Friday, July 24, 2015
© Charles D. Hayes
Harper Lee’s shocking revelation in Go Set a Watchman offers us an extraordinary learning opportunity. Set twenty years after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird, this second novel discloses that Atticus Finch, the saintly hero of the first book, actually harbored some of the racist views dominant in the early twentieth century.
In Watchman, Jean Louise, known earlier as Scout, returns home as an adult only to have the idealized memories of her childhood destroyed by a reality she had been sheltered from as a child. Many readers are crushed to learn this other side of the story, but the response is forcing us to admit that Mockingbird has been sheltering us all for half a century.
In the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird, Gregory Peck portrays Atticus Finch as an exemplary human being in a small town populated by white citizens, whose racial prejudice is so deeply ingrained that they would rather convict an innocent black man than embarrass a lower-class white family. But when you merge the Atticus of that story with the Atticus portrayed twenty years later, what you have is a much more convincing character in context.
Harper Lee’s experience bringing Mockingbird to publication in the late 1950s suggests that her editor held reformist views about human rights and helped Lee mold Atticus into a virtuous moral icon. Now, absent the former editor’s influence, Watchman seems more truthful to Lee’s experience growing up in the South. I’m sympathetic with critics who suggest that the supremacy of white culture is also palpable in Mockingbird. Of course it is, because racism was endemic in the South in those days, but the idealism in the story moved millions.
Imagining Gregory Peck as Atticus making racist statements is like going to the doctor for a common cold and finding out you have cancer: it’s earth-shattering. In the second novel, discovering the truth about the father she idealized makes a grown-up Scout sick to her stomach. This should offer us some insight into how people feel who are targeted for discrimination because of their race.
Racial bigotry is complicated, but it’s not hard to understand. Psychologist Gordon Allport laid the subject bare six years before the publication of Lee’s first book. His work tells us everything we need to know to function peacefully as adults on a planet teeming with racial diversity.
We experience, internalize, and record bias and racial prejudice in a smoldering hotbed of congealed and congested memories residing in our subconscious. When circumstances pose questions about race, we rationalize because our feelings are vague and indecipherable, existing as they do in an enormous database of conflicting experience. Our gray matter keeps records, not of what is right, but of what it accepts as real.
That we always have the upper hand in emotional matters is an illusion, especially in social matters concerning ethnicity. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of our reasoning ability as a rider and our emotional subconscious as an elephant illustrates how we hold racial biases without being aware of the fact. The metaphor emphasizes the power of our subconscious and the difficulty of taming our emotions. The Atticus Finch in Mockingbird is a rider in complete control, but in Watchman his elephant rumbles and, at times, trumpets.
I’ve always found it wretchedly disappointing that on a Saturday, people can read books or watch movies like To Kill a Mockingbird, Roots, Mississippi Burning, or 42 and empathize and sympathize completely with the oppressed characters in the drama. Taking in the story, they agree wholeheartedly about the injustice being depicted. And yet, by Monday morning, their elephant is back to humming along, murmuring low-frequency racial prejudice.
In Watchman, Atticus is said to be 72, my current age, so I can relate to his being cantankerous. But more importantly, I remember what it’s like to grow up in a racist community. It’s a context of prejudicial social conformity with so few exceptions that I can recall none like the first Atticus, myself included.
In a recent debate, I was asked if I thought we know more today about human behavior than, say, William Shakespeare knew in his time. After some deliberation, I had to say no. The Bard was an astute observer of human behavior, and the research conducted in recent decades offers hard evidence supporting how predictably we, or Shakespeare’s characters, will behave.
What we’ve discovered is critical for improving human relations—namely that we are much more dependent upon context and much less firm, resolute, and unwavering in our stalwart character than we have been taught. This is significant. In Watchman, instead of continuing to idealize Atticus, Lee puts him in precise context with his time and place.
It’s time we stopped romanticizing Mockingbird through Scout’s childlike innocence. Public naiveté is an enormous obstacle to overcoming bigotry. The same idealism that enables belief in Mockingbird’s Atticus is an impediment to acknowledging Watchman’s older characterization of Atticus and the subtle racism that’s still ubiquitous today.
