In an article entitled “Our Miserable 21st Century” which appeared in the monthly magazine Commentary, Nicholas N. Eberstadt wrote:
On the morning of November 9, 2016, America’s elite—its talking and deciding classes—woke up to a country they did not know. To most privileged and well-educated Americans, especially those living in its bicoastal bastions, the election of Donald Trump had been a thing almost impossible even to imagine. What sort of country would go and elect someone like Trump as president? Certainly not one they were familiar with, or understood anything about.
Whatever else it may or may not have accomplished, the 2016 election was a sort of shock therapy for Americans living within what Charles Murray famously termed “the bubble” (the protective barrier of prosperity and self-selected associations that increasingly shield our best and brightest from contact with the rest of their society). The very fact of Trump’s election served as a truth broadcast about a reality that could no longer be denied: Things out there in America are a whole lot different from what you thought.
First of all, let’s take a moment to appreciate this wonderful piece of writing—vivid, musical and engaging—a beginning that disturbs, engages and invites you in. My experience in reading feels akin to appreciating the beauty of Billy Holiday’s voice as she sings of a sadness of life and love. Human beings have this wonderful capacity to use of art and awareness to shape and share what is difficult to bear.
I came to Eberstadt’s article through a feature on National Public Radio and then Ross Douthat’s Op Ed piece in the New York Times. Douthat does a skillful job (please appreciate the writing which both disturbs and educates) summarizing some of Eberstadt’s main points:
[This] crisis is apparent in the data that Eberstadt and many others have collected, showing wage stagnation in an era of unprecedented wealth, a culture of male worklessness in which older men take disability and young men live with their parents and play video games, an epidemic of opioid abuse, a historically low birthrate, a withdrawal from marriage and civic engagement and religious practice, a decline in life expectancy and a rise in suicide, and so on through a depressing litany.
I recommend both these articles as part of your daily dose of reality from outside ‘the bubble.’ (Here I give away my strong suspicion that most of the people who come to read what I write are residents of the ‘bicostal bastions’ with a few outliers spread throughout mostly urban areas across the country.)
But I don’t totally agree with either writer. (And neither should you.)
Eberstadt’s first paragraph, while engaging, seems to make the misleading assumption that the educated elite are somehow uniquely subject to living in a bubble.
We all—regardless of our class, race, status or position—live in a bubble. This is not a problem we can solve, but rather a condition that we can work with. An essential political and civic action for us all should be to consciously expose ourselves to information and relationships that both disquiet and enrich us.
Over these past few months, I have come to increasingly appreciate companions of the mind—thinkers and writers who I may never meet, but who help me better understand the forces and realities that I have not yet noticed.
So please meet my new friends in seeing more clearly: Nicholas N. Eberstadt, and Ross Douthat.
The current turmoil in our country is not essentially about ‘us versus them’ but rather ‘us versus us.’ As Jochen Bittner points out in his op-ed piece in the February 23rd edition of the New York Times, both America and Europe are engaged in an internal ‘clash of ideologies.’ He presents a vivid, and I think helpful, way of understanding some aspects of this conflict:
The Lennon world is that of the liberal cosmopolitans, summed up in the John Lennon song “Imagine”: “Imagine there’s no countries,” he sings, “a brotherhood of man.” The Bannon world is the opposite: a place of walls and rules, run by uncompromising strongmen.
We will see this conflict played out in the French elections in May and the German elections in September. Bittner, who is German, presents a brief quote from Chancellor Angela Merkel in her first interview after her decision to stand for re-election:
The question is, ‘What can I do for the cohesion of such a polarized society?’
This is our question as well. Simply shouting louder than our opponents is not a solution. Bittner points us in the same direction that the Buddha did: the middle way.
This middle way should not be confused with a watered down compromise position. This middle way or third way, must somehow include and go beyond the wisdom inherent in all the previous positions. In order to do this, we need to continue to listen and appreciate parts of the world we have not noticed before.
We are all responsible for finding and creating this new way and it must begin with each of us. Waiting for ‘them’ to change, is a recipe for stalemate and stagnation. If we are truly committed to healing the polarization in our society, we have to be willing to change more than anyone else. This change is not a giving in, but actively seeking out that which we do not yet understand and then behaving in new ways.
Gandhi had it right when he said: “We must be the change we seek.”
