By Russell Fidelman
Delivered to the UNMC Congregation Sunday, August 19, 2018
I come today with a heavy sigh. I’ve been exhausted and fatigued by this whole experience. Not the sermon writing process per se, but the events leading up to it. The sermon creating process, as one might put it.
Indeed it has been an exhausting time for us all. In the face of the exhaustion, nonetheless I persist. Upon the conclusion of my initial run of sermons a number of years ago, I had decided to take a break from giving them, but less than a year passed when I witnessed the last election. I said to myself, “oh jeez, guess it’s already time to get sermonizing again!” I decided to do the two part series to give here, last year’s on emotion, and the one I am giving today on thought, as a reaction to the 2016 election, feeling called to give them in its wake.
The message of last year’s sermon was about wholesome approaches to our emotions in the face of the world’s current ridiculousness. I structure today’s message as a rebuke of such stupidity, explaining its presence in our current situation, its potential origination, and what we’re able to do in the face of it. Thought has run amok in our current climate, and taking action might be as simple as a knowledgeable approach. In researching for today’s sermon, I looked up the Wiki on stupidity only to find its meaning is literal thoughtlessness. It turns out to be a state of numbness or astonishment, actually a form of shock. It is cited that stupidity can even be developed as a defense against grief and trauma. Hmm! It seems to me that thoughtlessness has been the key operand in the upset of the election. It was stupid until it wasn’t, and now it may be that much more stupid. Its heavy reliance on vilification and scapegoating has turned the country on its head.
The wiki on stupidity is actually quite an informative resource on the collection of research surrounding the phenomenon. It goes on to make a number of important notes relative to our current circumstances. James F Welles distinguishes stupidity from ignorance with one’s knowledge of acting in their own worst interest. Some of economic historian Carlo Maria Cipolla’s Laws Of Stupidity include stupid people being able to remain maladaptive despite new information even to their own detriment, associating with stupid individuals invariably constituting a costly error, and my favorite, “a stupid person is the most dangerous type of person there is.” The wiki goes on to note that even intellectuals can be stupid when competence might endanger their own inner balance. For example… when tasked to understand how thoughtless the stupid person they face may be. The wiki cites Carl Jung’s response to that challenge in “extracting wisdom from stupidity. Stupidity is the mother of the wise, but cleverness never.” Lastly Foucault is cited as also arguing for the actual necessity of stupidity, as to “recapture the alterity [or otherness] of difference,” and where else do we hear about alterity other than with the alt-right, and in alternative facts?
If we are to examine the source of our stupidity, I would first look toward our already existent heritage of cruelty. Washington was the greatest terrorist of them all: he won. Even further back, Columbus was a product of his times. In his book “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” James W. Loewen illuminates us to the reality that “in 1493 the world had not decided, for instance, that slavery was wrong. Some Indian nations enslaved other Indians. Africans enslaved other Africans. Europeans enslaved other Europeans. To attack Columbus for doing what everyone else did would be unreasonable.” Loewen also points out, however, that even back then there were those who pioneered the fight to end slavery. Fast forward a few hundred years or so and abolition indeed became reality, but only after centuries of struggle.
Second, humans are vulnerable and fragile. As Scott Peck puts it in his book “People of the Lie,” there are the falling and the fallen — when we make decisions which are somewhat reprehensible, we begin to fall toward the path of evil, and while falling it is reversible. There is a point of no return, however, and at that point we are fallen. The work of Viktor Frankl comes to mind, proposing the theory that when faced with the atrocity caused by the fallen, what we must do is to find the meaning in our lives as a way to pull through all of it. Learning that not only did humanity commit and allow such atrocity, but that we really didn’t even acknowledge its levels for so long, that puts us in a tricky place. We came from the fight or flight of the wilderness, and thus we’re still grappling with the reality of what’s still wild in us.
Third, we’re subject to calculated exploitation of these vulnerabilities. Writer Michael Vincent Miller highlights the question asked by Isadore From of how people lived ordinary lives during the Cold War, full well knowing they were poised to be blown up at any second. From considered the possibility that perhaps it took a “vast distortion of inner life… only by internalizing the cause of such terrifying knowledge, which means stripping the danger from its actual source in external reality and treating as though it stems from inside oneself.” This would effectively repress and experience the reality abstractly. Contrast this with the modern day, where it seems more like the issue is how much of this distortion can the rich stuff into the lower classes at any given time. Stanford professor Andrew Huberman refers to this as “neurobiological warfare.”