We need to apply everything we know about human behavior to relegating bigotry and racism to the dustbin of history. The objective is simple: strive to make the first Atticus the norm, not the exception. Mockingbird is aspirational fiction; working through the disenchantment in Watchman is a way to begin the dialogue necessary to achieve genuine equality.
When Scout confronts her father and they have an emotionally aggressive exchange, it opens the conversation we should be having now about dealing with intolerance. If you don’t think racism is a problem today, either you are being childish or you aren’t paying attention.
If you are avoiding reading Watchman because you prefer the illusion of innocence in Mockingbird, I think Scout would say it’s time to grow up and speak up.
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Monday, April 6, 2015
© Charles D. Hayes
Human genetics are a roll of the dice, and nothing highlights life’s unfairness like health issues. Some people sail through life in great health while others never seem to get a break, having one illness after another until they finally succumb. Needless to say, health is a major topic of interest among seniors.
Far too much attention is paid to the economic juggernaut but false promise of products and services offering eternal youth. What we ought to focus on is the reality of our demographics: Because of our aging population, we are facing an economic and human needs train wreck of epic proportions.
Let me say first that I’ve always promised never to let my physical condition become the dominant focus of my conversation. But now at an age some consider elderly, I find that reaching a period in one’s life when one seems at times to be literally falling apart is interesting in itself to observe. At the same time, it is also a wake-up call about America’s long-term health care predicament because millions of people are having similar experiences, many with grave consequences.
The sudden appearance of new ailments cracks open a critical window on reality. The more often the occurrence, the wider the view, and the greater the need to pay attention to the politics of health care.
In 2011, Laura L. Carstensen published A Long Bright Future: Happiness, Health, and Financial Security in an Age of Increased Longevity. More recently, she wrote a piece for Time magazine suggesting the baby pictured on the cover could live to age 142. The evidence is clear that we are living longer, but what we aren’t doing as a society is preparing for it.
The baby-boom generation comprises 78 million individuals, with more than 40 million already over age 65 and four million more adding to that number every year. The elder bulge will continue to expand until 2029. Elsewhere I’ve written extensively about this subject, mostly with positive expectations. We have many dedicated people working tirelessly to meet the economic demographic challenges of aging, but we aren’t even close to making acceptable progress. Time is running out.
If you are introspective and curious as you reach advanced age, you may, like me, become hyperaware of the seasons of life: the cycles of existence, falling leaves, sunsets, magnificent trees, and winter. All seasonal reminders of mortality and similar patterns begin to stand out. Conditions that match your expectations seem to pop up everywhere for perspective, and new incidents of physical pain give rise to serious moments of thoughtfulness.
These experiences bring to mind the Brahodya competition, something that religious scholar Karen Armstrong describes as having occurred among tenth-century Indian priests. In it, a group of priests would compete to describe and capture the essence of reality. The contest winner was the one whose comments could render the others dumbstruck. This brief moment represented the Brahman—something akin to the highest form of consciousness one can achieve.
Dumbstruck silent is a condition similar to what I refer to as a time-out for thoughtfulness, contemplation, and perspective, especially when we consider what the future portends for aging citizens. Geriatric health care is ripe for a Brahodya competition.
As we age, seniors read the obituary section of the newspaper more frequently because more and more people we have known show up there. In so many of these cases, the individuals featured awoke one morning with an ailment and a few months later ceased to live. So it’s not surprising that one’s new aches and pains come with a few moments of dumbstruck wonder, prompting the questions, “Is this it? Is this what will take me out?” It’s an experience worthy of introspection.
Armstrong offers another example of reflective silence when, at the end of a symphony, the last note is played and one is left with a moment of stunning serenity. I find this comparable to watching a great movie and realizing the end has flashed on the screen. Stirring music is playing, the credits are rolling, and you’re still lost in thought with at least a subliminal awareness that everyone’s story comes to an end. These, too, are opportunities to think.
Inspirational moments often occur when listening to beautiful music. A crescendo of emotion can be so overwhelmingly exquisite that it seems too good to be true, beyond the capacity of music to arouse. Such moments of stunning exhilaration are times to reflect as well.
