The Whole

The United States is an interesting place. We have become an incredibly wealthy nation and have done things to advance things like technology, living standards, and scientific knowledge in ways that have improved the entire globe. The achievements of the United States have come while we have simultaneously adopted a narrative of individuality and individual success. It is our freedom, our pursuit of capitalism and greatness, and our individual desires to achieve and become great that have pushed our country to what it is today.

 

At least, that is the story we tell ourselves. While this narrative has taken hold, we have also had countless people who have advocated not for just individual freedom and success, but for national unity and for a cohesive vision of our society. Individuals who have been willing to sacrifice their own self-interest for the welfare of others has also been part of our American story, but it is often forgotten or at least not celebrated in the way that ruthless capitalism is (think about all the books written about Steve Jobs). Forgetting the connections between us all, the degree to which some people do everything they can for others, and the importance of becoming one people across the country is not new.

 

In his book The Quartet, Joseph Ellis takes a critical look at the actions of four of our founding fathers to bring about the adoption of our current constitution following the Articles of Confederation. In my last post, I wrote about John Jay, a relatively unknown founding father, and someone who made decisions across his political career to drive forward the national interest rather than a personal or state interest. An example of his nation-first mindset is given in The Quartet surrounding the question of Vermont Statehood. The state of New York at one point included what is now Vermont, and most New Yorkers did not want to allow Vermont to become its own state. Jay, however, recognized that Vermont statehood would be good for the United States as a whole, even if it was not in the immediate interest of New York. “Despite pressure from the New York legislature,” Ellis writes, “he would not budge from his conviction that the whole needed to take precedence over the parts, the first clear expression of his national orientation.”

 

I don’t have a prescription for the perfect balance between individualism and group centered thought, but I think the United States would do well to better recognize our interdependence and to encourage more actions that made personal sacrifices for the good of national unity. There have been studies recently that demonstrate that greater income inequality, particularly between an extremely wealthy few and the masses can lead to political instability, which could be damaging for the country as a whole. At the same time, encouraging individual success and achievement is of crucial importance. As Tyler Cowen describes in his book The Complacent Class, achieving economic growth should be a top priority, as increased GDP will lead to increased living standards and compounding returns on development and advancement. Encouraging wealth building potential can help with GDP growth, but on its own and without recognition of the value of social cohesion, instability can erupt and dismantle economic progress and development. The policy implications and solutions are difficult to think through, but on an individual level I think we can all do more to better respect the whole and discount our own personal interests.

Interdependence

Senator Cory Booker starts the epilogue to his book United with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, “Interdependence is and ought to be as much the ideal of man as self-sufficiency.” Throughout his book he focuses on the connections that everyone in the United States shares simply by being an American. We are connected to those generations that came before us and the decisions they made, and we are connected to the generations that will come after us and those who will live with the world we create. Our lives are dependent on one another in ways that we cannot always imagine or understand, but when we focus on our connections we can begin to see how important it is to live intentionally and recognize how our choices impact others.

 

In the United States self reliance and personal responsibility are emphasized far more than interdependence or social reliance. When we talk about success we are quick to look at the ways that we have achieved greatness on our own and we are quick to provide examples of  individuals producing great value and reaping great reward. It is our individual spirit and our industriousness that we look at when we think about how we succeed. The situation and the environment are often left out of the equation in favor of the obstacles we had to overcome and the smart decisions we had to make. When we look at what a successful person is, we focus completely on the person, assuming that the person is great entirely due to their own actions and hard work. This translates back into the world in which we live, and we look at successful and famous people and assume there is something special about them or that they are worthy of praise because they achieved wealth, status, and fame through hard work and an innovative spirit. In some way, we elevate their moral standing, their intelligence, and their character simply because we see them as successful.

 

When thinking about failure on the other hand, we find many excuses that push responsibility away from us, onto the situation, onto other people, and onto random events. Our personal responsibility seems to diminish as soon as things are not going our way. We hold self-sufficiency as our goal, and push toward it, and any failure seems to indicate that we are somehow less than an ideal version of ourselves, so we find ways in which our failure or lack of success is not an indication of our self-sufficiency. Yet at the same time, when we see people who ask for money, or are out of shape and are not as financially well of as we are, we blame the individual and begin assuming that they have deficiencies in character and work habit that have led to their less than ideal situation.

 

A more healthy world view would be one similar to Gandhi’s. We would recognize that our success is not simply a matter of our own great decisions and actions, but rather the consequence of our choices within an environment that in many ways shaped the actions and options available to us. Our success or our failure would be dependent on the lives of those who came before us and the systems, norms, and culture they left behind. Shifting how we think about where self-responsibility fits with success can change the way we think of others, helping us see value in all people, and not just those who have achieved notoriety and wealth.

 

When we step outside the personal responsibility bubble we can begin to see that our actions and decisions matter a lot, not just for our own success but for the well being of everyone. We can begin to see that we had assistance from people and factors that we could not control or predict, and it helps us to become more connected with those around us.

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.