The Radicalization of Fear

To the extent that we are afraid, they succeed in their radicalization because they radicalize us. It’s an ancient war and it’s never going to stop, no matter how many bombs we throw at it over there or how many draconian measures we institute over here.

I wrote this over the summer, and put it away as too much of a downer…until the events of this past week promoted me to bring it out again.

There’s been yet another terrorist attack in Europe. People doing nothing but enjoying a warm summer night were suddenly murdered, run down by a van or stabbed in an insane and senseless 8 minutes of violence.

Virtually the same language applies to what happened last week:

There’s been yet another attack on our collective sense of security. People doing nothing but enjoying a country music concert were suddenly murdered, executed from a quarter mile away in an insane and senseless 11 minutes of violence.

Some may draw a distinction between the attacks in Europe being a “terrorist” action and those in Las Vegas the acts of a “lone madman.”  But they are both unequivocally acts of terror.  And I’m not at all interested in the rationalization of vicious sub humans as to why they are doing these things, or sick justifications of their actions in the name of some perversion of a “religion” or “personal liberties.” Terrorism, to my mind, includes the fetishization of guns.  Really, what is the difference between terrorists and the Breitbart commentator who tweeted that ”the crusades need to come back?” It’s xenophobic, irrational, infused with an underlying intent to do harm, but it’s pretty clear that the idiot “journalist” who wrote this is running on the fuel of fear.

The attacks we are experiencing with increasing frequency are planned and executed to rain carnage and instill fear – or maybe more accurately, to project the murderers’ fear onto his victims. It has to be acknowledged that fear radicalizes people. We have a threshold as to what we are willing to tolerate, and while it’s a moving target, I believe we are wired to move from a sense of helplessness, to one of anger in the face of repetitive assaults on our sense of security.  The result is that we think thoughts and are willing to tolerate things that were formerly out of bounds for us.

 

Despots have been using this to leverage popular unrest for as long as people have been around. They recognize that people need to feel safe, and can be mobilized by incessantly repeating the message that 1) you are not safe, and 2) that is because of some specific enemy. It was used to marshal a populist movement in the last election, and it’s been used forever to subjugate others, to justify all manner of self-righteous violence, to rationalize wars most often in the service of one person’s God who is apparently just fine with the slaughter of people who believe something else.

I didn’t sit down to write a political diatribe, but I can’t help feeling really angry about this summer’s slaughter in London – or all of the slaughters before and since. I’m disturbingly pulled in two directions: On the one hand, intellectually recognizing that internment of identified “radicals,” which is being thrown around as some sort of solution and even manifested in this country as a justification for deporting children, is precisely the kind of “solution” that has historically been the slippery slope to genocide. On the other, I really want to be safe from people whose thinking is preoccupied with doing me harm because I don’t believe what they do.

Lizard-BrainWhat’s this have to do with Age Spots? While radicalism is usually associated with youth, I think that’s because people in their teens and twenties are more likely to act on the impulses coming out of their amygdala, or reptilian brain.  There’s a tempering with age, the insertion of some kind of buffer, whether borne of experience or a change in focus or the finite limits of individual energy, that moves most people to a more temperate state.   So we probably see more road rage, more violent crime, and more radical hate behavior perpetrated by younger than by older people. (I’m not up on the stats and could be off base here, and last week’s mass murder by a 64-year old is all the more frightening for violating our expectations.)  We send kids off to fight wars because they are less powerful as a political force, less geopolitically nuanced (my country right or wrong), and easier to manipulate.

It seems to me that a different set of impulses become dominant as we age, but they are no less destructive and probably more so because they have the authority of institutional power, given the average age of governing bodies. You know, the people who start the wars; it’s the sons and daughters of other people who have to fight. The impulses I’m talking about are the ones driven by fear. Fear of the uncertainty we’ve spent lifetimes trying to tame. Fear for the security of the families we have created, our children and grandchildren (the families we grew up in protected us). Fear of people who are different and wield that difference to do us harm. And those are the impulses that are so easy to marshal, by people touting simplistic solutions that so many people want to believe even if they have enough going on cognitively to know they’re not realistic.

