I’m so glad I’m rational and even-handed in all matters, able to view life with a cool dispassion that sees things as they truly are.
You too? That’s what I thought!
But all those others—you know, everyone who’s not you and me, with their roiling passions and fears and distempers, their emotional roller coasters, their tendency to be swayed by unconscious motives, ideologies and unmet emotional needs—God save us from them, yes?
Oh wait, the wiseguy Pogo had something to say about that, didn’t he: “We have met the enemy—and he is us.”
Harvesting the fruits of enough introspection and self-knowledge to sidestep the most egregious aspects of irrationality can be a heady but fearsome thing. It’s a lifelong task to step outside yourself, gather feedback from others, behold the mirror of your endowments, your motives, your healed-over scars and still open wounds, not to mention your aging brain.
Merely to think clearly—and to do so consistently, amidst the ceaseless tides of circumstance that impinge on every human life—can be a monumental task.
I’m never quite sure whether to despair at the human project or marvel at how well we manage in spite of everything that seeks to rob us of time, energy, focus and hope.
Walking by the television the other night, I stopped in my tracks to behold a young mother in Pennsylvania exulting in the capture of a lone gunman survivalist who had killed a peace officer and been on the lam for several weeks. “There were too many sleepless nights!’ she exclaimed. “And now my kids can go trick-or-treating!”
Fear of distant gunmen, even more distant Mideast terrorists, Ebola, the weather, earthquakes, border crossings, online fraud, sexual predators, the Democrats trying to establish a permanent welfare state and the Republicans hoping for a mass die-off of the poor.
I found myself awe-struck at her profound irrationality. Pennsylvania has 46,000 square miles. The gunman had targeted and killed one trooper and wounded another, then vanished into the wilderness, not harming anyone else, on nothing even remotely resembling a random killing spree. The odds of her and her children coming to harm every morning as she loaded them in the family car and set out on the highways for schools and shopping and daycare were astronomically higher than that this gunman would zero in on them from God knows where.
Given the odds of calamity out there on the highway, surely she should confine herself and her children to the family compound (around which she might consider constructing a barbed wire fence) for the rest of their lives, no?
For the moment, she had suffered sleepless nights and put the kibosh on Halloween—as had entire towns in Pennsylvania and perhaps beyond, for all we know.
How many families in Ohio and New York and New Jersey had skooched their kids inside long before the customary time and double-latched their doors in the past six weeks for fear the shooter had slipped across the border and readied himself for another killing mission at their expense?
“Anyone who would argue that humans are predominantly rational is not being rational,” wrote one Edward Long, bless his heart, in the comments section of a TED talk two years ago. There is irony here in making a rational case for our irrationality, when all one has to do is take a quick inventory of the headlines or the television news or of our own psyche as we sit down to still the mind in meditation and are confronted with mental antics equivalent to the energy of 101 caged monkeys.
One sure constant virtually everywhere we look in modern media: fear.
Fear of distant gunmen, even more distant Mideast terrorists, Ebola, the weather, earthquakes, border crossings, online fraud, sexual predators, the Democrats trying to establish a permanent welfare state and the Republicans hoping for a mass die-off of the poor. Fear, this post being written on election day, of the other candidate getting into office, the one whom the announcer on the TV commercial had darkly intoned is beholden to dark interests and would surely darken your future, the very life you enjoy with your loved ones, in the darkest possible way.
O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark….
T.S. Eliot was right, of course. We come from the dark and go back to it in due time, all of us. But in these few days that we have been bequeathed, in this precious, fleeting and sometimes painful life that is ours, where do we want to expend our energy, and how should we spend our time?
Cowering, bemoaning our fate, cursing modern morality, hearkening to a fantasized purity of the past, canceling Halloween, rendering ourselves sleepless over infinitesimal threats to our well-being?
Lord knows there is enough trying to get us in this life by way of accident and illness and damaged relationships to keep us as much on edge as we please. Trying to sort out the emotions swirling around all this is why some 329,000 mental health professionals (psychologists, marriage and family therapists, psychiatrists) make a gainful living in the United States. (Sometimes it seems about 325,000 of them must be in northern California.)
Researchers at Chapman University recently conducted a study on what most strikes fear in the hearts of Americans. Here’s the top five:
• Walking alone at night.
• Becoming the victim of identity theft.
• General safety on the Internet.
• Being the victim of a mass shooting.
• Public speaking.
The fifth of those is a given, on almost everyone’s list of sweaty-palm-inducing terror, so we shall give it a pass.
The fourth is plainly irrational given the odds of it ever happening to a given individual.
Internet scams are increasing in both quantity and sophistication, so those concerns are the two on this list that actually seem to make some rational sense.
