5 Reasons Holidays Are Secretly Crucial To Our Survival
If you want to piss off an anxious person, just tell them to stay positive. Seriously, try it!
We anxious people get a lot of that stuff around the holidays, and I think we eventually just tune it out. Songs, platitudes, slogans on novelty sweaters. "Be thankful!" "Appreciate your loved ones!" "Celebrate the new year, for some goddamned reason!"
It's grating to us due to an unspoken assumption that it's all just another way of saying, "Ignore the shitty reality, pretend everything is great!" Like it's a form of anesthesia, a way to numb yourself to all the bullshit. "Who cares if the world is going to hell in a fuckbasket? Be thankful for this turkey! Now let's celebrate a native genocide and watch some huge men give themselves permanent brain damage."
But, like lots of life's unspoken assumptions, it's both wrong and potentially fatal. Taking a minute to notice the positive isn't about making ourselves feel better (though I suppose it can), it's about something else entirely.
Mainly, about not giving up.
We Tend To Misunderstand The Awfulness Of Things
Humans are violent, selfish, and stupid.
I'm writing this in 2016 -- I don't even have to justify that statement, right? Even without the election, it's been wall-to-wall mass shootings, war, racism, and tragic celebrity deaths. The violent, selfish, and stupid nature of people is why things are always getting worse -- the more of us you cram onto the planet, the more our spiritual toxins pollute the stew. It's simple chemistry. Haven't they done experiments where if you just isolate a bunch of strangers in a room for a while, they'll eventually turn on each other like animals?
Well, they actually did a much larger version of that, in which a million and a half of these violent, selfish, and stupid primates were piled onto a cramped, filthy island ...
... and based on what we know about people, shouldn't it only be a matter of time until that whole place is a charred, smoking ruin? Or a big pile of garbage and toppled buildings, like Idiocracy?
Yet, if we revisit those shit-flinging animals 150 years later, we find their island looking like this:
Full of marvels of engineering and technology that would have absolutely looked like magic to those stinking, toothless dock workers in the first picture.
But ... how?
How in the hell can the violent, selfish, and stupid impulses of 1.5 million assholes result in a gleaming metropolis that not only has ten times the population, but a population so clean and healthy that they literally live twice as long and have so much food piled up that their most common health problem is fatness? If the average person in America is such a greedy, petty, misguided dipshit, who is producing all the cool stuff that makes the "Amount Of Cool Stuff Produced Per Year" graph over that same timespan looks like this?
If all governments are corrupt, if all corporations are just gangs of thieves, if all religions are just fearmongering cults, if most people don't give a shit about their jobs, if everyone is a secret racist, why aren't those buildings falling over, due to rampant defects? Why haven't feral savages torn them down for the scrap? Why hasn't tribal infighting reduced it all to rubble? When a model of cell phone starts spontaneously catching fire, why is that a shocking headline rather than the accepted norm?
How is it that any of this actually works?
Problems Are Loud And Terrifying, Solutions Are Boring
I grew up in the 1980s, when crime was running rampant in the cities (if you think it's still running rampant, let's put it this way -- there was 300 percent more violent crime back then). Blood gushed from every headline -- we heard of rape and recreational executions and flamboyant gangs cutting children to pieces.
Our solutions, we assumed, would be even more spectacular -- give cops bigger guns and fewer rules, arm citizens to take back their streets with sheer firepower. We were absolutely obsessed with this idea, it was a staple in Hollywood for years. Go get 'em, guys!
Then, as I've mentioned before, the crime rate just started quietly dropping in the mid-90s. And I do want to emphasize that it happened quietly.
There was no final battle, nobody stormed the fortress of the evil King of Crime and took him out. They didn't invent a RoboCop or fill the streets with gun-wielding vigilantes, much to my teenage disappointment. So what happened?
Nobody knows. It appears it was a combination of small measures and random social factors out of our control. Sure, tougher sentencing laws kept some criminals behind bars longer, but also the internet and video games got super popular and people just started spending more of their spare time at home. Crack cocaine got less popular (thanks to meth!) and there was less market share to fight over. The economy improved for a while, the population got a little bit older due to dropping birthrates ... there's even a theory that taking the lead out of gasoline made a big difference (lead causes brain problems). We got better at treating mental illness, policing techniques changed ...
And already you've zoned out -- the problem was entertaining, the solution was boring as shit. Nobody was going to make a Charles Bronson movie about the wider availability of psychiatric medication among at-risk males.
As usual, the crisis was an ear-shattering blast, the improvement a dull, easily-ignored hum. This is a problem.
You Are Programmed To Filter Everything But The Bad Stuff
Any of your caveman predecessors who stopped to appreciate a pretty flower while being pursued by a tiger didn't live long enough to reproduce. Your brain has thus evolved to notice problems and disregard the rest, because of course it has. Problems need your attention, the other shit doesn't. You have limited time, energy, and brain power -- you don't waste it sitting around contemplating all of the animals on earth that aren't chasing you. It's supposed to have a focusing effect.
But today, it does the opposite. The existence of mass media means you get to hear about the whole world's problems -- that part of your brain designed to say, "Focus on this, it's dangerous" is just stuck in the On position, all the time. That creates this exhausting, debilitating impression that the world is a string of successive disasters, the whole thing continuously flying apart at the seams.
