Catastrophes, Real or Imagined? How to help our minds tell the difference

“Nichiren Calms a Storm in Kakuda” for Catastrophe blog post

A number of years ago, a friend who is familiar with my tendency to worry brought me a present, a book called The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook. I remember tearing off the gift wrap and looking quizzically at the title. Huh? But as I thumbed through pages of advice—what to do if your finger gets caught in a deli slicer, or how to pull yourself out of quicksand, or escape a crocodile attack—I got my friend’s humorous point: our imagination is a wondrous mechanism, but sometimes it works overtime to spin out dreadful tales. (As an aside, his humor coincided perfectly with something one of my creative writing professors once told me: when you open the gates of imagination, there’s no predicting what will fly through!)

How to Survive an Elephant Stampede for Catastrophe blog postMy friend and I shared some hardy laughs over a few of the book’s absurd entries, but inwardly I sighed in relief. On the spectrum of crazy worries, mine were not extreme. When it came to catastrophic thinking, I was obviously not alone.

Not everything we imagine should we believe. Many of the scenarios our minds create are unlikely to befall us. Imagine being in an airplane that is experiencing turbulence. The windows rattle. A storage bin pops open. Dropping altitude, the plane pitches and shakes. Worst case scenario—you’re plummeting through space.

Maybe, but probably not. Odds are the plane will right itself, pass through the turbulence, and land safely at its destination. Air safety statistics are in our favor, but during moments of terror, we visualize the worst. Strong emotions can clog our cognitive channels. The more vivid the images and sensory experience of doom, the more likely they will lead us to a faulty conclusion about what’s occurring by out-muscling our rational brains. The fact that catastrophic imaginings can be utterly convincing doesn’t make them true.

Catastrophizing has a lot to do with our mind’s ability to produce fantastically realistic images that run like high definition movies in our heads. This can sometimes be useful. Elite athletes use visualizations to enhance performance. Olympians are not alone in mentally rehearsing record-breaking outcomes by imagining their ability for athletic perfection. Guided visualizations, imagining best outcomes, also help people get through medical procedures, addiction issues, or common fears such as anxiety about public speaking.

The Raft of the Medusa for Catastrophe blog postThis is imagination’s marvelous capacity—to change our attitudes and behaviors. One of its main jobs is to open new doors to the possible. There is a popular quote frequently attributed to Albert Einstein: “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” What he actually said was “I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”—from an interview in The Saturday Evening Post in 1929. The irreverently wise Dr. Seuss put it another way, “I like nonsense; it wakes up the brain cells.”

Imagination also serves as a bridge to empathy. After all, if we can’t imagine walking in another person’s shoes, we are cut off from knowing and empathizing with their experience.

However, when imagination’s focus is catastrophe, we could say it has gone wild. In a previous blog, I’ve written about anxiety as our brain’s way of trying to protect us from real or imagined danger, part of a neural warning system whose priority is to keep us safe and alive. When we catastrophize, a part our brain is alerting us: “Get ready, here it comes.” But in this instance, the perspective is skewed. Clouded by emotion, our perceptual apparatus can’t relay the information needed to make a sound judgment. We are unable to discern that our neighbor’s fearsome snarling dog has terrible arthritis and no teeth.

Anxious thoughts can scare the bejeezus out of us, but they do not have malicious intent. And while it’s true that part of our mammalian repertoire includes a nervous system that signals us to flee or physically overcome a threat, it’s also worth considering that beyond this hard-wiring, stories of catastrophe are embedded in our literary imaginations as well.

The stories we grew up with from the Old and New Testaments are chock full of catastrophes. Floods, plagues, Satan and his evil-doing minions, transformations into pillars of salt, and of course the fiery tortures of hell all linger in our collective Western imaginations. Catastrophe also befalls Greek, Roman and Hindu heroes. In most wisdom traditions and in fairy tales, catastrophe follows disobedience, ignoring a prohibition, or transgressing against moral or traditional law.

Arthur Rackham Bluebeard illustration for Catastrophe blog post“You may peer into any room but that room,” Bluebeard instructs his newest wife after handing her a set of keys. Do not eat the forbidden apple; do not stop to speak to the wolf on your path. By all means, do not kill your father and marry your mother. Watch out for your hubris, your pride. Do not try to imitate the gods.

We might wonder if some of our present-day anxieties have been handed down over generations whose guilt and fears of sin and punishment have become our own. How might our own deepest fears be a form of self-punishment, the curse of an unconscious inner demon?

