Monthly Archives: October 2019

Science Can’t Give Us 20/20 Next Election… Not Without Fiction

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Vonnegut gave us poor Billy Pilgrim for a reason

We know a lot of stuff. And there’s so much more stuff, continuously generated, some of it brilliant, some of it noise. We’re living in a zettabyte era (a zettabyte equals 1 sextillion bytes or 1000 exabytes; an exabyte is 1 billion billion bytes).

We also live in a culture that values knowing ourselves (nod to Socrates), and a need to know others, which gets sticky and even painful when those we thought we knew say and do things outside our expectations. How dare they?

The problem isn’t a lack of knowledge, it’s deeper than that. Too often we conflate knowledge with insight. Too often we mistake knowing more about someone — their age, their tastes and interests, their politics and religion — with insight about the complex person they are.

Insight literally means looking inward, hard enough when it comes to examining ourselves. And impossible to transcend our own container of a body to look inside of another person.

The Internet in all its zettabytes glory cannot help us here.

We cannot — and may never — know what it’s like to experience life as someone else does. With virtual reality and AI in general, more insight may be possible, but it’s hard to imagine swapping brains, chemicals, DNA and neurology. To truly understand what it’s like to be in another’s body, with their wiring and experiences, thinking their thoughts, making their decisions.

If this sounds ridiculously obvious, it is. And it isn’t.

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

I am bracing myself

Eighteen months until November 3, 2020. I’ve considered barricading myself from the impending shit show that seems likely, given what now passes for news and acceptable decorum among elected leaders.

(As a response, you’ve either nodded in agreement, perhaps smirked, or you’ve decided my bias is shining through.) My point is not to provoke, but to question what we assume we know about each other and every other in our lives.

Although I know better, I frequently presume that everyone who’s rational and has their basic needs met sees the same world and makes decisions as I do. I come at life every day with an expectation that other humans are seeing and hearing and tasting and feeling the same or very similarly. That we are experiencing life in like fashion. So why wouldn’t others, especially those I know, make the same choices or have the same beliefs and attitudes as me?

Loving Science and Accepting its Limitations

Original art by Devin Bill

Science is one way of knowing how similar and different we humans can be. It aims for an objective truth by getting enough agreement (usually with data) among us to generalize to a wider population.

Think sample size in polling. Getting enough responses or observations (n=?) to generalize leads to more confidence, less inference, in the findings.

My point is not to insult your knowledge of stats or to raise your political blood pressure. It’s a simple reminder that knowledge and insight are different. And if we remember the virtual improbability of gaining insight into another person’s thoughts and actions, we might reframe our expectations, particularly the ones that lead to conflict. And that doesn’t require statistics.

Example: a poll taken six months ago found that 77 percent of all Americans are dissatisfied with their elected leadership. It’s easy to imagine that 887 of 1,152 respondents (total sample size) are totally aligned on being dissatisfied: they like or don’t like, agree or disagree with Congress and/or the President. But this statistic is a deceptively narrow aperture. Why each person responded as they did and how each (n of 1) views and makes sense of their world (i.e., unique insights) are missing.

n = 1 is my reminder that understanding and predicting human behavior (a goal of science) rarely gives us satisfying answers about why individuals don’t or can’t or won’t see things our way. Science can’t do anything about the fact that we’re each strapped to a steel lattice, bolted to a flatcar on rails, restricted to a one- or two-millimeter opening within a vast panoramic view.

Like poor Billy Pilgrim.

We Are Billy Pilgrim

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five has given me some insight. Among them, rich imagery of how much we — individually and as a species — can’t understand about one another. (Note can’t, not don’t or won’t.)

…among them was this poor Earthling, and his head was encased in a steel sphere which he could never take off. There was only one eyehole through which he could look, and welded to that eyehole were six feet of pipe.

This was only the beginning of Billy’s miseries in the metaphor. He was also strapped to a steel lattice which was bolted to a flatcar on rails, and there was no way he could turn his head or touch the pipe. The far end of the pipe rested on a bi-pod which was also bolted to the flatcar. All Billy could see was the little dot at the end of the pipe. He didn’t know he was on a flatcar, didn’t even know there was anything peculiar about his situation.

The flatcar sometimes crept, sometimes went extremely fast, often stopped — went uphill, downhill, around curves, along straightaways. Whatever poor Billy saw through the pipe, he had no choice but to say to himself, ‘That’s life.’

Photo by Seth Doyle on Unsplash

Vonnegut reminds us of something very precious, scary, and supremely important: We are each one in 7.5-plus billion. I can only be who I am according to what I am able to see, hear, taste, touch, smell, understand, intuit, feel, and believe. This is true for everyone. We are each, and all, Billy Pilgrim.

What About Others (Who Seem) Like Us?

It can be particularly frustrating when our first and sometimes our strongest identity — family — disagrees with how we see the world. Even more so when they disapprove or disown us.

And while two people can share several identities and common experiences (work, race, gender, religion, politics), none of these shared identities mean that those two people share the same position on the flatcar or that they’re looking down the same tiny pipe opening.

My n = 1 realization hit me in the solar plexus of my political identity. Just last week.

Better Angels

I drove from Athens, Georgia to Anderson, South Carolina for my first Better Angels (BA) workshop. BA is a citizens’ organization that unites red (Republican-leaning) and blue (Democrat-leaning) Americans with an aim to depolarize America. It doesn’t try to change anyone. Just to facilitate dialogue instead of dissension.

BA gives an equal number of reds and blues (five of each) the space, time, and some reasonable structure to try to understand the other side’s point of view; and to engage those we disagree with, looking for common ground and ways to work together.

Photo by Devin Edwards on Unsplash

I’d asked one of my dear friends, a BA organizer, if I could observe, but because there was a shortage of “blues,” I was asked to participate when I arrived.

A fascinating thing happened:

I found myself frequently nodding yes — agreeing with! — two reds and one blue who was a self-proclaimed libertarian (albeit left-leaning on several topics).

