For several years, I have toyed with writing a book on 'Healing Divisiveness,' or some variation on the theme. But hosting few convictions, zero answers, and a healthy resistance to stating anything remotely definitive, I've managed to jot down little more than outlines, the beginnings of essays meant to become chapters, and the like. Whenever I've tried to write anything remotely academic or prescriptive in the past, I've always gotten bored (read:wanted to slit my wrists or jump out the nearest window) and gone back to my first love: narrative.
This time around was no different.
So far, I have resisted attaching any significance to what some are calling the 'new normal,' as ushered in by the #Coronaapocalypse. I have heard many speculate about the shift that will take place societally, but I have reserved a 'wait-and-see' attitude. However, today, a confluence of factors inspired a few ideas which I thought I'd share as #foodforthought or, to some, maybe even #inspiration! It loosely fits into the theme of my pipe dream, the aforementioned book that will likely never be completed. Enjoy!
Healing a Fractured World From Within
Divisiveness seems to be the word of the day. Most evident in the political arena, differing ideologies in recent years (or platforms, as the case may be) have led to nothing short of an impasse. Or more accurately, one standoff after another. Threats of a government shutdown blend seamlessly one into the next. No longer tempered by the lost art of rational discourse, these conflicts fester as seismic rage, revealing cultural fractures in a myriad of other areas—tiny fissures that have widened to rival the Grand Canyon, no bridge in sight. Each political party points the finger at the other for the current state of affairs, each administration blaming the last. Talking heads posit that the incorrigible conduct of our leaders began with Newt Gingritch or the Whitewater Investigation, or the spawning of Nancy Pelosi by aliens, with the inception of CNN or Fox News or mention of cigars and presidential penises being slathered across national headlines. If our representatives have lost the ability to see eye-to-eye or even cooperate, how can we be expected to?
I have always subscribed to the idea that change begins within. Michael Jackson suggested we all start with The Man In the Mirror to effect change. Mahatma Ghandi wisely counseled us to ‘be the change you wish to see in the world.’ We all know Ghandi is beyond reproach, in the way of Mother Theresa and Meryl Streep; the three can do no wrong. They are not just pillars, but—dare I say—a collective holy trinity of wisdom. And impeccable acting technique. Put clinically, the micro affects the macro when it comes to cultural change and paradigm shift.
The recent health crisis known as Covid-19, or conversely, quarantine, lockdown, or #Coronaapocalypse—take your pick—has served as a Rorschach test for the masses. Just yesterday, I spotted a post in my Facebook feed which managed, beyond reason, to make Q-Tips a political hot button while also linking protective face coverings (from medical grade K95s to your run of the mill stoner bandana) to racial profiling. Each added stressor to daily life seems to reawaken a sleeping giant, signaling not progress or even a pendulum swing, but outright regression. There are myriad aspects to the bobbing corpse of cultural strife, and an equal number of conversations to be had. Many are speculating about the significance of this moment in time, the challenges this pandemic poses worldwide. They predict the ‘big shift’ that will result, the social and cultural evolution that will take place. Hence the Rorschach test analogy. Personally, my own life challenges of late have preemptively forged a broadened perspective, one that has compelled me to resist projecting any significance on this impasse. Or in the spirit of this essay, the crisis/opportunity it represents. J Without a grain of cynicism, I have heard myself say, ‘I have a wait-and-see attitude; folks are pretty slow to change. As is society.’ If that sounds grim, let me add that I one hundred percent believe as Dr. King did: that although the arc of the moral universe is long, it does bend toward justice. I regularly point out the ways in which we are evolving as a species, however slowly. I am also enjoying the reduced traffic, better air quality, lower crime rates and (almost) reasonable rents in L.A. that have resulted from said pandemic, but these shifts are regional and far from permanent.
What has occurred to me in all of this is what I find most prescient, and what inspires the premise of this article. My entire adult life has been devoted to my craft—that of being an artist and a writer. Though no true artist or author wishes to identify an agenda, I did realize in my twenties that the umbrella informing all my work, regardless of concept or theme, was a desire to simply open eyes, hearts or minds. To many things—the multiple levels beyond the surface of any given moment, our interconnectedness, the metaphysical or spiritual aspect of biological life. But beyond those objectives, another aspect driving my work occurred to me in witnessing various reactions to the isolation demanded by this moment in time: my entire life I’ve touted the value of introspection and self-reflection. Some have called the current lockdown ‘an introvert’s dream.’ Guilty as charged. Being a freelancer who works from home anyway, and having been in self-imposed isolation due to the aforementioned health challenges, I have heard myself jest that very little has changed in my life, other than the ability to score toilet paper without resorting to the black market.
