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Posts Tagged ‘choosing’

Go Ahead and Overthink It

In No Particular Path, PeaceAble on April 14, 2017 at 10:55 am

I have often been accused of “overthinking” something.  So, naturally, I cannot help but think about that.

Usually, the offense is committed when I have encountered something that is either intended as a joke, or a clever analogy, or a meme with a narrow scope and that has, I admit, a very clear intent.  But I will see something in whatever it is that seems to need further thought, a bit more careful examination, perhaps something that takes the meaning in an entirely different direction.

So.  Guilty as charged, I suppose.  I do “overthink” things.

And I will continue to do so.  I will proudly overthink things whenever I feel like it.  And I encourage you to do the same.

We currently live in a culture in which we are repeatedly told, both directly and indirectly, not to think very much at all.  We’re told to feel, to react, to seek truth and profundity in 140 characters or less.  Reason is too slow, analysis is the same as bias, facts are whatever we declare them to be and they mean, like Humpty Dumpty’s words, whatever the source tells us they mean.  We’re told to choose our side in any dispute and hold our position against all attacks.  Intellect is suspect, emotions are power, thinking wastes valuable time.  We must act, we are told, and thinking isn’t action.

Culture, however, is not created mainly by the big things, but by the ordinary.  We tell a joke, sing a song, use a common expression we picked up somewhere, buy a product because we remember the ad for it, click on a hyperlink, watch a television show or go to a movie, leaf through the tabloids in the checkout line.

People are amused, they’re shocked, they’re enthralled, they’re outraged, they’re inspired.  And they move on.  they let it go, get over it, wait for the next shoe to drop, shake their heads.  They react; then it’s on to the next meme, the next chuckle or shock or inspiration or outrage.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

But they don’t think.

Often, they don’t even know how.

How many common logical fallacies can you name?  Do you know the order of operations in solving a simple math problem?  Are you proud to tell people that you never use algebra?   Do you understand the difference between a hypothesis and a theory, between a theorem and a law, or between argument, persuasion, and propaganda?  Do you know the structure of a deductive argument and an inductive argument; or why the differences between them are important?  Would you be able to distinguish an empirical study from an experimental one, or know the appropriate use of each?

Does all of that sound boring to you?  Do you think that none of that has anything to do with you or your life?  The fact is that you either use or encounter all of those things, or their direct products, every single day.  They have consequences that affect you, for both good and ill.

Academics and intellectuals are often accused of not knowing anything about real life, as though thinking prevents us from experiencing the things that affect all humans.  Thought and emotion are not, however, enemies.  When properly applied they complement each other.  Problems that are solved with just logic can be dry, unfeeling, even cruel.  Problems solved with only emotion can be rash, clouded with bias, and even counterproductive.  When, however, we apply both reason and emotion, we have the opportunity for both pragmatism and empathy, for solutions that address the human condition realistically and practically.

There is no aspect of human activity or experience that does not require both the mind and the heart for its best expression.  Music is mathematics, sculpture is physics, art is geometry.  Planting a garden is both chemistry and aesthetics, biology and design.

Choose anything that either delights or disturbs you.  Take a moment to examine it.  Try to step away from your initial reaction.  Think about it.  Overthink it.  Practice patience with both ideas and emotions.  Don’t copy, share, like or comment until you have taken a least a few moments to try to understand it, and to understand your relationship to it.  Resist the urge to stop at feeling and go no further.

Hate, prejudice and discrimination are literally thoughtless.  They rely on the triggering of emotion, not of reason.

Compassion and empathy require thoughtful understanding, and the ability to both feel and reason.

There is far too much over-emoting these days.  A bit of overthinking would be a welcome change.  The best answers will usually be found, of course, somewhere between the two extremes.  But you can’t find the center unless you can recognize the poles.

So go ahead.  Join me.  Overthink a few things, or even a lot of things.  Do it for a saner, less polarized, and better understood world.

Or tell me I’m overthinking it.

War is Easy/Peace is Hard

In PeaceAble on April 7, 2017 at 11:04 am

War is easy.

War is easy because it only requires a relatively few people to make it happen.  Currently, only about .75% of Americans between 18 and 65 years of age are serving in the military.  And it only takes 51 senators, 218 representatives, and 1 President to declare a war and fund it.  Of those people, an even smaller percentage will ever actually see combat, with the newest technologies reducing that risk even further.  And you don’t have to involve your adversary in the decision until it’s made.

Peace is hard.

Peace is hard because it’s something we would have to live every day to make it happen.  We are a nation of more than 325 million people, approximately 75% of those are adults.  In order for us to live peaceably in the world, we would first have to learn to live peaceably with each other.  The population of the world is approximately 7.5 billion.  They would all have to learn to live peaceably with themselves and then with us.  We represent about 4% of the world population, and we can only achieve a truly peaceable world if we can get the other 96% to go along with it.

War is easy.

War is easy because it’s profitable right away.  President Eisenhower warned of the military/industrial complex sixty years ago.  Since then, nothing has been done to change that reality.  The war machine eats up a lot of money.  Right now, the current President is proposing to spend 54 billion dollars more on the military.  There is big money to be spent and big profit to be made as soon as those funds are approved.  And that profit will mostly bypass the poor and middle class and go directly to the wealthy.

Peace is hard.

Peace is hard because it takes longer to turn a peace profit.  Make no mistake.  Peace is profitable, but it takes a bit longer to see the profit, and it goes to different people.  A peaceable world would allow us to use more of our resources to heal the sick, break the cycle of poverty for millions, better educate our citizens, clean up and beautify our world, end our dependence on fossil fuels and do a whole range of things we can’t do now because we spend so much on war and preparation for war and the consequences of war.  A peaceable world would make it easier for us to interact economically with other nations, profiting us both.  But the transition from a war economy (and we are always in a war economy) to a peaceable economy would take time, time to create the infrastructure, time to see where the jobs need to be, time to train people to live in such an economy, time for profit to work its way up from the bottom to the top.

War is easy.

