Beloved Distance is now available on Amazon – in Kindle format.
A new paper asks why neuroscience hasn’t had more “impact on our daily lives.”
The article, Neuroscience and everyday life: facing the translation problem, comes from Dutch researchers Jolien C. Francken and Marc Slors. It’s a thought-provoking piece, but it left me feeling that the authors are expecting too much from neuroscience. I don’t think insights from neuroscience are likely to change our lives any time soon.
Francken and Slors describe a disconnect between neuroscience research and everyday life, which they dub the ‘translation problem’. The root of the problem, they say, is that while neuroscience uses words drawn from everyday experience – ‘lying’, ‘love’, ‘memory’, and so on – neuroscientists rarely use these terms in the usual sense. Instead, neuroscientists will study particular aspects of the phenomena in question, using particular (often highly artificial) experimental tasks.
As a result, say Francken and Slors, the neuroscience of (say) ‘love’ does not directly relate to ‘love’ as the average person would use the word:
Read the full piece here: Can Neuroscience Inform Everyday Life? The “Translation Problem” – Neuroskeptic
I’m personally intrigued by this rising question, because I’ve been studying neuroscience since 2007, when I accidentally/on-purpose came across the autonomic nervous system as an extremely elegant explanation for why so much stuff happens and why people do what they do.
I’ve personally been able to use my continuously evolving understanding of neurobiology and neuroanatomy to approach life in a very different way from most — and consequently, my experiences have differed substantially from what I see others experiencing. I’m probably one of the happiest, most self-directed, independent people I know, and I manage to find solutions to things that stump a lot of folks. And yes, neuroscience plays a significant role, informing my approach and giving me insights I can actually use to sustain my 26-year marriage, stay continuously employed even through brutal economic downturns, have a perfectly fine house in a lovely town, and basically have more satisfaction and purpose in my life than a lot of people dream possible.
I wish, quite frankly, that I could bottle what I’ve found/developed and make it widely available, but time… and energy… not to mention the fact that people manage to find enough solace in their devices and distractions, that it takes their minds off the troubles they could be otherwise solving (or avoiding in the first place). Ah, well… People make their choices, and there you have it. As for me, I’ve got… science! (Can you hear Thomas Dolby singing? I can.)
But this isn’t about me. It’s about neuroscience. And frankly, I really believe that anybody who’s willing to put in the work and learn and grow, can have the same — if not more. I haven’t even fully pushed the envelope on my own capacity. I have this constant sense that I’m capable of more, and in all honesty, I get a little impatient with myself for not taking things up as many notches as I’m sure I could.
So, that’s what I’m going to do with this blog — bump things up a notch and dive into territory that A) I’m supposedly not professionally qualified to expound upon, and B) the general public blithely ignores, to their own peril… not to mention to the detriment of us all. I’ve been studying the human system since I was in grade school, and I haven’t stopped, even when my work building technology (that you probably use on a regular basis: you’re welcome) ate into my time and attention.
I’m writing a book — Beloved Distance: The Separation that Connects us to All. It’s about our neurology. It’s about our world. Most of all, it’s about how we can join the two to make more sense of the lives we inhabit — and the connections we create.
It draws on the time-honored tradition of finding correspondences… analogies… metaphors… to build a framework of understanding where we’re at, how we get here, and most importantly of all, how we can get to where we really want to go — a world where we can feel like we belong, where we can know that we count, and where our differences aren’t liabilities, but assets.
Of all the nerve, I — a non-scientist, a non-neurologist, a non-medical person — am writing a book about the nervous system. To make matters worse (in case you’re not sure, I am being facetious), I’m taking the liberty of philosophizing about it — as a non-academic, an unofficial philosopher.
It’s tricky, to say the least. The field of neurology keeps changing. Our understandings of neurobiology are evolving at a rapid rate, as every month it seems someone discovers something new, or puts 2-and-2 together in ways that add up to more than 4. Or, for that matter, they realize there’s another hidden “2” in the equation that nobody noticed before, and they either add it in, or square the values that they’ve discovered before.
