Conspiracy, Coincidence, and Common Sense


Many years ago, a prominent political figure blamed her political problems on a vast conspiracy. She claimed that people were out to get her, and were actively conspiring against her.

Actually, the simple fact that many people opposed her political agenda did not necessarily mean that that they were colluding or coordinating their efforts against her, nor that such coordination—had it taken place—would even have been inappropriate or illicit. It was most likely a simple matter of natural consequences following specific actions, with people acting just as they might be expected to react under the circumstances. But a good conspiracy theory always does make for drama and excitement.

I have observed this phenomenon time and time again, where people tend to ascribe their woes to some undercurrent of dark forces, rather than to apply Occam’s Razor and decide that the likeliest explanation is also the most obvious and perhaps boring one.

This search for hidden forces is partly based on a basic human need to understand our circumstances and search for some credible explanation, however far-fetched it may be: the desire to fit the pieces of an incomprehensible puzzle together in a cohesive fashion often satisfies a deep yearning in the human soul for mystery, dénouement, and resolution. Looking for sinister explanations is also probably rooted in a drive of our very fallen human nature to exculpate ourselves and blame others for our lot in life.

I was recently reflecting on this all-too-human tendency to pivot prematurely to the sinister and subversive while observing my children displaying it in full force.

Now, whenever I find myself being annoyed at the childish, juvenile, foolish things my children do, I have to catch myself and ponder whether what they are doing bothers me because it is childish—the metric with which we typically associate foolish behavior—or whether it bothers me because it is wrong. If the latter, then I need to examine myself to see whether I have in fact been modeling that wrong behavior for them, or whether they just picked it up on their own, inspired by their own original sin nature.

Usually, there’s some combination of the two at work. But I have to remind myself that it’s entirely possible they just picked it up on their own.

The area that came to mind recently, of course, is the very typical human response to blame others when things go wrong. I still catch myself doing this from time to time, despite my best efforts to train myself to question my assumptions about why things are happening, look for a logical explanation, accept responsibility for my own actions, and resolve to learn from events for future reference, rather than blame fatalistic “circumstances” or ascribe hardship to the malevolent intentions of mean-spirited opponents.

Yet, I have observed in my children a tendency to ascribe blame to other people, or even inanimate objects, when things don’t work out as anticipated, rather than examining their own actions to see if they might have contributed to the unfortunate outcome.

It can be humbling to admit that you made a mistake, and some people simply seem averse to admitting when they were wrong. Of course, there are always those rare eccentric geniuses who love to learn truth and discover new insights and don’t mind admitting that they were wrong or mistaken in their initial assumptions if it leads to a better way of doing things.

I try to encourage my children to maintain this attitude of expectancy and openness to new ideas, so that they will be surprised and delighted when things don’t always work out as anticipated, rather than sulky or resentful.

Cultivating an attitude of resentment and blame—akin to walking around with a perpetual chip on one’s shoulder—spreads gloom and unhappiness, gives in to fatalism, and makes unnecessary enemies of benign individuals who may simply be innocent bystanders in the drama. A determination to refuse responsibility (and therefore invite victimhood) and point fingers when things go wrong (and therefore assign blame to others) casts everything in the light of fighting battles in hostile territory.

This is why I teach my children not to take their anger out on inanimate objects. Not only does a habit of “kicking the chair” destroy property, it sets the kicker up for a warped worldview, where it is okay to vent one’s unproductive emotions by giving them full rein instead of turning them toward finding a solution.

While I can accept that bad things happen in life, I don’t want my children to grow up feeling perpetually aggrieved; I want them to feel empowered. Learning to direct one’s thoughts and emotions into productive channels is one of the best ways to accomplish this. After all, there’s no need to fight against shadowy conspiracies, when a spark of common sense will illuminate a better course of action.

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