Human beings are incredible and resilient. We are adaptive. We persist. There are so many amazing stories about people who persevere through challenging circumstances, ultimately succeeding, often against all odds. These stories are captivating and inspiring. Like Daniel Kish, the blind man who developed a kind of vision that has nothing to do with his eyes which allows him to navigate the world independently and successfully. Or Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States.
These stories are truly incredible, and they offer us more than just inspiration. They also offer an opportunity to overcome something within ourselves if we're willing to confront it. For Daniel Kish, the absence of people in his life treating him like he couldn't allowed him the freedom and space to try things and fail enough to figure out whether he could. His story offers each of us the opportunity to examine our pre-conceived notions about who is able and identify how those beliefs seep into our actions and shape the world around us.
For Elizabeth Blackwell it was incredibly difficult to accomplish what she did in both academia and her subsequent medical practice. A whole lot of people tried quite actively to prevent any of it from happening. And yet she made it. She even created a place for other women to learn medicine and cultivated opportunities for those graduates to also do their residencies. Her story offers us all the opportunity to reflect on our modern health care and education systems, to sniff-out where commonly held beliefs about certain kinds of people are resulting in the same kind of exclusion today, and to figure out what we can do differently in our lives to make space for others to succeed.
Mental toughness is a common theme in these and many other perseverance stories. Grit is certainly one of the ingredients in my personal and professional successes. And here is where I'd like us to just pause for a moment and consider where all that mental toughness comes from. Mine is born of tough circumstances. Of course that isn't true for everyone; it is prefect possible to develop mental toughness through practice that isn't also traumatizing. But for me, there were periods of my life I couldn’t escape from, and I either had to give up and stop living or grit my teeth and get through it.
Like a lot of people faced with similar circumstances, I survived. And in so doing I developed the skill of surviving shitty circumstances while maintaining the outward appearance of having my shit pretty well together. I do not enjoy that I had to learn how to keep it together during extremely tough times. I don't wish that experience on anyone. And I am also grateful for the skillset of not-completely-falling-apart-in-crisis. It's been quite helpful in dealing with my present post-covid situation.
I’m in an interesting place because I spent the earlier part of this year in the process of deconstructing all my long-standing coping strategies and personal survival protocols. Then Covid came along and has changed my brain and body in such a significant way that I have now also been forced into deconstructing my schedule and all my hobbies and social activities and rebuilding the very structure of my entire life. It's quite a challenging process and also a very emotional one. Between personal self-work, emotional regulation, body discomfort and healing, I don't have much juice left in the tank for anything else.
Even thought it sucks, I'm going to make it through just fine. Due in part to my mental toughness and in part to the access I have to the incalculably valuable resource of community support. Lingering Covid effects are one of those challenging circumstances that aren't currently preventable. But my perseverance story shouldn't be discounted as having no other lessons to teach us. If we had a better health care system and a real social safety net, I could take the time I need to focus all my energy and effort on healing. As it stands now, I've still got to get all my work done so my family can continue to survive capitalism.
Of course surviving capitalism isn't easy for anyone, and it's especially challenging for anyone who didn't start out with access to a pile of money. The people who eventually discovered the MRNA vaccine were initially discounted by the rest of the medical science community. That means they didn't have access to as many grants or other resources necessary to perform their work. But they stuck it out and continued their efforts, eventually making it possible for a covid vaccine to be created in record time. At which point, we all celebrated their achievement and praised their determination.
Why do we continue to venerate that aspect of these tales? I think we offer extra praise points for extra suffering to avoid doing the hard work of actually fixing the things that make it so dreadfully difficult to succeed if you're not already successful. Changing the system to ensure future scientists have access to adequate resources sounds like far better thanks than some kudos for discovering a wonderful thing in spite of all the societally-erected barriers. What if these eventual Nobel Prize recipients had support from the beginning? How much less suffering could they have gone through and how much sooner could society have enjoyed the amazing finds they discovered?
I feel the same way about almost every story I hear about an oppressed person rising above their oppression to open doors other people get to walk through just for existing. I recently read about Allyson Felix, a many-medaled Olympian. When she became pregnant, Nike drastically cut her endorsement. So she created her own brand of running shoes, overcame adversity, and went on to win more medals. All of which she could have accomplished without persecution.
These survival and perseverance stories each have a double lesson available for the taking. One thing I'd like us to take away from all of them is: it doesn't actually have to be so damn difficult. The people who persist and resist and break through barriers definitely deserve appreciation, acknowledgement, and accolades. And also, can we please stop making some people's lives so fucking hard? Imagine the possibilities if all these amazing people could focus their grit and their determination and their creativity on just the thing they're trying to accomplish and not also on surviving the process.
