Understanding and Forgiving

It is popular today to have strong opinions about the shortcomings and moral failures of other people. Democrats will gobble up news about the crazy things our president does and says, people who work will be quick to call out the laziness in others, and it is easy to condemn the greed and excesses of billionaires. I would argue, however, these criticisms speak more about ourselves than the people whose supposed wrongs we are railing against.

 

Being critical is easy, and it props us up by showing how far beneath ourselves we find another person to be. It is easy for us to say how terrible another person’s actions and thoughts are while we are not in that person’s shoes, and it creates and easy space for us to feel good about ourselves for not having the vices we see in others. What this meaningless venting misses, however, is that we live in a society where the drivers, decisions, and behaviors of everyone is interconnected.

 

I like to remind myself that no one succeeds or fails on their own. Consider a student as an example. In order to be a great student you need to have a healthy space in which to do your studies. Things that would make that space livable and easy to do studying in might be things like loving parents, a desk, a heater for the cold months, and sufficient lighting for you to do your work. You did not discover the light bulb or the electricity that runs it, you did not pay for the energy to run the heater, and you didn’t purchase the house within which you studied. You may have put in the hard work necessary to be a successful student, but you depended on parents who could provide the structure and environment for you. Even if you were missing those things, and did your work at a library, you similarly were dependent on others for your success. Lacking these things, and being a failure, was similarly not your fault. You could not chose to be born in a situation where you would lack encouragement, electricity, or a safe place to do work.

 

When I think about how dependent we are on others for even the most basic parts of life, such as commuting on roads we did not build to school or work, I am reminded of how important it is that we think beyond individuals when we want to criticize someone for their behavior. When we see someone who is lazy, we should ask what was missing in their life that did not properly encourage them to be the best version of themselves? When we see someone who is needlessly greedy, we should ask, how did society let this person down so that they came to see having more money or power than anyone else as being the most important thing for them to pursue? And when I see someone who directly harms others, I want to ask, where did society fail to help this person value relationships and value the interconnectedness which we all share? Just as we cannot claim 100% responsibility for our most incredible successes and must attribute something to the community when we succeed, we must do so with the failures of ourselves and the individuals we see around us. To simply criticize is to the ignore the role of society, which we are a part of. To end the negative we see around us, we must give more of ourselves to our community and work harder to ensure that what has made us a good person or a success as we define it, is there for everyone. (I know there are some people who are exceptions to the examples I gave above, but they are likely not the majority.)

 

As Dale Carnegie wrote in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, “Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain, and most fools do. But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.”

Culture Busting

In The New Localism Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak call for culture busting among city leaders who want to find new solutions to pressing problems. One of the challenges we face is that in general, the public doesn’t understand governance well. We operate with set ideas about what governance is, who sets rules and regulations, and the roles that private companies, local community groups, and formal government agencies play. In the future, as problem solving becomes more local and as we try to tackle major challenges we will need to get beyond these simple models from our high school civics classes.

 

This is what Katz and Nowak call culture busting, “culture busting is a form of risk taking and a fundamental shift in understanding that many responsibilities in a city and metropolis lie with the community broadly rather than with the government narrowly.” The role of government, the role of businesses, and the role of everyday citizens needs to change if we are to truly address the big problems in our societies. If we want to tackle climate change, if we want to reduce healthcare spending, and if we want to spark economic development, we have to realize how interconnected all of the challenges we face are, and we have to develop a community focused action plan to make the necessary changes. Thinking that problem solving is the role of government or that economic development is purely a free market phenomenon will not help us jump to be dynamic leaders in a globalized economy.

 

Part of what culture busting calls for is more education around governance and part of it is a reemergence of community action. A major failure of suburban life is that we drive from our homes to our places of work or commerce, and rarely interact with anyone else along the way. We let others deal with problems unless they happen to be unavoidably right in front of our face. We might get out for a sporting event or a conference, but otherwise we are just as content to watch Disney+ at home. Culture busting replaces this individual isolation with networks that want to see real change and are willing to own part of that change.

 

Culture busting requires that we re-imagine what is possible for governments and redefine the role of businesses and civic organizations. It requires that we think about the challenges our communities face, and ask ourselves what resources and advantages do we have that we can use to make a difference. Rather than waiting for government to make a decision, it requires civic and private energy to clear the path and display a public will for government to direct resources in the direction that the populace already wants to move. It shifts leadership from government back to the people and aligns actors to make the community a better place.

