Some things I like to take my time with. Like eating a very delicious brownie. Or my morning qigong practice. For those things, I really enjoy the process. I look forward to starting my day with movements and mindfulness just as much as the feeling of centeredness qigong gives me. And I think it’s fair to say I enjoy eating a brownie much more than I enjoy having eaten a brownie.
I try to find some joy or satisfaction in everything I do, but there are some things I like to accomplish with the least possible investment of my time or energy. Like clearing out my email inbox after time away from the office, or driving during rush-hour. For the things I just need to get done, I try to find shortcuts.
When I was a teenager, my friends and I took great pride in knowing all the back roads to get around town. We lived in Beaverton because rent was cheap, and we hung out in Portland because that’s where we all grew up. We could get from anywhere in Beaverton to NW Portland without hitting any traffic, at any time of day.
We could run errands, pick up a friend, get to work, find the party, or arrive at our coffee shop hang-out spot at our ease. It felt like secret knowledge the rest of Portland residents were not privy to. In that way, as it separated us from everybody else, it brought us closer together.
We shared all our secret shortcuts as we discovered them, and made constant improvements. A right through a parking lot here, a left turn a block earlier there, a side street to avoid a string of crowded intersections. We crafted our secret routes through experimentation, which is certainly not a shortcut method. That’s probably why I still remember all those backroads nearly twenty years later.
Shortcuts can be incredibly valuable in many ways. Having a teacher is a shortcut to gaining knowledge or skills. It took me fifteen years to earn my black belt, but it would have taken much longer without someone guiding me and providing instruction along the way.
Shortcuts can also have unintended consequences. In the classic 80’s adventure movie, The Princess Bride, Prince Humperdink skips to the end of the wedding ceremony, and so invalidates his marriage to Buttercup. No one said “I do.” According to Buttercup’s true love, Wesley: they didn’t say it, so they didn’t do it. Which turns out to be just what the story needs for a happy ending. Unfortunately, not all shortcuts result in a happy ending.
In recent months I have spent a significant amount of time watching videos of police encounters. From the shocking murders of unarmed humans of color to the more routine nightly protests streaming live on the internet. I see a lot of short-cuts. When the police interact with the public, sometimes they encounter a potentially dangerous person. Rather than taking the time to find out if they are really in danger, or building the skill ahead of time to make an accurate assessment quickly, they skip to the end and start shooting.
Politics also seems full of the wrong kind of shortcuts. The 1994 crime bill, for example, which lead to the mass incarceration of millions of Americans, including a disproportionately high number of black and brown folks. It was supposed to increase public safety, but instead of addressing the actual societal ills that lead to crime (like poverty), it created a shortcut to lock away the symptom: people labeled as criminals.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 is another example. Thrown together rapidly in a mere three months, it gave some short-term benefits to mostly wealthy taxpayers while creating record high budget deficits, which our future selves will have to manage. The creators of the TCJA and its subsequent amendments did not include any specific plan to cover the long-term cost.
Most environmental policy also fails to address the seriousness of global climate collapse. Many politicians (and many constituents) do not seem to understand the difference between a beneficial shortcut toward a long-term goal and a short-term-only gain. There is too much focus on winning the next election and not enough on the less glamorous groundwork of laying a foundation to support long-lasting changes.
It is really no surprise because short-term focus is reinforced by the instant-gratification culture of American consumerism. There is no one magic solution, but if feels important to ask everyone to become more mindful. Consider whether you are truly taking a shortcut, or whether you are just selling yourself or others short.
Information and Inspiration
I enjoy helping people. It feels good. Giving my time, energy, or expertise is a way to get things done, a way to build social capital, and a way to enrich my community. Helping is like a little bit of antidote to the poisons of the modern world. And it can also be a way to process some of what the world hands us.
This week I helped a friend move. We have been friends for many years and have helped each other move several times. I wanted to help with this move especially because this time my friend is moving out of town. Helping with the physical moving process was a nice way to also process my sadness that she will be farther away from me.