It wasn’t that I agreed with all the reds. But I didn’t agree with all the blues, either. One red introduced himself as a fervent believer that Ronald Reagan was the greatest president of all time. I was similarly uncomfortable when another red said his biggest concern is that America has shifted to the extreme left; that what was radical 10 years ago is now normal and accepted.

My thoughts: Where is it that you live? What America do you see?

At times, I was uncomfortable with my own “team”. One blue (during a break-out session) said that Bernie had crossed the line. Felons? Able to vote? He threw up his hands and everyone else agreed.

I stayed quiet, memories of canvassing in Raleigh, fall of 2008… several men who answered the door looked down at the porch and said, “Felony, can’t vote.” I now work with a former felon. It pains me to use that label because he’s not that. He paid his debt and transformed into a peace-maker, even in prison, helping people learn how to restore themselves and others to their better selves.

The biggest takeaway for all 10 of us was this: The issues that reds and blues chose to stereotype about their own parties (we were asked to articulate what the other color thinks of us, first, and then articulate our reality) — were virtually identical. For example:

Abortion: Blues said they may be seen as “baby killers” but they wanted women to have some agency over their own bodies; reds said they were all considered pro-life, but this did not apply to a large faction of the party.

Guns: Reds said they imagined blues thought they were “gun nuts” but most were, in fact, in favor of reasonable regulation. Blues thought they were seen as pushing to eradicate the second amendment, but they wanted kids to be safe at school and everyone to be safer in public spaces.

Environment: Blues stated the “tree huggers, anti-business” stereotype but they wanted a sustainable world for future generations with corporations paying fair taxes; reds said they were seen as “non-green” but that most were not climate change deniers.

Immigration: Blues thought reds saw them as no-walls, no restrictions and reds thought blues saw them all as anti-immigration, eager to build walls ‘at any cost’. Both groups saw themselves as more centrist.

Toward the end, someone mentioned how we were more productive in those three hours than Congress had been in years. We all chuckled, but there was a sadness behind it. If there was any truth in the quip, it is that our two-party dysfunction seems unending. Will it ever get better?

Photo by Ali Yahya on Unsplash

Maybe. I visualize Billy Pilgrim wearing an n=1 tee. I imagine him somehow finding the insight he needs to unstrap himself from the railcar and remove the narrow pipe from his one eye. Being human, he’ll still be burdened with another (hopefully wider) pipe to look through. Not perfect, but a few more pixels of color, maybe new movement or shape to consider.

Especially now, it’s important to be better angels. Not out of obligation to others but to responsibly stop ourselves from falling headlong for data, sound bites, polls and posts, influencers and bots, ratings and tweets to describe the whole picture. None of these will give us the insights we need. Having conversations with curiosity will. It takes a bit of dedicated time, like reading a novel, to stop conflating knowledge and insight. To consider that all we know isn’t our entire landscape of possibilities.

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Tending to Social Justice as a Garden

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Community love takes patience, persistence, and long-term perspective

Despite pollen, I love spring. Our little house sits on a small yard, almost no grass. The rock-lined paths and mulched areas already overtaken by weeds, sprouting acorns, and creeping vines.

Today I decided to pull up what I can, and to not overdo. To pull out patience with the wheelbarrow: this work will take a while.

The less-than-glamorous task of weeding is a good metaphor to doing the work of love. Sounds strange: the work of love. Yet, love is work. Whether for a person or a group of people whose inequitable rights and welfare stir you to plant some seeds of action. First, prepare the ground.

If you’re just coming into social justice work or thinking about becoming more involved, these four points (grown from my own reality) may be helpful:

  • Expect to pull a lot of weeds and enjoy whatever’s blooming (or budding) in the present moment.

I’m involved in two small non-profits. Weeds of resistance (some community voices oppose the work we do) but also weeds of disorganization — and sometimes contention — within. Take time to celebrate what you are able to contribute and the small wins of your collective.

  • Sometimes, it’s overwhelming. Start somewhere.

Go to an event, a rally, a monthly meeting. And don’t think you don’t matter because you’re new to an organization or a cause. The best allies are are humble, yet brave enough to say, I’d like to help; what can I do?

  • Do something, even if it’s making name tags or bringing a friend to a second meeting.

Some weeks, I can only edit press releases and other social media posts. At other times, I can help lead events and trainings. You don’t have to prove your worthiness by overdoing.

  • Once you begin, you’ll notice how some things are not as hard as you thought, but usually they are more so.

Top reasons why people drop out of community love work is they burn out, they get discouraged (by lack of progress), or frustrated about dysfunction within the group they support.

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

When you can only see the weeds, remember:

  • Take time for internal love work. Rest, recharge, and remind yourself that you are doing important work.
  • When discouraged, think of the movement as a tender child. Would you give up on your child, niece or friend? Did everyone give up on you when you were struggling? Love takes patience and trust.
  • When things aren’t working, speak up respectfully. After you’ve put in some time (I recommend a year at least) and built relationships, ask your leader if they would like your feedback. If not, perhaps you find another organization to support; if so:
  • Don’t only express the negatives. Highlight what you appreciate about their leadership and the progress that’s been made. Express that you, like them, want to be part of the solution.

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When You Can’t Get a Do-over and You Can’t Get Over It

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Turning disappointment into the story you’ll want to live

When a toddler squeals, Do it again!, she’s joyfully learning through repetition. When she’s six years old and yells, Do-over!, she either wants to prove that she can do what she wasn’t able to demonstrate moments before, or to argue that the situation was unfair.

Within a few short years, she’ll understand that adults get very few do-overs. Especially with big decisions.

This fact feeds our need for fiction, to create stories that allow us to travel through time and set wrongs right. I regularly crave movies like Back to the Future, Groundhog Day, and 13 Going on 30, among many others that scratch the do-over itch. There’s comfort in witnessing redemptive do-overs, even when they’re pretend.

What if I had? What if I hadn’t?

Our highly evolved brains are capable of second-guessing what might have happened if we’d chosen differently — especially when we believe we have suffered or could have prevented it.

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When my second husband left quite suddenly (on a Christmas Day), you might imagine how many what-if scenarios went through my badly wounded ego which was in serious cahoots with my emotional mind.