Walking alone in the dark? Outside of well-lit downtowns, almost no one does, save for a few single men enjoying a late constitutional with the dog (I’m among them). But the fear itself hearkens to something more primitive than the others (see notes above on “the dark”).
Being out alone in the dark is more reflective of the great yawning void we will someday fall into and which we meanwhile fear being scooped up by before our appointed time. Not rational, to be sure, but darkness obscures all clear dividing lines, including those between the rational and irrational depths of the psyche.
Another wonderfully revealing feature of the study: Democrats’ main fears are about personal safety, pollution, and man-made disasters.
And Republicans? Government, immigrants, and “today’s youth.”
We are so very true to our passions, are we not?
Perhaps the most encouraging part of the study: Respondents harboring the most types of fear correlated with both low education levels and the watching of talk shows and crime dramas on television. (Italics mine.)
So there you have it yet again: the answer to irrational fear and response to what life (and modern media) sends our way is: embracing education and avoiding crappy television!
It’s enough to have me shoot my television and sign up for yet another few years of graduate school so I can finally put all the irrationality still upending my psyche to rest.
But do you think shooting my television would seem too irrational?
As most always, Leonard Cohen offers just the right combination of profundity, weirdness and style to make for a unique piece of music.
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You do realize that walking the streets of Santa Rosa late at night ain’t quite the same as walking the streets of Tacoma late at night, right?
Now, fear of public speaking I can definitely identify with despite having taught high school for 30 years. Though that seems like a rather different fear than walking down the street at night in Tacoma. And why the heck isn’t fear of snakes on that top 5?
Surely even an irrational person should realize that the most dangerous thing you can do is drive from San Francisco to Santa Rosa during the evening rush hour in the dark.
Loren, I’m not sure whether you’re suggesting Tacoma or Santa Rosa is more the problematic late night walk, but be that as it may, my larger point is that irrespective of any given local conditions, being out in the dark ignites primitive fears of ghouls and graveyards, death and the void, so it’s naturally fearful, no matter where one is traversing. Not for everyone in all places and times, but it’s always an undercurrent
in the psyche.
Hemingway so eloquently articulated that, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” And as one’s life balances less in its future than in its past, fear dissipates. It is replaced by acceptance. Those who are stronger at the broken places know, faith in uncertainty is the only truth.
Enjoyed this very much, Andrew. I once asked a room full of new recruit soldiers about their biggest fears. Without exception, each feared that they didn’t know how they would act when they were faced with being afraid……..
Thanks for that, Shawnta. Your question to those recruits resembles FDR’s famous quote in another context, about the only thing to fear being fear itself. But in the world of soldiers, where their very lives are at stake and those lives depend so much on their own actions in concert with the actions of their brothers and sisters, it takes on a certain poignancy, particularly given how young and untested so many of them are.
Years ago I had a brief meeting with an old war horse minister of my past fundamentalist faith. As we discussed the state of the church he said to me, “You know Bobby (Yep, that’s what they called me back in those days), I think you and I are the only true defenders of the faith left on the West Coast.” At that moment, spontaneously in my gut, came a resounding “Uh oh!” I didn’t fully realize until years later that absolutes were the most dangerous and frightening states of mind we can hold on to.
Over the years I have discovered that uncertainty and doubt are far more reassuring and productive than absolutes. In my later years I shifted from my views as a Biblicist to what has become much more rational to me. It goes like this: “He who knows only the Bible knows not even that.” In my later years I am beginning to better understand the Apostle Paul’s words, something to the effect that if one desires to become wise, let him become a fool and then he will begin to understand wisdom.
Provocative article. Thanks for your ongoing work.
Robert, a poem for you from the great Syrian-born skeptic and rationalist Abdallah al-Ma’arri (973-1057), who had studied the Greeks and science and was an early freethinker. He had gone blind from a bout with smallpox at 4 years old. A branch of al-Qaeda actually beheaded his statue in 2013 during the latest Syrian conflict.
By fearing whom I trust I find my way
To truth; by trusting wholly I betray
The trust of wisdom; better far is doubt
Which brings the false into the light of day.
Our nada, who art in nada, nada be thy nada…….
So we can blow our brains into the orange juice or get up and make a day of it. Vastly oversimplified, that last statement. But often I find the best way for me is to make the CHOICE (which is what it is) to avoid any more rational information which will tend to derail me into an irrational ditch. Thus do I go about my day, head firmly buried in the sand.
Well that is the nub of it, Dennis, is it not: That we get up and make our choice to pursue the rational and the good, but how do we distinguish them, amidst all the noise from both outside and inside ourselves, from the irrational and bad, given the often unreliable nature of our own filters? Tentative answer: by quieting down and following the path with heart, near as we can determine it to be. But what about when the heart itself is torn and pulled in different directions?