Helping provided a similar processing opportunity many years ago with the death of my then mother-in-law. She told us she had cancer and within a year she was gone. We lived far away, so we visited many times during her final year. While we were there, we helped. I cooked food, played her favorite music, and rubbed her feet. Each small way I could help felt like another way to say I love you.
We saw her health fading with each visit and knew we could do nothing to stop the cancer. Helping was how we could actively engage, instead of feeling like powerless victims of fate. After she died, we cleared out her house and took care of all her belongings. Participating in all the parts of her passing gave me a tangible way to process my emotions and helped me grieve.
All the members of her community also came together to help. Friends made a schedule to be with her regularly and help with household chores. They fed and housed my husband and I all the many times we visited. And they pooled their airline miles to get us a last minute flight when she died. Although her passing had a deep impact on her community, all that helping gave everyone a chance to work through it in their own way.
It also enabled each person to contribute to the community in the ways they wanted to help. This is vital for a community to thrive over the long term. When my contribution is not the help I want to give, it doesn't feel like giving a gift. Instead it feels like a burdensome requirement or unwanted obligation. That definitely doesn’t feel good, and often leads to burn-out.
I have been the treasurer for several non-profits over the last fifteen years. It is wonderful to be in service of great causes and I enjoyed helping. I am a skilled accountant and every organization wants a treasurer with lots of knowledge and experience. Unfortunately, once folks found out I had those skills that was the only thing they wanted me to do. All those years of helping in only one way were stifling. Accounting is not the only thing I can do, and not the only way I want to contribute.
I also love connecting with people and community building. So I stepped away from treasurer positions and directed my energy into other projects and organizations. I helped plan events, run contra dances, and create more opportunities for women, girls, and non-binary folks in martial arts. All that helping fills me with joy and satisfaction. It cultivates the kind of world I want to live in and it nurtures community.
Community is one of the most important things to me. I support it and I am supported by it. When my partner and I bought our house, we needed to fix a couple things. While we were at it, we thought we would do some other minor renovations. One thing led to another, and we suddenly had a massive project on our hands and only a few weeks to get it all done.
Our community came together to help us. They lent us tools and expertise. We took out a wall, tore up old carpet, removed water damaged cabinets. Some folks painted, some installed new flooring, others repaired drywall or changed out door knobs. They helped us install cabinets, put together IKEA furniture, and load up the dumpster.
We could not have done all that we did in the short time we had without every person’s help. And when moving day came, they were all there again to help us load the truck and then unload everything at the newly finished house. It was amazing. Our home was put together by our community, which feels like a special kind of magic.
Our house is a great example of the powerful community force of Mutual Aid. I have seen many other amazing examples, especially in recent months during Covid. Our house was a large, one-off sort of project, but there are people and organizations helping other people and communities with everyday things like food and shelter, and they have been doing it for years.
There are some groups that have gone even farther, creating small pockets of independent community adjacent to the rest of society. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed, there is an entire society formed around mutual aid. The people in that world live on a partially inhospitable planet. They are forced to collaborate and cooperate in order to survive.
Just as in that story, we humans of earth face a similar situation in our world. The pandemic rages on into its ninth month, our economic systems are failing the vast majority of people, and our planet’s climate is working its way swiftly toward no longer sustaining human life. Coming together in community to support each other is the only way to ensure we actually have a future to look forward to. Do what you can to help.
Information and Inspiration
We live in a world full of deadlines. There are yearly deadlines, like birthdays and New Year’s. Monthly deadlines, like paying rent and submitting expense reports. Weekly deadlines, like game night and putting the garbage out. Even daily deadlines, like starting work and pick kids up from daycare.
Most are such ordinary parts of regular life, they go by without even registering. I pay rent on the 1st, like I did last month, and the month before that, and every month before that. I put the trash out because it’s Sunday, just like last week, and the week before that, and so on. My alarm goes off, so I get out of bed and go to work.
