An unsuspecting black hole

So by now, I’ve hopefully put forward a pretty clear case as to how dangerously common, insatiable, debilitating, and addictive gratification is. It’s very much like life is white water rafting through a flood of gratification because anybody who doesn’t quickly learn to get on top and stay on top of the dangers can far too easily get pulled over the waterfalls or drowned along the way. As each of gratification’s many dangers begin compounding one on another it can all too easily turn into a whirlpool, sucking us into a black hole that feels nearly entirely outside of our control to survive. I really can’t do enough to sufficiently highlight just how prevalent, intrusive and dangerous it is. From a ‘day-to-day’ perspective on life, most of us seem to be doing just fine putting along, getting by, surviving day to day, even comfortably so, so it’s understandable why the desperate need to be constantly proactively aware of it isn’t more obvious.

Like life’s biggest dangers, the ones that claim the most lives are often the ironically unsuspecting, seemingly avoidable, seemingly survivable dangers that we usually know about, but underestimate. Heart disease, a leading cause of death for years, is a great example of this. There’s often a key event that ends it all, but the variables that combined to enable the existence of the event, have been at work for many years. Artery plaque build up, especially to the extent of causing heart attacks, involves a very slow build-up that’s the biproduct of not just one or even a handful of choices, but usually hundreds if not thousands of choices.

If most of us are deciding what we’ll eat, around five times a day, that’s 1800 choices a year. If we’re deciding to sleep in, watch TV, spectate or drive instead of taking the opportunity to exercise, there’s another chance to dial up or dial back that plaque build up. Not choosing death is pretty easy when it’s a binary option but the reality we live in is that we choose life or death within each seemingly insignificant choice we make throughout each day of our otherwise seemingly normal lives. The more diluted we can get the choice, the easier it is to believe it’s inconsequential, but when the heart attack comes, it’s only come after we’ve chosen death thousands of times beforehand.

When life can go on, with no immediately obvious repercussions, we pay no heed to the consequences. That becomes exponentially problematic as the cycle quickly repeats and we end up habitualising our oblivious state to the point that when more serious symptoms begin appearing and can no longer be ignored, we start looking for ways to ‘survive the symptoms’, instead of honestly acknowledging and dealing with the selective ignorance we’ve reinforced over the years, which would require a great deal more humility and work. There’s something both comical and poetic in the reality that we ourselves so often actually become the black hole that we need to save ourselves from. When it boils down to it, what we’re really fighting isn’t some foreign enemy army, but the repercussions of the countless choices we’ve been mindlessly making through our own history. We don’t usually expect our biggest enemy to be ourselves, but for most of us, especially in first world countries where there’s very little limit to our consumption, we contribute more to our death through gratification than any army, virus, plague, storm or other more commonly suspected killer.

At the end of the day, we have to consciously acknowledge the reality that the small decisions matter. Especially any small decision that has any capacity to compound through common reoccurrence. The slide down to a place where it’s overwhelmingly painful to undo those mistakes, occurs faster and more easily than realise. Thinking small decisions to gratify aren’t concern worthy is exactly how we get there. We must be willing to explicitly say to ourselves that our gratifying habits are probably more dangerous than we realise.

We’re more capable of evil than we think

It’s natural for us to live life thinking we’re one of the good guys, while the ‘bad guys’ out there have within them some kind of inherent evil, which is too far from the truth to be a helpful belief. The reality as many have realised and Solzhenitsyn poetically pointed out is that we all are part good and part bad. How good or bad we are is going to be primarily determined by which of the two we choose to exercise more.

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

There’s an extremely important image I want you to see that isn’t really visible without an understanding of this concept, so please do take a moment to ensure you see it clearly. If, by now, you happened to agree with me that gratification is blinding and desensitising, then you should be able to appreciate that the worst acts, the most heinous of atrocities that people have committed in this world, were never made by people proactively fighting to free themselves of their gratifications. They were made by people who had first spent an enormous amount of energy and likely time, feeding their gratifying desires, gradually, over time, ever increasing the extent to which they can comfortably gratify themselves. The initial tiny decisions made to take a shortcut here, a small binge there, a retaliatory slur here, a justifiable quip there, were mostly left unchecked. The overall unhelpful yet temporarily gratifying responses became the new norm, slightly moving the line in the sand each time, increasing the range one was comfortable further gratifying themselves.

