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.

Physical Conflict and Military Economies

I’m currently reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. Shirer takes us on a journey from the rise of the Nazis in Germany through the Second World War to Hitler and Nazi Germany’s defeat. I’m only a couple of hundred pages in, and just finished a section about Nazi Germany’s economy in the period leading up to war. A question I had was how a downtrodden and economically distressed nation managed to become economically sufficient and even able to build itself up to host the Olympics in 1936.  A military-industrial complex turned out to be the answer. German rearmament “creatively” funded and controlled by the state pulled Germany out of its terrible recession to the great detriment of humanity.

 

We know what soon followed in Germany beginning in 1939 after their economic turnaround driven largely by war preparations. Wars and armies have given us many scientific advances and breakthroughs, but they also support dangerous world views that will limit us in a globalized world. “The sooner we start thinking globally, as a planet-spanning species, rather than as isolated warrens of very different creatures, the sooner we’ll be able to do away with physical conflict entirely, instead spending our valuable time, energy, and resources on productivity and progress,” writes Colin Wright in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be.

 

Nazi Germany, the United States, and other nations have at different times fueled their economies by building up their army and military capacities. Scientific advances, new technology, and better safety equipment have come from the research and development of modern armies. At the same time however, armies exist to protect us from a dangerous “them” and allow us to entrench the idea that we are different from someone else and will need to use our physical strength to defend ourselves against their dangerous attacks. There is certainly a threat out there and a potential loss of innocent life if we don’t have something to protect us, but I think Wright and others would argue that we direct a lot of resources toward defending ourselves when we could be directing resources toward fostering better connections and further development of all humans globally.

 

Wright and I seem to be on the side of “a rising tide lifts all boats.” The more we can do to improve everyone, from the most globally poor in desolate and devastated parts of the world to those who live in the most productive countries, the more our own lives will benefit. The alternative view is that the world is zero-sum, meaning that the pie is only so big and for anyone else to have more, we would have less. The zero-sum frame doesn’t see humanity as a global force but rather as collective groups of individuals who each have their own resources, skills, and abilities. Each pocket of humanity is responsible for its own well-being and advances, and each nation must do its own work to make itself great.

 

My argument is that approaching the world in this way will ultimately lead to fewer scientific advances, delayed development of the nations that need it the most, and instability that will breed resentment toward nations at the top and potential terrorism. That instability will create fear and further drive the need for a substantial military for protection, further driving a wedge between the nations that are successful and those who are not. What I want to see is a world that includes everyone, partly because we don’t know where the next genius to develop the next world changing technology will come from, and partly because each human should have their own chance to flourish and live a full life with reasonable living standards. This can only be done if we see ourselves globally as a single humanity and not as dangerous enemies.

Profound Connections

“Profound connections exist between all; interdependency so manifest that perceived separation is a delusion.” Senator Cory Booker writes to start one of the chapters in his book United. Throughout his book, Senator Booker examines the way society is organized, the relation between personal responsibility and to social responsability, and how truly dependent we are on everyone else. We do not exist in a vacuum and no matter how much one may try, we cannot live isolated lives away from other people. We depend on those around us, often much more than we realize.

 

The idea that we are connected drives Booker’s political ideas and shapes the way he approaches the people he represents, the neighborhoods he has lived in and represented, and who he has looked to as role models and mentors. Throughout his book however, he tries to show that recognizing and understanding the power of our connections is important not just for politicians, and not just for professors or people on television, but for everyone, every day. The collective understanding of how much we need each other and the ability to empathize with those around us who face challenges is diminishing as we become absorbed by social media which shows us what we want to see and allows us to share the highlights of our lives, creating misrepresentative online versions of ourselves. In an age of technology and hyper connectivity, we have become less aware of how truly connected we have always been, and how dependent on others our lives have always been.

 

Booker’s quote is important because it runs against our tribal nature. Human beings seem to be able to associate with only a few hundred people at most, a mental hangover from our tribal ancestry. We are constantly, whether we recognize it or not, looking for those who are like us, finding groups that think like us, act like us, and believe the things we believe. We create random borders and develop identities for those living within those borders. Without realizing it, we assign good qualities and traits to the group within our border and negative qualities and traits to the group beyond our border.

 

If instead we bring awareness and reflection to this “us versus them” mental process, we can begin to see how dependent we are not just on the people within our border, but on the people beyond our borders. We can begin to see that we all share one planet, and share more as humans than typically recognized. The connections that run through humanity don’t stop at the gate of a neighborhood, at a freeway exit, at a national boarder, or even on the shores of a continent. We are deeply connected by the entire planet and by years of evolution. Tribalism in our ancestry has geared us to ignore these connections, but just below the surface our connections exist, and the more we search the more we see that we are all united.