Information and Inspiration
Tragedy is part of the human experience. We have all experienced a personal tragedy, a community tragedy, a national tragedy, or a global tragedy at some point. Sometimes all at once. They can be caused by natural disasters or take the form of human constructions (sometimes both). The tragedy of October 7th that sparked the current Israel-Hamas war is entirely human in its creation. And while the event itself was horrifying at the time for the people who lived through it, the aftermath has been horrifying to me.
There's a particular flavor in the way that attack on that date is being discussed by some media outlets and many Israeli mouthpieces which is both incomplete and dangerous. To hear some folks explain it, the events of October the 7th were a completely isolated incident that came out of nowhere. As if nothing came before which might have contributed to its occurrence. It is also the same way the news frames almost any riot or violent protest demanding police accountability or human rights: completely without regard for any of the tragedy that came before.
It feels especially important to discuss this framing phenomenon during this week because it is Feast Week in the US. The official name for this holiday is Thanksgiving and it's origins have been used as a mechanism to whitewash the American genocide of native people. The context-free discussions about the October 7th violence are identical to the way some sections of US American Indian history is told. There are plaques around the country commemorating the deaths of white American settlers at the hands of vicious Indians. Never mind these incidents happened after and in response to brutality and settlers forcibly confiscating and setting on native land.
I have re-shaped my November harvest feast holiday to include truth, acknowledgement, and activism. That's not the prevailing practice, so I put in deliberate effort to choose a different kind of participation. I had to acknowledge the complete horrifying history to fully see the through-line in today's societal systems which continue to cover up what really happened. It's not in the interests of capitalism or the status quo for people to opt-out of the chummy, white savior first thanksgiving narrative. But it is necessary for healing. My own healing, community healing, and healing the world.
Another opportunity for reflection this week was Monday's Trans Day of Remembrance. Losing a friend or loved one or community member is always sad. Losing someone you care about because they couldn't find a way to keep on living or because someone else didn't want them to exist is nothing short of tragic. A lot of things coalesce to create these tragedies. They are not isolated incidents. It's critical to look beyond the incident itself and identify its roots. That's the only way we can hope to create change.
So as you roast your turkey and mash your potatoes, or while you ignore the holiday and do literally anything else with your Thursday, please take a moment to consider everything that lead up to this moment in time. Remember it is possible to both recognize your own pain as well as the acknowledge the suffering of others. Figure out how to cultivate empathy and understanding for oppressed people lashing-out instead of judgement or reproach for desperate people employing desperate measures. Learn about the suffering other people experience. Read a book, watch a documentary, talk to a friend. Then decide how to live differently now that you know what's still going on for someone else.
Information and Inspiration
I found myself incredibly busy over the summer. Not regular getting out in the nice weather while we have it busy, but extremely and unrelentingly doing ALL THE THINGS busy. Every moment on my calendar was full and every time slot assigned. I went on work trips, I went on vacation, I visited family, I went camping with friends, I helped family navigate illness and treatment, I played in sports tournaments, I attended memorials. All while maintaining my regular workload and teaching at the dojo when I was in town. I'm lucky my work is portable enough I can do it from almost anywhere.
I enjoyed all the things I did and the places I went, but the immense volume of coming and going was decidedly not enjoyable. It was out of control. Once I finally stopped moving, I could reflecting on all that action. I realized I have had a long-standing practice of doing only the activities or projects I could justify as necessary or important. I can't just go putter around my garden because I enjoy it; I have to make time for weeding the garden because the garden needs to be weeded. Weeding is sufficiently important and therefore spending time in the garden is authorized.
Recently I have been working quite diligently to liberate myself from productivity based value and other societal bullshit I picked up by living and working in our modern world. All the while laboring under the unfortunate falsehood that I still had to justify everything I was doing. That belief was so deep I couldn't see it lurking under the surface and soaking into everything else I was thinking and doing. No wonder I couldn't imagine a way to function in the world other than the self control and containment strategies I've been employing for decades.
I'm glad I finally could see it, even if it took overdoing it for almost this entire year to finally be able to look at it. It was a painful realization and I tried to go easy on myself for having bought into the lie for so long. We collect the baggage we accumulate because it helps us survive. However uncomfortable the process of unearthing and examining it, I had to see the narrative running in the background before I could choose something different. And I needed to select a new base program to move forward and build the life I want Future Me to live in.
And now my entire existence has been reshaped by the after-effects of Covid. I can’t participate in many of my regular activities because my body physically can't do them. For the first few weeks, I just didn't do those things. Like I was on vacation from regular life and would be returning at any moment. I haven't wanted to replace those hobbies, outlets, and events with new things because I want to feel like I will get to go back to my regularly scheduled programming at some point. But while that helped me maintain a certain volume of hope for a full recovery, it is also another kind of idling.
