We experience alienation from others throughout our lives for sometimes obvious, and at other times apparently mysterious, reasons. The sadness or anger that comes from this can be disturbing, perplexing, or both. The basis for this estrangement is most often because at least one person did not act or believe in accordance with certain expectations. It is the mindset of expectations in the form of customs, beliefs, and practices that creates the environment for categorizing (better said: dichotomizing) people as one of “us” or “them.” As far as “them” is concerned, it means anyone who isn’t one of “us.”
At work is an ancient human inherited mindset that came into existence to ensure survival of a tribe. It is survival that is the key here because it is the consciousness of death that at the core motivates or influences all or nearly all of human activity and thought whether this is recognized or not. When human beings are reminded of death, stereotypes of “us” vs. “them” take over. In personal relationships, though, there is something slightly different going on and what is happening is elevated at times of stress. When we come to the realization that a person in our lives does not share our religious, political, ethical, personal beliefs, or behaves in a way that we perceive is objectionable to us, this can move that person into the “them” category – sometimes suddenly and sometimes even at a slow pace and subconsciously. The reason for this is that we are ever-mindful of our own mortality, and that in periods of stress when we are reminded of it we automatically cling to our tribal bases and see anyone that we characterize as “them” as a threat.
Being a part of our family, or group, or comrades in times of difficulty is usually a great comfort. This is natural. But the natural reaction to exclude “others” – which could take place even without volition – is problematic because it deprives all sides of the benefits that the “other” offers such as different ideas, approaches, traditions, and perspectives. It disrespects those who may be on a different path from you or your tribe. Each person’s journey through this life is valid and valuable because we are all unique. Our experiences and perspectives are ours alone. We often find sojourners on the way who share our beliefs; yet the stranger, the alien, the apostate, has a life that is no less meaningful than our own.
By closing ourselves to others for whom we would otherwise have affinity, we judge and dichotomize and, in the end, make our own lives less rich, less meaningful, and less whole.
Elections offer the opportunity for people to express their anger at their leaders, even if those leaders are merely symbols of disappointed expectations. We can ask ourselves: What did we expect from government? Have our leaders delivered on promises or our own expectations? Where did these expectations come from? A problem of the human condition is that our lives are so short and, as a result, we must look to history for a more fulsome explanation of the human condition than our own lifetime provides. The notions of continual economic expansion, that children will be better off than their parents, or simply “the American Dream” (whatever that is, exactly), are decidedly novel concepts for human beings that come from the explosive expansion in wealth – as we perceive it. (See: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Ballor-JPEG.jpg) Incremental retreats from this unprecedented growth are perceived as cataclysms because we believe them to be promises betrayed and as more serious than they actually are when compared to history. Our perception is our deceiver.
This is so because we know that we are living at the wealthiest, most peaceful, and safest period in recorded human history. The dreams of our forefathers of convenience, peace, and material well-being have arrived. And yet… and yet, we are not satisfied. We are struggling to make sense of the world, we are stressed by our own inventions, by a glut of information (most of it useless or false), by systems of labor that have not evolved out of the industrial age when people were simply cogs in the machines, and by the enormous – often hidden from plain view – cost of our advancement in terms of impacts on the natural environment and our own humanity. The change has been so rapid that we are struggling against the genes that are inside of us that resonate with strong leaders that will bring heroic victory to our tribe so that we can maintain our hunting lands and increase our security. Retreat of any kind, though it should be expected after meteoric success, is seen as failure. And so, we demand change, or shaking things up, or overturning of apple carts.
Because of our limited perception we are willing to throw off reason, analysis, and perspective, in a fit of emotion. It feels good though; and it is more exciting than using our minds and our ability to cooperate to solve problems, to place limits on power, to collectively re-humanize. But fits rarely provide the best answers to the most pressing problems. Our hope is not in casting our lot with a single strong or idealistic leader, but in understanding the phenomenal capacity within ourselves individually and collectively to reason, love, discover, struggle against false perception, and find the answers that are available in this most extraordinary of worlds.