It’s early. Four thirty a.m. I’m awake in the dark and can’t go back to sleep. Yesterday, I could barely wake up. This morning, I find myself in a state of unpleasant arousal. I’m pretty sure the minor building repairs we discussed last night are not going to lead to the ruin of the Temple, but my elephant is worried. This elephant is my new metaphor for the part of me that is not subject to the command and control of my reasoning mind. I think I’ll call him Herkimer.
Jonathan Haidt gave him to me.
Herkimer is often a very pleasant fellow. He’s well-meaning, but he worries a lot and he’s incredibly stubborn. When he begins to worry, my carefully reasoned reassurances are not only ineffective, they actually seem to goad him into more anxiety. Listen to this conversation from this morning:
David: ‘This stuff is not a big deal. I’ll make some phone calls today to get the ball rolling. We’ll get some people over to take care of these issues.’
Herk: ’You probably won’t remember to make the calls. You don’t have time and even if you do make the calls, you probably won’t reach anyone. And even if you reach someone, it will be weeks before you can schedule someone to come over and even look at this stuff. You’ve been aware of these things for a while and have done nothing. What’s wrong with you?’
Herkimer doesn’t mean to be mean. But when he starts off in a direction, he doesn’t like to be disturbed or manipulated into changing course. Reasoning with him when he’s in a bad mood is not only ineffective, it usually seems to make matters worse. (see above) On the plus side, Herkimer is quite admirable in the faith of his conviction and his refusal to give up. He is also wonderfully creative in generating arguments to justify whatever direction he happens to be headed.
So how do you work with an elephant in a bad mood? I’m reminded of the advice to professional consultants who go in to try to help organizations: ‘Don’t try to stop an elephant from sitting down.’ A wonderful image of the limited power we have over organizations, the world, and our inner elephants.
So I guess I’ll just walk alongside Herkimer for a little while. He’s just in a bad mood. I know how that is. Sometimes I worry too.
I’ll just get up and make a cup of tea. Then I’ll make a list of the different projects and the small steps I could take later today. After that I’ll sit in the old plush chair by the window and write for a little bit.
It’s early, so I don’t have to rush.
“If you want to change people’s minds, you’ve got to talk to their elephants.”
While this may seem self-evident to some, a bit of context may be helpful for the rest of us. The elephant is from Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 book THE RIGHTEOUS MIND: WHY GOOD PEOPLE ARE DIVIDED BY POLITICS AND RELIGION which my daughter recently sent me and told me to read. I’m just a few chapters in and I’m finding both insightful and timely.
Haidt is a social psychologist who studies moral reasoning; how we come to believe what we do. Haidt writes that some philosophers and psychologists have thought that reason is the final arbiter; we come to our beliefs through a process of thought and observation. Thomas Jefferson believed that we are balanced between reason and emotion, each operating in its appropriate sphere. While Hume held that emotions are the ruler and thoughts just explain.
Haidt reports that the studies done in the past twenty years are pretty conclusive that Hume was closest to the truth. We form an opinion as a kind of intuition and then we use our conscious analytic mind to explain and justify what we already believe. People with higher I.Q.’s don’t appear to be any more thoughtful in examining their beliefs, they are just more articulate and lengthy in defending their position.
This is where Haidt brings in his elephant:
…the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning—the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes—the ones that occur outside of awareness, but that actually govern most of our behavior.
Haidt goes on to say that this explains why rational arguments, no matter how passionately expressed, rarely change someone else’s point of view. The rider of our rational thoughts mostly serves the elephant of our largely unconscious mental processes. The rider is rarely conscious of the elephant and functions more like a lawyer whose job it is, not to examine the truth, but to justify the position of the client, the unconscious elephant of belief.
‘Talking to the elephant’ is about coming to understand the deeper forces that are behind the stated positions. Haidt goes on to say: “When does the elephant listen to reason? The main way that we change our minds on moral issues is by interacting with other people.” As humans, it is only when we feel heard and understood that we may be willing to let our guard down enough to consider what we had not yet considered.
This is not to say that there are not some things that need to be defended whatever the mindset of the perpetrators, it’s just that there’s a longer game as well. How do we move beyond the position of opposition, to finding a new sense of united purpose? How do we all learn to examine our positions and open our minds to what we have not yet considered?