I’m not suggesting that all of the circumstances giving pause for thoughtfulness are the same, only that they are related, or that they belong to the same category of openness to experience. Dumbstruck moments can be called an aha, a flash, an inspiration, an epiphany, or simply a time-out, but they all yield a similar opportunity to take stock and truly appreciate the reward of still being alive—a reminder to help raise awareness to the problems that beg public attention. We owe this effort to the younger generations, whose lives will be affected by the current tidal wave of aging citizens.
In The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America, published this year, Ai-Jen Poo is launching a movement promoting some very kind, thoughtful, and practical ways to address our aging health care concerns. But, in spite of our best efforts, the reality of aging demographics portends a fast-approaching social catastrophe.
Ai-Jen Poo calls our attention to the economic estimates made by the Alzheimer’s Association that the total health care costs for Alzheimer’s over the next four decades could be $20 trillion. That’s not a train wreck. That’s a nuclear blowout. It can’t happen. It’s out of the question. We either have to cure Alzheimer’s or take drastically different steps in the way we address the care of patients.
In thirty of fifty states, the shortage of nurses is expected to increase for decades. The shortage of doctors in the field of geriatrics is shocking. Medical professionals say we need a doctor-patient ratio of 1 to 300, but by 2030, the current estimate is 1 to 3,800. That’s a derailment.
Medicare is already so inadequately funded that it’s become harder and harder to find physicians who will accept new patients. Eligibility for Medicaid requires proof of abject impoverishment. We don’t even have the political command to address the long-term viability of Social Security. More and more seniors are struggling just to get by, even as the costs of health care escalate.
Families increasingly can’t meet the whole burden of caring for aging relatives, and the cost of institutional care continues to skyrocket. As a workforce, health care givers are underpaid across the board, and the turnover rate is appalling. We have to think and act our way out of these dilemmas. Without a political effort nationwide to meet the demand for services, millions will suffer needlessly.
One of the things I’ve learned from living, studying, and talking to aging peers is that with a long life comes affection for one’s own life experience. More often than not, the idea of changing places with someone in a younger generation is rejected as undesirable. In and of itself, feeling a sense of ownership of one’s experiential knowledge is worthy of a time-out for introspection.
This might seem like a stretch, but when you acquire new aches and pains that are inevitable with aging, I suggest making the best of them. Consider listening more often to your favorite music and creating an insightful emotional and intellectual rhapsody of the whole experience. Apply some perspective to having been afforded the life of a human being, because when you consider the odds of it ever happening, you are inevitably dumbstruck.
Whenever we feel a new ache or pain, we should be aware that, for every one of us still in good enough health to be thoughtfully reflective, there are literally thousands of others in worse shape. In nursing homes across the country, aging citizens are routinely shot so full of stupor-inducing medication and so dependent on intrusive feeding tubes that, in effect, they live a hydroponic existence—wearing adult diapers, spending their days struggling simply to breathe and swallow, unable to speak or sit up—and they do this for weeks, months, even years.
Nature seems cruel in many instances, where aging and sickly wild herd animals end up in the jaws of predators while still alive. And it was the custom in many tribes of ancient people to abandon their elderly, leaving them to die in the elements without provisions. In comparison to the nursing home scenario described above, however, nature and the traditions of some ancient tribal cultures seem much less diabolical. If you doubt this, visit a few care facilities, especially in low-income areas.
In her book, Carstensen warned about failing to meet the challenges of aging in America. I’ve always shared her observation about taking dire warnings with a grain of salt, but a trainload of salt is inadequate to describe what the future portends if we stay the present course without taking immediate actions equal to the range of problems we face. We aren’t prepared for people living as long as they do now, let alone far past the century mark.
Of course, myriad technological breakthroughs, from remote monitoring to distant diagnostics, can give us hope. They include robotics and innovations in assisted living arrangements to help aging seniors. But these are expensive, and they also leave us open to crisis during power outages and technological failure.
So, you may think it trite or disingenuous of me to speak in terms of a rhapsody of falling apart, considering all I’ve said, but death is an inevitable reality for each and every one of us. It’s long past time that we have grown-up discussions about the realities of aging. Products and services promising endless youth are not the answer, and those who promote them are selling illusion.
