Driven by the chaos of the election season, I thought I would explore the nature of the perpetual disconnection that seems to exist between people and groups of people. Individually, we are passionate about our beliefs and causes, but our passion can emerge as a vehicle to further the divide between us. Even more, this gap can be amplified when individual energy is aggregated into collective energy that is harnessed and pointed toward the opposition. Opposition creates an illusion where the possible outcomes are one side wins or the other side wins. It is an illusion because there is a third option where the battle just continues on into infinity. Our political system is a prime example of two sides winning small battles in a never-ending war. Instead of solutions, I see two sides gaining and giving ground through a series of almost predictable conflicts. I wanted to think about this centuries-old challenge from a new perspective. I’m not asking you to agree with me. I’m asking you to consider the possibility that self-imposed limitations prevent meaningful connection and understanding.
Foundational knowledge is useful if it is malleable. Can you really know anything with 100% certainty in 100% of all situations? Probabilities are present in the world around us, and many would say they direct the reality that we experience. Isn’t most of our reality actually defined in real-time? Our personal belief systems usually operate in more of a binary capacity and result in the usual zero-sum game. If our current knowledge looks more like granite than wet cement, we will keep our narrow perspectives and truth-seeking will be hobbled as it plows through the dearth of information pelting us from all angles. New perspectives are initially uncomfortable until they help you connect a dot that you hadn’t previously considered.
What is truth? A widely held belief? An assertion validated through observation? A repeatable experiment with predictable results? A blindly defended personal belief? Is it a time-based data point with finite longevity? As I look out my window, I see trees with red, orange, purple and gold leaves. If you were sitting next to me, you would agree that these words describe exactly what you see outside the same window. Three months ago, if we sat together looking at the same group of trees, we would not see those colors. In four weeks, it will be challenging to validate the existence of leaves at all. In this case, our foundational knowledge of the color of the leaves changes over time. In the springtime, I don’t argue with you that the green leaves are actually gold, or in the winter that the bare tree actually holds purple leaves. Just because I see a green leaf in a specific moment in time, I don’t hold all leaves to be green always. We are flexible to interpret the colors of the leaves based on the time of our observation. We are malleable. So what is truth? Can we define it as a validated observation held in a moment of time? If we go with this definition, how do we then get so stuck in our ways? We see things once and the mental mold is cast. The belief system is engrained into our subconscious. We have one experience and it serves as the foundation for all possible future experiences. Knowledge of the past helps us refine the present and build the future, but should all past experiences be held in such fixed regard?
Like most things, at the core of this dilemma, our biology is hard at work. Patterns and processes developed over thousands of years reveal the inner workings of this present day behavior. Once we select a position or an opinion, we become intimately intertwined with it. Our ego, an assassin in the art of protecting us, latches on to the position so tightly that we cannot release it even in the presence of a new validated observation at another moment in time. The adopted legacy position has hardened and accreted into the very character of our being. Like dried cement in the corner of a large stone wall, the previously validated observation now becomes an impenetrable exoskeleton deflecting any potential invaders offering new perspective. Ego is the traffic cop policing the influence of new validated observations protecting and serving our personal belief system. The flow of new and different information is often directed to the dark alleys of conspiracy and unpopular opinion. It’s safer that way. If we concede our opinion, we can actually feel like we are losing a bit of ourselves. Losing isn’t easy, but are we really losing if we are gaining insight and growing wiser through understanding new perspectives? Again, can we be 100% certain of anything in 100% of all situations? Even the Laws of Newtonian Physics are cast out the window in the realm of the subatomic world. In fact, Quantum Mechanics emerged from a series of validated observations in moments of time over the last century that evolved with the help of thousands of scientists working together. Light is a wave. Light is a particle. Wait, it can actually be both. With another concept called superposition, something can actually be in two states at once. Maybe we need to learn to incorporate aspects of mental superposition on the path to truth-seeking. If these foundational scientific laws supporting our physical reality have some caveats, why are we so rigid in accepting a new perspective?
Red and blue are colors. These two colors are labels grouping smaller things into larger things. Aren’t they also a filter through which we see the world? These labels are a window dressing for a structure that houses personal beliefs and foundational knowledge. Finding friends or adversaries, these labels serve as shortcuts minimizing the likelihood of a meaningful connection. There are two teams in this league of extraordinary dysfunction housed in a stadium populated with people donning the logo of one team or the other. Is this a way of organizing our society into manageable factions? Is this a mere distraction like the gladiator games held in height of the Roman empire giving the general population something less productive to argue? If Red is battling Blue, their individual capacities to think, question and ideate are limited to their finite energy budgets and fixed talking points. By directing energy toward a perpetual conflict, it merely serves to extend the troubling present state of disconnected affairs. Why do we connect through colors and labels when we should connect with each other?
