It’s Too Hard!

The Scream. Edward Munch.
The Scream. Edward Munch.

At 11:30 this morning, I looked at the clock, realized I hadn’t gotten nearly as much as I had hoped by then and plunged into dark despair.

Why? Because, as I’m sure you all know, by noon the day is pretty much over. Right?

No, actually. Most of the day is still left. I was, at that point, about 2 hours behind what I had hoped to accomplish. That’s it.

So why, I have to ask again, did I think the day was so spoiled?

Black-and-white thinking, of course. The day is either full of promise and potential or it is an absolute waste. But again, why? We all think in terms of extremes sometimes. I do from time to time, just as you probably do. But I don’t make a habit of it.  So why did I do it then?

I scratched my head for a bit, got paranoid about lice, and then remembered my post from the morning. And so I considered what the advantages might be of believing the day was absolutely shot at 11:30 in the morning. My post provided the answer.

I could have done this instead.
I could have done this instead.

If I decided there was absolutely no point in doing anything and it was all better left until tomorrow, I could sit and watch TV and generally let my brain and body rot the rest of the day. Nothing would be required of me.

If I decided the day still had hope, then I would have to make a plan for it. In fact, I probably would have had to rethink the plan I had already made for the day and see what my new priorities might be now that I had two fewer hours to play with. All that thinking!

The advantage of all-or-nothing thinking is that it’s easier. You either forgive your husband his infidelity or you leave him. You either quit your job or you keep your mouth shut the next time your boss goes off on you.

If you think in those terms, you don’t have to do the hard work of trying to sort out for yourself what went wrong with your marriage in the first place, you don’t have to talk over your hurt feelings and his guilt, and you definitely don’t have to sort out how you really feel about your marriage now. You don’t have to learn how to assertively but politely stand up to your boss. You don’t have to think through how you ended up in that position in the first place. So much easier on your poor tired head!

All-or-nothing thinking makes decision-making much simpler, and there are times when we very much need life to be simpler. Maybe we are just worn out from making too many other decisions and solving too many other problems. Maybe your life has been in constant crisis and every ounce of mental energy is drained out of you from just trying to get things to work every day: the car, the refrigerator, your partner, the kids, the vacuum cleaner. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

Snapshot_20121225_9We need simpler decision-making in a crisis as well, because we usually need to be able to act quickly in those situations. We can’t stand around and consider carefully the pros and cons of applying a tourniquet first versus just calling 999 or 911, for example. We need to do one or the other as quickly as possible before we bleed to death. So I also think we are hard-wired to use simpler decision-making processes under stress.

Keeping all that in my mind, I gave my head the break it needed. I decided against making a plan. Plans are hard. You have to think about them, and I was done thinking.

Instead, I did the first thing that came to mind. When that was done, I did something else. I kept doing things until I got hungry. I made dinner then, and sat down to write this post.

In between, this is what I did in my day that was shot to hell at 11:30 am.

I made a dentist appointment. I decided to extend my dental insurance and looked up how much that would cost. I asked a friend to help me move. (He hasn’t called me back.) I almost got rid of the bike and, in the process of fixing it up for my friend, decided to keep it. (She changed her mind anyway.) I took some things to Goodwill (as I usually do.) I packed a box of stuff I’m keeping. I emailed a friend to ask her to help me advertise about the cat and I emailed someone else about the desk. (I haven’t heard back about that either). I swept the house, took out the trash, cleaned the cat box, cut my nails and tidied up my eyebrows.

Very little actually got done, but that’s kind of how this thing works.

Advertisements

Freud is a Heuristic

freudI need to get Freud out of my head.

Actually, what I need to get out of my head isn’t really Freud’s fault. The idea was already there in the ether, and he just picked it up and put it in a palatable form for easier consumption.

But it’s a false idea. Demonstrably.