Every time we experience a moment of reflection for whatever reason, it’s an opportunity to think seriously about the future, to engage in dialogue with our elected representatives and social media, and to urge people to wake up and speak up.
Aging demographics are on track full speed ahead, and unless we make some serious adjustments, we are bound for an economic disaster that is likely to play out as a political blame game. Millions of seniors will pay a price of needless suffering simply because our political parties refuse to deal with the economic and social realities of aging. It’s already happening, but too few are calling attention to our collective denial.
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Friday, December 12, 2014
© Charles D. Hayes
If you were to die in the next ten minutes, are there things your surviving family members would need to know but would have no way of figuring out? Are there things that you would really want them to know? If your answer is yes, please read on.
For nearly four decades I worked in the Alaska oil industry. Most of my time was spent on the North Slope, although I worked in several other remote locations as well. All of those positions involved sharing a job on a shift rotation schedule with equal time off. Sharing a job in a high-stress work environment required extraordinary cooperation in learning how to assume responsibility for the actions of others and to communicate effectively.
As long as both parties were competent and sincere in their efforts to share accountability, the emphasis focused on communication skills. The end of one shift and the beginning of another, when alternates met to change places, was referred to as change-out day. Invariably, even with the best of intentions, change-out would occur with the employee who left the job having forgotten to share something important, something the person coming on shift would really need to know. This oversight was so common it was to be expected, in spite of two weeks of intensive note-taking and a concerted effort to cover everything that you thought the alternate would need to know. The forgetfulness often resulted in follow-up phone calls to the employee at home.
Keep this in mind and just try to imagine how many things could be overlooked when a person dies unexpectedly without having left any change-out notes. Every day thousands of people die from cardiac arrest, traffic collisions, and myriad accidents and ailments that leave no time for putting one’s affairs in order. The absence of effective communication leaves a gaping void that others must struggle to fill without any knowledge of the deceased’s intentions. The survivors will have infinite questions they wish they had asked, but the opportunity is forever lost.
In preparing for my final change-out, I’ve had a good example to follow in my grandfather, who was born in 1889 and died in 1982. He was sixteen years older than my grandmother, and when he reached his seventies, he began preparing my grandmother for his demise by frequently going over and over the things she needed to know and the things she would need to do when he passed away. Even so, there is still a great deal I would like to know about my grandparents, but it’s too late to ask. The opportunity is also lost for their great-great grandchildren to know as much as they could about their distant ancestors.
Death is a subject that most of us avoid for understandable reasons, but if you’ve ever been with someone who had to put the necessary pieces together after a family member has died unexpectedly, or if you’ve had this experience yourself, you know how hard it is to answer questions when there is no one left alive who can answer them.
All of us know we should keep records, lists, and personal notes to keep our affairs in order, especially as we age and our memory becomes less reliable, but does anyone else have that information or know where to find it? Let me suggest a simple way to keep your data for yourself and your family, just in case this information is needed someday. Create a written file—it can be hand-written, on a computer, or even on a cell phone as long as those who should have the information know the file’s name and location and can attain access.
For many of us an easy way to do this might be to work on the data a few minutes every day, week, or month until the file is in good shape. It’s likely that you will always be a little behind and there will always be more things to add or details to update, but just imagine what a difference your change-out notes can make if they are needed someday.
Needless to say, security is of paramount importance with this kind of information and every effort should be made to make sure it cannot be hacked via malware or be subject to being read by anyone unauthorized to do so. One method you can use is to print a hard copy of the basic file, fill in the sensitive material by hand, and keep the copy under lock and key or simply save the file only on a thumb drive.
I’m offering my initial template list here to serve as a guide for your planning. As with any change-out, I’m sure I’ve forgotten some things, so I would very much appreciate your thoughts and suggestions based on your own experience. As the list improves over time, I will post updates.
