Now that evidence points to a slight rise in overnight temperature is contributing to a loss of sleep, and a loss of sleep is significant contributor to obesity, it is not surprising that our individual and collective capacity to digest information and make sense of the world is threatened.
For septaginarians, like your scribe, holding onto new information and reflecting on its meaning and significance has already become a challenge. However, stepping away from this keypad and the daily diet of news for a full week, and then returning to is an exercise in minor shock therapy. There is a drumbeat of political announcements like the U.S. president’s withdrawal from the Paris accord on global warming and climate change, fraught as are all of his views, with counter-intelligence, fact denial and pomposity. Drums vibrating from St. Petersburg carry Putin’s out-of-closet denial of interference in the U.S. election by the Russian government, but Russia patriots may have hacked American computers. And, “NO!” the talks between Russian ambassador and trump’s men never reached the stage of talking about removal of sanctions.
However, two very disturbing “memes” seem to be “colluding” for pre-eminence in contemporary news culture:
a) the increasing dominance of wannabe dominator personalities like trump and putin and
b) the convergence of the two visual modes, the “still” and the “movie” frame of our shared reality.
On the first, the “personality” cult that we (all of us) have both permitted and enhanced as a lens through which to examine complex issues with words and concepts and perceptions that we use everyday while speaking to family and colleagues gives us the illusion of being able to “grasp” a thread from the coattails of complex and often confusing narratives on taxes, treaties, accords, announcements and dire warnings. So long as we can ‘file’ various snippets under the name of the ‘speaker’ and continue to “understand” that person for what we have constructed him/her to be, then the world is less complex, less threatening and more easily dismissed as “just another day in the life of the actors on stage”.
This “character” analysis also fits in with a dominant “judgement” preference that seems to be an inheritance from most religious mind-sets, enabling the “good-guy-bad-guy” simplistic dichotomy that keeps us from struggling with ambiguities within the characters and inside the details of the stories. Movie reviews, television reviews, political analysis, the study of history through the lens of biography….all of these pursuits rely very heavily on the “human character” microscope….and enable the gossip magazines, the tabloids, and the courts and even the schools and universities to sustain their initiatives funded by conservative investors who count on a persistent and voracious appetite across many demographics. Embedded in this fascination with human personality is the “super” human archetype, (another carry-over from a unique perception of a deity, transferred to human nature), the most recent embodiment being “wonder-woman”.
We so deeply and profoundly desire ‘order’ and safety in our turbulence that we know we do not comprehend, that we defer to those models with which we have some familiarity and comfort, like personality and character. And while this lens can be both instructive and empowering by giving us new insights with which we can identify and emulate, the breadth of our range of “acceptable” characters and characteristics remains narrow and thereby restricts our growth potential. The dramatist’s “protagonist” vs “antagonist” conflict also undergirds this “world view” and replicates the narrative in thousands or millions of renowned plays from all human cultures.
Simultaneously, while the “character” lens is always open and receiving images, another lens type is also engaged: the “still” versus the “moving” lens. Time, whether frozen or thawed (flowing) persists in inserting a significant dimension into our perceptions. Most of us have been raised on the family album, that plastic-encasement of our lives from early childhood to now. Each still image evokes a memory, recalls a style, and, if we take the time, perhaps even a deep emotion. The “stillness” of the image also provides a moment frozen in time as a reference point from which comparisons, celebrations, tears and even simple satisfaction can erupt.
And while those reflections may have an energy, the moment of the image gives some “fixedness” a kind of visual ‘foundation block’ on which our existence has built. Amid all the ‘to-do’ lists, and the current obligations and the contemporary confusions, there is this “still moment” available for our ‘stability’ no matter how temporary and transitory.
Collected together, depending on the velocity of the collection, stills make movies. And every still from today’s news will merge with tomorrow’s stills, in an endless loop that informs, confuses, enhances or confounds our perception and our comprehension of the meaning of events, and our relationship to them. Novelists, playwrights, poets all depend on the delicate balance of character and plot (along with setting) to portray their stories. And plot comprises a story-board of moments that contain what Eliot called the objective correlative, the hanger on which the writer drapes the story. How we hang on to the still moment, how we integrate those moments into a full narrative (if we actually do that integration, as opposed to simply repeating a still over and over) depends on our willingness and capacity and openness to any nuances that might actually emerge from those same stills that were previously missed.
The old adage that compares “ten years of experience versus one year of experience repeated ten times” expresses the notion here. Can putin or trump, for example, ever emerge from the ‘fossil’ of the still image we have of each? For most, that is unlikely. Can NATO, UNICEF, UNESCO and WHO be transformed in our perception and our cognition, as we all struggle both to learn their basics and to develop some appropriate comprehension of these organizations and their relevance in our lives? Depending on where we live, how those around us impact our lives, and depending on how we seek to ‘fit’ into the environment near us, the answers will vary with each individual.
Yet, while psychology posits the view that reality is dependent on perception, and individual perception is unique, nevertheless, humans have attempted to contribute to and assimilate and integrate a body of “general knowledge” formerly termed “facts” about which we did not fundamentally argue. Our interpretations of those “facts” was, naturally, not only permitted but even encouraged, as we promoted the shared concept of ‘critical thought’ as a ‘public good’.
However, the more time and ink we dedicate (either as consumers or as writers/producers) to the “propaganda” of the dominators, the deeper the fog into which we delve, without any GPS to enable our escape. Nuanced analysis, echoed repeatedly from hour to hour over a 24-365 cycle, nevertheless, tends to dull the senses, unless and until some loud explosion startles us from our somnambulance. And regrettably, both trump and putin have ‘caught on’ to the current demand for ‘extreme explosions’ as their way of “commanding” the world stage. They both select times and subjects on which they maintain absolute silence; they both choose other times and subjects on which they explode. And our dependable appetite for entertainment (as opposed to boring explanatory information) feeds their insatiable need for the spotlight.
This shared and symbiotic narcissism (our’s for exaggerated entertainment and their’s for our adulation) regrettably feeds a devolving, downward descent to the lowest common denominator, both of blatant political manipulation and of rapidly descending expectations of better decisions and aspirations for our shared lives on the planet.
This week the vast majority of people, companies and nations have expressed a counter-trump view to the Paris accord. Furthermore, we all hold an unshakeable hope that our children and grandchildren will be able to breathe clean air, to drink clean water and to plant seeds for food in uncontaminated soil.
Nevertheless, we are all sitting on ‘tenter hooks’ anxiously wondering if as a species we both can and will seize the opportunity to develop and manifest attitudes including trust in our capacity and our courage to leave a legacy of which both our grandkids and we ourselves can and will be proud. Our trust in public institutions, and especially in the leaders who currently occupy positions of leadership and responsibility, is running at a very low ebb. And while the frozen headlines of this week are encouraging, the longer moving picture of our collaboration, co-operation and mutual trust of both our allies and our “competitors” most of whom trump considers our enemies, is much less convincing and corroborative of our determined pursuit of a vision of healthy human shared existence.
The current shared “existential crisis” seems to have been missed by some, and their immediate political ideological agenda has taken prominence in their attitudes and actions. This epic narrative will only unfold long after our lives have ended, and the leaders may well be using that larger truth to take advantage of the moment.