It’s tricky, even for people who are highly trained scientists, on the cusp of cutting-edge research. It’s tough to stay current — even (especially?) if you’re actively involved in research, yourself.
But I’m doing it, anyway. Because, when we look closely at the world around us, and we have even the most basic access to what we Do Know About Our Nervous Systems, it’s possible to use that knowledge as a springboard to better understand the world around us. In fact, it’s almost irresistably compelling.
Very few of us understand what exactly is going on inside the sun that produces all that light and heat and those amazing sunsets. But we do know how to reference that light and heat and color in our lives to add meaning and “texture” to our experience. We don’t understand the exact chemical compositions of water and air, but we constantly use them as metaphors, often without realizing it.
I think we can/should do the same with our nervous systems. Over the past 20 years, we’ve gained the ability to look more closely and understand more completely, just how it all works — as far as we can currently tell. That knowledge is continually shifting and changing, of course, and it could be that some (much?) of what I’m writing about will change in the next 20 years. But that shouldn’t stop me — or you — from considering how it all fits together, and how our understanding of it can enrich our lives.
Once upon a time, very distinguished scientists believed that the nervous system was a continuous network of uninterrupted connections — like the vascular system with its networks of veins and arteries. It seemed like just common sense, that the nervous system would also be uninterrupted, just like our veins, allowing the signals passing along our “wires” to get where they’re going in one piece.
People believed this so strongly, that Camillo Golgi, the scientist who figured out how to stain nerves so you could see them as individual pieces, rather than just another dark clump of organic stuff, devoted his entire 1906 Nobel Prize speech to explaining how it was impossible that the nervous system was made up of separate neurons.
His co-winner, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, was a proponent of the “neuron doctrine”, which held that nerves were separate cells that were connected by something, though people hadn’t figured that out, just yet. Turns out Ramon y Cajal was right — but it took decades before we had equipment that could give us a decent view of that.
Did this stop them, though? Did their obviously imperfect, partial knowledge of How Things Work stop them from moving forward in their work? Oh, no. And even when they stood the chance of being proven wrong, they just moved ahead, anyway. Even staked their reputations on it.
Looking back at the past hundreds of years of scientific discovery, as well as changes in how we view ourselves as individual humans in community with each other, I’m struck by just how dynamic our knowledge of science and self is. We are continuously changing how we think about life, how we relate to it, how we regard ourselves, and how we relate to each other. Nothing stays the same for long, but we seem to get in the habit of thinking that How Things Are Now is How Things Have Always Been. It’s not true, of course, but we tend to believe it. Especially now, when we’ve got our online echo chambers to reinforce our biases and support even our least defensible opinions.
But things change. Times change. Knowledge aggregates and opinions proliferate… and at regular (and irregular) intervals, there’s some knew “wrench” being tossed in the workings of our minds. And so we adapt. Science adapts. Society adapts. We shift and change along with our surroundings, no matter how firmly we may believe that we’re anchored in universal truths. Maybe Truth doesn’t change, but our understanding of it does.
And so it’s important — for all of us — to step out and take some chances in considering the facts of the world around (and inside) us… building an understanding of those facts that works for us and makes our lives more meaningful. Even if the science might shift in a matter of years, even if we don’t have all the answers or all the insight that more accelerated experts do, I think we have every right to avail ourselves of What We Know At This Point In Time, and use that to better appreciate and understand our world.
Even if we aren’t PhD-grade neuroscientists.
Especially if we aren’t PhD-grade neuroscientists.
It’s our world, they’re our bodies. The science has been funded by our tax dollars. And I say we have the right to understand what’s going on in there, so that we can do better at what we do out here.
So, the 21st century dumpster fire continues. All I have to do is go over to Google News to find out what else we’re doing to ourselves, these days.
And I say “what we’re doing to ourselves” – not “what they’re doing to us”. Last I checked, we’re all here on the planet together.