Practical matters — location and pertinent details for the following:
- your will
- life insurance
- burial or cremation preferences and wishes
- Social Security number
- auto insurance
- driver’s license number
- health insurance
- hereditary medical history
- tax documents
- computer passwords
- A narrative about your computer files
- deeds, titles
- debts and payees
- bank accounts and investments
- preferred charities
- addresses and telephone numbers of people to notify
- personal property disposition
- photos and keepsakes
- an obituary draft or notes to include:
- military service
- work history
- parents’ names
- career achievements
- proudest momentsHow you wish to be remembered
- your aspirations for others
- special things you would like to share
- favorite foods
- favorite colors
- favorite subjects
- fondest memories
- favorite movies
- favorite books, quotes, literary passages
- favorite music
- reading suggestions
- life lessons
- things you wish you had done
- apologiesFinal wishesIf you have a choice, where do you want to spend your last days—in a hospital or at home? With others around you or alone? What music would you like to hear? Would you want a visit from the clergy?Advance Directives
- Living Will
- Durable Medical Power of Attorney
- Durable General Power of Attorney
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Saturday, November 15, 2014
© Charles D. Hayes
If you are getting on in years and facing the reality that time is running out, you may experience an existential alarm that rings erratically and gets increasingly louder. You breeze by the aging markers of 40, 50, 60, and then, all of a sudden, it seems you are elderly. More and more, I find instances of people being described as elderly who are years younger than I am.
For some people like me, being elderly comes with an urgent call for perspective, a pressing need to be realistic about time. When we’re finally able to put aside all illusions about our mortality and fully realize that we are experiencing the final chapters of life, everything begins to look different. Many of the myths we have grown up believing are shattered by the clarity of oblivion.
A large body of evidence in existential psychology shows clearly that the prospect of death affects us deeply at both a conscious and unconscious level. Although the most common strategy in the past seems to have been to deny one’s approaching demise, recent research suggests that a straight-up acknowledgement and overt conscious awareness of one’s forthcoming death can add greatly to the quality of day-to-day experience by forcing us to see more clearly and allowing the things we really value to stand out.
The realization that time is short can seem like a meaningful civil comeuppance in that it tends to cut through all of the platitudes and clichés we’ve heard about the ideological nature of freedom that comes with being an American citizen and with having grown up in a country where people are accustomed to thinking of themselves as being free in the greatest nation on the earth.
The prospect of an abbreviated future exposes the idea that genuine freedom is different from popular opinion. To be truly free one has to have the ability to see through illusions, to defy the herd’s desperate need to conform, and to enjoy the privilege of using one’s time as one chooses. It means being able to pursue one’s interests and treat the important things in our lives as if they really matter, regardless of what others think, say, or do.
Once you begin to think like this, you may find it hard to believe that you ever bought into the notion that time is money, because you can’t buy more time. If you have enough money, you can spend what time you have as you please, but such thinking reveals our culture to be a social arrangement that indentures millions of its citizens to a life of poverty. This situation has grown out of an arbitrary use and abuse of power based on counterfeit assumptions, lip service about values, and an imagined sense of tribalistic superiority that thrives on advantage and strives to maintain advantage with arrogance, contempt, and a willingness to go to any extreme necessary to prevail.
As Americans we grow up being taught a history so whitewashed, so egregiously out of sync with the realities of the past, that it’s little wonder the stories we wind up believing about our past are mythic fantasies. History shows that we are easily distracted, routinely duped, and so effectively manipulated politically that we spend little time paying attention to the things we should. Politicians in both parties routinely practice bait and switch.
Our future depends on high-order technology, while the real political power lies in the psychological manipulation of poorly educated citizens by shifting the blame for inequality to the least powerful among us, those who are without echelons of paid lobbyists to rig an advantage—those who are unable to effectively represent their own interests. Scapegoats offer antagonists a reliable distraction that works nearly every time.
By any objective criteria, moneyed interests have hijacked the original aspirations of America as a democracy driven by the attributes of meritocracy and the idea that citizens require some measure of leisure in order to become active participants in their own governance. That America has become a plutocracy is undeniable, and claims to the contrary are disingenuous by any standard. It’s surprising how clear this reality becomes when one’s future is small.
The angst that comes with age is both a curse and an opportunity, a dreaded feeling and also a clue that there is something to get beyond, something that can be improved. As we age, nostalgia—if it doesn’t itself become a habit of excessive distraction—often presents itself as a method of fixing something wrong in the present by comparison with something worthy in the past, although care has to be taken not to judge the past with selective memory.
