I’m behind in page production and it’s Tuesday morning, crunch time for me. I’ve procrastinated on writing a column. So, I’m going to riff as fast as I can on something that interests me simply to fill this space. Join or don’t. I’m warning you, I’m gonna’ sound heavy handed. I just know it.
My father was a psychology professor for 30 years. And if I had the chance to go back and pick another field of study, I think I’d follow his lead on that. I can drift for hours thinking about why people, myself included, are the way they are mentally. I’m fascinated.
I think that if you really enjoy people watching, then get in an extended conversation with someone about their life and try to get them to be real with you. Spend time afterwards imagining their experience and how you would feel in the situations they described.
We are culturally wired to dismiss every single person who doesn’t line up with our own mental framework. This is so common and accepted that we don’t even realize we’re doing a disservice to ourselves and others. This is unfortunate. Think about how shunning and shaming feel like a type of mass entertainment now — part of the American fabric of our Internet moment. But even the brain that we believe is the most simple-minded or out of touch with our understanding of reality is infinitely complex when viewed outside of our often rigid and simplistic presumptions about group identities. We can never unlock all the mysteries behind individual cognition, understanding and behavior. So it’s worth remembering that if someone has a political position that you find abhorrent, then yes, the belief may indeed be offensive and awful next to your values, but the experience of that individual with that terrible belief is still something worthy of your contemplation. There is always a why? And the why is itself a story. But we are too overwhelmed by the sheer number of people we encounter. And we can’t view all of the individuals within our factions. This brings stereotypes into play. Obviously, we can’t afford to take the time to know everyone. It’s impossible. So we too easily let ourselves off the hook mentally. We simplify to the extreme. And because we are overwhelmed by the mass of others, we see no need for the actual effort of learning about others who aren’t like us. We find tidy answers and don’t budge on our judgments of others, because to budge is to trouble our own mental comfort. I’m very guilty of this. I think we all are at some level.
But there is fundamental worth in every human, and all humans are trapped in their own skull, experiencing what they do on a day-to-day basis. We are locked out of that other person’s inner experience and they are locked within it. And vice versa. This is the impenetrable experience of the individual. So empathy is always woefully inadequate when we view others from our own trapped universe in our head. This is where a higher being, God, comes into a role of comfort for much of humankind, because it is a breaking free of the individual as trapped animal within a skull. The individual finds true empathy through the higher being, who is alive within the individual and locked within, not without, our lived experience. This becomes affirmation that true loneliness is not necessary. And when an individual finds this genuine thing, it’s to be celebrated. It is not showy or partisan or tied to temporal angst. It’s quiet and not boastful or eager to show off. It exists outside of culture or conflict. It is simply an inner peace, which resonates in the presence of others without bragging about itself. And I think first of my mother when I say this. I know this about her, and I love her.
I think, too, about how the individual mental life is inextricable from the greater narrative of humankind. Our knowledge is dependent on previous knowledge — pretty much all of it is. So I don’t believe at all in the “self-made man or woman.” Determination, yes, that is hugely important, but self made? No, it doesn’t exist. Just break “self made” down and think about it. Think of the chronology of human knowledge, how it has accumulated over thousands of years to bring us a modern society with vast specialties that one human could never conquer, yet every human relies upon. To dwell on this requires humility of us all. We are reliant on each other. It’s inescapable. You may be an expert in one thing, two things. Maybe you’re the rare sort who can do many things impossibly well. Even still, you are ignorant on more than you know. Me too. This isn’t something that occupies our minds. But it doesn’t change its truth. We are all interwoven in ways we choose not to see, either through lack of effort or willful blindness. But the connections between us are vast and important. And the well being of society is more important than we tend to acknowledge, because a lot of us feel we can tough out most anything individually — an inner confidence that is good, but not accepting of the bigger truth.
Yeah, I know. I’m just straight rambling. This is terribly preachy. And if you’re here with me through this, then thanks, or I’m sorry. But here’s one more riff: I read an article recently about our need to be consistent to our own perception of our own identity. For instance, if you are shy, then it may be hard to speak up because you know that you’re are seen as a shy person, and you also view yourself as shy. So speaking up and being assertive is to break from the consistency of self-identified shyness. This creates a circular problem when it comes to a wide variety of self-esteem issues. Again, I’m including myself here. We think we are a certain way, so we must act in accordance with our identity, even if it hurts us. I think our allegiances to music, to teams, to political parties, to religious views — such things present us with a sense of identity, both individually and as part of a group that agrees with us. We are what we like and we join with others who share that feeling. So we grow rigid in these things, not because the things themselves are necessarily infallible, but because we have invested so much of our self identity in the group or the preference. I think this is why people are so unwilling to see the wrongness of their positions, even when presented with a clear logical triumph over their chosen facts. It’s too close of a challenge to their self identity. And it's more emotionally fulfilling to cheer with the group than it is to challenge the comfort of solid self identity. That’s why you can’t argue someone out of a seemingly terrible viewpoint. It rarely ever happens, does it? I don’t say this to change anyone’s viewpoint on anything. I’m just pointing this out because I think this is what is happening to us, to me, psychologically all the time. I think this is human wiring. But humans can, with work, rise above that, too, which is beautiful.
Anyway, this Tuesday-morning ramble is over. Space filled. Thanks for your time.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.