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.

Keeping the World New

Have you ever felt bored and cramped by routine? Wake up, work, waste time on your phone, do chores, go out, wake up and do it again? Going through the motions feels repetitive and stale. Even food, one of the greatest of all human pleasures, can become the same old same old–familiar fuel to shove down instead of a hedonistic respite of self-care.

When we get stuck in the routine of everyday life, the world begins to feel small, all figured out, and uninspiring. I’ve had weeks where I did essentially the same activities morning to night, spending all my time either at work or at home (which are only a short distance apart). I felt like I was about to go crazy. Have you ever felt like that? What did you do to break free?

For me, I’ve come to value more and more the need to be adventurous and travel. The routine inevitably does get boring and cramped. Choosing to learn new things and explores new places keeps the world new.

This can be as easy as picking up a book or watching a documentary. People have long freed themselves from smallness and sameness through the escapism of books and film. Or, perhaps, find a neighborhood, theater, hiking trail, coffee shop, volunteer center, or other local place that you haven’t checked out yet. You can widen your world by experiencing more of your own community.

And you can definitely widen the horizon of your sense of the world by traveling even farther. Are there places you can take a day trip to or camp at a couple hours away? How about bigger cities that you’ve yet to experience? When your hometown starts to feel like the beginning and end of the whole world because that’s all you’ve seen for weeks on end, you have to physically extend your felt boundary of the world by going beyond your city limits. Travel, perhaps more than anything else, keeps the world new by exposing you to other communities and ways of life that you’re not otherwise being exposed to. Different plants, landscapes, weather, buildings, fashion, art, language, transportation, and food.

And, curiously, when you come back home, your hometown may feel new itself. It has a fresh context thanks to you broadening your horizon of experience. There’s an old saying that familiarity breeds unfamiliarity. Have you ever returned from a vacation and felt like home looked and smelled a little different? What is your home or apartment’s after-vacation smell?  (Hopefully something other than the trash you forgot to take out before you left). What does the view of the sunset look like when you get back?

After vacation, did friends, family, and acquaintances seem a bit different–a little more complex, fascinating, and enjoyable to be around? Or, inversely, did some people seem palpably toxic and in need of being avoided to a degree? Is that primarily because other people changed, or because you did?

The world and all of us in it are a lot more diverse, interesting, and enlightening than we’re aware of most of the time. It’s just that as we get caught up in the bubble of the routine the world in our experience of it starts to get smaller and smaller, and we get sucked into a pattern that oversimplifies and bores. That’s not what life’s supposed to be about.

It can be difficult to avoid the bubble, and perhaps even natural to get encapsulated in it in a culture that is so purposefully routinized. Most Americans, even if they earn vacation time at work, do not take it. We organize time in an endlessly repeating loop of five work or school days (Monday-Friday) and two rest days (Saturday-Sunday). Monday is the deflated, is the weekend seriously already over? day. Wednesday is the wait, it’s only the middle of the week? day. Friday is the woo-hoo, time to go wild and forget about this shit day. Do you know that Friday feeling? What if you could keep that kind of Friday feeling more of the time?

I really think we can by aspiring to be more adventurous at home and abroad. Does that sound a little cheesy? I suppose. But try scheduling some vacations–day trips or weeks away–to break up the endless Monday through Sunday loop. Try breaking up the daily routine by picking up a book, watching a documentary, or grabbing lunch at a new spot instead of filling the day by checking social media every couple minutes and getting the same takeout meal you had a couple days ago. See if it changes the way that you feel and perceive things. I think there’s a good chance it will.

The world is too interesting for same old same old. Be adventurous. Travel near and far. Keep the world new.

 

People Change

When my wife and I got married, she and I decided we would both have her last name as our shared surname. I’ve written more about that elsewhere, and you’re welcome to read some of that here if you’d like. When people found out, the reactions were many and varied. You’re joking, right? You’re upending tradition! That’s odd. That’s so cool! I’ve never heard of that before, but now that I think about it I wonder why more people don’t talk about that when they get married.

