Boundaries and Spaces

Some of the things you can’t control…

How long you have to wait at the DMV. The weather. Where Earth is in the universe. If your favorite team wins the championship this year. Sunday night is the end of the weekend. Getting laid off. Who your parents and siblings are. Heartache is painful. Some drunks decide to drive. Humans can’t spread their arms and fly. Meritocracy is mostly a fiction. People need oxygen, water, and food (and many other things) to survive. You have to actually do the chores for things to be clean. Time travel is probably impossible. Others misunderstand and judge you. The typical lifespan is 71 years.

These are the boundaries of life. The things that are out of your hands and constrain who you are and what you can do. You might wish things were different. Or that you could have superpowers to overcome limits. But there’s little, if anything, you can do to change and control these things.

Some of the things you can control…

What food you eat. Who you ask out on a date. Where and when you take vacations. How you exercise. What time you go to sleep. How much of your income you save. If you play it safe or take a risk. Your outlook for the future. The city you make your home. Being better informed. Caring about what other people think of you. Your attachment to your phone. Learning new things. How you treat strangers and vulnerable human beings. The time you spend with the people you love.

These are the spaces. The undetermined, pliable things you can largely build and shape as you want. To do like this or like that. To prioritize or ignore. To do the same way for a while, or evaluate and change as you go.

A lot of being able to live well comes down to understanding the things you can’t control and the things you can. The things that guide and limit our path, and the things that we can do the way we want.

We don’t have superpowers. We’re not powerless. We are people. We are both limited and full of potential. Understand, explore, try. Know what shapes you and what you can shape.

Find your place in the boundaries and spaces.

La La Land and Possibility

My wife and I went to La La Land the other night, and man–what an artistic and emotional doozy. We love and watch musicals whenever we can. It’s such an interesting movie genre. Most films don’t have characters casually slide into song and dance. Musicals do.

But it’s not just that some singing and choreography break into the story once in a while. It’s that oftentimes when a musical’s characters do begin their song and dance, the line between imagination and reality is blurred. Things happen in many musical performances that are literally unreal. They go beyond the limits of space and time–like dancing in midair, or the characters being transported into a painting. Or, the performances portray things that we as the audience understand are only visions of certain characters because they haven’t actually happened. We’re peeking into someone’s imagination.

La La Land modernizes the musical form in very entertaining ways–like seeing a smartphone notification interrupt a dewy-eyed duet. But it also plays off of and twists your expectations of what a musical is–particularly how a musical ends. Some people think La La Land’s ending is brilliant, and some people hate it. I think it was super clever, though definitely heavy.

Without spoiling anything, what I loved about how the story played out–and the film as a whole–was how it used the characteristic blurring of imagination and reality of musicals to make a profound point about what it means to be human. Essentially, that we’re always moving between the world as it is and the world as it could be. Between reality and possibility.

We are so often driven and inspired by dreams of a brighter, more interesting, more successful life. To travel. To be an artist or an athlete. To find our soulmate. To find freedom. Only to be painfully reminded that there’s a draining day job to clock in for, bills past due, failed relationships, and a world around us ravaged by the darker forces of human nature. There is always messiness and tension. Our imagination, fantasies, dreams, and hopes–tangled with and torn down by harsh realities.

How do we make possibility–the world as it could be–become reality? What kinds of things can we change by our own choice, and what is out of our control? How do we process the very difficult human experience of things we cannot change but wish had gone differently?

Go see La La Land. Pay attention to what it’s saying about reality and possibility, and how it smartly exploits being a musical to do so. You don’t have to know or like Los Angeles. You don’t have to know or like jazz or acting. La La Land has very interesting and true things to say about something we all confront. Interesting and true things to say about being human.

Truth is Hard for Humans

If you’ve heard anything about “fake news” lately, you’ll know that in many ways truth has taken a backseat to other forces. Oxford Dictionaries declared post-truth–“relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”their word of the year. And with good reason. The maelstrom of partisan politics, clickbait, underfunded investigative journalism, misinformation, outright propaganda, and other obstructions has left many of us wondering where we can find something approximating what’s real and how we’ll know that it does.

