In times of political and social upheaval and attacks on commonly-held ways of thinking, it’s easy to hit the panic button and explode into Nostradamus-like predictions of worldly destruction. That kind of thinking does not lead to change, answers, or progress, however. It’s better to take your misunderstanding by the horns and lead it to new places of self-discovery, skepticism, and eventual insights that could help shape the future.
I recently picked up Yuval Noah Harari’s “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” and, like a canary in a coal mine, its loud tweets have been a wake up call to my own way of thinking. The following passage, on which this article will be based, spoke to me in such a way that it’s helping me realize my own internal panic and has inspired me to try to guide it toward someplace different:
“We are still in the nihilist movement of disillusionment and anger, after people have lost faith in the old stories but before they have embraced a new one. So what next? The first step is to tone down the prophecies of doom and switch from panic mode to bewilderment. Panic is a form of hubris. It comes from the smug feeling that one knows exactly where the world is heading: down. Bewilderment is more humble and therefore more clear-sighted. Do you feel like running down the street crying ‘The apocalypse is upon us’? Try telling yourself, ‘No, it’s not that. Truth is, I just don’t understand what’s going on in the world’”
I’ve always been an opinionated person and my obvious sarcastic cynicism has largely been a result of life not living up to my idealistic worldview. Through my own convictions, I guess my lean has always been toward the left, however, because I trend toward progressive thought. Equality, a removal of gender and racial bias, empowerment and mobility of all social castes, anti-tribalism, and the pursuit of counter culture ideologies have always been part of my way of thinking.
It really all goes back to my intrinsic hatred toward religion. I know this is antithetical to the idea of equality, but the idea of mythical tribalism impeding scientific thought and influence cultures and inciting violence worldwide has always been a point of contention with me. I understand its role in providing comfort, basic morals, a sense of community, and an otherworldly motivation for early man to push harder and go farther, but I feel it has outlived its usefulness. This opinion is not part of the overall purpose of this article, however, but it’s useful in framing the idea of bewilderment vs. panic. While the panic of religious folk has always been a fear of the holy apocalypse, my own internal panic has been the death of progress and the propagation of tyranny.
With the election of Donald Trump in 2016, I’ve felt waves of panic. Conservatives can call me a snowflake or complain about manufactured doomsday prophecies all they wish, but that same manufactured doomsday talk is what got their chosen leaders elected as well. Fear of immigrants, fear of minorities, fear of homosexuals, fear of women and those last-minute grasps for power in a country that started to look unfamiliar to those who pine for 1950s America are the very disenfranchised votes needed to elect someone like Donald Trump.
Internally, I’ve felt that 2016 was a turning point for not only America, but the world at large. Isolationism, tribalism, jingoism, and every other ism defined by this overt fear of other humans and the innate need to build metaphorical and literal walls around yourself, your home, your country to prevent it from being lost forever have become everyday parts of human existence over the last few years. Every ugly panic button that humanity has ever buried deep within their consciousness has been called upon like a dark Bat signal and people’s fears are being harnessed worldwide for both profit and power.
This panic, this fear, this is what humanity as a whole needs to understand and change in order to move forward. Like I said earlier, I too am a victim of this inaccurate and dangerous way of thinking. I’ve fallen into cynicism even further than I’d already been. I’ve always held a cocky attitude toward my own intellect and understanding and assumed everyone else was wrong or too stupid to understand the truth. I’ve been beaten down by the 24/7 news cycle, the tragedies that have surrounded me, friends and family, and innocent people in general. It’s easy to assume the sky is falling with all the evidence we have around us. I’m here to implore you to reconsider your assumptions.
Bewilderment, as Harari described, is more “humble.” Humbleness, lacking pride or arrogance, is a sentiment that has been largely lost by popular human society. We take no time to admit that we’re wrong or that we lack understanding when situations are presented to us. Harari’s point is a poignant one because if we’d take the time to admit that we don’t know where we stand or where we’re going, we’d be able to break down our own and the world’s own complex shortcomings and work to poke holes, heal, and fix the broken state of the world before us.
Bewilderment allows for new possibilities to emerge and espouses a self-awareness not often seen in 2018. Looking inward is one of the most important exercises in mental health and it creates an objective vantage point from which true revelations can be gleaned. Just like how I fully admit that I’m a manipulative but empathetic, narcissistic but caring, gluttonous but generous, offensive but ever-changing amalgamation of evil and goodness in a constant state of identity crisis, so too should everyone take some quiet moments to reflect on the energy you direct inwards as well as out into the world and its ripple effect on the world around you and the people it touches.
Harari uses the example of the fall of liberal democracy in the same way that fascism and communism have fallen over the last century and uses it as a voice to not criticize unfairly or cry wolf about the phenomenon, but to help shape future conversations and save a worldview that is in danger of being lost forever.
Too long have people chosen fear over acceptance, skepticism, and understanding and the time has come to choose this perplexity over the arrogant assumptions about the fall of civilization. Approaching each problem and situation as an onlooker allows you to fully appreciate all of the clues, context, and evidence that can lead to new ideas. Maybe the answer shouldn’t be returning to the old ways, but moving on to new ways. It’s only through open dialogue, admission of misunderstanding, and unbiased examination that we can ever hope of getting there.