Psychological Moment We are In

Since 9/11 the world has felt like a different place. A recent exhibit of Hung Liu’s work (at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City) reminded me of that. Her deeply psychological and sociological art explores both ancient China and the modern world. Immediately after 9/11, she painted a picture entitled “Chinese bride with bird flying into her head.” This elaborate painting signified that the airplanes hijacked by terrorists not only crashed into the World Trade Center, they flew into our brains and colonized our physiological systems.

Daily we are bombarded with horrific information. In the last few months, we have seen the rise of Isis with its beheadings and attempted genocide of the Yezidi people. In December, 136 schoolchildren were shot in Peshawar. Recently, terrorists have killed staff members of Charlie Hebdo and other Parisians and, this month, Boko Haram has slaughtered at least 2000 people in Baga. Indeed, the news of late has been so alarming that the voices of journalists have cracked as they reported it.

In addition to the constant messages we receive that the world is filled with evil, danger and unpredictability, we also know that our planet is endangered. Global climate change with its consequent effects on food, water, animals and plants has so many tragic implications that we can hardly bear to face it. We feel primal panic and shut down emotionally.

Humans are not built to deal with this level of information flow. We evolved in small communities equipped to deal with proximal stimulation. This was nearby friends and foe, animals, plants, water and weather. We had no distal information. Tibetan villagers preoccupations were family, food supply and Buddhism. Irish peasants needed only to concern themselves with peat, potatoes and pubs. Homesteaders’ primary news was who had a baby, who was hailed out, or who bought a new wagon. Now, thanks to our global communication system, there is no distal information. Everything that happens in the world feels proximal to us.

The news we receive frightens us and triggers our arousal system to do what it has always done in dangerous situations– flee, fight or freeze. Unfortunately, we can neither fight most of these problems nor can we flee. What we do instead is freeze. We find no actionable intelligence in the news of the day, only a paralyzing sense that the world is an overwhelming place. Psychologists call this response “learned helplessness.”

Our core phenomenological state is overwhelmedness. We are bombarded by too much information, too many choices and too much complexity. We have mammalian arousal systems, Neolithic brains, Medieval institutions and 21st century technology and communications. Our biorhythms have become entrained with machines. We operate in nanosecond time. We struggle with slowing down, staying calm and relaxing.

By Mary Pipher – Op Ed News –