Fencing Out the World

This last week Ezra Klein interviewed British journalist John Higgs for his podcast. About midway through the episode they talked about difference between people from the Millennial Generation and those from Generation Z, the following generation that is the first generation to grow up with smart phones. One of the differences they highlighted was in how the two generations think about the individual. Generation X and the Millennials are more likely to hold tightly to ideas of individualism than are Generation Z-ers. Unsurprisingly, given the technology they are growing up with, Generation Z-ers are more likely to see themselves as part of a network and are more sensitive to the connections they have with each other and with the world.

 

This connection and push against individualism is something I found really interesting and that I don’t have a great sense of myself. I am quite independent in general and have a strong individualistic push, but at the same time I try hard to recognize my dependence on others and to be aware of just how much I need the world around me. As much as I often want to set up my own perfect environment for me to operate within, I recognize that my individualistic barriers are continually breached by what is happening beyond myself, and not necessarily in a bad way.

 

This connects with a quote I highlighted in the first book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As Frodo is on his way out of the Shire, he runs into Gildor, an Elf traveling across the shire to leave the continent. Gildor says to Frodo, “The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.”

 

In a non-direct way this quote can come into alignment with my thoughts about individualism versus our dependence on others and on society. I want to be productive and achieve meaningful things. I often feel that I can shut out everything around me and focus on just those important items on the to-do list, but the reality is that I won’t ever be able to close out the world around me, and in attempting to do so I run the risk of ruining the work I am trying to produce.

 

The world is interconnected and the wildness outside of our neat box is always trying to force itself in. We can try to order our own lives perfectly and design our own spaces for perfection and productivity, but we cannot force out the rest of the world forever. We must learn to live with the world around us and to use the world in a way that will help us make ourselves and our work better. As independent as Millenials feel, they need to grasp the networks that make them who they are the way that Gen Z-ers do. The Gen Z-ers can teach us to think beyond, “is this good for me” to “is this good for the group I belong to” especially as that group is expanded to include people beyond our family, community, city, state, or nation. The protests we see today from our youngest generation highlight what is possible when we think outside of our own selves and desires, and expand our idea of the network we belong to as being a globally connected and integrated network of humans that must come together to change the world for the better.

Returning to Self Sufficiency

I’m not sure what it is that makes us want to do things on our own and show that we are independent and strong. Perhaps we have a drive to escape from the dependence of our families and parents to show that we are no longer helpless children, and that we can survive independent from the structures that raised us. I’d imagine some of us have this feeling more strongly than others, something that our ancestors might have needed from some members of society when we lived in small tribes. At that time, for humanity to survive and grow, we needed brave individuals who could venture out on their own to find new resources.

 

I’m a middle child, and perhaps for me, part of my feeling of independence comes from my upbringing as a middle child, receiving less attention than my older sister and younger brother. I feel a strong pull to show that I can do things on my own, that I don’t need to rely on help from others to complete an assignment at work, to hike a new trail, or to find my way in a new city. But the reality for me, and for all of us who feel a strong drive toward independence, is that we are hopelessly, hilariously dependent on others for everything we do. But this dependence on others and on society does not mean that we cannot still be self-sufficient.  Recognizing that we can be both dependent on others and self-sufficient can take away a lot of stress and help us have more healthy relationships with the people around us.

 

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “As long as he is allowed to order his affairs according to his judgment, he is self-sufficient-and marries a wife; he is self-sufficient-and brings up children; he is self-sufficient-and yet could not live if he had to live without the society of man.” We cannot necessarily order all of our affairs as we would like, but we can always do our best to order the thoughts within our mind in a way that will allow us to be self-sufficient. Even at our best and our most independent moment, we still rely on the structures around us and we dependent on our society to allow us to be self-sufficient.

 

It is important to recognize how much we rely and depend on others, and it is also important to think about what it means to be self-sufficient and independent at any given time. When we lived in small tribes, we were still dependent on others to bring offspring into the world and raise them to continue humanity. As humans evolved, our levels of dependence have changed and today we depend on our society for everything from keeping our homes warm, to having clean water, to being entertained on the weekends. Seneca’s quote tells us that it is ok to rely on others in this way, but that we should learn to be independent of a sense of need of many of the things we come to rely on. Without being distant and disengaged, we should take full advantage of the society we rely on, and yet understand that our relationship with the thing could change, and we could still survive without at least some aspect. Enjoy what you have, but don’t be reliant on it for complete happiness.