We had a ‘huddle’ here at the Temple last night. This is one of the actions coming out of the Women’s March that encourages small local groups to gather to envision a future together and to commit to specific action steps.
This gathering was simply one of the thousands of locally organized groups across the country that are doing just this. Rather than instructions from some centralized authority, these groups are the democratic response to what many of us see as the breakdown of our democratic processes.
Many of us are waking up from a long slumber to realize that our society is not what we thought it was and that we are needed to participate in ways we have conveniently avoided.
My two take-aways from our huddle: 1) clarify what it is you want rather than just focus on what you don’t want and 2) take action that energizes you.
This first point is one of the central perspectives of the coaching work I do with leaders and others. Clarifying where we are going creates an energy that supports our actions right now. We don’t have to know exactly what it is that we want. But we do have to name something that is important enough for us to be willing to be uncomfortable for. What is it you want to stand for? How do you want the country to look in four years?
The vision that arose for me came out of my discouragement on election night to see how consistent the gap is between the central and rural parts of our country and the urban and costal parts. We live in a country that is blue on the coasts and in small dots of urban areas and red everywhere else. So my vision is that in four years, the patterns is not so strong – that there is more of a dialogue between these two perspectives – that us urban intellectual types have a deeper understanding of what life is like outside of our bubble and that the rural heartland types are included in the conversation and feel that they are part of a country that is diverse and evolving.
My second inspiration from the huddle was remembering the importance of choosing our actions based not on what we think we ‘should’ do, but on using our skills and talents in a way that energizes us. This sounds like a privileged perspective, choosing what we do and don’t do, but it is also true. All of us, no matter what our circumstances have to chose what to pay attention to and what to do.
When we try to do everything, we exhaust ourselves in our necessary failure. Many people these days are saying this is a marathon, not a sprint. Our current situation that will be resolved or even dramatically changed by one march or one action. To counteract the forces of Trump’s disregard for the constitution and his calls to isolationism and blame, we need to be engaged for the foreseeable future. Since very few of the Republicans in Congress seem ready to hold Trump accountable to the laws and common civilities of our democracy, we must step forward.
So I have committed to keep writing, to call my more conservative sister and to organizing two workshop/discussions here at the Temple. What is your vision for our country? And what small steps are you willing to take to move in that direction?
On the immigration issue, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, reminds us that the way forward is not to determine who is right, but rather to appreciate the truth in both the conservative and the liberal approaches. The conservative approach honors the challenges of immigration while the liberal view appreciates the value and moral imperative of immigration.
When people with different customs, languages and world-views come into our communities, it reduces our level of social capital. We no longer have the automatic bonds of trust that come from common assumptions and behaviors. We have to work harder to see how our new neighbors are like us. The unconscious signals and meanings, so important to our sense of being at home with each other, have to be consciously recreated.
Over the past few years, Melissa and I have had the opportunity to travel in Europe, Scandinavia and Central America. We love these trips where we get to see other parts of the world and get a flavor of the local cultures and customs. We also have the privilege of leading meditation retreats when we travel. On these retreats, we get to see these differences melt away as we investigate the deeper currents of what it really means to be alive.
And as wonderful as our travel is, I must confess to a deep sense of relief when we come back home. Driving down Pleasant Street in Worcester, Massachusetts, I am flooded with a sense of familiarity. I am at home here and some deep part of my brain can relaxes. I don’t have to work as hard. Without thinking, I understand the signals and meanings of daily life.
One of the shocks of this election was the vivid awareness of the many people in this country who clearly don’t feel at home in the same America as I do. The cultural conversations about the unconscious power of racism, classism, misogyny and hetero-normative gender oppression make sense to me and feel to be essentially American. For many others, these conversations are simply for the urban intellectuals who sip skinny soy lattes and profit through the exclusion of everyone who does not live on the coasts or in a city.
It is the sense of alienation, disenfranchisement and fear that we need to address, even as we fight our new President to retain the foundations of our democratic institutions and our common sense of the verifiable realities that we share.
Immigration is a challenging issue for us all. I know very few people that say we should have completely open borders. There is a cost to immigration. There are dangers in bringing new people into our country. Even for those of us who see how much our country has benefitted from the energy, skills and vision of new citizens from foreign lands, must also publicaly acknowledge these costs and challenges.