Those in Jail

Senator Cory Booker shares a story about visiting a prison in his book United, and he describes the people he met behind bars. In his passage he describes the men in a way that elevates their humanity, which is a shift from the descriptions most people have of men in prison, which reduces their humanity. Booker writes,

 

“What struck me was how similar this talk was to the ones I’d had in the law school cafeteria with my classmates. The men were sharp and sophisticated. What struck me was how normal they seemed to me; they seemed like guys I knew. By no means did I lose sight of the fact that some of them had committed horrible crimes, but it was also clear that these human beings were much more than the crimes they had committed. To paraphrase Bryan Stevenson, they were much more than the worst things they had done.”

 

It is easy to look at people who have made mistakes and those who had done wrong and to judge them by their shortcomings alone. We seem to do a great job of seeing the flaws in others and criticizing other people’s actions, especially if they are hypocritical, in an effort to elevate ourselves and feel better about the things we have done. Recognizing that other people, especially those who have made large mistakes, are still human and share many aspects of humanity with us requires that we step back, look at ourselves and our own mistakes, and try to understand where individuals made mistakes and how they can move forward from them. It is hard to see people as more than the bad things they have done, and those mistakes can hang over them forever, constantly preventing them from moving on with their lives.

 

Stepping back and looking at others in a way that highlights their humanity over their mistakes is a practice that Marcus Aurelius described. When looking at himself relative to other people he writes, “consider that thou also doest many things wrong, and that though art a man like others; and even if thou dost abstain from certain faults, still thou hast the disposition to commit them, either through cowardice, or concern about reputation or some such mean motive, thou dost abstain from such faults.” This awareness can help us understand that the individuals in prison still matter and that the gap that separates us from them is smaller than we would like to think.

 

Not seeing the humanity in those we arrest leads those individuals to become ostracized from the community, making it harder for them to reconnect with society after they have served their sentence. By treating them as sub-human, rather than recognizing that we have many of the same urges to commit crimes, and by focusing on their worst actions we limit their possibilities. We deny government aid and federal housing assistance to those with criminal backgrounds and employers avoid hiring those who were arrested. Focusing so much fear and avoidance on these individuals makes it difficult for them to feel like citizens, and drives the punishment of their crime well beyond their time in prison. There should be punishment for serious mistakes, but when that punishment extends into perpetuity, we risk pushing people toward more crime in a negative feedback loop that seems to run against the stated purposes of our criminal justice system.

Deep Human Connections

Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey reflected on his life journey, lessons, relationships, and values in his book, United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good. Throughout Booker’s experience, giving the title its meaning, he has become profoundly aware of how connected everyone is. Not just everyone in a small community or everyone in a country,  but truly everyone on earth, even including those who have passed away and those yet to be born. Government is about organizing society and society’s resources in a way that allows people to function together, and for Booker, our connections run deeper and are more profound than many of us realize on a daily basis. Focusing on our connectedness he writes,

 

“One of the most valuable things I’ve learned since moving to Newark almost twenty years ago is the need for a deeper awarenss of our human connection. I’ve learned that we must be more courageous in the empathy we extend to one another, we must shoulder a deeper responsibility for one another, and we must act in greater concert with one another”

 

I think it is very easy to become isolated from those around you, and to turn away from community activities and events. We have constant contact to the internet and television provides us with nearly endless entertainment. As a result we find ourselves content to experience reality through digital devices and do not spend as much time outside and in our community as we did in the past. A common complaint of government today is that it is too large and performs too many functions that should be left to the private sector or to charity. The problem with such a complaint is that as we become more isolated and shut in, there are fewer people and community groups willing to put forth the effort to provide food or shelter to homeless, to ensure impoverished communities receive healthcare, and to maintain recreation facilities. As we have lost our sense of being united in the physical world in preference of our sense of being connected through the digital world, we have left much of society without support, and government has been the necessary agent to step in and support the communities and individuals left behind.

 

The paragraph above is my observation, but I think it helps explain how we have ended up in a place where Booker’s comments on unity are refreshing and profound. The more we can recognize and rekindle our connections with those around us and with the world as a whole, the more we develop empathy by understanding the challenges that others face. By getting out and being receptive to the difficulties of the human experience, we can share our lessons in overcoming such difficulties as we help raise up others. When we think of another’s failure as our failure to connect with another person by encouraging and supporting them, we find a new perspective of interconnectedness on our path forward as human beings living together on planet earth.