The idea that I need to get out of my head is that we are in charge of ourselves and our own minds. I’m not an expert on philosophy, which is really what you need to look at in order to see how we thought of ourselves before the birth of psychiatry. But from what I have gathered, at some point we mostly thought of ourselves in terms of being the playing field for larger forces of good and evil to play out on. Destiny played a large part. So did the devil.

Then, we began to think of ourselves as people who could make reasoned and rational decisions, who could think, and were free to make choices.

We have always noticed about ourselves that we seem able to think both purposefully and rationally, and to make decisions that are oriented towards achieving our articulated goals. And then we do this other dumb crap we can’t makes sense out of, that seems neither purposeful nor rational and that seems to be out of our control. We get swept up in forces that seem to be greater than ourselves at times, but we can’t always figure out what they are.

When the devil declined in popularity as an explanation for that, Freud suggested the unconscious, and what’s interesting about that is that he implied it works in ways quite similar to our conscious minds: that it has goals, that the results of its efforts are intended to meet these goals, and that it can weigh the likelihood of success of those efforts in the same way our conscious mind can.

In other words, my unconscious can decide it is angry at my mother and proceed to make me behave aggressively towards her in the same way that my conscious mind could do so but without telling my conscious mind about it.

I’m quite certain that’s not true.

Hopefully, we are doing better than australopithicus afarensis though. Because they're extinct.
Hopefully, we are doing better than australopithicus afarensis though. Because they’re extinct.

In my opinion, the unconscious is composed of two basic groups of processes: social processes and cognitive processes. They are not goal-oriented or purposeful. They are there because evolutionarily they have tended to create a benefit to us as a species more often than not, but in any given situation they may or may not actually be helpful.

Social processes include phenomenon like contagious emotions or actions–so, the fact that we tend to yawn together, or that if we are in a group of people and one person picks up a stone, the rest of the crowd may riot. It also includes other behaviors we tend to notice more in closer relationships, such as our tendency to want to please people we feel attached to. These are present in our species because generally those behaviors have helped us to work together to defend our communities and to obtain food and other resources. But there are specific situations where they are disastrous: like riots, and abusive relationships.

Cognitive processes are mostly shortcuts our brains take. And they help us because they make thinking easier, without sacrificing effectiveness in day-to-day functioning. So, for example, take the case of my culturally handed-down assumption that our actions are purposeful and goal-oriented. I kept falling back on that assumption because it was easier to keep using an idea that had been around for a long time than trying to think of a new idea, even though I kept seeing facts that called it into questions (such as all the problems that we throw money and resources at solving via strategies that clearly don’t work).

Sticking with our existing notions about things is easier and it usually works. After all, Freud’s ideas have been around for 100 years or so, and they’ve gotten most people through the day without ill effects. Why go dreaming up new ones and burn all that glucose unnecessarily? You could say the same thing about many other long-held ideas. If they’ve worked well enough, we tend to stick to them, even if they also cause problems. It’s easier and more efficient thatn than starting from scratch every time we need to think about them.

And that’s because of our brains. Thinking is difficult and takes effort. It also sucks up glucose, so our brains are designed to take steps to avoid it by using short-cuts called heuristics. I offer that one only as a single relevant example among many. But heuristics aren’t purposeful. They aren’t always helpful, it’s just that by-and-large, given the extraordinary number of decisions people need to make and the number of people who need to make them, heuristics usually save time and effort. And so all of our brains have evolved to use them despite periodic meltdowns.

I am glad we don't still do this.
I am glad we don’t still do this.

Unfortunately, this also means that we tend to approach solving problems in the same way we always have, even if it isn’t working. The same heuristics keep us from seeing it’s not working, or we find someone else to blame for the fact that they aren’t.

So, we have made very few inroads on peace in Palestine in the last 100 years or so, we don’t seem to be progressing very quickly with addressing terrorism, we have not significantly reduced crime, nor are we finding brilliant new ways of helping mentally ill people. We have made some incremental improvements, and I’m certainly pleased that we no longer set people on fire when they lose the plot, but a solution is really nowhere in sight on these issues.