Never Achieving Alone

The United States is focused on achievement and success and we use a few basic measuring sticks to compare ourselves to others and to display how successful we have become. Money is our main yardstick, tied to other measures of success such as home-ownership and the size of our homes, the number and types of vehicles we drive, and so on. When we talk about our own success and reflect back on our path we tend to look at the tough decisions and sacrifices that we made along the way. We focus on the obstacles we overcame where others faltered and we create a highlight reel in our minds that emphasizes our good qualities in the face of adversity and downplays the help we received from others or the advantages we started with. When we do this we begin to develop a false sense of what was truly necessary for us to get to where we currently are, and we begin to overestimate ourselves, our importance, and our relation to society as a whole.
In his book Between the World and Me, author Ta-Nehisi Coats reflects on his life journey and the lessons he learned in a long form essay to his son. He at one point reflects on the poets and writers who were influential to him at college and includes a quick note to his son that stood out to me. Coats writes, “It is important that I tell you their names, that you know that I have never achieved anything alone.”

 

We often miss how dependent our lives are on those around us. We look at the smart decisions we had to make and praise ourselves for being disciplined, for not getting in trouble, and for being more industrious than those who are not as successful as we are. Money becomes the measure of how well we have done on our own, and fancy cars and houses become the way we display our value as human beings and our self-reliance through tough times.

 

These displays and our memories however, do not reflect the realities of our lives and our interdependence on other people. We never truly do anything alone. Our lives do not take place in a vacuum and we are not born as the amazing all-stars we make our selves out to be. We are dependent on other people from the very beginning, and often times, the success we achieve can be attributed to luck, to meeting the right people, and to having the right support at the right times in our lives. We have a large role to play in along this journey, and our attitudes, decisions, and work ethic greatly influence where we will end up, but we never truly achieve something without the help of others. We do not choose our parents and we do not choose our genetic pre-dispositions to things like disease, addiction, physical height and weight, or mental focus. Each of these areas could be managed and improved through personal decisions, but it is important to recognize that many of us do not start with equal footing and we do not all face the same levels of adversity.

 

In a quote written to James Harmon for his book, Take My Advice, philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote, “even though we develop a degree of mastery and independence, we always remain alarmingly weak and incomplete, dependent on others and on an uncertain world for whatever we are able to achieve.” Great business decisions and adventures can never be undertaken alone, and sometimes the people around you explain more of the success of your business than just your own hard work. We influence the outcome, but we never truly control where we end up. Even the best business idea and the best team focused on reaching smart goals can be taken down in an unpredicted market collapse.

 

In Meditations Marcus Aurelius wrote, “a branch cut off from the adjacent branch must of necessity be cut off from the whole tree also. So too a man when he is separated from another man has fallen off from the whole social community.” What Aurelius is explaining is that we are connected to others and dependent on others to grow and thrive. Like a branch cut from a tree, we will wither away on our own. We may be able to become successful through smart decisions and hard work, but constantly operating in the background is a society that supports us. Cory Booker in United writes, “our rightful, long-cherished veneration of individual freedom and self-reliance and our faith in the free market must not be accepted as excuses to fail in our individual responsibilities to preserve our communal treasures.” One of those communal treasures is a society that still manages to support others and create opportunities for others through our connections and collective abilities. What makes us great and has allowed us to grow did not occur on our own, and it is up to us to reflect that support back onto others.

 

Ultimately, our money and wealth say nothing of our value or of the obstacles we overcame to get to the place we find ourselves. Looking back, it is easier to see our sacrifices and hard work, and harder to see the advantages we had. We are dependent on society at the same time that society depends on our best efforts. Being aware of how we benefitted and the advantages we received will help us make better decisions and live less selfishly in respect to others and our society.

Individually Together

In his book United, Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey has an interesting observation about American togetherness in a country that is undoubtedly focused on individual rights, liberties, and successes. Very early in his book he writes, “Our nation speaks of individual rights and freedoms, personal responsibility and self-reliance, and yet we have consistently demonstrated, in spirit and sacrifice, the idea that we are better together—that while our differences matter, our nation matters more.”

 

I like this quote because our individual focused nation often forgets or downplays just how much we rely on one another for the lives we lead. It is very tempting, and even encouraged, to think about what we have done on our own to achieve success. We focus on our individual sacrifices to get the things we want, we reflect on our own hard work to get the promotion we wanted, and enjoy the spotlight when we win accolades and awards, but Booker is acknowledging something operating in the background of our individual focus. We could not have made those sacrifices without help from others, we could not have received the promotion had we not been given the opportunity by someone else, and we would not have received those accolades without the support of others. What we do on our own is only possible with the connections we share with the world.

 

Below the surface we recognize this. We have pride in being American even if we put stickers on our car that say, “Don’t tread on me” and we engage in community service to help strangers we have never met before. But because these connections are hiding away from our main focus, we fail to acknowledge them as powerfully as we should, and we risk isolation over unity. Booker continues, “We make a grave mistake when we assume this spirit of connectedness is automatic or inevitable.” Reveling in our own glory makes it likely  that we will forget just how much we rely on each other, and will make it possible for us to turn against each other or downplay the struggles of others in the face of our own challenges.