It allowed me to temporarily avoid processing all my disappointment in my current circumstance as well as my feelings of inadequacy and incompleteness. Being physically strong and agile is an enormous slice of my personality pie. Suddenly loosing that capability has been devastating, and finding new outlets for my need to move my body and sweat has been a challenge. I feel like a completely differently shaped person. I'm ready to find out just how many amazing things this new body can do, I just need a little time to settle in and understand who is this new me.
Information and Inspiration
Life is hard. All kinds of challenges show up in all kinds of places with all kinds of faces. I have lived through and overcome many in my lifetime so far, and I expect challenges will continue trending as long as I exist on this planet. To make it through the worst of times, one method I have relied on quite heavily is the “push on through” method. And while a dose of grin and bear it has always gotten me through to the other side of struggle, I never arrive unscathed. I show up with all the bruises, scrapes, and scars, emotional or otherwise.
I was witness to an interesting example recently. My friend is having a challenging time right now, their spouse having recently been diagnosed with a deadly disease. I went with them to run an errand and on our way out of the parking lot they hit a bedraggled chair that had been left on its side part way into the lot’s exit. My friend kept going, despite my announcement about the chair, which got stuck in the wheel well. About a block later my friend finally pulled over, obliterating the chair into a hundred pieces. Later they couldn’t explain why they didn’t just stop the car. It was like they couldn’t even hear the rest of us making that very suggestion with rapidly increasing urgency.
I think that moment is an analogy for how they have been trying to cope with their spouse’s death sentence diagnosis. It was unexpected news and nothing like anything they have ever experienced before. They are frightened and sad and confused and they don’t really know what to do. But part of their lizard brain knows they need to keep going, so they are pushing through it to survive. And while the pushing will probably get them through it, they might break some stuff along the way, including themselves.
If one of the major flaws of pushing through is all the collateral damage, the other barrier is that sometimes you just... can't. I haven't been the same volume of capable since I had Covid. I can't just push through things I might have had no trouble with only weeks ago. My body is simply not capable of doing the same things. Neither is my brain. I can’t just emotionally armor-up and charge-in. If I do that for this challenge, the collateral damage is gonna be me. And all I will have accomplished is lengthening my recovery time.
So I've got to make a new plan. Somehow I’ve got to adjust. Life keeps relentlessly occurring and we've all got to adjust to all kinds of things. Mental, physical, emotional, and practical. Sometimes it’s exactly the right moment to push on through. Other times it’s the moment for pausing to reflect and recalibrate. And still other times it’s time to call in reinforcements. Humans are a community-requiring species.
The good news is humans are also very adaptable. I helped someone I didn’t expect adjust their perception of people who don’t have indoor housing. During a group discussion one person said, “Aren’t we really talking about two types of homeless people? The ones who are down on their luck and just need some help, and the ones who just want to lay around on the sidewalk and do their drugs?”
“That’s a myth.” I began, and went on to explain that nobody wakes up one day and decides their life’s ambition is to become a drug addict who sleeps outside without access to sanitation, privacy, or stability. That’s nobody’s first choice. And people don’t go from healthy and functional to sidewalk drug stupor in an instant. It’s a process that starts with being "down on your luck" and the longer you spend without community support or access to resources the harder it is to escape the tragedy of your own circumstances. "I hadn't thought about it like that before," they said.
Many people who are currently without stable housing or who have been housing-insecure at some point freely share their stories for anyone to read and listen to. Stories of circumstances that deprived them of housing in the first place. Stories of what it was like to be seen as less than human by everyone else walking by averting their eyes. Stories of how they made it off the streets (for those who are so lucky). These stories are devastating and not always easy to read. And they are also important for everyone to know and understand.
The incredibly preventable suffering from a lack of housing is important for everyone in our extremely wealthy society to witness. I can't even imagine how difficult it would be to want to keep on living each day while public officials and your fellow citizens spend time and money making sure they don't have to look at you or know you exist instead of helping you out. If we as a society agreed that we should instead take care of people as a basic number one priority, losing your housing wouldn’t be devastating to the rest of your life and livelihood.
People can get through really challenging situations, including having no place to live, if they are otherwise cared for. I think back to all the times I have pushed through tough times when I could have chosen another way to cope. I made that choice in those moments because I felt alone. I felt like nobody else knew or understood what I was going through, and I often felt like I couldn't ask for help (which is almost always untrue). Humans are amazingly resilient, we can survive just about anything. And it's a whole lot easier with support from each other.
There's a lot going on in the world right now that's challenging to deal with. Racism, misogyny, war, climate change, capitalism. Bizarre and vitriolic politics. I see a lot of people using the push on through method, putting their heads-down and just trying to survive until the danger passes. But all the big existential issues we have to sort out as a society don't actually have an end... they just keep going. So we can't wait until they pass, we have to solve these things now while they are still happening. The good news is we have to do it together. So let's do it. Together.
