The Bootstraps BS

It’s hard to comprehend that the United States has such insane economic inequality with very little happening to change it. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has a net worth of over $100 billion while countless others are trying to scrape by in debt or homelessness. The contrast between a handful of people with tens of billions of dollars and everyone else couldn’t be starker. And yet, it continues to get worse—without a lot of collective action or governmental change. What the hell?

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around the disparity and callousness, and it seems clear that it has a lot to do with the ol’ bootstraps myth. You know, the idea that every American can pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they choose to do so, and rise to great wealth and social standing. A handful of people have a net worth of billions of dollars because they’re the smartest and hardest-working. The homeless man shooting up on the streets of San Francisco is there because he hasn’t pulled himself up by the bootstraps. He made bad choices or is lazy or isn’t taking advantage of his opportunities.

So the myth goes. And so class divides persist and worsen. A particular person’s situation is deemed the inevitable outcome of how hard they’re trying. Stark inequality throughout the whole country is shrugged at as the resulting separation between the people who tried hard and the people who didn’t.

A widely referenced 2009 Pew survey suggested that a majority of Americans think this way. 71% to 21%, those surveyed said that “personal attributes, like hard work and drive, are more important to economic mobility than external conditions.” If you’re financially successful, you’re an all-American bootstrapper. If you’re struggling, you’re an outcast from the American social contract and you’ve only got yourself to blame.

If economic and social standing are the outcomes of personal character, why would anyone think much of it or work to change it? That’s just the way it is. If you think someday that could be me with billions if I work hard enough!, you probably want things to stay as they are. I’m gonna be in the top income bracket one day, so don’t tax it too much. And don’t give people a *handout* or a leg up who aren’t trying as hard as I am.

But, of course, none of this is really how it works. Wealth in the United States is not some perfectly laissez-faire, unbiased, meritocratic system–where those who have the most worked the hardest and those who are destitute are there because of their lack of effort. Some of the people who are absurdly wealthy just goof around all day. They coast as their fortune–often starting as a sizable inheritance–grows. Meanwhile, millions of middle class and poor Americans hardly have time to rest—working long hours or trying to live out of their car or on the street. America’s inequality, and the particular people who are rich and poor, are not simply the outcomes of effort.

The disparities start at birth, then later continue in second, third, and twentieth chances for some while oppression and shaming for others. Consider how bootstrapping is linked to race and sex. White men with a huge advantage of inheritance and a foot in the door from their white, male buddies are proclaimed to have gotten to the top by virtuousness and industriousness.

While “welfare queens,” “ungrateful” black and brown people, and “reckless” single moms are believed to have every opportunity and support they could need, yet fail to rise up the ladder. They’re accused of not trying, and considered a terrible burden on society. Sometimes a black CEO, or a single mom hustling through night classes, get spotlit as the good, bootstrapping individuals that other black people and women should aspire to be like. The bootstraps bullshit is fully weaponized by loading it with racism and sexism.

The harsh, simple truth is that the majority of us are going to go through costly personal tragedies and uncontrollable struggles to make ends meet. It’s not easy to afford all your material needs all of the time, or to live through the traumas you can’t do anything to prevent.

When you’re knocked down, it’s difficult to recover in America. The United States doesn’t have anything close to a foundational system of social services that other countries do, which ensure that whatever you aspire to and whatever kind of luck you encounter in life, you’ll still have your basic needs provided for. Things like universal healthcare with virtually zero patient cost. Elder care. Child care. Housing. Robust maternity and paternity leave. And more.

In Texas, a 38-year-old teacher, Heather Holland, recently died of complications from the flu when she couldn’t afford the $116 copay for a prescription. Some internet assholes very unhelpfully chimed in to say that she should have had a rainy day fund to cover something like that. That’s some classic bootstrap shaming.

I’ve mentioned before that close to half of Americans couldn’t cover an emergency $400 expense if they needed to. It’s not just Heather Holland and her supposed moral failings. Many unexpected expenses are a lot more than $116 or $400. Cancer treatments can cost tens of thousands of dollars per month. Who’s got a rainy day fund for that? There is no perfect lifestyle and financial plan to prevent everything and afford everything.

While Jeff Bezos sits on billions, hundreds of Amazon employees are in the supplemental nutrition assistance program (formerly known as food stamps). These sad realities say a lot more about the way wealth is immorally distributed than whether or not individual people are trying hard enough to make it.