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Terrorism isn’t new

It’s not the assault on our values that terrifies, because the last 12 months made pretty obvious that those are fungible. It’s the assault, rather, on the nerve center of security, the preying on our fears, that is profoundly and painfully unsettling. The forces that want to harm us get this, and they do so instinctively. To the extent that we are afraid, they succeed in their radicalization because they radicalize us. It’s an ancient war and it’s never going to stop, no matter how many bombs we throw at it over there or how many draconian measures we institute over here. I’m not proposing a solution; I don’t have one. Only that we stop and take stock of what’s going on in our brains and maybe find there something, anything we might do to inhibit the violence that could ultimately have us all padlocking ourselves in our homes. 

Padlocked home

What you can do today to craft “a life that matters”

At some point we come to the realization that success in life isn’t about career or material acquisitions, but “about being a good, wise, and generous human being.”

Emily Esfahani Smith is the author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters. She posted this past May that people who define their identity and self-worth by their educational and career achievements are likely to ride an emotional roller coaster that sounds almost like manic depression: “When they succeeded, their lives felt meaningful, and they were happy. But when they failed or struggled, the only thing that gave their lives value was gone—and so they fell into despair, and became convinced they were worthless.”

Emily Esfahani Smith
Emily Esfahani Smith

She notes, rightly to my mind, that at some point we can/should/must come to the realization that success in life isn’t about career or material acquisitions, but “about being a good, wise, and generous human being.” That’s a bit hard to absorb and incorporate at the moment, saddled as we are with national leadership that is anything but good, wise and generous. But maybe our national circumstances make it that much more important.

Like a lot of thinking people (okay, that was a snipe), I have found myself consumed on a daily basis with the outrageous behavior coming out of Washington and more specifically, the White House. It’s bewildering, this staggeringly abrupt shift from the high to the low ground, and rejection of anything and everything that makes sense. I can only hope that this too will pass, if not for me then at least for my children’s benefit.

Magritte - Decalcomania

But the point about being good, wise, and generous is well taken and reinforced by contrast.

Esfahani Smith goes on to cite 20th-century psychologist Erik Erikson about the three stages of a meaningful life, and the need to “master a certain value or skill at each stage of their development”: developing a sense of identity in adolescence; forging intimate bonds as young adults; feeding a sense of accomplishment and purpose in adulthood, and helping our children and others realize their potential in later life. Erikson relates all of this to the Hindu concept of “the maintenance of the world.”

Maintenance of the World

“In other words, you’re a successful adult when you outgrow the natural selfishness of your childhood and youth—when you realize that life is no longer about charting your own course, but about helping others, whether it’s by raising children, mentoring colleagues, or creating something new and useful for the world.”

Hourglass
There’s a natural evolution as the number of days ahead become fewer than the number behind. No matter how accomplished or not, rich or poor, lucky in love or lonely any of us is, it seems most of us turn our attention to legacy. Esfahani gives what is to my mind a terrible example (that I’m pretty sure I’ve come across before) of a self-absorbed Harvard Business graduate-entrepreneur named Anthony Tjan who discovers, when he runs into the brick wall of the dot.com bust in 2000, that the world just might not be only about him. His dreams shattered, “he felt humiliated and demoralized.” Poor baby. His rebirth is to understand that true success requires he use his immense innate talents and entitlement “in the service of a higher calling” – so he goes into investment banking and funds a nail salon. To simultaneously solve the problem of underpaid manicurists and unhygienic customer experience. I’m all for “pursuing wholeness” but WTF.

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Okay, that’s pretty cynical. By way of explanation, I should note that I’ve been involved in pharmaceuticals and medical devices my whole career and I tend to overweight service to humanity when I look at the value of entrepreneurial initiatives. But really…the guy is probably in his mid-to-late thirties and the whole thing sounds just a bit too neatly wrapped up in the same self-absorbed ball. He’s hardly Gandhi. (Who was also probably, at least in part motivated by his own need for gratification.)

Talking in his sleep
“Stasis is deadly”

I talk in my sleep, pretty regularly by my wife’s report, and she is endlessly amused (ask her) about the night I proclaimed that “stasis is deadly.” In Erikson’s model, he defines stagnation – which I suppose is what my sleeping mind thought of as stasis – as “the gnawing sense that your life is meaningless because you are useless and unneeded.” This isn’t a phenomenon of age. We all need affirmation, and we all need something to do that makes us feel productive. I don’t believe that diminishes over time, and I think that’s the reason change is such a struggle. For much of my life I was very much a change junkie; if things weren’t happening, if I weren’t causing them to happen, I was somewhat adrift. It’s an odd sensation to not feel that so strongly anymore, but I suspect it’s a healthier state of being.