War is easy because it produces heroes and glory and victories.  It also, of course, produces destruction, displacement, injury, disease, and death.  War produces great suffering.  But the amount of suffering is always considerably less, we are told, than the glory and the heroism.  And the glory, victories and the heroes give us reasons to party.  In fact, most, nearly all of our national holidays are celebrated with a military presence and a military flair.  Every parade has a contingent of active and veteran military, nearly every parade unit has uniforms and behaviors of some kind that are fashioned on the military.  Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, marching bands, various auxiliaries, all marching in straight lines with a military gait.  We celebrate so many of our holidays with explosions, loud militaristic and nationalistic music, grand speeches about our own greatness and the greatness of our military.  Even when we celebrate the ends of wars we celebrate the victory, not the peace.  When did you last hear a speaker at a Veteran’s Day celebration talk about the effort to rebuild Europe after WWI or WWII, to find a way to peace with Vietnam, to restore our economy, to live in peace with our former enemies?

Peace is hard.

Peace is hard because it produces invisible diplomats and unrecognized workers.  You may know the names of recent Secretaries of State –  Albright, Powell, Rice, Clinton, Kerry, Tillerson – and a few historic ones – Adams, Madison, Monroe, Rusk, Dulles, Baker, Kissinger – but how many diplomats can you name?  How many people can you name who have led efforts to reduce poverty and hunger and homelessness in the world?  How many pacifists and peace workers ever make it into the public consciousness?  And how often do we celebrate them?  How many awards do we give them for their service, how many parades, how many holidays?  Where is the glory in helping a third world community to build a self-sustaining agriculture, produce clean water, start an industry?  A member of the military is treated as a hero as soon as the uniform is donned.  To be a hero of peace you have to rise to the level of a Ghandi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Malala Yousafzai.  Why should we pursue peace when it is clearly so undervalued?

War is easy.

War is easy because we have the language for it close at hand.  Our common lexicon is flooded with words that are either directly or indirectly militarist.  From sports to business even to the pursuit of peace, we talk about campaigns that are waged, victories that are won, adversaries that are defeated.  When we want love, we read articles about how to seduce and win a lover, how to catch a spouse.  In our everyday activities we talk about beating, conquering, destroying, killing, and fighting.  We value winners, and second place is a loser.  We label enemies more quickly than friends, and we are always a bit suspicious of our friends.  We put our children into troops; and they may know the words for guns and rockets and bombs, but not really understand what love is, or empathy, or compassion.  Patriotism is rarely seen as pacifist or even gentle.

Peace is hard.

Peace is hard because we have too little language for it.  Try to describe what you think world peace would be like?  What words do you use?  How concrete and specific are they?  How general and vague?  We know what a battle is; but what is it’s opposite?  Are you stuck on words like love, acceptance, tolerance, understanding, empathy?  Can you make those concrete?  How do you actually do those things?  Perhaps we can’t all get along because we have no common language to describe what that would be like.  And so many of our peace words carry a cultural connotation of weakness: acceptance, accommodation, tolerance.  We not only don’t know what “love your enemy” means, we don’t want to do it.

War is easy.

War is easy because it can coexist with fear.  If we were not afraid we would not go to war.  Fear is essential to war, both declaring it and waging it.  If we cannot identify an enemy we are supposed to fear, how do we justify war?  Any soldier who does not understand and feel fear risks recklessness and is a danger to his comrades.  We don’t give medals to people who were not afraid, but to those who overcame their fear.  Fear is the enemy, we’re told; something to be vanquished as much as the physical enemy is.

Peace is hard.

Peace is hard because it requires us to be fearless.  In order to build a peaceable world we must allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to trust, see the human face of the other.  We must let the other in, and we must seek him out without fear.  We must learn to love unconditionally.  We cannot be afraid of our pain, our suffering, our challenges; but we must form the habit of seeking causes rather than blame, profound solutions rather than easy fixes.  We have to be in it for the long haul.  Peace requires courage of us all, we cannot pass it off on a small percentage of our citizens; we need to work at our problems together, all of us, not wait for someone else to make them go away.

And it is important that we learn that war never leads to peace.  War only creates the conditions that lead to the next war.  But war is easy.  Only living peaceably will lead to peace.  But living peaceably is hard.  Peace is hard.

SUPERMAN NEEDS LEX LUTHOR: The Problem with Superheroes

In PeaceAble, Politics on December 9, 2016 at 12:34 pm

Another superhero movie, another blockbuster. America seems to really love its costumed crusaders for truth, justice and the American way. Of course, in this case the American way would seem to be to hope a superhero comes along to take care of the problem. The superhero myth is a powerful one, but there are at least five serious problems with it.

  1. They don’t really exist. So we have to create them.

Okay, by the time most of us have reached the tween years we are fully aware that Superman and Spiderman and Batman and the rest are just comic book stories. But that doesn’t keep us from wishing they did exist; perhaps even wishing that we could be bitten by a radioactive spider, or have a lot of cool, clever gadgets to hang on our belts and make us invincible. Since neither of those things are ever going to happen, we look for substitutes for our superheroes: soldiers, explorers, inventors, policemen and firefighters, of course; but also politicians, celebrities, sports figures, the equally mythological American cowboy, and whatever larger-than-life personality has currently captured our attention. For some people, even their religious figures are cast as superheroes to be called upon in times of crisis.

And in the absence of a clear superhero, individuals may rise up and try to claim the title. The politician will present himself as the only one who can solve all the problems, vanquish all the enemies; and he doesn’t even need to say how it will be done, only convince us that he, and he alone, can do it. The NRA tells us that there are superheroes among us, good guys with guns, who are our only defense against whatever new evil may suddenly threaten us.

  1. Superheroes require supervillains.

Just as superheroes don’t really exist, neither do supervillains. When we create superheroes, or they create themselves for us, there arises a simultaneous need to create supervillains to justify the superheroes. Our supervillains can be individuals, such as Hitler; or a nation, such as Russia; or vague entities, such as multinational corporations and international cabals and the illuminati; or whole groups of people who can be quickly identified by some simple, single characteristic, like Muslims, or liberals/conservatives, or the Black Lives Matter Movement; or corrupt police, or the KKK, and so on. They can even be the more difficult problems in our society, te ones that have no easy answer, like poverty, disease, bigotry and violence. One thing is certain, though. Our supervillains will always be a characteristic of the “others,” those scary people who are not like us, and are scary precisely because they are not like us. We are encouraged to see the other as supervillain by default. And once the supervillain has been identified, we rally behind the superhero to demand their destruction.