The Stanford prison experiment does a great job of demonstrating this very concept. People, when placed within particular situations, can quite quickly find the capacity to comfortably engage in gratifying behaviour that they wouldn’t even be willing to entertain the idea of, in normal circumstances. All it takes is a sufficient disconnect from reality to allow the belief that their choices are largely inconsequential. That disconnect unquestionably got a jumpstart by knowing it was an experiment and not actually real.

The flow on momentum however occurs in similar fashion to those whose disconnect came more gradually through their own gratifying choices. Pushing boundaries can even become the objective when we feel there’s no real danger or when the consequences are too far out of mind. When it can even become exciting to discover our own limits, even if they’re not good, it’s not hard to see why we might double-down on our efforts, speed and direction. We’re surviving and maybe even seemingly thriving in unchartered territory, so we might not want to waste or hinder the new-found momentum even if we’re not certain of where it’s taking us. When the environment is then also constantly presenting what feels like ultimatums where we must decide between either continuing to go with the flow or risk taking a stand and becoming responsible for dealing with the blockage, it’s easy to see how quickly it can all get away from us.

I also question if at some level we remain subconsciously aware of at least the presence of flaws in our own integrity, even if oblivious to the extent of damage incurred, making us even less likely to take the required stand against the flow, not even trusting ourselves to be capable or sturdy enough to deal with the weighty repercussions. Whatever the case, there’s undoubtedly a lot more going on than most of us realise, but the main point I’m trying to highlight is that even when we start wide-eyed and completely still, when we are allowing each incremental step to increase our speed while simultaneously narrowing our view, it’s not too long before we can find ourselves running full speed while completely blind. You’d obviously think it idiotic to consciously engage in blind sprinting and yet while reading this you’ve already had a face or two come to mind who you’ve previously seen exemplify this reality. They didn’t wake up blind sprinters, they just happened to survive in a world where they’ve been allowed to inconsequentially carry on ignorant of their ignorance. Always finding someone else to blame or a quick last-minute escape from their own train wreck.

The bigger problem we face here is that we so easily picture it of others and too rarely see it in ourselves. The reality is we all do this, to one extent or another. Perhaps genuinely testing how much we can ‘get away with’ without paying the piper, or perhaps it’s more a sequence of ‘last resorts’ where we felt too exhausted or too constrained to make any other choice, too quickly finding we’ve habitualised maccas drive-through as our default option. It’s no longer last resort, it’s the ‘go to’ whenever we’re at speed. Problem is that maccas drive through isn’t just how we have lunch, it’s how we respond to our wife when when we’re busy, how we speak to our kids when we’re in a hurry, how we deal with co-workers when under pressure, and how we deal with our own failings when life goes pear-shaped.

If we catch ourselves thinking we’re not the blind sprinter, I’d recommend we think again. Once we can honestly accept that we all not only fall short but actually ignorantly propel, speed up and even derail our own trainwrecks, we can start looking at opportunity in a new light. We often blame opportunity for not presenting itself enough to afford us greater progress in life, yet I argue we would be wiser to offer serious thanks to opportunity for keeping itself sufficiently scarce so as to minimise the extent of damage our train-wrecks can inflict. When we look down at others, be it in poverty, jail, addiction or any kind of trouble, I think we would be foolish to assume ‘life’s opportunities’ have presented themselves to us both equally.

Remembering it was never just one decision that got us wherever we are, but ‘thousands, spread over many years’, gives at least some insight into the reality that our unique history unequivocally plays a major role in determining our current state of being. In no way am I advocating that we are nothing more than a product of our environment, but to the contrary, the harsher our environment, the greater magnitude applied to the consequences of the decisions we make. I consider it simultaneously more likely that we will struggle to succeed as well as the greater the capacity for driving momentum for those who manage to respond well. It’s much harder to respond well, but those who find a way, do extremely well.

In this light, we could only begin to justify any thoughts of superiority we have if we could prove ourselves as having gone through the exact same sequence of opportunities from the beginning of their time, and demonstrated superior outcomes. Of course this isn’t possible and concluding on the same viewpoint without the proof is foolish and unhelpful. We’re much wiser to believe that the only thing separating any of us from engaging in life’s greatest atrocities is sufficient opportunity to do so. We’re all capable of blinding ourselves enough to justify, in our own minds, even the worst of mankind. It’s all only gratifying progress away. The very existence of Browning’s book ‘Ordinary Men’, makes that undeniably clear.