A healthier state of being

I have evidence. After I sold my company in the early 2000’s, I could have retired but experienced a profound need for what Erikson described as “a sort of confirmation of my usefulness.” (I see the same thing in retired executives and other entrepreneurs who have sold their companies – it’s partly needing continued intellectual stimulation but I think it has more to do with the obnoxious voice in our heads that continually calculates our value. Erikson says it’s the same for someone who is involuntarily unemployed, and feels a sense of uselessness and despair, compounded by the inability to provide for the people we care about. His conclusion is profound: unemployment, voluntary or involuntary, isn’t just about economics, but an existential issue. “When people don’t feel they have something worthwhile to do, they flounder.”

Hamlet

Stuff doesn’t fill the void. And for me, based on experience of the last 8 or 10 years, neither does filling the time. I got into education after I sold my company because I love the classroom, I like providing value to other people, and it gave me a constant impetus to get things done. Being effective in class requires preparation, and puts you under healthy deadline pressure. That it also elevates the urgent over the important probably doesn’t differentiate it from any other occupation.

But for me, the target of my efforts needs to be solid, and the results fruitful. Frankly, there are a whole lot of students in college who don’t belong there, who are filling the schools’ seats and coffers with their own version of “I don’t have anything better to do” or “I can continue to play for another 4 years before life gets real.”

A lot of them aren’t much interested in learning, they find challenging work a pain in the butt, and they’re more likely to spend time negotiating their grade at the end of the term than earning it during the semester. Teaching has been both satisfying and aggravating, and I had  reached the conclusion after a particularly awful slew of papers last term that teaching wasn’t filling my needs.  Thankfully, I found a university recently that seems to be bucking the trend, and the days I’m there are graced by interaction with courteous, engaged and overall nice millennials.

Of course, there’s always material stuff. Selling a company gives you the capability to acquire way more of it than you could ever possibly need, and there’s a certain pleasure in researching, acquiring and playing with all sorts of adult toys (no, I don’t mean that kind though they certainly could qualify). But at the end of the day I find the chase more interesting than the owning, and it’s consequently pretty transient.

To the lighthouse

I’ve always looked toward the lighthouse rather than the water immediately in front of me as my way to the next shore. It’s a pretty universal observation but no less unique for that in the personal experiencing: the thing that fills my horizon these days is the pleasure of seeing the dent I’ve made in the world: my kids, my wife, people whose careers I’ve influenced, the prospect of grandchildren…

People around me don’t understand when I bitch about feeling unfulfilled in accomplishments. What they don’t understand is that it’s not about what you‘ve already done, but about having something useful to look forward to. That’s going to be a different set of activities and aspirations for each of us. Some of it is scaffolding, part of it is keeping the mind and joints moving, and some of it is no doubt approbation. But the secret, I think, to being relevant to ourselves is to be relevant to the people in our lives who really matter.  And that’s for the long haul…

 

Hyperloop

Most of us, most often take the safer route, but we do it at a cost: “…our biggest regrets are not our actions but our inactions – the chances not taken.”

To explain the psychology of risk, I asked my college students yesterday to commit an hypothetical investment of $10,000, to either: an opportunity with a 5% probability of turning into $100,000, or one with an 80% chance of turning into $20,000. They could keep the difference, but had to give back the original $10,000.

10kThe choice I gave them was between a profoundly risky situation with a spectacular result, and one that carries a lot less risk but yields a less impressive return. If you flip it around and look at the risk side of the equation, they were weighing a 95% chance vs. a 20% chance of losing the initial $10,000.

In real life, we do this all the time. We choose between getting less than 1% interest on our savings with no risk to the principal and the possibility of earning five or ten times that annually in the stock market, the latter carrying the risk of losing our initial investment. We choose between taking the faster route to our destination on the interstate, with the likelihood (but not certainty on a busy weekend) we’ll get there faster, even knowing that taking the scenic route is more interesting and offers the chance of getting happily, temporarily lost. We choose a mate who might be easier to get along with over the firecracker who will drive us crazy (in both a good and bad way).

risk-reward

One of my students astutely observed that it’s where you are in life that determines the value and the meaning of the reward, because it directly influences how much risk we’re willing to tolerate. When I said they’d have to put up their own money, everyone was solidly in the 80% risk camp, but the same smart kid suggested this was because they are students and $10,000 is a lot of money at this point in their lives…and noted further that investors with a lot of money probably don’t see the world the same way. When I changed the equation to the possibility of getting a million dollars out of an initial investment of $100,000, several students moved over from the classes’ prior, unanimous decision to take the lower risk option.