Not that real catastrophes don’t happen every day. Fires, mudslides, category four hurricanes, tsunamis, school shootings, random shooters, famine, measles epidemics—the revelation of horrific incidents has increased substantially in modern times. Here, anxiety leads us between a rock and a hard place. For the sake of our survival, and the planet’s, we must stay alert and conscious of the dangers to our society; to our peril do we shrug off scientific evidence for climate change or a need to reconsider gun control laws. The melting of the polar ice cap, the ruination of coral reefs are not fairy stories or cautionary tales. Denial won’t make them go away.

One way to work with catastrophizing thoughts is what The Worst-Case Scenario Handbook aims to do: give the reader clear, concrete, and specific instructions on how to work through a particular terrifying event. Facing down a raging lion on the savannah? Here’s what you do. Less exotic worries afflict most of us. What if that mole turns out to be cancer? What if my partner’s shirt reeks of an unfamiliar perfume? Here’s where we can get help from our reasoning mind. In the face of threatening thoughts, we can engage our smart frontal lobe. Is this scary thought likely to be true? If the answer is yes, what logical and concrete action can we take to elevate the situation? We can try to observe our scary thoughts with detached curiosity. We can ask ourselves: Is this worry part of a familiar pattern that has derailed me before? If the answer is yes, try to remember the first time you had the thought and the circumstances that provoked it. In doing so, you may gain insight into the very origins of your concerns.

The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook is now in its fourth edition. I take this as a sign that anxiety and catastrophic fears are not going away any time soon. Humor can blast through fear in surprising ways. It might be worth buying a copy of Handbook, if only to get a good laugh at the madly funny things we come up with to scare ourselves.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



How to Find Hope in Turbulent Times

Hope and Despair by Yuumei for Hope blog post

 

“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can,” puffs the little engine that can and it does pull the train over the mountain in the beloved children’s book The Little Engine That Could. Young and old readers rally to cheer the story of a determined train engine (notably, a self-effacing “she”) in Watty Piper’s picture book rendition of the traditional American values of optimism, hope, and can-doism.

Page from 1954 edition of The Little Engine That Could for Hope blog postThe message of The Little Engine goes straight to the heart of our deepest held cultural beliefs and aspirations: however modest our circumstances, by summoning courage and willpower, we can overcome. Like the sometimes bumbling and naïve heroes of Dickens, or the dim-witted dummlings in fairy tales, Piper’s little blue engine begins in self-doubt and ends in victory.

If only in the real world finding hope were as simple as reciting a positive mantra!

The word itself, hope, comes from the old English hopa and means confidence in the future. Wikipedia aligns hope with “expectation with confidence.” Over centuries the word’s meaning hasn’t much changed: to hope is to have trust in the future, even if the future is fraught with uncertainty and unknowns.

Hope is an essential curative for despair and necessary for survival, but as we face a new year in which struggle and sorrow abound, many of us feel depleted of hope. How can we balance accepting a difficult reality with preserving optimism about the future? Hope, it seems, is not backward-looking, but has its arms stretched out to the future.

The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu for Hope blog postTo feed the seeds of hopefulness, I recently turned to a conversation between sages, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Each man has been marked by arduous travels on the road of suffering but has preserved his humanity and his joy. The two venerable world leaders met in Dharamasala, India to celebrate their birthdays (both men are in their eighties) and to discuss the world situation. The result of their conversation is recorded in The Book of Joy.

Despite the title, there is nothing superficial or Pollyannish about The Book of Joy. Every chapter steers the mind and heart toward hope. Their considered views concur: “No dark fate determines the future. We do. Each day and each moment, we are able to create and re-create our lives and the very quality of human life on our planet. This is the power we wield.”

Both men believe in our capacity to do good despite our capacity to also commit atrocities. When faced with video footage of disasters, our compassion “springs up.” We see this often in the flood of generosity from strangers after a national or international disaster. In fact, the desire to do good is our inherent nature, though sometimes conditioning obstructs this instinct. Desmond Tutu and His Holiness advise we can take heart that humankind is slowly evolving toward greater self-awareness. In Buddhist terms, we can count on our genuine warm-heartedness.

Self-Portrait as a Garden by KRIS-13 for Hope blog postWhen I asked renowned Jungian analyst Murray Stein about his perspective on hope, he sent me the following response: “I was thinking about what gives hope to people, and it occurred to me that when dreams of young children come to my patients, they always give a lift because children symbolize a future, and what is hope if not about the future?” He gave the example of a patient’s dream of a pregnancy and birth, images that signified a hopeful prospect for the patient’s new marriage and for a positive perspective on her own life.

