I’ve been going through an existential crisis for the past week because I’ve began to realize that I might be part of a cult (although whether it’s a benign or destructive cult is yet to be determined). I needed to decide whether or not I would continue to participate in it and this has proven to be a difficult decision because I can see the value it’s provided me with, but on the other hand, I think it’s a cult and I feel uncomfortable with the idea of participating in a cult. This has inspired me to think more about the role of trust in our society and how we develop or maintain trust in a person or idea.
Since the eighties, self help programs and technology have simultaneously sky rocketed. I think one of the obvious theories for this is that technology made us all aware that there’s a lot of information available to us and having unlimited access to it creates cognitive dissonance (the idea that we can always find contradicting sources of information. e.g. smoking is cool but it’s also bad for your health). Cognitive dissonance has not only resulted in anxiety, but also physical discomfort, and this has led to the plethora of self-help programs we see today that are aimed at either our emotional states (self-help books), our physical states (fad diets), or sometimes a combination of both (spiritual retreats with strict rules). In thinking about these programs, I believe the primary factor they all have in common is trust.
With an influx of information, apps, self-help books, scientific discoveries, and the ability to access personal stories of millions of people online, individuals are losing the ability to trust themselves. Or rather than losing the ability, they’re told that they actually cannot trust themselves. One of the messages being broadcast across the country is that there’s information that people cannot know without access to science and technology, so what you or I perceive might not actually be correct. We must turn to someone else to provide us with the knowledge we can’t perceive in ourselves, like a doctor, psychiatrist, therapist, spiritual community, trusted website or author, etc.
Here, of course, it becomes fuzzy because there are two ends of the spectrum: on one end, there’s a super rational person who only makes decisions and lives her life through reason, shutting herself out of any mystical or spiritual experiences and binding herself to materiality. In many ways, this is a close-minded person because they disallow themselves from exploring or experiencing anything that doesn’t have a “correct” answer. On the other end of the spectrum is the spiritual person who recognizes that science can’t always provide him with a “right” answer, so he relinquishes science altogether, denying climate change and perhaps believing that the world is flat. Both of these people are limiting themselves in severe ways, but when determining how to situate oneself between both extremes, it quickly becomes apparent that it’s difficult to do so and trust becomes an issue. What or who is to be trusted?
There are some people (like medical doctors) that we almost unanimously agree are people who are trained and determined to help us. The process of becoming a doctor is difficult, laborious, and time-consuming, and so it makes sense that most doctors faithfully practice their trade to the best of their ability until the end of their careers. Generally, we trust doctors. But how does our trust in doctors extend to our trust in a research-based article in the New York Times that claims we need to get eight hours of sleep at night? Suddenly, with the ability to access more information, there are a lot of credible sources telling us a lot of credible things about the reality in which we inhabit. It becomes easier and easier to put our trust in the hands of other people who have spent their lives studying topics like “the effect of tomatoes on people with arthritis” and we think, oh my god, I need to give up tomatoes or I will die. This is all well and good (I guess), but the problem is that there’s actually no end to what we “should” be doing.
I can find an opinion or advice about every problem that I have if I turn to the internet, and I don’t even need to actively turn to the internet to receive these opinions. They surround us: on magazine covers, on social media, in the conversations between people (“you know, I heard we should only recycle plastic bottles now because nothing else is being processed.”) These opinions and positions are overwhelming and authoritative, but they’re oftentimes contradictory, creating cognitive dissonance, and resulting, I think, in less self-trust. They’re resulting in less self-trust because the messages about how we should be living our lives are 1.) constant and everywhere, 2.) authoritative and oftentimes backed by research, and 3.) varied and dependent on the group that someone identifies with. For example, a group of body builders might have a sound opinion that it’s important to eat as much protein and fat (and as little carbs) as humanly possible in a single day, but a group of yoga practitioners might believe that the best diet is green, leafy vegetables and juice cleanses. Neither group is wrong within the context of their interests, but unless an individual is fully inculcated into one of those groups, they’re going to receive contrasting information about the best way to do their lives. These competing opinions (that are found everywhere and rationally justified) plant seeds of doubt into people’s minds about what the “right” answer is. It becomes, I think, harder to trust oneself and more appealing to simply give over one’s trust to a particular organization (like a yoga clan) that will inform that person how to live his life within the context of that identity.
The reason why I think it’s problematic that people are trusting themselves less is because they’re putting that trust in other people instead, and they’re providing those authoritative voices with power, making it more and more difficult to criticize them. I’ve started thinking about this in relation to cults because that’s how cults operate: they require their participants to place all their trust in the hands of the “supreme leader” (who will take care of them), but ultimately that means the leader has all the trust and the participants have none of it leftover for themselves. This is why it’s difficult to leave cults: participants no longer believe they’re able to survive or live without the cult. For this reason, I think the power of technology and science in our modern era is profoundly destructive because it’s absorbing all the trust from the participants of the system, making it more and more difficult for those participants to leave or question the system because, if they did, it would be like building themselves up from scratch again. It’s not that people can’t do that, but it’s difficult and daunting, and most likely, those people would simply turn to someone else to do it for them, perpetuating the same problem. In which case, I think the primary problem that needs to be dealt with is how to teach people to trust themselves more.
Trust in oneself means doing something even though no one else is doing it, criticizing an idea even though no one else is criticizing it, feeling okay with oneself despite the overarching beauty standards, being confrontational and honest about one’s emotional experience regardless of the consequences, and so on. I believe this is one of the most important skills we need to be teaching our children in order to overcome dualistic social hierarchies.