Last I checked, we were all interconnected in ways that we’re still just beginning to appreciate.
Of course, lots of people have known for a long, long time that we truly are all interconnected. And lots of people have had ideas about how we can more peacefully co-exist, if not combine and collaborate to actually make some cool stuff happen.
But not everybody.
And this is what I wonder about, these days… what makes us do the things we do, what makes us choose the things we choose, what makes us think that we’re doing the right thing, when the results so often turn out completely differently from anticipated (or deliberately planned).
I wonder about a lot of things, and some interesting ideas have occurred to me. They fit together. They work. They actually make sense, in the midst of this nonsensical world we appear to inhabit.
And that’s what I want to think — and write — about. Not the rest of it.
I’m interested in causes, in underlying principles, in the foundations of our drama. Drama in and of itself, not so much. But the mechanics of it… the neurology of it… the biochemistry and philosophical underpinnings of this time… now that interests me.
So, let’s think and talk about that a bit, shall we?
According to a new paper Degrees of Difference: Gender Segregation of U.S. Doctorates by Field and Program Prestige published February 6, 2017, women not only earn fewer doctorates in fields that are traditionally separated by gender (golly gee, “Math is hard!”), but also are separated by prestige. Here’s what they say about the paper over at Sociological Science:
Abstract: Women earn nearly half of doctoral degrees in research fields, yet doctoral education in the United States remains deeply segregated by gender. We argue that in addition to the oft-noted segregation of men and women by field of study, men and women may also be segregated across programs that differ in their prestige. Using data on all doctorates awarded in the United States from 2003 to 2014, field-specific program rankings, and field-level measures of math and verbal skills, we show that (1) “net” field segregation is very high and strongly associated with field-level math skills; (2) “net” prestige segregation is weaker than field segregation but still a nontrivial form of segregation in doctoral education; (3) women are underrepresented among graduates of the highest-and to a lesser extent, the lowest-prestige programs; and (4) the strength and pattern of prestige segregation varies substantially across fields, but little of this variation is associated with field skills.
It’s not much of a surprise to me. And looking at the graphic of the distribution of PhDs, why look – there I am in one of the least represented areas – Comp Sci – which looks to be #5 from the bottom, with philosophy not far behind.
At first blush, it’s a little irritating (that’s catching me at the start of the day after 9 solid hours of sleep). It speaks to systemic issues of segregation, exclusion, good-ole-boy-ism, and so forth. You know, the standard-issue stuff that women in STEM come to take for granted, but never 100% get used to. Maybe 97.352636%. Or maybe not.
Anyway, be this as it may (here’s hoping it changes – and I suspect it will), the fact still remains that there are ways to enter those fields without a doctorate. True, you may not be ensconced a the highest tiers of the ivory tower, but you can still get in, and you can still work your way up.
As I have, for example. Back in the day – not as early as the ARPANET, but earlier than most people thought they would ever need an email address – it was possible to build up considerable skill and ability on your own. Get yourself access to a computer and an internet connection (at home or at your local library), print out some documentation on emerging technologies (since there were no books, yet, to teach you), study on your own, practice on your own, built real-life applications and design increasingly sophisticated implementations, and before too terribly long, you’d have a solid skillset you could parlay into a real job. A good job. An opportunity that was only available to people with actual skill.
That’s how I got started web development, back in 1995, and that’s how I landed a fantastic job at one of the planet’s leading financial services firms in January, 1997. From there, it was onward and upward — with a lot of bumps and slams along the way — and guess what. I’m still here.
See, this is what people tend to forget in this age of globalized skillsets, where certification and qualification are the currency of the job-application hopefuls. Granted, with regional and cultural barriers to entry considerably less, we need more ways to figure out if someone is actually going to do what they say they’re going to accomplish. Certifications, degrees, standardized qualifications, etc. are great ways to vet people up front, weed out the wanna-bes and put people through the paces before handing them the reins.
