Staying Sane In An Insane World
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.
When reading your excellent blog post, I asked myself the question – “How can I see the world more clearly? I learned that I won’t see the world more clearly by watching MSNBC, FOXNEWS, Twitter, or Facebook.
I’ve observed many people including me listen to sound bites, interpret them through their own filters then jump to a solution based on their own personal interpretation. As a result, I’m re-reading one of my favorite books by Gerald Weinberg – “Are your lights on? How to figure out what the problem really is?”
I think to understand this election cycle especially with the Trump phenomenon, I need to better understand the perspectives of people who feel that they have been slighted or left behind by both parties. You’ve provided several great references that I’m currently reviewing.
Scott, I think we will need to add another filter to explain what is going on here. Both campaigns have hired expert consultants that understand persuasion and are using tactics that make it very difficult to understand how we’re being manipulated. For instance, when I think about Donald Trump or Hilary, I think about “racist” and “crooked”, respectively. It’s the first thing that pops in my head. Trump is using simplicity as a tool of persuasion. He is speaking at a sixth grade level on purpose. Both parties are using narratives and stories to talk directly to people’s subconscious!
Statistics and data can be twisted to tell any story. For instance, the average person doesn’t understand the difference between average and median. If 9 of my closest friends are at the bar drinking with Bill Gates, our average income is 100 million dollars while our median income is 100K. Good luck trying to explain that to the “average” person.
There is a lot of A/B testing going on here with both campaigns to see what is sticking. They are using social platforms and data to adapt very quickly.
> “my favorite books by Gerald Weinberg – “Are your lights on?”
This is one my favorite books as well! I’ve reread it so many times. Thanks for mentioning it – made my day.
I don’t think there is any one thing to do that makes any of this easier. We’re too invested emotionally and technologically to instantly sort out what to think. But as you suggest by saying “add another filter” I’m convinced we all need more time away from all this, spending positive time with people we care about. Only then can we come back to this mess and have a better chance of sorting it out.
Epictetus said: “The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.”
I wanted to say something in response to: “I’m convinced we all need more time away from all this, spending positive time with people we care about. Only then can we come back to this mess and have a better chance of sorting it out.”
What is clear, as you mentioned as well, in your blogpost is that you can separate your emotions from your rationale. However, the majority of humans on this earth don’t separate the two. The dangerous part is that they also don’t see there is a separation. I mean, we can all conclude that we have emotions and logic. But logic is also driven by our emotions and previous experiences and the influential figures in our lives etcetera. Therefore logic is not he same as rationale. The danger is when logic is misdiagnosed as rationale. In many cases it simply doesn’t matter how much you take your distance and spend time with loved ones (if you even have them), and go back and evaluate. Because the evaluation will be based on the input you get from a limited amount of people, your own emotions and interpretation. One’s individually and collectively perceived logic is still not pure rationale without the filtration of emotions. It is very troublesome to see that people don’t see this difference and most probably never will as far as I have experienced. Emotion, logic, and rationale are abstract concepts, and hard to grasp without certain knowledge.
Humans are built to survive, and emotions are a big part of that. Probably that is why people will continue to lie to themselves and justify all sorts of behaviour. Survival in this case has a psychological base.
My current theory regarding ‘rationale’ is when you can answer the question why when you compare your emotions and logic, and subsequently the reasoning behind your behaviour and beliefs. If one cannot separate emotion than that person will believe logic is rationale, but logic is not rationale. Emotion is the way of feeling and believing, logic is the way of thinking, and rationale is the reasoning behind the way of feeling and believing, and thinking.
Nevertheless, I want to add that I loved your blogpost! :)
Thanks for this thoughtful comment and I like what you wrote here. Perhaps part of our problem is the notion that we can separate logic from emotion – cognitive bias suggests that we really can’t. That even at our most logical we are still influenced heavily by pre-conceptions, feelings, and histories.
You mention that we are built to survive – I’d say we’re built to *try* to survive, there are no guarantees after all.
Also how do you messure corruption and crime? You can only messure the corruption that gets caught. The least corrupted country and the happiest, is the country where there is a” much better way of doing corruption and crime”, and where the population wants to be ” brainwashed” and wants to “brainwash”..
If you can’t understand what I am taking about ore writting, I am sorry…..
I felt a shock of recognition when I read the headline Trump as Tribune. Of course!
You may recall how, during the virtuous Republic, the Romans who fought on foot refused to fight unless the “one per cent” instituted the respected office of Tribune to look out for the poor. The horse owning people, both liberal and conservative, saw the light and agreed to have Tribunes. Rome remained unified.