I can’t recall a single person who was totally neutral or disinterested–everyone had an opinion of some sort. Though some of the opinions were shocking to us, it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise. It’s a very rare human being that goes through life without ever judging, critiquing, or stereotyping everyone else around them. As soon as you meet someone new, you begin to form an opinion and an impression of them. That impression doesn’t change much after the first few encounters.

Because most people want the impression to stick. When you can put other human beings in neat little boxes that you made, you feel a sense of control and understanding. The world is complex, sometimes overwhelming, sometimes confusing. If you can condense the people in your life into impressions that fit in manageable little boxes, then they will be one less thing that can change and surprise you in ways that make you feel uncomfortable.

But the reality is that people will always change. Change is one of the most constant, real features of the universe we live in. It’s the reason we all need to find our lifeline: the thing or things that give us grounding and perspective no matter what’s going on or how chaotic it feels. Permanently packaging other people into oversimplified boxes should never be one of the ways you try to handle and minimize the ever-present change you’ll encounter.

People will change names. Change hairstyles. Change hometowns. Change career aspirations. Change hobbies. Change worldviews. Change their attitude and emotional style. Change their fashion. And a million other things. Other people’s change will constantly blow up your boxes. If you don’t acknowledge and accept it, you’ll be working with a stale and distorted version of them. That’s not healthy for you or them.

Sometimes people change for the worse; sometimes for the better. That’s not really for you to judge. If you’re close to them, and they’ve told you they trust your perspective and input, maybe the time will come when you two dialogue about how life is going and what you think about how it might go differently. Even then, it’s ultimately their life to live as they see fit, and you have to be OK with that.

More often than not, it won’t be your place to give any commentary at all. You should simply affirm their exploration of who they are in whatever way they are trying to realize their potential and happiness. We all should be exploring, trying, failing, learning. It’s deeply hypocritical if you allow yourself to do so but come down hard on others for changing and growing.

Celebrate your friend’s new hairstyle. What is it to you if it’s a color or cut you feel uncomfortable with? Celebrate your relative’s decision to strive for a career as an artist instead of a career as a scientist. Celebrate your neighbor feeling more confident as they exercise more, eat better, and improve their health.

Perhaps sometimes you feel unsettled by others’ change because it reminds you of the change you haven’t made. Instead of trying to cram people back into the box you made for them, welcome their change and use it as inspiration to finally do what you keep telling yourself you’ll do. Change is not a zero-sum game with all the other human beings on this planet. You don’t need to criticize or undercut someone else so that you can get a leg up.

No matter what, people change. Maybe you need to change how you handle that reality.

How to Adult: Be Yourself

Being human is a funny thing. We are all full of both the incredible and the peculiar. For all the great qualities you were born with and have developed, there seems to be just as many you’re not altogether comfortable with.

If you haven’t figured it out already, most people you encounter have an opinion of you, and they’re not often the most generous editorials. Sometimes it seems the closer someone is to you the deeper the wounds are that they can cut.

But, of course, you probably don’t need other people’s critiques to feel unsure of yourself. Sometimes the look in the mirror after you wake up can leave you with a feeling of really? before you even encounter another person. At 31, I know I’m not exactly glowing with youth anymore, but does my day really have to start at the disadvantage of dark bags under my eyes and the constant reappearance of boogers? Be honest, when you see someone with gold in the mine, your impression of their IQ drops by about 50%. I think that about myself when I see it in the mirror.

It can be hard and weird and uncomfortable to be you–whether other people are making you unsure of yourself or you are. The thing is, though, we’re all in the same position. Any person who looks like they have it all together has something different or strange or displeasing if you go below the surface. Maybe they smell funny if you get close enough. Maybe they like ketchup on macaroni and cheese (seriously, that’s disgusting). Maybe they struggle through some kind of speech or learning impediment.

As human beings, incredible and peculiar, we have to learn to manage the good and the undesirable. How do you do that?

First, like what you like. If your ultimate dance jam is a N’Sync song from back in the day, own it. When people ask you about your favorite music, don’t reach for something that’s popular and safe.

If you really do think ketchup is great on mac & cheese, see a doctor about your taste buds squeeze a mountain of Heinz on top of your noodles while you grin at those around you staring.