Ironically, the social distancing now required by law has forced many to slow down. This, in turn, has forced them to spend time with their own thoughts. For some, this means a return to their true essence or childhood self; to others, it means anxiety, panic and outright terror. ‘Doers’ are confronted with guilt for not accomplishing enough, for being self-indulgent or lazy. Speaking for myself, I can’t help but see this moment as an opportunity for individuals to get to know cobwebby corners of their minds, to witness their own thoughts and feelings without diversion. The requisite contemplation is an opportunity to separate mind chatter from spirit and parse ego-driven, mind-dominated thought forms from a pure state of being. Or better yet—to appreciate the flutter of a leaf and the dapple of light that’s landed on it, or the simple sounds of silence. How could the resulting stillness (otherwise known as wellbeing or inner peace) not collectively impact the world on a macro level? At the risk of quoting a 1970s Ginsu knife commercial, don’t answer yet; it’s rhetorical.
Many of the aforementioned divides could be bridged in society if we took the opportunity to do so—this opportunity. This moment of silence and stillness. Yes, the bridge begins with the person in the mirror and theoretically extends to tropes, collective thought forms and paradigms—even institutionalized dogmas on a mass level. Among the mental divides one could pinpoint that fuel cultural strife: the obvious political divide (Democrat vs. Republican,) the liberal versus conservative mindset, the debate between science and religion (which I correlate to underlying Empirical or Rational worldviews, respectively) and Western Medicine versus Eastern, (which correlate, arguably, with mechanistic or holistic models.) Then there’s the culturally pervasive divide between masculine and feminine in all aspects of society, from the conceptual to the practical, informing the current shift from an oppressive model of misogynistic patriarchy toward gender equality. There’s the right brain sensibility versus left, ageism versus youthism (or ‘Boomers versus Millennials’) capitalism versus socialism, all begging to be reconciled. These examples of opposing forces do not constitute a laundry list of grievances or even societal ills, but they are the tip of an iceberg. And now the clincher: they’re also illusions.
The thing is, everything’s in the semantics. The ideas are diametrically opposed due primarily to the insufficiency of language and a lack of perspective.
Socrates introduced what is now known as the ‘Socratic method.’ He found that if enough questions were asked, any definitive statement could be disproven. Example: the sky is not in fact blue; it appears so but only at certain times of day and subject to conditions like lighting and atmosphere. An apple is not always an apple: sometimes it’s a seed, or in complete decay. All its particles are subject to what is known as flux, or time and circumstance. Similarly, one could say that all accepted empirical fact is based solely on consensus. The former concepts were philosophical. But modern quantum mechanics confirms the role of the observer in all perception. Without an observer, waves do not fix as particles but remain in the field of pure potential. The narrow margin of perception that allows for consensus in human perception counts a very specific chemical balance among its requirements. If that precise balance of neural transmitters, peptides or hormones is off one iota, a wall can breathe or a shelf of yogurt in the supermarket can appear to extend to eternity, each stack of plastic containers arranged in perfect pyramids as far as the eye can see. Anyone who’s done shrooms or acid knows that. (Side note: author does not recommend dropping acid in a supermarket.)
Humans rely, arguably, on five senses (though science is beginning to acknowledge more than the traditional five) for our brains to filter, process and interpret stimuli. However, if a fly with five eyes comprised of millions of photoreceptors enters a room, it will experience the environment very differently from you or I—with a nearly 360 degree cone of vision. If a dolphin enters the room (never mind how) it will rely, among other senses, on sonar to orient itself—a sense we humans don’t even possess.