There’s endless advice out there about following “the road not taken,” but you’ve got to factor in this matter of where you are in your life. Most of us, most often take the safer route, but (as Frost suggests in the poem that originated the phrase) we do it at a cost. The “safe” savings account at the bank pays so little interest it actually loses money to inflation. The “safe” corporate career path runs into the brick wall of “downsizing.” The “safe” interstate route misses all the peculiar, amazing sights and people we’d encounter along the byways. The “safe” relationship gets pretty dull over time.

calvin_relationship_conflict

As an inveterate glass-half-empty guy, I’d like to endorse another famous dictum, eloquently expressed by Adam Grant that “our biggest regrets are not our actions but our inactions – the chances not taken.” In other words, we are more likely to regret the harder/scarier things we did not try than the easier things we did. Previous generations, including I think boomers, bought into the idea of a traditional and linear progression: from high school to college to career, from infatuation to engagement to marriage to children, from your parent’s house to a crappy shared apartment to renting or buying your own place.

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Have a look at any given group of millenials: this no longer computes, the sequence is all over the place. Kids first marriage later, group hang outs instead of steady dates, renting or boomeranging back home instead of taking on a mortgage, building a career with a single employer to a half dozen jobs before age 30. I don’t know if this is about a fundamental shift in the culture or individual risk tolerance, but it is different. Ask a roomful of college business students who wants to start their own business and it’s most of them. Ask the same room who wants to pay their dues on the road to the success and personal satisfaction of owning that business and it’s virtually none of them. They don’t and won’t necessarily process this as risk tolerance so much as about impatience to achieve their birthright. But I’d suggest it has an awful lot to do with wanting to upend the traditional equation and separate risk from reward.

BoardMeeting1
Last Century

Elon Musk, the guy who used his gigantic windfall from PayPal to start Tesla and Space-X and is now pursuing the possibly crazy concept of hyperloop transportation, is at the extreme end of the risk-taking spectrum. He’s the ultimate entrepreneur, willing – no compelled – to risk it all because of the absolute surety that he can accomplish anything by force of will.

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This Century

Most of us live at the quieter end of the spectrum, where we have a certain tolerance for taking chances, but once we’ve achieve security in our finances or career or relationships, prefer if given the choice to remain on the same path. I know a guy who turned down a job offer that carried a $30,000 increase in salary for reasons known only to him, but which I suspect had to do with the perceived risk of stepping outside the familiar.

I’m the last one to think you can do much about human nature in general, or about personal predisposition in particular. We are what we are, and change, if it occurs tends to be evolutionary rather than sudden. Most of the time I’m a lot less intense than I used to be, but push the right button and I’m rapidly, if less persistently the same impatient guy who demands destiny bends to his will rather than the other way around.

resistance-to-change

I used to be a change junkie, and while change continues to stimulate my synapses, I’m troubled about a creeping resistance that is actually a reversion to childhood form. I like new experiences but have to overcome the hump – for example, I’ve wanted to travel “down under” for a long time but tempered the impulse by thinking about 22+ hours on a plane, even if it is decorated with koala bears. I hate the occasional squabbles of any long-term relationship but know the true center from my underlying feelings and understand that I need to be with someone wicked smart and challenging.

So what and where is the right balance? There’s no generalizable answer, but I know this and return to it as an axiom to live by: I once knew a smart and accomplished woman who lived well, traveled the world, stepped into and ran a business with no formal training, and had in her forties a succession of successful and interesting suitors. Whatever it was, maybe just too much angst, maybe that encroaching resistance to change, maybe just a desire for some domestic calm, she ultimately remarried, to someone whose inability to deal with the world ultimately reduced her world to four walls of an apartment. It cost her everything to accommodate him, and while it affected other people that was her choice to make. But to my mind it was a bad one and it is my reference point when I feel I’m becoming too still to do something.   There’s no perfect balance point for risk and reward, but we probably all have a variety of object lessons in what not to do. Those lessons have provided me with a roadmap, and it’s served me pretty well in having the kind of life I wanted.

excel-roadmap

Baubles and Panniers  

We lose our way when we get so caught up in what we want and don’t want that we forget what we have and why we have it.

