Last week, I had dinner with some thoughtful members of my family. Each person spoke respectfully from the perspective of his or her life’s journey about current events. While I reflected on the dinner, the timeless words of Don Henley came to mind. His song The Heart of the Matter is one of my favorites: 

“These times are so uncertain/There’s a yearning undefined…People filled with rage…”

When we look at society, we see the effects of decisions, policies, and traditions established long ago. The media is paid to tell us what happened, but we don’t know the millions of data points behind that story. We rarely examine the core causes of unfolding events. At the same time, many people seem convinced by their own story about what they see on screens is 100% accurate. No exceptions.

This month, I’d like to issue a challenge: Stop focusing on the effects of the things you are seeing and start exploring the causes. Explore diverse sources of information before forming an opinion. Critical thinking, according to The Foundation for Critical Thinking, is the disciplined process of actively and skillfully synthesizing and evaluating information gathered from observation, experience, or communication as a guide to belief and action. 

It’s not meant to be done quickly or easily. It’s not done in a heightened emotional state.

From Reactivity to True Influence

Everywhere you look, you see people talking about doing the right thing and creating big changes. It was the same last year, the year before that, the year before that, and the year before that. So, why hasn’t society changed yet? Earth has 7.8 billion smart people. Who or what is holding society back? I think the answer might be found in taboos. Look to who you are not allowed to criticize. Ask who profits off society being structured the way it is. Instead of asking those questions, we are often distracted by and overloaded with information. 

My man Don Henley sees it:

“The more I know, the less I understand…”

If you are feeling too confused or upset to calmly examine causes versus effects, I ask that you consider this process:

1. First, feel the emotions that are coming up when you look at effects. It won’t be useful to push your feelings away or deny them. Humans are emotional beings—and yes, that includes you. When you begin to feel more settled, think about what else has happened in your lifetime that evoked similar emotions. This will provide insight into patterns and habits of thinking on your part.

After you’ve taken the time to go for a walk or do some deep breathing, ask five times why. I learned this practice when I worked at The Four Seasons in 2004. If you’re willing to ask “Why?” five times, you’ll get closer to understanding the actual causes of the events. 

2. Second, consider who profits or maintains control from causes not being discovered or openly addressed. This one is really challenging. Society leans toward divide and is focused on shareholder control of resources. In other words, if you have money, you have control. Because of this, it is crucial to be willing to research who benefits from the status quo. That might be a window into causes. 

For example, big pharma creates drugs to mask symptoms but doesn’t address causes of disease or uncover ways to prevent it. Another example: the government offers two political choices and creates significant divide among citizens while failing to address the influence of money on elections and policy, or offer alternative parties a bigger voice. Yet another: the media creates divide amongst people while its power remains in the hands of only three conglomerates.

3. Be willing to explore the reasons for collective distraction. Ask, how do people in control use the media to shift focus to effects and away from causes? For example, the mere exposure effect tells us that if you are exposed to something repeatedly over time, you come to subconsciously like that thing even if you consciously dislike it.

Take time to look into common cognitive biases and learn to be aware of them when they come up in your own life. Doing so will make you a better critical thinker.

4. Think local. What can you do to refocus on causes and support local businesses or community members helping people near you? To me, the Age of Aquarius we are all entering means there will be a decentralization of power and control. To create transparency, we have to be very clear about our why—the motivations behind our actions—and our core values. I believe this happens by coming back to our local communities. Ask:

  • What is your mayor doing? 
  • What is your local business leader doing? 
  • What is your family doing? 

Grassroots efforts are meaningful because it is possible to get to know, on a personal level, the people undertaking them.

5. Influence those around you to see the causes of injustice, divide, and unfairness. Each of us on Earth has a distinct pain-to-purpose journey. Our story of overcoming a specific challenge gives us power with others who have a similar challenge, no matter where on the planet they happen live. I share a similar journey to a friend in India and another in Italy. Despite the vast physical distances between us, we are deeply connected and influenced by one another.

What value can you add by helping those on a similar path? Your lived experience grants you respect from others who have similar experiences. Parlay that respect into leading others down the path of uncovering—and changing—the root causes of suffering in our world.

We All Need a Little Tenderness

No one can judge others based on partial evidence, yet we often do exactly that. Social media and the mainstream media overflow with opinions often based on ignorance, doubt, and irrationality. Be willing to consider why you believe what you do. Be willing to dig deeper when you are asked to trust an “expert” voice.

Before I wrap this up, I must let Don Henley have his say again: “The trust and self-assurance that lead to happiness, they’re the very things we kill.”

How can you create more trust in your world? More self-assurance? 

There’s a meme going around right now that says something like, “What if 2020 is the year we’ve been waiting for?” The idea is that from this place of uncertainty and destruction, there is the possibility to collectively build something better for all humans. I like that notion. 

What can we leave behind? What can we create in its wake?