She was annoyed with me, the woman on Facebook. I’d taken a position with which she disagreed. We exchanged one or two comments. Then I let the matter drop. We were jousting over opinions, after all. Stellar orbits remained intact. Tides would continue to roll in from the sea.
In modern times, just as in ancient ones, our truculent responses arise from our primitive brains. Fear, for example, once useful to escape a sabre tooth tiger, today, can turn an innocuous remark into the basis for a confrontation. Politicians know this human propensity well. Poking a stick at our reptilian brain is how they “revive up their base.” The media uses the same device. Crisis is good for business. It’s also good for non-profits. They shake the can and trawl for money while they cry, “The sky is falling.”
A woman on Facebook, different from the first, admitted she’s lived so long at the edge of fear, she has difficulty facing mornings. The world, she’s convinced, is teetering at the edge of an apocalypse.
In Syria, she would be right. In the south of France? Not so much.
Unlike circumstances that result from geography, fear knows no boundaries. It follows us to landscapes, real or imagined, where an unexpected shadow gives rise to tremors that make a hell of paradise.
In her recent essay, Virginia Heffernan draws a distinction between two types of pain or fear, which is its corollary. (“How Annoying: Let Go of Your Dirty Pain,” by Virginia Heffernan, Wired, August 2018, pgs. 13-14.) Clean pain evokes few emotions. A rowboat rams into yours on a river. If the boat is unoccupied, you have no one to blame. You may be mystified by the accident, but the event provokes a less intense feeling than if the boat had been occupied. In the latter case, your response might become heated, because you’d have someone to blame. That’s the second type of pain or fear. The dirty one that can flame into an inferno.
To the reptilian brain, having someone to blame is welcome. It allows us to react rather than examine the evidence.
Blaming others is popular among humans. I’m practiced in the art. When a person makes a comment which annoys me, I’m not obliged to question why I feel vulnerable. I need only pronounce that person an idiot.
Odd as it seems, a closed mind is easier to manipulate than an open one. One need only know what emotional buttons to press. I’m not condemning emotions, mind you. We wouldn’t want to be robots. Compassion is a response I cherish. But when reason is present, I’m less likely to support another person’s objective, mindlessly. I can measure my response or have none at all. Simply put, I can think.
Thinking allows me to take ownership of my fears rather than blame them on others. When I take ownership, I can also act. Mostly, that means coming to a better understanding of myself. Funnily enough, each time I do, people around me seem more comprehensible and my surroundings less scary.
(Originally published August 23, 2018)