Information and Inspiration
I said in my last essay that it could get worse. A couple days later I came down with Covid, which was a singularly unpleasant experience. It hit me really hard for two solid weeks and left me with strange after-effects that remain unresolved now a week and half later. I managed to avoid it for three and half years, which feels like a pretty good run. Missing all the previous waves wasn't accident or chance, it was prevention. I took a whole lot of precautions. And I'm sure glad I did.
Just like when my partner and I bought our house. We did one of the things you're supposed to do and got a home inspection. As is common, the result was a mile-long list of things that should be addressed with varying degrees of urgency. One prominent issue was the plumbing, which was all CPVC installed in 1994 when the house was built. At the time of our inspection it was all intact and there didn't seem to be any leaks. Unfortunately, CPVC becomes notoriously brittle over time and breaks for seemingly no reason and without warning.
Rather than move in, get settled, and find a leak later (after it had gone unnoticed for long enough to cause other problems), we decided to do some prevention. You can't really connect any other type of pipe to CPVC because the connections are its weakest point, so we hired a plumber to replace all the plumbing in the whole house. We prepared for the plumbers to do their work by removing the bathroom vanity and a section of the kitchen counter. Behind which we found... evidence of leaks! So like a lot of home repair projects, once we began to address the initial issue we found plenty of other things needing attention. So we worked through everything we could with the time and budget we had available and moved into a much healthier place to live.
In the case of our house, our instinct for prevention paid off. I wish we could enjoy equally fortuitous timing on a grander scale and prevent some future societal disasters. Unfortunately we are not in the practice of employing so much prevention as a collective. We tend to wait until disaster strikes. Then we rally the resources and find the funds, whether the disaster occurred at home or across the world. When the 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Turkey and Syria in February, President Biden called for Congress to authorize millions of dollars in aid. And rightly so, those people needed all the help everyone in the global community could muster.
Just in the last week there were major floods in Libya and a massive earthquake in Morocco. Every time a natural disaster happens I wonder: what if we had collectively spent those gobs and gobs of money on disaster preparedness instead? What if we had invested ahead of time even part of the money we always manage to scrape together once emergency strikes? I bet it would cost less than recovery. But when budgets are put together, proposed, and passed there never seems to be enough available to allocate to prevention.
Undoubtedly some of that stems from the extreme length of the long long list of things that need to be addressed. It's no secret infrastructure in the US is failing. Many bridges are near collapse, the water systems and the electrical grid can't keep up with the demands of modern populations. Our ancient rail lines are in need of a major overhaul. Anywhere you look you can find something crumbling.
Beyond the practical challenges, it also comes down to deserving. Everyone seems to agree that people experiencing a disaster deserve help. What about the disaster of being born into poverty? We’ve got to sort out that particular mental & emotional conundrum. Otherwise it doesn’t matter what economic system we have or which form of government, we’re going to end up back in the same place we are right now. With some people or some sets of circumstance more highly valued than others for no other reason than that’s what someone decided and what we all keep agreeing to. We can definitely do better.
Information and Inspiration
Perspective is an amazing thing. This week's heatwave in the PNW killed two people, broke records, and all the scientists say we better get used to it. Summers will just keep getting hotter and the heatwaves will just keep lasting longer. Watching the temperature climb, all I could think was: it could be worse. The summer before last we had a murderheat wave called a heat dome. Many people fled to the coast and all the hotels in-town were booked. For three days the city essentially shut down while everyone who could, hid inside wherever there was air conditioning. 96 people died.
Two friends stayed with us because neither of their homes had air conditioning. We put up black-out curtains on all the windows, didn't turn on the stove or oven, and tried not to move too much. I covered my young tomato plants and watered my poor garden three times a day, careful not to get water droplets on any of the leaves. When the heat finally broke and the temperature began to drop it was like an entity had finally left the area. Our 30 year old air conditioner lasted until the next morning when it finally croaked. That brave little AC unit gave its life so we could make it through that weekend.
That heat dome was a once in a 1000 year event, even though we seem to be having a lot of those nowadays. Like the catastrophic wildfire that just scorched the island of Maui. Over 2,500 acres and almost 3,000 structures burned. 1,000 people still missing and over 100 confirmed dead. And before the ash has even settled, real estate developers began offering victims paltry sums for their fire-blackened land. As if their home burning to the ground wasn't devastating enough.
Fortunately that despicable, exploitative behavior didn't fly under the radar for long. People spoke out. People pushed back. It's been all over the news and social media. The Governor says his office is doing everything they can to protect the people from the predators. As ruinous and traumatizing as this disaster is, apparently it could be even worse.
As has happened many times, asshole capitalists are making an already untenable situation even worse. Just like climate change. There are so many ways every industry could function without destroying our one and only planet. That's just not how we have been doing things so far. Making those shifts will require investment in new infrastructure. Governments will have to tax billionaires (hopefully out of existence) and companies whose sole purpose is to produce profit will have to set a different Number One Priority.