None of this is controversial or debatable (unless you are Socrates or generally an instigator) but in case you fail to connect the dots or see how any of this applies to the cultural divide, let me spell it out: the role of perception is paramount. Reality is subjective. So why would abstract concepts (morals, ethics, codes, ideas, values) be any different than the realm of the tangible? When asked to recount a purse snatching, every member of a test pool invariably describes the assailant as wearing a hat or pair of Vans Slip-ons of a different color than those reported by the other subjects. This fact is the reason I spend sleepless nights dreading the moment I am asked to participate in a police lineup. Similarly, I cannot imagine for one moment taking on the responsibility of being a judge, so sure of—well, anything definitive—as to have a hand in another’s fate. The play and film ‘Doubt’ beautifully and succinctly illustrate the hubris behind such confidence. In the context of cultural divisiveness, recognizing the role of perspective, across the board, is but one factor that could prove key to bridging it. Incidentally, another bi-product of broadened perspective is compassion. If only more of us practiced it.
The second factor we could all consider in order to synthesize seemingly opposing ideas is this: they are really only diametrically opposed due to what I call the Grand Illusion: the human compulsion to create opposites. This ‘black-and-white’ mindset is most dominant in Western culture: the drive to label everything as good, bad, right or wrong, from one’s sexual orientation to, well…a Q-Tip. To attribute good or evil, to apply wings or horns. Perhaps we could all benefit from a more eastern understanding that the Yin cannot exist without the Yang, the darkness without the light. That balance and harmony are innate when both are assigned value. That everything in life is neutral except our response to it; every crisis is an opportunity in disguise.
The Kybalion, based on Hermetic principles that predate Christ, speaks of gamuts. Rather than polar opposites, most concepts can be thought to exist on a continuum with extremes. Though the extremes are on opposite ends of a conceptual stick, they are not mutually exclusive. When it comes to any aspect of the human condition, like the gamut from love to fear, compassion to intolerance, or intellectualism to emotionality, most of us have experienced the full range at one time or another. Much as the body seeks homeostasis, the mind seeks balance. And we know when we are out of whack. Both ends of any mental stick exist in all of us; I would posit that this reservoir of shared experience is innate to our humanity. The ability to tap into it explains Meryl Streep, for one.
The third phenomenon we might be wise to rise above, culturally speaking, is that of confirmation bias. It is as pervasive as gravity, and potentially just as dangerous.. Like gravity, its tug on humanity is as old as time. In the fourth century BC, Thucydides wrote of treason during the Pelopponesian war: ‘... for it is a habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not fancy.’ Simply put, confirmation bias is the sociological principle that people tend to look for, interpret, favor and recall that which confirms existing beliefs and prejudices. Imagine a sixteen year-old who throughout childhood has heard his father complaining about ‘those damn Asian drivers,’ or ‘women drivers,’ and internalized the stereotype. When he gets his license and is first cut off on the freeway, he will speed up to see what an idiot looks like. If the driver happens to be Asian, or female, he will file it with his current worldview, bias effectively confirmed. If the driver is neither Asian nor female, the moment will be forgotten. Confirmation bias manifests in many ways, from ‘cherry picking’ data to rhetoric to the editorial choice of what to give mental ‘airtime’ to. It is most often subconscious. But practiced demagogues expertly wield their understanding of its effect; in fact, they rely on it to manipulate the masses. It is a common sentiment that most are on ‘autopilot.’ Rather than developing a MetaSelf, exercising the ‘conscious observer’ that witnesses thoughts and trains them to be more productive, they remain preoccupied with the almighty dollar, keeping up w/the Jones’s, shopping at Sephora and injecting Sculptra into one or more body parts to get more ‘likes’ on Instagram.
A meme that got my attention recently stated: I have configured the parental control settings on my parents’ TV to disallow Fox News, and I truly believe this is what will save the world. I got a good laugh out of it, but also recognized its ring of truth. We are all guilty of submerging ourselves in propaganda that confirms our biases, or otherwise limiting our bubble to likeminded individuals. I am admittedly more likely to watch CNN or MSNBC than Fox News. I do believe that (conspiracy theories and ‘fake news’ aside) the truth is largely available to the masses. But it requires sifting through all reliable outlets, from MSNBC and CNN through Network News and Fox News to Al Jazeera, and judiciously distilling the information. In my twenties, before I was TOFTS and had more patience, I regularly tuned into the Rush Limbaugh show to remain abreast of all mindsets, with some innate understanding that I should resist settling into an echo chamber. That, or I was simply a glutton for punishment.