 

  1. Superheroes and supervillains tend to inhabit a dark and dangerous world, and the problems and the solutions are nearly always about the exercise of power rather than the exercise of intelligence.

I remember the superheroes of my youth as generally clean, morally unambiguous figures. The people they served were a lot like me, ordinary folk who lived quiet, uneventful lives until some supervillain came along and created a disaster that only the superhero could resolve. But the fact is that superheroes were always vigilantes. They operated outside the constraints of law. The police both allowed and encouraged them, cooperated with them, but it was clear that the superhero could do what the normal authorities either could not or were not allowed to do. But even with that, the superheroes seemed to respect their own powers; they rarely killed an adversary, and almost never killed on purpose.

As time went on, however, things took a darker turn. Gotham City became an increasingly dirty, depraved, and crime-ridden environment; and Batman’s character and costume got darker along with it. But even with the greater moral ambiguity that suggests, there was no moral ambiguity about the need for the hero to win; and to win by whatever means necessary; and those means became increasing violent and deadly, as did the supervillains. What was once the need for a superhero to defeat the occasional supervillain – and extraordinary event that interrupted the normal flow of the average citizen’s life – became a constant need for superheroes to fight back against the constant threat of powerful and deadly supervillains in a darkly dangerous world of evil.

But in such a world the supervillains can never be actually defeated. If they could, then the superhero would be out of a job. The villains have to be so powerful that all we can do is hold them at bay for a while, and make sure that our superheroes are well armed for the battle that, if it isn’t happening right here and now, will surely come. And if we defeat one supervillain, there will be a ready supply of others. Eternal vigilance is necessary in a world where the problems cannot actually ever be finally resolved. Fear ceases to be the natural response to extraordinary events, and becomes the constant condition of our lives.

In places like Ferguson or Standing Rock and Malheur we are told that the end justifies the means, but it is always the people with the guns who, we are told, are standing up against the supervillain others who must be defeated or life as we know it will surely be destroyed. As long as we know who is the hero and who the villain, then the hero must win. But we express our shock and surprise when someone decides that he must be the superhero and shoots up a nightclub full of homosexuals or a church full of black people; or blows up an abortion clinic; because he didn’t see a superhero doing enough to rid the world of these supervillains and took on the job himself.

 

  1. Buying into the superhero culture interferes with the search for real solutions to systemic problems.

Why do we need spend time and money and our moral energy on finding reasonable and long-lasting solutions to problems if we can hold out hope for a superhero with a simple plan to swoop in and take care of it? What use is diplomacy if we believe that Captain America still exists somewhere and now has a nuclear weapon or a fleet of drones? Why do we need to rely on the justice system, the courts and the lawyers, when we have so many policemen with guns and tasers and billy clubs; and the presumption that their actions are justified? Why do we need to have our lives disrupted by protesters who want things we don’t want, when we have the National Guard with water cannons and dogs and rubber bullets and sometimes real bullets? And why do we have to put up with a government that sometimes does things that we don’t want them to do when we have our own guns?

Why do we need to really think about things like why we are ill or what is causing the stress in our lives, or how we might solve those problems, when we have a pharmaceutical industry always working on new superhero drugs to fix us? Why do we need to accept or tolerate our neighbors who are not like us, when that man over there is telling us that our problems are their fault, they are the supervillains, and he has the final solution? And why should we care how he does it as long as it’s done?

 

  1. The superhero culture prepares us to accept demagogues, war, a police state, and restrictions on our freedom by convincing us that we are individually and collectively weak and need to be saved.

We have been and are continuing to be acculturated to believe that all our problems are enormous; every conflict is a crisis; we are incapable of doing what needs to be done; .and we must therefore find a superhero to lead us, to fight for us, to keep us safe. But such leaders may be motivated to keep us only as safe as will keep us in fear that the superhero may go away and leave us defenseless.

When the planes brought down the World Trade Center, we told ourselves that it had united us as Americans, that it had restored our faith in or collective ability to come together at times of great tragedy. But we quickly looked for the supervillains, and for superheroes to lead us. And we chose as our heroes, those who would tell us who the villains were, and promise to defeat them. Then, with each new villain brought to what we were told was justice, more rose up, until the supervillain became an entire race, an entire religion, and anyone we could tell ourselves was one of them.

Whenever something begins to change and those changes make us uncomfortable, we are told that that discomfort is fear, that fear is a sign that we are under attack, and there will be someone – a politician or a priest or a pundit – who will tell us who the supervillains are, and offer to be our hero. They will describe dark conspiracies in terms of war and destruction. The crisis is present and we are in danger and only the tools of war will save us. Don’t try to understand, never compromise, do not discuss, never seek the peaceable solution. Anything but the destruction of the other, the supervillain, is weakness that will surely mean the end of us.

The thing is, it’s all a fantasy. But it is important to understand that it is a fantasy in which we participate with both our ignorance and our complicity. We do not question the fantasy and so we never learn the truth of the illusion. And we are unwilling to make ourselves uncomfortable, to face our problems together, to know the other, to confront our fears with reason. We don’t really want to deal with it all.

This isn’t the media’s fault or the politicians’ fault or religion’s fault. It’s not strictly the fault of the wealthy or the white or the male; though the culture gives them special place and therefore special responsibility. The media does not create the culture, but it reflects what we already accept as real and normal, and thereby reinforces and encourages the illusion. And the politician or the priest or the talk radio celebrity are there because we put them there.

Cultural truths do not change until we become uncomfortable enough with them to stop buying what the culture is selling us. Superheroes and supervillains will be with us until we can see that they are not real, they are not normal, and they are not the solution. When we come to the realization that we are stronger when we are not afraid of each other; that we can do this together, that we don’t need to send our superheroes destroy each other, and when we realize that far too many of our superheroes do not live among us, but rule over us; and that we may very well be the supervillains of choice tomorrow; then we can put away the fantasy and begin the real work.

GIVERS AND TAKERS — The Normalcy of Need

In No Particular Path, PeaceAble on December 7, 2016 at 11:35 am

The First Nations, for the most part, had no concept of ownership of things. We are given only temporary custodianship in this world, and that is both a gift and a responsibility. Our purpose is to consume only what we need and to leave the rest, both to meet the needs of others, and so that the world can replenish its resources for our future use.