The beginning scenes of the 1980 film The Gods Must Be Crazy capture this aspect of modern life perfectly. In the bustling metropolis, the narrator explains, when the clock says seven-three-zero, you must leave your home and commute to work. When it says eight-zero-zero, everyone has to look busy. When it says ten-three-zero, you can stop looking busy for 15 minutes… then everyone has to look busy again.
The narrator contrasts that city life with the everyday experience of the traditionally hunter-gatherer San tribes in the Kalahari desert hundreds of miles away. They pay no mind to whether it’s Tuesday or Saturday because those details are irrelevant. Instead, what matters to them is the flow of the natural world. The beginning and end of the rain season, how to find water during the dry season, which plants are edible and nourishing, and where to build shelter from the elements.
What strikes me most about that juxtaposition is the stark difference between the manufactured order of civilization and the natural cadence of life on the planet. Both include deadlines in a sense, but they are of a very different sort. The natural world includes seasons, phases, and rhythms. The modern industrialized world not only includes many deadlines, it is built entirely around deadlines. Deadlines humans invented to support human-created systems.
One such example is our current tax system, which supports the other human-created systems of federal, state, and local governments. This week includes a major tax deadline: people who requested an extension to file their personal 2019 taxes earlier this year must now submit their completed forms by October 15th.
There are more than 140 million individual taxpayers in the US and most of those people have the same deadline: April 15th. In fact, it’s so rare for a person to have a tax year other than the calendar year that I couldn’t even find statistics about it. This means every February, March, and April tax accountants across the country work like machines in overdrive to file as many tax returns as possible by the deadline.
It’s horrendous, and there is no actual reason everybody needs to have the same tax deadline. For instance, we could have a rolling deadline determined by the last digit of the social security number (or something similar). If your number ends in a 1, 2, or 3, you file in April. If your number ends in a 4, 5, or 6, you have a July due date. 7, 8, and 9, you're up in October.
This would complicate some things like employer wage reporting or combining data for people with different due dates in the year they get married. But it would mean tax accountants could work a regular schedule year-round, instead of disappearing from their entire lives and reemerging 3 months later, under-slept and malnourished.
Computers are so involved in all the tax reporting processes, and we have so many smart and talented computer programmers in the world, there is undoubtedly a technological solution available. I’m sure the only reason programmers are not already working on this issue is because no one has asked them to solve it.
People generally like to solve problems. People generally like to work and create things. And most people want to be doing work that matters. Unfortunately, the societal systems we have designed require us all to constantly adapt our behavior to suit those systems. And people are not machines.
The incongruence between the societal systems we live our lives perpetuating and our natural human rhythms probably explains the very human phenomenon of procrastination (and my personal favorite: procrastaccomplishment). It’s truly amazing how many things I can get done while avoiding a deadline for something else. Deadlines are certainly one way to manufacture a reason to do work I otherwise wouldn’t do.
If many of these deadlines are set up just to keep us tending the great machines of our society, then they are serving those systems instead of the people who are theoretically supposed to benefit from the existence of those systems. If we didn’t have all these deadlines, maybe some things wouldn’t get done. Maybe some systems would fail. And maybe that would be a good thing. Their absence would create space for something else.
Instead of meeting all those deadlines, other work could get done. Work like: farming, building, innovating, learning, creating art, and storytelling. And we could do that work in a way that nurtures people, and creates and maintains community. Human beings are part of nature, no matter how separate we imagine ourselves to be. We should embrace seasons, phases, and rhythms and let go of so many deadlines.
Information and Inspiration
When I was a child, my favorite movies were the Star Wars movies. My dad taped Episode 4, 5, and 6 during a TV marathon and I watched those VHS tapes dozens of times. Every time I was home sick from school I would drag my sleeping bag into the living room and watch the entire trilogy back to back to back. I knew our copies so well, I had even memorized when the partial commercial snippets would interrupt the action.