Arny Mindell, the founder of Process Work and World Work, asserts that everything we encounter is part of our world—part of us. Drawing on Carl Jung, shamanic traditions and Eastern philosophy, he speaks of a world of reflective interconnection, where we are all part of a constant process of emerging. This ongoing becomingness of reality is the dynamic and ephemeral world in which we live and act. We cannot control what is happening, but we can join with the energetic currents of the moment to support the natural evolution of life.
Arny has worked around the world in places of deep and unrelenting conflict, bringing opponents together to speak what has not been spoken and to listen to what has not been heard. I have attended some of his trainings and I have never seen a human being so genuinely delighted with whatever is happening. His certainty in that the ‘arc of history bends toward justice’ is palpable as he works not to contain or smooth over conflict, but to find out the essence of the problem in the assurance that the current disturbance is exactly what reality needs to move forward.
This Process Work position is not so much something to be believed, but rather a perspective from which we can engage in our lives and the world around us. If everything we encounter is part of our world, it means that ‘the other’ that we wrestle with is part of us. This ‘other’ usually appears as an embodiment of what I am not. All of the qualities I do not see in myself, I project onto some person or group because I can’t admit to them in myself. Jung called this the ‘shadow’ – that part of ourselves that we have not fully integrated.
For more than a year now, Trump has been rousing crowds around the country with promises of ‘getting rid of the bad actors.’ He populates the world with dangerous ‘others’, then proposes to undercut democratic principles and processes in the name of necessary safety. It’s the Muslims. It’s the Mexicans. It’s the fictitious rise in crime. We are in danger and we must be strong. We don’t have time for the niceties of due process.
So it was in the fifties with Joe McCarthy and ‘Communists’. So it was with almost every wave of immigrants into our country – the Chinese and Japanese, the Irish, the Italians, the Poles. Every group is initially seen as ‘the other’ – almost sub-human. It is essential for us to see the perennial appeal of this response to anxiety: blame someone else.
But I can’t recount this American history without going further back. The very foundation of our country rests on a hatred for and extermination of ‘the other.’ Our great nation, which we claim is based on the principles of liberty and justice for all, has its roots in the extermination of native peoples and the enslavement of black people on an unprecedented scale. You and I did not do this, but we must begin to take responsibility for the racism and violence that is woven into the fabric of our great democracy.
Our work to preserve the foundation of democracy in our country in the face of Trump’s daily assaults must to include a new awareness of and work to undo the ongoing structures of racism and economic violence that have been conveniently hidden from many of us.
Human beings are tribal. We are hard wired to identify with a limited group of people (who are ‘like us’) and against everyone else who is ‘different.’ The ‘different ones become the ‘other’ the ‘enemy who we must band together to fight. In his wonderful Ted Talk in November, Jonathan Haidt describes this tribalism as ‘Me against my brother. My brother and me against my cousin. And all three of us against the world.’ As this description suggests, tribalism is not a rational, analytic position, but a visceral and instinctual response to danger; real or imagined.
This basic human tendency to create a common identity in the face of external dangers could easily have given some early humans a survival advantage. ‘Us against the world.’ might have allowed small bands of people to act quickly and powerfully together to deal with real dangers to the group. Members of the tribe might be filled with strong emotions that gave them powers and the fearlessness to risk their lives for the sake of their tribe. Groups of humans that were more laid back and welcoming to the world may have lost the struggle to survive and did not pass their genes on to the next generation.
Throughout history, finding a (or creating) common enemy has always been a way of bringing people together. On a personal level, we do this when we gossip about one another. We bond together when we discuss the real or imagined faults of others. The ‘truth’ of what we are saying, the degree to which it corresponds to a verifiable reality, has no impact on the closeness we may experience in the activity itself.
This observation about humans tendency to organize around a common ‘other’ or common ‘enemy’ is readily apparent these days in the activities and spirit of the liberal part of our country. Many liberal commentators have called this activation of the left, the silver lining in Trump’s Electoral College victory. I myself have been uplifted by the Women’s March, the protests against the Immigration Executive Order, contributions to the ACLU. Suddenly people who share my worldview are caring enough to do more than talk.
