In these last few weeks, we have witnessed not only natural disasters of flood, wind, and fire in the North America, Europe and Asia but also human-made events that have left many of us — based on broadcast and social media — wondering what type of world is unfolding around us. We’ve witnessed a hate-driven massacre of historic proportions in Orlando that united the civil world in mourning. We have seen a rebuking of globalization while also ripping off the veneer of tolerance across Europe, exposing rampant and unhealed xenophobia. We may be witnessing the shattering of the United Kingdom with Northern Ireland and Scotland as well as the British overseas territory of Gibraltar questioning their continued home under the British crown.
And this week, the Daesh attacks in Istanbul reignited our mourning. The assault in Ataturk airport is itself an act of hate against the liberties of the West. They occurred on the second anniversary of Daesh’s self-declared caliphate and their constant and cowardly attempt to restore oppression through fear. This, on top of the list of violent acts across the Middle East.
The news machines have assaulted us with their constant barrage of opinion and very little explanatory journalism. We have all been inundated with interpretations of the stories and experienced the political spins on each of them. In Orlando, the reactions of some politicians ranged from grotesque to insulting to idiotic that included everything from victim blaming to an unreal avoidance of acknowledging it as an act of hate. The outpouring of support for Orlando was tremendous; but it also stirred an ongoing debate on how to deal with killers, how to control hate crimes and possible radicalization; and, ultimately, the question of access to weaponry that can be used in similar butcheries. Politics and opinion aside, this act as about hate.
And, bluntly, so was Brexit. The vote involved both a repudiation of globalization and the massive release of frustration against an establishment of experts describing economic challenges yet seemingly and wholly disconnected from them particularly as they affect individuals of lower and middle incomes. Yes, the vote exposed a palpable anger that the mechanisms of globalization have failed to distribute wealth and opportunity in an equitable manner, and that those same mechanisms have served only to concentrate both of those things in an elite class of individuals. Those who have investment access to the markets that promote globalization have reaped decades of lucrative rewards, and those who have been subjected to the negative effects of globalization have consistently experienced a gradual narrowing of their opportunities for both themselves and their children. Globalization is a complex mix of benefits, challenges and obstacles that began millennia ago with the Romans trading with India and China, but the modern version unfortunately keeps boiling down to this: a privileged few see a bright future, and others a bright past.
Brexit also involved a deeply-vocalized resentment towards immigrants. There was plenty of fear-mongering leading up to the vote, and fear is so easy to precipitate into hate especially when scapegoats are convenient and plentiful. While at first there was rhetoric, there are now real instances of hate crimes. Nicely done.
This is a pan-European problem as we see already with other individuals questioning their country’s involvement in EU. It’s a resurgence of supremacist and nationalistic paranoia that has happened before, only this time it involves Europe slowly becoming “Eurabia,” the famous doomsday scenario of an imminent Islamization of Europe described by Bat Ye’or (aka Gisèle Littma) in her 2005 eponymous book. Euroscepticism feeds right into conspiracy theory by framing the European Union as the mechanism for destroying sovereignty while slowly and malevolently erasing culture. That cocktail produced other acts of hate like the 2011 massacre in Norway by a hard-right terrorist.
All these acts trigger our fears and undermine our hope by impressing upon us a deep sense of uncertainty about our personal and collective future. Politicians and institutions channel that uncertainty to maintain social control. They use ambiguity and uncertainty to undermine our self-esteem and our faith in each other so we cede control to them because, of course, they insist that they offer stability, clarity and certitude.
But this is a Pagan news site, so let me introduce you to the critically endangered and super-cute axolotl, also known as the Mexican salamander. We’ve busy trying to kill off this species for several centuries now, but it has managed to survive. It’s found only in Lake Chalco -– which no longer exists because it was drained — and Lake Xochimilco, which is under pressure because of the sprawl of Mexico City and the introduction of exotic fish species that eat the axolotl young and compete for its food. In fact, we may have already exterminated them in that lake as well which means that the axolotl may no longer exist in the wild, but only in captivity. The little axolotl is basically endangered because humans can incredibly easily become an environmental disaster in their own right, just by getting together and making terrible decisions that impact generations.Now the axolotl is sometimes called a “walking fish” but it’s not a fish, it’s an amphibian. Just as a reminder, that term amphibian comes from the Greek ἀμφίβιος meaning “two kinds of life,” in this case one in water and one later on land. The axolotl is also a species that can reach adulthood — unlike most other amphibians — without undergoing metamorphosis. Moreover, it can exist in a state of duality called a paedomorph, where the animal retains larval juvenile traits but becomes a sexually mature adult. It can assume a form that is between ages and states, and it does perfectly well in that intermediate form. It’s a mess, defying expectations and still managing to hang on, and it’s perfectly fine at it: half extinct, half adult, half landlubber. It thrives in its states of ambiguity.