But within that statement is the very troublesome word “need.” The word has connotations of weakness, inferiority, and shame. And that’s too bad, because need is at the very heart of the human condition and the nature of our relationships. There are six things you need to know about needs.

  1. Everyone has them.

Anyone who has sat through Psychology 101 has probably heard of Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. There have been several versions of his famous pyramid, but the basic idea is that human beings have a range of needs from the basic biological needs all the way up to our need to self-actualize; to become as fully aware of and as comfortable as possible with our own humanity. Some of these needs are important to our physical, emotional, psychological, intellectual and spiritual health and well-being. Others are necessary for our growth and development in all those areas.

But our needs aren’t identical. Each of us has greater needs in one area than in another: and each of us is successful in getting at least some of our needs met.

2. Everything we do is an attempt to meet our needs.

And the corollary to that is that we nearly always attempt to meet our needs in cooperation with other human beings. Basically, we trade one need for another. If I have a physical need for food, I may trade some of my cash (which you need to meet your physical needs) for some of your food. If I have a need to validate my sense that I am a good person, I may give you food and thus trade for a feeling that I have done a good thing. Most of the time, the trade-offs can get quickly complicated. If I have a need to express my creative and spiritual self through sharing a musical gift with others, I may trade that gift for payment to perform in front of an audience you provide; they have a need to satisfy their aesthetic needs which they satisfy by paying you for the privilege of hearing me perform. If I am a poor person in an isolated third-world village who needs medical assistance, I may trade that to a doctor who needs to satisfy his altruistic needs by performing the service for free, with expenses paid by a rich person who needs to maintain a reputation for philanthropy.

Whenever we enter into any kind of relationship with another human being or other human beings, no matter how trivial or momentous, no matter how simple or complex, no matter how intimate or distant, we are each of us getting some need met by the interaction.

  1. We nearly always multi-task the meeting of our needs.

When I get something to eat, I may be satisfying my need for food, for basic survival. But I may also be meeting a need for maintaining the health of my body, by choosing nutritious, healthful food; and I may be satisfying my aesthetic needs by choosing food that pleases my eye and my palate; and I may also be satisfying my social needs by sharing my meal with others, which may also satisfy my needs for love and belonging; and if I cook the food myself, or provide it in some other way that reflects back on my abilities in some way, then I may also be satisfying my needs for self-esteem and self-actualization.

All of our needs are systemic. They affect each other. None of my needs are isolated from my other needs.

  1. Sometimes we meet our needs in healthy ways; other times, not so much.

We all eat some junk food once in a while. (Yes, even that organic, vegan, low sugar, gluten-free, whole-grain chocolate chip cookie you just ate is junk food.} We consume all kinds of junk, from pizza to internet click-bait. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Junk meets important needs for us or we wouldn’t consume it. Moderation in all things (except coffee and chocolate, but only organic, free-trade, sustainably and humanely sourced for both and only 70% or higher cocoa content.), right?

We all make uncomfortable and challenging compromises in our relationships with others and ourselves. Sometimes we even make dangerous ones. It is generally accepted that someone in an abusive relationship, if they end that relationship and do nothing else, is about ninety percent likely to form a new abusive relationship. Why? Because they have learned somewhere that in order to be loved, they must expect pain as part of the relationship. That’s the trade-off. They trade their need to be loved for the other’s need to be powerful. Sometimes, we will sometimes trade freedom for even the perception of security, or vice-versa. The artist will ruin her health rather than give up her art.

But it’s not all about hurting ourselves for reasons that are difficult for others to understand. A mother can go without food to ensure that her children are fed. A firefighter can ignore personal safety to rush into a burning building to save someone else. People will stand in the cold, risk arrest, violence, condemnation in order to support a cause which has no direct effect on them, but satisfies their need to be of service in the world.

  1. Virtually all bigotry, hatred, cruelty, and violence are needs-based; but so are compassion, love, understanding, and healing.

And the corollary is that they are the same needs. The need to feel valued by ourselves and others can be exaggerated and perverted into a need to feel superior to someone. Love and hate are often described as two sides of the same emotional coin. The need to have enough to survive and thrive can easily become a need to have more than enough; and with a perception that resources are limited, a need to keep others from getting more than you. The need for security can become a need for control. Fear is the dark side of trust; judgment is the dark side of compassion or understanding; apathy is the dark side of empathy.

  1. Understanding our needs can help us to meet them in healthy ways.

Because none of us wants to be “needy,” most of us have developed a bad habit of understating, self-justifying, rationalizing, or denying the needs that affect us most. And because we aren’t being honest about our needs, we often seek out unhealthy, even self-destructive ways of satisfying them.

Things like fear, anger, stress, depression, even bigotry and hatred are expressions of serious needs that are not being addressed in healthy ways. Violence is always a result of failing to meet needs in healthy ways.

Whenever we find ourselves in negative spaces, it is useful to ask (and answer honestly) several questions:

— What are my needs here? Have I identified them accurately and given them appropriate importance?

— What am I currently doing to try to satisfy those needs?

— Is it working? Is it healthy? What else could I do?

— Who can I trust to help me? What trade-offs am I willing to accept?

It might even be better to spend time each day checking in with ourselves, rather than trying to do this kind of assessment when we are already in crisis.

Ultimately, we are all in this together. We are all givers and we are all takers in equal measure.  We need each other. Understanding our own needs can help us to understand others’ needs as well. And then we can find ways to help each other.

The Treadmill and the Highway: Liberal, Progressive and the Relativity of Movement.

In No Particular Path on October 23, 2016 at 12:13 pm

All motion is relative.

And our experience of it is personal and related to how we perceive the fixed points against which it is measured.

A few years ago, as I was driving cross-country, I entered Utah on I-70, where a sign at the Colorado/Utah line warns that there will be no services for the next 106 miles. That is a truly frightening thought for a New Englander, but it was not the distance that I noticed while I was driving across Utah, but the lack of a sense of movement through it. The mountains that rise above the high plains are well in the distance, so they seem to move along with you as you go, like the moon. And the landscape up close is unchanging to the unfamiliar eye, which does not see that this bit of desert is subtly different from the one just passed ten minutes ago. The untrained eye sees the whole without being able to distinguish the parts; as the untrained ear hears all the beauty of a symphony without being able to distinguish the violins from the violas. I had no reference points for sensing movement. I had no idea how far I had gone because the environmental cues I rely on for determining progress were missing; there was too much sameness, it was all too vast, I was in the middle of the ocean trying to navigate by individual drops of water.