What if I had listened to my friend Pamela’s words of caution? What if I hadn’t lost that first baby? Then, the sobering thought: I wouldn’t have given birth to my youngest daughter. And her sons wouldn’t be here, either.

I recently went through the same second-guessing game when I quit my job last year, one I’d excitedly moved hundreds of miles for in 2015. Why did I believe that teaching at my alma mater would be my dream job? What if I had asked better questions or been bolder about what I wanted during the interviews? What if I hadn’t quit the corporate job that paid 2.5 times more?

How Addiction Recovery Can Help

Thirty years ago the notion of accepting what I couldn’t control seemed like Total Defeat to my young-adult self. Introduced to a 12-step program that I desperately needed, I worked the program for three years with moderate success.

Photo by mibnufajar on flickr

Until I realized the difference between acceptance and giving up agency (which I’d confused with control), I felt disempowered — something my high-achieving, high locus of control self couldn’t handle.

Yet, I began to see the nuances. If getting older has taught me nothing else, it’s that shit happens and I have to let most of it go or lose the saner, kinder parts of myself.

When I started to let go and accept what I couldn’t change (still in progress), I found opportunities to apply this first recovery step to my own and others’ addictions, neuroses, and unexplainable actions:

“We admitted we were powerless over _____, that our lives had become unmanageable.”

The powerlessness doesn’t mean we are not powerful. It means that we can’t control everything (or the actions of those we care about). My own imaginary super-power-agency needed to change before I could ease my pain and the pain I was causing others.

Buddhism and Stoicism — Misunderstood but Mighty Helpful

For a good, short article on Buddhism, PhD Confidential gets it right: that the Buddhist ideas of suffering (dukkha) and acceptance are commonly misconstrued and reduced to “life is suffering, just accept it”.

But this reduction isn’t accurate. Instead, “Everything in life is temporary, arising and falling away.” Buddhism proposes a model of reality as a stream of events rather than a thing. It’s the clinging to these temporary states that causes pain, clinging to a future that’s different than what we envision or desire.

Photo by Armin Lotfi on Unsplash

Stoicism overlaps with Buddhism pretty nicely. Ancient stoics taught the development of self-control and fortitude as a way to overcome destructive emotions (and no doubt, ruminating over everything). Clearer, unbiased thinking allows us to understand the universal reason (logos), expressed by Nature.

Stoicism is a way to improve our ethical and moral well-being: Virtue is simply another way of saying that a person’s will is in agreement with Nature. Stoicism also helps with interpersonal relationships: “to be free from anger, envy, and jealousy” because we are all part of Nature.

Whether we believe that our life is in the hands of God or Nature/universal logos or nothing, we don’t like to hurt, to do what is right only to be disappointed, or to be treated unfairly. To lose someone. To work hard without reward. To be wronged.

Any person capable of angering you becomes your master — Epictetus

Stoicism doesn’t mean giving in and crumbling. Virtue means remaining strong without the emotional attachment to the bad, the good and everything in between.

Now What? Just Accept It Sucks and Get Over It?

Not really. Acceptance is like the first step you take in physical therapy after weeks in a cast. Its payoffs are much greater than “getting over it”.

Acceptance isn’t accessible or experienced in the same way for everyone. For instance, I’m not so good at self-awareness. I don’t think to stop and take my emotional temperature when it’s so much easier for me to gauge others’ emotional temps. I now try to track how often I return to thoughts of regret, annoyance, resentment, anger.

If I’d asked myself these questions instead of resisting that first step, I might have moved past “what if I’d?” months before I was finally able to do so:

  • What is the loss beneath the loss? What will I have to leave behind?

Both losses meant that I wasn’t as in control as I’d thought and that scared me. I’d imagined that me, myself, and I could successfully make a work role or a spouse role fit. I had to leave my control fantasy behind. Again!

My imaginary control helped keep my marriage and job unhappiness to a low simmer. A state I told myself was normal. I also needed to admit that I had erred by ignoring or minimizing ongoing issues. That was uncomfortable. But I sat with it and realized my culpability. The discomfort lifted.

  • What good has come out of this? What can I accept with gratitude?

This isn’t a fluff, feel-good question. It was important to get to a point where I didn’t look at either situation as unrecoverable or life-defining. Only then, could I see options that weren’t possible if I’d stayed in that job or remained with my ex.

The first gratitude I remember acknowledging with each was identical: I have the opportunity to be more of myself.

One year (and a week) after my ex left, my now-husband moved from Atlanta to my town. We had dated for two years a decade earlier, ending it when he moved to London. We’d miraculously gotten a do-over that we waited to celebrate publicly when my youngest daughter helped him plan our wedding — four years later.

  • What story or scene can I craft that helps balance the bad with the good?
Photo by Ahmet Sali on Unsplash

I find comfort in comedy. While I couldn’t see it through my rage at the time, beating the side of the garage, screaming at an aluminum mop handle until the poor thing contorted to a pile of twisted pipes had to be hilarious. (The kids weren’t home to witness, but now I hope the neighbors had a laugh.)

  • What if that bad thing hadn’t happened? If I could go back and have a do-over, would I?

This is always a tricky question. To mess with history could mean The Man in the High Castle or a bully like Biff getting his comeuppance. Or it could mean an infinite number of less dramatic, funny, strange, boring outcomes.

When I got to the realization that neither my ex nor my job was all bad — that a lot of good things happened when I was in those roles — I focused less on wishing for a do-over and more on getting to work on doing something meaningful: becoming more me.

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What We Will Do To Belong

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Status, Salvation, and Swastikas: Indoctrination is a group thing

I finally found the magazine Annette gave me last month. Annette is one of seven Clemson “sisters” I met through a professional women’s organization in 1989. All eight of us were plenty busy running businesses, careers and families, but we made the time to cultivate deep connections. We dug beyond work-life balance, pay equity, and sexual harassment into repressed desires, regrets, and who God might be. Thirty years deep.

The best group experience I’ve ever had is with these women. In spite of the dumb shit each of us occasionally does. The Sisters are slow to criticize and quick to forgive. I didn’t do anything to deserve inclusion. I just belong.