I think there is a powerful lesson there that also exposes a great Pagan strength. Paganism is replete with ambiguous spaces. From accepting different views of divinity to the importance of will and magic, Pagans and polytheists have a comfort with the shades of gray that more accurately represent the human experience and the world around us. We get by in the grey zones, but in a world where the dominant institutions insist on defining what is right and what is wrong, gradients are transgressions.
Yet, gradients are our world. Nature is ambiguous and life is non-linear. In statistics we speak of chances, not certainties. We live in the fluid space of possibility not inevitability. It’s a hard concept for individuals craving or raised in duality. Accepting ambiguity is a difficult task, especially when we come from a world that is predetermined and compartmentalized into good and evil. I personally think that accepting ambiguity has become a critical skill, especially now.
In my area ambiguity and uncertainty are essentially synonymous; the skill to deal with it we call ambiguity tolerance. And we need more of it. We need to cultivate it in ourselves and our leaders. Now would be a good time.
Well over 60 years ago, psychologist Else Frenkel-Brunswik theorized an inverse relationship between ambiguity tolerance and ethnocentrism; more ambiguity tolerance results in less ethnocentrism. Replicating her work has been challenging and the results are mixed (meaning that the link may be more complex that originally hypothesized). Recent evidence does suggest that ambiguity leads to an increase appraisal of threat when dealing with others (Chen & Lovibond, 2016), and that means we are more likely to be aggressive when we can’t handle the ambiguity. Research has also shown us an association between ambiguity tolerance and creativity (Merrotsy, 2013); those who tolerate ambiguity more often find creative solutions to problems. Not surprisingly, those who tolerate ambiguity are also more likely to avoid or reject authoritarian leadership. It may even improve multilingualism and our ability to acquire new languages (Dewaele & Wei, 2013), suggesting a more open attitude to new cultures and circumstances.And, it can be taught. We can fortify our ability to manage ourselves in an uncertain world. We can get used to it. We can manage ourselves without letting uncertainty drive us to control others. We can work on ourselves to respect the beliefs of others while also expecting good from people; and judging them on their acts not their looks. Behavior defines character not dress, not hair color, not tattoos; we can look past the ambiguity of appearance.
Sound familiar? We can learn to thrive in uncertainty just like the axolotl. Accepting uncertainty lowers our stress and ultimately improves our ability to navigate difficult times. It helps us handle those random, rare and dramatic Black Swan events that suddenly challenge our understanding of the world. Our tolerance for uncertainty becomes a personal reservoir of calm, peace of mind that we can offer to ourselves and those who need us.
Our world is one of constant change, and unfortunately, there will be more challenges causing grief, regret and loss. There is a brand of rampant moral absolutism that wholly rejects reason and evidence while classifying everything into good and evil. That absolutism has been obsessively invoked by many political and religious leaders, and it has become a major catalyst for spawning acts of violence and hate. Many institutions capitalize on uncertainty they create to promote fear and blame in order to galvanize their social control. They orchestrate false choices and offer simple, insular, and authoritarian answers. They want us to crave predictability by yearning for conformity while punishing originality, and they desperately want us to admire revolutions that lead to domination and to vilify revolutions that lead to freedoms.
They ultimately want us to abandon the nuances — the gradients — of the world that Pagans and polytheists so readily embrace.
We may not like uncertain times but we can tolerate the ambiguity they bring. And that clarity of the moment may help us elect better leaders who offer wisdom over ignorance; cultivate cooperation over relentless competition and listen more gently to those who are hurting. Through peace in the moment, we can more fully embrace a rhetoric of acceptance and reject intolerance. We really don’t need more certainty: we need more humanity.
Chen, J. T. & Lovibond, P.F. (2016). Intolerance of uncertainty is associated with increased threat appraisal and negative affect under ambiguity but not uncertainty. Behavior Therapy, Vol 47(1), Jan, 2016 pp. 42-53.
Dewaele, J. & Wei, L (2013). Is multilingualism linked to a higher tolerance of ambiguity? Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, Vol 16(1), Jan, 2013. pp. 231-240.
Merrotsy, P. (2013). Tolerance of ambiguity: A trait of the creative personality? Creativity Research Journal, Vol 25(2), Apr, 2013. pp. 232-237.