On the other hand, I have occasionally joked to friends who were working out on a treadmill that they were literally “going nowhere fast.” But here the problem isn’t vastness, but intimacy. On a treadmill, you are, of course, moving. It wouldn’t do you much good if you weren’t. But the reference points for that movement are almost all your own body. Your movement isn’t so much through space as within it. You’re not trying to get anywhere. In fact, the point is to create movement exactly where you are. Progress is measured internally, not externally. Heart rate, blood pressure, breath and the burning of calories are all kinds of movement. We have decided not to listen to the whole orchestra, but to pay specific attention to the oboes, the percussion, and the movement of the director’s baton.

Now, I am, obviously, I hope, building a metaphor here. Or at least an analogy.

I think of myself as a progressive. I prefer the term to the much-maligned “liberal” label. It seems to me that one can be a liberal as a kind of treadmill. It’s internal. I can believe things. I can be philosophical about it all. The movement is all my own. There is nothing inherently wrong about that, of course. As a liberal, I have to look at the world and process what I see in ways that will energize and strengthen parts of my perspective, such as my moral and ethical codes, my knowledge and understanding of ideas and events, my empathy for the experiences and perspectives of others, and my sense of place in the world. Unless I exercise these internal aspects of myself they may become unhealthy, calcified. I am a white sixty-nine-year-old, middle-class, American male, influenced by my culture and my environment. So if I do my best to understand and empathize with the experiences of women and people of color; other cultures and beliefs; and those caught in whirlpools of poverty, mal-education, and cultural oppression; and if I make the effort to see the special privilege of my color, my class, and my sex; then I can count that as progress, even if I cannot do more right now to change those things.

If I am a progressive, on the other hand, then I need to get off the treadmill occasionally and go run outside. I need to do things, not just think about them. But to do that I need broader points of reference against which to measure my progress. In a world where there is so much that might be changed; where there is poverty, hunger, oppression, and bigotry of all kinds; where there is rape and murder and abuse of all kinds; it can be hard not to feel as though we are getting nowhere fast. The mountains we are aching to reach always seem to move with us and ahead of us, and it’s hard to tell one tumbleweed from the next or the last. I can “adopt” a child in need or a whole village, but I cannot adopt the whole world without a sense of futility. I can send money to a GoFundMe effort that will buy one beautiful child a life-saving operation, but I can’t save them all. I can move from understanding and empathy to learning how to be an ally to women and people of color and all who have been “other-ed”, and to finding ways to use my privilege to eliminate that privilege, but bigotry and oppression and privilege will still be there.

The trick is to find a place between the highway and the treadmill. We each need to understand our own path, with its unique landmarks and signposts, with its own hills and valleys, so that we know how to measure our progress by where we are and what kind of movement we are trying for. We need to seek ways to strengthen our inner selves without losing sight of the need to actually get somewhere.

And we need to stop judging our progress by the standards of people on different paths than ours or by comparing one measure of progress to another. If life is ecological, then every action, however small, makes a difference. We can say to ourselves, “Today I will help this veteran in this way, and I can do this other thing to help this immigrant.” I can say that I understand that all lives matter, but today these particular lives need special attention. I can send five dollars to GoFundMe and five more to a large political movement. I can applaud the work of people who stand with the Lakotas against the pipeline, but know that my personal movement needs to be measure by dropping off a box of food to the local food pantry. I don’t need to choose between their importance, I only need to understand where I am on my path, what kind of distance I need to travel, and how I will know that I am moving.

There is a short video circulating on Facebook right now that illustrates the theory that the solar system is moving through the universe. The result is an image of the planets moving not in simple elliptical orbits, but in vast spirals through the cosmos. It’s a beautiful thing to contemplate, but it is impossible for most of us to observe or sense. If our solar system is going somewhere and carrying us with it, then where is it going except some relative next point, and where is it leaving from except wherever it is right now? And in the vastness of the universe, where everything is so distant that it seems to move with us or away from us, how do we measure our progress?

All that most of us can do is move through the smallness of the space we occupy physically, spiritually and cognitively. We must each strive to understand and diligently observe the measure of our own progress. And we must refrain from using our reference points to judge the progress of others. The snail’s pace is as admirable as the cheetah’s, as long as we understand that it isn’t a competition.

All movement is relative.

There is No Such Thing as an Isolated Incident

In PeaceAble on July 18, 2016 at 8:24 am

Nothing occurs in a vacuum. Life is an ecological system. And in the age of ubiquitous social media we are ever more aware of how events are interconnected.

Whenever something terrible happens we naturally look for causes; but there is a tendency, especially in the current atmosphere of divisiveness, to look for causes that suit our various agendas. And there are some usual suspects for us to assemble: racism, out-of-control police, protesters, “he shouldn’t have resisted, had a gun, had a record,” “she was dressed provocatively,” gun control, lack of gun control, and so on ad infinitum. And as soon as we get enough people to agree that something specific is, indeed, the cause, a chancy prospect at best, then we vow to do something about it; and sometimes something specific to the agreed-upon cause is in fact done. But the problems, of course, aren’t actually solved.

First, let’s try to be honest with ourselves. We have not solved or erased or outgrown or moved into eras of post-anything. Our culture continues to harbor and express deep systemic strains of racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, religious fanaticism, militarism, and economic inequity and oppression. And that is not an exhaustive list. And let us also recognize that these are the diseases of the privileged and the powerful, but the symptoms are most notable in their effect on the disenfranchised and disempowered.

So, when a Muslim gunman shoots up a nightclub that caters to homosexuals and we try to decide if the cause is “radical Islam” or homophobia or mental illness or the American relationship with guns, or whatever; the answer is “YES!”  And when a clearly disturbed white man shoots up a church full of people of color and the pundits weigh in on whether it is properly an instance of mental illness or racism or right-wing Christian fanaticism, or (again) issues of gun control, or a media narrative that is helping to create an atmosphere of violent rhetoric and violent action, or any of a dozen other proposed causes; again the answer is “YES!” What we are seeing are not isolated instances of any one of those things, they are the meeting points of them all, and a whole raft of others that we haven’t even thought of.