But that’s the equipment we’ve got. We’ll have to figure out how to work with it. We can’t fly either, and we worked that out, so I hope we can work this one out.

The Upside of Bad Thinking

Image: Wiley Miller, Non Sequitor comics.
Image: Wiley Miller, Non Sequitor comics.

I think I’ll write about the obvious today.

I’m not good at the obvious. I’m good at other things. Like considering relationship choices in light of behavioral economics. So sometimes finding the obvious takes me a while. Or I need someone else to point it out for me.

In fact, I remember all through middle school not participating in class because I assumed what I was thinking was obvious to everyone. There was nothing too interesting about it. And the fact that no one had brought it up was proof of that: it hadn’t been mentioned because it wasn’t worth mentioning.

And then eventually I realized a completely different set of ideas was obvious to everyone else. My obvious was their “out of the box.”

In other words, you’ve probably thought of this before. Sorry.

But I have finally thought of this. It is all new and exciting for me.

To begin with though, you need to understand a bit about the cult I grew up in: the 2x2s or the Cooneyites or friends and workers cult. Whatever you want to call them.

Courtesy VotisAlive.
Courtesy VotisAlive.

Like other fanatical Christian groups that sprouted up in the 19th century, we spend a lot of time focusing on being poor sinners. But unlike other groups, it was a never-ending process of sinning and redemption. We committed sins worthy of confession every day. And we did confess them. Publicly. Not like Catholics–in private, to a priest who provided absolution. But like Communists, really. In public. In church. And absolution was always uncertain.

We didn’t really feel better afterwards. Or maybe we did. But not for long.

The usual sin was pride. Or covetousness. Mostly pride. And willfulness. Which is kind of like pride.

We were most guilty of thinking too much of ourselves. The sin was self-esteem and wanting to get our own way.

Photo credit: Perhelion.
Photo credit: Perhelion.

Just world thinking is a cognitive error. We should at this point all know this. It’s evident enough that good things happen to bad people; bad things happen to good ones. Life is just not fair. If no one ever told you that, you weren’t listening very well.

At the same time, because we persist in behaving as if our false belief were true, when we think we are good, worthy people, we also expect good things to happen. When we don’t, we are unsurprised when bad things befall us. So if  you are convinced you are an unworthy sinner, then you tend to expect bad things to happen.

In a practical sense, what this means is that there is no reason to speak up for ourselves if we are treated badly. And it clears the way for abusive behaviors to flourish.

And they did. Starting with an endless stream of disapproving, contemptuous looks and petty criticisms. And probably, behind closed doors, more intense kinds of emotional violence. But the point is we had no reason to speak up for ourselves.

At the same time, no matter what you think of yourself, if you don’t subscribe to the Just World Hypothesis, you won’t either. Why protest? Life is unfair. If you are treated unfairly, life is as it should be.

But people respond to indignation. They feel guilty when you protest. And this provides a check on abusive behaviors.

Just world thinking keeps other people in line. At least a little.

And we didn’t do that.

Miswanting

What I'm really wondering is whether the Far-Away Country will make me as happy as I think it will.
What I’m really wondering is whether the Far-Away Country will make me as happy as I think it will.

There is this phenomenon called affective forecasting, which means in order to make decisions, we predict how we will feel after certain events occur or we reach particular goals. If I win the lottery, I will be happy. If I lose my job, I will be miserable. That kind of thing.

It turns out, we are terrible at it. We think we will feel better about positive events than we really will, and that we will feel worse about negative events. We also think we will feel either better or worse (depending on the kind of event) for much longer than we really will.

And then sometimes the future comes and we don’t want what we think we wanted at all. That morning run? It sounded wonderful last night setting the alarm. In the morning…well, then it’s a different matter.

