What’s the Use in Worrying?

We can change the world, but it requires that we relearn how to think about the world, and our place within it.

What’s the Use in Worrying?
Courtesy of Free Vintage Images

This essay is an outline of the problems faced by our society, the reasons for those issues, and the options for changing the world we live in through the act of striving.

The myth of “American Exceptionalism” is no longer the norm, even throughout most of the United States. As a matter of fact, the States aren’t even that united anymore, so the very country itself is on the verge of becoming a misnomer.

And yet where America leads, the world does, still, in many ways, follow. This is largely because of the corporate juggernauts that own the U.S. political system, in conjunction with the United States military overreach in nearly every “corner” of the globe, but regardless of the causes the fact that some truth remains in the old myths about the United States is important. If the United States fails to live up to its better self — to the myths that really matter the most — it’s going to spell a bad time for everybody else.

Hopelessness is understandable but it can be defeated

Hopelessness comes naturally after a great deal of struggle and in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds. It makes sense that people would lose heart after all we’ve been through. But hopelessness is, ultimately, within the mind alone.

Indeed, understanding that our minds create our reality is not just the way to free ourselves from the bonds of hopelessness, but also the key to unlocking the solutions we need to build a better world.

The lies of economics and the weight of ideas

Lately there is a lot of talk about “the economy.” Those who speak or write of it often refer to it as if it were an extant thing — that is, as something which embodies some physical presence. But let’s unpack that for a moment: what physical presence does the economy actually occupy? Wallstreet? The banks? The Stock Market?

Really, the economy has no existence outside of our minds. There are symbols that we use to reference pieces of “the economy,” bits of data contained in computer storage that allow us to suggest something animate. But, in actuality, all these symbols are merely the mask of a ghost, the flicker of shadow in the corner of your eye. The economy quite literally only has power because we say that it has power.

At the very least, even if we accept the existence of such a thing as the economy, we must be careful to unpack the meanings behind such phrases as “the economy is doing well,” because they inherently mean very little at face-value.

Courtesy of Free Vintage Images

Understand me when I say: a functioning stock market does not equal a “good economy” — nor does it in almost any way translate into those things that the vast majority of us care about (local jobs, housing, food on the table, education for our kids). The next time someone uses this phrase, understand that their motivations are suspect. More likely than not, they have some personal stake in keeping the status quo intact (and your status is very much their quo).

People want to sell you on the idea that something is real because that’s all they need to do to make it real (at least, insofar as it serves their needs). Would you buy Beecham’s Pills, though, and assume that it will cure all your bilious and nervous disorders? I’m betting that you’d at least want your doctor’s advice before doing so.

The problem with something like “the economy” is that there are few options for true experts. Most economists are completely contained within the system — they have no purpose save for that system and therefore cannot envision anything outside that system. Ask an economist “why is the economy important” and you’re likely to get fifty very specific reasons which, if you trace them back to their source, only matter if the economy (as that economist understands it) exists in the first place. Their reasoning is utterly circular.

The power of ideas

Hopelessness is just an idea as well. When it comes to social change, hopelessness arrives because it seems like nobody else shares your perspective — or, if anyone does share it, the total number of all of you combined is too small to make a change.

But that’s not true.

Ideas do not exist within a static continuum. Some, like the economy, are large enough, complex enough, and work to describe a specific system well enough that they become widely accepted. But even ideas that large can be undermined and restructured. The idea of what they fundamentally are can become altered by differences in opinion and interpretation.

When we think of a “better future” the chance is that most of us actually share very similar ideas of what that looks like. Again, it probably has something to do with satisfaction in work and home-life, as well as a measure of safety for ourselves and the ones we love. It might have something to do, too, with pride in some secondary aspect of our identity (culture, religion, ancestry), but by-and-large for most of us this is a “third pillar” somewhat auxiliary to the first two.

Job? I don’t need no stinkin’ job

Let’s unpack things further by asking “what is fulfilling work and why do I need it? What is safety, and how do I get it?”

For the first part, fulfilling work is highly individual. For some, it might appear to mean “something I don’t hate which provides safety and security.” But, deeper, what “fulfilling work” really means is something which gives us a sense of purpose in the world. We are meaning-generators; human beings create meaning in the world around us, we are constantly searching our surroundings and the interior of our minds for new meanings — or validation for old meanings. Sometimes, something as simple as building a wall might fulfill our need for meaning. Other times, it’s building a wall because the wall’s eventual purpose is meaningful (maybe it’s a homeless shelter, or a school).

Courtesy of Free Vintage Images

But, chances are, most people don’t actually have a job which is very meaningful. They supply all the meaning for their work from one of the other two life pillars: relationships or identity.

