We are a deeply divided a country, but if there is one thing all Americans can agree on, it’s the reality that we have a lot of problems.
There are the big ones hitting us right now: Covid-19, the resulting economic collapse and our nationwide reckoning with racial injustice. And then there are the others that may not be in the forefront for everyone but are no less serious. Climate change, healthcare, systemic racism, the national debt, income inequality, opioids, immigration, sex trafficking, mass shootings — they all touch us in some way. But there is only one problem in America that can be considered the most damaging and therefore the most urgent of any single one of those other problems, because it is the one problem that stands in the way of us finding solutions to all of those others.
America’s most urgent problem: We no longer have a shared reality. Let’s call it Problem #1
Why does the loss of a shared reality deserve a #1 ranking? Consider that the starting point for solving any problem is a clear understanding of all of its components: how serious it is, who it impacts, where it is happening, its causes and consequences and anything else one needs to know to fully comprehend its current state and begin the work of finding a solution.
The lack of a shared reality ensures that solutions to major problems will be perpetually out of reach. For example, we can’t possibly address issues like climate change and systemic racism when a critical mass of our population believes neither of those problems actually exist. Similarly, shutting down the spread of Covid-19 is like a set of continually moving goalposts that we can never reach as long as too many people don’t take it seriously. We can never embark on solutions to these problems until we achieve agreement on their significance, and that requires a common reality. It requires that we solve Problem #1.
With this in mind, let’s start at the only place we can: by acknowledging that Problem #1 exists. This is an affirmation in which agreement is unavoidable because if you disagree that we have a problem with multiple realities, it would be because you have a different reality than I do. Even if, in your reality, you are convinced that Bill Gates has implanted 5G chips in my brain so that I would write this, you are still proving my point. Without either of us judging which reality should take precedence, we can’t avoid arriving at a common understanding that Problem #1 is real. And with this tiny toehold of agreement, we should be able to come together to rebuild a common reality.
Before we proceed, it’s worth briefly considering just how powerful the forces at work are to keep us in our separate realities. I examined these causes of our division about a year ago — a carefree time when a death toll for diverging realities seemed inconceivable. Now, the costs and urgency exceed the value of in-depth analysis; we need to find a way to a solution to Problem #1.
At the macro level, the overwhelming pervasiveness of our American political divide has driven a wedge between us on each and every major issue, including what may be the most universal and devastating crisis of our lifetimes: a worldwide pandemic. After many inspirational declarations of interdependence — the mantra of “we are all in this together” — we have still been torn apart along political lines.
Meanwhile, at the grassroots, we bombard each other on social media with presumably credible reporting, memes and insults from our respective realities with no hope of changing each other’s minds. How often have you made the mistake of reacting to something in your feed that comes from someone whom you may love and respect, and yet they live in an entirely different reality? After what can be days of back-and-forth debate, we finally extricate ourselves and are left in a state of exasperation and sadness that some segment of our fellow citizens — friends, family, colleagues or even people that we don’t know at all — are trapped in a reality that is so vastly different from our own. That churning disappointment and frustration in our stomach has led to many millions of us choosing not to engage.
This state of mind is a microcosm of the state of the nation, in which we become disengaged, disillusioned and discouraged from collaboratively addressing the greatest challenges of our time because it inevitably sparks irreconcilable disagreement. Problem #1 is the real-life consequence of losing our shared reality; it has permeated every corner and level of our society, altered our self-image as a country and undermined our ability to address our many other challenges.
So how do we address Problem #1? Our nation’s greatest successes have always been based on the pursuit of virtues — idealized beliefs and behaviors that we have never completely lost sight of even when we’ve failed to achieve them. Our shared tribulation of Problem #1 is no different. To rise to the challenges of conflicting realities, we must call upon our capacity for three essential virtues: faith, humility and strength.
To illustrate this in action, let’s imagine that each of us is like an old computer, clogged with spam, viruses, malware and other digital detritus. Our hardware may be working, but our processing capability is unstable, and our performance is suboptimal. We are about to crash, necessitating the equivalent of a massive disk cleanup, a new operating system, some upgraded anti-virus software and a reboot. We must go temporarily offline (and I mean that literally) and perform a system refresh, stopping the garbage in to limit the garbage out. This is really nothing out of the ordinary — it’s just a standard three-step process of cleanup, upgrading and protection, so that when we reboot, we will have high speed, high quality access to reality. So let’s get to it!
Faith is our cleanup. By faith, I am referring specifically to our capacity to have faith in each other. This is an ideologically agnostic state of mind founded upon a belief in a common good. In our current state, our system is impaired by the opposite state of mind, one we can call zero-sum, in which the predominant belief is that our individual interests can only be served at the expense of others. Zero-sum is like a virus that impairs our ability to fully access, consider and integrate realities that may not immediately match our own.