The Achievement is Not Really Yours

The great thing about an individualistic culture is that you get to own your success and feel great about your achievements. You can feel pride in winning a race, skiing down a mountain, having the best Christmas lights, or getting a promotion. Individualistic cultures treat these achievements as something more than just activities and outcomes. They become reflections of you and who you are, and in many ways your achievements become part of your identify. We show our friends our achievements on Facebook, we hang our achievements behind us on our office walls for everyone to see when they look at us, and we celebrate achievements with shiny objects that sit around on shelves and desktops.

 

Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to take a deeper look at our achievements than we typically do in an individualistic culture. He encourages us to look deeply at the successes in our lives and to ask how we contributed to the success, how other people had a hand in our success, and the role that luck played in our achievements. When we truly reflect on our achievements, we can begin to see that what we my think of as our own achievement was really a convergence of our own hard work and effort with many other factors that we had no control over. The outcome that we call an achievement is often less of something that we directly influence and more of something connected to the larger groups and societies to which we belong.

 

In detail, he writes, ” Recall the most significant achievements in your life and examine each of them. Examine your talent, your virtue, your capacity, the convergence of favorable conditions that have led to success. Examine the complacency and the arrogance that have arisen from the feeling that you are the main cause for such success.”  In my own life, I look back at my achievements and I never have a problem remembering the hard work that I put in to achieve my goals. It is easy to remember the studying and reading I put forward to graduate from college. It is easy for me to think about how much I did to earn my grades, but if I am being honest with myself, I can also see how often I was not serious about my studies and how often I was able to benefit from a nice curve on a test.

 

Hanh continues, “Shed the light of interdependence on the whole matter to see that the achievement is not really yours but the convergence of various conditions beyond your reach.” I received substantial financial support from an uncle during college, and as a result I did not have to work full time and was able to enjoy leisure time. I was able to focus on my studies and had time to be in the library because I did not have to work 40+ hours a week to support myself and complete college. My success academically is directly tied to the support I received from my uncle. I can think about completing my college degree as my own success and as a display of my own virtue, but I relied heavily on assistance from a family member, assistance I can take no credit in receiving.

 

What is important to remember, and what Hanh highlights, is that in an individualistic culture we are often too willing to give ourselves credit for our successes and to view our achievements as entirely our own. When we do this, we artificially inflate ourselves to levels that we do not honestly deserve. It is important that we acknowledge the assistance provided to us from a fortunate birth, our family, random strangers, great teachers, and sometimes from just being in the right place at the right time. Letting go of our achievement as badges of our identities reduces our arrogance and makes us more open to helping others and connecting with those who have not had the same fortune as ourselves.

The Work of a Human Being

The fifth section of Meditations, Marcus Aurelius’ collection of thoughts and essays published after his death, starts out with the following:

“In the morning when though risest unwillingly, let this thought be present—I am rising to do the work of a human being.  Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world? Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed clothes and keep myself warm?—But this is more pleasant.—Dost thou exists then to take thy pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion? Dost thou not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees working together to put in order their several parts of the universe? And art thou unwilling to do the work of a human being, and dost thou not make haste to do that which is according to thy nature?”

This section speaks about the importance of joining together in community to do work as human beings, even if that work requires effort and a willingness to put oneself in a position that can be uncomfortable.  For Aurelius, living as a hedonist, or one who serves only their own pleasure, is a mistake. We are all dependent on each other, and his quote above shows that our efforts to keep track of our own individual goals and ideas is connected with the efforts of others. We pursue our own goals, but in the pursuit of our own destinies we are supporting the goals and futures of others.

Aurelius’ quote seems to fall more to the right of our current political system and align with the ways in which many conservative thinkers in our country see the world. We are responsible for ourselves and dependent for our own actions because we individually help support the whole. When we decide to remove ourselves from the equation, then our part of the universe which is put together through our efforts is lost, and it cannot be built upon. To propel society, in the views of Aurelius and modern day conservative ideology, we must all rise and do our work rather than allow inefficiencies in our interdependence to limit the progress of us and others.  We can not move forward and do our work if those around us do not support us by adding the exertion necessary on their end for a functioning society.

In general I see this quote as more outside the realm of politics and our work within a system.  I see the quote as a reminder that we are connected, that we share our humanity, and that we can build purpose into our lives through our actions. The work of a human, as Aurelius mentions above, is the most fulfilling when it is in service to others as opposed to when it is aligned with hedonistic views of success. Looking for ways to impact others in a meaningful way and being able to shift ones perspective to view the work that one does in a more connected context, for example looking for how many people you can positively reach through your effort as opposed to trying to find ways to maximize your returns, can make the work of a human become greater than individual effort.  When rising from bed and feeling as though you are doing the work of a human, it is important to look beyond the standard perspective of your work to find ways in which you can do more to benefit others, or to find an understanding of who you support through your efforts.