Our own worst enemy

Dear E & V,

I gave up reading the news about two years ago, sometime in February of 2018. I don’t tell a whole lot of people that — especially if they’re of a political or self-righteous bent — because in the past I was criticized for being willfully ignorant about the global state of human affairs. The Criticizers believe I should sacrifice my sanity and my happiness to be a “global citizen” which comes with the wonderful gifts of outrage and belonging to the Educate Class of Citizens. The Criticizers believe that the amount of knowledge you have about the world correlates with your ability to be a good person. In other words they believe that knowledge should be obtained for knowledge’s sake; the more you have of it the better especially if it pertains to science or world affairs.

That is both an impractical and particularly dangerous idea. Knowledge should be measured on the tangible results it produces, not on some vague notion of what it means to be a well-informed global citizen. There is too much knowledge out there that is harmful when internalized and even more that is plain useless. The human brain simply wasn’t meant to handle the vast amounts of information we come into contact with, so if anything we need to start consuming less of it. We need to implement rules to make sure we’re not overwhelming ourselves with bullshit. I try to implement a “if it doesn’t lead to positive feelings or actions, it should be avoided” rule. Otherwise you end up internalizing the negative messages and the feelings of hopelessness that this information carries, and you create all sorts of mental health issues and unnecessary stress. In fact I’m sure you see the symptoms of Negative News Infection in your life every day: Like maybe your father starts to lash out at people who disagree with him. Or maybe you put extra pressure on your kids so they “don’t end up that way”.

What you put into your body and mind determine what your body and mind produce. Garbage in, garbage out.

Politics in particular stresses me out; the news in general makes me a less happy person. Those things are garbage for my body and mind because of how they make me feel and act, so I avoid them — I stick only to information on which I can either take action to solve, that puts me in a positive frame of mind, or that makes me a better person. I spend less time stressing out over other people’s actions or other issues which are beyond my control. I expend my life efforts on making a positive impact locally, because that is the best use of my personal resources: You can spend your whole life futilely trying to change the entire world, or you can spend an hour a week making a life-changing impact on one person’s life or in your community. Preaching and haranguing to an entire group of people on Facebook will only turn them off because you’re treating them like objects to convince, not people. Having a genuine one-on-one conversation in which you actually listen to the other person and address those concerns is the only way you’re going to move forward with effective change even if you both disagree with one another. Progress comes from taking the time to understand the other person.

Talk Life to Death & Death to Life

The news is too often a reflection of the worst parts of humanity. News was meant to be informative, but it has turned into a quest for attention — a sort of sick advertisement for all the dumb shit going on in the world today. Acts of kindness, natural wonders, and beautiful events don’t make the news because they don’t trigger the main emotion that politicians and the mainstream news uses to get viewers attention: fear. You pay attention to what causes fear because we’re innately wired for survival. When you’re constantly exposed to fearful information on a regular basis you start to develop two rather nasty psychological effects: negativity bias and frequency bias.

Negativity bias: negative events seem to have a greater effect on us than positive or neutral events.

Frequency bias: some events seem to appear more often than they actually do.

So when you watch CNN or Fox News, these two biases combine into a big lumpy turd in your brain: negative events seem to be more impactful and more frequent than all the good and normal things in life. So not only are you being inundated with more information than the brain has evolved to handle (information overload), but the information that is at the front of your mind isn’t your kid’s first steps or the fact that Cindy from accounting was walking around with a piece of spinach stuck in her teeth all day — it’s all the natural disasters and pandemics and murders that the mainstream media gleefully radiates in their sick quest for ratings.

It’s messed up and it’s messing people up. It’s stressing lots of us out and making the world a not-so-fun place to live in. Who wants to go outside when you could catch coronavirus or get kidnapped by human traffickers? The media has a knack for making life seem scarier than it is and making death seem more likely than it is: These are things we should be concerned about because of the impact they have on our lives, but we shouldn’t fear them like we do.

Fear vs Concern

Fear is the ideal response to an immediate danger in your vicinity.

Concern is the ideal response to a distant danger in your vicinity.

If we’re honest with ourselves, immediate danger is rather rare these days unless you’re a first responder or live in a third world country. It’s not often you’re going to come face-to-face with the Ghost and the Darkness or have to pull someone out of a burning vehicle.

Fear, when used as a response to an immediate danger, has life-saving qualities that outweigh the stress-load that it puts onto our bodies. It puts you into control of the dangerous situation by initiating a fight-or-flight response. When used regularly as a reaction to things that are our of our control or not immediately dangerous — when we can’t run or fight — fear turns into worry and starts to take a destructive toll on our mind and body.

Fear is reactive.

Concern on the other hand, is proactive. When I’m concerned about a situation, I have a level enough head to take precautions. Precautions are those few things about a situation that you can control. I’m concerned that other drivers are idiots, so I buckle my seat belt and drive defensively. I’m concerned you have the coronavirus and no understanding of virology or epidemiology, so I wear a face mask in public and wash my hands. But I don’t let concern drive my greater outlook on life. I don’t let it stop me from driving to work or from going to a crowded grocery store. Concern is taking control of what you can without letting fear control you.

The sad thing about this pandemic (and I’m sorry kids, this won’t be the last time I’ll be writing about this topic) is how much fear it’s inducing in a lot of people, simply because it’s new and unknown. We fear the fast, sensational, and improbably more than the boring and likely, and slow — which makes sense, because the former seems more immediate than the latter. It distresses me to think that all the healthy accomplishments that people have developed during the quarantine — getting outside more, driving less, doing more personal development — will disappear once we resume to “normal” and people return to their self-destructive tendencies…

Tendencies which lead to higher death rates in cancer, heart disease, and car accidents. Causes of death all of which dwarf the death rates of this pandemic. Why don’t we fear these as much as we do the coronavirus? Why don’t we even show the same level of concern for these as we do the coronavirus? We have no problem donning masks in public as we hop in our air-polutting SUV to load up on Oreos and Doritos. We should be taking precautions against all of those things, not just the scariest one.

Critical thinking is almost biologically impossible when you’re afraid, and people have been afraid well before the pandemic happened. Fear that your life is empty, fear that you’ll die tomorrow, fear that you’ll lose your job, fear that you’ll…whatever. When you live in fear you can’t make the thoughtful decisions that will benefit not only your short term survival, but your long-term thriving. What’s the point of simply surviving when you wither as a human being? And the interesting thing is, when you step back for a moment and turn your fear into concern, you realize that there really isn’t a whole lot to worry about anymore. But taking that step back requires stopping how you normally react to scary situations and think really hard about its impact on you and how you can thrive given those less-than-ideal conditions.

Yes, life can be scary. Even if you’re not afraid of death, it can be scary to take risks like starting your own business or quitting a job that doesn’t fulfill you. But you can either let yourself stagnate because you stop yourself with all the “what-ifs” that fear produces, or you can realize that you are a confident, intelligent, adaptable, and resilient person and you can overcome any what-if that life throws at you. You owe it to the best version of yourself, to the people that depend on you, and the world that needs your help to realize that.

I know I believe in you to do what needs to be done to overcome your fears. The question is, do you?




Ken View All →

I am a Father, Husband, Cowboy Philosopher, Volunteer Firefighter, and Professional Dilettante. I am nothing and I am everything. But when it comes to our relationship: I only wish you wonder and happiness.

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