“It’s out of dreams like this that hope gets born in people,” says Dr. Stein. In a chapter called “Turbulence in the Individuation of Humankind” in his latest book, Outside Inside and All Around, Dr. Stein draws a conclusion similar to that of the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu’s: “Human consciousness is increasing and moving toward the realization that we’re all in this together…You don’t see this movement toward consciousness from day to day or year to year, but looking over decades and centuries, I see improvement in the human condition on the planet and an advance of human consciousness.”

Of course, miscalculated or misguided hope can lead us into greater difficulty. Psychotherapist Jason Holley admits that in his practice, much of his work is in helping clients recognize they have placed their hope in hopeless situations—the husband who won’t stop drinking, the narcissistic mother or abusive boyfriend. We might call this blind faith, a denial to see reality, something quite different from cultivating an “eyes-wide-open” hopefulness.

"God does not play dice" for Hope blog postThe possibility of a more conscious and compassionate humanity lets in a crack of hope in a world seething with difficulties. One doesn’t have to be a spiritual leader or a depth psychologist to find hope in a world seemingly depleted of reasons for hope. Even one of our greatest scientific geniuses, Albert Einstein, having discovered universal laws that govern “things unseen,” speculated that a benevolent force might be at work, a force that coordinates the exquisite workings of the universe. Later in his life, he wrote:

“I think the most important question facing humanity is, ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’ This is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves. For if we decide that the universe is an unfriendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to achieve safety and power by creating bigger walls to keep out the unfriendliness and bigger weapons to destroy all that which is unfriendly and I believe that we are getting to a place where technology is powerful enough that we may either completely isolate or destroy ourselves as well in this process. If we decide that the universe is neither friendly nor unfriendly and that God is essentially ‘playing dice with the universe’, then we are simply victims to the random toss of the dice and our lives have no real purpose or meaning. But if we decide that the universe is a friendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe. Because power and safety will come through understanding its workings and its motives.”

“God does not play dice with the universe.”

The story of The Little Engine That Could inspires the reader to try harder and invest hope in her capacity for success, but to sustain hope when the odds are against us, and our inner and outer resources have withered, requires that we look beyond the Ego ideals of self-determination and self-improvement. Hope is the domain of soul and what I call “the daily miraculous.” Just as Einstein marveled at the intricate order of the universe, so, too, might we seek the territory of awe and embrace its manifestations. What we feed ourselves matters. What we take in and acknowledge—with our eyes and ears as well as our mouths—determines our health—mind, body and spirit. A steady diet of negativity, defeatism, and cynicism can only perpetuate fear and despair.

Everywhere the daily miraculous sends communiqués to our spirit. As T.S. Eliot writes in The Four Quartets:

. . . Music heard so deeply

That it is not heard at all, but you are the music

While the music lasts.

Purple-throated Carib hummingbird for Hope blog postConsider these small miracles.

  • A hummingbird’s wings beat 720 to 5400 beats per minute. Its metabolism is a hundred times faster than an elephant’s. Its brain is 4.2 % of its body weight, which is approximately the weight of a penny, but despite its tiny size, hummingbirds hear better and see farther than humans. Hummingbirds fly over five hundred miles across the Gulf of Mexico in twenty hours without stopping. They can remember every flower they have ever visited.
  • Honeybees can differentiate hundreds of different floral odors from miles away. A honeybee will fly 90,000 miles, the equivalent of three orbits around the earth to collect 1 kilogram of honey. A bee’s brain is the size of a sesame seed but has a remarkable ability to learn, remember and calculate.
  • When your skin is cut, you bleed. Unless severe, the cut stops bleeding within minutes. Soon the edges of the wound close. A scab forms and new skin grows over the injury. Millions of complex biological functions that facilitate healing occur without our willing or even noticing them.

French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty postulated that we live in an inter-subjective field with all life and the natural world. For him, the world is not just speaking to us but is also listening to us. We walk through the woods and admire the trees while the trees may be watching and admiring us! More than a mind-trip, a neatly stated slogan, or immutable orthodoxy, hope may originate in a palpably lived experience of awe and wonder at our interconnectedness with everything else on the planet. To be enchanted by the world is to be a participant and not simply a spectator.

If anything I’ve written here has prodded your curiosity, try keeping a journal of things that daily awe, amaze, or enchant you. Inhabiting this quality of reverie may be your path to hope.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”