 

We celebrated our 10th anniversary this summer (I’ve actually been married 35 years, just not continuously). There were gifts – a set of motorcycle saddlebags for me, a tourmaline, diamond and sapphire ring for my wife – but the best gift we gave and got was a day of just being with each other. I’m not sure why it took a big anniversary to make that happen, but something about the day made us forget to have any expectations other than just enjoying each other’s company and the casual ease of a lengthening marriage.

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I commented on this to my wife on the way home from our anniversary night out, and woke the next morning feeling a need to really take stock. I’ve mentioned Brian Andreas’s Story People before in this column. His offering this morning, a paean to someone he loves called Favorite Places, is a good jumping off place: “I’m not that good at being a tourist because I’m always looking at the way the light shines in your hair or the way your dress opens to the wind & my favorite places in the world are places filled with you.”

I can’t speak for everyone, but my experiences of my own and others’ relationships suggests that we lose our way when we get so caught up in what we want and don’t want that we forget what we have and why we have it. I acted in a play this summer called The Dinner Party, a lesser-known Neil Simon show about three divorced couples forced back together at a party under false pretenses.  Near the end, after a complex struggle of emotions, I said “…some of us will take a second look at ourselves, what we had and what we lost…and some may make a decision which would have seemed inconceivable before we arrived here tonight.”  My character goes on to describe the nicest thing his ex-spouse ever did in their marriage, as accepting and loving him for who he was.

What else does any of us need than looking at the person you spend your life with and knowing, despite all the crap you inevitably toss at each other, that this is the person who totally floats your boat?

Carole Lombard & Gary Cooper, 1930

On our tenth anniversary, we each posted a favorite picture on social media from the first 24 hours of our marriage. My wife chose one of our wedding dance and I picked the one of us relaxing at a B&B the morning after (above). We compared the number of “likes” and comments on each other’s feeds several times over the following days, but it was the kind of competition that was mutually enjoyed. (Unlike the Parcheesi game a couple of years ago – yes Parcheesi – that had a friend vowing never to play a game with the us again, and could easily have devolved into an emotional restraining order.)

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“BLOODSPORT”

Neither of us looks quite the same as we did ten years ago, but any disappointment I feel looking at those photos has more to do with my own self image than the way I feel about my wife…”the way the light shines in [her] hair or the way your dress opens to the wind.”

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I don’t feel that way about anyone else. I was single for five years between marriages, and infatuated on more than one occasion. Who doesn’t love the electricity of romantic attraction? But the fireball that hit me (and by her report my wife) at our first touch 15 years ago has never and will never come close to being replicated with anyone else. Aging is partly about changes in skin tone and hair color and fluidity of motion, but it’s also about looking at someone asleep next to you with one of those expressions that happens only when we’re asleep, and knowing you’re in the right place. Because if we’re really lucky, and maybe a bit smart, the passage of time enables us to slow things down in a way that enhances the moments. I’m the last person who should be criticizing anyone for rushing through life, given my dispositional impatience, but I really am getting better.

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FIREBALL!

My wife and I are and will always be on different sleep schedules. I wake up hours earlier, she needs a lot more sleep than I do, and there’s no stirring her once she’s out. She once slept, literally, through an Alaskan earthquake.  (We weren’t married at the time, but I don’t doubt the story for an instant.)  It’s sometimes frustrating, because I like the soft-focus scene in lots of movies and tv shows where the couple luxuriates in bed in the morning reading the newspaper and doing other stuff. But oddly enough, I woke up this morning, and find myself more often than not doing the same these days, completely unfazed by spending the morning “on my own,” watering and feeding the dogs, having a bowl of cereal, and sitting down to write. This isn’t ideal for me, but it’s not wrong either, and it’s certainly not a reason to ruin anyone’s day. It just is.

Past is prologue. There’s no changing who we were, what we did, or how we muddled through life’s challenges. But really, maybe it’s all setting the stage for now. I might trade lots of things to be younger, or have more energy or the ambition I once did  – and I might do almost anything if I could have more of my hair back. But the thing that always eluded me, and maybe, just maybe is becoming less elusive now, is this increasingly self-evident feeling of contentment. Sure, there are things I’d like to happen, grandchildren for example being on top of both our lists right now. We’d spoil them mercilessly.

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(Actress representation)

But really, what’s better than having bought my wife a ring this summer to recognize an important milestone, to be getting ready to go attach those panniers to my bike, to be looking past the top of my laptop at the sun on the harbor, and to be waiting to say good morning to my sleeping beauty?

Eclipsed

Wouldn’t it be great if we could have an intracontinental eclipse, or it’s equivalent, a lot more often than every few decades?