That’s because we assume we will feel however we feel now in the future, and how we feel frames how we think. Which affects our emotions. So, I assume I will have the same optimism and sense of fresh starts and new resolutions in the morning as I do right now. But I don’t. In the morning, I just feel tired. And grumpy. And because of that, the run seems like yet another stupid get-healthy idea that I always quit anyway. Better to hit the snooze.

There are several other reasons behind our hopeless inability to make accurate assessments about how what we think we want will make us feel.

It turns out getting these is way more important than whether there are 30 or 36 kids in the class.
It turns out getting these is way more important than whether there are 30 or 36 kids in the class.

One of them is focalism: attending only to the elements of the experience directly associated with the event. If what I’m considering is a move to another city across the country, I will probably only consider how I think that new city will affect my life and my feelings, as if everything else in my life will remain a constant. But in reality, nothing ever does, and it is immediate concerns that often make the biggest difference to us. Although the biggest change is the city, the more important factor may be whether my car is running reliably still and how my relationship with my adult children is going.

I know for myself that liking my neighborhood and my apartment has been a bigger factor than anything else in my happiness quotient for the last 8 years. I also know I was happier at the school where I taught the year before last than I was at the school where I taught last year. The crucial elements? Closer relationships with colleagues and a much easier process for getting supplies.

Yes, there were lots of other differences. They weren’t deciding factors.

And the big things? They mattered even less–subject matter, grade level, class size. Not really all that important.

It’s the million small things that make a big difference in our lives, and not the things we think are big.

God is in His Heaven and All is Right with the World. Sort of.

I did see some of these.
I did see some of these.

Today is one of those days when the sun is shining, the birds are chirping, God is in his heaven and all is right with the world.

Sort of.

Actually, it’s overcast and although a flock of non-indigenous yellow-chevroned parakeets did go by not long ago, I can’t hear anything but the 110 freeway. The fact that my cat is staring at the wall and not out the window suggests to me that there aren’t any birds out there. But I haven’t personally looked.

Nonetheless, all is indeed right with the world, at least for me.

I’ll tell you why.

I finally have a handle on things. I think I know why the world is in the mess that it’s in. I think I also know why we can’t seem to fix any of our messes. We don’t even really seem to be trying. We are taking a lot of steps intended to address problems that we should be able to see won’t work and yet we persist in doing them. That seems to me like another way not to try.

I’m talking about terrorism, racism, genocide, and violent crime. Societal problems. I think we probably have a much better handle on more technical kinds of problems, like global warming and the spread of infectious diseases. It is how to deal with each each other and with ourselves that we seem to be so hopelessly mired in ineffective responses.

I think I have worked out why. Finally.

We’re not very smart. We are certainly a lot less smart than we think we are.

dan-ariely-press-photoI was watching this Ted Talk from Dan Ariely as well as this one again last night, wherein he makes the excellent point that while we design our world to accommodate our physical limitations, we seem unable to even recognize our cognitive limitations let alone work around them.

He gives the example of organ donation sign-ups in various countries in Europe, and then points out that what really makes a difference in such an important matter as whether or not we’d like to save someone else’s life if we were to die with at least some of our organs intact is nothing more significant than the way the question is phrased.

When faced with complex decisions, we tend to make whatever decision has been made for us. If we have to opt in, we won’t. If we have to opt out, we won’t do that either. We’ll just make whatever decision is the most similar to doing nothing at all.

If you are inclined towards Freudian psychology, you will probably assume that that is because the decision creates anxiety and we try to avoid that anxiety by not making a decision. But I have my doubts. Not because it isn’t possible, but just because another explanation is more likely.

Complexity gives us a headaches–which is the reason for the name of my blog.  Sometimes, when we fail to take steps to really understand a problem well enough to solve it, all we are trying to do is avoid the headache.

I teach math, so I see this every day. I usually teach the students who are less successful at math generally, so I actually see quite a lot of it. And I do see some students who struggle in math because it makes them anxious. I see a lot more students who struggle in math because they simply can’t make themselves persist in a cognitively demanding tasks.

