SPIRITUAL SOAP: Weird & Güd - To Autonomy or Not To Be
There is no question.
Before we were The Black Sheep, we were a newsletter named Spiritual Soap. Please enjoy this article from our history!
I enjoy research too much and I’m a shameless critic. Weird & Güd is the conjoining of those misanthropic qualities into something useful: recommendations and fascinations neatly packaged together for you every week, some hermit-ism required after all.
Aren’t you tired of the same old biological contagions? Do you crave an exciting, interesting, and even fun new way to experience epidemics? If you’ve got to live through a plague, why not make it a party, right?
Our boring COVID pandemic could learn a few things from one of the most fun plagues that afflicted humans from the 14th to 17th centuries: the dancing plague.
This epidemic that occurred in random bursts throughout parts of Europe from Germany to France was known by a few other names, like dancing mania and St. Vitus’ Dance, but the dance is no euphemism for twitching or some oddly named medieval curse. Those who caught the dancing plague were compelled to dance passionately, publicly, and in several cases, until injury or death.
Those stuffy medieval people might not have known enough about science to understand the epidemic they faced, but they sure knew how to make a plague fun.
Each dancing plague began as all good parties do; a lone, brave soul takes to the dance floor and starts busting moves with such abandon that other people take notice and can’t resist joining in.
That first plague partygoer for one of the largest outbreaks—Strasbourg, 1518—is known simply Frau Troffea.
The vibe struck and the Frau took to the streets to feel the beat.
Except there was no beat. Once a few minutes of onlookers clapping and cheering at her passion for dance turned into a few hours, once one dancer turned into several, and once a few hours turned into a few days, it was clear something strange was spreading in Strasbourg.
An epidemic of dancing in the street rather than sinking into the couch seems enviable, but historical accounts agree that the dance-crazed were clearly celebrating against their will. If you’ve got no hint of an idea as to what illness could compel people to dance, slowly spreading from one person to hundreds and keeping them dancing for days, sometimes until death, imagine how these Medieval peasants felt.
At a time when medicine was more artistic than scientific, a dancing plague was centuries ahead of comprehension. Theories like “hot blood” affecting the brain were offered alongside religious curses. With growing numbers of people succumbing to the dancing disease, frantically and forcibly dancing outside in the heat despite bruised feet, hunger, thirst, and exhaustion, city leaders sought a cure.
The mystery of every new contagion comes with its requisite mistakes and the dancing plague was no different.
Thinking that the answer to unrelenting dancing was to create the perfect environment to encourage unrelenting dancing, the city of Strasbourg brought in musicians to accompany the infected dancers, which, in as boring and miserable a year as 1518, created a different kind of super-spreader event.
The dancing plague grew faster as it suddenly became a highly public and festive affair. City leaders then tried banning all dancing, forcing the infected festival-goers into strict prayer. After throwing together a rag-tag ritual for weary dancers to honor St. Vitus, the city of Strasbourg’s raging plague party disappeared.
The question you have is the same question the Medieval people of Europe had and the same question many historians today have—what the hell is a dancing plague?
Secret religious rituals carried out under the cover of madness or perfectly coordinated psychedelic experiences are two proposed theories that have mostly been abandoned today.
The dancing plague wasn’t magic or mushrooms, but mental.
The dance parties only broke out in places that already had myths about dancing curses. Mix the power of belief with the stress of poverty, previous plagues, and food scarcity, and the human mind will find a way to offload its suffering in whatever psychological form makes sense. To Medieval peasants, that was a Saint’s curse to dance yourself to death.
And some still say white people can’t dance.
Mass psychogenic illness is a kind of emotional epidemic that spreads from mind to mind. There have been different incidents with different themes—from demonic possession in religious communities to school girl laughter in one Tanzanian boarding school in 1962.
Whether it’s dancing or demons, mass psychogenic illness shares a crucial quality that transcends time and place. Severe stress and a lack of options for escaping that stress can manifest in ways that conform to fit a culture. We might scoff at the obvious impossibility of a dancing plague, but science can’t always save us from the human tendency to believe.
