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A Light in the Dark

According to Albert Einstein, the most important question facing humanity is, “Is the universe a friendly place?”

Do you believe the universe is abundant, generative, safe, and nurturing? Or do you believe the universe is characterized by scarcity, conflict, selfishness, and danger? The portrait you choose, he argued, shapes the entire arc of your life.

Beneath this inquiry is the bedrock truth that we do not see the world as it is—we see the world as we are. Our preconceptions shade everything we see. When Hamlet said to Rosencrantz, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” he was affirming the fact that none of us has the objective perspective we think we do. Pure objectivity is impossible. We see the world through a grid of presumptions, some of them self-wrought, most of them built into the structures of consciousness by cultural conditioning.

But let’s look at the fuller scene from Shakespeare’s Hamlet for an even subtler idea. The jaded Danish king is talking with his trusty sidekicks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and as he often does, he pours his guts out to his two confidants. Hamlet asks his friends, “What brought you here to this prison?”

“Prison?” asked Rosencrantz.

“Prison, my lord?” asked Guildenstern.

“Denmark’s a prison,” said Hamlet.

“Then the world is one,” said Rosencrantz.

“A goodly one,” Hamlet replied, “in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one of the worst.”

“We think not so, my lord,” said Rosencrantz.

“Why, then, ‘tis none to you,” Hamlet replied, “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.”

Shakespeare’s famous line “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” is often misunderstood as an affirmation of moral relativism. But it is not an ethical proclamation. It is a purely cognitive one. Our preconceptions shape our truth more than any real-world evidence. To Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Denmark is perfectly lovely. For Hamlet it’s hell. How can one phenomenon—Denmark—elicit two such different responses?

One could ask the same question about so many things—Christmas, Trump, Nickelback. Why do some people love these things, while others don’t?

The answer lies in human evolution. Over tens of thousands of years our brains have developed coping mechanisms for the bewildering array of stimuli each moment brings. These cognitive shortcuts are, at first anyway, enormously helpful. We wouldn’t be able to think at all without our biases.

As we view the world, each new experience is quickly processed through the memory database and categorized. We don’t truly understand this new thing—we simply shove it into a conceptual box of seemingly similar things. This “fast thinking” as some psychologists call it is quick, dirty, and effective. But there’s a downside. Our hasty generalizations blind us to the subtleties and realities of this new experience.

In junior high I was intimidated by a bully named Jesse Sanchez. He wore jeans and perfectly pressed white T-shirts with creases in the sleeves. His black hair was slicked back with what appeared to be Vaseline. He and his sidekick would lurk into the boy’s bathroom and mug other kids for their lunch money. He was a terrifying presence; I didn’t understand him. His very existence filled me with dread. Life took on the quality of a nightmare. How, I wondered, could people be so irrationally cruel?

Despite the fact that I had had countless positive interactions with Latinx friends and classmates all through my schooling years, this one experience was so overwhelming that for many years after I carried with me the bias that Chicanos were terrifying. It wasn’t rational—it was visceral. It was fast-thinking. Whenever I saw a guy who looked anything like him I was triggered, and suddenly I was that terrified 7th grader again. I still clench up a bit whenever I enter public restrooms. And that was 50 years ago.

The only cure for the disease of unconscious bias is slow thinking, the deliberate decision to be humble, question your assumptions, and come up out of your fear into the bright sunshine of the real world. I understand it all so differently now. Jesse Sanchez was a victim, too. He struggled under systemic racism and a dominant culture that every day diminished his value and his humanity. His resentment against white kids like me had a cause. Maybe there was cruelty at home. Maybe he was tormented by bullies, too. Maybe the very system that privileged me modeled for him cruelty, indifference, and the infliction of pain. I slowly came to understand the deeper truth: wounded people wound, and complex human behavior has complex, multidimensional causes. The story was so much richer than a cartoonish dichotomy of victim and villain.

No matter who you are, no matter how free you think you are, you see the world through unconscious biases. Denying them only makes them stronger. The path to freedom, knowledge, and forgiveness begins with humility and self-awareness. And as we wake up, the whole world awakens.

When Einstein asked the question, Is the universe a friendly place? he was saying something really important: that our starting points, our cognitive frame, our guiding principles, give birth to everything else. Reality is not a single, monolithic thing—it’s many things at once. And how you choose to see it shapes the quality and character of your life. If we believe the universe is a dark and miserable place, then we live in perpetual fear and use our considerable creativity to construct systems and weapons that perpetuate misery. If we believe the universe is light-filled and beautiful, then we live in perpetual faith and use our considerable creativity to construct systems that institutionalize compassion. The fate of the world literally depends on how we perceive it.

No matter how dark it gets, light a candle. A single flame destroys the darkness. Be the flame, and witness how your light emboldens others to light their flames, too. Soon the world is awash with light. Never listen to the people who say it can’t be done. Align your hearts with the people who are doing it.

Deep down Jesse Sanchez and I are the same. We want the same things. But his was a world of scarcity and conflict. In his mind, the only way to get power was to take it from those who had it. We were both victims of a system neither of us created, and of our own cognitive distortions. To him I was the enemy, and he mine. Both of us were wrong. Neither of us then knew that we were, deep down, a light in the dark. We just didn’t know how to be.

Peter Bolland is a teacher, writer, speaker, singer-songwriter, and philosophy professor. Meditate with him on the Insight Timer app and learn more at www.peterbolland.com

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