Bonfire

“During these times of intensified anxiety and social unrest, why don’t you write more about your views on issues of national and international importance? You have a reputation for being a voice of reason, and I’d like to know how you stand on some of the larger controversies we’re facing these days, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns, the US presidential election, the BLM movement and global warming.”

In general, I try to focus on my field of experience, which is in looking at dynamics under the surface and how to engage conversations about them more effectively.

I will say that what I find most anxiety-producing and cause for social (and personal) unrest are all the current forms of knee-jerk tribal reactionism. These often take the form of aggressively rigid opinions backed up and supported by one’s “tribe” of similarly-thinking individuals. One doesn’t really listen to other viewpoints, because as they are coming one’s way the “listener” is already preparing their rebuttal arguments, inevitably establishing a permanent disconnection in the dialogue, so nothing can really be discovered on either side. Energy, research and reflection goes into collecting additional ammunition for the next round of conflict. This contextual tone of exclusionism goes deeper than any of the issues, and it is from there that each issue is fueled to higher levels of violent reaction (even if that is unspoken), essentially eliminating any possibility for creative resolution.

An indicator of ignorance is often the presumption that one has more and superior knowledge than those with opposing viewpoints (such as special access to some source material or group, or vague “intuitive” notions, that reveals what’s really going on). Conversely, a real indicator of wisdom, or even acute intelligence, is the ability to remain resiliently agile in the face of temptations to collapse into one’s already-existing, unnoticed prejudices. Some understanding of basic communication would help, too: how to actually get one’s point of view across the bridge to someone else you wish to convince and motivate without unknowingly generating an unspoken response, such as, “Oh, no! Here (s)he goes again with the same argument in the same tone of voice! Like hitting the same three notes on the piano over and over.”

If I were to vote on any of the issues you’ve brought up here, I’d vote for some wisdom and acute intelligence (including emotional intelligence) in careful study, especially of one’s own habitual prejudices…so one can at least enter into a comprehensive conversation from which a more thoroughly truthful, and trustworthy, understanding might be found.

As you suggest, these are times when our familiar patterns are seriously disrupted, causing all kinds of suffering, anxiety and confusion. We are challenged in ways that are new and distressing. Such times offer opportunities to either pull back even further into our shells of opinionated, hostile separatism or to venture out beyond our comfortably familiar isolation toward more inclusive, humane and ultimately effective perspectives. That’s not about being nice, empathetic or even kind, necessarily; it’s about the genuine underlying intent to search for resolutions so that things function better.

Gore Vidal once wrote, “At any given moment, public opinion is a chaos of superstition, misinformation and prejudice.” Of course the inclination is to accuse others of these, but are we really sure we’re free of them ourselves? This seems a good question to consider before our next controversial conversation or placing our next vote or social media post. That would give us more of a chance to not just throw another log into the bonfire of chaos.

Painting by Hieronymus Bosch

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