I’m seeing a lot of bruised and battered, dazed and confused folk wandering around out there, so I’m hoping this might provide a bit of relief for some of you.
If my circle of friends or my own personal experience is any indication, a lot of us are starting to question our mental health lately. It feels like things are happening at every level all at once. It’s hard to differentiate my feelings about what Putin is doing in Ukraine, from the same impotent rage at what my rich, entitled neighbours are doing right in my back yard. Everywhere you look, the bullies seem to be gaining ground while our “leaders” double down on the same losing strategies and the masses stand transfixed like deer caught in the headlights.
It’s hitting us hard and deep. The political suddenly feels very personal and all of it seems to trigger every old, unhealed wound we’ve suffered, echoing the unhealed wounds of our ancestors. Everything feels unsafe and we wonder what is wrong with us — especially when it seems like some people are just stumbling along oblivious to the shit-show that is going on all around them. The world is on fire and some people are running around pouring gas on everything, forgodsake! Are they crazy or am I?
I’m a social psychologist. To me, societies have their own psychological lives that play out through the lives of the individuals who compose the society. Our emotional lives are fundamentally connected to the emotional drama that is playing out around us at the cultural or societal level. We hum with a sort of emotional resonance. So, if society goes crazy, you’re gonna feel it.
Of course, our society hasn’t gone crazy. No, really. It’s actually healing from insanity. It is nature’s way of reasserting reality after a long, fevered delusion. Unfortunately, it’s crazy-making to live through. Here’s why:
Society is, in fact, a useful lie. It’s a way of organizing complex systems in overly simplistic ways to allow our feeble human brains to get a handle on things. It’s all metaphor. It’s a map and there’s nothing wrong with that. Sure, the map isn’t the territory, but maps are still useful.
The problem happens when the society forgets that it’s just a map, not the territory itself. And this seems to happen in every society that has ever risen, in a depressingly predictable cycle. We seem to consistently suffer a sort of collective amnesia: we start to believe our own lies.
When you start thinking that the map is more accurate than the landscape, you have a disaster waiting to happen. Eventually, this societal denial builds up a toxic load. The useful lies morph into dangerous delusions. Eventually, the society is no longer able to function effectively in its landscape. It ends up spending most of its energy just maintaining the delusion. This is what we are currently witnessing in Putin’s bombs, “freedumb” truck convoys, and the GOPs desperate attempts to shout down reality.
In the end, of course, reality always wins. Societies are living things and they are subject to the same evolutionary selection pressures as any other creature. When they no longer fit within their environment, there are two options: adapt or die.
This is where things get tricky, because societies have psychology in exactly the same way as you do — as an aggregation of very diverse parts. Society-out-there works exactly the same way you do “in there.” Not like our social conditioning that would have us believe that we have a single, coherent, consistent “personality.” That’s just one of those lies that has outlived its usefulness. In reality, like Walt Whitman says, we all contain messy, contradictory multitudes and that is our strength. Nature loves diversity. In nature, more diversity = more health. But it also means that things don’t simply switch from this to that. The world has never been binary. Adaptation is a process whereby one thing slowly transforms into the other as each of the component parts themselves transform.
But that doesn’t quite capture the feeling of the transformation. Transformation sounds so neutral. It feels like each and every element of the original form dies and only then is something new reborn. We all know the story of the caterpillar and butterfly — the classic image of transformation. But we don’t fully recognize what goes on in that cocoon. I cover it in more detail here, but TL;DR, even inside the cocoon, the immune system of the larva will try to attack the forming body of the butterfly-to-come — even as it is dissolving itself out of existence. There is a battle going on inside that cocoon — or at least that’s how the larva sees it. The larva thinks it’s fighting for its life.
A society only transforms when each of us transform, and that transformation happens at a molecular/neurological level. We all start out as part of the larva — identified with it — so in some sense we have to die to the larva before we can be reborn as the butterfly.
We love to talk about the “habitus” in sociology. Dozens of books have been written to explain the nuance of the concept, but the short form is habitus is to humans what water is to fish. It’s the environment that so surrounds us that we can’t even perceive it. Maybe it would be better to say, it’s like the Kool-Aid to fish; we drink it without even realizing it. We are born into and stew in that Kool-Aid all throughout our formative years. It shapes our core ideas about how the world “really” works, who we are, and how we fit into things. It goes beyond questions of good and bad; the habitus defines what is real and what isn’t.
But of course, you can’t define what is or isn’t real. Society is simply rendering some of reality as “unthinkable.” If society is a map, it’s the part marked “here be dragons.” As an interesting side note, you can easily identify the artificiality of social “reality” by watching when its defenders attack something — usually a suggestion that we act with kindness or integrity — with “that’s not how the real world works.” In every case, the “reality” being referenced here describes an artificially developed social standard that requires the threat of violence to maintain. Reality itself never needs to be defended.
Therefore, for a society to change, that basic operating system— the habitus — needs to be reprogrammed. But that’s the software that tells you who you are and what is real and true. So, when a society such as ours faces an existential threat — when it finds that it no longer fits in its environment — it forces an existential crisis on each of its constituent members.
And that’s where we find ourselves. The society that we were born and enculturated into must transform to fit within the material limits of reality. At a practical level, we simply need to let go of the lies that no longer work — that don’t actually fit with our lived experience. At that level, transformation is neutral. But it’s not gonna feel like that, at least not to the larva-mind. It’s going to fight back and hard. It’s a losing fight, of course. No matter what, that larva will never emerge again from the cocoon. The only real question is whether the butterfly survives or not.
So, I have some good news and some bad news and then some more good news. You aren’t crazy; our society is — or actually it’s going through the crazy-feeling process of reconnecting with reality after a long period of collective delusion. In fact, it’s been so delusional for so long that the only way we can survive is through such a deep transformation that what emerges will feel as different as a larva is from a butterfly. Unfortunately, that transformation will feel like dying in a very real way — and it’s going to be hard the more invested you are in larva-mind. This is why we are seeing the worst behaviour coming from the top of the pyramid. These are probably the most deeply delusional people on the planet. That’s the bad news.
The good news on the far side is that as soon as you can dissolve the last of the larval goo from your habitus — when you can see how polluted our water has become and start to crave pure, clear water again — the butterfly is waiting to welcome you into the process of becoming what comes next.
We are living through extraordinary and challenging times. There is nothing wrong with your emotional programming or your inner compass. Let me repeat: there is nothing wrong with you! It’s not you; it’s the situation we find ourselves in. You are angry and afraid and exhausted and frustrated because we are living in a broken, delusional society. The problem is that we have all been abused and battered by a lie that has outlived its usefulness and the discomfort we are currently feeling is there to motivate us to purge the lies from our system.
It’s time for us all to do the hard work of reacquainting ourselves with reality. And here’s maybe the best news of all — reality is just fine. Actually, it’s more than just fine: reality is awesome. What is less than awesome is our inherited culture of lies, oppression, and cruelty, so good riddance to bad rubbish. Now we can all finally learn to discard the delusional “real world” that bullies have threatened us with since before we were born and discover what it means to find ourselves connected all along.
So, I encourage you all to start identifying with the butterfly. The time has come for us to band together to support each other to dissolve those last vestiges of larval thinking and commit our time, attention and energy to bringing together all the parts that compose the butterfly. The larva’s days are numbered, it’s true, but its immune system has still got a bit of kick to it. There is real danger in this transition and our greatest source of resilience lies in cooperation. It’s time for the smart money to start betting on the butterfly.