More Options Than We Recognize

Some Thoughts About Relationships is Colin Wright’s examination and exploration of the way we live our lives with other people. He dives into romantic relationships and looks at other relationships such as social and business relationships to help us have a full picture of how we interact with other people. Throughout the book he puts forth the idea that relationships can be anything we want, and that we can be more aware, intentional, and rational in our relationships than we often realize. In regards to romantic relationships, but applicable beyond, he describes what he calls The All Options Policy by writing, “The key to understanding this policy is accepting that there’s no single moral, upstanding, golden model when it comes to relationships.” His quote focuses on the diversity of human life and experience, and opens up our relationships to be more flexible than we sometimes allow.

 

What is powerful for me in Wright’s quote is the idea that our relationships can be as broad and diverse as humanity. Within romantic relationships, it is very tempting to use the model laid out by ones parents to create a template for ones own relationship. This is a good strategy on an individual level, particularly if your parent’s have a healthy and successful relationship, but it also is in some sense limiting. The key is taking the model laid out by parents, grandparents, and those close to you, and expanding on that model to fit your preferences, the preferences of the partner you find, and the demands and drives of society and your place within it. The alternative as Wright describes is taking the models you see around you, and limiting yourself by constraining the extent of possibilities in your own life and relationships.

 

Creating limitations in our model is especially dangerous when we take what has worked and is understandable for us and begin forcing it on other people. Highlighting humanities diversity can be trite, but for some reason we seem to think that our diversity should not translate into our relationships. It seems to be common for people to take their template for romantic relationships, developed through personal experience and familial models, and begin to use it as a filter for not just understanding but in some sense judging the relationships of others. When we begin forcing other people to fit in with our comprehension of romantic relationships we limit the possibilities for others and ignore the fact that other people think, feel, and respond to the world differently than we do. Thinking only of our model and forcing it onto others only acts to make us feel more superior than others while ignoring the experiences and backstories of other people.

 

What we can take away from Wright’s quote is the idea that humanity is more expansive than we often realize and there are no true rules for how we should develop our relationships within the diverse scope of humanity. There are certainly guidelines and commonalities, social structures and norms, and shared feelings and expectations that we understand and that exist because they tend to form stable and successful partnerships, but forcing ourselves or others to fit into pre-filled relationship models can be limiting and ignores the diverse reality of humanity. Allowing ourselves to be rational actors and developing systems where less pressure is exerted to maintain prior assumptions of how relationships best operate will let us find a healthy place with our partner and establish a relationship that truly fits our needs and experiences.

Owning Our Mistakes

Fred Kiel gives a few examples of what it means to be a great leader for a company in his book, Return on Character, where he focuses on the ties between strong moral values, success, and leadership. One of the examples he gives of what it means to be a leader who focuses on ethical and moral strengths involved owning up to our mistakes and being honest and forgiving with ourselves and others when we make mistakes.

 

In his book he tells a story to focus on a fictional character who does not receive a promotion. The character then begins to examine himself through a process of self-reflection to understand how he can change his behaviors and actions to enhance the skills that he had already developed. One area he identified for growth involved abandoning his habit of creating excuses for mistakes and failures, and working to better accept his errors. Kiel uses the simple example to show how an individual can become a stronger leader by beginning to better understand their mistakes and take responsibility rather than pushing blame onto others. Kiel’s character began to see that accepting his mistakes and forgiving himself for his errors made him a leader with stronger character, helping him connect better with those in the workplace. Kiel wrote of his fictional character’s change, “By owning up to his own mistakes, he would communicate to others in a very powerful way that he cared for them as people. He was telling them that he’s no better than they—that he shares a common humanity with them.”

 

By being honest and leading with character Kiel explains that we become more likable as people. Those around us with whom we work, spend time with, and live with will find us to be more complete when we acknowledge our mistakes. If we do not honestly address our mistakes then we put ourselves above others on a pedestal of perfection, and we fail to recognize an important part of our humanity.

 

Kiel also suggests that owning up to our mistakes helps make us better leaders and  more successful individuals. Failures and errors are things we will all experience and being able to recognize those shortcomings in a safe way will help us move forward. This part of his message reminds me of the advice that Bob Schacochis shared with James Harmon for him to publish in his book, Take My Advice. Schacochis writes of his early days working as a carpenter, “When it comes to making mistakes a bad carpenter and a good carpenter is the same. The only difference is, the good carpenter figures out how to correct his.” What he is saying is that we will all have errors along the way, but to truly be good we must recognize those errors and take the time correct them, allowing us to grow.  We can’t expect to be perfect and we can’t expect others to be perfect, but we can expect everyone to own up to their mistakes and to find ways to correct their errors.