 

By recognizing that our individual desires are best achieved when we work and cooperate with others, or that our own goals are only possible in a system where others are united with us, we strengthen ourselves, our communities, and the American democracy. The more we elevate ourselves and turn inward, the more we turn away from bonds that connect our nation, and the more we risk the devolution of the American democratic experiment. Seneca wrote, “he is self-sufficient-and yet could not live if he had to live without the society of man.” Our existence is completely dependent on others, on society, and without others we may subsist, but in no way could we truly exist in any semblance of our current self. Non of what we are is purely born of our own greatness and effort, everything is interconnected with others and with a society that was built and shaped long before we came along.

The Strength of Concrete

Mark Miodownik explains our planets dependence on concrete in his book, Stuff Matters, which is an exploration of the built world and the materials that make the world what we see.  Miodownik explains that the first concrete developed on our planet came from the Romans, but the technology was not perfected until more recent times.  He also tells the story of how reinforced concrete came to be when a potter found that he could produce cheap concrete pots and boost their durability by setting the concrete around a steel internal skeleton. The strength provided allowed his pots to hold up to dropping, shipping, and the general wear and tear of the gardening world.
I find Miodownik’s section on concrete fascinating. Prior to reading his book I had never stopped to consider what truly went into producing concrete and concrete structures.  from our sidewalks, to buildings, to dams and barriers, we see concrete everywhere and Miodownik reflects on our perceptions when we see things everywhere.  He writes about our normal tendency to see those common and everyday things as simple and unimportant, when oftentimes, as in concrete, they are complex, crucial, world altering innovations.
While most of us may not appreciate just how important concrete is and we may not understand just how complex concrete is, there is an understanding in our country that our infrastructure needs some TLC.  And it is not just people in the United States who know their structures need some love, “To prevent stone or concrete structures being similarly affected, maintenance of their fabric needs to be carried or every fifty years or so.” In this quote Miodownik is explaining the effect of general wear and tear on concrete.  As materials heat up or cool down, as happens yearly due to the temperature changes of the seasons and days, they expand and contract. Reinforced concrete is a wonderful material in respect to contraction and expansion because the concrete itself and the internal steel skeleton expand and contract at almost identical rates.  This prevents the steel from busting out of the concrete and keeps the steel protected and the concrete free from cracks.  But overtime the concrete does develop micro-fractures, which grow into visible fractures, which allow more water in, and become clear chips and breaks in the concrete.  This erodes and breaks down the concrete structures we build in the same way that nature breaks down the mountains around us (or at least around me living in Reno Nevada at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains).
I think what I like about Miodowniks quote is that it shows the impermanence of what feels like our most robust building materials.  We may look at concrete structures and imaging their hulking frames will last forever, but what material science shows us is that they are constantly in a battle to be broken down. Even the mountains which define borders and seem to be natural strongholds of the earth are not permanent as weather batters them down.  If you cannot enjoy the science behind the concrete, hopefully you can at least appreciate the brevity of its existence in the long term life of the planet, or appreciate our perspective on the material, seeing it as an unyielding monolith which ultimately is brought down by some water and wind.

How Understanding Dependence can Lead to Gratefulness

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote of confidence, relationships, and dependence in her letter to James Harmon to be published in the book, Take My Advice.  On dependence she wrote, “even though we develop a degree of mastery and independence, we always remain alarmingly weak and incomplete, dependent on others and on an uncertain world for whatever we are able to achieve.”  This quote struck me as being very honest about our nature and our inner feelings in a world where we go out of our way to project visions of our best and happiest selves.

As our lives fill up with Facebook and LinkedIn, our online persona becomes a competition to see who can lead the most exciting, the most attractive, and the most impressive lives in both our social and professional lives.  The images we share with the world are our personal highlights, and the goal is to make us look strong, confident, and happy.  What we miss when we compare our lives to the lives of others on social media is the moments between the highlights, when each person must deal with self doubt, uncertainty, and fear.  Nussbaum’s quote helps me remember that I am not the only person who experiences these doubts when I compare myself to others online or in person.

I think it is important to consider how dependent we are on the planet for our own survival.  We are not just dependent on natural resources, but in many ways we are dependent on the systems we have built, people who maintain those systems, and supportive people around us. When we focus on how much we depend on others we can be grateful for the guidance, assistance, and services we receive from others. Cultivating this awareness can help us see how important it is to reciprocate those actions and feelings.  When good things happen in our lives it is tempting to blow up social media with our awesomeness and take credit for our accomplishment or good fortune, but I think Nussbaum would encourage us to instead give thanks, and to recognize the incredible system of support and assistance on which we depended, and from which our accomplishments materialize.