This is a hate the sin not the sinner type situation. But, what must we do in order to accomplish that attitude in the face of such a, dare I say it, tremendous provocation? My approach is to take it less seriously. This is not to say to take the reality of our circumstance less seriously, but more so to take our individual state of mind more seriously. Writer Neil Strauss provides an excellent attitude on determining what to take seriously and what to ignore. He explains the reason people are so afraid of shark attacks is because of the vivid imagery which plays in to their reports, even though say, car accidents, a much more present danger, are where that concern could more practically be applied. The media knows this trick is what makes money. He explains, taking from the work of neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, that it is actually our anxieties and not our fears that are being exploited. Fear is when you hear the gun being fired, anxiety is the uncertainty of whether you will hear one of not. Miller makes the coy remark that “tolerating tension and accommodating uncertainty are not widespread talents.”
Strauss’s answer to this conundrum is surprisingly simple. Agency. Believing that your own voice can influence the world around you. He quotes sociologist Margee Kerr, who says to “learn to have a degree of acceptance around uncertainty and ambiguity” and to “learn to feel comfortable with change,” to understand what you may be afraid of instead of withdrawing from what you don’t understand. Strauss cites a University of Colorado study showing that reminding people of death increased their hostility — however, when coupled with compassionate values death reminders led to increased camaraderie instead. He indicates that we want to “separate real threats from manufactured ones…. The fact is: Anything can happen in the future. For some people, that’s exciting. For others, that’s scary. And even if both kinds of people are working toward a better world tomorrow, only one of them gets to be happy today.”
A few ways of acknowledging and honoring the human condition while still living morally and sticking to our principles are provided by Strauss. He explains that our demons don’t go away — we become stronger than them. The trick to doing better with our mental and social illnesses is that it’s not simply about preventing upticks, but more importantly about learning to recover from bouts faster. Lastly, the larger an undertaking is, the more likely the chances of encountering obstacles may be; “the outcome is not the outcome,” he explains. All outcomes amount to are new doorways, but there are always doorways all around us, no matter what we do. His example: winning a private plane is all well and good until it crashes, and going to jail might be a transformative experience leading to writing a smash hit novel.
To this end I propose we look not to our screens, but to ourselves and each other once again. To regain familiarity with the uncertainty of being with people and not just next to them. There’s no uncertainty in watching a news channel we know to be consistently triggering — that’s its job. Instead we want to put aside our own anxieties about those with us here and now, as to effectively rebuff such abstract stupidity and take it more lightly. Speaking on the ‘comic frame’, literary theorist Kenneth Burke puts forth the idea that “the purpose of the comic frame is to satirize a given circumstance and promote change by doing so. The comic frame makes fun of situations and people, while simultaneously provoking thought. The comic frame does not aim to vilify in its analysis, but rather, rebuke the stupidity and foolery of those involved in the circumstances.”
There is a sort of flipside here to be sure, as Miller points out that “a person without enemies has no real position in life.” Perhaps this is a way to befriend what Carl Jung calls the Shadow of the ego, the idea that what we detest in others is a reflection of what our ego wishes to diminish in ourselves. It’s a frenemies type of deal, with each other and ourselves: we’re all working to get through this, we’re all playing our role, doing our part.
The author Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn makes light of this continuous tension by reminding us to stop every now and then, as a way to alleviate such existential qualms. He cites the practice as timeless, and likens it to dying, in that if you died then the universe would work it out somehow. He doesn’t mean this in a nihilistic sense, however, just that to ” ‘die on purpose’ to the rush of time… you actually become more alive now.” He states to “die to having to have anything be different in this moment… give yourself permission… to be exactly as you are.” This is a form of agency, and tolerating existential uncertainty.
Kabat-Zinn also provides methods of stopping for others as well, with his classic question when finishing with his patients of to ask them “is there anything else you would like to tell me?” It can be thought provoking, “taking the person seriously, not just the [idea,]” reminding us to connect in person and not just to our screens. For both those in our immediate reach and those who seem lofty and far away on the screens and in the papers, this approach makes me think of one meme that brings it all back for me. It reminds us of a timeless knowledge that you can’t change people, you can only change how you deal with them.
I only have one other item to mention, and it’s what I will conclude with. One of the contributors to Facebook’s rise to popularity is its timeless question, what’s on your mind? It’s kind of like asking if there’s anything else you’d also like to tell yourself. The very idea has given my inner monologue a fair tether and even reworked how I approach my rhetoric, including in the way I give this and other sermons. I have come to respect the question. Now, I have said enough about what’s on my mind at this point. So instead, it’s time I asked you. What’s on your mind?