This Is the Truth About a Post-Truth World (Maybe)

The Oxford English Dictionary’s 2016 Word of the Year was post-truth, an adjective describing “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” 

uncertainty

Photo Credit: Bigstock (nada zhekova)

In the autumn of 2016, on an ordinary morning, my kids and their friends in the carpool told me all the schools in town should be closed down indefinitely because roving bands of murderous clowns were everywhere and no one was safe. They’d all heard exactly the same thing through social media, so they figured it must be true. They were genuinely terrified.

I asked them to take a breath.

I asked them to slow down and look at the world around them. They did so. They saw a typical autumn morning—sunlight slanting through leaves brightly dying, the world marching to its ancient rhythm. No clowns in sight. And yet. The world they were able to see couldn’t compete with the world they were able to Google. They still believed clowns were hiding behind every colorful tree.

I dropped them off at school and left them for dead.

Post-truth. Last year, what was actually happening around us became less relevant than what was happening inside us. Last year, our fear became our truth, regardless of our reality. Last year, facts finally and fully gave way to our Facebook fictions. The Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year runner-up was coulrophobia—an extreme or irrational fear of clowns. This is not a coincidence. My kids coulrophobia was a post-truth phenomenon.

Where are the clowns?

It seems the proliferation of our technologies is accidentally producing an unprecedented proliferation of our fears. Are there things to fear in the world? Yes, absolutely. But when we know about every tragic thing happening every minute everywhere on the globe, it overwhelms our capacity to cope. Most of us can’t handle much more than the tragedies in our town—we don’t need to check the news to reach our personal limit of cancer and violence and hunger and hurt.

However, because we human beings are resilient, we are rapidly developing a way to inoculate ourselves to all of it—a psychological booster shot for coping with our fear called certainty. In other words, as the world around us feels less certain, we make the world inside of us feel more certain. We get afraid, choose a belief that will make us feel safer, and then we seek out evidence for that belief, while ignoring all evidence to the contrary.

And, in these days, the evidence we’re looking for can be found wherever we look.

Software algorithms detect what we want to see and hear and believe and then flood us with more belief-fodder than we can possibly consume. Thus, our attachment to our thoughts, feelings, and ideologies is digitally strengthened on a daily basis, as what is happening in our life slowly becomes less influential than what is happening in our feed. Ironically, in an increasingly uncertain world, it is easier than ever to develop increasingly certain minds.

Meanwhile, reality is slowly becoming an afterthought.

Where are the clowns?

Several months after the morning of the mythical clowns, I was looking forward to an afternoon of laser tag and memory-making with my kids at a local bowling alley. However, at the last minute, a crisis arose and I stayed behind to fix it, while my family left without me. It took me thirty minutes to resolve the crisis.

Laser tag doesn’t last longer than thirty minutes.

As I drove to the bowling alley, the news scroll in my head started feeding me all the words and images I wanted to consume about my bitter reality—I was the sacrificial father left behind to solve the family’s problems, while the family went on to play without him. Taken for granted. Alone. I couldn’t have been more certain about my plight. Then, I arrived at the bowling alley.

Where my family was waiting for me to play laser tag.

At that moment, I faced the choice every single one of us will face as this new year begins: do I cling to the certainty inside of me, or release it so I’m free to embrace the reality in front of me. We can cling to a post-truth 2016, or we can embrace a new Word of the Year in 2017: post-certainty.

In a post-certainty world:

you slow down instead of throwing down,

you take a breath instead of taking umbrage,

you become curious before becoming confrontational,

you settle into questions before jumping to conclusions,

and you slowly observe your fears instead of instantly believing them.

In a post-certainty world, you remember that certainty creates an echo chamber, whereas uncertainty creates the space for grace to grow. You remember that certainty usually transforms into hate and violence, whereas uncertainty is love in mental form—uncertainty is love in the shape of patience, kindness, humility, gentleness, and togetherness. Uncertainty does not delight in being right, but it rejoices in the actual truth, even when it changes our mind.

In a post-certainty world, you let a family who waited to play laser tag become your new truth.

May the year of 2017 become the year of post-certainty. May we exchange the fear in our hearts—and the certainty in our heads—for a world in which the software algorithms lose their power to blind us and the truth still has the power to teach us. Yes, this will make 2017 slightly scarier. But it will also make 2017 exceptionally more beautiful. Post-certainty.

Where are the clowns?

Send in the clowns.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

—————

Pre-Order LOVEABLE Now! You are enough. You are not alone. And you matter. These are the three fundamental truths of your existence. The problem is there is a voice inside each of us relentlessly calling them into question. And yet the answer to that voice can be found within each of us, as well. Click here to find out more about my new book—Loveable: Embracing What Is Truest About You, So You Can Truly Embrace Your Life.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Disclaimer: Kelly's writings represent a combination of his own personal opinions and his professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with him via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Kelly does not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accepts no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Ronel

    Great post, thanks. This world would be so much better if everyone would start behaving this way.

    • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

      Maybe just a handful of us would be mighty fine, too.

      • Thanks, Ronel. And yes, Shel, I like the idea of starting with a handful. 🙂

      • Mike Gates

        Doesn’t take many 😉

  • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

    Truthfully— not even post-truthfully —I’ve felt the extreme discomfort of sitting with uncertainty and a mind decidedly not made up, seen how little and how much can be accomplished by moving slowly through not knowing, and felt just how right it can feel having stayed my hand from action. It hasn’t gotten easier to do. Yet.
    But I’m not done.

    Your family’s pretty fantastic saving laser tag for a memory like this, Kelly.

    • Ha! “Truthfully–not even post-truthfully…” Well played. Uncertainty = painful in the short run, beauty in the long run; Certainty = security in the short run, painful in the long run?

  • Nora Battey

    Thank you for this. I have been trying to stay on this mind set given all the hysteria about hyopothetical future that hasn’t happened. Not to say we shouldn’t pay attention but we shouldn’t be consumed by our fears.

    • Exactly, Nora. Being consumed by our fears diminishes our ability to pay attention. And now more than ever, we need to pay very, very close attention.

  • Sally Taylor

    Great post. Thanks so much!

  • Kathi

    “Uncertainty does not delight in being right, but it rejoices in the actual truth, even when it changes our mind.” What a great insight…has a I Cor. 13 ring to it…thank you for calling out our secure insecurities…

  • Guest

    I have said some of these things, though not nearly as elegantly or succinctly several times myself. I think this is why we are seeing the rise of mental health issues, particularly in our young people, who don’t have all the strategies and skills they need to be resilient in this post-truth world. They haven’t yet learned how to read and filter and forget from what they read. Thanks for your article and reminding us of these truths.

    • Thanks for this. I appreciate the empathy for kids who are trying to form a worldview right now.

  • Julie Fitzpatrick

    The ultimate example of post-truth behavior is our standard American diet. Even though facts tell us that the most effective way to improve our health, reduce our carbon footprint, and preserve our natural world for our childrens’ future is to adopt a plant-based diet, most people cling to the comfort of the foods they grew up with. Science takes a back seat to corporate advertising.

    • It’s a great observation, Julie, and it is really important to think about who and what might be shaping the beliefs we are unwilling to be uncertain about.

  • May I repeat what you said? It made all the difference for me. THANK YOU.

    In a post-certainty world:

    you slow down instead of throwing down,

    you take a breath instead of taking umbrage,

    you become curious before becoming confrontational,

    you settle into questions before jumping to conclusions,

    and you slowly observe your fears instead of instantly believing them.

  • “Are there things to fear in the world? Yes, absolutely. But when we know about every tragic thing happening every minute everywhere on the globe, it overwhelms our capacity to cope. Most of us can’t handle much more than the tragedies in our town—we don’t need to check the news to reach our personal limit of cancer and violence and hunger and hurt.” So true, Kelly, and a good word for the purge of last years fears and ridiculous media led clown hunts. Bless you…shared with social media!!

    • Dixie, I love the metaphor of “purging our 2016 cache.” Ha!

      • Why thank you…inspired by your post!! 🙂

  • Irina Anissimova

    Uncertainty about important things is the source of fear which produces the desire to find certainty at any cost. Combine it with the similarly powerful longing for quick and easy solutions to complex or unsolvable problems and a post-truth digital world becomes the obvious escape. I think it is a more serious phenomenon than you describe it and it has long roots way deeper than one’s confused mind. But you are totally right – deep breathing and curiously asking questions and talking (in person) to others are the best ways to move back into reality.

    • Irina, I agree with you: 900 words can’t do this justice. Please don’t hesitate to add more insights regarding the roots of this phenomenon. I always enjoy the nuance and complexity added by reader comments!

  • Mike Gates

    I really appreciated your point about not being able to handle knowing every tragic thing everywhere on the globe.
    I had a discussion with some friends over the holidays touching on the point you made to your kid re:clowns. When I watch too much TV, or get invested in something popping up on Facebook or Twitter, things get dark quickly.
    Then I shut that off and take the dog for a walk and visit with my neighbors…man, things are better than ever.

  • Joyce Slaughter

    Don’t send in the clowns! Clowns are terrifying. Even before they started showing up in the woods!

    As always, I love your symbolism. One of my favorite things about your posts is your transparency and willingness to share your own shortcomings with us.

    I’m glad your family waited for you so you could play laser tag, too.

    Happy New Year 🙂

  • Sean Kelly

    Maybe a new word, but not a new concept. The French Revolution was a circumstance in which objective facts gave way to appeals to emotion in shaping public opinion and the behavior of the crowd. As a professional trader I would go out of business if people did not allow themselves to be swept off their feet by the blustery winds of media spin, sloganeering, and fear-peddling.