For millions of our citizens, real freedom is little more than a cliché. There are myriad ideological excuses for America’s growing inequality, some of which are very sophisticated and sound convincing, but none of them are good enough to justify it. None, zip, zero.
That a significant number of our population can spend a lifetime of hard work at wages that guarantee poverty while a few individuals loot America’s corporations under the phony guise of excellence is ludicrous. What’s even more preposterous is that so many people can be persuaded to accept such contrived inequality as adequate living conditions and be so confused about the real essence of freedom.
The tactic of using the virtue of hard work as a divisive cultural weapon is rendered sterile and infantile by the reality that much of what is done that we called work has an enormous negative economic effect on our citizens and the planet. To claim that a significant percentage of our population is devoid of the virtue necessary to earn above-poverty wages is patently absurd, and to indenture generations to financial institutions to pay for college to qualify for jobs that won’t pay enough to retire the debt is a national disgrace.
When the decades have stacked up behind us like cordwood, it doesn’t take a lot of reflection to acknowledge that many of the things we were taught to accept as truths were really distractions manufactured to keep order by those with enough power to make people believe that freedom is the ability to switch from one low-paying job to another instead of having enough economic equity to have the time and leisure to learn to become fully vested citizens.
But then, how else could you create a society in which executives could run companies into bankruptcy and yet walk away with enough largesse to live freely and never work again without citizens taking to the streets in protest? Speaking for myself, a lifetime of study reveals that history is one longsuffering attempt to justify the power of those with the authority to write it.
Unfortunately, the majority of magazines and websites for seniors these days are so superficial and so shallow in their content that, if anything, they add to the angst of aging. So the bottom line here is that the last chapters of life are where the whole book of one’s life needs to end with a perspective which allows for the possibility that one’s existence will have made enough sense that something of value might be shared with those who will survive us.
Imagining what life could be like if we tamped down the contempt that results from tribalistic pretention is much easier to do when we remove ourselves from the equation and consider the possibility of achieving the kind of civilization where it would be commonly accepted that everyone’s life really matters, not just those who have mastered the ethos of greed.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, argues that many of the economic problems we face occur because the people making the decisions have no skin in the game, so to speak. In other words, they have nothing to lose. Then contrast John Rawls’ Theory of Justice advocating creation of a society in which the people cutting the economic pie do so under conditions that bar them from knowing which piece they themselves will get.
Now keep both of these notions in mind as you consider how objective we might be in offering feasible advice for a society that we won’t be alive to see. In other words, imagine you have no life in the game except through your kin and progeny who will live on after you. If this kind of objectivity can’t be trusted, what can?
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Sunday, January 12, 2014
© Charles D. Hayes
If you doubt that we’re born to deny reality, you’re actually proving the point. The evidence is indisputable that we human beings have built-in reality buffers. We smoke, drink, overeat, waste resources, and engage in every possible kind of risk-taking activity, oblivious to or disregarding the likely results of our actions.
At the core of our tendency to deny reality is the barefaced inevitability of our own death. Unless we are threatened with imminent annihilation or given a short time to live, we are predisposed to perceive of the future as something open-ended and unlimited, regardless of our age. We are loath to admit our existence is finite.
Some of us are so sensitive about the subject of death that people or practices that appear to be different from the familiar give us pause. We reject otherness, change, and uncertainty because they represent the possibility of our demise. Thousands of religious belief systems exist throughout the world, and yet the adherents within each of them resolutely believe that theirs is the only correct worldview. Similarly, conspiracy theorists prefer to believe in string-pulling manipulation by powerful forces rather than accept the frightening prospect that no one is in control.
A recent entry in examining our pronounced ability for deceiving ourselves is Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind by Ajit Varki and Danny Brower. These authors contend that the ability to deny reality is the very psychological mechanism that has made our survival possible and that optimism is indeed a strategy for denial. Physician and writer Abraham Verghese has called this "the most exciting idea in evolution since Darwin." Yes, it’s exciting, but it’s certainly not new.