And the truth is, I believe, that we all know this. We all know; and our cultural messages through our media and our general behavior confirm it and reinforce it every day. The American culture, as defined by the norms it establishes, is dominated by a white, male, Christian, oligarchic, individualist, and nationalist voice. And all attempts to counter that voice are met with suppression, dismissiveness, deliberate misrepresentation, and polarized divisiveness. Because all of those problems are things that challenge the cultural norm, and cultures are built on power, and power does not yield itself easily, and cultures change only very slowly.

But cultures do change. And they change most rapidly (for good and ill) when the masses of people subject to them begin to make the changes and insist upon them.

But does that mean we should not try to determine proximate causes and correct them? Do we have to say to ourselves that none of this will change until we change the whole culture? Of course not. But is necessary that we be careful not to get too caught up in one or another cause; that we should be careful and deliberate in our analysis of every incident – both major traumatic and catastrophic events and the smaller events of our daily lives – and see the broader picture as well as the immediate exigencies.

Keeping people on a no-fly list from purchasing guns won’t by itself prevent future mass shootings (or at least we won’t really know if it does, since one can’t prove a negative), but without a careful look at the very existence of a no-fly list and its relationship to our collective fear and easy suspicion of the other and the erosion of our basic civil liberties and the reality of the risks and dangers that we face, both from “others” and ourselves, it has the potential to make things worse. What, in other words, will be the cost to all of us if we get it wrong?

Arming police departments like military assault units and deploying them against citizens not only doesn’t solve the problems of violent confrontations, it exacerbates them. “All Lives Matter” isn’t a statement of inclusion and acceptance, it’s a failure to recognize that “Black Lives Matter” identifies a particular area of special need, and it attempts to diminish the very real and special importance of that need, and in doing so it makes the need greater and the problem worse rather than better.

The positive aspect of all this is that cultural change is always within our personal grasp. It is, in fact, the only place it’s ever been. But it requires us to strive consciously to practice every day what we claim to want in the world. Do you want less violence? Avoid the use of violent language, violent metaphors, and even small violent actions. Do you want a more equitable world? Stop holding onto what you don’t need, examine the degree of excess and privilege in your own life and try to spread a bit of it around to others who have less. Do you want us all to “just get along?” Pay attention to how your own actions and language create or encourage or unintentionally support bias, prejudice and discrimination (including in what you find funny or what click bait you chase, for example). Would you like to see a healthier world, the end to the terrible diseases that affect people? Examine where in your own life you choose to support unhealthy practices, and give some of your junk food money to health-focused charities or to support legislation and legislators fighting for better and less expensive heath care. Do you want to reduce the effect of hate in the world? Examine your own feelings of hatred and look inward for compassion, acceptance, forgiveness and love. Ask any question about what change you would like to see and look first at your own life to make those changes.

Once we begin to realize how challenging it can be to make the small but significant changes in our own lives, we can begin to see what needs to be done to bring about those changes in our communities, our nation, and our world. Perhaps we will see that the answers aren’t out there somewhere in the hands of a super hero who has the power to change it all. And perhaps we can see that most of what passes for solutions is at best just using a teaspoon to drain the ocean, and at worst, throwing gasoline on the fire. Because everything is connected, everything makes a difference, there are no isolated incidents and we are neither alone nor powerless.

Take My Advice. Stop Giving Advice.

In No Particular Path on March 2, 2016 at 8:48 am

A response by a friend to a post about advice reminded me of something I used to tell students in my communication classes: it is usually a bad idea to give people advice about their lives. Giving advice can go so wrong in so many ways and go right in only one.

Let’s start with the ways it can go wrong.

It is possible that you may give advice, the other person doesn’t take it and they’re right. It works out well. Suddenly, your advice seems less valuable. Perhaps you experience this as a personal loss of value in the relationship. Do you resent the fact that they didn’t listen to you? Why did they ask your advice at all if they already knew better? Perhaps you feel a little foolish as well as disregarded. What if this isn’t the first time you’ve given advice they haven’t taken and their choice worked out well? Are they trying to make you feel foolish? And what about the other side of it? Perhaps the other person is feeling somewhat superior now; perhaps they’re a little smug that they didn’t take your advice, that it is clear now that they knew better all along.

Or perhaps you gave lousy advice, the other person took the advice and it turned out badly. Now it’s your fault. Having already given you at least a share of the responsibility for their decision, they may now be perfectly willing to give you all of it. “You told me to do that!” they’re angry because the results weren’t what they needed or wanted; and they are angry at you, and resentful, because you own the advice.

Maybe the advice was good advice, but they didn’t take it and the result was terrible. Guess what? It’s still your fault. “Why didn’t you make me do what you told me to?” “You didn’t tell me it would be this bad!” Now you’re not only clearly smarter than they are, you didn’t work hard enough to make them see that. They feel foolish for not taking the advice and they feel inferior because you were right and they were wrong. And how do you feel? Can you resist the temptation to remind them that you gave them good advice that they didn’t take? Do you feel a bit superior and ego-vindicated because they didn’t listen and screwed up?

Let’s imagine, however, that you give the other person some really good advice; they take it; and everything works out wonderfully. But afterwards there seems to be a change in the relationship, subtle at first, but unmistakable. They keep saying how grateful they are, but they also seem somehow resentful. Perhaps they are feeling somewhat in your debt and don’t, really don’t, know how they can repay you. Gifts of all kinds – including the gift of advice – can create an imbalance in a relationship where one of the parties cannot give or has not given equally. There is a sense of sudden inferiority that can come with the sense that the other person was smarter or cleverer or better able to say how to act in your life than you were. Debts and obligations of all kinds can leave us feeling diminished, resentful and in conflict. Are these rational behaviors? Perhaps not. But humans don’t always act rationally. And by the way, the advice giver may also feel uncomfortable with the situation. Other people’s gratitude is nice at first, but can become a burden of its own. Any imbalance in a relationship, even a well-intentioned one, any change, even a good one, can cause stress.

But what about the one thing that can go right? You and the other person might have a strong, close relationship built on years of trust, understanding, perhaps love, and a clear sense of boundaries and personal responsibility. You give the advice and then let it go. You want nothing and expect nothing. The other person either follows it or not, but in either case, however it turns out, you walk away with the relationship intact, supporting each other. If you have this kind of relationship with someone, and if you are the kind of person who can genuinely give without expectation or obligation, then you may successfully give occasional advice.