But our inequality-generating system is rarely challenged in public. The bootstraps myth obscures the crazy head-starts given to some, stifling structural prejudices against others, and the dire need for a strong social support system. People in debt or poverty or failing health are told you need to do better or you failed, so figure out how to get out of it.

That’s really the best this country can do? That’s all we owe to each other?

Everyone deserves to have their basic needs taken care of. Everyone should be supported through misfortune. Not because people are trying hard enough, but because we’re all human beings who want to enjoy life in the face of universal challenges.

Mesmerized at the Surface

I’ve spent more time than I should have thinking about Justin Timberlake’s attempted rebrand with his latest album. The title track video, “Man of the Woods,” deserves its own attention for its bougie, bland white masculinity. I’m most interested in the supposed social commentary in the video for “Supplies.” It reveals a lot about our current state of entertainment as activism.

“Supplies” is clearly grasping at something about feminism and the possibilities of a better future. But the actual moral implications and supplies metaphors are sadly the same old regressive bullshit. Showing a clip of Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey or an “End Racism Now” poster doesn’t really mean anything simply presented without comment. It says little to nothing about where Timberlake stands on all of it. Wow, you saw this stuff on TV and felt sad? Damn, I guess the patriarchy is over now.

When you watch and listen carefully, “Supplies” is mostly just a lot of Timberlake’s usual entendre and objectification—wrapped up in some Blade Runner and Matrix production design to borrow that hope-in-dystopia vibe. The only real agency the heroine has is punching someone and setting fire to a mysterious shrine. The rest of the time she’s Timberlake’s post-apocalypse booty call.

Because those emotionally charged clips are thrown in—and a small child at the end tells someone (who?) to just die already—it certainly feels like the video is portraying something meaningful. It’s sort of edgy or progressive or a laudable artistic entry for feminism or racial equality (or something). Many sites and fans said as much without specifying how it is, exactly. It really isn’t once you go deeper.

Is “Supplies” the most sexist thing of all time? No. Is the beat good? Sure. Can lazily injecting current events into a piece of pop culture start conversations? Possibly. But we’ve got to stop being deluded into thinking that vague emotional appeals are anywhere close to the actual, material engagement that’s needed to transform the ways people’s lives are being destroyed. I guess Timberlake felt like he needed to say something. What came out is ambiguous attention-seeking. Perhaps he should have taken his own advice and said nothing at all.

In the excellent book Infinite Distractions, Dominic Pettman writes that we are no longer distracted away from social turmoil. Instead,

The decoy itself—the thing designed to distract—has merged with the distraction imperative, so that, for instance, news coverage of race riots now distracts from the potential reality and repercussions of race riots. This is a more sophisticated form of propaganda than those engineered in the twentieth century, when the conscious decision would be made to distract from civil rights protests by screening the Miss America Pageant. This new form of distraction—which acknowledges as much as it disavows—is harder to mobilize against, for the simple reason that no one can accuse “the media” of trying to cover up “the truth.” Rather, incessant and deliberately framed representations of events are themselves used to obscure and muffle those very same events.

Acknowledges as much as it disavows. Whether on purpose or accidental, you can purport to be shining a light in the dark while actually obscuring and distracting. Uncomfortable truths are uncomfortable, so it’s a lot easier to point to them in art or news or social media without getting too deep into the details. Hard truths and real moral progress give way to surface-level commotion that only generates likes, views, and emotional gratification.

If we’re actually going to speak truth to power and make inroads for the common good, we have to move away from shallow, Instagram-ready resistance that merely distracts. Art, news segments, protests, tweets, and conversations need to bring the uncomfortable specifics of what’s going on and what needs to be different into focus. This pay discrimination. That thing everyone says or wears that’s actually super racist. This healthcare policy that will give everyone some existential peace. That trope in art and advertisements that just reinforces misogyny. This march that actually excluded and suppressed people who should have had a prominent voice in it. That person in power who’s actually a terrible human being with zero repercussions.

Some sacred cows need to be smashed. Some people who are off to a good start need to be encouraged to go deeper and wider. Others need to realize things are not magically going to be better and we can all relax at brunch just by electing a certain person. Some hot new songs and celebrated movies and heartfelt speeches need to be called out for regurgitating regressive ethics or sounding nice without sticking their neck out.

Even with great intentions, too often we’re getting caught up in news and entertainment and social media content that acknowledge as much as they disavow. We have to dig into the uncomfortable realities around us and stop being mesmerized at the surface.