Ironically, focusing on sustainability will ultimately generate greater profits. This is well known and has been discussed and documented many times by many experts in many areas. The problem is sustainability is a long-term strategy that doesn't always produce short-term gains and our current economic system demands short-term gains for investors. So, for a very long time we have extracted those gains without carefully planning to mitigate the harmful future consequences.
One of the reasons we're still doing it is because this is what we've been doing so far. Which is the very worst reason to keep doing something. Another reason we haven't switched to something else is a lack of creativity. I don't mean the people working on these kinds of issues are not capable of creativity, or that they're failing to exercise their creativity. I mean the people who are in charge are steeped in the current systems and there are not enough other people involved in crafting new ways to tackle the biggest challenges of our time.
Consider as an example the sequel "Avatar: The Way of Water." A key plot point of the first movie was when the military dude grew beyond his military mindset by experiencing a completely different way of being and then helped the native people fight off the invaders. This facilitated his becoming one of the native Na'vi. But in the second movie, the military mindset is back and at full volume. And the thing that makes the least sense is NO ONE SAYS ANYTHING ABOUT IT. The main character's Na'vi family is a character of a dysfunctional, patriarchal American military family.
This family are being chased by military dudes who want revenge for loosing in the first movie. So MainGuy decides all by himself that what makes the most sense is for the whole family to leave their tribe and seek refuge with another random tribe. Never mind that it would have made much more sense - given the kind of interconnected tribal community they live in - to consult the rest of the community for other creative solutions that might be on somebody else's mind. Never mind that the tribe was still in danger from the angry military revenge dudes, and once the family left there also went the one person who was an expert in those angry military revenge dude tactics. And never mind that showing up to some other random tribe and asking to blend-in also puts the new random tribe in the same kind of danger as long as the family is still being hunted.
This is why one person cannot actually solve community problems. This is why things that affect us all need to be addressed by all of us. That is the entire point of community: our whole is greater than the sum of our parts. It is also the only way humans can survive. A solitary human cannot make it very long in the wild, we need support from one other. There are billions of us on this planet right now, which means billions of potential creative solutions to the struggles we are facing. So why are we still letting only a few people steer the ship?
Overall, the average life experience of a human on Earth has improved over time thanks to science and technology. The benefits of these advancements just haven't been shared with everyone. Modern life could definitely be worse, and sometimes not as bad as it could be is as good as it gets. But it's time for some deliberate redistribution of resources and power. So let's all come together and figure out how to do things differently than how we have been. If Paraguay can figure out how to generate 100% of its power from renewable sources, then we can follow their example.
Information and Inspiration
There’s an alternate timeline in which I studied linguistics in college, learned multiple languages, and now that me works as a translator for the UN or something. There’s another timeline version of me who didn’t have an abortion, became a parent at age 19, and still works the same dissatisfying job because of the benefits and retirement plan. Another alternate timeline me didn’t stop with a bachelors, stayed in academia another decade, and is now a professor at some college or university. I think about these other potential me’s sometimes, but not with any regret.
I'm glad I took the forks in the road that brought me to where I am right now. And I enjoy the thought exercise of what outcomes could have resulted from different choices. I realized this week that it’s still possible to walk some of those alternate paths. I've been in the tax and forensic accounting profession for the past 20 years, but the only thing keeping me in this industry is the choice I make every day to continue doing this work. There's nothing that says I can't do something completely different for the next decade of my existence.
Granted there may be other barriers to some of the alternate options. I loved building stone walls, steps, and other features in my garden the last few years, so I could start becoming a stone mason tomorrow. But I’m about to be 39 and that line of work is intensely physically demanding. If I want my one and only body to accompany me all the way to old age (assuming we still have a planet to live on), it might not be the best choice to start wrecking it now. Then again, maybe my accumulated experience with physical movement, my strength, and my body connection would facilitate learning a physically taxing job in a way that doesn’t wear-out my body prematurely.
That potential outcome will likely remain a mystery because I don't actually want to become a stone mason. I'm not sure I want to stay as an accountant forever, but the longer I linger the easier it is to just keep on staying. Learning a new trade or starting a new business would take effort. Probably more effort than it takes me to continue my current career path. But that's the beauty of cross-over skills. All the things I've learned doing one thing in my life don't only apply to that one thing.
Just like martial arts principles. They obviously have an application in fighting and self-defense, but they also apply just as readily to regular life. Take set-ups as an example. When I'm sparring I want to set myself up mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually. I want to set my opponent up with fakes and by using distance, timing, speed, etc. In the workplace I also want to set myself up mentally, physically, emotionally. I want to set my bosses and colleagues up to see the good work I'm doing and to feel comfortable providing me feedback. I want to set my clients up by communicating appropriate expectations. Outside work I want to set my relationships up with clear communication, agreements, and check-ins.