My mind was on the rarity of groups like ours as I flipped past the perfumed ads, fashion (who buys $395 earrings?), and finally a section toward the back featuring major belief changes, as in I was a white supremacist skinhead and now lead a group called Life After Hate and The Latter Day Saints were everything to me until my son came out.

Why We Leave Groups

I know quite a bit about social identity, our sense of who we are based on group membership. But I’m always fascinated to learn how people leave an identity (even a socially-judged bad one). Especially when that identity provides a strong source of belonging.

For many, leaving a group is triggered by an event, like a child’s coming out, that compels the parent to re-examine religious beliefs. For others, it’s a longer road marked with bouts of cognitive dissonance. Only after enough wear and tear against their core values do they leave the group. And not always all at once; sometimes it’s a slow tapering off.

Groups are Groups

Comparing membership in a terrorist organization and membership in a church or any social identity group (e.g., work, gender, ethnicity) may sound crazy or morally wrong, but basically, groups are groups. And they are powerful. So much so, that one’s group identity can become more important than one’s identity as an individual.

Much of a group’s power over the individual stems from indoctrination. Not all groups indoctrinate to the same extent. Indoctrination is simply teaching someone to accept a set of beliefs without questioning them.

If you’ve attended religious services or school, worked in an organization, served in the military, or a learned a profession or trade, you have been indoctrinated.

The very fact of being born into a culture, any culture, is an experience of indoctrination.

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But, isn’t membership in a hate group something significantly different? The group output may be entirely different, but the process of attachment and resulting actions and commitment (strength of identity) to the group is not.

  • Merely classifying people into groups makes us think of ourselves as group members. This simple categorization leads to in-group favoritism and out-group discrimination. Recall Jane Elliot’s Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes experiment. (We don’t have to have hateful intention, but we do tend toward comparative superiority.)
  • We then act in ways we believe members of our group should behave. For example, if I define myself as a social justice advocate, I get trained in restorative practices, volunteer to conduct community circles, and donate to political and social organizations that seek equity. I become emotionally invested in my group membership. My self-esteem is even affected by the status my group, which I (and my group members) work to elevate.

Remember the Stanford Prison Experiment?

Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended after only six days because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated. In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress. — Philip G. Zimbardo

  • We continue to compare our group with other groups in both prestige and social standing. We must perceive our in-group as having a higher social status (we are in some way better) than an out-group to maintain high self-esteem.

How Does Indoctrination Work?

Skinhead Stories

Mix youthful angst with a history of being bullied; add parental abandonment, apathy, and lack of structure. This is a familiar backstory shared by former extremists. When adopting a clique whose emblems are swastikas and Confederate flags, for example, you don’t have to know what they mean or believe in them:

I just knew that I could be violent and angry around them, and they never questioned what was wrong with me. I thought, ‘this must be where I fit.’ Before long, I was being indoctrinated. — Angela King

For Ms. King, as I suspect is the case for other former members, the skinheads served an important purpose: she found a place where she got to blame her parents and most of society, she got to aggressively act out her pain and was vindicated, even celebrated for doing so.

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And despite her aversion to Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 bombing of a federal building resulting in 168 deaths (including children), she continued membership in the group, stealing and assaulting until she was arrested and sent to prison. While there, she met and fell in love with a black woman. The wear and tear of her cognitive dissonance, coupled with a life-changing event behind bars created the opportunity for radical change and transformation.

Enter the Enemy

Sometimes the catalytic event is an enemy in the next cell. And sometimes it’s an unexpected enemy, a loathed out-group member who comes to you, asking to listen and learn. Daryl Davis has befriended KKK members for decades and now has 200-plus relinquished white robes in his closet. Evidence of (voluntarily) hanging up individual KKK identities built on fear and hate. How does he do it?

[w]hen two enemies are talking, they’re not fighting. It’s when the talking ceases that the ground becomes fertile for violence. If you spend five minutes with your worst enemy — it doesn’t have to be about race, it could be about anything…you will find that you both have something in common. As you build upon those commonalities, you’re forming a relationship and as you build about that relationship, you’re forming a friendship. That’s what would happen. I didn’t convert anybody. They saw the light and converted themselves.- Daryl Davis

Less Radical Conversions

Leaving in-groups isn’t all that rare. Especially when you consider the breadth of social identity groups. I tend to think of conversions from one identity to another as road-to-Damascus phenomena (Saul became Paul, a follower of Christ, after being struck by a blinding heavenly light).

But less dramatic conversions — social, political, religious — happen over time to most of us; it’s part of human development. The point is not to change for change’s sake, but to not blithely belong to an identity that doesn’t fit.

People who question and explore their identities (group or individual) inspire me. Putting out feelers to assess group “fit” according to who we think we are, (especially in our teens and early adulthood) is nothing new. But identity quests are increasingly common among Gen Z. If the fluidity of gender and exploration of ethnicity are an indication of the future, perhaps more empathy, and less stereotyping and discrimination will result.

Groups Are Not The Problem

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Groups can do damage but they are necessary for healthy human development. In fact, individuality at its best is the ability to be a unique member of a group. This paradox is why we can’t throw the group identity bathwater out with the baby (or vice versa). And this is very hard.

As Irami Osei-Frimpong points out, liberals can confuse individuality with indeterminacy:

So, they’ll tell you that you can reclaim your individuality by not being a member of anything. But really, when you aren’t a member of anything, you are nothing. You are indeterminate. You are a floating nothing.

A better solution is to accept our evolutionary need to belong to groups with self-awareness and accountability:

  1. We are all indoctrinated into values, beliefs and ways of doing things (culture) from birth. We tend not to question culture because … why would we? It’s like asking fish why they swim in water.
    Keep alert. Talk to others you trust when you feel any friction (wear and tear) against your values.
  2. Our in-groups significantly determine our thoughts and actions. We can’t help but compare ourselves to those in the out-group (everyone else) as different, lacking, and even inferior.
    Take an short audit of your groups. Do they depend on an “enemy”? Do they hold themselves accountable?
  3. We get competitive and sometimes violent to maintain our self-esteem, which is significantly influenced by group belonging.
    Do you find that you’re anxious, fearful that you’re not good enough according to group standards? Does the group exist to harm other people in any way?
  4. We can’t escape our need to belong. Groups are not the problem; the problem is unexamined beliefs with no room to question, disagree, and discuss them.
    Are people within your group able to question or challenge what the leader says?