As is always the case with faith, it requires a leap; if we don’t believe that goodness is a fundamental characteristic of humanity (even if it lies dormant in many), then trust will always be fleeting, but this is wholly understandable in our current state. With so many starkly conflicting realities and interests, all of them fed and fomented by a cacophony of information sources, we are ill-equipped to consistently discern truth from fiction, and we have the garbage to prove it. We must delete, delete, delete, and look at humanity with fresh and empathetic eyes.
Not everyone can make this leap of faith — the default response of our sick computer is to reflexively ascribe evil to others and the resulting disappointment is an ongoing risk. Nevertheless, purging our negative predispositions about each other and deleting our zero-sum virus is part of the disk cleanup, and it is likely to require some hard scrubbing before we can install our upgraded software.
Humility is our new operating system. Our new OS is programmed to guide us according to the most advanced principles of truth-determination, in which truth is best arrived at through multiple credible sources, defined by the highest possible standards of human knowledge at a given moment. I say “best” arrived at because nothing is 100% bug-free; even scientists can be wrong some time, but if 99 out of 100 agree, than we can be comfortable that the majority have arrived at the truth.
So much of Problem #1 can be traced to a worldwide shortage of humility. This is a symptom of what has also been referred to as the death of expertise or a crisis of authority, in which the internet has made accessible an overwhelming amount of information that appears credible, bestowing upon us the illusion that we are experts on everything. Since we think we know everything, our powers of discernment have atrophied, and we see no need to defer to people who (in reality) know a lot more than we do. Consequently, reality has now become a DIY project assembled from the information sources whose defining characteristic is their ability to trigger our pleasure centers. One very damaging and truth-resistent byproduct of our humility-deficiency: We hate to be wrong.
Some examples of our flawed internal programming in action: If we live in a reality in which we believe systemic racism doesn’t exist, we can still find content from a black person that will provide immediate comfort by telling us that it doesn’t, despite the alternate reality that millions of black people have encountered it firsthand. If there are thousands of medical experts who accept that Hydroxychloroquine has no measurable positive impact upon Covid-19, we can still find at least one who does. And despite nearly 100% of scientists who have validated the existence of climate change, we can still find a few that will tell us it’s a hoax. Our insatiable need to never be wrong is preserved.
The upgraded humility-based operating system is programmed to discern truth based on scientific consensus and high journalistic standards rather than neuro-pleasure centers. Obviously, faith is a prerequisite, but with humility stacked upon it, our powers of discernment will be restored and the bug that requires us to always be right will be removed, orienting us toward a clear-eyed and good faith pursuit of truth as a basis of reality creation.
Strength is our protection. This brings us to the final step in the process: the installation of our anti-viral software to keep us safe and healthy: strength. In this context, we are talking about the strength to resist falsehoods and the ability to change our mind and adapt to changing circumstances. It is the strength to tolerate ambiguity, to consider alternate perspectives, and to empathize with authentic and legitimate realities that might diverge from our own but are equally grounded in fact-based experience. It is, to paraphrase F Scott Fitzgerald’s definition of a first-rate intelligence, the ability to occasionally hold two opposing viewpoints in our heads and still be able to function.
Our stack of faith, humility and strength is a high performing integrated system, with each component working in unison to achieve our individual and shared potential. Its driver is good faith: a virtuous pursuit of the truth, the humility to recognize that we might not always know it, and the strength to accept it if its uncomfortable.
Speaking from my own reality (because I can’t avoid it), I have alluded to certain truths that I believe are unassailable, but only as examples. Maintaining our internal operating systems is a universal imperative; there is a lot of incoming junk and we all must refresh our faith, humility and strength on a regular basis. But I have no illusions about what a monumentally heavy lift it is to get back to a shared reality.
So many of us are deeply entrenched in our beliefs and emotionally estranged from each other — a constant state of actual or impending conflict that can’t possibly feel good to any of us. The solution is an active, conscious pursuit of virtuous behavior — of faith, humility and strength. It is simple on paper and easy for me the write about, but difficult in practice. We’re really going to have to want it, and perhaps our shared recognition of American divisiveness as an unwelcome cultural attribute combined with its devastating consequences will serve as our greatest motivation to re-unite.
But we should also consider the success that awaits us — all of us — if we can return to a shared reality. Our greatest triumphs as a country have always come when we’ve pursued them together, just as we’ve always suffered our greatest tragedies when we’ve been torn apart. We have a lot of problems, but they are solvable. We have a lot of potential, but it is untapped.
The extent to which we can embrace the virtues of faith, humility and strength will determine our ability to overcome the single biggest obstacle to reaching our potential: Problem #1.
There’s no reason we can’t do this. It’s time to reboot.