Monthly Archives: September 2016

Is it really so bad?

Well now I see I have posted nothing in over a year. I was not going to put any pressure on myself with this blog and clearly I have been successful in that regard. What impels me to begin writing now is frustration. I find myself in a decidedly minority position. I am recognizing that one aspect of being in the minority is that people actually don’t even hear what you are saying and it is always uncomfortable to not be heard. In this particular moment I am somewhat befuddled by the insistence most people seem to have for taking a negative perspective.

What I have noticed is a tendency to assume the worst. There are many things popularly believed that just don’t add up. America is in decline. Police are out of control, prejudiced and generally incompetent. The economy is failing. Our position in the world is slipping badly. Crime is rampant. Racial tensions are escalating and pervasive in our society. We should be afraid. The list goes on an on. While a generally irresponsible media is a large part of the problem, my concern is more personal.

Yes the media presents an unbalanced view of the world. It is also true that political candidates tend to focus on the negatives as they strive to get elected. After all, if there is no problem to be addressed why vote for me? My growing concern is not these processes however but more the question of why do we go along with this? Why do individual people seem to gravitate toward the negative? The media focuses the way it does precisely because that is what gets peoples attention. My current interest is in understanding why we gravitate toward the negative perspective. Let me give you a not quite hypothetical example.

A man came into my office last year complaining of anxiety. At our initial consultation he presented as anxious right in front of me; sweating, could not sit still, actually red in the face. He stated that he was unable to eat or sleep and found it very hard to concentrate at work. He also noticed he was very distracted and irritable with his family. When I asked what he thought was causing such severe anxiety he responded incredulously “Don’t you see what is going on?”.

I asked for clarification and he pointed out the most recent terrorist execution video, the fact that crime was out of control, severe racial divisions in our society and the failure of our economy as a starting point. The gentleman went on to give many details of how bad things are and I had to acknowledge that in such an apocalyptic situation, anxiety made sense. I then started to ask him about his individual experiences of life. I was needing to determine the stress points in his actual life that might be contributing to the anxiety.

I learned that he was an attorney working in a specialty area which was both fun for him and very lucrative. There was no marital distress, no unusual family problems and his kids were doing fine. Eventually I discerned a pattern. I asked him how far he had driven to our session and it turned out to be about an hour. I asked how many shootings he had seen on his drive. None. I asked how many times had he even seen police with their guns drawn. He hadn’t seen any. I asked, a whole series of questions to gather a sense of his experience of not only his drive to the appointment, but his daily life in general. He described a very peaceful, affluent and stable life. Clearly this person’s anxiety stemmed from something other than his actual life. There are all kinds of possible causes, trauma being very high on the list. My guess though was the culprit was probably TV. His actual experience of his life, his reality, was being ignored in favor of the reality presented by the media. This is the focus of my concern. Why do we constantly abandon our own direct experience and trust instead the artificial perspective presented by the media or politicians. Why not trust our own experience of life over that presented by the entertainment industry?

Here is another example. I have a friend. He is actually one of my best friends. He is terrified of Muslims for various reasons, including; they want to destroy America, they will be attacking our religion and way of life and are bringing violence to our neighborhoods. Again if this were his actual experience of life it would be of real concern. When my friend expressed his fears to me I became curious to hear the tale of how he developed these fears. What I learned is, he does not know any Muslims. There has been, to his knowledge, no Muslim directed violence in his neighborhood, or in fact, his entire town. He is not aware of any Muslim efforts to dissuade him from his religious beliefs, much less to torture him for them. In short, there has been no direct experience leading to the fear of Muslims. Again the sole basis for the fear is TV and social media. Events so far away and so rare have been brought into his living room and caused him to live in fear.

This is the pattern that I am aware of and somewhat at a loss to understand. Given my line of work I understand how such interpretations can stem from childhood trauma and many other sources. Fear itself is, of course and adaptive response. If we fear nothing we would be in great danger. The issue here is how we chose which things to be afraid of. Many times people choose fear objects that don’t even exist and never have in their entire life!

My own experience of life, and I am eternally grateful that is is from a privileged perspective, is that crime is almost non existent. I know it happens but it has not happened to me in decades, well except that my office was burglarized recently. I am not wealthy by any stretch but I have food to eat and a place to stay and I can even afford to feed my dogs. I know the poverty level is around 15% which is very unfortunate but has not changed significantly in my lifetime. At least it is not getting worse. I know there are many people who are financially luckier than me and have almost unimaginable wealth, but I do not begrudge them their fortune. While I have not asked directly, I do not believe any of my acquaintances of other races hate me. At least they still associate with me and are friendly and even helpful when I am in need. I have run into cops who I thought were a little too zealous in their enforcement but, since I do not resists their instructions, I have not found them to be abusive. In fact only once in the last 20 years of so have I seen officers with their guns drawn. All of this is to say that my experience of life does not drive me to hate others or fear an impending doom. I am aware, of course, that the picture presented by the media is much different. I prefer, however, to trust my own observations.

I understand that bad shit happens. It has happened to friends and to me in the past. I also do not belittle the painful experience of those currently involved in the bad shit. It is bad. I wish it never happened. I am not insensitive here, just concerned. Apparently many people do not make the effort to tell the difference between what is on TV and what is real. The result is our beliefs are very distorted. Believing is one of the most powerful forces in nature and clearly an incredibly powerful characteristic of human beings. What I believe determines the world in which I live. Believing is tied to imagination and together these have resulted in our domination of the world. Believing has resulted in miraculous changes in people I have been privileged to know. Sadly irresponsible believing also causes most human suffering. In particular, believing what the media and social media hysterics serve up has some very real consequences.

If we accept the doom and gloom perspective then we live in fear and scarcity. In addition, like my friend, we slide into hate and persecution of others. The ultimate consequence of these beliefs will be exactly what is predicted, a world none of us wants. I am not saying that, if you experience unfairness or poverty, or persecution, you should not face it and deal with it. What I am saying is that we need to believe responsibility. This means to trust our own experience over what is presented in the media. For the vast majority of people in the United States, things are not that bad. Deal with it.