If one works because one values their relationships, then work is validated because it supports those relationships; the “breadwinner” feels good because their hard work appears to have a purpose: keeping their family secure and happy.

If identity is the source of validation for work, then a person can lean on it to provide a sense of meaning. Perhaps they can say “my family’s done this job for generations,” and feel a sense of pride in that appearance of continuation, of tradition.

Safe as houses

All of the internal reasoning that goes into finding ways to attach meaning to work often has a singular goal: the safety of one’s loved ones. We work to provide for our children, to take care of parents, to give ourselves the luxuries that make life feel comfortable, easy, and fun.

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that — it makes complete sense that we would want to work hard to ensure that our loved ones (and, hopefully, ourselves) can enjoy a good and safe existence.

However, if we stop to think about it for a moment, most of us will quickly realize an important (and sobering) truth: all our hard work is no guarantee of the safety and well-being of ourselves or our families. It’s simply too easy to be injured, too easy for the company we work for to replace us; too simple for the world to pass us by without paying any attention to our needs.

Courtesy of Free Vintage Images

All for one = one for all

One of the biggest American myths is that of “self-reliance.” You know the one: start off with nothing, work hard, pull yourself up by your bootstraps (or laces) and establish your place in society’s competitive hierarchy as personage of respect and influence.

The trouble is that for every one person who has done something vaguely similar to this, there are around 100,000,000 (one-hundred million) people who have lived their lives barely scraping by.

The truth of human nature and evolution is that we’re group animals. We work well in groups and we quite literally evolved our ability to communicate complex ideas because interacting with our groups in more subtle ways helped us to better survive.

(Still from the film Jurassic Park. Remember what happened to this guy? Don’t be this guy.

We are stronger for the people around us and trying to “go it alone” will, more often than not, result in us getting eaten.

Humanity evolved the tool of communication to better understand who our fellow humans were, and to co-operate in better, more complex ways. This ability to communicate made a relatively weak scavenger species the dominant force on the planet. But, as we’ve started to see, this same strength can easily entrap us — we can quickly become our own worst predator because of it.

They key to our survival is a return to the basics: co-operating with our fellow human beings. The more we co-operate the more we stand a chance of providing safety for our loved ones. The more we pool our knowledge and resources, freely and openly, the more we stand a chance of doing exactly what we most long to do: lead a healthy, happy, comfortable life in the company of the people we care about.

What about the whole hopelessness thing, though?

Deconstruct the hopelessness. That feeling of hopelessness is natural, but it can be reduced to its constituent elements and reinvented. We feel hopeless about the big things because we’ve, in a sense reduced them; we remove all the subtleties and internal connectivity in order to grasp “the big picture” which then frightens us. We see ourselves as a lone individual standing up against a mighty Goliath. But that’s not reality, not unless we make it so.

During the 2020 election season, an image circulated the internet that highlighted the voting centers of each of the States. All of a sudden, people could see where the greatest concentration of voters lay, and could decrypt an important bit of information: no State belonged to a solid “color” (that is: no State solidly voted for a specific candidate because… land doesn’t vote, people do). This is exactly what our minds tend to do when confronted by a large problem: they leap to assumptions about the state of reality. Instead of looking for the underlying information, we automatically categorize entire swaths of information under broad titles. If we leave that information in that state, everything becomes overwhelming. The only way to remain within that state and maintain some semblance of sanity is to reduce the world into absolutes: good vs evil, them vs us. But, in so doing, we sacrifice our ability to see the pieces which create our map of reality.

Can we change?

Yes, change is possible. It won’t be easy. A lot of people don’t know how to deconstruct their ideas of the world, and many people who might already have the mental tools to do so are held back by fear, culture, or pure exhaustion.

Change in our society will come from increasing human connection, not by diminishing it. Change will come from stepping back from our personally-cherished beliefs in order to model the process of people who don’t know how (or are too afraid to try).

Change will come because we stand together and demand that it come, because co-operation and the sharing of ideas is what human beings are best at doing.

Change will come because we need it to and because, as meaning-seeking creatures, we possess an innate urge to strive for new horizons and new pinnacles of betterment. If we listen to that part of ourselves, if we can unlearn the concepts that we take for granted as “normal” and instead listen to the part of ourselves that wants to understand and decrypt the world, then we stand a darn solid chance of helping others do the same. And, together, of changing the way our world works.

Hi there! I’m Odin Halvorson, a librarian, independent scholar, film fanatic, fiction author, and tech enthusiast. If you like my work and want to support me, please consider becoming a paid subscriber for as little as $2.50 a month!

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