It makes their heads hurt. So they stop.

fractions
Most American adults continue to find fractions almost physically painful to deal with, and yet we persist in teaching them to fourth-graders in much the same way we’ve been teaching them for the last 30 years.

And I think when we are faced with social problems that are cognitively demanding to understand and solve we do much the same thing. We look for simple answers even when it is abundantly clear that our simple answers are incorrect and their simple solutions won’t work for the same reason that people will donate their organs as long as they don’t have to check a box to do it. It is just too painful to try to think that much.

Because of that, we are probably unlikely to make any significant progress in fighting violent crime during my lifetime, even though we actually know a great deal about what conditions propel us towards violence. We probably won’t create lasting peace in Palestine. And we probably won’t win the war on terror.

I can live with that. My cat is even less smart than we are, and I can live with her.

Fundamental Attribution Error

I’m still thinking about heuristics. It’s a Friday afternoon as I’m writing this, and I got home a bit earlier than usual. So bear with me. This is the kind of thing I think weekends are for.

Specifically, I was thinking about the Fundamental Attribution Error (which shall henceforth be known as the FAE, because that is just way too long to keep typing.)

“The fundamental attribution error is a common type of cognitive bias in social psychology. Essentially, it involves placing a heavy emphasis on internal personality characteristics to explain someone’s behavior in a given situation, rather than thinking about external situational factors.” From WiseGeek.

Essentially, the FAE–which is a terrifically common cognitive error that we make all the time, in all kinds of situations, and has been heavily verified and tested–causes us to think the person who cuts us off driving home from work in traffic is stupid, or selfish, or a bad driver. In other words, it is something innate within that person that causes him to behave that way, and not perhaps having his wife in labor in the back seat.

Dispositional Attribution is the Fundamental Attribution Error
Dispositional Attribution is the Fundamental Attribution Error

What’s interesting to me about this is that, although social psychologists once assumed FAE was universal, people in Western cultures make it more often and Americans make it the most often. (Read more about it in The Weirdest People in the World). It seems to have something to do with living in an individualistic society rather than one slanted towards collectivism.

It turns out that how we see ourselves in relationship to others affects how we see everything. When I was in graduate school, they called this field-dependent and field-independent cultures. For the life of me, I could never figure out how this related to how I was supposed to teach my subject matter. Now I do. (But that’s for another post.)

People with a field dependent orientation see both figure and ground. They might tell you less about a man’s face in a photo, but they might also tell you more about where he is, what the weather is like, and what he is wearing. Someone with a field-independent orientation may be able to tell you what the man looks like in more detail, but remember nothing about the background at all. People from collectivist cultures tend towards a field dependent orientation, while those from individualist cultures tend towards field independence.

What I wonder is if our tendency to focus exclusively on either victims or perpetrators is at least partly related to a cognitive error–if we are seeing only the figures in the picture, and not the ground. And if our over-consideration of the behaviors or innate qualities of the actors in a crime leads us to ignore the surrounding context.

In other words, I wonder if we are missing aspects of a situation we might, in fact, be in a better position to affect than the actions of a few individuals. For example, if a young woman is raped walking home late from a pub at night as a teenager was in Sydney just last month, then there is the tendency to think either about her choice to walk home alone or about how to appropriately punish the perpetrators. (Read the specifics of this case here.)

And, in doing so, we may be missing out on the chance to consider how changes in late-night transportation services, lighting, or policing could make the city safer for young women who–like young men–want to go out and have a good time on their own on a Saturday night. And we also may miss out on the chance to consider how the behavior of witnesses (and how the expected behavior of witness) can make a difference.

I’ve come to the frightening conclusion that people are generally harmed for only one reason: they are more vulnerable than the perpetrator. And it doesn’t take much to do that. You can be smaller, less physically fit-looking, or less well-armed. In fact, all it may take is to be female, because our assumption about women is that they are weak.