It doesn’t matter what politicians and political ideology you affiliate with, your favorite sites and social media personalities, or what you wish was true. We should all see actual truth as a worthy pursuit. Even–and perhaps especially–if it challenges your beliefs and feelings. Living out of ignorance, incomplete or incorrect information, or deception doesn’t do any of us any good. What’s real is real whether we accept it or not. And often it’s extremely important that we understand what’s real as best as possible. Manmade climate change, for example, may lead to an inhospitable planet whether we know about it and acknowledge it or don’t.

The problem, though, is that every person, community, and organization is going to get at least some things wrong some of the time. Even in the most humble, unadulterated pursuit of the truth, no one has a God’s-eye view. No one sees the world with perfect clarity and absolute comprehensiveness. Your favorite, powerhouse news source is going to get it wrong at times. Your go-to social media know-it-all is going to post some significantly misinformed things. A bunch of likes, retweets, and shares doesn’t make it more plausible.

Any attempts at understanding what’s real, no matter how pure, are done so as human beings. As fallible, finite creatures. Sometimes our eyes, ears, and other senses let us down. Did I really see what I think I did? And even when they don’t, there’s only so far they can reach and so much they can process. I can only give a firsthand account of a space of maybe a block or two from wherever I am right now. Same for you. Same for every other person on the planet. If I’m here and I want to know what’s going on over there, I’m dependent on some kind of eyewitness–recollection, photo, video–because I’m not there experiencing it for myself and reflecting on my own perceptions of it. Each of us is fixed in a certain place and time. We each have a particular point of view.

This means that most things in the world are mediated and interpreted. Mediated because you experience the real world through either your own limited human faculties of sense and reason or the articulation of someone else’s (via a Facebook post, a cable news report, or a conversation, for example). We don’t have a direct connection to reality. Interpreted because mediation always has a point of view. A live news camera is pointed at some action and not another. The president at the podium giving a speech, not the random guy on the phone in the corner. And why did they choose to send someone out to the speech and not some other event?

Each of us is constantly sifting through an inordinate and overwhelming amount of information to try to fully perceive the world before us. When, though, someone has sifted in a Facebook post or a news report or a friendly conversation, they’ve chosen what’s included and what’s left out. They’re interpreting what details before them seem factual, important, and connected. What things together constitute an accurate account–the truth–of an event, research study, institution, etc. What’s included and why, or what’s left out and why have to be carefully scrutinized.

Truth, as it turns out, is fundamentally a matter of story and storytelling. Truth is a weaving together of perceptions, observations, and supposed insights into a bigger sort of framework or pattern. Into a story. “A set of facts in context,” as some have said. Stories are how we make sense of things. They are the means and the form we use for talking about what goes on in the world. Journalists, historians, scientists, and others tell stories in various kinds of media to try to inform the public. Friends, relatives, and strangers pass them around and comment.

The thing is, just like some fictional stories are better than others, some stories meant to encompass the world as it is are much better than others. Some are closer to reality. Some–deliberately or accidentally–are far from it. We get truth by comparing stories against each other and seeing which one seems to best fit the real world. In our limited humanness, that’s as close as we’re going to get to something objective.

So how can we tell one story is better than another, or that a certain story has the best fit? We’ll have to save that for next time. The truth is hard for humans. It’s going to take more than one post to figure this out.

 

The Stories We Tell

For peoples, generally, their story of the universe and the human role in the universe is their primary source of intelligibility and value. The deepest crises experienced by any society are those moments of change when the story becomes inadequate for meeting the survival demands of the present. –Thomas Berry

Human beings are a creature of stories. We spend endless hours streaming back-to-back-to-back episodes of serialized television. We hand over record box office dollars to see the latest installment in one of the many ongoing cinematic universes. We look at best of summer book lists to find out what novel we should take to the beach. We talk about our workplaces in terms of roles and performance–the language of actors and actresses. We run political campaigns on stories like retrieving a supposed golden age (make America great again), going it alone for a future of safety and self-sufficiency (Brexit), and preventing impending dystopia (Trump must be stopped).