Social Media Today published a description this week of social media habits by age group. (Thanks to Mark D for the link.)  Two-thirds of people 50 to 64 but only one third of those 65+ use social media. By contrast, the overall rate of social media consumption is 86% for those under 30.

Those numbers aren’t exactly surprising, and no one’s going to lose sleep over a bunch of technologically tuned-out boomers, but the follow-on data give pause. The same article reports that while 9 out of 10 boomers are “interested in the news,” only half again as many are interested in the under 30 bracket.  More than half of those 60 and over vs. only 25% of people under 30 go “in depth.” Consumption habits show adults reading digital and online content and the “kids” predominantly watching videos.

millennials

So as bad as you thought the problem is with people getting their impressions of the world through sound bites, you have to wonder what will happen when those who can only consume information by video get their hands on the levers of government and industry. My observations as both a manager and an educator (not necessary at the same time) are that we’re becoming, or perhaps have already fully become, a transactional society.  That means acting on the basis of immediate, short-term outcomes rather than taking the long view. It means treating interactions with other people as discrete events rather than as parts of an ongoing relationship. It means losing of threads of human contact and experience which have historically been the ties that bind. Little wonder that someone who views the world as a purely transactional, zero-sum game is sitting in the oval office.

It’s not news that we’re living in a highly fragmented time, and just plain sad that we so infrequently experience common purpose or experience. This hasn’t always been the case; there as a time when it clearly wasn’t.

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The last year in particular has seen families and friendships damaged, often irrevocably, by anger and politically-instigated intolerance. I’m not suggesting everybody ought to be friends, or that we normalize a bunch of vicious morons marching through their free country carrying the flags of mass murderers. Or that we act like a bunch of ostriches like a Facebook acquaintance who keeps celebrating her ignorance of world events like the objective is to have a nice dinner party. The damage is there, and it’s real, and I’m not ever going to pal around with a skinhead flying a confederate flag from the back of his truck. But I am happy to discuss substantive problems and solutions with thoughtful people, whatever their political persuasion.

brotherI have no idea how they teach it now, and shudder that there are lots of people who think of the Civil War as the “war of northern aggression,” but when I was growing up in Philadelphia they talked a lot about the Civil War being a “brother against brother” affair. As kids, we couldn’t understand how family members could end up figuratively or literally shooting at each other. It’s sadly not hard to see how that could come about through the dark lens of 2017.

So it was heartening yesterday, to watch the coverage of millions of people in cities across the eclipse’s path sharing awe and wonder, at the simple natural phenomenon of a celestial shadow. People clapped and hooted and exclaimed silly things, and in large measure fell silent as the moon fully “ate” the sun. Really, it was a spectacular day in so many ways. Apart from watching the real-time NASA footage, a lot of us got to play junior scientists with our homemade viewers, and a lot of others got to wear silly glasses that looked for all the world like a 1950’s audience at a 3D movie. It was all quite wonderful in a simpler time kind of way and revealed that there’s still some underlying visceral connection we can all spontaneously tap into…some shared humanity that, at least for a few minutes, renders us all part of the same whole.

watching 3

Maybe I’m a bit of a dinosaur in my thinking here (though 25 years ago I was incorporating leading edge technology into my startup company), but I think social media, an extension of electronic rather than paper or voice communication, has really screwed us up as a civilization. It enables the worst human instincts to propagate at the speed of light, it demands complexity be reduced to 140 character superficialities, it fractures personal interaction into impersonal fragments, it substitutes mass acquaintances for friendships, it causes us all to burrow deeper into isolation rather than collective experience. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have an intracontinental eclipse, or it’s equivalent, a lot more often than every few decades? Now that would be one hell of a totality.

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Aubade

It’s not that we spend so much time on minutia, but that we spend so much time on stuff that isn’t nourishing to us.  Minutia are actually pretty great if you attend to the right things.  

au·bade
ōˈbäd
noun
  1. a poem or piece of music appropriate to the dawn or early morning.  (In the middle ages it referred to lovers needing to part with the dawn.)
    Strolling to the shore

It occurs to me how far we all come in life.  I came across this poem by Philip Larkin, one of the great depressive geniuses I studied in college oh, about a million  years ago.  It seems at once relevant and a bit shocking, the kind of thing a young person would study without any particular grasp, or at least not a visceral one, of what is really going on in the author’s head (and heart).  Here’s an excerpt (I redacted the really awful bits, since it’s a rumination on death, but you can look it up here).

