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.”



Dreams and Our Need for Empathy and Imagination

Atomic Skull by Jim Leedy for Empathy post

 

Sometimes a book we’ve had for years falls off the shelf at just the right moment. I read James Hillman’s book, A Terrible Love of War, in 2004 when it was first published as a response to 9/11. In this, his 28th book, Hillman sought to examine the archetypal roots of our “madness for battle,” the “myths, philosophy, and theology of war’s deepest mind.” He was moved to write it because of what he found missing in other books about war. He rejected, for instance, Susan Sontag’s concluding assertion in Regarding the Pain of Others:

“We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand. Can’t imagine. That’s what every soldier, every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire and had the luck to elude the death that struck down others nearby stubbornly feels. And they are right.”

“She is wrong,” Hillman counters, “If we want war’s horror to be abated so that life may go on, it is necessary to understand and imagine.”

In an interview years after he was secretary of defense, Robert McNamara stated that the catastrophe of the war in Vietnam over which he presided pointed to “a failure of imagination.” Years later, comparing our unpreparedness for the attack on Pearl Harbor with that on the Twin Towers, National Security Agency director Michael Hayden famously said, “perhaps it was more a failure of imagination this time than last.”

For both men, a failure of imagination implies a failure to apprehend a reality that is present but hidden or incomprehensible, which is to say, that we do not apprehend we cannot comprehend. In order to understand and respond to something, we must first be able to see it.

Muriel Rukeyser in 1945 by Imogen Cunningham -- for Empathy postMuriel Rukeyser came to a similar conclusion in 1949. In The Life of Poetry, she writes: “We are a people tending toward democracy at the level of hope; on another level, the economy of the nation, the empire of business within the republic, both include in their basic premise the concept of perpetual warfare. It is the history of the idea of war that is beneath our other histories…But around and under and above it…is the history of possibility.”

It is this sense of hidden possibility, of renewed inspiration that now urgently calls for my attention. A failure of imagination implies a failure of empathy, our ability to stand in another’s shoes. Empathy and imagination seem to many the weak sisters of rigorous rational thinking, and yet, might they be an avenue to creative change? This strikes me as critical for us now as individuals and as a society. Can a Clinton voter imagine the anxieties of a Trump voter? Can a Trump voter imagine the fears of a Muslim?

We live at a time of enormous turmoil and transition, a time when re-apprehending and re-comprehending how we view the world is crucial, and re-examining the governing modes of how we make meaning timely.

Nobel portrait of Albert Einstein -- for Empathy postEinstein said we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. He also said the true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination. We often forget that each of us has our own ready source of imagination in our production of dreams. Each of us possesses a variety of marvelous, fantastic, even weird images and scenarios remembered from our nightly vision. Here, in our own production studios, we might discover creative insights that have the potential for personal and cultural transformation.

Listen to Einstein describe a dream he had as a teen:

“I was sledding with my friends at night. I started to slide down the hill but my sled started going faster and faster. I was going so fast that I realized I was approaching the speed of light. I looked up at that point and I saw the stars. They were being refracted into colors I had never seen before. I was filled with a sense of awe. I understood in some way that I was looking at the most important meaning in my life.”

Later in life, Einstein reflected, “I knew I had to understand that dream and you could say, and I would say, that my entire scientific career has been a meditation on my dream.” This dream led to him figuring out the mathematics of relativity theory.

Freud and Jung have argued that our dream images are not random and without meaning; with scrutiny, we can find that they contain a secret language of symbolic representation. These representations are both individual and personal, arising out of our unique experiences, but connected, especially in Jung’s interpretation, to a collective unconscious.

Structurally, dreams unfold as series of sights, sounds, and feelings that do not necessarily make logical sense. The interpretation of dreams relies upon their metaphoric and associative logic, the juxtaposition of unlikely or unrelated elements that can evoke surprising meanings. This is how many poems “work.” Take these lines from “Blue Mountain,” a poem by Roberta Hill Whiteman.

“Crickets whir a rough sun into haze.”

And “I sweep and sweep the broken days to echoes.”

To parse these lines would be to destroy their music and cadence and beauty, but we get what she means! To quote Rukeyser again: “A poem is not its words or its images, any more than a symphony is its notes or a river its drops of water…” The work a poem does, she writes, is to transfer human energy, “and I think human energy may be defined as consciousness, the capacity to make change in existing conditions.”

Poetry and dreams originate in that part of our psyche involved in our archetypal roots and mythic imagination. Einstein is only one example of how the geniuses of science and industry – and artists – respond to the world and its problems with the force of their imaginations, by “thinking outside the box.”

André Breton in 1924 -- for Empathy postThis is the route of mystery and surprise, of new conjunctions and startling awarenesses. As André Breton wrote in his Surrealist Manifesto, “I believe in the future resolution of these two states – outwardly so contradictory – which are dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, a surreality…”

Freud and the Surrealist artists he inspired looked for ways to expose the deeper substratum of psyche by freeing oneself of the ego’s conscious control. The use of drugs helped, as did alcohol. Automatic or spontaneous writing, collage, assembling unlikely elements into a painting freed artists from the constraints of tradition and conventional imagery. These methods of accessing the unconscious continue to be popular today. Writing workshops, workshops on trauma and addiction often use uncensored journal writing as a means to reach into dissociated aspects of self.

Becoming conscious is a lifelong task. Our dreams beg to be brought into the daylight world, to be honored, to be understood. And perhaps one of us will find within our dreams the insight or idea that might generate the transformation in empathy and imagination that James Hillman seeks – and which would benefit all of us.

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.”