But we can get so caught up in the surrogate screens of official vetting, that we stop thinking for ourselves, relying on those official blessings as a cognitive short-cut to save time and energy. We can lose sight of the validity of actual experience, genuine innovation, and the drive of those who are opening up the jungled path before us… not trailing behind, taking advanced courses in road-paving. The work of opening up a path for the first time, takes a certain type of person, while the work of paving that path, then widening it so heavy equipment can fit, is quite different.
Which is why I can’t lose too much sleep (for myself, anyway) over the barriers of entry to anyone who’s not a well-heeled “pale male”. Yes, it’s troubling that women are so under-represented. But there are corners of the world where it’s possible to practice and contribute and innovate, regardless of academic qualifications. And it might just be that the numbers about segregation in doctorates doesn’t tell the whole story, in terms of the true leaders, the true innovators, the ones who are actually leading the way.
It’s still possible to dive into cutting-edge technologies without an advanced degree and open a new path in ways that no one ever thought possible / necessary. In fact, for the most advanced, innovative, emerging areas, you’re not going to find a whole lot of formal education, anywhere, because standards have yet to be defined, textbooks have yet to be written, syllabi have yet to be compiled. Likewise in philosophy, it’s perfectly possible to use your own mind for the furthering of the practice. You can develop your own theories, you can evolve your own individual thinking process (which is nothing like anyone else’s), and there’s nothing to prevent you from putting your work in writing, publishing it, and carving out a place for it in the world.
This sort of activity, this sort of developmental discipline, doesn’t require the presence or avid support of an academic community. In some ways, in fact, you might be better off not having any of that. You might not have a built-in entourage of colleagues who eagerly support / promote / challenge / criticize / plagiarize your work, but there’s nothing to prevent you — as a woman, as a person of color, as a non-PhD philosopher — from moving your own work forward.
In the end, it’s what we all have to do, anyway. Your mind has to be your own (as much as possible). Your work needs to be original. And it needs to stand on its own. Smart people who take the time to think for themselves may respect your work on its own merits, and those are the folks you care about, anyway.
A doctorate isn’t going to guarantee that any more than a daily discipline to targeted development that’s totally devoted to your path. So, while it might be nice for various industries to have more diversity in more advanced positions (they seem to think so, based on all those inclusive-seeming Super Bowl 51 ads), it’s not a prerequisite for your own path. You can still do The Work. You can still develop your skills in ways that no one else on earth can rival. Innovation has its home far out in front — where there are no courses or certificates yet available.
If that’s where you belong (as do I), looking back is just going to delay your forward movement. So, look ahead, beyond, above, ahead.
The world needs you there.
Interesting things always happen, when I invest quality time in exploring the Web. I find all sorts of fascinating material to ponder. And Twitter has been a real boon, in that regard. My thought process would not be the same without it, it’s fair to say, since I’d have access to a lot fewer ideas that are normally well out of reach of my solitary life.
About a year ago, I was on Twitter and caught sight of a call for papers for a conference in Antwerp entitled “Perceiving at a Distance“.
It looked fascinating. They had a great website (perceiving.at – find it now at the Wayback Machine). And there was all sorts of intriguing thought-material to “chew” on in my spare time (commuting, washing dishes, waiting for SQL queries to resolve).
I’d already been working with some ideas around perception, proximity, and distance, myself, so naturally I was intrigued to discover that — indeed — there’s a whole flock of folks who are engaged in philosophies of perception. And there was a whole conference about Perceiving at a Distance. Woot!
It got me thinking some more. A lot more.
It seemed to “conceptually bolt on” to another object of my contemplation, which has practically haunted me, since I first realized it, a few years back. Namely:
In all the 150 trillion (give or take) neural synapses we have in our brains, there’s actually no direct connection between the axons (presynaptic terminals) and the dendrites (post-synaptic terminals). In fact, synapses by their very definition, are not direct connections, rather a sort of “chemical bridge” for data to cross. In the illustration above, you can see a very small gap between the two parts of the connecting neurons. It’s minuscule, but it’s there.
