Blind Desires

I think we need to do a lot more coaching with young people, starting early in high school, to discuss careers, ambitions, goals, and what the world is going to expect from young people once they leave high school or college and begin to enter the work force. In the United States, once we complete our education (and sometimes before our education is complete) we enter the job market and a world where we compete for jobs and compete for status. Our world becomes centered around a career that takes up 40 hours of our attention and focus each week. When we are not at work we retreat to our homes where we try to show the world what we have and how special we are. The goal for many of us become increasing what we have to show our high status. We want to go upward, to earn more, to be more, and to have more.

 

But why do we share this desire? Who sat down with all of us to tell us that what we must do is push ourselves in our career and become wealthy to define ourselves as successful? Who told us to all want more and more things? Why do we all desire more expensive cars, bigger homes, and a more impressive title? I would suggest that these are generally blind desires that we organize our life around without deep thought as to where these desires came from.

 

We should sit down with young people to talk about pitfalls of following this traditional path. We should talk to young people about research which seems to indicate that social interaction can be as important for happiness as ever expanding wealth. We should talk about the importance of not just building up our own career, but of building systems and communities that can bring people together, rather than just building up ourselves to show off.

 

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “we are plunged by our blind desires into ventures which will harm us, but certainly will never satisfy us; for if we could be satisfied with anything, we should have been satisfied long ago.” I don’t think everyone needs to abandon capitalism, stop working, and give up all desires, but I think we should be more considerate when we think about career decisions and the work we spend our time with. If we decide that we need a big house, an expensive car, and X number of material goods to be happy, then we will make career and work decisions that trade off our time, flexibility, possibly our health, and our relationships with others so that we can have these things. We should turn inward to make sure we are not pursuing blind desires and we should re-focus ourselves and our lives in a way that will help us find more satisfaction without needing to constantly one-up ourselves and others.

Seneca on Riches

Do you actually enjoy the things that you have? Have you become accustomed to the things in your life and do you even notice them? Does your stuff frustrate you and do you worry over your stuff? Are you living in a way where the things that you have are an aid to your life and serve to constantly make you a little more happy, or as soon as you have something do you feel remorse for spending so much to get it, and when you see it are you reminded of the cost to own the thing?

 

In my life, there have been many things that I wanted, but that quickly became part of my status quo and forgotten. Things that required me to spend time maintaining them or that did end up making me as happy as I expected, causing remorse over my impulsive purchase. It is remarkable how quickly a new home can become normal, and how our wonders at having a home can fade into frustration when we have to keep it clean or when another Friday night rolls around and we have nothing to do and no where to go so we dejectedly sit around inside. We spend a lot of time working to make money and often end up buying things that quickly become our new normal and don’t provide us with a continual source and stream of satisfaction.

 

“He who needs riches least, enjoys riches most.” Seneca writes in Letters From a Stoic quoting Epicurus. It is when we become accustomed to the bounty from our wealth and success that we become dependent on our things. Those items which fade to our background and become the status quo start to be our masters, and instead of feeling grateful for having what we have, we just assume that having the thing is what life is supposed to be like.

 

One of the ways that I have been able to get away from these types of moods is by avoiding advertising. Everywhere you go and every time you watch something, somebody seems to be presenting you with an image of an ideal life. That life is always full of friends and laughter, but it is also full of new shiny stuff. We are constantly urged to buy a new car, a new fridge, a new coffee maker, better sheets, a better toothbrush, and each day we are exposed to ads for something new. Overtime, these advertisements push certain expectations for what a happy and successful life is supposed to be into our minds. By being aware of our stuff, our emotions, and the dizzying storm of advertisements we encounter each day we can push back against the feeling that we always need new stuff, and we can start to better enjoy the things we actually have.

 

The Disruptiveness of Political Amateurs

Our society is all about disruption. I am writing this from Reno, Nevada, a city heavily influenced by San Francisco and Silicon Valley tech culture. Today number of Silicon Valley firms are spilling into Northern Nevada to take advantage of our great weather, beautiful outdoors, and minimal traffic. Along with theses firms comes the mindset of disruption. New technology and companies upending the way we drive, the way we access healthcare, and the way we communicate. Even our current president, and the Democrats main primary challenger in 2016, was cry for disruption, and opportunity to shake up politics and bring about a new way of doing business from the Oval Office.

 

Brookings Senior Fellow Jonathan Rauch is skeptical of this disruption, at least in the world of politics, and looks at why government exists and how good governance can be promoted in his book Political Realism. What Rauch finds is that the spirit of disruption in politics is actually nothing new. We have always had candidates who focused on a single issue that they wanted to change. We have always had activists who fought for a particular idea of what was good, often excluding concerns of other issues and areas. And ultimately, we have always had a political establishment to rail against and charge with fraud, corruption, lack of interest, and complain about as a out of touch with the will of the people.