Aubade

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.

Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.

In time the curtain-edges will grow light…

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse

—The good not done, the love not given, time

Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because

An only life can take so long to climb

Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;

But at the total emptiness for ever,

The sure extinction that we travel to

And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,

Not to be anywhere,

And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true…

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.

It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,

Have always known, know that we can’t escape,

Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.

Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring

In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring

Intricate rented world begins to rouse.

The sky is white as clay, with no sun.

Work has to be done.

From this perspective, and not the one I had when I first came across this 40 years ago, I can’t help thinking of this is a call to action rather than an admonishment to acceptance.  What particularly resonates with me is not the idea that the world goes on per se, but the more important one in terms of transitions that a lot of the stuff I (we?) used to worry so much about is pretty irrelevant.  “…telephones crouch, getting ready to ring / In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring / Intricate rented world begins to rouse.”

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It’s not that we spend so much time on minutia, but that we spend so much time on stuff that isn’t nourishing to us.  Minutia are actually pretty great if you attend to the right things.  Think about the following passage from a quite different author, someone who is probably unknown compared to Philip Larkin, writing about the simple wonder of a day from the perspective of a pet:

Crystal Ward Kent

When you bring a pet into your life, you begin a journey – a journey that will bring you more love and devotion than you have ever known, yet also test your strength and courage.

If you allow, the journey will teach you many things, about life, about yourself, and most of all, about love. You will come away changed forever, for one soul cannot touch another without leaving its mark.

Along the way, you will learn much about savoring life’s simple pleasures – jumping in leaves, snoozing in the sun, the joys of puddles, and even the satisfaction of a good scratch behind the ears.

If you spend much time outside, you will be taught how to truly experience every element, for no rock, leaf, or log will go unexamined, no rustling bush will be overlooked, and even the very air will be inhaled, pondered, and noted as being full of valuable information. Your pace may be slower – except when heading home to the food dish – but you will become a better naturalist, having been taught by an expert in the field.

Too many times we hike on automatic pilot, our goal being to complete the trail rather than enjoy the journey. We miss the details – the colorful mushrooms on the rotting log, the honeycomb in the old maple snag, the hawk feather caught on a twig. Once we walk as a dog does, we discover a whole new world. We stop; we browse the landscape, we kick over leaves, peek in tree holes, look up, down, all around. And we learn what any dog knows: that nature has created a marvelously complex world that is full of surprises, that each cycle of the seasons bring ever changing wonders, each day an essence all its own.

You will find yourself watching summer insects collecting on a screen, or noting the flick and flash of fireflies through the dark. You will stop to observe the swirling dance of windblown leaves, or sniff the air after a rain. It does not matter that there is no objective in this; the point is in the doing, in not letting life’s most important details slip by.

dog-sniffing-flowers2In it’s simplest form, this isn’t a novel sentiment; we’ve all heard the expression “take time to smell the roses.”  But it’s really more than that, something that is ageless, timeless and offers possibility in a way that we too often take for granted.  For me, it ratifies the conversation I had with a good friend last night, about moving past the urge to be what I was before, to run things the way I did as a CEO, and perhaps a way of subverting or at least taming the sense of annoyance that surges to the surface whenever something isn’t the way I want it.

I did a google search on aubade as I was writing this.  It’s apparently a sexy French lingerie company.  Who would have thought?  Take that, Philip Larkin.

It’s all good.

Upside Down and Inside Out

Wouldn’t it be validation that we really have evolved as a species if we took responsibility for our own causal actions?

I’m thinking today about things that cause other things to happen, vs. things that are a symptom of other things happening. It seems like a pretty basic distinction, but it seems to be one that’s beyond the grasp these days of everyone from students to “high-level” policy-makers. In the business classroom, it’s the difference between a poor strategy or execution, such as a decision to use lower quality materials (the cause) which leads to reduced product reliability, more consumer complaints and ultimately fewer purchases – and the decline in sales itself (the symptom). In public policy (yes, I know I shouldn’t go here but I’m having flashbacks of “duck and cover” this week) it’s the difference between deciding to use impulsive and bellicose language (the cause) that prompts an escalation in geopolitical tensions – and the inability a few weeks from now to find Guam on a satellite image of the Pacific Ocean (the symptom).