It was many generations before Rome became a hopeless third world empire. But their republican years still remain as a shining example of a first world people with no need for “bread and circuses.”
(The original Star Trek episode of that title takes place when Rome was on the cusp of going from people feeling personal agency to feeling helpless. The “circus” was the cynical TV show with electrical boos and hisses)
>You may recall how, during the virtuous Republic
I do not recall, but I’m pleased you think my history knowledge is such that I might :)
The Roman Empire is fascinating history for us, but I don’t think many Americans have learned much from what they did and didn’t do well. Same for the Greeks. The amazing thing about our culture is the belief we can do anything, and the horror of our culture is our lack of respect for understanding all of the good reasons why other cultures have failed and succeeded. We’re brave but ignorant and this election season reflects the worst elements of those factors.
As for being poor, lots of people were wondering why the poor didn’t just leave before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. This wondering made sf writer John Scalzi angry and he wrote one of his most linked-to blog posts:
Canada, of course, is much richer, with a higher-than-US per capita phone ownership, and an ability to shoulder high quality socialized medicine. So my humble piece on society’s blind spot does not compare to Scalzi’s, but if you are curious you can find mine by typing Poverty and the Hunger Games.
Thanks for the links – I’ll check them out.
I confess I used to have little empathy for people who lived on flood plains – I remember thinking “what do you expect to happen?” But then in a discussion with someone they expressed to me the reason they’re there is they can’t afford to be elsewhere. Proof I can learn!
Thanks for another gem, Scott. I’ll be sending this to lots of smart friends who are perplexed as to how we arrived here…but are not panicking or threatening to move to Canada.
Have you read Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature?
Or Kurzweil’s recent quote (which I loved)…
Thanks for writing what has to be one of the most cogent and helpful 1,000-word posts this year.
Keep it up.
I’m familiar with The Better Angels and its premise, but haven’t read it yet. I’m more curious about why such a strong misperception exists (which your quote hints at, but as I understand is not the focus of the book). That gap fascinates me and I have a post I’m working on about it.
Sorry – Kurzweil’s quote wasn’t from Pinker’s book, although they both address the same issue.
Here are the two Kurzweil links, which were recent.
Also (loosely related) from the NYT yesterday…only 9% of Americans voted for Trump OR Hillary in the primaries. It’s technically correct, although I find their methodology a bit misleading, as they include children, non-citizens and ineligible felons who aren’t allowed to vote in the full count of “Americans”.
Hope this helps your research. I look forward to your post.
Great post, Scott. You helped me out with “news is shallow.” I’ve been running a personal (most Twitter) fight against the death of journalism, and I think in my mind I was equating that with “news.” But it’s not true. News is what is happening at any given time. Journalism – by my own biased definition – is much more. I’ve just been so sad as all the sources I used to devour for smart insight and in-depth investigation have jumped on the click-bait, free blogger bandwagon.
Great insights. So glad you left working for a big corporation. Not saying that corporations have not enriched human civilization, but certainly they are not for seekers like you. The Indian scholar mystic Osho once said on the role of parents in nurturing kids – approximate quote- – “you role is not to impose something new, the seed of what they were born is already there which is unique to her/him, your role is to find the uniqness of that and nurture that, the rest will take care of itself”. I really wish many people in this world find thier calling as early as possible in their life, our society and educational system should radically change to enable this, otherwise we all grow towards the mean of corporate ants – which is good for big data companies, who like highly standardized things, highly optimized corporate ants is their ultimate dream, uniqueness and spontaneous behavior is something they cannot afford.
But the paradox is that all these big corporations want you tell them the magic insights to make them more productive, the very system you escaped wants you advise them. But who said we should understand everything, is ienigma not one of the things which makes the world a lovely place. Keep giving the world your insights. We are glad we have deep thinkers like you, who can reflect and pause. Feel free to drop me an email.
I finished reading “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis” by J.D. Vance and now have a better understanding of the “rust belt” and the culture of that region. I now understand why Trump was successful with that geographical group – people care about their tribe.
The only thing I can say for sure is that I don’t understand the reality or the movie playing in the heads of a large portion of the electorate. Reality isn’t what I thought it was a year ago.
I will be doing my best to be more inclusive with my views, good to all of our people, and help unify our country.
Thanks for reporting back on this. I read that interview with Vance, but haven’t read the book.
What if your issue is global climate change? The ipcc and its findings. We are unaware/underprepared of the future ramifications. We have no context for what is heading our way.