Fear of the Unknown

Why is it that we, as human beings, are so ready to label and classify others?  Imagine walking down a busy street, passing people right and left.  A man brushes past while talking on his cell phone, wearing a dark suit with his hair neatly combed - what do you immediately assume about this person?  That he is successful?  That he is wealthy?  That he is busy...or smart...or a workaholic?

Every one of us is guilty of passing judgment on another person - we assume, we label, we decide.  But why do we do it? This automatic thinking process (as in, our brains do it automatically) actually has evolutionary origins, there is a very real, very valid reason for why we do something that in today's world can get us into a lot of trouble.  It has to do with safety, and protecting ourselves.  Imagine a prehistoric human walking alone in a vast wilderness - he happens upon a large predator, teeth bared, claws exposed, snarling and growling.  Now imagine what would happen to this prehistoric human if he had to stop, examine this predator and go through the conscious thinking of "What is this creature?" "It is showing me its teeth, why would it do that?" "Look at those claws, I wonder what that means when he has them stretched out toward me?" "What an awful sound!  It is so loud and intimidating, I think I am intimidated by this creature!!"  "If I am intimidated, I should run away!!!"  In the minute and a half that our poor prehistoric human took to decide the creature he encountered was dangerous and should therefore flee....he was killed, by said creature.  Luckily, that is not what happens.  When a human happens upon a predator, our heart rate increases, we begin to sweat, and in a split second we know we've stumbled into a dangerous situation and need to RUN.  Not because we thought it through, but because we just knew.

Throughout our evolution, this automatic thinking process has saved humans from thousands of easily life threatening events.  It is often a very good thing to have going on inside of us - these are our instincts.  In our modern culture though, life has shifted so rapidly that evolution hasn't quite caught up.  There are much fewer predators out there that we might happen upon on our walk to work.  Yet, our minds are still cranking out those automatic thoughts.  Those automatic thoughts quickly and efficiently categorize - often into two blanket categories: familiar and unfamiliar.  And in modern day life, where we routinely come into contact with millions of others in real life or through media/technology, our automatic thinking is in overdrive.

This automatic categorization of familiar and unfamiliar isn't just limited to people, though.  Most commonly, I see this crop up in our modern lives as fear of the general unknown....fear of change.  In our private lives, in our work, in our social constructs, in our politics, in our culture at large - familiar is good, unfamiliar is bad.  We fear what we do not know...and if we aren't careful, that fear dictates our lives.  Certainty makes us feel safe, there is no grey area, no ambiguity to wrestle with if we are certain.  In the grey area is where we question ourselves, our purpose, our path - it is admittedly a very scary place.  But is it worth it?  Is it worth it to question what you "know"?  For some, maybe not.  But for many, I would argue that what lies within the unknown is a world of possibilities for yourself, your future, and for those you affect.

So, I challenge you, particularly as we head into the new year, to examine the things you are "certain" of - how did you get there?  Did you arrive at certainty through introspection and reflection?  Or was it the easy, automatic way? Ask yourself WHY you must live in a certain place, or go to a certain school, or have a certain thing, or believe a certain belief - is it a decision based on your values, your purpose, your needs - or does it come from something else?  Does it come from fear of the unknown?