There’s a reason groupthink is still taught in the social sciences.

Sometimes I miss teaching that content. It’s been one year since leaving a 25-year work identity as a professor. Now my identity has shifted to working with others interested in both individuality and a collective goal of turning institutions of oppression into institutions of freedom. A group that keeps its members accountable.

I have my Clemson Sisters to thank for that.

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The Cancer of Privileged Expectations

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How to kill delusions of getting our way while keeping hope alive

“Life’s under no obligation to give us what we expect.” — Margaret Mitchell

Everyone has their blind spots. Blame nature, nurture, hard-to-break habits. One of my weaknesses is that I conflate hope and expectation.

Just because I really want something and work hard to make it happen doesn’t mean it will. I put too much stock into may and might, like an overly excited kid whose parent says “maybe someday” to her pleas for a puppy.

I don’t realize why I feel depressed until I admit that what I’d hoped for was what I was set on happening. This is embarrassing on a lot of levels.

First, I’m white, not poor, and heterosexual. Being female and politically blue in a red state has its occasional issues but I am certainly among the privileged. Privileged folks have more success in getting what we want.

Second, I’m educated (also tied to privilege), and I should know better. If nothing else, basic probability theory doesn’t change by blowing on dice. My wanting and wishing won’t change snake eyes (pair of ones) into ballerina (two twos).

Third, add to the above certain traits like idealistic, moderately neurotic, an internal locus of control with Type A tendencies and viola!

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Is It Just Me? Or Could Our Culture Play a Part?

Decades before The Secret, a 2006 Oprah-lauded book based on the law of attraction, a lot of best-sellers claimed that your thoughts can directly change your life.

The basic formula of expectations = success has been in circulation long before self-help was a genre.

For starters, Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich was published in 1937 (it followed Hill’s The Law of Success in 1928). Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 classic, The Power of Positive Thinking, also remains a best-seller.

And before these publications, Calvinism, bootstrapping and rugged individualism played a huge role in America’s lone-wolf hero mythology. Walt Disney’s, “If you can dream it, you can do it” is like saying, “If you want it, believe that you can do it, and you will.” (All of those contingencies depend on you and nothing or no one else.)

We’re culturally set up to think this way. And that’s not going to change, not today anyway. So, what’s the harm in believing? Aren’t positive people, even when they’re a bit delusional, nicer to be around? I’d much rather spend an hour with Ms. Confident and Mr. I’ve Got a Good Feeling than with a real-life Eeyore.

A Little Stoicism Shines a Spotlight

A good read on the lackluster benefits of positive thinking (and mega-motivational conferences that peddle it) is Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking.

Burkeman says it’s not the work toward hoped-for outcomes that gets us into trouble. It’s our tidy expectations of how and when we will be successful that messes us up. The path that ultimately leads to happiness will be paved more smoothly by “embracing imperfection, and easing up on the search for neat solutions.” This stoic path requires that we don’t ignore (or dismiss) that we in fact may not get what we want. And that’s guaranteed by our very mortality.

Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

A Place for Negative and Positive Space in the Same Brain

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. — F. Scott Fitzgerald

While attitudes influence positive (and negative) outcomes, our thoughts and moods don’t directly lead to those outcomes. Instead, our attitudes and thoughts affect our willingness — the fuel — to keep going and to give our best.

If I’m in a good place psychologically, I tend to work eagerly and I’m more likely to pour more positivity into that work. Which increases the probability of success — but only in terms of what I can control.

Thinking positively does not, itself, cause successful outcomes.

So Do We Try to Get Rid of Expectations or Just Lower them?

Eliminating unrealistic expectations — the hoped for outcome we absolutely and sometimes desperately want—can feel like depriving us of hope’s best case scenario.

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

The idea is not to dilute what you hope for, but to temper what you expect. Over time, self-imposed high expectations create unsustainable demands on us and others.

By using a simple STOIC reminder, we can temper inflated expectations.

S = Stay focused on balancing your ideal outcome with other realistic possibilities. Thinking about how great it would be if your hopes materialize is certainly okay. But don’t dwell there. Consider other possibilities, including more negative outcomes, including what if things don’t change?

T = Take time to put your life into perspective. What does your hoped for outcome matter in the long run? A practicing stoic would remind us that we’re all going to die someday, which is a way to help us be present right now.

O = Offer thanks. For everything.

I = Invite unexpected visitors:

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond. — Rumi, translation by Coleman Barks

C = Create more grace for yourself and others. Our very lives are not within our control. We were born into and will leave these bodies — and not according to anyone’s expectations. Including our own.

Don’t Give Up Hope

Adjusting expectations to fit more realistic probabilities is not a “one and done” endeavor. Especially for those of us who confuse expectations with hope. The point is not to dash dreams. Hope is a good thing:

Hope is a good thing maybe even the best of things and good things never die. — Andy Dufresne, Shawshank Redemption

And if hope is indestructible, it helps to envision expectations as something fragile that we choose to carry on a long journey:

Expectations were like fine pottery. The harder you held them, the more likely they were to crack. — Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings

Of course, we don’t have to carry any expectations at all. I’m not sure whether that might be true enlightenment or another unrealistic expectation.

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The Blur Between Being Friendly and Being a Friend

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Ellen’s coming out about George started something worth wrestling with

The word friend has become really fuzzy. Way before Ellen’s video about being friends with George W. Bush. Yet, strangely, all the social media backlash has brought two questions into focus:

  1. What is a friend versus being friendly?
  2. Must we be “aligned” with others’ beliefs and actions to be a friend?

The meaning of friend or friendship is about as amorphous as love. Especially since Facebook. Collecting “friends” has never been easier or dicier.

Clear definitions are important because language is about utility. So that we can better understand one another. The term friend has become about as useful as trying to change someone’s opinion with facts.