Those three movies shaped my growing up worldview immensely, from the strong female character and mostly white cast to the rebels' enduring fight against an oppressive system. One small thing that made a distinct impression on me was when I first heard the concept of etiquette and protocol.
In A New Hope, Luke's uncle initially declines to buy C3PO from the Jawas because the droid is "programmed for etiquette and protocol." So I asked my dad what that was and he explained. That scene suddenly made much more sense to my 8 year old self: there is clearly not much use for a walking talking encyclopedia of appropriate diplomatic behavior on a remote planet so far from politically important happenings.
Protocol seems very useful in diplomacy, which is all about managing political relations across language and culture. At an intersection of different customs and values, an established protocol can help bring people together by manufacturing a common ground where one may not otherwise be easily identifiable.
Unfortunately, it is also inherently exclusionary, as having an established behavior protocol for a certain space makes it quite clear who does not belong in that space. It is one of the many ways that superiority is perpetuated even beyond the diplomatic relations of nation-states. If the protocols in any space are unwritten or otherwise non-public (as they often are), then anyone who knows the rules has an advantage over anyone who doesn’t.
Etiquette is just the same. It is useful as a tool to demonstrate respect for another person by behaving toward them in a polite manner. And it is just as difficult to get right when the rules are unwritten, nebulous, or ever-changing as is the case with most social spaces. What is proper and polite today is not the same as it was 100 years ago, 10 years ago, or sometimes even last week.
And it is just as useful as a tool of oppression. The people who hold the social power in any space have the privilege of deciding what is polite, proper, and customary. Through a lens of superiority, anyone who fails to achieve proper etiquette is deficient. Anyone whose character needs improvement is therefore unworthy of full consideration.
The more rules and nuance included, the greater the challenge to maintain it, and the greater the degree of control power-holding people have over the behavior of other people. A great deal of time, effort, and money has been invested in learning correct behavior over much of history, especially by women and girls. Even today, classes are available in deportment, manners, etiquette, and social protocol.
As a child, I was highly observant of how adults behaved and of social niceties generally. I wanted everyone around me to feel comfortable all the time, so I put together a mental scrapbook of etiquette and protocol to inform my personal behavior. I was known as the Family Diplomat and I took pride at how well I could navigate social situations without upsetting anyone. It was only in recent years that I finally understood my refusal to ruffle any feathers has allowed unacceptable and unjust behavior to go un-checked and flourish.
I can understand that it seems quite handy to have a prescribed way to interact with people in social and business situations. But it also allows for people to think about other people as objects instead of fellow human beings. If there is a formula for our interaction, then I don't have to get to know you as a person. I can begin our interaction or relationship with certain assumptions and act on those assumptions.
I see this play out constantly with gender identity. Mainstream society has for a very long time assigned certain clothing, hairstyles, jobs, mannerisms (and much more) to either a male or female gender binary designation. The establishment of this protocol allows two people to automatically know which gender category the person across from them falls into, and then also to extrapolate several other things about them without ever having to ask.
On its face, this may seem like a harmless convenience. But what happens when someone doesn't fit the formula? If we hold etiquette and protocol as the highest authority, then that non-conforming person is a problem to be fixed. But authentic human expression is not a problem. In fact it’s what makes us interesting, and sharing our individuality allows us to have deep and genuine connections with each other.
Humans are fascinating and complex. My personal diplomacy kept me safe through challenging and toxic relationships, but it didn’t get me any closer to understanding the fullness of what it means to be human. When I left those relationships and began to explore myself more completely and express myself more fully, it became far more interesting to discover what an individual person really thinks and feels rather than to divine it using a rubric I crafted out of un-checked assumptions.
As it turns out, almost no one fits the formula (no matter the formula). People are individuals with their own interests, preferences, and quirks. And all the rules of social engagement are imaginary. We created them. Just like all the rules and systems in our society: we can make up new customs of engaging each other at any time and the only limit is our imagination.
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.