Stories are the way that we make sense of the world, and they long have been. The Enûma Eliš, the Illiad and the Odyssey, the narratives of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, the Quran, evolutionary reductionism, neoliberalism, and countless other stories have shaped and given meaning to our existence.

Because we experience life as it unfolds through time, it makes sense that we often see things in terms of the narrative elements of beginning, middle, and end. We see ourselves as some kind of characters involved in an unfolding drama: whether it’s the macro level–tales about the birth of the universe and the place of humanity in it–or the micro–a local news segment on homelessness. We make sense of how all of the pieces of life fit together by organizing them into a plot with characters, direction, intentions, and resolution.

Stories are powerful and relatable because they answer some of the most profound questions we have. Why are things the way they are? How did we get to now? Where are we going? Why are we here? Stories give answers to our aspirations for prosperity and success, security and comfort, purpose and intelligibility. (These categories come from the very excellent book The Great Turning, which I’ve previously referenced here).

Some of the stories we tell are quite good. These stories are successful because they answer questions about prosperity, security, and purpose in ways that correspond closely to reality (as best as we can tell) and make us feel more alive. Think of your favorite movies. What makes them your favorite? I bet if you think about it a bit, they tell a story that answers one or more of these questions in a realistic, humane, and compelling way.

Think of your own worldview. What makes sense about the story you tell yourself about why the world is the way it is and why you’re here? It’s likely because it incorporates everything you’ve experienced, everything you’ve seen, everything you believe about human nature, and everything you hope for in a way that feels real, deep, and full of potential and purpose.

Other stories are unconvincing or wrong. The world is the way it is because of that group of people, and we should do away with them. A free market is the only way to prosperity for all. The universe was created in six literal days by a bearded grandfather in the clouds. Men are superior to women. Whites are superior to other races.

Many of these bad stories fail to perceive the interconnectedness and value of all things. They tell their story by excluding or belittling a whole chunk of reality. These stories cannot properly narrate why things are the way they are and where they’re going, because they have an incomplete or warped view of reality as we know it.

Think of some of the worst movies you’ve seen. What makes them so terrible? Is the acting bad? That touches on an inability to represent the reality of how emotionally and socially complex human beings actually are. The very best actors usually have extremely high empathy–they’re able to emote on screen in ways that feel as genuine as real life–and, in turn, we as the audience resonate with their performance. Is the plot boring, corny, or absurd? It’s likely because it fails to tell in an interesting and satisfying way why things are the way they are, how they got there, where they’re going, and the meaning of it all.

Whether it’s the stories we’re watching on TVs, devices, and movie theater screens, or our own real-world stories about our families, neighborhoods, workplaces, and current events, stories are everywhere. It’s up to us to winnow out the good from the bad, and elevate the stories that speak to the reality of the world we find ourselves in and how we can best find prosperity, security, and meaning in it.

 

Go Deeper than Perceptions

We live in a perceptions are reality kind of world.

On the drive home the other day, I started making a right turn after the light turned green. A couple people who had been chatting on the corner suddenly decided to push the pedestrian walk light and go. I was already passing through their crosswalk, and came quite close while they were trying to cross the street. From their perspective, I probably appeared reckless–even malicious–some asshole who doesn’t know how to drive, endangering pedestrians. As I continued driving down the street I could see both of them in my rear-view mirror with middle fingers raised high. It was completely unintentional. If I had been playing it as safely as possible I could have waited another 5 or 10 seconds after the light changed to see if they were going to go from talking idly to walking across the street. It would have prevented the whole thing. But once it happened, it colored their entire perspective of who I was and what I’m like.

Our understanding of other people and the world we inhabit is primarily at the surface. As soon as we start to create a narrative about something, it’s hard for the story we’re telling ourselves to change–even if there is new information or contradiction.

Think about the people you work with. Unless you are good friends with them outside of work, your idea of who they are and how they operate is most likely shaped by a few, obvious surface features. The football team they like. How often they get drunk. How their work ethic appears. What kind of romantic relationship they’re in. If they have kids. Unless you’re really close and openly converse with each other about anything and everything, the person you’re interacting with at work is primarily just a perception of who they are and not the full-fledged human being.

The perceptions, the streamlined narratives we create based on a few features, are part of our human nature. We make them about other people, events in the world, and the rest of the things that confront us, because they help us boil it down to categories we can understand and pieces we can chew. As I’ve written before, us and them, right and wrong, and other categories like that, feel good and helpful because it turns a complex world into a (supposedly) understandable one. But that’s not a very enlightened level of understanding.

Rarely is the world as neat as clean categories and obvious observations. Perceptions often lie. We like them, and use them for other people because we want to make a judgment about who they are, file it away in our brain, and move on to other things. We have a version of them we can grasp and gameplan for. But when it comes to ourselves, we’d prefer to think we are exceedingly complex, and that few people (if anyone) understand the real me. I didn’t feel I was very well understood when I was getting flipped the bird. I definitely could have done things differently, but that situation didn’t encapsulate who I am–the apparent asshole.

Perhaps this explains the intrigue and popularity of a show like Making a Murderer. Through a very patient filming process, and expert editing to convey all of the nuance, we come to see as the audience that the immediate perceptions of criminal and victim, good and bad, law-enforcer and law-breaker, innocent and guilty, are not always true, helpful, or easily distinguished. We come to see that a few surface judgments about socioeconomic class, grooming and appearance, and minor indiscretions in the past quickly turn into a rich narrative about how someone is “evil incarnate,” an immense danger to society, and the obvious perpetrator of a crime that there’s actually little evidence for (evidence that may have even been tampered with or planted). If you haven’t seen the show you should watch it, and pay particular attention to how clean-cut the story about Steven Avery is in the media and prosecution’s telling, versus the kind of detail you get from his interviews with the filmmakers, interviews with family, and the evidence from a more objective viewpoint. How does the perception of Steven Avery in the public eye match up with the real Steven Avery (as best we can tell from everything we’re shown)?

Perceptions are too easy. If we don’t want others’ view of us to be oversimplified, we shouldn’t want to have and hold oversimplified ones about other people either. Living off of perception creates everything from brief interpersonal conflict–like the pedestrians I passed too closely–to getting someone wrongfully imprisoned once–if not twice–for a huge chunk of their life. We should expect more than this from ourselves and from each other.

So dig. Go deeper. Look and listen patiently. Go beyond how someone or a situation first appears to what’s actually being said and done. How might the person or thing be being misconstrued–in your own mind or publicly? Push through the perceptions you have, and see if there are pieces that you missed. Your co-worker’s life story is probably a lot more complex (and interesting) than you think.

Have you fully examined things closely yourself? Or did you quickly form an opinion based on hearsay or one side of the issue? Something coming to you only through the media or only through someone you like has already probably skewed it in a particular direction.

Talk with people who disagree with you. Listen to their view of things, and thoughtfully give it the best consideration to be right and closer to reality before you begin critiquing it and breaking it down.

Go deeper than perceptions.

 

Us and Them

A little while back, I came across a really interesting bit of theory that has helped me tie together all kinds of different ideas I’ve had about people and society. In David C. Korten’s The Great Turning, he outlines increasing levels of “human consciousness”–what we think about each other and how we relate. Levels of human consciousness probably sounds nerdy and boring, but bear with me–it’s actually easy to understand and deeply insightful.

“First order consciousness” is called magical consciousness. As young children, we start out seeing the world as full of magic and surprise. Most things when you’re a child seem to happen rather mysteriously. Fantasy and reality are difficult to distinguish. Cause and effect are concepts just beginning to be perceived–perhaps when we trip and fall or cry out and receive attention. Our behavior is “impulsive, immediate, and emotion driven.” We depend on other people to do things for us, are confused and frustrated when they don’t attend to us, and are not aware of or reflect on the consequences of our own actions.

The next level is imperial consciousness. As we start to grow up, we come to see the difference between fantasy and reality more clearly. We gain awareness of predictability and consequences. We understand a little better how some of the basics work, and we feel a greater sense of control. We see that others have their own point of view, and “getting what [we] want generally requires some form of reciprocity.” Quid pro quo seems to be the name of the game. We may fantasize about having superhuman powers that would allow us to rise above the tit-for-tat to control certain events with unparalleled influence. In imperial consciousness, like magical, our perspective is primarily, “if not exclusively self-referential, even narcissistic.”

The third level Korten calls socialized consciousness. We start to see things functioning on a societal plane, and the cultural norms of the community become our point of reference. Rules and authority appear necessary to make sure everyone is playing by the rules and treated fairly. Our individual identity is shaped by adherence to others in our same reference group: “gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, class, political party, occupation, employer, and perhaps a favored sports team.” We’re “commonly militantly protective of [that] group and prone to take any criticism of it as a serious affront.” We do not subject ourselves or those groups to critical examination. We expect to follow the rules of the groups we are attached to and have things go well for us in return.

The fourth is cultural consciousness. The more we grow and mature, we encounter people who have beliefs, perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences much different from our own. “The initial reaction to such encounters is commonly a chauvinistic sense of cultural superiority and possibly an embrace of cultural absolutism: ‘The way of my people is the only right way.’” But if the socialized conscious person is reasonably comfortable in their own identity, they “may come to recognize that culture is itself a social construct, that each culture has its own logic, that different cultural ‘truths’ lead to different outcomes for individuals and society, and that cultural norms and expectations are subject to choice.” We can more fully empathize with others; we begin to question our own societal assumptions; and act selflessly for the benefit of people who are much different than ourselves. The majority of people who live in modern societies never achieve cultural consciousness because “corporations, political parties, churches, labor unions, and even educational institutions actively discourage it. Each of these institutions has a defining belief system to which it demands loyalty. Those who raise significant challenges are likely to be subjected to a loss of standing, if not outright rejection.”

Finally, “level five consciousness” is deemed spiritual, or perhaps enlightened for those uncomfortable with an overtly religious connotation. The world is seen as a “complex, multidimensional, interconnected, continuously unfolding whole.” Those who have matured to this level support “an examined morality grounded in the universal principles of justice, love, and compassion…It approaches conflict, contradiction, and paradox, not as problems to overcome, but as opportunities for deeper learning.” “…[T]he sense of duty once reserved for members of one’s immediate family, ethnic group, nationality, or religion now extends to the whole.” They recognize that the rules and structures in place don’t always work for everybody, and actively transform society to benefit everyone.

So how does this have anything to do with anything?

Well, for starters, if you live in the United States, it reveals a lot of what’s going on with the upcoming presidential election. There is the obvious and endless fractiousness between Democrats and Republicans–perhaps the most blatant us versus them rift in existence. But there are also more subtle divides. Between Bernie Sanders supporters and Hillary Clinton supporters, for example, for myopically in-group reasons like gender and the desire to be a proud gun owner. Maybe you can’t stand a single thing about either of those people or what they support. You certainly wouldn’t be alone. But human maturity–expanding consciousness–would consider what each of them has gone through as a thinking, feeling, sensitive, fallible person, and try to understand why they do what they do. I’m trying to do that myself for certain candidates running for president.

With December 25th around the corner, we’re also getting into the Christmas season–and specifically “The War on Christmas” season. Christmas zealots decry alleged cultural affronts to “the meaning of the season”–this year, somehow the Starbucks red holiday cups–and everyone else moans incredulously that we’re doing this all over again. It undergirds a whole lot more us and them at a time of the year when many people are just trying to get the bills paid and take some time off to be with people they care about. Perhaps we could all aspire to a level-five moment and consider just how much we’re all in a similar situation. Few people are actively trying to denigrate anyone’s holiday, so let’s shoot for a little less outrage–and less outrage about the outrage.

The examples are endless. We’re really good at breaking people down into simplistic labels and categories that we can quickly accept or reject. But one of the best things we can do as a human being is to work to expand our in-group wider and wider until it encompasses all of humanity. Most of the time, people with similar information, similar beliefs and similar apparent choices will choose similar actions.” We’re more alike than we are different. There is only us.