What Makes Humanity Tick...Like a Time Bomb

And what we all can do to stop it from going off

Posted Apr 29, 2014

You may have noticed this pattern:  Folks go through a mid-life crisis and suddenly they’ve seen the light, the big picture solution.  They get cancer and suddenly they know once and for all what really matters. Folks fall victim to some market crash or other calamity and suddenly they claim they can distinguish with a broad brush between worthy and unworthy, right and wrong, good and bad. They go to prison and suddenly they become fanatically religious. They foresee the onslaught of uncontrollable change, and suddenly they’re authorities on how to solve all our problems.  

In other words in crisis, folks get religion, or spirituality, or they get philosophical and discover the meaning of life, or they get political and suddenly know what would cure all our problems, or at least who’s to blame for all of our problems. One way or another they end up with a new creed, dogmatically committed to The One True Answer.

You may have also noticed this other pattern:  When the going gets tough, or at least when we get scared, we tend very strongly to cling tight to our comfort zones. We don’t become irrational; we just narrow our rational focus to immediate concerns, getting through the next week, looking out for number one.  We can’t afford to think about the big picture since our immediate world is in turmoil. We get tunnel vision and short sighted. Like that mad rush on supplies when the weather bureau predicts  a hurricane.  Every man for himself.  In a crisis, people can get downright greedy. 

As our world enters ever deeper into a period of uncertainty we see both tendencies. We get both more creedy and more greedy, more urgently idealistic, and more urgently eager to get and hoard whatever we need today.

This may seem odd. How can crises make us both more big-picture certain, and little-picture urgent at the same time?

The answer is simple if you remember that what’s most threatened in a crisis is certainty itself.  No matter what particular scarcity you face--a loss of food, shelter, water, health, friends, love, money, prospects--the one scarcity all scarcities have in common is a scarcity of confidence.

Uncertainty isn’t anyone’s comfort zone.  Our comfort zones are, by definition, the places where we experience the greatest certainty, the sense that we’ve made good decisions and will continue to make them.  In our comfort zones we trust our intuitions. In a crisis, our intuitions aren’t working. We’re disoriented and we make a mad rush toward the comfort zone of confidence, often through ideology.

Nothing instills confidence like a sweeping ideology.  Embracing one, we may think we’re paying attention to the big picture but really the ideology’s payoff is to the little picture.  Ideology restores certainty, which is exactly what we lack in a crisis.  Since we’re all somewhat dubophobic (doubt-fearing) we all have the potential to become dogmaphilic (dogma seeking).

This may seem a small point. I mean so what if people get enthusiastic when they go through tough times? Humor them. Throw the dog a bone.  If you were going through what they’re going through, you’d hope people would tolerate your enthusiastically sweeping confidence too.

But it’s actually a huge point, perhaps the biggest point about humanity’s threat to itself.  Think of how crisis-driven self-serving dogma plays out worldwide.

I’m sure you’ve seen this pattern before: Leaders who hate people and the people who love them. Greedy leaders who talk as though they’re only interested in people, and the people who believe them.

Break it down:  Leaders, having scrambled to the pinnacle of power live in fear of being toppled and so become mad ideologues ignoring the long-term consequences of their choices.  Their states start failing which scares the citizens making them scramble for confidence-restoring ideology, whatever supposedly big picture story gets them through their small, immediate night.

And dogma ratchets always tighter, rarely looser. If climbing to the pinnacle of power is scary because you have so far to fall, so too is climbing to the heights of ivory tower dogma. The further up into self-certainty you go the more humiliating it would be to back down. Being a fanatic usually means never thinking you have to say you’re sorry. Societies loose their power to self-correct, so their crises compound.

And then the dogmas meet on the boarders of neighboring dubiophobic, dogmaphilic cultures, creating still more crises, of the kind we see in news reports every day.

Largely because when the going gets tough, we naturally cling to whatever big idea makes us feel tough. 

This is the dark side of thinking globally, acting locally.  It’s claiming a global focus to serve one’s local needs.  It is civilization’s number one killer.

Can we overcome this natural tendency?  That’s civilization’s number one question. The crises ahead demand more subtle calm thoughtfulness, and our impulse is toward the opposite: dogmatic myopium—the pain-killing effects of shortsighted dogma.

At least part of the solution is local.  We can learn to recognize dubiophobia and dogmaphilia in ourselves. After all, who among us doesn’t get tunnel vision in a crisis? Who among us doesn’t gravitate toward a confidence-restoring oversimplification?  So Investigate the immediate payoffs of your heartfelt philosophy.  Remember and study a time in your life when you too got the heady payoff from big dogma.

And then there’s an exercise I like. Call it Tight Hope Walking

It’s easy to philosophize evenhandedly as a spectator on life, when you’ve got nothing at stake really and you can just play observer. It’s harder than hell to do it when you’ve got sensitive skin in the game, hopes and fears tightening around your heart.

When tightropewalking, it’s hard to keep your balance in such strong internal and external winds.  You have to learn to lean against the winds when they gust in and at you.

So practice until it gets easier. Counter your strongest biases.  Tip your most sacred cows.  For example, talk about how it’s fair for partners to break up with each other when someone’s just broken up with you excruciatingly. Talk about how the customer is always right when your biggest customers are leaving you in revenue-draining droves, talk about how government can help when the government just annoyed you, talk about how your enemy might be right when you’re most confident he’s wrong, talk about the value of doubt, when you have way more of it than your poor heart can handle.