The Many, the Few, the Stuff

Is there a lot or a little?

Who has it?

These are the basic questions of how we struggle and endure on this pale blue dot. As flesh-and-blood creatures, humans are dependent on all kinds of stuff for our basic survival. Food and water, soaps and medicines, walls and roofs, clothes and shoes. We’re also dependent on other flesh-and-blood humans. To get, give, and exchange stuff with. To nurture us and teach us. For communication and community. For friendship and love.

Our existence is thoroughly material. Stuff and people. Things and bodies. We can only survive by sheer will for so long before we must sip water and chew food. If you left a newborn by itself, it wouldn’t make it very long without nourishment and the protective care of a guardian.

Loneliness at any age is disorienting and dispiriting. We are wired for touch, talk, and relationships. Poverty and homelessness are agonizing and imperiling. Everyone needs a baseline of stuff to protect and care for their body, and a safe place to rest and call home.

Whether there’s a lot or a little, and if it’s evenly distributed or held by just a few, make a significant difference in the quality of our lives and how much struggle it takes to get by. If there is abundance & equality, it’s much easier for everyone to meet their bodily needs and move beyond surviving to thriving. If there is scarcity & inequality, we’re much more likely to come to blows with neighbors or a police state, to have fewer trusting and supportive relationships, to scapegoat others for the lack of stuff or its uneven distribution, and to claw and scrape just to make it another day. Abundance & equality is the future we should fight for. Scarcity & inequality may be the future we end up with.

Today, we’re faced with abundance & inequality, but the kind of abundance there is can’t last forever. We extract, process, and ship far more than the planet can support and renew. It’s overabundance. And yet, much of the bounty is wasted–while too many needlessly go hungry or lack other stuff all humans need and deserve.

Even in the allegedly best and richest country in history, the average American struggles to cover their needs paycheck-to-paycheck, while the Few in the upper class makes tens or hundreds of times more and fortress themselves with excess. The inequality between the Many and the Few is stark and ingrained.

Even amongst the struggle of the Many, some have a much harder time of it than others. In a society with a patriarchal, white racial frame, being black or brown or a woman frequently adds additional obstacles to meeting material needs. Individual people have an individual experience within the broader tug-of-war between the Many and the Few. We need to pay attention as each person points out the intersecting injustices they encounter simply for being who they are.

To have a future of (sustainable) abundance shared equally, there’s a lot of work to do. Protesting and pressuring the Few. Voting better people into office. Imagining better futures. Right now, there’s more stuff out there than the planet can support, with an elite Few controlling and enjoying most of the overabundance. This isn’t coincidence. It’s the long-term result of extracting, storing, and selling stuff without laws and distribution channels that ensure everyone’s needs are met. The result of pursuing more and more, without reasonable restrictions to prevent a small group of people from ending up with it all–and wrecking the Earth along the way.

It’s immoral and insane—making the lives of the Many much more difficult than they should be. There’s solidarity to be found in the universals of our material struggle. If we can achieve that solidarity, we can start building a different, humane arrangement of stuff that gives everyone a chance to thrive.

Some Order in the Chaos

I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I sense that many people think the world works something like this:

If you do good, good things will happen to you.

If you do bad, bad things will happen to you.

The way that you act and the kind of person you are will determine how well or arduously your life goes.

In other words, people reap what they sow. If good things are happening to you, it’s because you did good things. If something bad happened to you, it’s a result of something bad you did. Powerful people are powerful because of the good that they do. Poor people are poor because of the bad decisions they’ve made. Etcetera, etcetera.

But in reality, things frequently go like this:

Bad things happen to people who do good.

Good things happen to people who do bad.

The way that you act and the kind of person you are seems to have little bearing on the enjoyment or difficulties that come your way.

A power-hungry asshole gets the job instead of you–the more intelligent, empathetic person. A benevolent doctor has a career-ending stroke. The corrupt businessman gets a bonus larger than you and fifteen other people will make in your combined lifetimes. You give everything to your significant other, and they leave you for someone else. Things that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy–injury, illness, loss–strike all kinds of people around you.

The only discernible law about how things work is that no matter what kind of person you are, a number of good and bad things will happen to you without much rhyme or reason. Life is frequently unfair. The world is not perfectly karmic. Beautiful, awesome, rewarding things happen. But so do tragic, painful, gut-wrenching things. Sometimes, it’s because of your choices and actions. Other times, it’s pure happenstance. A meaningful and enjoyable life has a lot of luck involved.

