How would you explain the events of this year to someone from the year 2050 who time traveled to visit us? Many adjectives come quickly to mind: turmoil, danger, violence, drama, unrest, uncertainty. But if you think deeper about trying to explain what it all means, you’d realize this challenge is impossible. We couldn’t accurately tell someone from the future about the meaning of the present because we can’t understand the present yet: we don’t know what happens next! We don’t have the context to make sense of these events. If we were alive in 1776, 1914, 1968 or 2001 we’d have a similiar problem. We can describe the significance of those years now only because we know what happens after.
It must be said that we are a stubborn and frustrating species. Too often we wait for terrible things to happen before we’re willing to change our minds, or change anything at all. It’s not a rule, as history doesn’t depend on rules, but unrest and disorder are sometimes necessary to wake us up and motivate us to grow. And to remind us we share our fates with each other. In the end, the best we could tell our friend from 2050 is “something is happening!” We truly are living in an interesting time.
Contrary to the title of this essay, I don’t think the world is insane. Instead it’s more that we’re designed to live at the scale of tribes, not cities and nations (See Freud’s Civilization and It’s Discontents, where he suggests we traded sanity away to get more security and stability). It’s not the world’s fault, in a sense, but our own.
When I get past my own emotions and rantings, I conclude three things about this year so far:
- We’re addicted to news and news is shallow. Neil Postman said “information is a form of garbage” meaning that at a certain volume more information does not help you. The speed and quantity of news, which we presume to be an asset, does not help us gain perspective, understanding or meaning, three important things we all seek. The news business thrives on fear, more so that fact. Most forms of news are not helpful, but they are plentiful and addictive.
- Our brains are poor at calibrating to a national or planetary scale. We’re easily misled by dramatic (but possibly unrepresentative) news. And we’re quick to use one narrow string of events to define our feeling of “how the world is”. Combined with cognitive bias, we’re prone to strong emotions based on irrational assumptions.
- Big problems we’ve ignored are now un-ignorable. The violence, racism, classism, anger and fear that have fueled the worst events these past months did not suddenly appear. Instead, it’s the consequence of years, or decades, of problems we haven’t solved, or perhaps have largely ignored. Technology may have made these problems far more visible, but they were likely there all along.
- You must focus on a problem you can impact. We are just individuals and worrying about all the problems of the world won’t help anyone. The rational choice is to pick an issue you care deeply about and focus your energy there. Even if you were a billionaire, you can’t solve every problem. By focusing, you can build relationships with other people interested in that cause, and celebrate even the smallest wins with them. That community will help you continue to invest and make a difference, a much larger one than you’d make than staying on the sidelines, waiting to find an optimal strategy that will never come.
- The world, on average, is getting better. Many people refer to statistics that show that by many measures the world has been a steadily improving place. This is good and hopeful news: if you need a boost of positiveness, then look at these charts.
- But the trap of that last point is the flaw of averages: simply because the total average, of say violent crime in America, has gone down for a decade, doesn’t mean there aren’t sizable pockets where crime is going up. Averages can be misleading. For example, on average the universe is a very dead and boring place, but that average makes it seem like Paris or Las Vegas don’t exist. But they do! Statistics tend to oversimplify – they’re useful but easily misused and rarely definitive without asking questions and thinking through for less biased answers.
My advice is simple. We are emotional creatures, so find a healthy way to vent the negative energy that you feel. Go to the gym, or for a hike, and let your feelings out through exercise, which we all know we need more of. Scream at the sky and challenge the wind. But don’t target your rage at people, certainly not at strangers: the golden rule is a good guide here.
Another safe place to express yourself is a private journal, where any idea on your mind can be expressed safely and without judgment (Social media isn’t quite the same, because you are expressing yourself with the knowledge that someone is observing you). Or talk to friends who care about how you feel (and if you don’t have friends who care about your feelings, your real problem might be you need to find better friends).
But then, once you’ve expressed those emotions… slow down. Be curious. Seek thoughtful points of view that differ from your own: it’s the only way to provoke your own thinking to improve (instead of just responding and sharpening your preconceptions). Talking to people who agree with you on everything will teach you nothing.
I’ve read so much these last few months seeking answers. I don’t look to the news for meaning, because that’s not what it’s good for: instead, I try to read deeper. Here are five essays, with varying views, that helped me to feel I understand what’s going on (or clarifying what I don’t understand). I don’t necessarily endorse their positions but to my point above, they help in the pursuit of understanding:
- American is not on the verge of disaster. A historian puts current events in a historical context and suggests we slow down.
- History tells us what’s next. A historian takes the opposite view about the world, and thinks we’re in big trouble (I agree more with the first one, but this one has its merits too. I’d like to see these two folks debate).
- Why Are So Many Black Americans Killed By Police? A thoughtful and careful examination of the many possible factors and implications, centered on various statistics.
- Trump: Tribune of Poor White People – This excellent interview helped me better understand support for Trump. As did this lecture by Thomas Frank on the economic failures of Clinton and Obama.
- How Do People Change Their Minds? A good reminder that most expressions of opinions in social media have little effect. Venting is one thing, thoughtfully trying to influence a mind is another.
- How To Discuss Politics with Friends, version 2.0. My simple guide for healthier conversations about tough topics.