And now there was a conference of philosophy about perceiving at a distance.
It got me thinking…
And it got me writing.
There’s a book in the works about this — and there’s even more to it, than I initially thought.
Lots, lots more.
So, watch this space.
The last two dreams I posted have had a lot of significance for me.
“Digging Deep” is very much about digging into the unseen regions of our lives — our psyches, our pasts, our histories… the things and experiences and thoughts and feelings we have buried, in hopes of never finding them again. It’s about taking a deep breath and plunging in, to see what’s there.
Even if it makes us feel sick.
Even if it frightens us.
When we dig, we can find amazing things.
The old woman by my side represents to me the generations up on generations of others who have gone before us, who have done that work — and lived to tell the tale. They speak to us from their silenced experiences, to remind us — it’s okay. Keep digging.
Digging for what? For the things that we crave… the things that will make us whole. For the things we have pushed away from us, thinking they are too frightening or uncomfortable or even useless, to be much good to us now.
That dream was an excellent reminder, and it gave me a much-needed boost in a time when I needed it. Funny… my dreams often do that.
“Reclaiming the Castle” also gave me an incredible boost, at a time when I was doing my best not to lose my cool at a job that was financially necessary, but just murder on my self-esteem. The little software company where I’d written and managed a full documentation set had gotten “dot-bombed” about a decade before everyone else, and I had to take an admin job in the HR department of a major multi-national tech company. Talk about lousy gigs… it was not my finest year. (Then again, it did provide excellent experience, and I ended up turning that sow’s ear into a major silk purse full of money, so it wasn’t a total waste.)
At the time when “Reclaiming the Castle” came to me, I was meditating regularly. This was around 1994, and I’d just found out about sitting zazen (where you sit motionless and just “be” for extended periods of time). I was also discovering and diving into the works of medieval European women mystics, and liking what I found. Their works meshed nicely with my lifelong fascination with the Holy Grail mythos, and I found traces of that long-beloved mythology in their words.
One of the things that struck me, as I was sitting zazen and reading up on women mystics, was that I was combining traditions from East and West in ways that really complimented each other. At that time, I recall coming across an increasing body of work by Western writers about Eastern spiritual practices. And I discovered some books that connected both ends of the spiritual practice into a continuous spectrum.
One thing that struck me, however, was an apparent assumption that Eastern practices are somehow better or more elevated than Western ones. Yoga and meditation and Buddhism were all very popular in the area where Laney and I lived at the time, and there was no lack of talk and instruction on them. And somehow, it seemed that underneath all the instruction was an all-too-eager genuflection to the East — where you can really get enlightened, not just pass your time in a consumption-driven, manic-depressive haze till you drop dead in our industrial, spiritually dessicated wasteland.
And that troubled me.
Because I knew — from my own personal experience — that the Western tradition is anything but spiritually dessicated. Sure, a lot of Westerners have abandoned their faith and their spiritual practices, and there’s been a sh*t-ton of oppression and bloodshed by the Powers That Be to keep people in line with their religion. But the apparent belief that the West has little to offer in the way of enlightenment and spiritual connection seemed, well, fundamentally flawed.
And it struck me that people were really looking in the wrong place (and faulting the wrong things), in hopes of finding their way to the Light they needed.
It seemed to me — then, and now — that the real source of our despair, our sense of desolation, is that we’ve abandoned our own indigenous paths to Light. We’ve gotten our fill of the standard-issue religious structures, we’ve witnessed the abuses of power and the overthrow of authenticity, and we’ve decided to reject the whole lot. We look elsewhere for answers — never realizing that the fact that we’re not actually “getting” what they offer. Eastern traditions originate elsewhere — from languages and cultures and historical contexts completely different from our own Western ways.
And because of that, we’re never going to fully understand what they mean.
