How to get through America’s Existential Crisis?

On why it’s about time to craft a new framing story

Hi friends, as we head into a potentially explosive week of protests, I thought it’d be a good time to look at the deeper loss of a framing story (aka, our paradigm or worldview) underneath our cultural upheaval. Individuals regularly lose a story (e.g., at mid-life, or at crisis points like death of a loved one, or loss of a job). But it’s rare for a whole culture to experience this together. And in this way, what’s usually just an individual’s inner experience of turbulent change is being shared collectively. As always, if you enjoy this post, I’d appreciate your help in encouraging others to subscribe! Much love, M

This week’s commentary: What in the world is going on with America?!

I. America’s Existential Crisis

The first time I saw someone’s worldview fall apart I was in the 4th grade. It wasn’t pretty.

That year I did a science fair project on chromatography. My classmate Cyrus, visibly upset, said to me: “There’s no way you can understand that. I can’t even pronounce that word. You’re a girl. I’m a boy. I’m supposed to be smarter than you.”

In retrospect, it was my first lesson in socially constructed scarcity and hierarchy: I’m only okay if I’m better than you.

And it was also my first lesson in existential anguish. Power, as Cyrus had been taught, meant supremacy over. It was a fragile set up because as soon as he didn’t have that power, who was he?

In many ways, my 9 year old classmate’s existential crisis mirrors America’s. That is, our old framing story that told us who we are, what’s going on, where we’re going, and what we should do has so many holes that it no longer works. We need a completely new story.

Akin to the old astronomers who saw Earth as the center of the solar system and created increasingly complex models to prop up that story, we’re realizing the story doesn’t hold up. We need a truer story — like that the Earth actually revolves around the sun — to help us see our real place in the universe.

In the interim, while we’re between stories, it’s stressful.

II. How are we dealing with the existential angst?

This space between stories is particularly hard because America’s framing story revolves around personal responsibility for our own destiny. It’s an empowering story in stable times — especially if we have access to resources. But a story of 100% control, in times of great structural upheaval (like now), is simply unhelpful because when things don’t go our way, we feel like it’s our own damn fault.

This story is perhaps most crushing for those accustomed to being on top, and feel their social status slipping (e.g., older white men). They’re discovering — as those who have faced systemic inequality have always known — the story of ‘pulling yourself up by the bootstraps’ is enormously corrosive to their sense of self.

In the words of Stanford primatologist Robert Sapolsky,

“Whether you’re a rat, baboon, or human, our basic neurobiology [under stress] is to turn on somebody else. Displacement aggression is a defining feature of social organisms in pain. …And scapegoating is a horrifyingly effective stress-reduction mechanism.”

In the face of great suffering, we all want great love.

But in a framing story of scarcity, we believe as Diana Ross famously sang, “Love don’t come easy.” And when proxies for love — like respect or approval — run out because we’ve made money, power and fame scarce too, then fear sets in.

When fear sets in, people turn to violence* — as we saw on January 6th, with insurrectionists trying to take back the symbolic seat of American power.

And any framing story that leads people to contort life’s foundational impulses through violence is inherently unsustainable. If we’re doing violence to ourselves and each other, shared life just doesn’t work.

III. How QAnon is trying to fill the existential void by reaching for transcendence

To alleviate the existential angst, QAnon — the far-right conspiracy theory — denies the validity of the old story, and replaces it with a new, more transcendent story. (In fact, it’s so lofty that some commentators have called it America’s new secular religion.)

Rather than feel the stress of being without a story, QAnon offers a made for Hollywood narrative of a malevolent global cabal plotting against Donald Trump. Rather than feel powerless, QAnon anoints its believers as real patriots who are fighting against this Evil. And rather than feel the anxiety of being at the bottom of the old social hierarchy, QAnon elevates those who reject mainstream institutions like the media and government (i.e., the old power structures) into the real elite who truly understand what’s happening.

QAnon die-hards pity us ‘sheeple’ who are oblivious to the Truth.

And the fact that 39% of Americans agree with QAnon’s core tenet that a ‘deep state’ is working to undermine Trump points not to how air-tight the QAnon framing story is, but to just how badly the old story was serving people.

This messianic subversion of “reality” is perhaps most iconically embodied by Jake Angeli — the bare chested faux Viking who led the charge to the Senate podium a few weeks ago. He’s a former actor who calls himself QAnon Shaman, and identifies as a self-initiated shaman who has seen the Truth through his frequent use of psychedelics.

In looking at the mish-mash of his sartorial choices — warrior paint, fur pelts in the manner of indigenous people, and Odinist tattoos — it’s easy to dismiss him as a racist clown (as most in the press have done). But having spent real time trying to understand the inner logic of QAnon, I can’t help but feel that he’s attempting to reconnect with the mythic dimension of life — which has been decidedly shunned in our modern, overly-rational culture (and that I’ve written about here).

As I’ve spent time learning more about QAnon Shaman — who seems to genuinely want to save the world, only eats organic, and practices energy medicine — I can’t help but think that under another set of circumstances, he might just fit in here in Silicon Valley. If he'd had different influences and lived in the Bay Area, I imagine that he could have been a tech bro on a mission to change the world through his latest app, sitting in ayahuasca ceremonies on weekends, and going to Burning Man.

Truth is perhaps more up for grabs than we think.

And in this period of upheaval and disillusionment, the one thing we may agree on across the left-right divide is that we hunger for deeper mythic meaning that isn’t being offered by our old framing story.

It’s time for a new story.

I’ll write more about what this new story could look like in future posts.

* In the meantime, a quick PS: Violence stemming from the failures of our old story can be directed internally as well as externally. Although external violence is what’s covered in the news, inner violence is perhaps even more prevalent. When it’s directed internally, it can show up as self-blame, perfectionism, self-doubt or self-criticism. I’ve been working with this in myself and coaching clients for years; and self-judgment is ironically usually trying to help us win love or approval.

So that we don’t see a continued proliferation of “conspirituality” framing stories like QAnon, I’m wondering where you want to start exercising greater compassion or love to the inner or outer violence you’re noticing?

Drop your thoughts in the comments, or feel free to send me an email.

And as always, I’d love to hear your reactions!

Melissa’s Reading List

What’s giving me hope right now?

Robert Sapolsky’s insights about how social hierarchies can be remade

If you’re not already familiar with Robert Sapolsky (former MacArthur “Genius” Grant Fellow whose work I referenced above), it’s definitely worth watching this 9 minute video about one of his core breakthroughs about how quickly cultures can be re-made after upheaval. This was mind blowing for me!

This podcast / interview (Apple | Spotify) that he did in 2017 is also extraordinarily insightful about what happens to humans when they’re under extreme stress. His ideas about Us-vs-Them dynamics built off of neuroscience were really illuminating about what’s happening politically.

And this podcast interview (Apple | Spotify) he did with Ezra Klein for Vox goes deeper into the psychological costs of poverty makes a really compelling case for remaking our social contract.

What’s making me curious?

The Atlantic Editor Adrienne LaFrance’s deep-dive into QAnon

I know it can be exhausting to read about QAnon and Trump, but if there’s 1 piece you read about QAnon, make it this one (also linked above). She does a fantastic job explaining why QAnon is a “religion”, and why it’s growing like wildfire.

And in case you missed it…

How we might be on the cusp of a new Renaissance

Here’s a piece I wrote a few weeks ago about how paradigms or framing stories go through predictable cycles of death and rebirth.

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