So does that mean we should all give up on trying to be better people? If so much is coincidental, shouldn’t we just take as much as we can for ourselves and let other people fend for themselves?

I think it’s actually the opposite. With so much of what makes our lives enjoyable or difficult outside of our control, what we should do is collectively try to bring a little bit of order to the chaos.

We should think about what we can do…

To create support structures that alleviate each other’s suffering and misfortune.

To establish more accountability and transparency–especially with institutions and positions of power.

To ensure that the most vulnerable people have the same basic standard of living as everyone else.

To take care of our mental and physical health so we’re more resilient in the face of adversity.

To be more kind and patient with one another–knowing that each of us is probably struggling through something we didn’t ask for.

How the world works isn’t regularly what we expect or want. It’s up to us to come together and do what we can to make things more just, humane, and enjoyable for everyone.

The United States Cannot Be The World’s Superhero

There’s a natural urge to want something done when you see injustice. Human beings are wired for community, collaboration, and fairness. If someone or a whole group of people is wronged, we can feel in our gut that there’s a need for the wrong to be made right.

At a time when people around the world are as interconnected as they’ve ever been, with 24/7 media coverage of nearly every corner of the globe, we are constantly made aware of a multitude of conflicts, crimes, dysfunctions, and dehumanizing acts. Famine, war, oppression, poverty, and more.

Once you become aware, you feel the weight of the injustice and the longing for resolution.  

Who’s going to fix this stuff?

For some time now, there has been a widely held assumption that–as the world’s only true superpower–the United States will step in to right such wrongs. If there’s a brutal dictator, the US will remove them from power. If there’s a war, the US will show up with guns blazing to take over for the good guys. If there is famine or poverty, the US will provide essential resources.

That all sounds pretty hopeful and noble. Captain America will be there when things get bad! We all long for a force that can intervene no matter how dire and horrifying things get. That’s the appeal of superheroes. If only it were that simple.

With nearly 200 countries in the world, there’s no way that one of them–however powerful–can show up and rectify every act of injustice in the world. It would require an impossible amount of people, resources, and time. How much thinner can the United States stretch itself than it already has? How do you choose which international injustices get attention and which can be ignored?

Even if the United States or any other superpower could intervene anywhere and everywhere, countries are sovereign spaces. They have their own political systems, beliefs, identities, and goals. The US should not step in as it pleases–no matter how good the intentions. Millions of Americans were outraged at the slightest suggestion of foreign interference in our 2016 presidential election. How do other countries feel when the US barges in and imposes its will in much more drastic and consequential ways?

Frankly, the United States doesn’t have a great track record. There’s a long history of fragile and struggling states because the US intervened without a long-term plan for the prosperity and sustained independence of those places. Without a plan that meets those countries’ ideals and goals and respects their autonomy. More often than not, US intervention creates a vacuum, establishes what’s purely in America’s interests, or leaves things worse than they were before.

As often as possible, justice needs to emerge from within a country rather than heavily influenced by external forces. The United States and others may be able to provide support, guidance, or some resources from the outside. But they should definitely not be the primary actor and influencer within other countries. Too often it leads to destabilization and ruin.

And honestly, we have enough of our own injustices to rectify within the United States. A broken healthcare system. Voter suppression. Widespread unemployment, underemployment, and economic inequality. Various local environmental disasters and a transcendent climate crisis that’s constantly worsening. And much more.

How might things be different if we had used the amount spent on the deadly, failed wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria–something like 3.5 trillion dollars and counting–on the wrongs within the United States?

What effort has gone into establishing more fair and accountable police forces? Toward fair and equal voting? Toward employment and a robust social safety net? Toward a renewable energy system and environmental restoration?

The United States can’t do it all. It often makes injustices in other countries worse. And there are already millions in American neighborhoods who are suffering and forgotten. America needs to learn how to be just in our own communities instead of arrogantly and brashly trying to be the savior of the whole world. If we must lead, let’s lead by example in the way our own country’s wrongs are righted. That would be truly patriotic and powerful.

Is There a “We”?

You may have noticed that I say we a lot. Good ol’ first person plural pronoun. I like we because it can convey inclusivity. We can stand in for you and I and him and her and everyone elseWe can mean all of us, together. Though that may seem rather simple and obvious, I think it’s incredibly significant. Because whatever this is we’re in right now, we’re in it together. We’ve got one planet to care for or destroy. And we are the only human species left on the planet. For everything that makes one person different from the 7.5 billion others, we are more alike than we are different.