Initially, the Ellen clip struck me as a funny, timely Hallmark message. But of course, it’s not just any ‘ol conservative she befriended. It’s that guy who, in a different era or political climate, could have been tried as a war criminal.

Bush’s beliefs are irrelevant here; his actions are what matters. He was one of the most destructive presidents in modern American history; a man who has never been held to account for a long litany of crimes, misdeeds, and abuses of power committed during his two bloodstained terms in office. The reason “43” should be treated as a pariah is not because he is a Republican or a conservative, but because he caused the deaths of thousands of innocent people and tortured hundreds of others. — Medhi Hasan, The Intercept

I remember good ol’ George W, whom I’d never imagine referring to as good ‘ol if we didn’t have the current Oval Office occupant as a reference point. I remember where I was March 19, 2003, when the first Tomahawk missiles hit Iraq: Behind the wheel of my parked car in a faculty lot, tuned to WUNC, vaguely aware that I would need to stop crying before walking to class.

My Daughter’s Post

In the immediate wake of the Ellen video, my daughter posted an NPR story about Daryl Davis, an African American who befriended dozens of KKK members for over 30 years. She said she was a fan of speaking her mind to people she doesn’t agree with. (I can attest to that!) But that she also was a fan of surrounding herself with diverse people. “If we stay in our bubble, how can things change?”

Even though she’s in her 30s, it’s hard for me to read harsh comments on her wall. Actually, scratch that. The comments weren’t that harsh. (But my own slip into fragility here will help illustrate another point in a few paragraphs).

Ahem. Some opposing comments her “friends” wrote on her wall felt like something big was starting to rub up against my beliefs or values or ego. Maybe all three. Like a bit of friendly fire in my brain.

Comments went something like this (paraphrasing):

It’s a straw man to dismiss others’ feelings by calling for “kindness” when the root of their upset is forceful use of government to codify unkindness.

The left is always willing to listen. Those that need to listen are the right.

You insinuate that we should forget justified grievances in the name of showing kindness. Those grievances are because he wasn’t kind. He started a revolution in politics of unkindness; he is a symbol.

There are some a-holes on the left. But their anger is usually due to oppression. Your solution advocates appeasement… telling the oppressed to be nice to the oppressor and all will be good. And the oppressor says, Yeah, see, your leader says be nice to us… and then they go on to heighten the oppression.

Photo by June Intharoek from Pexels

Her responses:

Not advocating appeasement at all. Personal relationships can be a good foundation for having difficult conversations. That’s not appeasement. That’s healthy conflict.

Having a personal relationship with someone can make tough conversations a lot more fruitful.

The discussion wasn’t between Republicans and Democrats. But it quickly took on a win-lose vibe.

Kind of a Friend

So I’m meeting a kind-of-a-new-friend over coffee two days later. She asked me to meet her a week before, intimating that it had to do with her run for a local office next year. We’ve been Facebook friends for a year or more; we’re in a few local (political and social) groups. I assume she’s going to ask me to help with campaign communications, writing posts, that kind of thing.

The night before the meeting, I wrestle with a couple things:

1. While most of her posts are ones I agree with, and some I’m not sure about but they get me to think, a few are too much for me. The ones that call out white women as responsible for our social and political problems. I KNOW my gender and race are big parts of the problem but it feels like she’s trying to alienate, not educate, white women. Will this be an issue for me?

2. While her more inflammatory posts don’t put me off in terms of being friendly, being in the same book club (it’s called White Ladies Get Your Shit Together), and being a helpful neighbor, could I work for her campaign?

Could I canvas and convince constituents — mostly white in our district — that her comments about white women on social media are meant to hold us responsible, to get us to think about our bubbles, our silence, our privilege and our implicit biases?

Our coffee shop conversation begins with the Ellen/George thing, moves into my daughter’s post and the responses to it. I broach the blurriness of friendship in question form. What is it?

She talks about her senior year in high school when a debate teacher “had the audacity to tell me that I came across uppity. Basically I was a snob and none of my friends could tell me that.”

Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

So we talked about what friendship means — especially within the white girl lanes that we knew so well: validating everything about the other; being on guard not to hurt one another’s feelings, even when you knew they were wrong; putting yourself down to praise someone else; “protecting” fragile feelings.

We mused about the kind(s) of women we’d be if we’d been taught to be an honest friend to others and expected nothing less in return.

We talked about pathologies that stem from patriarchal culture, centuries of reinforced white fragility, fear of “other,” and the privilege of turning away from racial and poverty issues.

This new friend or person I’m friendly with doesn’t turn away. At all. We are in a town that is purple in a sea of red (major districts of Atlanta, withstanding).

For example, State Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, a Cobb Co. Republican, was quoted this week in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Most of my neighbors want to be left alone and raise their kids. They’re not at the Capitol waving signs,” said Kirkpatrick, a surgeon. “Our party sometimes gets a little off when we let a few people make loud noises and hijack the whole thing.

It takes the constitution and commitment of the person I’m now friendly with to make the loud noises and say the things that are uncomfortable. Even when she paints white women with such a broad brush (sigh).

At the end of our exciting and extended meeting, she asked (surprisingly tentatively) if I’d be willing to host a neighborhood meet and greet for her next month.

I think she saw my half-second pause before I said “sure” as being less than sure. But I was simply surprised she didn’t ask me to do more.

She and I may never have a closer encounter than our two-hour meeting at the coffee shop, but the cool thing is I don’t have to put her into one of two categories: friendly or friends.

And as for the DeGeneres/Bush thing? I asked my kind-of-a-friend what she thought about people being capable of real change, “Yeah. Of course people change. We don’t do a good job taking that into account.”

I was glad to hear her say that. Not that I was seeking her approval or anything.

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Lorde Help Us

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Brandt Jean’s call for forgiveness set off a few alarms. We should listen.

Consciously study how to be tender with each other until it becomes a habit.” — Audre Lorde

Brandt Jean, brother of 26-year-old Botham Jean who was shot dead in his own apartment, extended nothing less than amazing grace to the officer who killed his brother.