That impression you're getting is objectively impossible, though. If society was just an endless string of mounting problems with no solutions, we wouldn't have advanced from grass huts to space stations. It would have been one step forward, ten thousand back. In reality, the ratio is closer to the opposite.
This basic flaw in how we perceive the world makes us take progress for granted, as if ever-advancing technology and longer lifespans are invisible forces like gravity, something that can be safely assumed. I mean, in some sense we are aware, because we complain when advancements don't come fast enough. We joke that there's no cure for cancer, ignoring the hard work of hundreds of thousands of smart people that dropped the cancer death rate 23 percent in just two decades.
But, see, that wasn't due to some big miracle cure, there were no flashy headlines -- just a bunch of boring shit. Early detection, better screenings, better surgical techniques, wider availability of zzzzzzzz.
Likewise, you can thank thousands of small, completely uninteresting tweaks for the fact that your chances of dying in a car accident dropped in half over the last three decades. The chances of dying in a house fire dropped 66 percent in that same span, for reasons too dull to get into here that have to do with building codes and smoke detectors and blah blah blah who cares.
Stopping To Appreciate The Good Stuff Helps You Understand How Problems Are Solved
Which brings us back to Thanksgiving, and how every culture and religion seems obsessed with making people stop to "count their blessings." Trust me, they started doing it for a reason.
This flaw we have, this filtering for the negative, it can have a fatal side effect of making us eventually say, "Why bother?" We see millions of people driving themselves in cars and think, "look at those poor bastards stuck in traffic." Then we run into a friend too poor to afford a car and decide that surely we must have all died and that this is Hell. Everything is seen through that lens of corruption and decline to the point that when something good is destroyed, we can lose sight of how the good thing came to be in the first place ...
... and of how future good things will be made.
Some of you are worried now that progress on, say, gay marriage will be reversed in light of recent events. But for lots of us, our only reaction to the court case that legalized it was an exasperated, "What took so long?" It's easy to be so annoyed that it required a struggle that you forget to celebrate the struggle at all -- the grinding, frustrating, tedious effort by tens of thousands of activists, lawyers, and politicians who had to break that wall down one infuriating brick at a time, by repeatedly smashing their own fucking faces into it.
And they won.
Those people did not say, "Why bother?" Those people looked back at previous civil rights movements, drew joy and admiration from what they had done, and let it inspire them to get to work. But the first step was looking back without snark or irony and saying, "A wonderful thing happened, our world is actually built atop lots of similar wonderful things, let's do other wonderful things to overcome the current shittiness. If they can do it, so can we."
The Danger Of Cynicism Is That It Can Paralyze You
And that, kids, is why we dedicate holidays to heroes and build statues of reformers. It's why the ugly sweaters and songs tell us to stop and give thanks and acknowledge the good things in our lives. It's not some hippie bullshit, it's appreciating the fact that (for instance) you're reading this only because thousands of strangers spent sweat and blood digging trenches and laying fiber optic lines and mining ore that could be turned into computers and cell phones.
They did that because other people -- geniuses, in fact -- designed and endlessly tweaked a system that would create incentives for them to do it, and other people before them bled and died to make that possible. History remembers the big victories, but ignores the hundred million smaller ones along the way -- an innovation here, a process improvement there, a single mind changed over a cup of coffee. Microscopic yet crucial victories that simply don't occur if those people shake their heads and say, "Why bother?"
And, yes, I'm going to have to mention the fucking election now. In 2016, about 59% of the voting eligible population cast a vote for president. So the real results of the election were:
44% Why Bother?
Well, if nothing else, some of you now know why you bother. You bother because you have much to lose and the only way to keep that fixed in your mind is to occasionally stop and appreciate what you have. All of those boring little things that send you reeling if they're missing for just a day, the privileges you avoid acknowledging so much that it actually annoys you when someone brings them up. The freedoms you take as a universal constant, despite the fact that 95 percent of humans have lived without them.
(And note, I'm focusing on what you have to lose; I could write a whole separate article on how we fail to consider what other people have to lose, even if we don't).
But this isn't just about politics, which is important to remember because this matters just as much in between elections. This is about remembering why you get up in the morning, why you want to always learn new things, to keep taking those tiny boring steps forward that don't seem like much in isolation, in the sense that the Sistine Chapel wouldn't seem like much if you only watched Michelangelo paint Adam's tiny dick.
So, yeah, be thankful, because the entire earth is a hive of busy humans working on stuff that will make tomorrow better than today. Stuff like the recent discovery that we may massively cut greenhouse gases just by adding seaweed to animal feed (cows produce methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, and seaweed breaks it down). The price of solar power is dropping so fast that it doesn't matter what the U.S. government thinks of it -- it's going to win on economics alone. And so on.
At some point, every single person who has ever been involved in anything great has suffered at least one gut-punch of a setback, has felt like the sun has fallen out of the sky. Some people feel like that all day, every day. So, every now and then we make you stop and eat a big meal and listen to corny nonsense about things that happened in the past. It's supposed to reorient you, to remind you that we overcame bad shit back then and we'll overcome it this time, too.
Then we give the future something to be thankful for and, well, that's how all of this works.
David Wong is the Executive Editor of Cracked, his most recent novel is now in development as a TV series and just came out in paperback. Look at those customer review scores!
For more David Wong, check out Why Science Is Still Mystified About How Humans Work and Why Anxiety Is The Plague Of The Modern World.
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