We are not likely to remember the first steps we took or the first words we spoke, but they marked the beginning of transitioning from the helpless baby utterly dependent on adults to feed, clothe and comfort us to the autonomous, independent person we were growing towards. The preschooler who could dress herself, tie her shoes and express some of her needs with her growing vocabulary. The elementary student cracking the reading code and beginning to grow his own sense of self through the stories he read. Who can forget the thrill of first walking to the corner store alone, of going to sleepaway camp, of getting the car keys from your parents, of saying goodbye to them at the airport on the way to college? The exhilaration of having grown wings strong enough to fly. Autonomy. Independence. Freedom. The conditions necessary for happy and fulfilled human beings, even when the excitement of the first apartment is tempered by paying the first Utility bill.
As with people, so with countries. Recent history began with the Age of Colonialism, beginning more or less in the 1700’s. In the couple of centuries that followed, Great Britain alone ruled over some 90 other countries, Spain over 35. The 20thcentury was a domino-toppling release from colonial rule, the last Spanish colony (Belize) gaining independence in 1981, the last British one (Hong Kong) ceded back to China in 1997.
Every country celebrates their Independence Day with great fervor, affirming that the evolutionary direction is towards autonomous rule, independence, freedom to define themselves. According to the Freedom in the World website, some 112 out of a 194 countries now have free elections.
And yet as I write, Russia is still invading Ukraine, human rights have diminished in Turkey, Venezuela, Brazil — and the United States. What is going on? Having tasted the benefits of independence and freedom, why are some swinging the pendulum back to childish dependence at the hands of despots and tyrants? Here's where a psychological perspective on the current world crisis might shed some light why people are sawing off the branch they sit on.
No matter where you sit in regard to today’s pressing issues, the evidence is in— we’re in deep shit. Of course, that has always been the state of the world. I defy you to name a year unmarked by war, abuse, atrocities, disasters. But what feels new is the ticking clock of climate change, the unstoppable pandemic calmed down, but still very much alive, the alarming dismantling of the human rights and just laws and evolved tolerance we worked so hard to create. As I write, temperatures in both Europe and the U.S. are consistently over 100 degrees in many places, Covid infections are again spiking, the Supreme Court overturned legislation that protected the rights of half our population and 157 Republican Senators voted to turn down guarantees of keeping same-sex and interracial marriage laws. Prices are going up, services are going down, jobs are on the line and just about everything that we thought we could count on, we can’t. As Michael Meade summarizes it, Nature is rattling and culture is unravelling. And if that’s not reason enough to feel afraid for our future, the news media is overwhelming us 24/7 with its latest, greatest, breaking news purposefully designed to ramp up the fear a few notches higher so they can attract viewers and serve the people in power who depend upon fear to attract their voters.
How to react to this fearful situation? The way human beings are designed to. Whenever we feel a threat, the brain stem takes over, shutting down the thought and feeling parts of the brain to deal with the emergency with one of three strategies: Fight, Flight. Freeze. When we walk around the corner of the forest path and meet a bear, those are the choices. We don’t talk to the bear to discuss the situation or use I statements to share with the bear how we’re feeling. We either run like hell, freeze until the bear makes the next move or hope that our camping shovel can serve as a viable weapon. The adrenaline rushes in to give us extra strength and when the bear has hopefully walked away, we sit to re-calibrate our nervous system. Later, we might write a poem about our feelings or analyze the situation to think about how to avoid the bear the next time.
So far, so good. The brain and body have done exactly what they need to for survival. But when the “bear” is an ongoing fear (see above) and we start to live in our brain stem, things do not go well. What was designed for a short-term strategy is not effective for a long-term strategy and we become perpetually anxious, stressed, fearful, unable to access higher feeling or thinking skills. We lash out mindlessly fighting (the January 6thInsurrection), take flight in numbing distraction (alcohol, drugs, denial of climate change, Facebook) or freeze in helplessness (depression). None of this is good.
In this state of fear, of deep discomfort with uncertainty, of relentless anxiety that the world as we know it is disappearing, we are vulnerable to those who promise to save us, to protect us, to tell us who the bad guys are and vow to bring them down. We lose our own independent thought and power and become helpless children wanting Daddy to make it go away. We willingly outsource our intelligence to conspiracy theories, give up the car keys and tell the big boys to drive, stop choosing our own clothes and wear the uniform of the Fundamentalist group that promises the easiest answers.
Fear is the necessary condition for tyrants to prosper. It’s in their interest to ratchet it up— as Trump did masterfully as he talked about approaching immigrant mobs, Muslim terrorists, shithole countries and the like. A populace in fear is willing to excuse transgression of normal democratic procedures in the face of a constant “state of emergency.” None of this is good.
But it is understandable and helpful to realize why fundamentalism and dictatorship seems to be on the rise. The trick is to flip the fear in a disciplined aikido move, to turn it away from becoming smaller selves and toward becoming larger souls. If the evidence of increased fanatic and crazed thought and action is clear, so is the evidence for an awakening towards greater awareness of how black lives matter, how transgender rights are a real issue, how social activism is no longer optional, how kindness is a value to live and celebrate. (A recent school supply catalogue advertised some 50 different posters with messages like, “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.”). Crisis can be an opportunity for character to flourish and we can see evidence of that all around us, though Fox News (or any news, for that matter) will not be reporting it.
Psychology as currently practiced often treats our problems as personal, as the result of our mother or father issues, a fluke of our wiring, a nameable syndrome treatable by medication. Here we need to feel this as a collective issue. In the face of the daily news, fear, stress, anxiety, even depression is a normal reaction. Let us talk with each other to know that we not alone and develop our collective strategies of transformation. Social action, meditation, art, all the things that get us working with those feelings rather than feeling helplessly weighed down by them. Aiming our efforts at changing what we can of the conditions that cause these understandable fears. Which means joining forces with the political and sociological issues as outlined previously.
We can blame Pandora for unleashing the miseries that lay inside the box she opened—lies, greed, envy, hatred, pain, disease, hunger, poverty, wars and more. But she closed the lid before hope was released to be overcome by those plagues. This brings us to the next player on our team to keep hope alive and well—the mythological.
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