Employing martial arts principles everywhere I can in my life has resulted in some enjoyable outcomes. I ended a toxic marriage and began to heal those wounds. I started a business, maintained it through a pandemic, and continue to grow it seven years on. I have built a supportive community at home and around me. In a similar way, I'm sure I can apply just about everything I've learned as an accountant, investigator, and business owner to some other profession.
One thing is for sure: whatever timeline I’m in right now will become the result of all my accumulated choices, actions, and inactions. Just like the dock brawl in Alabama that everybody is talking about this week. A couple jerks refused to move their boat and decided what they should do instead was attack the riverboat employee who told them they needed to relocate. Then a lot of other people decided to participate. Some helped and some just made things worse for themselves or others. A whole bunch of people making choices. And a whole pile of consequences resulting from all those choices.
I'm working diligently to make sure wherever Future Me ends up is somewhere I intended to be. My future may not look exactly how I envision it now, but that's not as important as getting there. And significantly less important than how I got there. I'm not going to help build a new kind of world where everyone is free and taken care of by using the tactics of oppression and exploitation our current world is made out of. I've got to make different choices. We all have to make different choices.
And the small, personal choices are where it all begins. I have to choose to take care of Present Me in order for Future Me to thrive. I have to work through all the trauma from my past to unburden my future of all that baggage. I have to practice being present in the current moment before I can hope to be present for the moments coming next. And I have to remember that I can choose something different at any moment for any reason. We're making it all up as we go anyway. And none of us know what's coming until it gets here.
A lot of what we think matters doesn't actually matter. You could go so far as to say nothing matters. Nothing matters, so everything matters. Every single moment is an opportunity to create something; anything. Whatever we want! It's not too late to live-out some alternate timeline version of my life. I really can do and be just about anything. I can be everything if I want, I just can’t do it all at the same time. So I'll choose something for now. And then I'll chose something every next moment for as long as I continue to exist on this planet.
Information and Inspiration
When I was in school, I participated in a tradition widely practiced throughout the US education system: cramming. The night before a test I would re-read my class notes and review my highlighted and sticky-noted text book, attempting to cram every bit of fact or figure into my brain. The next day I would sit for the test and regurgitate as many of the details as I could recall. Then, as soon as it was over, all that information would leak out of my memory like soap bubbles down the bathtub drain.
I vividly remember that time in college I sat in the hall 10 minutes before class memorizing the order of a particular financial statement. I wrote it out and re-wrote it and re-wrote it and wrote it again. The second we got into the classroom, I wrote the order out on the top of my answer sheet so I could refer back to it during the test. Having that structure to visually reference helped me remember all the other tidbits I needed to explain the structure’s functions. I guess that's a shout-out for open-note tests.
I'm sure cramming happens in a lot of places. It seems like a pretty universal reaction to a rigidly structured scholastic testing mechanism, which unfortunately exist in many countries. Japan puts students through highly intense testing beginning in middle school. My first experience of my teacher teaching to the test was in 3rd grade. The UK likewise begins academic testing in grade school. So all around the world students are regurgitating data in predetermined formats so adults can run statistics and make decisions about things like resource allocation.
Which all seems weirdly contrived and counter-productive. If the point of the testing regime is to capture a snapshot of how well students are navigating their learning journey, why on earth would you tell anyone what was on the test? And then, if this bizarre exercise was actually meant to accomplish its stated purpose, why would executing the testing system require teachers teach and students learn in the least effective way for humans to actually learn things? It seems like yet another example of people in official roles working very hard to make it look like they are solving problems without actually having to solve any problems.
How humans learn best is no secret. The internet contains mountains of observations, opinions, and studies from teachers, education experts, and students of all subjects. If you’ve every successfully learned anything, you probably have a good idea about what worked and what didn’t. Little bites of information consistently over a period time is a common theme. Opportunity to try things, make mistakes, and try again also pops-up a lot. As well as having a safe and supportive environment to learn and grow in.
The same things plaguing society are also the things preventing our overall education system from providing a glorious learning environment to all students: we're running old protocols from a bygone era. When our current education system was designed, it was meant to produce factory workers. The world has since moved beyond the industrial revolution of the early 20th century, but our schools are the same. Wealthy and resourced districts can afford to work around the limitations of the current education system and provide actual education for the world of tomorrow. Schools under the thumb of poverty and racism aren't so lucky.
And we seem to be doing this to ourselves just about everywhere. We need to reshape cities to better manage the effects of hotter and longer-lasting heat waves. We need to restructure the global shipping industry to stop it continuously contributing significantly to climate change. We need a different kind of economy to equitably distribute the benefits of modern living to all people everywhere. And yet we continue perpetuating our current systems while we send delegates to conferences to sit around and talk about resolving the causes of climate change.