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I think we as a society used to know this stuff and approach things in a more informed and sober fashion. If you have a problem with your spouse or kids, it’s probably not because they are intrinsically problematic people, but because you have stopped communicating effectively. It you have a problem with your job, it’s probably not because it’s intrinsically a place no one can work, but because it’s a bad fit with your temperament and interests. If you have a problem with the leader of the free world it’s probably not because democracy is a bad idea but because the job is beyond someone with the depth and worldview of a toddler. You might try to solve the first problem with communication or counseling rather than divorce or disinheriting; the second one by figuring out what kind of environment fits you better rather than blackmailing your boss into treating you better; and the third one by invoking Article 25 rather than trying to retrofit the job.

blindspot2I don’t know for sure, but people’s behavior suggests a loss of the ability to distinguish cause and effect. It’s like the guy who swerves out of his lane on the highway and complains about the driver he sideswiped having been in his blind spot. I came across an article some weeks ago that seems to amplify this idea of a blind spot.

“As you travel this summer you may be required to remove your Kindle, paperback book, food and any tech item larger than a cellphone from your carry-on bag….The TSA pilot program is to address an increase in passengers cramming more and more stuff into their carry-on bags…The tight packing makes it harder for screeners to properly inspect bags using the X-ray machine and has increased the number of bags sent on for an additional manual inspection.”

Deconstruct this for a minute. What’s the problem? Well, the immediate one is that bad people seem to have come up with a new way to get bombs into laptops. The secondary one is that carry-on bags are packed too tightly to detect the bombs using traditional airport screening devices. The obvious and painfully superficial “solution” devised by TSA? Coerce people into packing less in their carry-on bags by making the trip through airport security even more miserable than it already is.

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What this completely fails to recognize is what’s causing the problem. This isn’t an issue of ability to detect per se but of ability to detect given overstuffed bags. Why are the bags overstuffed? Because airlines make more money from checked bag charges than they do from selling seats. So everyone either under-packs for their needs or stuffs everything they can into a carry-on. Is the solution to this really to further disenfranchise travelers from their belongings by shaming them in the TSA screening line (I mean even further than having to undress and be intimately patted down by a stranger.)

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If you’re reading this you’re probably old enough to remember the halcyon days of being treated like something other than a canned anchovy when you travel. When airline employees were rewarded for treating passengers well, instead of herding them like cattle (and dragging the occasional errant one off the airplane). How’s this for cause and effect: if you beat up your employees in the name of efficiency, they’ll take it out on your customers in the name of catharsis. If you force people to protect their economic interests by jamming everything they own into a carry-on, they’ll jam everything they own into a carry-on. If you deregulate to the point of allowing companies to act like jerks in the service of their shareholder dividends and stock price, they will act accordingly.

The financial metrics are of course good. Once-struggling industries like the airlines have consolidated into a domestic oligopoly and are flush with cash. The market is good. Passenger volume is at an all-time high…

And while travel destinations are still as wonderful as ever, unless you have a private plane or the resources for first-class service getting there, travel has become something to be endured. We’ve displaced civility, which it seems to me is a pretty important societal glue, with economic efficiency – which produces stupid group think.

I read something else yesterday, about the way bodies were recovered following the sinking of the Titanic. (I should note that I haven’t independently verified this, but it’s not an unlikely picture of events.) Understandably overwhelmed and distressed, the crew on the rescue and recovery ships were instructed to handle things based on commonly held and generally accepted rules of class hierarchy. They’d register the manner of dress and go through the pockets of the victims and if there was evidence of higher social class, they would be recovered. If they seemed to be steerage, they were chucked back into the sea.

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“Passengers chances of surviving the sinking of the S.S. Titanic were related to their sex and their social class: females were more likely to survive than males, and the chances of survival declined with social class as measured by the class in which the passenger travelled. The probable reasons for these differences in rates of survival are discussed as are the reasons accepted by the Mersey Committee of Inquiry into the sinking.”

It has always been the case that older generations have been criticized by younger ones for a rose-colored and objectively inaccurate memory of how things were. I think there’s always been a human tendency to emphasize expediency, but it’s often enough tempered with essential decency that we can characterize the worst offenders as outside the range of acceptable civility. The Titanic story is evidence of changing attitudes toward what is acceptable, but the extraordinary efforts of rescuers over a hundred years ago is also evidence of our better nature.

The TSA’s new policy is the opposite. I know it’s a rhetorical question and the answer is “probably not,” but wouldn’t it be validation that we really have evolved as a species if we took responsibility for our own causal actions, and stopped putting the burden on the victims?

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