real good after all.

The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England.

To suggest a question, email shrinkandsage@shrinkandsage.com

Illustration by Laura Carlin

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