Our translations are flawed — in word and deed — but of course, we never realize it, because we’re the ones doing the translating. Our modes of practice are necessarily going to be completely different in substance and nature from those of the originators. Our measures of whether we’re “getting it” or not are going to be skewed, because what we seek may actually not be what those practices are actually offering.
But because we’re so hungry, so determined, so needy of these things — which are part and parcel of any complete life — we don’t see it.
And in chasing after those “otherly” ways, we lose our connection with our own histories, our own practices, our own paths. That just separates us all the more from what we seek — a sense of connection, a sense of belonging.
“Reclaiming the Castle” to me is really about that conflict. Patrick Stewart, to me, represents our Western impulse to boldly go where no one has gone before, and in the process, leaving behind a connection with a valuable, anchoring past. He’s a technological sage, a hyper-modern character, and he is desperately lonely and sad. His soul is depleted, and he knows it.
And he says so. To me, his opinion that herbalists are “the real thing” is a parallel with the parts of our modern selves that look to ways which are more connected with the natural world for relief and solace. “Herbs” can equate with anything in our modern lives that isn’t manufactured, marketed, and tracked. They can be the equivalent of anything we associate with more natural, less artificial approaches to life. Look at all the dollars spent on alternative healthcare and healing modalities. Look at all the money spent on supplements, herbs, and various forms of yoga, not to mention DNA analysis and ancestry research. They’re both connected, as very real needs in the population for approaches that connect us with our own health and well-being, as well as our history.
“Reclaiming the Castle” isn’t just a treatise in favor of herbalists. It’s a metaphor about how we actually feel about our place(s) in the world — and what we think will save us. And it’s about how, deep within the symbolic forest of the unseen and nearly-forgotten aspects of our lives, we can actually find something there that will bring us back to ourselves.
That dream was an elaboration on “Digging Deep” — it showed me what can come, when we don’t shy away from our past, when we truly excavate the traditions and practices of those who passed our DNA along to us. I believe that we inherit the orientations, capacities, and capabilities of our ancestors. And I believe that our spiritual practices and traditions become all the more meaningful and potent, when they are aligned with our heritage.
Of course, our Western heritage reaches far, far back… much farther back than the version we’ve been living with for the past 1,500 years or so (give or take). And when we do connect with that — as I did, through exploring ancient women’s mythology, as well as the words of medieval women mystics — the change it can bring to us… well, that’s nothing short of miraculous.
May you dig — and dive — deep. And find all you need… and more.
It’s now been over 20 years, since I had this dream in the upstairs loft of a pink house built not so far from my ancestral home. The story at first alarmed me with its scope and detail – who has dreams that are that vivid, that cohesive?
Then it intrigued me.
Then it annoyed me, as I tried to put it down on paper, only to find the pictures defying the use of words.
It took me years to finally get the story told. And all the while, it taught me many valuable lessons.
At first glance, this story might seem like a finger-wagging eco-warrior rant about the excesses of our toxic modern lives… our lust for luxury, our craving for comfort, and all the harm it does to Planet Earth. Indeed, when I awoke from this dream, all those years ago, that’s exactly what I thought it was: A wake-up call to alert us to Change Our Ways Before It’s Too Late… before our last chance to save the earth – and the human race – is gone forever.
And you wouldn’t be wrong to think that’s so. In a way, on the surface, it is very much about exactly that. We say we want to help the earth, but we make poor choices. We say we’re committed to change, but we set unrealistic and unwise priorities, and abandon them when we realize we can’t do it easily. We do things without thinking, and the world around us pays the price for our oblivion.
And yet, there’s something more to this story – something more enduring, something more global. It’s not just about a couple of spoiled, upwardly-mobile professionals who will stop at nothing to satiate their desires for success and luxury. It’s about much more than that. As you read the story in the coming pages, think beyond what’s on the surface. Look deeper into the behaviors and the choices that Paul and Christina make… and if you dare, look for signs of yourself in their shoes, making the same sorts of choices, for the same sorts of reasons, with the resulting consequences.