But while there is an all-inclusive we in theory, it often fails to materialize in the real world. A we that embraces everyone doesn’t come naturally. It has to be cultivated, fought for, and protected.

There is often a suspicion of others. Can they be trusted? Are they like me? Are they nice to me and appreciate who I am? If there’s any kind of wat all, it starts and often remains as a very small group. Just the people who seem safe, trustworthy, and have many of the same traits and beliefs as you do. Human consciousness begins with clear-cut ingroups and outgroups. Us and them. If there’s a we it’s an exclusive one: “he and I, but not you.” Other people are labeled as those, them, and you in a way that suggests they are wholly different from me and my ingroup.

And oftentimes there isn’t even an exclusive we. Just billions of individuals bumping into each other on the street and online. These are my needs and desires. How are they going to be fulfilled? Why should I give a shit about anyone else’s?

No one’s taking the time to listen to me. Why should I listen to them? 

My significant other never goes out of their way for me. Why should I for them?

That person never likes what I post. Why would I like any of their stuff?

That movement doesn’t help people like me. What do I care?

Many of us see fellow humans as competitors in a zero-sum game. If someone else is winning, I’m losing. If I want to win, someone else needs to lose. We don’t see we as something to aspire to because it seems like the more I pay attention to and support others the less my own needs and desires will be met. I have to look out for number one.

Though much of this way of seeing the world comes from our less mature human nature, the culture of individualism has been strongly encouraged and reinforced by social forces. It’s in the interest of elites and those who have power to keep everyone else thinking they’re in a zero-sum competition. That way a revolting we can never establish itself and overturn the status quo. If you can get people to think of themselves as unrelated, nothing-in-common individuals in a dog-eat-dog world, it’s much less likely they’ll band together and bring about change. If you bombard people with self-image and status ideals (and products that allegedly achieve them) so that they’re preoccupied with their own health, beauty, popularity, and wealth, there won’t be much time or interest to observe that the way society is set up isn’t really working for anyone. If you can get people deeply absorbed in clicks and likes and shares of content that’s been pre-selected by algorithm for their enjoyment, they will rarely see the suffering, brokenness, and uniqueness of other’s lives.

Most things are shaped around and cater to the individual.

Do you see that? Did you already know about this? How are we (there’s that word again) going to break through it?

As pleasant as it can feel when you’re in control, no one can go it alone forever. You came into the world through the love and support of at least a few other people–family and close friends, most likely. Who fed and held and changed you when you were born?

As we make our way through childhood and well into adulthood, we’re dependent on countless others. Teachers, neighbors, doctors, local businesspeople, bankers, baristas, bus drivers, garbagemen…

I don’t think that me and you and them and everyone else are in a zero-sum game. Every human being has a number of goods–needs–in common. You, as a human being, need and want many of the same things I do. The more I do what I can to support your needs, the more likely our shared world will become commonly good for everyone. We are all in this together. We’re in this as a collective, not as utterly separate individuals.

More than ever, we need to come together as we. We each need to force ourselves to be face-to-face with as many other people near and far as we can. And we need to figure out how to patiently understand our differences and embrace.

There truly are major power and welfare imbalances in the time and place we live. There is major social dysfunction and a lack of imagination and effort for the common good. If we want things to be different, we each have to figure out how to be less self-centered, less distracted, and less suspicious of others. And become an all-inclusive we. We is precious, vital. And without it nothing is going to change.

Which Way Are Things Flowing?

“Energy always flows either toward hope, community, love, generosity, mutual recognition, and spiritual aliveness or it flows toward despair, cynicism, fear that there is not enough, paranoia about the intentions of others, and a desire to control.” —Michael Lerner

Which way is your energy flowing? What’s the energy like where you live and work today?

It’s pretty clear to me watching people at work, folks on the street, and the endless posts on social media that the energy is all over the place. A little bit of everything. Hope and community. Despair and paranoia. Some are paralyzed in between–the energy has left the building.

The finality of a presidential election is heavy. Even more so when the result is unexpected.

The reality, though, is that our energies are a little all over the place all of the time. Not just on Election Day or the day after. Not just when something monumental happens: a national tragedy or a historic sports championship.

We each have a choice. Everyday. Every interaction. What kind of energy will we create? What sort of energy will we be caught up in? What sort of energy will we project on the people around us?