We're still cramming for the test because that's the system we continue to operate in. As a society we have not taken the time to craft new systems; we just keep patching-up the old ones and crossing our fingers. And we've been doing it for so long that all the patches are springing leaks. We're now so busy running from crisis to crisis it's hard to find the time to consider an alternate system. If we let more people from broader subsets of society work on the problems, I bet we could make some progress. But that requires the people in power give up the complete control they have enjoyed for a very long time.
We have more people from a greater variety of backgrounds on this planet today than when most governing bodies were established. To solve the big big problems we're all faced with, we need to hear from everyone. We need more people empowered to create change at every level from their local communities, to national governance, to the collaborative efforts of the whole world. Otherwise we're going to hop from crisis to crisis, cramming for each test as it arrives. Then we'll look back at our ruined, uninhabitable planet full of starving, dying, and diseased populations and not know how we got there.
Information and Inspiration
I am a very decisive person. Probably because I frequently have an eye toward the future. I do not struggle to imagine future outcomes and I am well practiced at taking those future outcomes and walking them back to connect with the options of the present moment. Does the group need to pick a place for dinner? No problem, I have a method. Trying to arrange couches in your new space? Easy peasy, try this and see if you like it. Responsible for crafting a health and safety policy in the midst of the ever-changing Covid situation? I got you, here's a framework.
As adept at decision-making as I am, I still sometimes get stuck in an OODA loop. OODA is short for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. It describes one kind of decision making process humans go through. First we see or notice the situation (we observe). Then we orient ourselves to it, drawing on past knowledge and experience. Once orientated, we can decide what to do about it. Finally, we take the action we decided to do. It's a concept I have written about before and explored in a martial arts context.
One way I enjoy taking advantage of this natural human process in sparring is to shift my attack strategy constantly so my partner can never fully orient to what I'm doing. If I can switch-up my timing, speed, intensity, or strikes in an irregular pattern, my partner will have just oriented to one thing when I'm throwing something completely different and they have to orient all over again. If they never get to the decision part, they probably won't get to the act part and I can score a point before they fully realize what's happening.
These days, a lot of political "discourse" feels more like sparring than conversation. Maybe it always did, depending on who you ask. But for me (and a lot of other people), trying to engage in a discussion with someone who holds conservative political or social views is like being stuck in an OODA loop. I have tried to engage with curiosity, but they switch tact at the speed of light employing one logical fallacy after the next. Just trying to stay on-topic is a mammoth task, let alone untangling the spaghettimess of logic holding a dehumanizing worldview together.
And it's difficult not to lose patience with that process. I have definitely given up on some people who are determined not to meet me anywhere remotely near common ground, ultimately deciding it wasn't worth continuing to beat my head against a wall. But what about the times when giving up is not an option? Take the current situation in the PAWMA martial arts community I wrote about recently. The current board continues to insist their nonsensical tale is the full explanation of what's really happening, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
The board has attempted, in an increasingly desperate manner, to control the discourse within the community and silence dissent instead of engaging with the honest inquiry from membership who can see their story doesn't add-up. They have also tried making "positive only" posts in the Facebook group to drown-out the posts and comments from the membership asking for accountability, transparency, and explanations. It isn't working because pretending you don't need to answer to the community doesn't make the community stop having questions.
I called the tone of one such "positive" post into question and the author edited it to include the statement "this is not political." She is clearly failing to understand that everything she does (or doesn't do) in the community space is political, whether she wants it to be or not. The situation is highly contentious and she is in a position of power and influence. Pretending the problem is something different than it is and giving all dissenting voices the electronic silent treatment is a political statement no matter what inspirational videos or memes you post.
The board continues to make incorrect or harmful statements, so I have to continue pointing out the problems. In the public discourse, I am basically playing the role of broken record: your explanation includes inaccuracies, your statements don't make sense, please be accountable and transparent, please accept this loving feedback and consider the consequences of your actions for our fellow community members. It's important for someone to be doing this part of the work because combating injustice requires diversity of tactics, but this battle of rhetoric alone cannot resolve the issue.
Ultimately, there needs to be a power shift. How to accomplish that with the community intact is the challenge. To explore some options, I joined a discussion group for the book "From Conflict to Community" by Gwendolyn Olton. It's a book about resolving conflicts in ways other than simply outsourcing resolution to an authority. One of the major take-aways I have from this book is that it's only possible to use a different system if the parties in a conflict all agree to try something different. Unfortunately with PAWMA, the current board started out by wielding their power and engaging an outside authority.