The fourth factor worth investigating (if I were in the business of persuading) would be the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance. When confronted with new information that contradicts or conflicts with old beliefs, we experience tension. This anxiety accounts for the digging in of heels, the refuge we take in the all-too-easy shelter of confirmation bias, and nothing less than shouting matches in the halls of the Capitol building. It is simply ego (synonymous with both mind-dominance and pride, arguably) that drives us to protect our ideas and beliefs at all costs—to be right. But the rare, evolved individual recognizes that all tension is an opportunity for learning and growth once resolved. Conflicting ideas become synthesized according to Hegel’s model of dialectic: thesis, antithesis and finally synthesis. Such a process can be seen as vital to all growth or evolution on both the micro and macro levels. In storytelling—a basic human drive, the theme imparted is categorically a product of conflict resolution. This innate understanding may be what drives a cultural addiction to drama, explaining the horrible turn of events that is reality television. And yet, if tension and conflict are the gateway to growth and evolution, where lies the problem with divisiveness? There may be no problem at all; discourse and conversation drive social reform. All mindsets play a part, from those of militant activists to pacifists, from those who work ‘with the system’ to those who fight it. But it’s clear most of us would prefer to see the progress enacted with a bit more civility. While understanding the role of ‘righteous indignation’ and ‘rage against the machine,’ we could begin to return to a climate where new ideas are not threatening and healthy discourse is a virtue.
I am constantly inspired by those individuals who take any opportunity to broaden their perspective, to expand their minds. Those intellectually curious seekers who have made a commitment not to be taxed by life or amass grievances, but to ever evolve. My peers often commiserate we were raised by a generation who had little capacity to ‘learn from’ their children. It is much more common now for new ideas (or those that each new generation believe they invented but which have been around since the dawn of time) to be adopted by older generations in their cutting edge form. It’s been said that beliefs are nothing more than ‘thoughts we keep thinking.’ In this way, our worldviews can be seen as jigsaw puzzles, one belief interlocked and fitted with dozens of others. Or better yet, as giant tapestries woven from many threads of belief. The thing is, it’s never finished. And we are our own weavers.
The fifth or final factor that could have an impact on narrowing the chasm would be what I call airtime. Returning to the example I cited earlier, that of the politicized Q-Tip and the face-mask-as-racial-profiling post seen on Facebook. It came from the usual suspect—one of many who seem intent to prove with every post—or virtual online breath, if you will—that the world is a shitty place. We’re talking everything from the last asinine thing an orange dictator might have uttered to a bloody dog being dragged across coarse asphalt. We’ve all experienced it—that image we can’t scroll fast enough to avoid, and then can never unsee. This type is not an Internet ‘troll,’ per se, but may suffer from extremely poor judgment. In defense of the ‘world-shittiness’ purveyors of social media, I will say many of them likely believe they are using the platform to expose or draw attention to underrepresented causes. However, a case could be made that they are, in fact, perpetuating them. Beyond the conversation to do with the ‘proper forum’ for such, there is the question of efficacy. We’ve all heard of the phenomenon of ‘copycat’ high speed chases and even school shootings. Another example from the lexicon of cultural milestones might be the failed War on Drugs of the '80s. The Romeo and Juliet effect is alive and well in modern culture. Due to the Law of Attraction, ‘energy flows where attention goes.’ Or put another way, what we put our attention on manifests. This is true for individuals, and societally via all forms of media. Consider the idea that the frequency of a problem is far from that of its solution. There just might be immeasurable value in fighting for rather than fighting against. Beating old, tired drums effects only perpetuation, whereas taking inspired action to move toward a solution can change the world.
It’s been said many of us are a walking grievances looking for a cause. And the current climate rewards the mentality. A climate of victimization and blaming has taken the place of the virtue of overcoming and emerging victorious despite circumstances. Personally, I recognize that all approaches work together, in order to keep everything in check, that all mindsets and approaches to effecting change have value. I really do say ‘Amen’ to all of it. Still, I can’t help but theorize that by recognizing our human compulsion to file mental grievances, my hunch is that progress would accelerate exponentially.
