Have you ever heard of a bank or other financial institution being “too big to fail?” That phrase has been thrown around a lot since the housing bubble burst in 2007, setting off what came to be called “The Great Recession.” The long, slow deregulation of the banking industry allowed some of our wealthiest lending institutions to venture into high-risk speculative investments and exponentially lucrative derivative markets until, like a rubber band reaching its maximum stretch and then snapping, the whole industry nearly collapsed upon itself. Instead of holding those banks responsible for reckless lending practices and for cooking the books and inventing trillions of imaginary dollars out of nothing, the governments of the world just forgave them and looked the other way. At precisely the moment they should have been punished for high crimes of finance, these banks got handouts and were told, “Try to be more careful next time, okay?” Whaaaaat? What’s going on here?
What happened here was that those banks whose assets make up such a sizable portion of the world’s wealth that their failure could spell the doom of the whole system were deemed “too big to fail.” It’s not that it’s impossible for them to fold and go broke, rather it’s that allowing that to happen would have such dire consequences that the system has decided it cannot allow it to happen. Governments depend on their lending, companies depend on their assets, and consumers depend on their financial products. The tentacles of these banks run so deep and so wide around the world that allowing them to fail could spell the collapse of some of the most basic goods and services on which modern society has come to depend.
Obviously this introduces a major conflict of interests between governments and the banking industry. Those legal institutions which are supposed to watch over the banking industry cannot really do their job impartially because this is the hand that feeds them. Trillions of dollars can be flushed down the toilet and hundreds of thousands of jobs can be lost yet no one is held responsible because punishing those behind it could significantly restrict the entire world’s economy. So they just keep doing what they’re doing, playing around with trillions like its play money and leaving those of us at the bottom of the food chain to suffer the worst of the consequences from all the folded businesses and consolidated competition.
Beliefs That Are Too Big to Fail
Beliefs can work very much like that. Just like the financial industry, the human mind behaves like a vast interconnected web of ideas, expectations, memories, and habits of thought that hang together and live in a kind of symbiotic relationship to one another. Some ideas in our minds are so foundational, so instrumental in helping us to organize all our other thoughts that our minds will deem them “too big to fail.” All other ideas can be seriously challenged but not these, not in any way that really threatens them. To allow that could spell the collapse of the entire edifice of what we know.
I’ve seen this dynamic play out many times before. I’ve walked through the experience myself and I’ve had a front-row seat to the process in others who are close to me as well. I know that overwhelming sense of fear that washes over you when you find yourself staring into the face of your own critical thinking skills, realizing that they’re demanding you surrender something you’re holding onto for dear life. Many can’t let them go, they can’t subject their most ingrained assumptions to honest scrutiny because the cost of losing them would be too high. Those ideas are too big to fail. They cannot be allowed to die.
So your protective mechanisms kick in. Like a flawlessly programmed response, centuries of rationalizations kick in and you almost effortlessly generate excuse upon excuse for dismissing whatever challenges are threatening the integrity of your most basic beliefs:
People can’t live without belief in the divine. What will keep them from killing each other? What will inspire them to fight for what is right? Where did everything come from, hmmm? You didn’t make it all, did you? It didn’t just make itself, did it? You’re just asking these questions because your faith is weak, and your heart is wicked, your motives impure. You just want to be your own boss. You want to call the shots and be your own god, etc, etc, etc.
The defenses are myriad, each one a distraction from the question you’re really asking: “Is this belief true?” These defenses bypass the root questions and instead tap into your emotions: your fear, your guilt, and your deepest insecurities. If your feelings get stirred up enough you just might forget that your questions never got answered. You’ll become so busy putting out the fires of your own self-doubt that you neglect to finish the task you started out with in the beginning. You were trying to figure out if your most central beliefs were based in fact. The diversions did their job, and the too-big-to-fail assumptions remain intact.
Some of us can’t fool ourselves, though. We see what’s going on inside our own minds. Just like the bank regulators are in bed with the institutions they’re supposed to be evaluating, we see that the regulators of our thoughts are failing us and are cozying up to the assumptions they’re supposed to be judging. Our beliefs are all so interdependent that our minds will stop at nothing to preserve those core principles upon which everything else relies. Until it finally dawns on us what’s happening. We will lie to ourselves for decades out of fear that we won’t be able to handle the consequences of losing our most cherished beliefs.
For people like me, we had to get to a point where our need to know overpowered our need for security. Our craving to understand the world around us pushed us beyond the boundaries of what our defense mechanisms prescribed for us, and eventually we saw our religious beliefs for what they are. They are the collective imaginations of whole civilizations, cured and refined over millennia and then surrounded by fortresses of protective rationalizations. They are dreams that fit our minds so well that they convince us they must be true. It never dawns on us that the dreams fit us so well because we wove them ourselves to suit the needs we felt in the first place. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:
It’s not so much that we’ve got a God-shaped hole inside, it’s more that we’ve got a hole-shaped God. We made him to suit our own wishes, so of course he fits them like a hand in a glove, or rather a glove over hand. We’ve been duped about which one made the other.