Trump himself is a master at activating these tribal tendencies. He effortlessly and constantly speaks of ‘the others’ that we need to protect ourselves from. His focus on the wall he wants to build between the US and Mexico is a perfect illustration of this point, as is the Executive Order on immigration. The reason many Americans are feeling economically stressed and left behind is that there are too many people not like us in the country and coming into the country. We must unite against ‘those people’ who are taking away our security and prosperity.
When our anxiety is channeled against one person or one group, we actually feel some relief. We are no longer alone. The problem is not us, it is ‘those people.’ We turn shoulder to shoulder to join together to take action.
How do we use the energy of our tribal arousal to take action against Donald Trump’s very real threats to the democratic foundations of our country while not being carried away in the very thing we are fighting? (to be continued…)
Five thirty-three a.m. here at Blue Spirit resort in Costa Rica. Mostly dark. I sit in shorts and t-shirt by the pool deserted pool. Most of the others sleep while the strong breezes push the big palms. Their naturally tattered leaves rattle and flutter with practiced ease. A faint lightening of orange creeps over the eastern hills.
Nearby, the howler monkeys practice their strange vocalization. These small arboreal creatures sound like the monster from the deep come to eat you up – but really are happy nibbling leaves as they effortlessly traverse the canopy overhead.
Everything, still in silhouette, moves with the breeze. The repetitive dark lines of the palm fronds stick up over the horizon line in the mid-distance. Nearby, the sound of water running constantly over the edge of the infinity pool.
We are all infinity pools – moving bodies of liquid – always spilling over. Not really stopping at the skin line, though that is the fiction we live by. Helpful enough to persist, false enough to cause lots of trouble. Each of us is always overflowing – always sending off messages to others of our kind: in our movements and our stillness—our expressions and lack of expressions—our voices and our smells.
Looking right, about forty feet off the ground in the small branches of a large tree without leaves, I see one of the smaller howler monkeys. A small dark and furry animal with a long prehensile tail. Prehensile (according to Mirriam-Webster): 1 : adapted for seizing or grasping especially by wrapping around 2 : gifted with mental grasp or moral or aesthetic perception. So with his tail he stabilizes himself as he goes from branch to branch. He is not in a hurry, and shows not the slightest fear of the height or precariousness of his position. Clearly height and tenuous grasp are not concepts he understands.
I love the second definition “gifted with mental grasp or moral or aesthetic perception.” With the tail of our mind we grasp thin straws to make a coherent and opinionated world which appears to reside completely outside us.
The eastern sky, now turning robin’s egg blue. A wispy pink cloud floats ambiguously above. The wind still blows hard in gusts, rattling the surprisingly tough leaves. The howler monkey ascends higher – now leans out over empty space, effortlessly finding the next branch. He seems to especially like what’s on the end of the smallest branches and is willing to lean out to get it.
Today, back home in Worcester, Massachusetts, a blizzard.
In this dream-life, I walk up to the pavilion to fill my high-tech travel cup with Costa Rican coffee and a little ‘letche’, before heading to the deserted beach for morning qi gong.
I’ve always wanted to be a poet and I suppose I am, because sometimes I write broken lines on the page and I find myself continually willing to step through the barrier of ‘Who do you think you are?’ to see what happens.
Words sometimes cohere like strange attractors to reveal patterns that bring me deeper. Finding some shape of sound and meaning that pleases me, I am send it off—post it as my gift to the universe. I suppose I should be more careful with creations. I should work longer to ensure only the highest quality. But I refuse to work that hard, so when there’s a spark, I trust that to be enough. (Even when there’s not a spark, I try to trust that too.)
For me, this trusting is the key to creating anything—remembering that there is nothing to prove, we are already OK. Since whatever we do will never be good enough to earn our keep, we don’t have to try so hard. It’s not not caring. It’s just remembering the beating heart has been given and already fills our entire body with the red liquid of life – the energy that sustains us – the life that is us. Whatever our considered opinion on the matter, we are always and nothing but the universe universing—the incarnation of God’s love.
The key to dancing in life is to begin knowing that nothing is good enough to earn this love that has already been given. As we consciously receive this unmerited gift of life, then not so critical, not so hard. Everything we do, every word we write, every move we make is our love song to the mystery—a deep bow to all that is already.
Words come together (or not) and express some fraction of life. Always a fraction over zero. Always the fullness of the universe even in a few poorly chosen words.
May it be so.
May I remember that it already is so.