I’ve been rereading my posts about David Berreby’s book, Us and Them. This one explores how easily we fall into simple ways to separate people into categories, not noticing the myriad ways in which we are actually connected. A man who is a wartime enemy turns out to share his captor’s love of Horace. Here’s Berreby:
A conscious mind makes decisions and swears oaths to treat an enemy as an enemy, always. But consciousness is a tight, bright spotlight running over a restless ocean of mind. Elsewhere in that ever-changing sea of perception and feeling, things change without conscious intent. All that’s required is a message, set in human-kind code, touching the human-kind decoder. You – the you who thinks you know yourself – need not be involved. And so one dawn sixty years ago a soldier found that the code dividing the world into Horations and non-Horations mattered more, for that moment, than the one dividing armies.
We easily drift into essentialism, thinking the world really is made up of distinct groups, not realising that this is really the work of our own mental filters.
A lot of the time, when people are distressed, they see their lives as a mess. I think there’s a truth in that idea. But perhaps it would be better to see ourselves as entangled, inevitably part of a massive network of connections. If we see it as a mess and struggle to free ourselves, we create more stress. We become the animal caught in barbed wire, increasing its pain by trying to escape.
Or we might fall into another trap, seeing the world as networked, but in that clean, technological sense that makes us think if we think hard enough, we can regain control. This often leads to a lot of intense thought that goes nowhere.
If we slow down, we might realise that this mess is a sign that we are not alone… and from a sense of connectedness perhaps we can lose some of our panic and operate more comfortably. We don’t come to a halt, and we don’t thrash about. We get a sense of being part of a system that acts on us just as we act on it.
We’re not in a mess, we’re in a mesh*.
*Thanks to Anne McCrossan for inspiring that thought, with her ideas about a healing mesh.