 

What Rauch describes in his book however, is that politics is a long-term game. It extends beyond the current moment and exists in the future and in the past. Our decisions are shaped by what is politically possible and we use compromises as a tool to help us make decisions now that can be adjusted, rescinded, or strengthened in the future. What is important is not necessarily winning right now or introducing entirely new programs to completely tackle a problem today, but rather the importance lies in stability and positioning ourselves to constantly be able to improve and move forward. Our traditional system has done this with professional politicians who must please large and diverse groups of constituents. We have done this with compromise and a willingness to bend on principles to allow legislation to move through. As Charles Lindblom would describe it, we opt for incrementalism, slowly changing existing programs and policies because they already exist and have already been debated and implemented rather than spend all our time debating and fighting over new programs.

 

Contrasting this stable yet slow, lumbering, and apparently corrupting system is today’s vision of disruption. We want ideologically strong candidates who represent something greater than their own self-interest who will not bend on principles and will push for a great new society. This is a terrific vision, but it focuses on short term wins for the here and now at the expense of stability and long-term functionality. The system is composed of political amateurs, “Activists,” described by Rauch in his book as, “very different animals. They are less interested in extrinsic rewards than in advancing a public purpose, fighting for justice, experiencing the intrinsic satisfactions of participation. For them, issues are the essence of politics.” When the system is overwhelmed by the amateurs and activists, activity stops. Compromise is not possible and we cannot move forward with anything because we are all fighting for different ends. From time to time it may be necessary to flood a legislature with activists who represent a shift in the zeitgeist and will fight for things like racial justice, or a reduction in unnecessarily high taxes coupled with inefficient spending, or for a better healthcare system, but when this activist mindset becomes the norm, when every representative must be willing to die for their cause on every vote, the system cannot function and we cannot govern ourselves.

 

Sometimes the boring, the candidates who want office for the glory and not for the issue, and sometimes the flexible compromises are what we need for good governance. I would argue, and I think Rauch would agree, that most of the time these are the political leaders we need. They do not inspire great visions of a world where our political tribe dominates and where everything is about us and our priorities, but  they do work with others who are not like us and position the government to slowly move forward perhaps interrupted on occasion by groups that arise with strong preferences for a noble cause. Too many of these boring officials and we fail to meet the will of the people, but too few, and the system breaks and is open for demagoguery and encourages between-group meanness rather than between-group compromise.

A Close Look at Individuals

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander finds a common ground between Republicans and Democrats when looking at who we consider change agents in our system. Both groups look at the power of the individual as the driving force of America and see the individual as the mechanism through which change and a better future are possible. The two camps may see the actions of the individual a bit differently, but nevertheless both focus on the individual.

 

Throughout her book however, Alexander is critical of the idea that the individual is capable of creating and instigating the changes in America that are necessary to overcome enormous challenges. There are too many structural barriers for individuals to overcome, and even if the individual does rise to the top, the idea that they can lift an entire group is unrealistic. The individual may play an incredible role, and in America the strength of the individual may be fantasized by popular culture, but the individual exists in a complex society that can only truly change and advance through the mobilization of entire social groups. I agree with Alexander that the structural barriers are too great for us to address on our own, and I want to look at how we think about the individual versus the collective, and examine the ways that Alexander believes this plays out in our criminal justice system.

 

Since our founding, the idea of the individual has been a palpable force in shaping our democracy. Protestant settlers tended to believe that their hard work would be rewarded with great riches from above, and success was (and still is) viewed as an individual’s divine blessing, given by a greater power to those who are hard working, virtuous, and special. If one was successful it was because a divine being had recognized and rewarded them, and through this same view, those who were not successful were in their position due to individual moral failures. On this foundation we built a nation and a constitution that centered around the strength and responsibility of the individual for personal gain. Our primary responsibility was to be a good Christian so that God would bestow great bounty upon us, and if we all focused on this goal as individuals, collectively we would all find an everlasting success. Failure was a result of individuals not living up to the contract from above, and within this lens we developed the idea of the deserving and undeserving.

 

From this foundation our nation has developed to where we are today. Describing the role of the individual in The New Jim Crow, Alexander writes, “Here we see both liberals and conservatives endorsing the same meta-narrative of American individualism: When individuals get ahead, the group triumphs. When individuals succeed, American democracy prevails.” Alexander is critical of this theory and I think she is right to criticize the focus on individualism. I do not believe there is a liberal and a conservative America, because when we use those terms we mean different things in different contexts, so I will drop her terms and simply use Republican and Democrat because party identification is more consistent and to me seems to be more causal than liberal or conservative ideology.

