We humans quest for certainty as if our lives depend on it; we want to know, and to know for sure. This is not a bad thing; it leads to growth, to discoveries, to finding more pieces of the puzzle. It becomes a bad thing when we think we have arrived and have nothing more to learn. Surely the universal metaphor of life as a journey implies that while we yet live, we keep moving, we keep growing, and as we do we find more puzzle pieces along the path. Even if the road is narrow and wrong turns are possible, if we are alive. there is hope and if we are humble we can turn back and take the right turn. If we are closed, if we arrogantly assume we have arrived, we are stuck.
Being Stuck is Mental Illness
Being stuck is a common characteristic of mental illness. People seek help when they realize that they are stuck in addictions, in self-defeating behaviors, in obsessions. They are the fortunate-they SEE that they are stuck. The unfortunate ones don’t even see it. Stuck people come in all flavors. It is possible to get stuck in religious traditions or scientific paradigms, in political ideologies or cultural conformity. The quest for certainty takes on life or death proportions somehow. “I must be right-if I’m not right, I will die-worse-I’ll die and go to hell.” Terrible evils arise from terrified, closed-minded stuckness-religious terrorism, state terrorism, genocide, and war.
Making Rules to Live By
I spent most of my life working with people whose lives were not going well; addicts, inmates, adolescents in trouble, abused women. These people had made rules to live by, just like we all do-and they had constructed the rules them selves, just like we all do. After awhile I saw that they had something in common, not only with each other, but potentially with all other humans, including myself. They clung to their rules for dear life and were terrified of changing them. In short, they were stuck.
Our Rules Keep us Alive-Most of the Time
We may judge a woman who believes she deserves to be smacked around as deluded, or an addict who believes he will die without his drug of choice as deceived. Yet they have built their belief system like all humans do, filtering information through their view of the world. Their view of the world began forming at birth and their rules have kept them alive in their world up to this point. Of course change is threatening! We are asking them to give up rules that have certainly kept them alive for new rules that are uncertain.
Hitting Bottom and Changing the Rules
That’s why trust is essential in counseling-in the end, they must trust that a counselor is not trying to kill them-they must take his word that there are other rules that work. Stuck people take a big leap of faith to get unstuck and they generally won’t take that risk until they see that the road they were on has led them to the edge of a cliff-a few more steps in that direction and they are dead anyway. They call it “hitting bottom” but actually the stuck turn around when they gaze over that cliff at the bottom, when they see that this is not the way to live, this is the way to die.
Forming World Views
An example of forming rules according to world view: a little girl who watches her mom being beaten by her drunken father forms a view of the world that is alien to most of us, but it was her world and she learned to survive in it-who are we to judge? She learned that men are dangerous, women are defenseless, and women survive by submitting. As she grows up, the validity of her worldview is daily reinforced. Her bruised, submissive mother is indisputably still living.
Faulty World Views
Because men are dangerous, she will seek a dangerous man. A non-dangerous man is not a real man at all. She will seek to establish a familiar situation in her adult life, miserable, but familiar. She may leave the abuser, claiming to hate the situation (and meaning it) yet will be surprised to find herself with another abuser, confirming her original belief that men are dangerous. All humans constantly and unconsciously seek to confirm their beliefs. We filter all new information through our world view and sort it into pre-constructed boxes in our brains. Scientists even have a name for this-confirmation bias-and honest scientists admit that they, too, harbor confirmation bias.
Radical Skepticism and Paralysis
This is just the way our brains work. It’s not a bad thing-it conserves lots of energy, kind of a mental short cut. We can’t stop and critically examine every little factoid that comes our way in a busy day; we’d never make it out of bed. “Oh, I’m awake. But am I really awake or am I just dreaming I’m awake?” Einstein said, “Question everything,” but there is solid evidence that Einstein did make it out of bed in the morning.
Humans are not Rational
It will be very helpful if we realize our limitations. We, especially in the West, like to flatter ourselves by claiming that we think in a logical, rational, linear way-that we are more Spock than Kirk, that is possible to reason our way to certainty. Ironically, a few brilliant mathematicians have used their reason to prove mathematically that some things can never be proven! Their proofs, while acknowledged as solid, were nevertheless emotionally rejected and the mathematicians them selves went mad.
How we Really Think
We think in metaphors and we think along the networks we have grown in our own brains. I just used metaphors of a road, a journey, a puzzle, and a cliff-and you got it. We grew our brain networks according to our experiences of the world. It is hard to change our minds and even harder to change our brains, but it is possible. It is also essential because-take a deep breath-we don’t know everything and we can be wrong sometimes. When I asked the people I worked with to repeat, “I don’t know everything.” “I can be wrong sometimes,” they could not say it! They fidgeted in their seats, their expression pained, and they were silent.
Three Steps to Sanity
Then they started laughing. This is the appropriate response to the human condition-laughter. Of course we don’t know everything and we can be wrong-nothing could be more obvious. For my friends who take the Bible as the rule book, here’s a rule for you (for those who reject the Bible, open your mind and consider it) “I have shown you, oh man, what is good-and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly (be fair) to love mercy (be kind) and to walk humbly with your God (admit you can be wrong)?”
Be fair, be kind, and admit you can be wrong. Holy Three Steps to Sanity! If we all did just these, it would revolutionize the world.