Top down systems are built upon a few controlling the many. They thrive on the power of network effects, influencers, confirmation bias and the ego’s protection of previous choices. Bottom up systems can harness more meaningful connections, but they are constantly hitting low ceilings with challenges of scale. Existing top down systems are the behemoth organizations that seem impenetrable by the lowly bottom up rag-tag collectives. But small interactions can eventually bind and catalyze into something worthy of a tipping point. Connecting the world begins with listening to the person next to you with an unbiased, agenda-free, radically open-minded presence. This requires getting past the window dressing to accept the simple notion that we are all made of the same subatomic particles called up quarks, down quarks, top quarks, bottom quarks, strange quarks and charm quarks. The uniqueness of each of us lies in the individual arrangement of those particles. In addition, according to the Oak Ridge Atomic Research Center, 98% of the atoms in our body are replaced with new ones every year.
In short, we are the same, and we are capable of change.
What prevents Red and Blue from becoming Purple? I’ll tell you. The same thing that prevents an adult from singing a wacky children’s song on a crowded subway with an unencumbered five-year old. It’s equal to sitting silent in the back of a lecture hall wrestling with a question that bucks the central theme of the lecture. It’s just like joining in with a group that is picking on someone who is different because you are scared of shouldering the same abuse. It’s firing blindly with partisan talking points without thinking about it yourself. What if we learned to thrive in the environments that are the most frightening? The strongest people I know can live comfortably in unfamiliar places and uncertain situations. The wisest people I know are eager to be the least informed people in a crowded room of experts. These same people are the first to admit their errors and shine light upon the success of others. They do not defend. They seek to understand. They don’t listen halfway while furiously crafting a rebuttal aimed to belittle the perspective of the speaker. Like a drum pattern and bass line, they merge together in the rhythmic pocket driving toward pure truth-seeking. We are who we are because of our experiences, but those that embrace the idea of malleable foundational knowledge are the ones that build interdisciplinary awareness and empathy that can change the world.
Its hard not to get frustrated when your point of view is discounted or ignored, but we can always start with ourselves. Release the need to spite or return the discourteous favor back to the sender. All that does is keep the machine spinning. Even negative systems need energy to sustain their momentum. Like any insidious monster conjured up on the back of Joseph Campbell’s framework, it is fueled by a source under our control. It feeds on the lack of meaningful connection and builds a larger chasm that eventually discourages many of us in our noble effort to hold it together. The theme is not a new one, and it has been explored by many authors.
Remember The Nothing from The Never-Ending Story?
The Dark Side from Star Wars?
Small changes can lead to massive transformation over time. What if you tried something a little different today? What if you truly embraced a perspective counter to your comfort zone? I’m not asking you to cheat on your personal belief system. I am asking you to learn, grow and connect as part of a global mission dedicated to pure truth-seeking founded on curiosity and kindness. Even if the initial response isn’t well received, your challenge is to stay the course. Do not be antagonized back to the coliseum with the clang of the swords, the roar of the lions and the blind allegiance of the crowd whipped into a fervent frenzy of emerging chaos. The magnetic pull of this biological response is fierce, but with awareness we can acknowledge it and operate within it. The larger grid houses the energy of our actions that hums like high tension wires stretched across a rural plain. We are in control of our reactions. We can choose to either be a conduit for this negative energy or a shunt trip purging it from the collective system. What if these small actions alone could show us that there isn’t always an opponent across the table, but a vehicle to further understanding, growth and a more connected experience?
We could all probably agree on some common validated observations in moments of time. We want the best for those we love. We’d rather not be killed, hurt, picked on or have a force thrust upon us that limits our potential or creative expression. At our core, we want to connect with something bigger than ourselves. Time being the limiting factor, we simply cannot experience every aspect of our planet personally. We cannot live in the shoes of every person in history, we cannot sample every flavor of food that grows from the Earth, we can’t possibly view a sunset from every position on the planet, and we shouldn’t expect our experiences to be the last word in defining our reality. Being malleable doesn’t mean you lose your identity, it means you embrace the possibility in learning and growing through a more connected experience.
Remember that we are all made of the same components carefully arranged in unique interpretations of humanity. Scientifically speaking, we are capable of change because we are change. In fact, we are only 2% of who we were last year. While colors and labels may help organize our world, they also limit our collective experience of it. The next time you look at a sunset, as you are captive and awestruck by the atmospheric painting in the sky, remember that the beauty you see is a wonderful combination of colors.
Maybe it’s time we put red and blue in a bucket and made purple.