Our culture has its own ethos for what ails us today.
With our pandemic and politics providing an all-time high of psychological suffering plus the cultural contagion super-spreader that is social media, no lockdown can change how ripe we are for a modern-day dancing plague.
If only our psychic sickness would show up in as harmless a form as dance.
You get out of bed at a time you choose or at a time set by the job you choose.
You eat a breakfast you choose or don’t eat a breakfast you choose to skip.
You choose a reaction to the car that cuts you off and to the stranger that strolls through the grocery store aisle like they’re the only human on earth.
You choose to scroll through social media instead of getting straight to work.
You choose not to text that person back today.
You choose to read after work instead of zoning out on that show again.
You choose take-out instead of cooking the food you’ve been meaning to cook for days.
You choose to go to sleep slightly earlier than yesterday.
It may seem like a list of mundane moments, but this list is only possible through a quality many have died for:
Autonomy is the ability to make choices for yourself. It’s something you do all day, even if only in the most trivial ways. Though we take it for granted every time we choose our clothes, meals, and books, autonomy isn’t only the basis for individual freedom, but a requisite for happiness.
It’s the choice itself, not what is chosen, that makes us autonomous. Research confirms that the right to choose your choices isn’t a cultural or political value, but a human value.
The less control we have over our breakfast, our clothes, our books, and our beliefs, the less happiness we have.
Experiments in the most un-autonomous zones—a nursing home and a lab rat’s cage—both yield the same results: even suffering is bearable if we believe we have a hand in how we suffer.
One experiment gave cheese and electric shocks to rats at random until they realized their rat universe was total chaos and their rat lives were entirely ineffectual. If you didn’t think rats could be depressed, science is here to help.
Eventually, the rats gave up on their efforts to control their uncontrollable world, even remaining too depressed to try once the elements were placed under their control.
No meditation or mantra will bring you gratitude for your overpriced apartment as quickly as the average nursing home.
In most nursing homes, you can see what’s often overlooked: autonomy is the spirit of human life.
Savor the setting of your thermostat, revel in the chance to choose TV channels, celebrate the freedom to select the foods you eat, rejoice in your right to rearrange furniture—these simple, boring options were granted to nursing home residents who previously lacked them, resulting in 93% of them feeling happier, more alert, and more active.
Even for the most trivial choices, the ability to make that choice is the common denominator of happiness in our lives.
Yarn - Вербна неділя (1993)
Choosing to murder people or murder yourself with bad habits and bad ideas isn’t the beauty that autonomy can bring. Translating to self-law from Greek, autonomy is found in balancing your freedom with your responsibilities.
One such responsibility is to respect the autonomy of others, a balance between your freedom and the freedom of others that Kant called rational autonomy.
Using your autonomy without abusing the autonomy of others is the difference between true freedom and freedom gained only through tyranny.
You cannot use another person’s autonomy for them. As soon as our choices are motivated primarily by punishment, shame, or even solely the gain of a reward, the satisfaction of following a path of our own choosing shrinks.
It’s tempting to focus on the elements in our lives that are beyond our control. There has never existed a time when we could be more up-to-date on issues that exist entirely beyond our immediate influence.
You can’t stop atrocities in a foreign country. You can’t change the government in your country. You can’t save the tigers from extinction. You can’t even reduce the pollution from your own city.
While you can affect these issues in a minor way, they aren’t ultimately in your control.
We might have the technology to be globally conscious, but we don’t have the biology to withstand it.
Instead of suffering over what we can’t affect and living in a constant state of autonomy-deprivation, start with that simple list of all that you do choose. Start with breakfast, then your books, and then your time. You can’t single-handedly stop pollution, but you can clean your neighborhood park.
The ability to make choices that change your life, even in the smallest ways, is power; wasting that power in places it barely affects is a life of little autonomy.
Before you decide to live focused on what exists beyond your control, remember: only the dead have no choice.
I hope this makes your week a little weirder and a little güder. Now go forth, be weird, and above all, be güd.
I sit alone at a desk biting my nails to bring you every edition of Spiritual Soap. Is it worth it? Don’t tell me, show me.