Your choices – our choices – needn’t only be about upward mobility, status, and prestige, to get us in trouble. They can be as seemingly innocuous as the decision to order takeout, instead of warming up leftovers. And abandoning our commitment to lasting change can be as casual as dismissing a set of New Year’s resolutions, because in February they’re just not as realistic (or fun) as they seemed back in December.
None of our choices are simple, these days. So many of them send ripples we cannot see into the world far beyond us. And it’s difficult to know how best to change course, and why. So, what better time to really think our choices through, really weigh the costs of committing to (or abandoning) them, than at this point in history?
Some say we’ve passed the turning point. I say we still have some turning left in us. But we have to be willing to turn – and stick with it.
Every four years, we’re treated to talk about change during the presidential elections. Everybody makes the case about why change is either needed, or not. And everybody has plenty to say about the new policies everyone else is proposing.
Who doesn’t want change? I certainly do. Good Lord, yes. I think you’d have to be either asleep or on very good drugs, to not desire at least some change in the world. If you’re just mildly paying attention, you’re aware of at least one or two (or two million) things that could use some improvement.
And all the political candidates have some pretty persuasive points. I’m in the unfortunate situation, where I can see the reason for every candidate’s platform. I can’t just discount them and call them “crazy” — because at a basic, human level, I understand them. Of course, understanding where they’re coming from doesn’t mean I agree with them — not in the least. But I do understand their perspectives, and I completely understand exactly why they and their supporters feel the way they do.
There’s one thing that eludes me, however — and that’s why anyone thinks that the change that’s most needed is going to come from on high, via a presidential candidate, when the “boots on the ground” are still hewing to the same-old-same-old. Seriously, we seem to collectively think that having a new butt in the seat of the Oval Office is going to steer the ship of state in some magically transformative direction… and meanwhile, all the folks down on the benches in the galley are rowing in the same old direction. Or not rowing at all — chances are, they’re on their smartphones.
What part of this makes sense? None of it, from where I’m sitting.
For the last four years — and all the four-year periods prior to the last election — the American public has done a fantastic job of avoiding making pretty much any personal investment in systemic change. We’ve enthusiastically pointed fingers and called names (we’ve got that down to a science), but what have we really — truly — done to actually bring about the changes we believe will save us all? Hell, we haven’t even bothered to more fully understand the issues we all face, collectively. We’re so busy snarking away on Facebook and tweeting our discontent, that any chance of in-depth discussion is, well, non-existent.
And no, watching a late-night current events discussion show does not count. Nor does having the political landscape explained to you by the pundit of your choice, as you nod in agreement.
None of that counts. Emoting is not effecting change. Reacting is not acting. Tweeting and posting is not social activism. And, sorry, flashmobs don’t count. Even if they are posted to YouTube and go viral.
What actually counts, is action. Doing something about your beliefs and values in a substantive, consistent way. You need to do the small, boring, unimpressive, personally costly, utterly transformative things each and every day, whether or not somebody is watching, whether or not it gets attention in social media and tons of likes. And guess what — it doesn’t count in an election year. Anybody can do or believe in sh*t in an election year. Just about everybody does. Anybody can gravitate to a political line and jump on board the party boat, every four years. Who doesn’t?
Watching all the political/ideological hullabaloo, this time of year, is like watching an altar call, when you see intransigent repeat offenders making their way to the front of the revival tent to have all their transgressions wiped clean… just like they’ve done regularly, as long as you’ve known them. And based on past experience and observation, there’s a pretty good chance they’re going right back to their evil ways, as soon as the glow of the revival wears off.
Same thing happens each election year. People get all up in arms and holier-than-thou and righteous and what-not… so-so-so sure that their candidate is The Cure for All That Ails Us. They’re true believers, and they support their candidates in word and deed. Then the election comes. Maybe they win, maybe they lose. But whatever the outcome, once the dust has settled and the new POTUS has their butt in the Oval Office seat, we all go back to business as usual.
