Of all of the problems facing modern American society, IMO the two biggest and the ones I fear most are widespread distrust and invented narratives. These two problems seem to affect every American, regardless of gender, race, religion or anything else. Their effects are an inability to connect with others, and a widespread and pervasive fear of everything that screws up everybody, IMO. I am not a prognosticator, so I do not know what the long-term effects of these two tendencies will be, but if it ended up bringing us all down or lead to some horrible (read: Holocaust-level) tragedy, I wouldn’t be shocked (and yes, I am aware of the fear-mongering nature of that statement). What I do know for certain is that I personally can’t live my life this way, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot.
Let me start with widespread distrust. I am not sure at what point our society took this awful turn, but I fear that it is tearing us apart. Essentially, what I mean by widespread distrust is that we no longer trust anybody, be they family or friend, coworker or acquaintance, corporation or individual. It’s this mentality that keeps people from finding significant others or staying in those relationships if and when they do. People seem to believe that everybody out there is a weirdo with an agenda (except them) and meet people with this baggage in tow, already waiting for the other shoe to drop. When they do meet someone, they don’t open up to that person, and then wonder why they’re unable to find anybody or connect, choosing instead to blame it on the other person or worse, blame society at large (because both outcomes put it out of your control, the latter most of all). This leads to loneliness, and it’s been proven that human beings are social animals, making this extremely damaging. It prevents people from starting families, and doesn’t help those families stay together – widespread distrust creates a feeling of instability; instability can lead to infidelity. Children who come from families that are broken apart lose a level of ability to trust themselves, and suffer trauma to varying degrees. Pets become more important than people, sending the message that a person’s value to another in a relationship pales in comparison to the value they place in their pet. And why not? Pets are easy. They can’t really communicate in any substantive way, so keeping them satisfied requires no effort. Your children, your parents, your significant other – these relationships are hard. You have to work at them to make them work, and even if you do, who’s to say you’ll get a positive outcome? Approval is controlled by the receiver, not the giver. Don’t trust the other person to begin with, and establishing trust is even harder still.
Now I’m not saying that people should or could trust everybody – far from it. There are those who, I’m sure, would blame this rampant distrust on the media because, let’s face it, blaming things on the media is another way of not blaming ourselves. The media reports all kinds of bad news, creating this sense (unintentionally, in my view), that there is a child molester, rapist, murderer, or con artist behind every corner. How can you trust anybody when we live in a world where even Michael Jackson might molest your kids and OJ Simpson might kill you? So I understand and acknowledge that yes, in many cases, mistrust is founded. What I wonder, though (emphasis on wonder – I am offering no solutions here) is why we were able to trust most people before, or at least felt like we could. Capitalism is what really informs the news – negative news is more sensational, so it means potentially higher ratings (hence the notion of “action news”), could that also be a source of mistrust? The idea that everybody has an ulterior motive, either to sell us something, or get something from us based on what they know about us? Is it technology that makes it easier for people to commit crimes and distribute the information we give them? Again, I honestly do not know. I just know that at the end of the day, you can trace people’s behavior toward one another to that general feeling of mistrust. It’s why the girl at the bar doesn’t trust the guy who starts talking to her, waiting to see where he’s going with this, or why talk radio believes that any time someone of the opposing party does anything, they have an angle they’re trying to play to get more money and / or power for their side. Which brings us to invented narratives.
I know a lot about invented narratives because his tendency to do this is the single most annoying thing about my father. Basically, it happens when an individual forms an opinion or belief, and then filters every other bit of information they get about the world through that belief. You hear it on talk radio when the pundit decides s/he knows all about the faction s/he opposes, so whenever any member of that opposing faction does or says anything, it’s because of what the pundit believes to be true, and the same goes for their side. Someone on their side could make a complete faux pas, and there’s some logical explanation that absolves him / her. If it’s impossible to find an explanation, that person is simply no longer part of the group. The narrative has to continue no matter what. It’s the basis of religion – if something bad happens, it was meant to be or God works in mysterious ways. If something good happens, that’s proof that the believer has been doing the right thing – indeed, this is the basis for the Protestant work ethic, that because salvation is predestined, success in life is the only indication as to whether an individual would be going to Heaven or Hell. Easiest and most obvious indicator of this? Success in business and acquisition of wealth. Secular people do it too, though – if X group are victims of society, every bad thing members of that group does is just the result of that victimization, not anything that might be flawed about their nature or the result of just plain bad decision making or poor values. It’s the “born loser” mentality also – anything bad that happens to a person they believe is connected to every other bad thing that happened to them, creating the narrative of their just plain being a loser. Or unlucky. Or stupid. Or any other narrative human beings believe about themselves, others, or the world at large. Narratives, after all, came into being, we’re told, as a way to better understand the world and remember things. Indeed, that’s what aphorisms are, after all – those “rules of thumb” like “a penny saved is a penny earned” or “don’t trust anybody over thirty,” or “believe in yourself and you can accomplish anything” are ultimately just ways of creating a narrative about the world that makes it easier to understand. And that, in essence, is what’s wrong with all of the above.
The world, and everybody who live in it, are not black or white, and thus impossible to understand all of the time.
See, nothing is all bad or all good, and there is no word of advice that will apply successfully to everything in every situation. The world has too much variation. People are, as Chris Rock said, full of it. We do things that directly contradict our stated beliefs all the time. Why? Because both the situations we encounter and the way we feel from year to year, day to day, moment to moment, changes. Even when a person becomes very old, and they don’t change as much, the circumstances they encounter can and do – indeed, their body itself isn’t what it used to be. Creating a narrative is thus inherently wrong-headed, because there is no narrative, or as Stephen Hawking put it, no absolute, unified theory of everything. We can only figure out what works for us in a given situation, and when it doesn’t, figure out something else. Just because every loser we dated was, well, a loser, doesn’t mean that the next person will be. Just because we’ve always known a person and they’ve always been good doesn’t mean they will never do anything wrong and won’t do it tomorrow. The world is just too random. It defies a narrative. So even people you trust may let you down eventually.
So what to do? Again, I can’t answer that question for anybody else, but what I want to do is get over my fear of the world, learn to take it head on, and then figure it out when I get there. I am willing and eager to gamble on people, and when I fail, accept responsibility, fix what I can, and then move on. Why? Because I can’t live in a world where I fear everything to the point of inaction and everybody to the point that I don’t do anything and feel lonely all the time. I’ve done that for far too long. I also can’t say that anything is all good and all bad, given context. Regardless of how good or bad a situation looks, I need to gather as much information as I can before drawing a conclusion. If differing evidence presents itself, I need to be ready to draw a different one. I just don’t know everything, nor am I equipped to judge. All I know is that I want a life where I have more good days than bad that I can share with other people. I can’t feel despondent and lonely all the time. I just have too much life left to live, and know that if I gamble on others, and don’t fall down the narrative rabbit hole, I can probably come out okay.
Probably, again, being the key. Because at the end of the day, I just don’t know. Thankfully, neither does anybody else.