Second, and more importantly, be gracious. Be gracious to yourself. There will be days of your life–when you’re old like me, if not already–when your body does weird things. Days when you made a horrible decision, said the wrong thing, or didn’t accomplish what you thought you could. It happens to everyone. Try to learn to laugh at it as absurdity instead of allowing the feeling to overtake you that you must be the weirdest/dumbest/lamest person in the world.

As you feel more confident liking what you like, and are able to be more forgiving of yourself, it’s quite possible that you’ll feel a greater sense of liking and being gracious to who other people are too. It’s called empathy, and the world needs more of it. People are endlessly fascinating if you give them the space to be them without judgment. You may even find yourselves in a comfortable enough place to laugh at each other’s weirdness, which is fantastic.

As long as we’re around, all of us are going to have to deal with the awesome and the unwelcome that comes with being human. Like what you like, be gracious–be yourself.

 

The Common Good: Imagination

If someone had asked you what you think about “Harry Potter” in 1996, the year before the first of the seven celebrated novels was published, you probably would have stared at them in confusion. Before any of us knew what someone was talking about when they said muggle, Quidditch, or Dumbledore, the entire universe of Harry Potter existed only in the mind of author J.K. Rowling. Fast-forward to the present week, and the third Wizarding World of Harry Potter is set to open in Universal Studios Hollywood, allowing people to smell, taste, touch, and hear the world of the story in physical form. You can kick back with friends over butterbeers in Hogsmeade or take a picture in front of Hogwarts.

The power of imagination is astonishing. What once exists in only one person’s brain can go on to sweep through the rest of the world, causing new structures and ways of life to emerge. Words and images, on a page or in a speech or on a screen, can create dramatic social change. Imagination has shaped the world we live in now, and it can shape the world we live in tomorrow.

Before there were cities, cars, computers, the 40-hour workweek, hospitals, political parties, recycling, and countless other things we take for granted as normal now, certain people thought them up, shared their ideas with others, and constructed them as real, concrete things in the world.

We used to have great imagination about what society could be like. When no other country had set aside expanses of nature to preserve for the enjoyment of the public for generations, America created a National Parks system. When the United States was rife with some of the worst racism and structural inequality in its history, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a famously profound speech about having a dream of a different kind of humanity. When for centuries people had looked up at the moon and wondered what it was like over there, John F. Kennedy proclaimed in 1961 that we would send a man to the moon by the end of the decade.

Where are we at now?

Is the United States a country that treasures nature even more than when the first Parks were formed? A good chunk of Americans won’t even acknowledge the science of climate change and the painful consequences to come in our lifetime.

Is America a country that’s realized Dr. King’s dream–respecting the life and worth of every human being no matter their race, gender, age, or other uniqueness? We have a contending presidential candidate succeeding largely because of racist, misogynistic, xenophobic rhetoric.

Is the United States spearheading greater space exploration, pushing the limits of what we know, where we can travel, and who can go there? NASA is so strapped for cash that any real space endeavors are being contracted out to private companies like SpaceX. Though space is the necessary frontier for the future of humanity, things are hardly different–if not worse–than the days when we enthusiastically launched astronauts to the moon decades ago.

Our collective imagination has disintegrated and died out. Our visions of what this country could be are uninspired or nonexistent. We’re stuck in the status quo, occasionally fighting over relatively negligible changes.

When we should be coming up with a compelling, comprehensive vision of what work in the 21st century should be like so that every person has the resources they need to live well, it’s “pie in the sky” to even move for something as meager as a $15 federal minimum wage. To be sure, $15 would be an appreciated improvement for many people, but it’s an amount that’s still almost $4 per hour shy of where it should be if minimum wage had increased at the same rate as overall productivity. We should already have a $19 minimum wage nationally; instead, we’re bickering about maybe going to $15 sometime in the next decade. We’ve hardly begun to think about how we’ll deal with rampant unemployment as more and more jobs are taken over by automated technology.

We have to get back to dreaming big, together, and transforming society into the better world it can be. Take what we know about what’s good for people, look at where we’re at today, and invent a future that brings everyone closer to the common good.

If we can turn Hogwarts and butterbeer into real things for millions of people to see and taste as if they were actually wizards, we can surely imagine and construct a better world in the theme park of our nonfiction world.