We are never collectively all flowing in the same direction. Our shared life is not heaven on earth. Which means that we always have work to do when it comes to figuring out how to live better together.

For anything that’s flowing toward despair, cynicism, fear, paranoia, and obsessive control, how can we come together to guide it toward hope, community, love, generosity, dignity, and aliveness? If you want the world to be filled with that kind of energy, what are you doing to create more of it? It’s got to go beyond how you vote every two or four years. Thoughtfully engaging the person next to you–perhaps someone who is totally different from you–may be your next and best opportunity to make more things flow in the right direction.

I wrote a short time ago about the mess that we’re in. Faced with two historically unpopular and flawed candidates–in a time of great need for change–all sorts of frustrations, hopes, doubts, fears, and other forces rose to the surface. We were going to have work to do no matter who won. We already had work to do that wasn’t going to be miraculously fixed by casting a vote for just the right president or the lesser of two evils. It’s truly up to us—everyday, every moment.

So check your energy. Others can feel it. The world—at least your corner of it—will be shaped by it. How are things flowing? How do you want them to? Today’s a perfect day to start making the momentum of the world flow toward a more human way of living together.

People are the Worst…And the Best

The categories of good and evil have been around for so long, and are so ingrained in our ways of perceiving and judging, that it’s easy to interpret our daily lives as battles of the two forces like we’re in Lord of the Rings or something. This business is the epitome of evil. That pop culture thing is absolutely sinful. This woman is a saint. My co-worker is the devil.

More often than not such judgments are, indeed, about people (though some non-people things like mosquitos and brunch-flavored candy corn are obviously straight from hell). And–also quite often–we give ourselves a pass while condemning most everyone else. I am a good person. They are bad people. It’s easy to see the brokenness in the world; harder to see the brokenness in ourselves.

The truth is that we are all just a bundle of potential yet to be realized. We are born neither evil nor good. We are like a ball of clay waiting to be shaped into something more.

People can be the worst. Destructive. Deceptive. Ignorant. Dominating. Injurious. Lazy. Self-centered.

People can actively destroy the planet even as researchers make clear how damaging the effects are and what the long-term consequences will be.

We can know the truth and yet mislead others in order to avoid blame or to get credit/power/compensation/respect.

We can belittle, cut off, and cut down the people around us in damaging and disabling ways.

We can actively choose or passively allow ourselves to be ignorant of basic facts and features of our world when there’s good reason to know and act on them.

BUT people can, sometimes, be the best. Generous. Creative. Wise. Humble. Courageous. Engaged. Inclusive.

If we work to realize our human potential in a beautiful, flourishing way, we can:

Live long, robust lives by taking care of our bodily health and the health of our environment.

Donate our time and money to important and urgent causes.

Build vibrant relationships and community.

Strengthen other people’s dignity and self-love by making sure they get the spotlight and credit they deserve.

Be kind, forgiving, and reconciling–even with people who have hurt us.

Experience real joy and contentment as we better understand and fit ourselves into the world that we’re an interconnected part of.

At any given time, your actions are shaping your human potential for the worse or for the better. These directions of better or worse are how we ultimately start categorizing people as good or evil as we so often do. Others have described these possible paths in different terms. In The Great Turning, David C. Korten describes them as the way of empire or the way of earth community. The film The Tree of Life depicts them as the way of nature or the way of grace. The Harry Potter character Sirius Black (shout-out to Harry Potter) metaphorically says that, “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.” Good/evil, earth community/empire, grace/nature, light/dark are all ways of describing the dual ways our potential can unfold.

And, of course, most of us are not fully one or the other. There are few human beings of the billions who have ever lived that could be described as completely evil or wholly good. We are, each of us, always on the way rather than at the final stop: on the way of empire or on the way of earth community; on the way of nature or on the way of grace.

It’s actually unlikely to be very beneficial to think about someone as good or evil. These are the extremes. And they’re also quite static. People are constantly changing–for the worse or for the better. Someone could seem hellish one day and the best of humanity the next. Our human potential is a long-unfolding thing–clay taking shape and being reshaped until it starts to finally harden into something more permanent over time.