Jean not only forgave Amber Guyger. He expressed love for Guyger. And then he asked permission to embrace her, which he did a very long time.

It was astonishing and beautiful in its authenticity.

Yet, I couldn’t share it. Couldn’t like it, love it, be sad or angry about it.

There are no emoticons for moments that reveal our deepest, fullest humanity. Especially when our country has a history that continues to haunt us.

No need for a history lesson. We already have too many fresh reminders like Garner, Brown, Bland, Rice, Jean and many others to believe that the next death of an innocent black or brown citizen will end in justice: a sentence that is equally meted out, regardless of race.

But when a white defendant is remorseful, admits error, and is female, the handwriting on the courtroom wall becomes more convoluted. Before sentencing, it appeared to read: This verdict ain’t gonna satisfy nobody.

As I scrolled through my feed after Guyger’s sentence — accompanied by footage of Jean’s statement and the long embrace, followed by the judge hugging Guyger (which I still can’t wrap my head around) — I realized that this verdict would please a lot of people.

And that’s a problem.

Shouldn’t We Try a Little Tenderness?

Brandt Jean’s actions embodied the best of what is humanly possible. The problem is not his humanity.

“Our feelings are our most genuine paths to knowledge.” — Audre Lorde

The problem is that this miraculously tender moment gone viral encourages illusions that make us (especially white people) feel better. It sparks hope that if this can happen, things aren’t really all that bad and maybe they are getting better.

Bernice King, the youngest daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., tweeted that “racism and white supremacist ideology can’t be ‘hugged out.’” The Rev. Michael W. Waters, Dallas pastor and activist, expressed deep concern about how acts of forgiveness (as were extended by members of the historically black Charleston church in 2015) “have been weaponized to thwart our work for justice in this nation.”

Brandt’s actions should not be mistaken as a feel-good indicator that our legacy of racism is fading or ending, that we don’t have to pay as much attention or work quite as hard to combat inequalities, or (gulp) that black people are becoming more tender toward their oppressors.

If we make that mistake, we are fools.

If we are vilify Guyger, we are fools.

If we take up for her, we are fools.

The False Dichotomies Between and Within Us

“I find I am constantly being encouraged to pluck out some one aspect of myself and present this as the meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts of self.” — Audre Lorde

Photo by Julian Schröpel on Unsplash

None of us — within any race, ethnicity, or gender group — is alike. We nod in understanding the dangers of stereotyping, yet if we know two or three Indians or Israelis, for example, we’re tempted to generalize those people’s traits and behaviors to entire cultures.

Black Americans can be equally foreign to white people who say they have black friends, but most often have superficial exchanges or no relationships with them. In fact, most white Americans have no black friends. No wonder why so many Americans actually don’t see — as Lorde put it decades ago — others’ meaningful whole, as other aspects of them are ignored or denied.

This is why it’s so important not to see Brandt Jean only as a black Christian man. Yes, he’s a paragon of grace and agape.

But he’s not the black guy who “gets” white folk.

He’s not giving this country a pass.

He probably struggles with mercy and justice. Just like everyone.

Justice and Mercy

Not between groups, but within each individual exists our greatest differences. And each person is infinitely more complex than hundreds of assessments, surveys or even our autobiographies could possibly reveal about us.

Take the popular Myers-Briggs Temperament Sorter. One of its forced-choice questions is What do you value more: justice or mercy? I don’t like that question. My context-specific head wants to know: to whom and what situation, exactly, would this question apply? There is no box for it depends.

Photo by Clarissa Vannini from Pixabay

Mercy is compassion shown to someone who is powerless or to someone with no right or claim to receive kindness. And justice is guided by truth, reason, and fairness with the aim of being righteous, equitable, or moral.

Which is more important?

In a perfectly equal and equitable world, no one would need mercy and we’d be guided by justice that works for everyone.

But we do need mercy. Not only because our religion, ideology or spirit might urge us to. But because we don’t have justice for all.

Mercy is tenderness. And tenderness can be much harder to give than justice. Especially for people who rarely receive either. And particularly for people like Brandt Jean who offered mercy to someone who represents the power behind and within an unjust system.

Of course, I don’t know thoughts or emotions that Jean might have wrestled with before deciding to publicly forgive Guyger. It seems he would agree with Audre Lorde: that the risk was worth it.

“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.” — Audre Lorde

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Listening at the Intersection of Mercy and Justice

We are entrenched in the same systems of inequality, inequity, and political polarization. Because the systems affect us very differently, we must listen to one another. And especially when we don’t like or agree with what’s said, to remember:

“When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.” — Audre Lorde

Speakers need listeners.

Last week, over 500 registered American voters were invited to spend a weekend outside Dallas to prove that there might be a better way to disagree. (Amazingly, as tension in Washington was building over the possible impeachment of the president, Trump’s name barely came up.)

Put a diverse group of people in a room…and they’re likely to mute their harshest views and wrestle more deeply with rebuttals. They become more informed, even more empathetic… not just relying on sound bites and tribal cues. — The Upshot, New York Times

If you want to listen locally, Better Angels is an organization run by citizens that unites red and blue Americans in a working alliance to depolarize America. My experience with a Better Angels workshop helped me understand several republicans’ views (and those views were surprisingly diverse). It also empowered me to ask questions about the whys behind those views.

Sometimes just asking questions creates space for people to question their own beliefs.

And all I knew was, the only thing I had was honesty and openness.” — Audre Lorde

We can choose to answer the call (and all the alarms) by speaking up. Even when we’re afraid. And we can listen to others who, like us, also get afraid.

Let’s not allow Brandt Jean’s words and gestures to be swallowed in the syrup of the internet, only to become a soon-forgotten meme. Or worse, provide maudlin evidence that all is well.

Audrey Lorde’s body of work is proof that we can stand strong for justice and keep our hearts tender.

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Looking Back to a Kinder Future

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Vonnegut gave us more than an anti-war book; he gave us safe passage to our former selves

It didn’t work out well for Lot’s wife. As you might recall, she was warned not to look back at the Almighty’s wrath. “But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human,” Kurt Vonnegut said.