Back in 1974, Ernest Becker won the Pulitzer Prize for The Denial of Death, an examination of our propensity for self-deception about our own mortality. And before the ideas of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett gained prominence, we had the work of John F. Schumaker. His Wings of Illusion and The Corruption of Reality took the subject of belief and self-deception to points that other theorists are just now beginning to discover.
Looking deeply into our existential predicament is a sobering experience. Our sun is a second-rate star in a modest galaxy, where no one thing or location can be deemed more important than any other—with the exception of those upon whose light and gravity we depend. The earth is hurtling through space at thousands of miles per hour and appears to be headed nowhere in particular.
The same analogy applies to our lives as individuals. We represent an amalgamation of biology, culture, time, and place, with no particular significance attributable to any of these components. The only thing that is special about any of us is our uniqueness with regard to others, which is only a matter of degree.
We come into the world with biological predispositions, and we absorb cultural biases and beliefs as readily as plants photosynthesize sunlight. These factors make it impossible for any single individual or group to claim title to precisely the right place to be, the right things to believe, or the right things to do—although you would never know it by the proliferation of pretense all around us.
Dig deep enough into our ontological dilemma and the evidence of cosmic chaos is overwhelming. In the face of it, people find comfort in an illusion of permanency, which seems highly preferable to any objective recognition of how much our lives are influenced by chance. In a universe where disorder rules, our lives amount to nothing more than a posture we assume, and yet, as individuals we feel that our lives represent the ground zero of meaningful experience. In one sense, what we do means nothing, but in another sense, it can mean everything.
In his book An Appetite for Wonder, scientist Richard Dawkins writes about how, because of timing, something as simple as a sneeze can have a domino effect on the future. A personal example brought this home to me recently. I intended to call a friend one day, but I didn’t. Some hours later, that friend was killed in a traffic accident. Now, I’m reasonably sure that if I had phoned him as I’d intended, he would still be alive because he would not have been at the intersection at the moment the accident happened. A matter of a few seconds would have changed the outcome.
Imagine how different life might be for us now if, in November of 1963, President Kennedy’s motorcade had not driven by Dealey Plaza in Dallas. We can speculate ad nauseam, but trying to mentally reverse past events is both futile and counterproductive. If I had called my friend as planned, it may indeed have changed the course of his behavior and avoided the accident. When we begin to reason like this, however, questions persist. For instance, was it the last time I did talk to him that somehow set him up for his misfortune? Such lines of thinking are seductive, but they always reach a dead-end and encourage magical thinking.
I’m not in any way suggesting that we are responsible for unknowable future events. Only in hindsight can events appear inevitable. The present is rife with chaotic possibilities. To the contrary, thinking through hypothetical situations can help us inoculate ourselves against comforting illusions that shelter us from seeing just how precariously our lives depend upon luck.
My sense is that everything does happen for any number of reasons, but nothing can happen in the lives of human beings that cannot be altered by chance. We are bound together in a chain of chaotic events so seamlessly connected that they appear tranquil right up to the moment when reality crashes the party. By design, our brains impose a sense of order on a world driven by mayhem.
Subjectivity is the substance we are made of. Our worldviews represent our social bonds steeped in emotional experience. Our mortal fears surface when our beliefs are seriously questioned, because the process threatens to raise a window on reality that most of us would prefer stayed closed. Yet, in a cosmic wink, we will all be gone, centuries will pass, and what is commonly believed today will someday be thought quaint if not absurd.
Ecologists tell us that a sustainable population of humans on our planet is somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.5 billion people, but by the end of this century, the world’s population is estimated to be almost fifteen times that amount. This statement alone should remove any doubt about our being deniers of reality.
John F. Schumaker says we need to determine an optimal level of reality distortion that won’t exact the price of civilization. In his words, "The impossible challenge is to face the truth without panic, to derive all meaning from where we are and what we are." Illusions aside, this is all we’ve got.
It’s easy to appreciate how illusions have helped us survive. Evolution equipped us for self-deception in part so that we would readily take risks without calculating our chances of success. Obviously this approach has worked.
In centuries past, illusions have aided our survival, but now we’re speeding forward without questioning our assumptions. Because of our burgeoning numbers, the future, if we are to have one, demands that we trade our illusions for objectivity. What helped us thrive as a species in the distant past now threatens our very existence.
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