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The Wisdom of Insecurity

Security is perhaps the most well-known illusion human beings have contrived. From the cursory seduction of emotional stability to the wrathful manifestation of raging armies, the painful longing for complete ease blankets our species. Somewhere along our evolutionary trail the quest for safety transformed into an unapologetic demand for protection, from foreigners as well as our own hearts, however errant a goal that might seem. 

We’ve pawned the responsibility of security to a higher being through innumerable oblations: crops and virgins and tobacco and dances. In its modern presentation, security is to be achieved through belief—the power of intention, we are told, dictates the parameters for everything we experience. If we don’t feel secure, that is because we haven’t enough faith in the process of discovering our own innate greatness. No longer is our lack of security due to bloodthirsty deities; it is a personal failing that the world is not the haven we are destined to dwell inside of.

This sentiment runs across the gamut of America’s spiritual brands, from Joel Osteen’s ever-purposeful (and vindictive) God to Marianne Williamson’s divinely rewarding cosmos. Take, for example, Osteen’s tweet on November 20:

God will restore you. He will turn it around. He will vindicate you if you will be still and have faith. 

And this, from Williamson’s latest book, The Law of Divine Compensation

As an expression of divine perfection, the universe is both self-organizing and self-correcting. To whatever extent your mind is aligned with love, you will receive divine compensation for any lack in your material existence.

What both of these messages offer, in their own ways, is security: You are at the whims of the universe, and through your faith, you will receive something splendid in the near future. 

Future happiness is a necessary component of their bright-eyed philosophies. If they told you everything is perfect now, you’d have no reason to purchase their books. Regardless of what god they ascribe to, the true divinity is always security, the sense that there’s a bigger plan unfolding that features your name in bright lights, that will coddle you when the world seems too frightening a place to live within.

As it turns out, all this mental focus on security, often wrapped into the über-category ‘positive thinking,’ might be worse for us than we thought. In his new book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, journalist Oliver Burkeman discusses ‘ironic process theory.’ He uses an example attributed to Fyodor Dostoevsky, who apparently taunted his brother by asking him to not think of a white bear for at least a minute. Once you introduce the bear, there’s simply no way to avoid him.  

Turns out this irritating mental trick has further consequences. Thanks to our penchant for metacognition, the distinctly human ability to ‘think about thinking,’ whenever we attempt to avoid a thought, our brains hone in on that exact object. Burkeman cites research that shows when people are instructed to not feel sad about a tragic event, they inevitably feel sadder than those who were not instructed to feel anything. The same held true for anxiety disorder victims—relaxation tapes proved worse than the placebo of regular audiobooks.

Yet bestselling authors like Osteen and Williamson play to our lower selves. In their world where sympathetic magic reigns, a positive thought results in a positive result. According to Williamson, this is a ‘spiritual law,’ a description of ‘how consciousness operates.’ Leaving aside the fact that no scientist even knows how consciousness operates, this uniquely modern battalion of divinities on the constant lookout for our prosperity and security is the perfect antidote to a poisonous existence of disbelief. The keys to understanding this are, naturally, written in their books. 

In his 1951 book, The Wisdom of Insecurity, Alan Watts wrote that we

find life meaningful only when we have seen that it is without purpose, and know the ‘mystery of the universe’ only when we are convinced that we know nothing about it at all. 

Since at least the advent of writing, and probably well before, some humans have decided that they know exactly how the universe (and consciousness) ‘works.’ And it wants us to feel secure, which, as Burkeman points out, is the quickest path to insecurity. 

What to do, then? Burkeman’s response is the ‘negative path to happiness.’ Using a Chinese finger trap—those cheaply woven bamboo tubes they give away at Jersey Shore boardwalk casinos—as an example, he reminds us that the harder we pull, the more our fingers become trapped. So it goes with our minds. Reality might require the counterintuitive flow of judo at times, but that might only be because we declared that reality operate in our favor in the first place.

Photo: Dictionary Series/


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