Friday, September 9
Friday, September 09, 2005
If we generalize from a few bad experiences that "no good deed goes unpunished" and avoid doing good altogether, we will die as a culture. If we find ways to show kindness where it's safe, and to create safe spaces for it, we might have some chance of survival.
Images, sounds and feelings associated with traumatic events can get stuck in the brain, override reality and superimpose hallucinations of danger (even "demons") on situations that are normally viewed as safe. That's why PTSD victims can react with rage to babies crying, and why 250 pound men can view 120 pound women as threats and assault them, insisting it was a justified response. In evolutionary terms, it makes more sense to err on the side of security than to take risks, and that's why the social fabric can get so precariously thin... people start avoiding danger to the degree that they lose the ability to reach out. They withdraw into groups where they feel safe and avoid contact with other groups, sometimes blowing up the tiniest differences in belief into huge gaps that can't be overcome. Eventually the culture is destroyed by its own lack of cohesion. It's a fractal pattern, so each individual can feel his or her part in the fragmentation process is not their fault, yet everyone inherits guilt from it and some go insane because they can't distinguish their individual guilt from the collective "sin" they're part of.
People can be scary. But consider what happens when millions of good-hearted people withdraw from the world. It's not that there are good people and evil people and we only have to get rid of the evil people. It's that the people who see opportunity to do good withdraw, leaving a vacuum. That vacuum is filled with anger, manipulation or violence. We (as a species) need to find a way to bring the good into the center, to fill the void. To do that, we need to make it safe to do good, or discover what situations are safer than others. If we view kindness to strangers as unsafe by default, we'll lose much of what makes civilization possible and worthwhile.
Cynicism is stereotyping a wide range of situations as potentially harmful. Often it involves taking a wide view of time, so that even helping people who are clearly harmless is seen as a potentially draining commitment in the long term ("If I help them now, they'll just keep wanting help and take advantage of me"). There are a lot of cognitive errors and automatic reactions involved, and "cynicism" is just a general label slapped over something more complex and involved. There is no cure for cynicism, because there is no sensory information in the word "cynicism". But changing how you react to specific situations is possible.
Sometimes cynics are just very sensitive and feel they have to help in EVERY situation, and then go to the other extreme when that backfires. It helps to talk about specifics, what happened when and how that became generalized into "avoid everything that reminds me of this". There's a tendency for a series of bad experiences to coalesce into a massive generalization about life, so you have to dig beneath a generalization and go into what actually happened and how you felt about it. At this point in history, where television and current events have put us all in a state of hypervigilance, we really need to confront fear of loss and death, and probably some guilt as well. We need to ask ourselves, what is life for? Is it for security, self-interest, altruism, teamwork, entertainment or spirituality? Events like the flood force us to confront the hard questions we've been taught to avoid, and often it is church people who handle it well because they already have a spiritual framework that includes charity and a story that gives them meaning. Those of us who are not religious may have to develop something similar if we want to stay sane.