But this is not the norm. In most cases, giving advice is a risk; one that we are often either oblivious to or in denial about. But there is another way to go. If someone asks for advice, ask them what they have already considered. Really listen. Get them to talk about the problem and the strategies they’ve already thought about. Encourage them to think it through, support them in reaching their own decision. If you think of other possibilities, put them in the form of questions: “Have you considered . . .?” “Is it possible that you might . . .?” Add to their options without advocacy, but help them see the possibilities and risks of all the choices. It is still possible that they might make a decision and blame you for it: “I would never have thought to do that if you hadn’t brought it up!” But the risks for you are less than with straight out advice-giving.

Human beings are unpredictable, contradictory, and emotional. Murphy’s Law (If something can go wrong, it will.) is about us, not about some outside force in the universe that we have no influence over. Remember that and give advice sparingly and with great care.

Or not.

It’s just a suggestion.

It’s your decision.

Really. Do what you want.

Oversimplifying the Choice

In No Particular Path on December 7, 2015 at 5:59 pm

“Your life is a result of your choices. If you don’t like your life it’s time to make some better choices.” (Attributed to something called KUSHANDWIZDOM from a site called Mentor Channel.)

I see these sorts of memes regularly. They are intended to be motivational, but, in my opinion, they are overly simplistic; and they can actually be harmful.

Based on my well over thirty years of teaching about human behavior with a strong emphasis on how choices affect our lives and the relationships we have with others, I find that such sentiments are too dismissive of the kinds of choices available to each of us, too easily used to “blame the victim,” and too quick to see every choice as life-changing.

Let’s be honest. Not everyone has access to the same kinds of choices. Those born into wealth and privilege have a far different set of choices than those born into poverty and deprivation. Those with easy access to quality, well-funded, perhaps private academy education will have a very different set of choices than those who are herded into underfunded, overcrowded inner-city public school systems. The rural middle class will have different choices from those of the urban middle class. Those who are read to and encouraged to read, those whose creativity is nurtured by others, those whose self-esteem and self-image are strengthened by family and community will have the tools to make better choices than those who have been, from birth, demeaned, dismissed, discriminated against, and subject to the worst sort of negative influences. Each of us is tasked with making the best choices we can within the specific circumstances of our lives, but those circumstances are, for the most part, not in our control. To tell someone to make better choices at least requires us to have some understanding of what “better” means in the context of that person’s life. We make choices that we believe will help us get our needs met. So forgive us if the choices we see available to us don’t satisfy your idea of what might be better.

When someone has been hurt, is suffering in some way, it’s far too easy to say, “Well, if you’d chosen better . . .” You were raped? Well, if you hadn’t dressed like that, or walked alone at night, or watched your drink more carefully, or done or not done something; if you’d only made better choices. You’re a single mother living in poverty? Well, if you hadn’t had sex with that jerk you thought you were in love with, or if you had stayed in school, or if you had used birth control even though the guy you were with didn’t want you to. You say he abused you? Well, you should have left him, you shouldn’t have antagonized him; there are lots of nice guys out there, why don’t you find one of those? You’re unemployed and don’t have any marketable skills? Well, you should have studied harder, gone to college; you could always flip burgers at minimum wage. No matter what the circumstances of our lives, there is always someone who will be willing to tell us that it’s our own fault. We could have and should have chosen more wisely, done it all differently; and if we only start right now and make “better choices” our lives will be magically better. But what about those other choices that were made for you? What about the “better choices” that might have been made by the rapist or the abuser or the people responsible for your education, the people who have discriminated against you because of your sex or your color or your beliefs or your disabilities? What about the fact that the choices they made have forever altered the choices available to their victims?

Too many of us have developed the habit of looking back over our lives and trying to determine specific choices that, if only we’d made them differently, would have made whatever is wrong with our lives all better. But life doesn’t work that way. There are no such magic moments. We might be able to identify choices that are more clearly mistakes now than they seemed at the time; but all we can say for sure about choosing differently is that something would be different, not necessarily any better. Life is about the entire path, not just one turn or another, one crossroad or fork, one hill or valley. Life is an accumulation of choices and events, about the confluence of a nearly infinite number of choices, happenings, environments, the expected and the unexpected, the tragic and the miraculous, some of which we could influence, most we could not. Make better choices? Which ones? When? How? Don’t tell me to make better choices unless you are prepared to help me see what better choices are available to me and to help me make them. Don’t tell me that my own bad choices have gotten me to where I am unless you are prepared to tell me how much you can empathize with the real experiences of my life.

Those who think of their lives as successful are prone to think that they have created their lives all by themselves; that their own choices are wholly responsible for that success. That allows them to think less of others and their choices. It can also allow them to avoid any responsibility they might have for the circumstances of anyone else’s life. It creates a culture of self-proclaimed superiority. It justifies all kinds of social, economic, educational, and cultural inequities and abuses. I’ve got mine, it seems to say, so it must be because I’m better, I made better choices.

The choices we make in response to the circumstances of our lives are, of course, important. They do make a difference. But we can never be certain exactly what that difference might be. Most people are doing the best they can to find positive ways to meet their needs; but when the healthy choices aren’t available to us and the need is great enough, we will make unhealthy choices. Telling us to make “better choices” ignores the reality of our lives and does nothing to help us see what other choices we might make.

‘Tis the Season

In PeaceAble on November 27, 2015 at 12:12 pm

Yesterday I went out for a Thanksgiving dinner to a very nice restaurant (there were a great many open, but this was the only one that said a cancelled reservation would allow them to seat our party of three), where every table was filled with happy patrons, and an excellent chef and kitchen staff prepared some wonderful food, a delightful waitstaff brought out our meals quickly and pleasantly, the service staff kept tables cleared and dishes clean, and the managers oversaw everything with efficiency, good humor, and a warm and welcoming attitude.

On our way, we stopped to fill up the gas tank; and passed doughnut shops where we might have gotten coffee, and convenience stores where we might have picked up a few things for later.  In an emergency, we knew that we could count on emergency services, hospitals, police, or firefighters to be available.  We briefly considered whether we might forego the big dinner and just get a pizza; but were a bit disappointed to find no pizza places open.

We also passed places where some people less selfish than ourselves were providing Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless or impoverished, or for those who would otherwise be alone and without family or friends to share a meal.

