Feeling Stuck? This May Explain Why

Putting your overwhelm in more realistic context can bring truer peace of mind.

Posted Jan 14, 2020

Which is the most realistic way to think about how you decide what to believe?

1. Shopping discerningly on level ground: "I am a neutral observer of reality. I weigh ideas on a balanced scale. I consider all options on their merits, shopping among my interpretations of reality fairly, on a level playing field." 

2. Falling for easy ideas: "I’m biased toward ideas that help me feel good about myself as I already am, ideas that don’t make me have to work harder than I already do. Labor-saving ideas are a relief. I tend to roll down or slouch toward convenient interpretations. It’s not a level playing field. I gravitate toward easier ideas even when they’re unrealistic."

3. Clambering for higher, truer ideas: "I strive to climb up to the most realistic ideas I can find, the peaks from which I can take in the whole of reality accurately. I don’t take the easy path. I’ll strive to find the higher truth even if it’s harder work."

How you interpret these options is also an interpretation. If you’re biased in your interpretations, you’ll be biased in your interpretation of how you shop for your interpretations too.

Setting yourself aside for the moment, think about which of these is on display most in how most people shop among interpretations and how they interpret their shopping. 

In everyday debate and conversation, it’s polite to go with the first or third: Treat people as though they’re neutral observers or striving heroically for the truer truths. It’s offensive to accuse someone of being biased in their interpretation. Them’s fighting words, though not if they’re said in gossiping about others, present company excepted. Most of us enjoy a bit of catty talk about other people’s biases. It bonds present company together in our pretense to be more neutral and discerning shoppers among interpretations.  

Plenty of people claim they’ve earned their truths by a combination of all three:

“I was a neutral observer when the truth was revealed to me. It was a great relief, hard-earned. When it first was revealed, I resisted it. I didn’t want to believe it, but eventually, I surrendered. I made that sacrifice and now I’m reaping all of the peace-of-mind benefits of having done so.”

In our scientific era, we’d all like nothing more than to have our preferred interpretations be proven scientifically correct. For that, we take ideas we’ve already slouched into. We call them neutral observations since science is supposed to be neutral, but we’d also describe our striving for them as uphill slogs since that’s the image of the heroic scientist striving for the truth. 

Here, I’ll propose an alternative that may be more realistic. It has us slouching and yet heroic too, admirable for our effort. It may help you explain how you got to where you are today but also why humankind is acting so strangely these days. 

We’re not shopping at our own pace among ideas presented tastefully for us. Rather, we’re trudging conviction-impaired through a sandstorm of possibilities. Picking ideas to embrace, our focus has to be on what we can ignore. The premium is on reasons not to have to buy ideas. There are just too many on offer. 

This is a function of the human condition, chiefly our unique capacity for language. If you were a tree or a dog, you’d have relatively few considerations to take into account. Dogs don’t have to wonder about the situation in the Middle East, whether their hairstyle is flattering, whether it was a mistake to say what they did the other day, whether it’s dangerous to be driving around on those old tires, whether they’ll ever make it to the big time, whether their kids are going off the rails, whether relatives disapprove, or whether that cough is cancer, to name just a few of the myriad considerations that blow through us daily in the sandstorm of possibilities. 

The human condition exposes us to way too much world. It’s not at all like shopping at your own pace on Amazon for something you want, reading the reviews, and dismissing with a click everything you don’t want. It’s more like being assaulted willy nilly by Amazon’s entire inventory. You start an easy conversation with someone and suddenly, it gets difficult. The ideas they’ve embraced for their comfort are discomfiting for you. 

The onslaught of possibilities starts young. Humans are a neotenous species. Other organisms hit the ground running whereas it takes years for our children to become full-functioning adults. We guide their interpretations, prejudicing them against the things we’ve chosen to ignore in the onslaught of possibilities. Still, we don’t control all of their influences, not these days with our mixed cultures and our bottomless pit of possibilities conveyed in the media. We grant our kids a lot of time to acclimate to the endless possibilities, and we hope that by the time they’ve arrived at adulthood, they’re well oriented, having taken on faith productive ideas and learned to deflect counter-productive ideas. 

We arrive at adulthood with a collection of ideas many of which we embraced without much reflection. We inherited them as cultural hand-me-downs or we picked them up along the way because they made us feel comfortable in our own skin, chiefly by protecting our skin from the onslaught of possibilities. Our articles of faith are like our articles of clothing. They protect us from the elements, in the case of faith, from the elements whipping through us in the sandstorm of possibilities, eroding our resolve. We bought them less for their realism than for the comfort and protection they provide, self-affirmation and the way they help us fit comfortably into our society. 

It’s evident in their inconsistency. If we were shopping for truth, we wouldn’t embrace opposite ideas without noticing. For example, we wouldn’t think we should be completely honest and completely tactful because those are often mutually exclusive rules to live by. 

No, by adulthood we end up with pet ideas that don’t really get along well with each other. But we don’t want to let go of them. They protect us. Instead, we just collect more pet ideas that enable us to ignore the way our pet ideas don’t get along. We learn to equivocate, sometimes saying always be honest, sometimes saying always be nice, even though not all honesty is nice and not all niceness is honest.

Trudging around together, squint-eyed in the sandstorm, rubbernecking the possibilities, each of us proclaiming the “truths” we’ve embraced as though they’re the last word, orienting ourselves in the storm. We all need our “noping strategies,” our safe words for tapping out of dangerous conversations with people who spot what’s wrong with our ideas and right about theirs. One person’s self-protection is another person’s threat. 

With the internet, we’re going through a collective reorientation to a whole new windfall onslaught of possibilities. Our juvenile reaction is predictable. Like petulant teens, whole swaths of us are swatting away any consideration that perturbs our sense of having already found all the productive considerations. We're all suffering from 21st century ADHD.

Human life is harder than we tend to notice. Bless us for trying as hard as we do weathering this sandstorm of possibilities. We’re behaving just the way you’d expect us to behave if you take into consideration that erosive sandstorm, so recently escalated by global exposure to each other. We used to live in small tribes, oblivious to each other except for a few neighboring tribes. Now we know what people think of us far away in other cultures. There are trolls lurking everywhere, waiting to pounce on our last words with theirs.