This Week in Upgrades: December 5

Hey, you! Welcome to December. Is yours off to a good start? The weather has been pleasantly wintry in LA all week (as far as wintry Southern California weather goes). And I was delighted to watch my Green Bay Packers play in a game featuring lots of snow. Snow angels included. That’s as close as I’m going to get this year to the white Christmases of my childhood. I’ll take it.

I was also extremely delighted to find out shortly after the game that the Dakota Access Pipeline construction is being halted and rerouted. A huge victory for Native Americans and other peaceful protesters. This could be a major turning point. Though it’s just the beginning for a better relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government, and for breaking our fossil fuel dependency and the future of the climate. So much to do still.

Here are some other things from this week you may find interesting…

Social media could be a powerful tool for good, but right now it’s too much like television.

Over-planning your free time can take the fun out of it.

ICYMI: The Baby Groot Movie Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Teaser Trailer

Warming global temperatures may release a lot of carbon from the soil. Everything is connected. We’re setting off some dangerous feedback loops.

Ever wonder whether a fake Christmas tree or a real one is better for the environment?

Looks like Apple is going to make a (self-driving) car after all.

Give it up for an invention that meets a real need. Well done.

How about that? Raising the minimum wage works out pretty good for communities. Let’s do that nationally, yeah?

If the holiday season has you in the mood to be generous, these are some of the best charities you can donate to.

Have a great week!

Presents

After World War I, mass production was on a roll in the United States. Assembly-lines had been vitally used for the production of tanks, planes, ammunition and more. After the war ended, millions of personal goods were able to be produced through the same efficient assembly process. Corporations were worried about overproduction.

Up until that time, the average person bought things primarily on need. Necessity, functionality, and durability. What would happen when nearly every person had all of the things they need? How would stuff continue to be sold if most everyone felt like they had enough?

Business executives realized they would have to transform the way people think in order to keep turning a profit. Paul Mazur of Lehman Brothers declared, “we must shift America from a needs to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire—to want new things even before the old had been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”

A new desires-based culture took shape in a short amount of time. An anonymous journalist declared in 1927 that, “a change has come over our democracy. It is called consumptionism. The American citizen’s first importance to his country is now no longer that of citizen, but that of consumer.” Thanks in large part to the propaganda techniques of Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, the masses were effectively manipulated into buying things they didn’t need. It’s more subtle than ever. From Bernays to today there has been an active effort on the part of businesses, media, and others to nudge you into fulfilling desires with stuff. This is what keeps the gears of our economy turning.

Black Friday is nearly here. It’s the perfect storm of the tradition of gift-giving during the holidays and modern consumerism. You’ve probably already seen enticing deals over the last few days. In 2015, American holiday retail sales totaled over $626 billion. Whether it’s out of nostalgia, a desire to be generous or seen as generous, a sense of obligation to do what everyone else is, getting a little something for yourself, or otherwise, we all collectively spend an absurd amount of money during the holiday season.

We have allowed too much room for wants in a world of needs. We get nudged from all directions and spend without much pushback or critique. It would be banal to point out the major, persistent human problems that could be fixed with $626 billion. But I’m sure that you can think of a handful. What if we addressed some of those problems instead of keeping the consumerist machine running?

I often wonder how many people have been sucked into maxing out credit cards or the promise of layaway because they feel like there isn’t another choice but to handover hundreds of dollars this time of the year. But after a major recession less than a decade ago, with many people struggling to find full or liveable employment, who has a bank account that can keep up with the desires culture we’re tangled up in?

This holiday season, don’t be a consumer. Be a person. Consumer is too simple and loathsome for the complexity and uniqueness of who you are. The common good is not contingent on buying everyone you know something wrapped in a box with ribbon.

I love Christmas. I will shamelessly bump Christmas music at every opportunity and make and eat all of the holiday treats I can. But this season does not have to be about stuff. What are the wants on the wish list–on yours, your children’s, your significant other’s? Can we maybe indulge fewer of those?

What are the needs around you? Everyone is going through something. Tight finances, health battles, struggling to find reasons to wake up and go out in the world. Sometimes the depth of the holiday season is not the blissful cheer of cookies and carols, but the way you can humbly and simply be there for people.

Perhaps your “gift” to others this season is just to be a better human. Is there someone who could really use you taking them out to coffee and listening for awhile? Can you cook for friends or family? Can you do someone’s chores? If there’s gotta be something wrapped up with a bow, can you figure out a thing they need and will use for awhile?

If that sounds simplistic or boring, it’s likely because we’re so saturated in the culture of consuming. Being a better person is not something you can gift-wrap. Getting people things they need is not as flashy as breaking the bank. But it shouldn’t be about the extra–about “packages, boxes, or bags”. When we do holidays right it’s about the people and the moment. The extra is truly extra, and we likely could do without. If you want to show someone this holiday season that you care about them, be sensitive to what they need and come alongside them. Presence, not presents.

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.