And we spend another four years of habitual oblivion, racking up yet more reasons to be outraged and desperate, the next time around.
Considering how much more dire each subsequent election becomes, with “more than ever riding on the outcome”, it’s hard for me to take anyone’s burning political convictions seriously. Where’s all that social traction or that same devoted fervor when it’s NOT an election year. It’s nowhere to be found. Who writes to Congress? Who even calls their representative? (Signing an online petition doesn’t count, by the way, because the recipients often completely disregard them, because they’re so easy to fudge.) It’s all hands-off in the general population, and then we bitch and complain about how lobbyists have taken over our government. Lobbyists and special interests didn’t “take over” anything — they stepped into a gaping void that we’ve all created… and invited them into by turning a blind eye.
We rarely bother to really understand the full spectrum of the issues we face — we just hew to proposals floated by our candidates. Who among the believers that “big banks must be dismantled” understands the impact that would have on the pensions of countless retired schoolteachers? Or union members? Or other folks who have worked long and hard, and who rely on that pension to make ends meet? Who among the proponents of deporting all the “illegals” understands what impact that would have on the economy — or how their own constant craving for low prices drives the underground economy of undocumented labor? Who among the backers of a strong military understands how our long-standing foreign policies and global economic interdependencies contribute to ongoing strife that locks us in a perpetual state of policing and military intervention on behalf of more countries than just our own? And who among those who long for a return to Christian values, realize how vulnerable they are making themselves — because there are so many different flavors of Christian values, and many of those values have been used for centuries by Christians to disenfranchise and kill other Christians, with full religious justification?
We have no collective grasp of the full scope of the issues and challenges that we face as a nation, together. But to us, that’s not the problem — the real problem, apparently, is that other people just don’t agree with us.
All the ballyhoo, all the drama. It’s both entertaining and annoying. Because seriously, people, who is actually willing to put their money where their mouth is and take action by themselves, instead of looking to some national leader to point them in the right direction? Where’s the action, outside of election years, that backs up your commitment to change? People want energy independence, but they can’t do without their electronic devices and creature comforts. People want clean water for Flint, but they’d rather have cheap cars from Detroit. People want to protect the earth, but they can’t be bothered to separate out their recycling, or cut back on their driving. People want their kids to grow up in a safer world, but they won’t weigh in with their elected representatives on how to make that happen. People want gun rights, but they don’t want to learn how to responsibly and effectively use a firearm, so they don’t kill innocent bystanders.
We want our lives customized and personalized. Screw what that does to the environment. Never mind the expensively toxic bricks that Prius batteries are. We get save gas and look all the more eco-friendly. Never mind the haz-mat incidents waiting to happen when we throw away those new fluorescent light bulbs. They’re easy to come by and they save us money. New iPhone! Woo hoo! Never mind the massive buildings in China housing thousands upon thousands of workers, some of whom leap to their deaths out of desperation. That has nothing to do with us. It’s just sad. Here, let me share that on Facebook or Tweet a 😦 about it.
All this election year talk is just that — talk. For all the outrage and insults, within weeks after the election results are in, the vast majority of people will drop championing the issues and retreat to their social media corners, snarking about oversimplifications from the safety of the interwebs. They’ll say plenty — especially if they’ve “lost” the election — but will they actually do anything? For all the talk about values and the need for change, where’s the action to back it up… especially on an ordinary everyday basis? Where’s the direct contact with our dreaded Congress, to tell them what we actually want and need? Where’s the choice to forego creature comforts for the sake of preserving what we really care about?
If you really want change, you need to act like it. And if I don’t see it outside of election years, then nothing you can say is going to convince me that you are serious about your political platform. Or that your candidate is a serious contender to actually lead.
Much of my thinking about change was influenced by a dream I had over 20 years ago. It’s now published as Strange Bedfellows – a story about how we change … and don’t. Get the book here.