And I love Vonnegut all the more for writing this line. A timeless vulnerability.

In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut’s best known book, both time and seeing (what we’re able to see) are tightly woven themes. Vonnegut finished Slaughterhouse-Five two decades after witnessing the horrors of World War II. Maybe that time enabled him to find humor in the absurdity of violence, chaos, power, and death. So it goes.

In my worn 1969 copy, flags and folded pages help me locate dozens of jewels. But it’s a smaller, less shiny line, early on in the book when he’s speaking directly to the reader, that intrigues me the most:

People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.

Vonnegut does find a way to look back by creating Billy Pilgrim. Through Billy we can time travel to witness Billy’s past, present and future moments. In order for Vonnegut to tell his story (including the obliteration of Dresden), he needed a character who was both clueless and without choice. One that became unstuck in time, ping-ponging around from his death to his birth.

It’s a genius device, still, 50 years later. Slaughterhouse-Five is also the book I’ve found to be helpful, even therapeutic, in accepting the less-than-book-worthy stories I’ve told myself about my life.

Sometimes the war is within

Let me be clear: I’m not comparing a soldier’s war experiences with my own civilian, privileged life. I do suggest that Vonnegut’s approach to revisiting the horrors of what he experienced could be a useful way to make peace with the past.

If the looking back is painful or keeps you stuck, create a character you can empathize with.

Consider your younger self as a character in a chapter of your life’s book. I had an opportunity to try this on during my recent trip home to the Midwest. Before I left for the airport, I got in my head about letting my close high school friends know I was coming. I felt guilty for two years going by and I didn’t want to come across as ‘Hey! I’m on my way back! Drop everything!

So I tried to imagine a young girl (me) 40 years ago — as clueless as Billy Pilgrim. Not stupid, just ignorant about who she could become and all the possibilities her future might offer. As my compassion grew for her, so did my desire to see my friends.

Photo by sergio souza from Pexels

In fact, they were incredibly kind. Debbie came over to my parents’ house after she’d worked a full day and helped care for her friend’s aged father. Steve bought me a drink the day he was struggling with news of his sister’s cancer diagnosis and getting through the anniversary of his partner’s death. Teri treated me to breakfast, then later dropped off a gift bag with my favorite things. Signe rearranged her hospital schedule so that we could meet.

The day before we left my hometown, my husband looked at the sun setting on a 180-degree horizon. “I could see myself living here,” he said. And, while I knew he wasn’t asking to move, I didn’t roll my eyes or laugh at the idea. Instead, I remembered what Alain De Botton said,

“[It’s] Never too late to learn some embarrassingly basic, stupidly obvious things about oneself.”

Here they are:

When I moved away, I was not running from home; I was running from me.

Of course, I had a bunch of good reasons for venturing out into the world after high school. Like college and starting a career with a global company that liked to transfer employees, and going back to grad school. Each of my children were born in different states and life on the whole has been a great adventure.

Moving makes a great case for self-development, back in the day what we called “finding yourself.” But the truth is, I’m not lost. Yet, I don’t go home often. And when I do, I get anxious, feel a bit displaced.

What became apparent on this last trip home was this:

I desperately didn’t want to be who I thought I was or who I thought other people thought I was — all those years ago.

As sociologist Charles Cooley pointed out over a century ago, what I think about myself and what I believe other people think about me tend to be the same thing:

I am not what I think I am. I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am.

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I probably wasn’t that different than most of my peers. But it’s hard, even now, to see who I was beyond my neediness. My insecurities. My constant worries over being good/nice/popular/smart/pretty enough.

In fact, in seventh grade I ended up in the ER a few days after the most popular girl in our school screamed obscenities at me with her circle of sycophants gawking at my verbal beatdown. I learned I had ulcers.

Someone told me later that Miss Popular made up the accusations just to mess with me. She wasn’t to blame for the ulcers (I’m sure my worries were eating my stomach lining since elementary school), nor was she the worst thing that ever happened to me. I had a pretty good life then and now.

But my small character didn’t know how to handle conflict.

She didn’t know that conflict is not just okay, it’s inevitable and necessary for social and emotional growth. Instead of avoiding conflict (how I handled the seventh-grade incident and throughout high school) I needed to address it. I needed to save apologies for when I had wronged someone. I needed to stand up for myself, even if I stood alone.

I didn’t know what I needed, because approval was paramount.

Second-wave feminism was happening somewhere, but it was not happening in rural Illinois. Not only were other girls’ judgments of me potential powder kegs, I continued to harm myself by acting how I thought boys needed me to behave.

By conflating a location (home) with a fixed identity, I missed opportunities for character development.

Not only my own character development, but those of my friends and family members. I’d been short-sighted and unfair, somehow assuming that friends and especially my parents would be virtually the same people they were (and only as I saw them) decades ago. So I assumed they continued to see me as I was.

My own stuck perceptions were the problem.

Photo by Victor Freitas from Pexel

A steel helmet, a pipe, and a one-way train

If the former you as a sympathetic character doesn’t work, Vonnegut provides another theme: how little each of us is able to see.

Thanks to Billy’s abductors — four-dimensional beings who see all events in time simultaneously — we’re given this Earthling metaphor: Billy is strapped to a flat slab on a railway, his neck immobile, a long narrow pipe attached to one eye.

Every human perspective is all of a stationary pinprick. And the train we’re attached to is moving in a single direction.

“Whatever poor Billy saw through the pipe, he had no choice but to say to himself, ‘That’s life.’”

But aren’t I different? What about that free will thing?

I’d like to believe that I can see more than a pinprick. But I think the metaphor works. I may have added detail to my tiny aperture when I moved from place to place, but I don’t have a wider perspective than anyone else.

It literally took going home after recently rereading Slaughterhouse-Five to see that I have been unnecessarily stuck in the past.

More than anything, I want to believe I have choice. To change, to love, to learn — even if it means finding out more embarrassingly stupid things about myself.

But those rascally abductors, the Tralfamadores, tell Billy, “Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”

Whether free will exists doesn’t really matter.

I found a way to get unstuck. I’m giving the credit to Mr. Vonnegut.

There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

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