The Polarized Mind: Why It’s Killing Us and What We Can Do About It
by Kirk J. Schneider
University Professors Press, 2013
As I click the buckle of my seatbelt, preparing for take-off on a cross-country flight, I am delighted that the woman sitting next to me seems quite friendly. We are about the same age, and she is wearing a pair of jeans and a navy blue cardigan over her white button-down shirt, just like me. She is reading the book I have just finished the week before. “What a pleasant travel companion I’m going to have,” I think to myself. The news station appears on our individual screens on the back of the seats in front of us. The newscaster is reporting on immigration reform and legalizing gay marriage. My seatmate and I begin to talk. She wants to keep those “dirty immigrants” out of California, she says. “They are taking all the jobs away. Having two gay men adopt children is child abuse. What is this world coming to?”
Can I do this? Is it possible for me to understand someone who looks so similar to me yet thinks so differently? Can I allow myself to understand her perceptions with compassion instead of pressing the flight attendant button to ask for a seat reassignment? The reason would be simple: if I have to listen to this woman’s hate speech for this long flight I might hurt her.
Is this the point where instead of rebutting her arguments, I have to let myself be surprised by her? Is this when I have to be open to the mystery and awe of her being instead of raging at what I believe is bigotry and homophobia?
It is difficult to imagine myself in a world where I would be able to sit beside a woman whose being offends me, without having bile rise up in my throat.
In an ideal world, kids would drop their joysticks and gleefully join their parents for an evening stroll. Would my own children have agreed to be pulled away from their daily TV allotment for that sort of activity? If children were raised with a greater attunement to numinosity, would that guarantee the moral and spiritual health of each child as she or he grew into adulthood? Could we live in a world where the color of your skin or having differing religious beliefs would not lead to gang riots or war? Could the peoples of Israel and Palestine live together peacefully without one group claiming ownership of the land? If a child wore thick glasses, was poorer than the other students in class, or preferred to have crushes on kids of the same gender, and were never ridiculed or bullied, what would that world be like? If awe and wonder was our response to difference rather than fear and defensiveness, would mass murders and genocides cease to exist?
In his recent book, The Polarized Mind: Why It’s Killing Us and What We Can Do About It, Kirk J. Schneider, Ph.D., has written a synopsis of human history that he calls a “historical haiku.” He explains how polarized thinking, rather than observing each other and our world in all its complexities through a lens of mystery and awe, is the root cause of why human beings continue to kill each other. In great detail, by using Greek mythology, the teachings of various Eastern and Western theistic references, his assessment of the politics and psyches of nations and their leaders, and through contemporary modern life, he offers us examples of how fear and the absence of curiosity and awe have made us unable to rise above hatred. He proposes that various hardships of life and limited scopes of experience lead to black-and-white thinking. History is his evidence of how this way of thinking has led to horrific and catastrophic events that have wiped out lands and their peoples.
Schneider’s book lays out a thorough exploration of belief systems and analyzes several instances of quick antagonisms between major historical figures caused by miscommunication and impulsive reactions that led to disaster. The polarized mind leaves little room for ambiguous grey areas. He refers to this mind as living with the “denial of mystery-laden experience.” He theorizes that this type of tunnel vision has led humanity down a path of divided thinking that leads to vengeful acts of retribution rather than a world filled with people who might work hard to struggle to understand each other before a metaphorical or literal trigger would be pulled to kill an idea, a dogma, or an actual enemy. Schneider purports that the human anxiety that plagues us, the fear of being invisible, and ultimately the fear of death form the basis of why we kill ideas, viewpoints, and people who are different from ourselves. As we are confronted by different cultural, religious, and ethnic backgrounds, we may fall prey to the “fear of humiliation, or the terror of feeling insignificant.” This fear leads us to destroy whatever is deemed as a threat not only to our power over others but also to our very existence.
After his historical expose, Schneider arrives at the second part of the book’s title: “What can we do about it?” His question: “How do we prevent, or at least manage, the most destructive polarizations, the polarizations that wage egregious wars, that initiate relentless hatred, that concentrate obscene accumulation of wealth, and that deplete, every day, the imperative resources of nations?”
This portion of the book is somewhat less precise and not as convincing. Schneider states that he “believes that there is no definitive answer to this question,” He suggests that by supporting various revolutionary movements that address the challenge of thinking expansively and not constrictively, by addressing the experience of insignificance and fear of destruction, personally, and politically, there are possible rays of hope to change the manner in which humans have been negatively impacted by the many limited and exclusionary ways of thinking he describes.
He does lament that several revolutionary movements that began with expansive thinking (from peasant uprisings to the French Revolution, through Lenin and Mao Tse Tung), ended up being absorbed by leaders and followers who fell under the spell of the polarized mind.
By exploring some of the central themes in world religions and literature, we learn about the ancient birth of our black-and-white thinking. He uses “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” a Sumerian poem, one of the oldest examples of literature which has counterparts in the book of Genesis, as an example of this. The poem describes how King Gilgamesh, having made a Ulyssian-style trek toward immortality, made a shrine of his bravery and lucky attributes rather than exposing his human vulnerability.
