If you have ever been in an earthquake, you know how disorienting it can be. The instinctual reaction when everything around you is moving is to grab onto anything that seems solid and stable. But in an earthquake, nothing is stable. You become very focused, aware of everything around you. Time becomes dilated. A few seconds can seem like minutes.
Psychologists tell us that there are four phases of psychological adjustment after disasters such as an earthquake, although these phases are not distinct and isolated from each other. There is the hero phase when people just jump in and help, the optimistic phase when they expect immediate outside help, a phase of disillusionment when they realize the long term effects of the disaster, and then the reconciliation phase when people become reconciled to their new normal. Some people adjust rapidly to the new normal, but others experience anger, depression and despair. They may feel hopeless at the loss of the life they knew. Each person reacts in their own way. It’s actually a grieving process.
This can happen when the foundations of our belief system change as well, and once again, everyone reacts differently. Some people are so terrified of change, of things moving around underneath them, that they cling to beliefs or ideas as if they are real and solid. They may continue to cling to these beliefs or ideas, even if maintaining them requires that they have to abandon logic or the evidence of their own eyes. The classic example is some people’s insistence that the Bible is literally true, sometimes to the extent that they believe the earth is only 7,000 years old. The less radical form of this need is the attempt to prove scientifically that God actively controls the process of species development. The problem, in my opinion, is not the belief in such control; the problem is the insistence that this belief can be proven scientifically.
Another form of clinging to comfortable belief in the face of changing evidence to the contrary is denying that climate change is happening despite overwhelming evidence across the globe. This kind of denial has nothing to do with the actual evidence and everything to do with the desire that we can continue down the same path without any consequences. You may debate what is causing this change and what should or shouldn’t be done about it, but the fact is, the climate is changing.
Resistance to changing ideas is not solely the province of religious fundamentalists or politicians. We are all susceptible to the fear of change. When a long-standing theory is disputed, many scientists can be resistant, and even openly hostile, to a new direction. This may be understandable when you consider that most scientists spend their entire career verifying and adding detail to the existing scientific paradigm. Thomas Kuhn described this in great detail in his classic book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. When a scientist has dedicated his or her entire life to an idea, when the foundations of that idea are shaken, his or her entire life’s work may be threatened. Albert Einstein is a classic example. He proudly put his common sense on hold to develop his theory of relativity, which shook the established beliefs of his scientific colleagues. But when a second revolution came during his lifetime, he could not break out of his belief in a clockwork universe to accept the findings of quantum physics. Even this man whom many consider to be the most brilliant scientific mind of modern times, and who changed the scientific community forever, could not accept a change that is now part of established science. He clung to the theory and belief that he found to be real and solid in order to avoid the psychic earthquake of uncertainty.
This can happen when we look internally as well. Perhaps you lose someone close to you who always provided solid support, which now is gone. Perhaps you react to a crisis, performing an action that you never would have believed yourself capable of performing. Perhaps you witness an event that causes you to question a long-held belief. Your first reaction is to rationalize it. “I only did that because of the extreme circumstances. I would never have done that in my real life.” While it may very well be true that you will never do it again, we tend to go beyond this by rejecting that the action we performed is not part of us. It was done by “someone else” that emerged but will never be seen again. This is the whole idea of temporary insanity- the idea that some little alien creature can spring from your breast, perform some horrific action, and then run away as if it never really had anything to do with you. If you cling to this idea with enough fervor, you may even come to believe it.
The fact is, that little alien creature is of our own making, and it hasn’t run away. Even if it never emerges again, it did once and it is therefore recorded somewhere in our being. We are a product of all of the causes and conditions that brought us to the point where we are today. We can often make choices about where we are going to go from here, but we cannot change our past. We can only change our relationship to the past. Denying it is one option, but that denial, paradoxically, is simply an attempt to grab onto something solid. That something is a belief in our self as an unchanging, moral person who would never do that terrible thing. We therefore split out that part of our self and deny it exists. This is the technique we instinctively use to avoid the psychic earthquake that results from shaking the foundation of self.
Psychology and neurobiology confirm that there is no constant, unchanging self. Our brains are a bundle of synapses that change and realign constantly. Our brain can continue to rewire itself throughout our lives, building new connections and eliminating old ones. Our ideas, thoughts and reactions are merely a dynamic process that is never the same from moment to moment. Each of us is like an earthquake, in constant motion, never quite still, and never the same from one moment to the next. We try to cling to something solid we call the self, the soul, or the ego. But there is nothing to grab onto.
But don’t take my word for it. Experience your own earthquake.