“I’m not here to change the world.
I’m here to question what I believe about the world,
And in that, my world shifts.”
I know that I am not alone in feeling exhausted by the relentless torrent of bad news. Climate change and catastrophic weather events, epidemic gun violence, proliferating homelessness, war, the ascendancy of fascist views, disinformation and the Orwellian assault on truth, are among the most conspicuously upsetting. All of this, to be sure, is a lot to feel distressed about. The problems facing us in today’s world are enormous and the complexity of forces driving them is mind-boggling. It is not hyperbolic to say that our world is in existential crisis.
Probably many readers will feel, as I do, that current events are ominous. I remember one conversation that took place in a dharma group I was leading at the time of the 2016 election. Many people were worried about by the changes happening in the body politic, and a question was raised about similarities to 1930’s Germany. Could that happen here? Hitler, we were reminded, did not simply seize power. He was elected.
I do not have expertise in either history or political psychology and so cannot make specific comparisons between then and now, but the overall point for me is that, since the election of Donald Trump is 2016, the social polarization and unrest in our population have grown steadily worse. Aided and abetted by the weaponization of social media, we have become a nation divided around many issues: red states vs. blue, vaxxers vs. non-vaxxers, gun rights advocates vs. those in favor of gun safety legislation, etc. I suspect that fanatic tribalism provides some important social benefit for those who participate.
In any event, it is alarming to see what some (or many) people can be persuaded to believe, and by what they are willing to do in support of their beliefs. Alarming, too, to see increasingly bizarre conspiracy theories thrive in what is now known as “post-objective reality”. To me, the extremes in behavior are clear evidence of a serious decline in mental health. The collective psyche is, I fear, unravelling; descending into a state of fragmented chaos.
The dire circumstances have recently led me into to inquire deeply within about how I view “the world” and my place within it. My intention in this essay is to see if I can shed some light on how each of us participates in the shaping of our collective reality. Also, I hope that this set of reflections may be helpful to those who, like myself, want to bring inquiring mind into their understanding of the events of the day.
One of the dimensions of experience that has stood out for me in my inquiry is something I term “reactive alienation”. Reactive alienation refers to how we as individuals may feel in relation to sociopolitical realities we find disturbing. We may be upset; angry, frightened, anxious or depressed. We may find ourselves compulsively hooked into the 24 hour news cycle or ruminating about doomsday scenarios. Such reactive alienation can be a transient event or an entrenched position, but it is worth unpacking.
I will use my own experience to illustrate what I have heard from many other people. The dictionary defines “alienation” as the experience of being isolated from a group or an activity to which one should belong, or with which one should be involved. This definition hits the nail on the head for me. Although I know intellectually that I am not other than “the world”, I also don’t feel very much part of this world in which I find myself situated. I am disheartened by the widespread civil disorder and by how dysfunctional our system seems to be at every level. There is no social group I comfortably identify with, no tribe I want to join. I find myself repelled by the political far right but also frequently annoyed by the political correctness of the woke left.
Against the backdrop of these thoughts, I decided that it might be useful to clarify more precisely what I feel alienated from and how this experience lives in me. Watching the evening news with this question in mind, it became quite apparent to me that what reactively alienates me is not only views –especially those which fly in the face of my core values— but, even more so, the way I perceive the people who speak them. I react with anger against what I see as self-righteous pontification; an arrogant, bullying attitude; lies or evasions of truth. I disdain the narrow-minded stupidity of certain opinions. And, I react with strong negative judgment towards what I perceive to be execrable character traits, such as narcissistic grandiosity or psychopathic disregard for others.
In short, the experiential core of what I call “reactive alienation” is a pattern of aversive feelings and attitudes triggered by sociopolitical events. Although for me these reactions are (fortunately) short-lived, some of the people I see in psychotherapy have experienced much more intense and/or lingering reactions. I expect that these emotional reactions will likely become more frequent and more intense as we approach the 2022 elections.
In broader view, I have been trying to understand how the dynamic of reactive alienation that I have seen in individuals may bear upon the divisiveness and polarization that we see in our nation. One obvious parallel that strikes me is that alienation is based in a view that something we abhor is “out there”, not part of “me” — very reminiscent of the polarizing idea of “us” vs. “them”. The judgments involved make it difficult to empathize with or feel compassion for people who have the traits we eschew. Aversion serves to reinforce alienation; it keeps us separate from people we dislike as well as from social forces that we find threatening. Not an enlightened premise of interconnection, to be sure.
But while reactive alienation clearly has something to do with boundaries that get delineated in relation to views and social belonging, “reactive alienation” as I have understood it cannot be equated in any way with the kind of profound and painful alienation that gives rise to perverse or deranged antisocial acts. Most everyone feels painfully separate at one time or another, but this does not usually lead to a feeling of alienation. What I would say from a clinical perspective is that destructive alienation is rooted in psychopathology and hatred. It takes root only in minds which have become unable to protect themselves from overwhelming and toxic circumstances and which therefore engage extreme measures to try to cope.
Having unpacked the idea of alienation as deeply as I am able, I am left with desire to address some of important questions which many people have been asking: What can we (or should we) do? What might be a more constructive attitude? How can we respond rather than react? I have no definitive answers to these questions, and in any case each of us will have our own answers. For me, personally, finding a way forward usually begins with looking within. That is the spirit in which this Newsletter has been written.
My principal observations and insights include the following:
- The 24 hour news cycle is a toxic diet of information which fuels negativity and ‘reactive alienation’. It is important to pay attention to the impacts of the informational environment we live in with respect to the way it shapes our views as well as to its emotional cost and effects on mental health.
- However grim certain realities may be, that is only part of the story. What we call “the world” is not a fixed something “out there” but rather an experiential reality which changes moment by moment. In one moment, watching the news, I see a world poised at the brink of destruction. In the next, images from the Webb telescope remind me that human beings are capable of astounding ingenuity, and I dare to hope that some new technology will emerge that will enable us and our beautiful planet to live on. Maybe both views are true. (Or maybe neither).
- Human transformation is what makes social transformation possible. For better or for ill, each of us is playing a part in making the world what it is, and so it is good when we can make our choices wisely; with conscious awareness and with kindness towards others.
- It does little good to simply take a stand in opposition to sad realities. Helplessness and alienation are obstacles to engaged action, not to mention a breeding ground for despair. However, we are also wise to remember the Buddhist admonition against becoming too attached to outcome. Things will unfold as they do.
- In most instances, it seems to me, doing something is probably better than doing nothing. I don’t think there is any prescription for what that something should be; each of us has our own path both of inner engagement and engagement in the world. Regardless of what path we choose, taking action counteracts pessimism and despair.
- Wise action begins from where we are. This was the spirit in which I undertook the writing of this Newsletter. For me, this has meant examining reactive alienation and investigating the psychological forces at work in the collective psyche. The inquiry is one which is ongoing.
Investigating my experience and writing about it is one of the ways my mind seeks clarity in its effort to “solve” something that I find troublesome or problematic. Inquiring deeply about feelings of alienation has illuminated what in my own experience needs wiser attention. My hope is that these reflections will inspire you, the reader, to examine your own experience in a similar way.