Schneider continues to explore writings of many religions, among them the Hebrew Bible. In the book of Genesis, it is written, “Vayehi choshech vayehi or” (“There was darkness and there was light.”)
The Judeo-Christian perspective outlines a clear distinction between polarities. In the dark we cannot see each other. The light offers clarity, the ability to understand what is put before us. What is it that the darkness might offer us? Who decides what traits are categorized as dark or light? There is so much evidence of polarized thinking in the annals of history, literature, and religious text. Might we assume that part of being human is to live with these polarities? Without them, would the light be so constant and blinding that there would be no mystery, no awe to discover amidst the oppressive lack of visibility? In fact, Schneider states that his “ volume has demonstrated that it is very difficult to know great joy unless one has had contact with great sorrow, and that exposure to anxieties can be as life affirming as limiting in their impact.”
In my own experience, to be able to observe reality through a lens of awe, to be surprised by what is foreign as an invitation to another mysterious realm, takes ego strength. Without this core of self, all that is aberrant to the norm will appear threatening. Darkness therefore may be a necessary vehicle used to warn us when the lens of awe masks what is potentially dangerous. In the place of mystery, actual evil might exist and if we are not wary then we might face actual danger.
Throughout The Polarized Mind Schneider recites horror after horror of genocide, oppressive regimes, and covert support of such actions. Would gearing ourselves with a lens to observe awe and mystery be able to avert such catastrophes? Here I question the basic human condition. With so many examples of our imperfections, can we consider that we are wired to think with a split mindset? Maybe this more easily explains our inability to have a more expansive mind. Our limited way of thinking has persisted through so many cultural, economic, and political evolutions, might we consider that we are built this way for a reason?
To be able to shift into a state of mind where we might understand with compassion the impetus to shield ourselves from surprise or the ability to understand other perspectives that potentially threaten our well-being (and possibly our existence) takes a flexible mind. Who among us has not experienced any suffering or loss in the face of being exposed to situations or relationships that might alter one’s well-being, lifestyle, even wealth or power? This negative result might well cause us to retreat from further attempts to be open in the manner necessary to create a more accepting and inclusive world. A compassionate lens understandably is discarded when viewing those who commit grievous acts of violence due to the end result. The fact that the perpetrators have used violence to express their alienation leads us to avoid a deeper understanding of their motivations. The situation brings to mind a quotation from Fyodor Dostoevsky: “Nothing is easier than to denounce the evil doer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him.”
The recent glut of homegrown terrorism has become an occurrence that we react to with an attitude of muted horror. “Oh, not again,” we think to ourselves as we read the article or listen to the news broadcast give a cursory report of how many were injured, how many died, and how many survived. The perpetrator is the conduit for evil. We study his life history and background to find clues that led to his awful act. We shake our heads in disbelief, but by now it is too late. The damage has been done. Perhaps the visual exposure to international horrors of suffering, torture, and death has inured us to the level of violence we have grown accustomed to and prevents us from taking action preemptively to avert future catastrophes.
In the past thirty years, America has mourned at least sixty-one mass murders. On June 7, 2013, after killing his father and his brother, a young man drove to Santa Monica College, killed one more person and wounded several others before police shot and killed him. There was a short article about this on the fifth page of the San Francisco Chronicle. If more people had been murdered would it have made the front page? Have we become so desensitized to these mass murders that they are expected now? Perhaps we all have become willing participants, all armed with polarized thoughts and responses based on our shared cultural history. Is this what we might glean from the excess of violence we have grown accustomed to? Are mass murders the most visible aspect of this mental state that is grounded in a long and deep historical experience?
The age of the perpetrators of these sixty-one rampages range from nineteen to forty-five years old. They were all male. All of them had gripes of some sort that probably left them feeling humiliated or insignificant.
From the ancient civilizations of Sumeria, Greece, and Rome, through religiously motivated genocides of the Inquisition and Czars, from Mao to Hitler and our own American government, there have been characters who in the name of vengeance or fear of destruction, set out to and successfully killed others. Can we apply Dr. Schneider’s suggestion in these cases? Could society have raised all of these damaged souls with more love and care and instilled in them the ability to wonder? The mental health problems some of us are born with that lead to antisocial behavior might not be controlled by a more compassionate way of viewing ourselves and others.
Schneider, has written a beautiful book that is informative and easy to read. His collection of historical events gives a clear understanding of how he understands why good men have killed other good men since the beginning of recorded time. What must come next, is a conceptual plan to reduce the underlying causes of polarized thinking, the experience of not being seen, of feeling invisible and powerless. In addition, we must also address the confines of mental illness and the lack of effective treatment available to all who suffer. We must not ignore the fact that lethal weapons and easy access to them also play a large role in the level of violence we live with. Schneider contends that by being “ignorant of life’s paradoxes…miracles are squandered.” Tolerance and mutual respect not withstanding, to live in an America without guns and with mental health services available to all would be a big step in keeping “ the polarized mind” in check and would in fact be miraculous.