And I wondered why there is always so much controversy about which big box stores would be open that afternoon to start their Christmas season sales. Why do so many people care if WalMart is open, but simply expect to be able to find places to get gasoline or some last minute items for their own celebrations? Why do they worry that some people might have to work, but simply expect that others will? How do they sit down to all the things they say they are grateful for, but not understand that having a day off may mean for others that they don’t get a day’s wages or a bit of overtime pay, and that may make the difference in whether they make the bills this month; and others may want to work so that they don’t sit home alone wondering what to do with themselves? Why do they not see that such complaints are privileged, first world problems; that forcing big box stores to close would not do very much to solve the real problems that other people face? Why do we all take so much for granted on a day when we are proclaiming our gratitude?

Is it simply because if we don’t need or want something then we assume that it is unnecessary for everyone? Is it because we assume that if we don’t desire something, or dislike it, then that feeling must be universal, or at least the norm? Do we assume that if we have something, like a loving family and plenty of food, and we value those things, that we can speak from our position of privilege for the needs of everyone else? Or is it even more selfish than that? Are we afraid, perhaps, that we will miss out on something? Someone else will get the really big deal, save some money on something we might have to spend more for later if they go to the stores and we don’t. Someone else will beat us to the punch somehow. Are we afraid that if the stores are open we might somehow be unable to resist their siren song?

Like so many things we argue about, the arguments about shopping on Thanksgiving are really about choices: what choices are available to us and to others; who decides; who’s in control; and what difference does it all make? Is my Thanksgiving made less enjoyable, less festive, less meaningful because someone else chooses to keep a store open or go shopping; but not affected at all by the knowledge that I am consuming in excess of what I need while others starve, holding court in a warm and comforting home while others struggle to survive, enjoying the pleasant company of family and friends while others huddle close to keep fear and violence and despair at bay?

There is nothing wrong with celebrating our gratitude for what we have. We have no need to feel guilty about that. For all the things we have that we know are not guaranteed us, we should be thankful; and setting aside a day to make that thankfulness manifest is a good and honest and even honorable thing. So do that. Make it real. Make it your own. Choose to spend the day however you wish. And let the rest go. In your gratitude for what you have, why inject unnecessary outrage about things that really aren’t about you? Maybe spend at least a few moments contemplating what you might do to make things better for those who do not have nearly as much to be grateful for.

All through the long fall and winter holiday season, we see all kinds of pointless complaints and imagined controversies erupting. Halloween celebrates the Devil. People might have to work on Thanksgiving. There’s a war on Christmas. People are saying “Happy holidays.” Everything is so commercialized (When is it not in our capitalist economy?). When is Hanukkah, anyway; and what the heck is Kwanzaa? Why can’t we put a cross or a crèche anywhere and everywhere we want? And once we’ve spent weeks in anger and outrage and spewing violent rhetoric, we will all proclaim our desire for peace on earth.

Maybe instead of looking for things to get in a twist about, we could begin to celebrate the season by actually doing things that promote that peace we say we so fervently hope for.

I Dream Who I Am; Not Who I will Be.

In No Particular Path on October 5, 2015 at 9:33 am

“Dream as if you’ll live forever; live as if you’ll die tomorrow.” This meme, in various forms and attributed to various people has been showing up on my FB feed lately.

No.

I won’t do that.

I won’t indulge in timeless fantasy, only to live in fear that my dreams may not come true if I don’t do them right now. Dreams aren’t blueprints, they’re works of art – as realistic or abstract, as representational or as surrealist as we want to make them. But they’re present, not future. Tomorrow they will have changed somehow, sometimes for the better, but not always. When we rush to make our dreams concrete, because we know that our lives are short, we risk the dreams and our lives both.

Artists and poets – artists of all kinds – have spoken of the transience of art in two ways. Art is never really permanent. Like everything else, it can die; it can be destroyed by accident or by design. And works of art are not immutable. They are, in fact, constantly renewed each time some new person encounters them. Artists often hate to finish a painting, writers hate to write the end. There’s always something that could, if one went back, be made different, made better; something that reflects who one was when the work was begun, but not who one is today. Dreams are like that. They tell us more about who we are now than they do about who we will become; or even who we really might wish to become.

Our lives are always lived in the present, though we may seek to avoid that fact. We spend our present time either regretting the past or celebrating it; we spend it either dreaming of the future or trying to control it. But everything we do is a choice, and choice is always present tense. Tomorrow I may die or I may not. What I do today I may regret tomorrow or celebrate. It may lead me in the direction of my dreams or in a direction I could not have imagined. And I cannot know which until it is done, and what is done cannot be undone.

Humans exist in a constant state of both loss and gain, both grief and hope, both beginning and ending. We are conscious of the past, anticipate the future and pay far too little attention to the present.

All of our lives thus far are prologue. The past may be foreshadowing, but it is not prediction. What I did yesterday exists only in my capacity to remember it; what I do today belongs to today; and what I will do tomorrow is possibility, not promise. I savor today not because tomorrow may not come, but because today already is.

There is a similar meme that advises us to tell those we love that we love them today, because tomorrow they may not be here to tell. I think that’s foolish. Love expressed out of fear of lost opportunity is love coerced. I express my love today because I can, so why would I not? If I say I love you in the morning, repeat myself several times during the day, then remind you of it before we go to sleep, it isn’t because I fear that I may not get another chance. It’s because I can think of no better bookends to the day and no better library between them. And if tomorrow you are no longer here, or I am not, then I will believe that every expression of love we have made will live forever. As a breath ripples out into the world and can never be recovered, each new expression of love ripples out and marks our presence. Each new expression of love that we take in, like each new breath, brings with it the oxygen to feed the fire in our souls and give us life for this moment and this day.

And so I will dream because I live today. My dreams keep me conscious of my desires, my hopes, and my fantasies. Today I dream who I am today, and tomorrow I will dream anew.

I will live as though I am alive now, in this moment. And if tomorrow comes I will live then as I live now. If it doesn’t come, then I will have lived to that last moment according to the dreams of every moment.

I know that I will not live forever. I cannot know if I will die tomorrow. But I know that I am here today and I can choose what to do with that.

I will love as I breathe, so that I can draw in that which ignites my soul; and exhale it rippling out into the world.

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