Hamlet, Sex, and Drugs

I was reading earlier tonight of a new, scientific study published just two days ago that analyzed the hospital medical records of 20 million people in the United States and found those folks who used cannabis had a 26 per cent higher chance of suffering a stroke than those who did not, and a 10 per cent higher chance of having a heart attack.  The study of course concluded that cannabis use could endanger the health of one’s heart.

Now, there seems to be an excellent, detailed write up about the study here.  I would urge you to check it out if you use cannabis, know someone who uses cannabis, or are planning to vote on whether to legalize cannabis.  But please understand that I’m not suggesting what you should do about the study.  That’s up to you to decide.

No, the reason I began this post by mentioning the study is certainly not because I intend to go on from there to advocating that you and everyone else should give up cannabis now because there seems to be some risk to using it.  Instead, I have what I myself believe is something fully more important — and perhaps even more interesting — to talk with you about at three o’clock in the morning, my time.

But I wonder now what is the best way to introduce this new subject?  Were we speaking in person, I would naturally signal my excitement at the prospect of discussing the new subject with you by of course vigorously flapping my arms while squawking at you like a chicken: A move I have learned through repeated experience is an excellent and virtually guaranteed way to get someone’s attention. I use it all the time.

Alas!  We are not speaking in person.  So, I’ll just blurt out the subject I wish to discuss with you just like a thirteen or fourteen year old schoolboy is apt to spontaneously blurt out the very first words that come to his mind the very first time in his life he asks a girl to hang out alone with him.  Ready?  Here goes: “Why does our noble species of supersized chimpanzees so very often refuse to acknowledge there can be good points on both sides of an issue?”

It was the cannabis study, you see, that brought that question to mind for me.

I like most of us, I have more than enough  experience in life to know the release of such a study is not only going to cause thousands of debates around the world within the next few days, but that many of the people debating the various issues that the study raises will be absolutely and immovably convince that their side, and only their side, has all the good points on it.

For instance, there will surely be people who favor cannabis use that will be simply unable to entertain the thought — even for a brief moment — that the study could be reliable and that cannabis use could endanger one’s heart.  And just like them, there will surely be people on the other side unable to acknowledge that the risks might not be great enough to some people to deter them from using cannabis.

But why is that so?  Put differently, don’t you find it a little strange we humans are so often unable to accept complexity, and seemingly feel compelled to deny any complexity actually exists?  After all, we’ve got the sharpest brains of all the animals on the planet.  Even our esteemed political leaders are second only to most plants and some minerals in terms of the processing power of their brains.   Why can’t we — at least why can’t so many of us — cope with complexity?

I wish to propose an answer to those questions.  An answer that, as it happens, is to be found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

As you might recall, there is very little action in the play.  There are many great soliloquies and speeches, but nothing much actually happens until a brief, climatic moment at the very end.  (Indeed, the play is uncannily reminiscent of  my two wedding nights.)  The cause of the lack of action is that the character of Hamlet spends nearly the entire play dithering.

Why doth he dither?  I believe it was the philosopher Walter Kaufmann who pointed out that Hamlet wavers because he has too many choices, and to my recollection, there’s some science that backs up Kaufmann.  The phenomenon is called, “overchoice“:

The phenomenon of overchoice occurs when many equivalent choices are available.  Making a decision becomes overwhelming due to the many potential outcomes and risks that may result from making the wrong choice. Having too many approximately equally good options is mentally draining because each option must be weighed against alternatives to select the best one.

But what has overchoice to do with acknowledging that there can be good points on both sides of an issue?

I believe the relationship is fairly straightforward.  When faced with complexity — such as a situation in which there are good points on both sides of an issue — many of us adopt a strategy of reducing the complexity to manageable proportions by going into denial that there are good points on the other side of the issue.  At least, that’s my guess.

Furthermore, by seeing things in a less than realistic way — that is, by seeing them as one-sided — we crush the wavering doubt we feel and thus open ourselves to taking unhesitant action.

You see that reductive strategy employed nearly everywhere by folks.  Not just in the debates over cannabis that are sure now to flood us for a few days if the reports of the new study go viral, but also in nearly everything else.  Take the issue of abortion.  Few issues seem to bring out one-sided views so decisively as abortion.  I would suggest here that the reason for that might be — not that the issue is simple — but that it is so overwhelmingly complex.  For precisely which reason so many of us adamantly reduce it to black and white.

That’s pretty much all I want to say on this topic for now.  But I can’t resist finishing up this post by offering a practical tip any pastors in the audience.  If you’re a pastor and your sermons have been putting people to sleep, I would suggest to you, based on my singular research into such matters, that you should dress up in a chicken suit when it’s time to man the pulpit.  Trust me!  I have years of experience in this, and flapping around and squawking like a chicken is the best practical way I’ve ever found of seizing people’s attention.  Folks loves them a good chicken act.  And, so far as I can see, there’s absolutely no downside to it at all!

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