In a movie theater in Florida, one person begins texting. It’s a dad messaging his little daughter. A retired police officer sitting behind him tells him to turn it off. Words are exchanged. The tension escalates. The one in front tosses some popcorn at the other. The older man sitting behind pulls out a pistol and guns down the other.
Just yesterday, a middle-aged man in North Carolina is arguing with three college students over a parking space in front of their apartment building. The man shoots the three students, who are Muslims.
Is there any question that if these three students were blonde, the man wouldn’t have opened fire? But they weren’t blonde–they were darker-skinned. Two were women, wearing tell-tale scarves, indicating “Muslims.” It all added up in his thinking: Problems in the world–Muslims–he opens fire.
The word for this over-reaction is well-known in psychology. It’s “catastrophism.”
Catastrophism means “making a catastrophe out of a little thing.”
Some years ago here in Pittsburgh, an off-duty police officer got onto an elevator at a hospital. Already in the elevator was a young black man. The black man kept the doors open, because he was talking to somebody who was standing outside of the elevator. The off-duty cop told the black men to close the doors. The two men exchanged words. They grappled–the off-duty officer shot the other in the neck.
How can such a little thing lead to these deadly over-reactions?
Catastrophism means: A person is absorbing so many problems, that when something happens–some little thing–he counts it as “This is what’s wrong with the world!” The reaction is stoked by the energy of righteous outrage.
What is the solution?
I have always liked the saying, “Half of solving a problem is–stating the problem accurately.”
Why can’t a person just keep a little thing “little”?
Over-reaction means–the person is unhappy. Unhappy with one’s own life, unhappy with life in general, obsessing over minor things because everything is an occasion for unhappiness. I call this “the anger of the unoccupied.” They don’t have enough to do. Their vision of life is too small. They are easily sidetracked by trivialities.
By contrast, a happy person–that is, someone who has found meaning, purpose, enrichment–is eagerly involved in the fullness of life. The big picture rules. Small things remain small.
An unhappy person feels so angry at life as to throw away one’s own on a moment’s reaction to a problem that an emotionally healthier person could just laugh off.
How do we enrich our lives so that little things stay “little”? We are able to keep things in proportion–we don’t fall overboard?
The way to make one’s life meaningful is to live it bigger than just your lone life. How do we expand our outlook like that?
For one thing–reading. Emerson wrote that by reading we have access to the most noble minds and lives–individuals who lived in a particular age but whose lives and thoughts resonate with all ages. The hours that we spend “living” with them through their writings and biographies and autobiographies helps our spirit broaden and deepen. Those hours are spent wisely, because they are spent on what lasts. “There is a relation between the hours of our life and the centuries of time,” Emerson wrote.
A life so broad and full doesn’t sweat the little things.