 

Alexander describes the Republican Party as being focused on individuals changing the system through entrepreneurship and insight. The individual can create great innovations if they are not constrained and limited by the system within which they operate. The Democratic party sees the individual as the flagship leader, raising up and pulling the status of the group and the fortunes of others up with them. Both of these views see power as resting with great individuals and leaders, and see exceptional leaders as the key to growth, progress, development, and a better future. Alexander finds this narrative lacking and dangerous, and I agree with her that it is an incomplete view.

 

To me, this focus on individuals is misplaced. What we get from our focus on individualism is instability, delays, and stagnation as often than we get flashes of brilliance, advancement, and progress. An incredible leader and voice may come along to lift up an entire group, as Dr. King Jr. did during the Civil Rights movement, but expecting a great leader to instigate meaningful change causes delays in achieving justice, making scientific advances, and solving substantial problems that impact people’s every day lives. This focus also creates instability since people change and die, and pinning all of our hopes on an individual leaves movements of change and advancement  vulnerable, as the assassination of Dr. King Jr. demonstrated.

 

The real power of the individual is not in change and progress as both Democrats and Republicans would hope. The true power of the individual is in the status quo. It is the power to defend the injustices that exist, the power to delay advancement and equality, and the power to be a barrier that limits other individuals. The reason why an individual has greater power to be a pest and not a hero is because we live in a society that requires collective action. The Republican Party has demonstrated that a few high minded individuals with great influence can derail the ideas of societal responsiveness and democratic representation. As an example, Grover Norquest’s anti-tax pledge is a commitment to abandon the collective more than it is a commitment to improve society. The Koch brother’s campaign against moderate candidates (candidates who more accurately reflect the majority of the country) is a demonstration that a few individuals can block progress and block the strength of our social groups while upholding structural barriers. President Donald Trump clearly shows us that a single individual can reverse and hold up equality and group advancement, while President Barack Obama showed us that even the best among us can only make so much of a dent without the support of broader communities.

 

In America we love our superheroes that pull the world back from the brink of destruction and manage to triumph in the face of adversity. We focus on what the individual can achieve and use material and financial success to demonstrate our value as individuals. What hides below the surface of our love for the individual is the fact that no one can be a superhero without some form of support from a larger group. What we hide in our past is that those who became incredibly wealthy in the early days of our society did so by exploiting the black body, justifying their actions as divinely ordained and rightful by biology and manifest white destiny. This attitude continued and the white individual was able to achieve their own success while holding the entirety of black society back. If we focus on individualism we allow such evils to persist. We must find a new way to be individuals and be successful on our own, but with the understanding that our individual success in terms of wealth, possessions, jobs, and family has as much  to do with with us as individuals as it has to do with the stability and protection offered by the larger society in which we live.

Feeling Threatened

When we feel jealous of another person, what do we actually feel about ourselves? In his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships, author Colin Wright writes, “Jealousy, at its core, is about feeling threatened.” Many of our reactions to the world and people around us, in my opinion, tie back to tribal forces that have been brought with us through human evolution. Jealousy is related to our status in the group, and when others have something we want, live a way we would like to live, or receive some benefit that we did not receive, our position of status appears to diminish in our tribal brain.

 

Wright continues in his book to explain that we can overcome jealousy with better awareness of our feelings and reactions. In personal relationships this means a better focus on how we feel, awareness of what causes certain emotions to bubble up, and a recognition of what places and people cause us to feel a certain way. Gaining a better handle on what actions and behaviors help us feel good and what actions and behaviors lead to negative feelings, such as jealousy, will give us the chance to craft our life in a more considerate direction.

 

This focus will help us begin to analyze our thoughts and feelings and begin to act in a less impulsive manner. Focusing beyond ourselves, slowing down our actions as responses to observations and feelings, and bringing a rational approach to how we think about our feelings can allow us to overcome negative impulses. Assessing why we feel a certain way can give us the chance to decide whether we should be upset, whether our emotions are the result of a lack of sleep, or whether we should act to correct an injustice.

 

As a public policy student, I see this ability and a deeper understanding of jealousy as critical in deciding how we should react to policies that unavoidably direct scarce resources to some groups and not others. Recognizing that our jealousy regarding certain programs may not be influenced by the efficiency or effectiveness of a program, but on our thoughts of how deserving we find the beneficiaries of a program is important in crafting and evaluating policy. We can understand that our jealousy is a reaction based on our perceived status relative to others in our complex society, and can begin to evaluate our opinions by moving past our initial reactions based on jealousy, status, and threat.