In this author’s estimation, by practicing judicious, convergent thinking, understanding perspective (also known as compassion,) exercising brain plasticity and rejecting the temptations of confirmation bias, many imaginary divides could be bridged. If more individuals adopted free-thinking in favor of the base drive to 'belong' or identify with a group at the expense of the 'other,' there would be fewer casualties. There would be no need to forge a common enemy. Evolutionary theory posits that any social phenomenon that has persisted over time serves the propagation of the species in some way. But there is catch-up time. As we evolve, obsolete institutions take their time falling by the wayside. Example: canine teeth. We can be smarter than our biology, and some would say that capacity is synonymous with being human. If more individuals graduated from unproductive habits of thought that no longer serve them, once critical mass was reached, paradigms on the macro scale would follow suit. Sort of like ‘herd immunity’ from outdated thought forms. This is the way of dialectic.
Undoubtedly, the argument could be made that most cannot rise above their temperament or disposition. That DNA dictates a structural mindset, worldview, or ‘personality type’ that is set in stone. To this way of thinking, individuals appear to be bound by DNA to a type A or a Type B personality, to a distinct Enneagran profile, to their astrological sign by the stars or to their introverted nature by Carl Jung himself. But back to semantics. Each seemingly rigid chart can simply be thought of as a language—a way of looking at things; we are all complex amalgams of universal traits dictated by countless as yet mysterious factors. Further, epigenetics has told us for decades now that even DNA is malleable, more like clay than marble. We are all familiar with the shared role of nature and nurture on influencing genetic expression. Modern epigenetics indicates that every gene on one’s DNA strand can be expressed or repressed—squelched—depending on the methyl groups formed. These methyl groups are the malleable part, shaped by environment, habits, practices, diet and exercise regimes and…the chemicals regulated via our thought process. It is up to us whether those habits of thought are productive or destructive. The methyl groups we craft throughout life, like clay, those that express or squelch traits on our DNA strand, are what we pass on to our children in the moment of conception. Perhaps more inspiring is knowing we have an influence on the environment in which those children are raised—the values, morals, ethics, thought forms and principles they are exposed to. The implications are endless, especially in the intangible realm. Simple beliefs—about aging or love or money or how we culturally define success—are repeated by those who have observed the status quo, and thereby perpetuated as tropes, colloquialisms and limiting beliefs. By freeing ourselves from often-misguided sentiments, conventional wisdoms and understandings to which the mainstream has resigned, can we begin to create new paradigms. This is how we inch closer to our true human potential.
The characterization that many in society are comfortable with diversion is not a moralistic ‘call to action’ for humanity to reject materialism and superficiality and return to intrinsic values (though that would be nice.) Rather, it’s a gentle offering of perspective—one way to look at things. And this stolen, unforeseen moment of enforced isolation is the perfect opportunity for self-reflection and introspection. If we all recognized when we were on ‘autopilot,’ we might catch ourselves trapped in rut, a comfortable ‘habit of thought.’ We all have them! Most destructive thought patterns are actual neural circuits that can be disentangled. Not necessarily through hard work—mantras, positive affirmations taped to a mirror, or chanting while throwing a dead chicken over one shoulder. But by simply clearing the mind. It is during moments of quiet contemplation that our neural connections disentangle, leaving room for new, better thought forms. It would seem this is an elaborate sales pitch for the practice of meditation; it is not. Some quiet their minds by engaging in a sport like running; it is then that alpha waves replace reverie, or mental chatter, in the brain. Others achieve the same diminishment of linear thought while singing or playing guitar, allowing vibration to resonate through every cell of their bodies. I have been surrounded by fellow artists for decades; I count us fortunate for having had the opportunity to engage in the creative process regularly. When drawing or painting (from the model, a still life, or when plein aire painting on location) linear thought subsides and restorative alpha waves take over. Though I am a big fan of the creative process as personal catharsis and its larger impact on humanity, one need not have a studied craft to find the space where stillness, wellbeing and inner peace reside; anyone can indulge a stolen moment of what so sorely lacks in contemporary life: silence. Anyone—even those buried in diapers and chasing toddlers about can steal a moment here or there to align with their core essence, absent mind and ego. And in the end, self-care can only benefit those we serve. We simply have more to offer when we are in alignment. There is immeasurable value in the simple act of watching that subtle, nearly imperceptible flutter of a leaf, the dance of golden dapples of light thereupon, or simply listening to the subtle breeze—even if it stirs outside a dirty, snot-smudged window.