Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) : “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”
Since the beginning of its existence on this planet untold millennia past, life has been a dangerous proposition for all creatures. The big fish eating the little fish has been the model for most interactions between living entities. All living entities have been either predator and/or prey. Evolution needed to develop in each entity methods of recognizing danger and thus trying to ensure that it will be able to replicate itself through procreation. Each species of course has different means of recognizing danger in its environment and various diverse senses for doing so. The importance of these senses varies by species and sometimes varies infra-species. Its own hierarchy of life preserving senses and activities can change in a species as it evolves to meet each new environmental challenge.
As humanity evolved there is no doubt that there were variations in the relative importance of our five senses at different times in our evolutionary history. What many humans believe is our most important attribute is of course the collective of our senses known as intelligence and the ability to reason. We are the singular species of this planet that has developed incredibly complex means of communication leaving us as the seeming masters of our world. Nevertheless, most of what we know of reality is our personal constructs of information that our senses have perceived and then compressed into a usable conception of our world, which despite the breadth of any one individual’s intelligence, is merely an approximation of the whole. However, to continue existence each human must make certain choices based on their personal perception of their environment. Sometimes these choices are successful ad sometimes they are disastrous. Since the arc of human existence has presented an ever-widening range of information, we have learned to edit and approximate much in own personal constructs. An example of this is that behavioral science has determined that we develop pictures in our mind of particular individuals and in our subsequent encounters rely mainly on those original pictures. Anyone who has raised a child knows that it is hard to see them as they grow, as anything more than the infant they were. While it’s true our picture of the child changes with growth, the lasting overlay of impression is usually quite dated. This is at least my conception of human perception.
With this concept in mind let me bring this post to the America of today, illustrated as a microcosm of the difficulty humans have in living with each other. Our politics have become perhaps more polarized and deadlocked than at any point in our history. Many people respond to each new issue that crosses public consciousness based on their personal sense of correctness, informed by a long developed political belief system that structures the nature of their response. The deeper ingrained this belief that there is only one path to political truth, the more mechanical the response becomes, and the less capable becomes the individual’s ability to react to the information from its environment to save itself. Those species unable to evolve to meet each new challenge to their existence became extinct. As humans our evolution has become more than just meeting actual physical challenges, we have evolved to the point that we represent the greatest danger to ourselves. Human existence is now dependent upon collectively being able to comprehend the dangers we face. How can we understand these dangers if our only method of understanding them is filtered through an ideological certainty that categorizes them based rote methodology? This is my attempt to try to make sense of why our political scene today seems so irrationally skewed by the inability to collectively recognize and adapt to dangers.
Can we agree that the information revolution has presented all of us with a dilemma? We are not quite ready or able to absorb all the information about the world that is available and that most of us are bombarded with on a daily basis? All of us, even geniuses, have learned to develop constructs of our environment and of the opinions that inform us. To a greater or lesser degree this allows us to cope with our lives. These human constructs include, but are not limited to, philosophy, religion, politics and economics. Such is the daily assault of information that we perforce need to “pigeonhole” each bit of new data as passes into our consciousness, just so we can seemingly make sense of it. I readily admit to using this shortcut, do you? I’ve come to see though, that this process of fitting prior perceptions into current situations can lead to misunderstanding. Because of that I’ve tried in my life to be self critical of my actions and opinions. As I’ve aged wisdom has taught me how much even a person like me, egotistically awash in intellectual self-esteem, can be completely wrong in any given instance simply because I filter new situations through past perceptions. I believe this is a human trait. Because of that trait, to a greater or lesser degree, our conflicting perceptions handicap our ability to make this world livable for all of us humans. In my own case some here may remember that on numerous occasions I boldly stated I was convinced that Jeb Bush would be this years Republican Presidential Nominee. My wrong conclusion was based on a wealth of information on the Bush family that I’d absorbed, but which kept me from seeing current political reality.
In prehistoric times, in a world of incessant danger the emerging human species had to rely on reacting with quickness and certitude to escaping impending danger. This was true either in the role of being predator and/or prey. Those that equivocated were those whose genetic heritage was not passed on. We are bred to look for patterns of certainty, yet how much of anything in life is really certain? The basis of almost all religion/philosophy is the need to establish a sense of certainty about our lives. Without that certainty, for many of us given our genetic heritage, comes disorientation and fear. This is a fact I believe for all of us, but its primacy of need differs from human to human.
A common complaint of Fundamentalist Religion is that the world is changing too quickly to not only keep up with, but also that change is a downward arc towards human degeneracy. Yet this change and this danger can be mediated if only one would follow the path described by Yahweh, Jesus, Allah or perhaps The Buddha. With that belief firmly rooted those so inclined view all new experience filtered through their pre-conceptions of what life is all about. If you think about it in a political sense you see the same pattern professed by politicians and political partisan from all parts of the political spectrum.
Many Republicans, Conservatives and Right Wingers express their nostalgia for the ”Roaring 20’s”, “Golden 50’s” and/or “The Age of Reagan” as if somehow it was a better world back then. Democrats, Liberals, Progressives, and Left Wingers too view the world through their own lens of nostalgia as if the “Roosevelt Era” and the “60’s” were times of clarity. The fact is there are no times of “clarity”, no “Golden Era” and no “better” past to emulate nostalgically. We are here now and it is in this “now” that we need to operate. All of us are genetically hard-wired” to abhor uncertainty in our lives, though some can tolerate the anxiety of it better than others. Therefore we seek broad-ranged “certainty” to dull our anxiety and calm our fears. We all know that the main fear of being human is the certain knowledge of our own mortality, but perhaps peculiar to our species is also the fear of not being remembered, of having not contributed anything to life and of having no purpose.
So all of us strive to quell the fear of uncertainty in ourselves, to ameliorate the anxiety it causes us, to fit our preconceptions into each new situation. We develop philosophies; adhere to religions and view the world through the lens of our personal politics. Fritz Perls, the Founder of Gestalt Psychotherapy, in which I am trained and in the philosophy that I use to live my life, once stated: “I see my role as destroying people’s character”. What he meant was that in our interactions with the world each of us develops a rigid “character”. “Character” is our personal construct of how we wish other humans to see us. He believed and I also believe that the danger of “character” was that it limits human choices in dealing with our environment. “Character” is a construct that developed in tandem with and possibly as an assist to, the civilizing of humanity. It possibly is the reason why tragedy has plagued human history. In an uncertain world the “survivor” hopefully is able to react to each new situation of conflict, danger, excitement, and pleasure in terms of their current feelings/information and not based on past pre-conceptions/premises. An example of the possible dysfunction of character might be a man threatened by someone bigger and stronger, who has the ability to run away, yet whose “character” dictates that he must “man up” and face certain pain. Are there times when one must rely on the certainty of their moral/ethical compass? Absolutely, and to one’s death if need be. However, these “life or death” decisions would serve us better if they are a true response to a present situation, rather than a decision filtered through pre-conception. To make that life changing decision, we’d be better served if we viewed each potential threat and/or pleasure in the present, without pre-judgment?
We see today in the political arena the effect of this search for certainty. The deep divisions that exist between people all arise from the fact they so strongly cling to the “certainties” they adopt to stave off the anxiety of uncertainty. Humanity as a whole must learn to live with the uncertainty that life presents, encounter it in the present moment and in essence “be here now”. Until then the “certainties” that we adopt to keep “uncertainty” away, will keep us from evolving into a species at one with our existence and possibly sow the seeds of our species extinction.
Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger