The more I learn about human history, the more I see that everything happening today has also happened before. We build things and create systems, they cause some kind of problem, enough people notice so they work to solve that new problem. Possibly that solution creates other problems, which enough people eventually notice and then try to solve. Possibly some folks think the problem isn't a problem, so they try to stop it from being solved. Possibly some folks see a problem needs solving, but don't want to be the one to solve it, so do nothing about it.
Humanity has repeated that pattern for many aspects of society, and the example most present for me this week is racism. For the last year I have made a concerted effort to learn as much as I can about what lead up to the current movement for Black lives. I read books and articles, watched films and documentaries, listened to lectures and attended virtual discussion panels.
In the beginning of my exploration into this history, I was surprised to recognize the message of contemporary activists in the writing and speeches of the prior generation. I was even more surprised to see those same sentiments expressed by the generation before them, and the folks that came before that generation.
Even before the Civil War, activists were organizing to overturn racists policy and change racist practices. And the opposition was using the same arguments in response. They may have used different examples or different language than their modern successors, but the sentiment was the same: treating Black people with contempt and abuse was not the problem, Black people were the problem.
The same argument persists today in discussions about one of the most racist institutions in this country: criminal justice. There are piles and piles of data out there showing the inherent bias and racism rampant in policing and prisons everywhere in this country. And yet, many folks focus their attention on the strange scapegoat of “Black on Black” crime instead of taking a real look at the effects of racist policing on communities of color. Cops brutalizing people isn’t the problem, they say, criminals are the problem.
Last summer, people came out by the thousands to say “Black and brown people are suffering and don’t have equal opportunity or access.” When the sun went down, the police came out and roughed some people up, arrested some other people, then retreated back into their stations to conduct business as usual. I watched it night after night, as did many others, on livestreams available for anyone to bear witness.
Now the Oregon House has passed a package of what they call police accountability measures. Unfortunately they don’t address the root causes of racism and police abuse of power, so I will not be able to stop paying attention to what police are doing in my city any time soon. Some of these new requirements already existed in the Portland Police Bureau, and they have clearly been successful in exacting terror on some communities despite those measures being in place.
And so it goes: lather, rinse, repeat.
The thing that keeps me going is even though we are clearly not finished fighting against racism, it does seem like we're making progress. Albeit slow and precarious, sometimes taking two steps back in one area for each step forward we make in another. Part of that pace stems from only addressing the symptoms of a deeper problem without tackling the tough human issues at the heart of the systems we created to dehumanize certain people.
It seems that we are doomed to repeat this process again and again until the solution finally sticks. I am hopeful that our relationship with technology can help us work more quickly through the cycle. Maybe if the people who were around last time could still be around this time the lessons can fully sink-in. Even if the thought and action leaders of the prior anti-racism movements are no longer with us, they can continue to speak directly to the new generation through video and audio recording available on the internet.
That is certainly one leg-up we have today. Tech is connecting us faster and more directly, especially in the wake of adaptation to Covid lockdowns. Maybe we can repeat a cycle within a generation instead of from one generation to the next. Maybe we can finally remember or relearn that we are all humans worthy of dignity and respect. Worthy of life and love. Worthy of autonomy and independence.
In the meanwhile, I will continue to work on humanizing myself and others. I will continue to plumb the depths of what makes us human and offer my observations to the world as opportunities for exploration and connection. I will continue to lather, rinse, and repeat my demands that we human differently than we have in the past. And when enough people are ready to make a major societal shift toward anti-racism, I'll be ready too.
Information and Inspiration
I get a lot of things done. Work, chores, personal projects. Sometimes exciting things like installing new cabinets in my kitchen. Sometimes helpful things like loading or unloading a friend's moving truck. Often mundane things like laundry and prepping lunches for the week. Getting things done is one way I relate to the world. Apparently it also sometimes looks like a superpower.
A friend recently told me they were astounded by my ability to accomplish so many things. They were coming off an exhausting day at work and sitting down to dinner. I was coming of an exhausting day at work and about to shovel a couple truck-loads of bark chips into the front yard. Before I disappeared to change, my friend told me all they have energy for at the end of their workday is some flavor of vegetating in a semi-horizontal position. They looked at me and said “I'm impressed that you just have so many spoons.”
I had to sit with that for a while. My friend is amazing and thoughtful and doing good work in the world. They work part-time at a school, teaching children about art and artists, inspiring creativity and helping kids connect to themselves and each other (from a distance because Covid). They also run an art business, which is a full-time job even if it’s a part time gig. They do plenty, from my perspective. But according to them, they don’t complete nearly as many projects as I do in the same span of time because they don’t have as many spoons.
So do I just have more capacity than my friend? Was I just born with more spoons? I don’t think so. I think it’s more likely the way I operate happens to be recognized as valuable by modern society. In our capitalist culture, so much emphasis is placed on a person’s productivity it’s no wonder “doing many things” feels like living up to a gold standard. But if we had the option to equally consider other ways of being as successful, everyone could have as many “spoons” as I do. Some people’s way of being in the world would just look different than mine. Just like it does now.
I don’t like the assertion that I simply have more action potential or more functional ability than other humans. That completely diminishes everyone else who can’t or doesn’t want to accomplish the same volume or type of things I do. I don’t have advanced human capacity. Other people don’t have diminished human capacity (or if they do, it’s not for this reason). We just have capacity for different things or our capacity is expressed in different ways.
That pronouncement also bothers me because it fails to acknowledge the wholeness of my humanity. It ignores all the work I have put in to tame my personal daemons and discounts all the things I do to maintain my capacity to deal with the world. In my life I have suffered and I struggle. I have been abused and I have known trauma. My ability to get things done is partly born of those traumatic life experiences. It helped me survive.
It was also a vortex. Even after I left abusive relationships and abandoned other unhealthy interpersonal dynamics, that productivity programming continued to run in my background. It is not a magical ability I was born having control over. I can harness this power consciously today only after years of deliberate practice grounding and centering through Qigong and Taiji.
Taiji teaches that we can know a thing by knowing its opposite. I had to spend time with stillness before I could recognize the ceaseless churning within myself. I had to sit with my yearning for doing and recognize how it served me before I could let it be just a part of me instead of running away with all of me. I had to practice seeing the potential of that vortex before I could choose to avoid it.
I do not enjoy the feeling of idleness. I like working on projects and creating things. I love the feeling of being in the zone. I also do not like to leave things unfinished, so it's hard for me to stop before something feels complete. The momentum of doing makes it easier to keep going once I've started and I’m in the flow. I find it more challenging to put something down midway and try to work back into that same flowzone later. Sometimes this means I garden until after the sun sets or work late into the night to complete a report. But I choose these things because I enjoy that version of the process more than the alternative. And I can make that choice because I have explored both.
The past couple months have been high volume in my world. The tax season is always a time of fullness in my work. This year I also had multiple investigative cases, postponed when the court system shutdown last year due to Covid, suddenly all scheduled for trial in March and April. Add to that mix my determination to reshape my yard into a foodscape for this growing season and suddenly all my weekdays and weekends were full.
I would not have chosen to prepare for multiple trials during tax season, but I didn’t have a choice about that simultaneity. So I made sure to do my Taiji/Qigong every day and managed to get it all done without draining every ounce of my being. There is a certain energy in the momentum of doing that feels good. And I can see it more clearly when I also allow for stillness. Then the doing can be meditative and centering. It can be restorative. I zoned-in on gardening and movement arts to de-stress from my work, and all those different flavors of doing kept me balanced and feeling whole.
It’s not a work pace I can or want to keep up indefinitely, but coming to it from a place of centeredness was a much more enjoyable way to live through a set of circumstances I had no control over. You could say I took the lemons and made lemonade. Or you could say that I have been practicing maintaining my inner self for years so I had the capacity to weather the many storms swirling around me from the outside world.
There is no substitute for grounding. No substitute for resting-in to the present moment. And no substitute for the daily maintenance of my individual mental and emotional capacity. Just like there is no substitute for maintaining our societal and cultural systems. No substitute for considering how and what our systems serve. And no substitute for ensuring we are cultivating systems that have the capacity to support all of us during challenging times and allow us all to thrive.
Information and Inspiration
We are at a turning point. Right now in this moment. Many things are shifting and the choices we make now will affect the future direction of our species. Racism, capitalism, education, the economy, government, policing, healthcare, housing, climate change are all in the news and under frequent discussion by the populous. Each one important, and none of which we can avoid dealing with because they are so interrelated. If we skip any one of them, we’ll fail on all of them.
The turning point most present for me this week is Covid. My group became eligible for vaccination, so I went and got my first jab. On the whole, vaccines are rolling out much faster than I expected. And that is nothing short of amazing. At the beginning of this year I was certain I would not be vaccinated until autumn (if I was lucky). So driving for three hours and having a ridiculously sore arm feels like a gift. It is certainly a worth-while investment in inoculation against Covid.
Unfortunately, one of the reasons eligibility has been accelerated is because there are also millions of people refusing to get their jab or feeling hesitant about getting it for a myriad of reasons. So even though my family and friends will be vaccinated, are we going to achieve heard immunity? Are enough able-bodied citizens going to buck-up and do it so the medically compromised among us can, you know, be safely among us? I'm not sure.
One definite possibility is the more people get vaccinated, the more comfortable others will be getting their dose too. The more businesses and public spaces that require vaccination (or medical exemption) as a condition of in-person participation, the more incentivized people will be to get their jab. Eventually enough people come around, we all get heard immunity, and we can move on with our lives in closer physical proximity.
Another equally possible option is that we end up instead with two separate American societies: the vaxed and the notvaxed. Where some public places require vaccines, so that is where the vaxed go. While the notvaxed gather in places without that requirement or monitoring. And both feel self-righteous about their decisions, thus creating in the real world the separate eco-chambers that currently exist online.
I'm really hoping for the former, but I can't discount the later because it could happen. In fact, it feels like ignoring the possibility might mean I'm not paying attention if that reality starts to take shape around me. I definitely don't want to wake up one day in yet another flavor of separated society when it's too late to stop the momentum.
And that's only considering what we're doing here inside this country. We've already got a major global divide between those countries who can obtain sufficient quantity of vaccines for their populous and those who cannot. That's a problem we'll all have to address because as experts keep reminding us: while Covid continues to exist anywhere, it remains a threat everywhere. Just like climate change.
There is no such reality where Brazil is overwhelmed by the pandemic and I feel safe from those more infectious and more deadly variants here. That's not how pandemics work. There is also no such reality where the climate collapses on part of the world and other parts of the world are isolated from the fallout. That's not how the planet works.
We're already experiencing the effects of some climate change. I have watched and felt the seasons shift over my lifetime. So I feel like I have to plan for a future of global climate collapse, where I need to know how to farm or otherwise live off the land - not quite knowing what state the land might be in at that time. And I am simultaneously planning for a future that could exist if we get our collective act together, with a stable climate, where retirement planning would be relevant in whatever economic system exists.
It is entirely possible that people and governments will insist on massive societal changes to fully address climate change. It is also possible that industry will make the drastic adjustments necessary to prolong human existence on this planet. And it is certainly possible that while we’re reshaping the entire global economy to address climate issues, we will reshape it into something that takes care of all people everywhere instead of favoring those who start out with wealth.
I don’t think it’s likely, but it is definitely possible.
It is equally possible that world leaders will continue to place a higher value on their egos than on the lives of their constituents. Also equally possible that many of the folks currently in-power will favor maintaining the status quo which currently benefits them over a new and more equitable system, even though greater equity will also benefit them.
It is highly possible the folks at the top of our current systems will not want to go through the challenging and often painful process of introspection and come to terms with how much hurt their participation in the current system has caused others. It is totally possible those folks will not want to participate in the truth part of any truth and reconciliation process. I suppose it is also possible they will not want to participate in the reconciliation part either.
As it is today, it could go either way. I can see quite clearly that neither outcome is yet a forgone conclusion. Scientists say we still have 9 years to fix our relationship with greenhouse gas emissions before it’s definitely too late. Science is amazing. They are constantly coming up with fantastic resolutions to the problems we cause ourselves. Can we do what science shows us we must do to survive? Given what a challenge it is to get people to wear masks in public, I'm just not sure.
So here we are. Caught between two very different and mutually exclusive possibilities and unable - as individuals - to do anything about it alone. It will take all of us to avoid certain doom from the pandemic and climate change and everything else. And it will take all of us getting more in touch with our own humanity to do it. Otherwise how are we to see and appreciate the humanity of the suffering masses we dismiss today?
Information and Inspiration
I received an email this week from a couple friends I have not kept up with over this year of social isolation. In the Before Time we saw each other regularly at dances, and sometimes they stayed with us when they were in town for a visit. Their letter was a lovely recounting of their lives over the last year. Where they lived, what they enjoyed in that area, exciting things they are doing in their work, and how much they miss all of us.
