The human brain starts to sputter and stall when it tries to fathom real enormous things. One of these things is the size of the universe. Since we apparently have only one brain cell for every three galaxies, we can be forgiven for failing to stretch a three-pound brain across a universe that’s 156 billion light-years wide.
Even a comparatively small thing, like the $2 trillion price-tag in direct and indirect costs for the Iraq war, taxes our imagination as much as our pocket-book. Let’s see, $2 trillion would pay off two million $1-million lottery winners and make a lot of retailers very, very happy. Picture a mushroom cloud of joy rising over Houston.
For something really taxing, try to get a human brain (more specifically, a typical American one) wrapped around the enormity of U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now picture that American brain raising its shields like a Star Trek warship deflecting all incoming facts. (For details on this subject, google “U.S. war crimes Iraq Afghanistan,” and begin to peruse the 1.9-million-plus entries that come up.)
My purpose is not to discuss these facts, but to wonder why, on this subject, the American brain is shielded by protective dissonance. Probably the answer lies in the yet-undiscovered unification theory of metaphysics, philosophy, psychology, and Nielsen TV ratings.
If we can’t get our brain to wrap around a small thing like the death of a sparrow, how can we be expected to figure out the meaning of X number of faraway, dead Iraqis? We haven’t even figured out what X stands for, let alone why.
Avoiding X-rated facts is a human passion: Socrates was tried and executed for mocking the idea that might makes right, Galileo was put on trial by the Inquisition for bumping earth from the center of the universe, and Darwin was denounced by every decent, self-respecting Victorian for recognizing their ancestors. The most spectacular denial, however, is personal, and it occurs somewhere along the mysterious inner pathways between an individual’s brain and psyche. In particular, people like to deny that their little ego is only a puppet putz for a hodge-podge of unconscious considerations, ruminations, and recriminations that fire 24/7 on all twelve cylinders and make us prone to doing and thinking mean, stupid things.
The establishment has joined forces with our denial to protect us from X-rated facts. A lot of Americans live in cities where they can read a newspaper like the Gannett-owned Detroit Free Press (which shows up in my driveway every day) with its exhaustive coverage of sports and automotive news and spotty hints of U.S. impropriety in the world. (Saturday’s front page assured us that it’s safe to buy SUVs because gas will never reach $5 a gallon.)
Our denial loves to read all the box-scores and follow the misbehaviors of celebrities. It also stays busy keeping a particular fact about our citizenship off the radar: Since we live in a democracy, we’re all responsible for what our government does. It’s all done in our name. This fact, when it wiggles through our Star Trek shield or slips past newspaper editors, still triggers a brain-dead lockdown of our axon fibers and neurons.
Eventually, some information does leak through to consciousness, but by now it’s safely declassified. It prompts only disjointed musings that are careful not to collide and start a train of thought: “Little me . . . responsible? . . . president gone soon . . . Cheney not crazy . . . bad things happen . . . do I feel safe? . . . bad bombs . . . bad people . . . me so busy.”
Other related questions also avoid our attention. What is the degree of our complicity in U.S. war crimes? Is ignorance innocence? Do we secretly avoid knowledge that will enlighten us? Are we afraid to know the truth because such truth requires us to die to our old passive selves and emerge as true citizens demanding redress?
Hey, I’m happy with the little me that I know so well. Who will I be—someone I don’t know, I bet—if I become who I’m supposed to be.
There’s a simple three-step solution for anyone who wants to be a real human being: assimilate, assimilate, assimilate the significance of your own existence. That means, figuratively or literally, go to the mountaintop and commune with existence. Stretch your brain across those billions of light-years. Count out in nickels and dimes the sum of $2 trillion. Get an answer to X number of dead Iraqis, and look into the abyss of their absence on earth. Ask what Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln would feel. That’s what we need to feel, too—horrified and sorrowful, yet powerful and motivated.
Good mental health means we take responsibility for our behaviors and actions. It means we take responsibility for any crimes committed in our name. It also means no blaming allowed, no place to hide: If the country’s going to hell, we’re going too—unless we come to life now.