When things no longer make sense

Back in the beginning of the 80’s, someone pegged me as a ‘utopian anarchist.’ (I was holding office for the Dutch Social Democrats, and the remark was intended to point out that my beliefs were a bit too far off in left field.) There was a lot of truth to this, I think. From college on I firmly believed, heavily influenced by a revival of the 19th century transcendentalism, that human beings were innately good and, left to their own resources, preferably in nature, would do only good things. ‘The enemy’ was capitalism and any form of authoritarian society.

It took me a long time to reconcile these ideals with the truth I perceive daily. And it’s very easy to close my eyes to the discrepancies. That way, I can escape the pain of what is known as ‘cognitive dissonance.’ If what I see doesn’t fit the framework of my beliefs, I can reframe what I see. But maybe it’s more important to examine my beliefs, and see what I can learn from this dissonance.

An American friend provided me with an example. In California, in the 70’s, mental institutions were closed down and chronically unstable people were sent out to function in society again. The ideal behind this was the recognition that everyone has the right to take responsibility for their own lives. Movies like ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ opened our eyes to the degrading effect of institutionalized care. Closing the institutions was about recognizing individual dignity and freedom.

Today, she says, major Californian cities are plagued by large numbers of homeless, some of whom should have institutionalized care. Human feces in the streets become more and more of a problem, and vector-borne diseases like typhus, tuberculosis, and staphylococcus infections are a growing danger. Not because there are no public toilets or shelters, but because a growing number of homeless people do not use these facilities. These are the people whose individual dignity and freedom were at stake.

What does this mean? Every answer to this conundrum is insufficient. It’s not just the fault of ‘big money;’ it’s not just the fault of drug use, it’s certainly not the fault of immigrants. But everyone carrying certain, especially partisan, beliefs will give a different answer and propose a different solution. And some people simply close their eyes to the problem.

I’m in the middle of reading Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. An intriguing book. One of his premises is that human society is based on the ability to create and develop what he calls fictions. And, as various societies grow more complex and intermingled, the fictions – one could also say myths – evolve in complexity as well. This quote hit home: “If tensions, conflicts and irresolvable dilemmas are the spice of every culture, a human being who belongs to any particular culture must hold contradictory beliefs and be riven by incompatible values.” Cognitive dissonance helps us grow and evolve.

My transcendental – or maybe utopian anarchist – beliefs were a tad too naïve. I now understand that humans are not innately good, and neither are they innately evil. Society, capitalism, modern times, authoritarian regimes: none of these are to blame for making people selfish, shortsighted, or grasping. We all have these qualities. And, at the same time, we are capable of compassion, wisdom, and true caring. Some of us are capable of personal growth towards mature, balanced adults, some don’t seem to be. Is Homo Sapiens as a whole capable of maturity and will this happen in time? That remains to be seen.


  1. Mary-Lou Gillette

    Thank you for this very thoughtful view. I keep grasping for any sense to be made of this political and social quagmire we are in here in the states. Your words bring some clarity to this extreme polarization of thoughts and feelings. The normal societal tools of truth, civility and empathy are being brushed aside and considered inconvenient and bothersome. There are so many good, reasoning minds here but can they be heard? I truly hope so!

    • Very true, Malou. I hesitated to use more polarized examples because my message would be that neither side has the absolute certainty of rightness. And that’s such a difficult message to hear, that I fear the gist of what I’m saying would go unheard.
      And this isn’t just an American problem, the entire world is begging for new paradigms.

  2. We were all more idealistic and positive in our youth. For example, I could see racism and sexism slowly disappearing (I thought) and humankind evolving for the better. Now it is hard to read the news about our world, but we have to keep striving.

  3. Excellent Maddi, thank you for focusing attention on this pending public health disaster. I worry that if large-scale emergency action isn’t prioritized very soon, the enormity of the numbers will overwhelm possible solution. There are no “sides” in the face of a public health and safety crisis.

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