Sure, walking confidently can make a difference. Staying in well-traveled areas can help. But all it really takes to make me a victim is a lack of obvious physical power. And someone around who feels like harming me. I have no control over any of those factors..

We can also work on perpetrators. We can make sure that there are severe and swift consequences for seriously harming others so that there is some deterrent. We can keep individuals known to be violent in jail and off the streets for as long as possible. We can even intervene early in the lives of budding juvenile delinquents to help them learn empathy and anger management.

But the reality is that we can’t keep every violent person locked up forever–we can’t even predict who they will be–and many perpetrators see rules as applying to other people. A sociopath typically assumes he will never be caught and punished. He is special, invulnerable, too-smart. He is as surprised by jail time for a crime committed as I would be if I won the lottery–since I didn’t buy a ticket. A focus on perpetrators will only take us so far.

There can and should be more to this business of making our world safer. It needs to involve looking at circumstances that surround crime and it needs to involve changing the behavior of witnesses and bystanders. We need to pay attention to the field.

You may also like this:

We Aren’t the World

Heuristics and Human Predators, or Why I Think I Can Just Let Some Things Go

Is forgiveness necessary?

I have asked that question before in Forgiveness. I don’t know the answer, but I can tell you the anger I continue to carry is uncomfortable for me. It is like a burden or a weight, this excess emotion, heavy and tiresome. Because of that, I continue to look for ways to get rid of it every time I notice its presence.

Forgiveness has begun to enter my mind as a possibility. But perhaps it isn’t forgiveness that is so necessary so much as understanding. And it’s hard for me to understand.

Not the atrocity of what was done to me. I understand that. I have spent my whole life around psychopaths and other very damaged, very abusive people. In the end, they haven’t been so difficult to get my head around.

It’s everyone else. Everyone who failed to act, who didn’t see, who turned a blind eye, who failed to intervene, who allowed it, who didn’t stop the abuse or rescue me from it.

And those later who failed to help me, who promised to help me and didn’t—mainly therapists, I suppose, who claimed to have an answer to my suffering but really just wasted my time—and not just one or two for a few sessions here and there. Half a dozen of them. For more than a decade.

I hold the rest of society responsible in a way I find it difficult to do with the perpetrators. Maybe this isn’t always the case, but my own perpetrators seem so lacking in what it takes to be human that it is difficult for me to fault them. Like lions, they seem wired to be predators. And they were very good ones.

If you have lions in your area, and you are a sensible person, you grow a lion-proof corral out of thorny bushes to protect your cattle. You don’t sit just sit around feeling mad at the lions.

So where was the lion-proof corral?

I had an epiphany recently, though, and that may help. I don’t know that it’s the most hopeful epiphany, and it may not be the one that helps you. The understanding that will help you is the one that makes sense to you, based on what you have seen and know of the world. This is the one that makes sense to me.

We’re a kluge. I’ve mentioned that before in Taggart, Near Death Experiences and our Klugey, Klugey Minds, and The Kluginess of the Human Mind. More importantly, we have significant limitations in our ability to process information. These limitations lead to cognitive errors. Cognitive errors are not the same as the cognitive distortions you might work on correcting with cognitive behavior therapy. Distortions are based on your specific history and your specific past. Errors are common to nearly everyone, and while you can try to be conscious of them, there is often not much that can be done to prevent them. They are just part of how our minds work.

Cognitive errors are mostly due to shortcuts we rely on to make information processing more efficient—heuristics. We need shortcuts because there is only so much we can pay attention to, remember, and draw conclusions from. We only have so much time to mull over everything we have ever experienced before we need to locate a pattern and decide what it means. Heuristics work in most situations, but cause errors in a smaller number of others. You can read more about them here or here.

Because of these errors, there are times when we fail to see what we don’t expect to see, even in the face of clear evidence.  I suspect that this played a part in the thinking of those who failed to act or protect me when I was young and most vulnerable.