So rather than classifying other people as evil or the worst or whatever else, and writing them off as irredeemable, perhaps think of them as having not yet realized their potential as a human being in a flourishing, gracious, communal kind of way. Maybe one day they might. God knows it’s not today–you’re going to try hard to wish them the best even though you half wish their iced coffee spills all over them. But hopefully one day. Because people can be the worst or the best. It’s not predetermined, static, or absolute. And certainly, you, me, and most everyone else haven’t fully realized our potential in a flourishing way either. Let’s aspire to the way of earth community, light, and grace (or whatever you’d like to call it), and be patient with one another as we go.

Wherever You Start, It Ends Up in the Same Place

I had a little free time the other day, and I happened upon a very interesting interview with Andrew Zimmern. He’s perhaps best known for his show Bizarre Foods and some of the seemingly strange things he’s eaten on camera for it. The whole conversation is well worth a listen.

It was especially intriguing and thought-provoking because, ostensibly, this is an interview for a food website, with a former chef and current food television host, containing his thoughts on this or that bit of the current state of food. And yet, as the interview goes along, the conversation becomes about much more than just the latest ingredient fad or buzziest restaurant. It goes deeper into economics, creativity, globalization, class, history, relationships, politics, and more.

To be sure, the interview is not a one-hour retelling of all of human history through the lens of food. And it’s certainly not the first or even the best example of going beyond its immediate subject matter in a profound way. But I find it immensely fascinating and illuminating that an interview that starts out about one thing–food–quickly and regularly goes deep into many other things.

We live in a world that is incredibly specialized–perhaps even too specialized. We don’t just have athletes, doctors, and professors. We have wide receivers and punters; brain surgeons and orthopedic surgeons; professors of Western religions and professors of metaethics. Our entry points into the world–our personal areas of interest and expertise–are almost as numerous and unique as the number of people on this planet.

We each step out into the world and view it predominantly through the shaping and interpretive framework of those interests or fields of expertise. Andrew Zimmern’s entry point is food, and he can say and explain things about food and food culture that few others can. That alone makes for a compelling conversation. Food is awesome. Who doesn’t love finding out interesting things about it?

But as his Eater interview shows, you can’t really talk about food without talking about money and the exchange of value, globalization, human creativity, relationships, social structure, and the rest. Wherever we start, things eventually end up in the same place.

Where they end up is the core, essential humanity that exists behind every profession and area of interest. They end up at the heart of every person’s intentions, understanding, and experience.

You can start talking to an athlete about their career, their take on their sport, the business dealings of whatever league they’re in, their fan base, and the like. And sooner or later, things will either briefly or extensively broaden to dreams fulfilled and unfulfilled; the power of mentorship, teamwork, and dedicated effort; the strength and fragility of the human body, and dealing with the inevitability of physical decline and retirement.

You can start talking to a physician about the curiosities and intricacies of their medical expertise. And sooner or later, things will briefly or extensively broaden to the struggles of their work-life balance; the power and pride of healing; the agony and frustration of failed treatments and incurability; the daily encounters with patients at different stages of birth, life, and death, and supporting each person’s health to maximize their enjoyable time on earth.

You can start talking to a professor about the social construction of religion or morality in modern society. And sooner or later, things will briefly or extensively broaden to the nature of belief and one’s own worldview; what’s right and wrong in the world–and what to do about it; the finitude of life and how to live it; and if there’s more to all of this than what we can observe.

Wherever you start, it eventually ends up in the same place.

Not in every single interaction. And not always for an extended period or in great depth. But if there is enough time and openness, things will eventually arrive at the universally human that undergirds everything else.

So the next time you listen to a podcast, or watch a news segment or sports match, or read a book, or talk with a doctor, co-worker, lawyer, or anyone else–watch and listen for the way things start to veer toward the universally human. And think about how that humanity is acknowledged, or supported, or suppressed, or thwarted, or celebrated by the entry point you started from (food, sports, medicine, philosophy, etc.).

To ask just a few:

How should we feel about a fish that’s essentially commonplace bait in Namibia but an expensive seafood plate in fancy urban restaurants? 

What should be done about the head trauma NFL players experience and what that entails for their well-being later in life? 

Why are issues of religion so often plagued by othering and scapegoating, anti-intellectualism, and hypocrisy?

Everything is connected to everything else. Food to politics. Sports to relationships. Academia to meaning. Our conversations begin with each person seeing the world from a slightly different angle. We’ve separated things out in thorough specialization, but really it’s all meant to fit together. As we take time with others, with various interests and expertise, we see more clearly the breadth and depth of our shared humanity. And the better we see our universality, the better we can pursue the common good together from the entry point that intrigues each of us most.