It was so sweet and so human, as I took in paragraph after paragraph all my love and longing for them welled-up in my eyes and ran down my cheeks to mingle with my smile. I feel very family about these two humans. They were part of my world when it was complete and unencumbered by constant Covid considerations. Missing them feels like missing a part of myself.
A part of myself I almost forgot about. I set that part of me on a shelf when the pandemic rolled into town with the assumption I would pick it back up in just a few short weeks. Well, we all know what happened instead: the lockdown went on and on and on… and here we are today. Still staying at home, still ordering take-out, still seeing the world through Zoom. That part of me is still sitting on the very same shelf, cob-webbed and covered in dust.
I have not had access to that expression of me in long enough that it feels like another lifetime. An entirely different me in an entirely different world. In truth, it is. I have grown and changed significantly over the last year, shedding old narratives, adopting new practices, and cultivating new awareness. I don't know what the world will be like after Covid, but it will definitely be different because we will all be different.
It will also be different because it can no longer be the way it was. The world has shifted in many ways, some irreversible. Working from home has been so successful that many companies are planning to continue the practice indefinitely. Events that went online had significantly increased attendance and an expanded audience, so many organizers plan to include a remote component in future events even after large in-person gatherings become safe. The vaccine distribution is strikingly uneven around the world, so global travel remains a distant ambition for who knows how long.
Technology is ubiquitous. We work on computers and attend virtual conferences. We communicate through our phones and on social media. We take yoga class and visit with friends and family through Zoom or other platforms. Children continue to attend school online in many places. It is nearly impossible to separate ourselves from our tech. Some of that is an adaptation to Covid life, but we have been weaving technology more completely into the fabric of our lives for a long time.
This week I attended a panel discussion about artificial intelligence, machine learning, and how it is being used to shape our world. The whole presentation was fascinating and I learned many things. One thing struck me as especially significant from a human impact perspective. The mathematician on the panel explained that an algorithm is comprised of two elements: historical data and a definition of success. Using an algorithm assumes the future will occur as the past has occurred.
That means we are building systems that assume what has happened in our past is what will definitely happen in our future. But if we do not also consider why things happened the way they did, we are operating without an understanding of why things may happen a particular way in the future. We may unconsciously blame a victim for their circumstances, or perpetuate racist, sexist, and classist systems that disadvantage a particular swath of humanity.
These tech tools can be incredibly valuable in some applications. Machine learning and artificial intelligence is used widely by financial institutions to identify and stop potential fraud. These systems create a profile of our usual activity from our historical banking actions and flag transactions out of line with our individual norms.
In this context, it doesn't matter why I shop at a particular online retailer or why I usually spend less than $100. It only matters that suddenly there are multiple large transactions from a website with a foreign IP because that might not be me. The bank flags those transactions and I get a phone call to confirm whether I am the one shopping. This is the kind of tech I want working in the background.
There are other examples where using these tech tools has a harmful impact, such as hiring, teacher performance ratings, and predictive policing. In these applications, the why matters immensely. If a child enters fourth grade at a kindergarten reading level and the teacher helps them achieve a second or third grade level by the end of the year, that is positive and worthy of celebration. But an algorithm where success means a student reading at fourth-grade level will mark that as a failure. If that "failure" is then attributed to the teacher as a reflection of their skills and ability, they might be denied a promotion or fired.
But it wasn't the teacher who failed in that example; it was the tech. There are many similar examples of companies or organizations hoping to remove bias from important decisions by relying on tech instead of humans. But what really happens is a more uniform and impersonal application of whatever bias is built in to those systems when they are created.
Instead of cultivating awareness of what is happening as it occurs and having important conversations to make difficult decisions, we are outsourcing that burden to our tech. In doing so, we also outsource the guilt of making a decision that might hurt someone. We did not exclude those people, they were excluded by the Almighty Algorithm. That might help some folks sleep better at night, but it doesn't hire more qualified candidates, promote better teachers, prevent crime, or make safer cities.
Many things in our world could do with an update. The future is unfixed, and contains nearly infinite possibilities. The kind of world we create is only limited by our imagination. Our current tech is all the result of somebody's imagination. In the future, we will all be updated versions of ourselves, using updated versions of our technology. If we do it well and with thoughtful intention, we can upgrade to systems of greater equity, justice, and well-being for everyone.
Information and Inspiration
Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.