To all who honestly believe that their biggest bottle-neck is a lack of opportunity, I would point you to a thorough self-analysis to first ensure you’re really making the most of what you’ve already got. I argue that in more cases than not, opportunity can’t not present itself to the appropriately prepared and to nearly every single one of us who is betting our lottery numbers on ‘opportunity’ that, effectively, the act of doing so is concrete evidence of how unprepared we are. We would be wise to always assume we’re more blind than we think and as such should remain committed to regular self-assessments, ensuring we’re at least periodically attempting to see clearly.

Nobody is free from subconsciously defaulting to gratifying habits if they don’t consciously choose to constantly develop edifying ones. If we understand and appreciate that gratification blinds and that we gratify by default, we need to also appreciate that all gratification is but progression away. Meaning any individual who does not consciously stop gratification has the ability to become so blind and so habitually gratifying that there is no end to which one will be willing to sacrifice long term value for short term hunger.

To think that any of us are exempt from such outcomes is not wise. Yes it might be very unlikely that a particular individual will end up hitting ‘rock bottom’, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. There is a danger attached to individuals who consider themselves exempt from particular gratifying outcomes due to the requirement edification has in being conscious of one’s filters and decisions. He who considers himselves exempt, is he who is much more likely to ignore or fail to consciously identify the warning signs of a gratifying path.

Just because one might have the ability to endure all things doesn’t mean he’s wise to tempt fate and put it to the test. One is not likely wise, who intentionally becomes sick for the purpose of experimenting with the remedy or survivability rates.

We might not yet have the means to overcome all gratification, but that certainly doesn’t mean we’re better of trying to justify what gratification we cannot overcome. The more we pretend any gratification has no effect on us to more blind we choose to be.

“Evil that arises out of ordinary thinking and is committed by ordinary people is the norm, not the exception.”

― Christopher R. Browning,

We’re only separated by ‘progression’

Just as the worst of us ‘progressed’ towards who they are today, the best of us ‘progressed’ towards becoming who they are as well. All that’s required is the repetitive choice to continue progressing in a particular direction, and any of us can swap places. Here’s the image I mentioned previously that is extremely important to me that you be able to see very clearly. If it’s true that I can become a black hole, capable of this life’s most vile and heinous actions, I’ll certainly be as grateful as I can be to everyone and everything that helps ensure I don’t. If I ever do I would unquestionably loathe myself and wish to the highest heavens that I find a way out, someone comes to get me out, or at the very least somebody puts a stop to me. All of those things would be a kindness to me when seen in a sufficiently long-term context, even if ‘black-hole-me’ can’t see it at the time. I could only in humility hope that considering I had proved myself incapable of becoming something better/anything else, that others would look at me in kindness. Without that occurring I would only carry on as a black hole. With that kindness however, comes a chance. A chance to escape. Even if only a chance to at least temporarily escape the black-hole-blindness, to once again find the hope required to get out. And if all else fails, a chance to put the otherwise endless harm I’m doing to rest.

To that end: is it not absolutely essential, that we, at least theoretically, being currently free of a ‘black hole’, choose to see every other person who has trapped themselves there, in that very same way? Despite them currently being incapable of seeing their destruction clearly, they were once and perhaps will one day again be, people who wanting to be better, to be good, to provide life. I appreciate this can be an extremely hard stance or viewpoint for some to take, especially when we’re looking at their wake of destruction, but is it not all true? Did they not only get there through progressive blindness acquired by failed responses to life’s sometimes traumatic choices? Is it not a road far from beyond us, but one that we even periodically walk down ourselves more often than we want to admit? Yes, perhaps they are ‘too far gone’ by this stage, but that conclusion is based on using our own current capacity to help them avoid their own death. Perhaps if there is any life left in them at all, before calling a time of death prematurely we should at least hold out hope that we might be able to do something in the future or perhaps even others more capable than ourselves might yet come along and possess life sufficient to get them out.

It’s very much not a popular view and can even be a very jarring one, that we relate to the worst this world has to offer, but it really does take a completely perfect person to think that any particular failure is beyond their capacity to experience when any and all failures, when left unchecked, possess the capability of slowly snowballing into avalanches beyond our control. If any of us can be brought back out of the black holes we sink ourselves into, it would do more than a world of good. Not only their entire world, but of course our collective world as well. We’re all worse off the closer any of us get to approaching gratification’s black hole prison. We’re all better off the more capable any of us get to helping each other out of there. Remember your circles of stewardship, focus on those we have the greatest capacity to influence for good, but keep all those we can’t help on our infinite list, as your connection to them alone, can still be used in the future when either you become more capable or you find others who can help you.