In an oppressive system, you can only engage in change-making through peace if the oppressor agrees to participate. Otherwise, you're left speaking softly to a wall. That's why everything we do is political. No one in modern society has the luxury of abstaining from the system. It's critical you remember that every choice you make furthers a particular outcome. Whether that's an outcome you want to create or just what eventually happens, it's the culmination of your every action and inaction. You don't have to change the world all by yourself. Fortunately, all our individual choices add together with everyone else's choices. Please make sure your contributions are the ones you want to be contributing.
Information and Inspiration
Yesterday I spent the morning doing something entirely different than what was on my calendar. I sat in city hall watching a City Council work meeting. If you haven't already heard, two members of Portland City Council want to make some last-minute changes to the new city charter we all voted on last November now that it's been mostly implemented. Their timing is terrible. Instead of waiting to see how it works out and making any adjustments based on actual results, Rene Gonzalez and Dan Ryan want to break it before we even have a chance to try it. What's worse is they want to call a special election to do it.
For almost three hours I watched all the experts and city employees explain to the Council members that their proposal to make changes now is going to end badly. Calling a special election for November will cost the city over $600,000. There won't be enough time to educate voters on the proposed measurers. All the concerns Gonzalez and Ryan have with the new charter were discussed at length in the time leading up to the last election when it was on the ballot. The way they want to change the ranked-choice voting will result in more confusion for both candidates and voters. Almost all the work to implement the new system has already been done.
A whole commission of smart and capable folks spent two years working on the question of how to reshape Portland city government. They heard from (and listening to) Portlanders from across the city, and spent time crafting a proposal for a structure that took into account all their concerns and hopes for city government. The result of all that work was 26-228, which 57% of voters said yes to. Now these two individuals who happen to be on the current City Council are discounting all that effort and thoughtfulness. They seem to want to make the new structure resemble the old structure as much as possible.
I think it’s because the current system is working for them. They are scared they might not be re-elected under the new system. If we make elected office too accessible then the political elite in our town won’t have a strangle-hold on governance and policy-making. If they allow the unwashed masses to govern ourselves, how will they maintain the status quo that protects the interests of the wealthy and propertied? The current City Council cannot seem to solve the very pressing issues facing our city. The answer is more representation from a broader swath of the city, not the same in-group that keeps managing to hold a majority of council seats. When we voted-in the new city charter, we voted for a shift away from how things have been done to date.
Gonzalez and Ryan were concerned about a 12-member City Council being too many seats because it would be difficult to "find enough quality candidates." I wish I were exaggerating. But those words came out of their mouths... multiple times. They also wanted everyone to know that because there are non-white people and one non-man person on the City Council, Portland doesn't have a problem with representation. They even made a powerpoint presentation showing the racial make-up of City Council and comparing it to the racial makeup of Portland to show we don't have an all-white council. Maybe they forgot Jo Ann Hardesty was the first black woman ever elected to Portland City Council and that only happened in 2018. Too bad they didn't do a breakdown by income or wealth. Or by physical or mental ability. Or queerness.
I witnessed a particular phenomenon during that work session which I see most often from men with some kind of privilege in positions of power or authority. In voicing their concerns it was as if these two city counselors were saying I wasn’t in-charge of this thing so it can’t possibly have been done in the most best way - there’s no way whoever put this thing together would have considered all the most important considerations because it wasn’t me. Staaaaaaaaahp already. A group of smart, capable people spent a lot of time and followed an intensive process to craft the thing we all voted on and which passed definitively.
This kind of I know best attitude plays out in a variety of ways all over society, most of them with dire consequences. Like the Italian judge who determined a school caretaker's groping of a teenage student was not a crime because it lasted only 10 seconds. 10 seconds that student will remember for the rest of her life. This is why representation matters. This is why we need to hear from everyone in the room, even if they are children.
Equally disturbing to me is that as a society we have decided it's okay for doctors or parents to decide how to reshape the genitalia of babies born with multiple or ambiguous sex presentation. So it's okay to mutilate the bodies of children who don’t fit into the current gender body classification before they even know they exist, but we can’t bring ourselves to believe that children know a little bit about who they are when they’re old enough to tell us? We need to majorly re-examine how we allow people with authority to make decisions that impact the lives of our fellow human beings.
Another unnerving example is all the anti-aging work currently being done by doctors and technologists. I recently heard an interview with one such doctor on the BBC program OS. He is a member of the Live Forever Club, an organization formed to "research practical ways of living long enough to live forever and to promote equal access to longevity treatments to all human beings." On its face, that sounds fascinating and future-focused.
But to me it begs the question: what makes you think YOU living longer is such a good thing? What are you doing to make the world such a better place that it seems like a good idea for you to stick around it for a lot longer? The only hope I have for a better world sometimes is that a lot of people currently in positions of power who are constantly working to maintain the problematic status quo will eventually die, taking their horrid anti-humanity worldviews with them. Their absence won't solve any problems, but it will make space for other people to try something new.
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.