My guess is that the vast majority of us (if not absolutely every last one of us) would like to be free-thinkers, unswayed by specious reasoning, unhooked by emotional appeals, stalwart in the face of manipulation, not given to ‘ant mind.’ My second guess is that the vast majority of us (if not absolutely every last one of us) believes that – by and large – we are free-thinkers: unswayed, unhooked, manipulation-proof, motivated purely (well, mostly) by rational and thoughtful weighing of fact.
Turns out that a number of recent studies have determined that 99.87% of human beings are actually swayed, hooked, and manipulated by emotion first. Only then does our brain come into play…in order to create a rational ‘reason’ for our emotional decision. We think with a lot of parts of our body before the brain ever engages. [So, yes, a number of those crude aspersions on our thinking capabilities are actually pretty accurate – even for the Puritans among us.]
Which goes a long way toward explaining what happened with the stock market last week. Someone, somewhere, went ‘tilt’ and – because we are all linked on Facebook — like dominoes falling, hundreds then thousands then millions of people went ‘tilt’ right along with the first person who, for all we know, may have just been having a bad week. But all the lights started flashing, bells started ringing and the inevitable happened. I was at the Y working out and the TV was tuned to some expert who was ‘explaining’ why stocks had just plummeted 1000 points. What I can only assume is a normally staid media commentator – he was dressed in a conservative business suit and a deadly dull tie — suddenly looked like he was auditioning for a part in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He was waving his arms so vigorously he actually threw his magic marker across the studio. He was bouncing up and down on his toes, and moving closer to the camera before racing away toward his chart again, so that the camera-person was having a real time trying to keep him on screen and in focus. His speech kept getting faster and faster until whoever was doing the closed captioning (Is that a machine now?) was only getting every fourth or fifth word. It would have been hilarious if so many people weren’t losing their retirement savings in a free-fall sell-off…which, of course, he couldn’t explain because there was nothing rational about it. It was pure emotion.
With all due humility, I would like to suggest that it may be time for those of us who hope to have a world to turn over to the next generation, to build a little elastic into our emotional processes. It can be done. Just because our first impulse channels more through the amygdala than through the pre-frontal cortex doesn’t mean we have to act on that first impulse (which can often be the equivalent of rushing out into on-coming traffic to avoid a spider.) We are not slaves to emotion; we just need to be aware that we are going to have those chemicals flood our bloodstream because we are relatively new as a species, and there hasn’t been time for us to evolve that chemical reaction out of our genetic material.
Here is the United States, we are in the ramp-up part of the never-ending election cycle. Anyone who has the courage to open her or his eyes (and I confess that I am moving through my days squinting a lot of the time – ) is aware that fear is the emotion of choice for most of the candidates. With any luck, the electorate will shortly enter ‘numb mode’ because there will be so many things to fear that we can’t prioritize them: illegal immigrants taking jobs, illiegal immigrants being deported so that none of the crops get picked, too many guns, no guns, police, not enough police, terrorists, Obamacare, Social Security going bankrupt, Donald Trump, Ebola, vaccines, the FDA being too powerful, the FDA not being powerful enough, Sarah Palin making a come-back, sea levels rising, a new ice age, Yosemite erupting, fracking, the pipeline, climate change, Greece going bankrupt again, North Korea, alligators in the New York subways…the list is endless. If ‘numb’ happens with enough months to go before the primaries people might actually think about thinking rather than simply emoting. Wouldn’t that be novel?
So if I may continue my humble suggestion: Let’s all take a deep breath. Then let’s take another one. Then those of us who have had the experience of taking care of a small child (our own or someone else’s) might like to meditate on the skills necessary to handle a full-blown, over-the-top, temper tantrum. Even if the child we are caring for heaves him/herself to the floor, wailing and gnashing her/his teeth; even if there is pounding of fists, shrieks that ratchet right out of audible range, weeping that creates puddles through which we have to splash; most of us manage to refrain from trying to out-do the child in histrionics. Most of us maintain a calm demeanor (at least until we can lock ourselves in the bathroom with the wine) and we speak quietly and firmly, even restraining the child gently and removing him/her from the public forum.
Our first emotional response can be every bit as uncontrolled as a child in a temper tantrum. That doesn’t mean our adult self needs to respond in kind. The world would benefit enormously if we were all more intentional about breathing deeply, then telling our fearful inner children that there are no saber-tooth tigers on the loose in our back yard, no ogres under the bed, and the chances of our 85 year old next door neighbor being an undercover agent for SMERSH are pretty close to nil.
I am only suggesting that we free ourselves to think rather than being at the mercy of the emotionally volatile three-year old who still inhabits some of the dim and convoluted corridors of our psyche. The world needs more adults who know how to think, even in a crisis. It needs a lot more people who can say, “This isn’t a crisis” in a calm voice.
To a huge extent, we create the world we live in. With fear and bias and panic able to go viral on social media in seconds, there needs to be a cadre of mature and loving adults who step back from the brink and remain confident and steadfast, calm and balanced, who have the inner ballast and space to think before they speak or act.
Every one of us is free to be one of them. Let’s.
Text © 2015, Andrea La Sonde Anastos
Photos © 2015 Immram Chara, LLC
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