Those who might have acted to protect me may have failed to see the extent to which I was being harmed because they did not expect it. The kind of abuse I suffered is almost unthinkable. It is not a part of our ordinary experiences, and it is not what we generally expect human beings do to one another. It is certainly not what we expect to see parents do to their own children.

There are things we don’t see because it is too painful to do so. And there are things we don’t see because knowing would require us to act. There are also things we don’t see because it would create an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. And then there are things we don’t see because we just can’t.

Others may not have seen what I was suffering because of all of those factors, or even just because of the last one.

And there may have been similar reasons why those who did act did not act effectively, and why we still don’t have adequate measures in place to protect our most vulnerable members from predatory individuals and groups.

As a culture, we typically have certain assumptions about how people think and behave. Because of our heuristics, we tend to notice evidence that supports those assumptions and ignore evidence that contradicts them. But our assumptions are rarely complete or accurate. They may help us understand most people and navigate most situations, but they leave out situations that are unusual or individuals with minds that are substantially different than average.

So, we may not see that some people lack conscience entirely. We don’t realize some people enjoy harming others for the sake of it. We don’t recognize these problems as being completely unfixable, or that people who lack conscience are often very ordinary-seeming, even charming. And we may not see how vulnerable we are to their manipulations. There is a great deal of evidence, for example, that most of us are extremely poor at detecting lying. And yet hardly any of us will admit to that. Also, we may not accept easily that punishment, reprimand, or counseling will not lead to any long-term change or improvement in individuals who lack conscience or empathy.

And that means we may not notice when someone like that is harming another person or harming a group of people. We may not see when we are being manipulated by someone who lacks conscience. And we may not act effectively to protect those who are unable to protect themselves.

It’s common to assume that people who engage in anti-social behavior are suffering deeply in some way. I have never seen any evidence of this, although I was surrounded by people exactly like that when I was growing up.

They do often express anger and articulate a sense of victimization. But I don’t think this is the same as actually suffering. Anger is a powerful emotion. I find anger unpleasant, but not everyone does and for some people anger can be intoxicating rather than troubling. And believing one is being victimized can satisfy a deep need to feel special.

So I tend to think that assuming harming others is always a cover for deep suffering is nothing more than that—an assumption. One we prefer to believe because it doesn’t challenge our basic ideas about the human mind: namely, that, at heart, we are all basically good people, we are capable of free will, and everyone can be redeemed.

I don’t think any of those things are true. Unlike dogs, some people really are predatory. Our ability to choose freely is limited by our perceptions, needs, and strong desires or feelings. A predator can choose not to harm others, but there is no real reason they ever would. Instead, I think our assumptions about the fundamentals of human nature arise through a heuristic—a shortcut. One that leaves us unable to respond effectively with our species’ outliers—but it was those outliers that I lived with everyday.

And it isn’t really a temporary problem. It’s an ongoing one—one that we may be able to make small inroads on over time, but our limitations are part of our condition as human beings.

We just aren’t that smart.

It’s hard to explain the emotion that comes with this perspective for me, because I’ve written all of this in a way that I think probably sounds very detached and clinical. But I don’t feel detached about it. I feel a terrible sense of sorrow, as if what it means to be human is in itself a matter of tragedy.

It is wonderful to be human. It is an astonishing privilege to be a part of creation in any way at all. But we are flawed in ways that make us vulnerable to harm from others and that cause us to form societies that are flawed in the same ways that we are.

We do the best we can most of the time. There is hope that we can do better, and there is some indication that we are doing better. Although there are now more individuals living in a state of enslavement than ever have before, slavery is at least no longer a legal condition. And although we continue to abuse our children, at least most churches do not actively advocate it any longer.  Despite the ongoing occurrence of genocide and group-based conflicts, at least we have begun to think about how to effectively intervene and prevent them.

And I also feel relieved about it, because I no longer feel compelled to hold anyone responsible. What happened to me was no one’s fault. And I can let go of that burden of anger at last.