I think many of us periodically feel that gut-wrenching responsibility to somehow answer for the inhumane behaviour we’re sporadically exposed too, usually via the news but unfortunately also sometimes personally as well. There just seems to be an ever increasing number of cases where someone’s truly ventured far beyond their own sanity and causing others to suffer what can only be described as the truly abhorrent treatment of another human. I always particularly struggle to handle hearing about it whenever it involves children. Ever since I become a father for the first time, not many years ago, the depth in which such horror stories of the mistreatment of children seems to pierce or cut straight to the core of me. I just can’t read or watch the news anymore without seeing some child fallen victim to some depravity or even what seems to just be pure evil cruelty. The phrase “gut wrenchingly soul-tormenting” comes to mind but still seems to be insufficient. I hope that the memory of such things fuels me to awaken to the dark reality that our world can be, reminding me of the importance of each role, in doing what we can do, to live a life that takes such atrocities into consideration.

It’s of course impossible for us to be able to undo any tragedy that has already occurred and even if we were a truly amazing human, the breadth, depth, occurrence, recurrence, and limitless number of such tragedies existing at any given point in time is certainly beyond our capacity to amend in any way that would even come close to feeling ‘sufficient’. And yet, despite that genuine reality, to live a life pretending such things aren’t going on, or to go on living each day as if the atrocities don’t exist, is something that feels far too dangerously sinister. There is unquestionable going to be some toll my conscience will wear, If I remain at least willing to do absolutely nothing about it. We are expected to do what we can, so do what we can, we must. The binary comparative theory I suppose, is that if everybody’s devaluing the potential good their own tiny contribution can do to the point of not contributing at all, we all risk losing the enormous combined effort that’s otherwise available if everybody remains adamant that doing the little they can is worthy enough to ensure it gets done. Collectively, we can create a substantial reach to those darker areas of our world.

Surely the heart of the problem can be summerised by ‘the desensitisation of the individual’. Which desensitisation only ever occurs one small gratifying step at a time. Without ongoing and recurring gratification occurring, I don’t think it’s possible for anybody to become that ‘black-hole-version’ of themselves. If correct, the answer then resides in a world of people, each committed to constantly, repetitively, realigning to their own conscience.

Even if I can’t persuade the whole world, doing what I can do involves living an example of the same, and inviting all those within my reach to do similarly. Let us all remember the importance of better familiarising ourselves with our own conscience and constantly work on reinforcing that habit of realignment. I ‘harp on’ in emphasising the concept of edification, because I genuinely believe it’s a key way to appropriately contextualise and in turn familiarise ourselves with the complex needs of our conscience, enabling us to respond to those hungers in the best ways possible, which then also maximises our capacity to be good.

We can all become black holes. We all get there the same way: one gratifying choice at a time. Sometimes we gratify intentionally, sometimes altogether unknowingly, but the grey space in between where we too often do so intentionally while thinking the cost is small enough to not matter, it is you that I’m speaking to the most. Making that choice, even when you calculate it to be inconsequential, further paves the path. Please understand, it all matters. Even the tiniest of decisions matter. We would all be wise to appreciate that considering how scoped and limited our perspectives usually are, in nearly all cases, we’re far too likely to be heavily underestimating both the cost of choosing to gratify as well as the benefit of choosing to edify.

We must all answer. We must all take responsibility, not only to not become a black hole, but to also not ignore others who are on their way, or others who have already become so. We’re only going to be worse off by pretending it’s somebody else’s problem. It’s our problem, and the solution surely starts with us all individually. We must repetitively align ourselves to our own conscience, and demonstrate the beautiful benefits of living in such a way as to help persuade others to do the same, and as cliché or lame as it may sound, raise the global standard of human sensitivity.

I’m genuinely begging you. If you haven’t already, commit today to minimising the world’s desensitisation through proactively improving your own sensitivity to your own conscience. Commit to edification: to aligning your life with whatever your conscience is telling you would be best for you; forsake gratification, and helpfully help others do the same.

We have a responsibility to do what we can not just towards ourselves, but also to those in our circles of influence. None of us can become accustomed to gratification and the horrors that lie down the gradual road of desensitisation.

How desensitised are you? How desensitised are you willing to become? If you want some help to gauge the thickness of your current gratifying blinders, try the desensitisation gauge on the website, which aims at trying to help us all better appreciate just how volatile our ethics compass can be so as to better ensure we stand somewhere we're going to be happy with over the long term.

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