 

Let’s Let People Be People

I am riveted by the current presidential campaign. Each presidential election is historic and interesting in its own way. But this one is different. Traditional candidates and predictable narratives are being subverted. There seems to be a groundswell of desire to move beyond the status quo in dramatic ways. In the long run, we’ll see what that means concretely: who wins and what (if anything) changes in society. Right now the race is still up in the air. I hope you’re enjoying watching and participating as much as I am. We need as many people as possible to be invested in this process.

But even in an unpredictable and entertaining race, some things never change. I’ve been especially bothered in recent weeks by the lazy use of stereotypical identity attributes to bunch people into monoliths. Media, candidates, pundits, and others do this regularly. African-Americans must all think and vote one way because they’re African-American. Elderly people must think and vote the same way because they’re elderly. Pick out a single trait or two–an age range, a gender, an income level, a race or ethnicity, a religion–and you can probably find some commentary about how that whole group of people is essentially homogenous.

One among many examples: last night in the Democratic Debate, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders had a spirited exchange over the significance of Henry Kissinger being a valued mentor of Hillary Clinton. In the short time since the debate, I’ve heard Anderson Cooper and others on CNN, my local NPR station, and various tweets say something sarcastic like, “I bet that played well with Millennials–since they have no idea who Kissinger is.”

Surely some younger adults don’t know. But quite possibly some do know and have an opinion about it. Why assume an entire age range of the country fits into a uniform group of don’t know and couldn’t care less? And who’s to say a younger person can’t deem it important and figure it out? Between Internet searches, books, documentaries, and other sources, it’s pretty easy to give yourself a decent introductory lesson in things you don’t know. I’m inclined to believe that a number of people care enough to do so–and not just the ones that fit into a nonspecific age range reduced to “Millennials.”

Analogous things could be said about how predominant voices are talking about Hispanics who live in Nevada, African-Americans who live in South Carolina, young women, older women, and many others.

We should all be insulted by this. We can do better.

Identity generalizations may be convenient for a stump speech or a news segment. But they certainly do not represent or empower the individual human beings they are made about. You are a complex person. I (like to think I) am a complex person. Despite the fact that you may belong in a fundamental way to this or that race, class, or generation, you have a unique web of motivations, interests, knowledge, experiences, and beliefs. So does the person next to you. However much we are like others who share certain identity traits, there are meaningful idiosyncrasies that make each of us profoundly different from one another.

So let’s move beyond lazily and simplistically grouping people together. Let’s call it out and challenge it whenever we see it–from national media to our conversations with each other. Let’s let people be people.

 

Let’s Take a Couple Steps Back. Why This Blog?

Humans!
digitalista/Bigstock.com

Over the weekend, with some loving criticism from my brilliant non-nerd wife, I started to sense that I got a bit ahead of myself with this blog. Right now it just kind of exists without any explanation for being. I hope that the posts that have been coming out were enjoyable to read. With some reflection and hindsight, though, I’m realizing some things. Most of them are a little too abstract or lacking real application—a bit boring even. Some of those single posts would have been more interesting or made more sense if they were broken down into 3 or 4 smaller posts in a series. I also didn’t leave much space for you as the reader to really engage what’s there; it comes across a little like some seemingly clever ideas shouted through a megaphone. It’s OK if you think that; I do too.

Since it’s new, I’m learning a lot about how to write and run this blog as I go. Without a doubt, there are going to be posts that are duds—at least for you as the reader. Sorry about that. No one likes chocolate-covered turds—me included. But I hope that in time I’ll get a much better sense of what’s interesting to you and how to present it well, because I have a strong feeling why this blog exists and why anyone might invest time reading it.

I’m fascinated by the relationship(s) between people and technology. Not just in a what’s-going-on-in-the-market kind of way: the latest gadgets being bought and sold. There are a lot of helpful websites for that (we can talk about them if you want). And not merely in a highbrow-philosophical, possibly-put-you-to-sleep kind of way either. There are some expensive academic journals for that (we can talk about those too if you’d like).

I’m most interested in what technology does to us and for us as people in our everyday lives, what sorts of things we expect from technology, and ultimately what that says about what we think it means to be a person.

Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT, writes in her book Alone Together:

We make our technologies, and they, in turn, shape us. So, of every technology we must ask: does it serve our human purposes? It’s a question that causes us to reconsider what these purposes are. Technologies, in every generation, present opportunities to reflect on our values and direction.

It seems to me that there’s a void (and therefore an opportunity) for us to think and talk about these kinds of things in a commonsense, thoughtful and critical way. I’m not an expert on the business side of technology, nor part of any university’s pantheon of academics. But I do have a decent background in philosophy, religion, sociology, and other humanistic fields of study that might add some helpful perspective to the plain-spoken conversations we would have together if we were chatting over beers. And I’m also just a regular, confused, addicted, disappointed, frustrated, optimistic user of all the same devices you’re probably using. Let’s talk about it.

To be clear right out the gate, I don’t think all technology is evil. This blog is not Let’s Build a Band of Luddites and Burn Everything in a Fire. It’s Upgraded Humans—as in, what sorts of upgrades, literal or metaphorical, make us better people? Most technology has pros and cons—not just one or the other.

Marshall McLuhan, eccentric media theorist, famously talked about The Four Laws of Media—an intimidating name for four simple questions to ask that reveal the effects of any piece of technology. (The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture by Shane Hipps is a solid resource on McLuhan’s most essential ideas, which is paraphrased here).

First, what does it extend? Every technology enhances, amplifies or extends some human capacity. A coat enhances our ability to regulate a stable body temperature in inclement weather. A telephone greatly extends the distance over which we can converse. So, when Apple or anyone else releases something, the first question to ask is what human ability does it extend? What thing can we do better, or more, or at greater distance, or faster, etc.?

Second, what does it make obsolete? Every new technology makes an older one obsolete. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the old one disappears—just that its function is different. Perhaps the most famous example is the horse and buggy, which went from the primary means of transportation to a quaint way to take a date through a park when the automobile (the “horseless carriage”) was created. Are we cool that that’s what a horse and buggy does now?

Next, what does it revert into? This is where we think most about the downside, the negative effects, or the dangers. In its extreme, any technological creation reverses into its opposite intention. A car, in its most extreme, reverses into annoying traffic jams or horrifying collisions. A smartphone in the extreme keeps us perpetually busy or anxious—always on—or, differently, becomes the preferred but shallow way of interacting with other people where we can choose how much of ourselves we want to share with them and disconnect whenever we don’t like how it’s going. Togetherness, yet solitude, as Turkle puts it. Maybe there are good reasons for a technology not to exist, or at least to make it different than what it is to prevent such regressions.

Finally, what does the technology retrieve? Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible contains the well-known idiom there is nothing new under the sun. No technology or other similar human creation is entirely new. Each retrieves in some way something from before. The tweet or the text message largely retrieves what the telegraph did decades ago. Surveillance cameras retrieve the city wall and its guards from the medieval era. I’m sure you can think of many more interesting examples. Are there things we need to retrieve? Is this particular thing retrieving something we were glad to be rid of?

(Still tracking with me? You’re halfway to being a communication theorist).

These are the questions I’m interested in asking. Not necessarily in a formal, thoroughly researched way. Simply, what do we learn about ourselves and about this or that thing we use if we ask questions like this? There’s good and bad. It all shapes the people we are and the kind of people we will become.

I’ll probably revisit common themes or the same piece of technology sometimes, because they’re not going away anytime soon and the issues they present won’t change overnight. The iPhone 12 will be just slightly different than the iPhone 11 (and millions of people will line up to replace their 11s), but those changes might be important to talk about. New forms of social media are emerging all the time. I’ll do everything I can to make sure I’m not boring or repetitive.

Most of all, I want to know what you want to talk about. What has technology made better for you? What has it made harder? What do you expect from technology—right now, or what it might do for you in the future? What do you care about most as a person, and how do devices and a culture saturated in technology encourage or impede those things?

Please comment, email, Tweet, and Instagram me. Sign up on the email list so you get the latest posts right away and can jump in on a conversation about them. Send me interesting or ridiculous ways people are using technology. Let me know what you care about, what you want me to write about, and what you think. I’m genuinely interested and eager to talk.

Thank you for reading and being part of the Upgraded Humans tribe.