the full expression
of its own explanation—
complete in this
Don’t dream of
some other heaven
let yourself be
distracted from the
holiness at hand.
Where is God? Where
is God? Here. Here.
Only when the mind
exhausts itself can
the soul receive This.
All avenues of pursuit
close and hope
for something else
dies. Then the embryo
of the true self is
born at last into
what it has always been.
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?