Praising Effort

In the book 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman, the author looks into the role that motivation and positive reinforcement play on children and their development. One area that Wiseman focuses on is academic performance and praise.  He reviews the work by Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck and sums up their findings with the following quote, “The results clearly showed that being praised for effort was very different from being praised for ability. …children praised for effort were encouraged to try regardless of the consequences, therefore sidestepping any fear of failure.” Mueller and Dweck studied over 400 children and their performance on tests and puzzles. The researchers administered tests to all of their participants, and collected and scored the results.  Half of the students were told they did very well and must be very intelligent, while the other half had their tests collected without being told anything.  After tests had been collected and graded the students were given similar tests with similar problems and the students who had been praised actually performed worse than the students met with silence.

I think about this study frequently, both with how I would approach young kids (I don’t have children and don’t interact with kids too often) and with how I approach myself. What Wiseman suggested from the research is that children who were told they were smart ended up being afraid to truly apply themselves. If they put in a full effort and failed, they would risk losing the praise of being smart. The identity label we attached to them would fizzle away and they would lose the praise they received.

On the other hand, children praised for being hard-working, for studying hard, and for working well with others have a reason to continue to apply themselves. Being hard working is not the same as just being talented or naturally smart. It is a mindset and a disposition that can be cultivated over time and developed, even if we don’t seem to have some natural special something to make us smart, creative, or exceptionally insightful.

The way I think about this research in my own life is in thinking about praising effort over praising identity. In myself, when I think about what I want to do, what I could do moving forward, and about the things I should be proud of myself for doing, I try to think about the habits, focus, learning, and hard work that I put forward. I don’t judge my blog by the number of viewers, I don’t just myself by my bank account, and I don’t judge my fitness by how many people I beat in a half marathon. Instead, I ask if I truly worked hard, if I was consistent and applied myself to the best of my ability, and if I am using my resources in a responsible way to help others. We should all try to avoid judging ourselves and others based on fleeting identity cues, and instead we should judge ourselves and praise ourselves and others based on the level of hard work, engagement with others and the community, and the efforts we put forward to make the world a great place.

Learning Old Lessons – Body Mentality

One of the things I enjoy about reading stoic authors like Seneca or Marcus Aurelius is seeing how frequently the authors discuss something that I struggle with today even though they lived roughly 2000 years ago. We have so many problems and challenges today that feel like they are new problems for humanity, but very often people have faced the same types of issues in the past (even the very distant past) and we can learn a lot from people who came way before us. An example of this is advice that Seneca provides in Letters From a Stoic about the ways we should think of our bodies.

 

Seneca writes, “He will have many masters who makes his body his master, who is over-fearful in its behalf, who judges everything according to the body. We should conduct ourselves not as if we ought to live for the body, but as if we could not live with out it.”

 

Part of his quote and advice is about physical comfort and indulgence, but part of his quote is also about body image. Either way, both angles of viewing this quote can teach us important lessons about ourselves today through the lenses of the past. His advice feels rather contemporary in an age when how we think about our bodies is front and center in many ways in our society.

 

First, we can think of this in terms of taking pleasure in the world. If we make our whole lives about doing things that feel good like sitting on the couch, eating cheesecake, and generally looking for pleasurable and easy things to do, we will be at the mercy of others in terms of our happiness. We would be relying on things that others produce to make us happy as we would not be relying on our own efforts to build something that engages us and helps us be connected to the world. If you purely seek pleasure as your main goal, another person can always ruin your life.

 

Second, if we think of our physical body as defining who we are, we can go too far in a different direction, constantly working out, eating, and presenting ourselves in a way to make our bodies look the best they can. Our own opinion of ourselves becomes meaningless as we seek the approval of others and only define our success based on the way other people think about us. We give a great deal of control and self-value to someone outside ourselves. We likely see threat everywhere we go, and live our lives protecting our body out of fear, and not out of a desire to be healthy to live well for ourselves, our family, and for our society.

 

There are more ways to think about our physical body based on the quote from Seneca, but both ways that I presented for interpreting his quote demonstrate real world current problems in a frame from many years ago. We have evolved and changed the tools available to us to shape our body or find enjoyment, but the resulting problems and underlying psychology remain the same. It was important thousands of years ago for people to not be too indulgent in pleasure and leisure, and it was also important for them to not spend all their time crafting the perfect body to impress other people. The problems we face today are not something we have to deal with entirely on our own. We can recognize that many people have dealt with these issues and take some pressure off ourselves and act accordingly.
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