 

Embrace or Erase

I don’t know what it’s like to be pulled over by the police because that’s yet to happen to me as a driver. I especially do not know what it’s like to be pulled over as a Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, or person of any other race because that will never happen to me as a white man.

I’ve never had a talk with family about how I might be profiled, and how it’s essential to do everything exactly the right way (or better) so that I’m not persecuted or violated because that doesn’t happen to people with white privilege. I’ve been spit on a few times, and threatened with violence of various kinds, but I think that was more to do with people who were not of sound mind than expressing hatred for who I am. Those incidents were minor in comparison to what many Americans who are not white men experience. I can’t even begin to imagine what some people have gone through and continue to endure. We need more people to be able to tell their stories openly, and for their stories to be genuinely heard and addressed.

As much as I want to believe with President Obama that “we’re not as divided as we seem,” it’s nearly impossible to understate the tension–apparent or real–throughout the United States. Black men murdered during routine police calls, and officers gunned down are not isolated, one-off occurrences–they’re symptomatic of broader, embedded ways of thinking and acting.

Many of us are uncomfortable and even outright aggressive when we encounter difference, conflict, paradox, and contradiction as we cross paths with other people. Instead of allowing those instances to be an opportunity for deeper learning and greater humanity, we try and eliminate the tension in whatever way we can. Avoidance, belittling, ignoring, striking, disparaging, and more. By doing so, we dehumanizing ourselves and others.

In short, we erase instead of embrace.

As we bump into the lives of our fellow humans, we always have a choice. We can choose to learn from others, expanding our understanding and appreciation of the complexity and interconnectedness of all people. Or, we can choose to close up and try to shut down, minimize, and erase them–even to the most violent and complete erasure: murder.

Difference challenges us. For many, different means strange, repulsive, vulgar, or inferior. But different simply is different. We each have a history and identity that makes us distinct from any other human on the planet.

When we’re confronted by difference in other people, we are always at the crossroads of embrace or erase.

When you encounter someone who is of a different race, gender, religion, or another identifier, what if you saw that difference as an opportunity to grow in understanding and humanity?

They’re human and you’re human–just in different ways.

We’re hindered and shaped, of course, by history. Every previous act colors the present and how we perceive others. This is especially true if we perceive someone to be part of a group or the kind of person that’s a threat to us. White America perpetrated at least two original sins: the genocide and oppression of countless Native American tribes, and the incomprehensible horrors of Black slavery (there is also some overlap between the two). Those are just two broad sweeps of history among millions of other acts of inhumanity over the last few hundred years that have informed and patterned the present. Erasure has become structural and infiltrated all levels of American society. Blacks, Native Americans, women, people who are mentally ill, and others are still unequal and unjustly treated today. Not just by an ignorant asshole or two, but by the machinery of modern American society: economy, criminal justice, media framing and representation, healthcare, education, and the rest.

Acts of violence–citizen to policeman, policeman to citizen, or between anyone else–perpetuate and exacerbate distrust, and reduce the potential for embrace in future encounters.

For safety, we separate into ingroups and outgroups: us and them. If someone is us, we’ll start out more trusting. They’re less of a threat because they’re more like me. If someone is them, we’re wary from the get-go. This person is not really like me, so I need to be on guard.

To break through the history and the structural dehumanization, we will each have to be patient and attentive. We will have to lower our guard a bit and let difference, paradox, and conflict wash over us until our understanding is opened up and increased. We will have to get into the gritty realness of each other’s pain, oppression, uniqueness, experience, hopes, and fears. There will need to be some deep listening, owning up, apologizing, forgiveness, advocacy, and activism.

As such openness spreads through more and more individuals in one-on-one encounters, it will begin to permeate society at large. Not instantly, deterministically, or completely. But we need a steady, intentional movement of replacing structural erase with structural embrace. Neighborhoods to cities to states to the country as a whole (including social media and the rest of cyberspace).

That’s not to say it’s easy for anyone. It takes a tremendous amount of willpower to overcome experience, history, and what’s comfortable. Avoidance, belittling, violence–erase–are easier. Maybe even safer for you, though certainly not for the people you erase.

Embrace is our only hope, however difficult in practice, of moving toward a society that is more fully alive and flourishing. We each, ourselves, want a society where we feel safe, are able to openly be who we are, and receive respect from the rest of the community. That kind of society will never arrive without including, understanding, and empowering–without embracing–everyone we’ve deemed to be other. We’re all in this together.