Feb 172021
 

Note: The following is a short excerpt from a book I have been drafting, about how lost the species Homo Sapiens has become. I have titled it Moving to a Different Rock: Humanities Journey Home. I welcome your thoughts.

Ending Selfishness

“What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it all the rest are not only useless but disastrous.”

                                                            Thomas Merton

The moment we entered this world we were given life…is it possible we deserve nothing more? Should life be a continual search for what we can give in return for this extraordinary gift, rather than a search for what we can gain? To the extent we allow ego to gain identity and strength by shrouding itself in privacy and hiding behind possessions, we make it difficult or impossible to “cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves.”

If I were to suggest that another species had the right to own some portion of this Earth’s resources—that we had no right or access to them—we would be incensed. And yet, we believe we have the right to do just that to other species. What the Universe has given, is given equally to all.

And while the thought of giving up private property is radical enough, how might the world be different if we allowed the possibility we do not have the right to, nor do we even deserve, personal privacy? To have another person know everything about me—even my most intimate thoughts and feelings—would seem a violation.

However, what if we imagined for a moment that all human privacy vanished? What if we lived in a world where all was revealed, a world in which openness and vulnerability were a matter of course, rather than a matter of choice? The moment I became angry, you would know. My jealousies, frustrations, and hatreds would be revealed for all to know. Could I live in a world in which all I revile about myself, everything about me that makes me feel small and inadequate would be known?

There is a Buddhist tradition that suggests if we could see deeply into the soul of those in front of us, we would never accomplish anything; we would be too busy bowing to one another. In a world where you immediately know my story, you may know my faults, but you also know all that tears at my heart. And I too would know what tears at yours. In such a world, we would look at each other and the faults would vanish in the face of our mutual humanity. And in that moment of blessing, the word Namaste—the God in me is witness to the God in you—would have meaning we cannot now even begin to appreciate.

But I am not just suggesting the absence of personal privacy might have value. I am suggesting we do not deserve personal privacy.

One of the first lessons we try to teach young children is the value of sharing and generosity. Why are sharing and generosity so valued? Because when we share with another, the value of what the Universe has given us multiplies. We both gain from experiencing the utility of what is in front of us, and because we not only have our own ideas of its value, through the connection and clash of those ideas, the utility for humanity can multiply many times over.

But our sharing and generosity comes to a halt when it comes to the most intimate, and I might suggest, valuable parts of who we are. I am fond of suggesting to those who call the suicide hotline—those desperate to find the value of their lives—that they are living a life never lived by any human throughout history; a life that will never be lived again. That gives every person some unique view of what it means to be human. But that unique, precious, and enormously valuable wisdom is unavailable unless we are willing to share our stories in all their most intimate details.

To demand personal privacy just might be the ultimate form of selfishness. Ending that selfishness—to learn to talk openly about our deepest vulnerabilities—is one of the skills we will need to witness true beauty amid the coming chaos.

Feb 082021
 

“So here, then, is the last fifty years of American politics summarized: we became more consistent in the party we vote for not because we came to like our party more, but because we came to dislike the opposing party more. Even as hope and change sputter, fear and loathing proceed.”
                                                                 
Ezra Klein

I fear for the future of the United States of America.

Until recent years, if you asked how much the United States changed over the nearly 70 years I have lived, I might have said that it had changed, but, for good or bad, it is not fundamentally different from what it was in 1951. I thought of this country as a stable exemplar of democracy.

But I have begun to wonder about our democracy and its stability. Two recent books, Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein and Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum, leave me wondering if we could lose our democratic republic as have countless democracies during my lifetime.

When change is incremental, we are often blind to monumental shifts that amass over time. In 1950, The American Political Science Association published a paper coauthored by many of the country’s most eminent political scientists. In it they pleaded for a more polarized political system. They lamented the Democrat and Republican parties each contained too much diversity, looked too much alike, and worked together too easily. In those days, when going to the polls, many citizens split their ballots, caring more about issues than party affiliation.

Things began to change dramatically in the 1960s. Prior to 1964, the Democratic Party was the party of the Dixiecrats, southern democrats who pledged allegiance to Jim Crow laws and “separate but equal’ policies, ignoring the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v Board of Education. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and the emergence of Barry Goldwater and his allegiance to states’ rights, the Dixiecrats jumped parties. Lyndon Johnson, the night he signed that legislation, was said to lament, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”

As divisions grew—as the parties became ever more distinct—Americans began to choose sides, not unlike we do with sports teams. Voting became less about issues and more about making sure your “team” won. As Klein said above, voters came to dislike the other party more and more, allowing fear and loathing to proceed.

While an inspiring future vision can encourage people to act, inciting fear calls forth powerful passions and unpredictable behaviors. In the face of abject fear, rationality and logic exit the stage, replaced by irrational and senseless acts. Given enough fear, anger can easily become the appetizer we choose, followed often by an entrée of violence.

Over the past two decades, fearful rhetoric has come to dominate our political discourse. How many recent political campaigns promised policies aimed at a brighter future versus asserting that a vote for the opponent would give the other party the power to destroy you and everything you love? And, of those who promised a path to the promised land, how many either changed their rhetoric or went down to defeat?

In her book, Anne Applebaum recalls a conversation with behavioral economist Karen Stenner. Stenner reminded her that people are often attracted to authoritarian ideas because they are bothered by complexity. The work of Nobel Award-winning economist Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) reminds us the human mind is lazy. We will typically choose a simple, albeit errant, answer to a problem, rather than doing the work of challenging our assumptions. Is it any wonder, then, that we have witnessed the emergence of QAnon, countless conspiracy theories, and authoritarian rhetoric? They offer simple, if not irrational, answers in a complex world.

Our 32nd president, Franklin D Roosevelt famously said, “the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Unless we recall these extraordinary words, learn to speak to one another with compassion and understanding, and face our fears together, we just may face them torn asunder.