Thursday, November 11, 2010

Working toward a more genuine gratitude on Veterans Day

(I’ll keep this post short and to the point, lest I end up covering the same ground as this post. )

It’s easy to reflexively tell members of the military, “Happy Veterans Day!” And if pressed for a reason why you’re doing it, it’s probably easy to say, “We’re thanking them for their sacrifice.” If pressed a little further about what sacrifice you mean, you might name the loss of time from one’s family or the risk to one’s personal safety in order to serve on behalf of one's country. And those are certainly all important aspects of why we should value the contributions of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines.

But those aren't the only reasons. I’d say another important one is this: Veterans are people who have run toward something that other have run away from. While physical danger is a part of it, it’s not the whole of it – after all, there are plenty of other professions that involve risks to personal safety, yet there aren’t many paeans to, say, coal miners.

There's something a little deeper to it, then, than mere physical danger. What veterans voluntarily expose themselves to is the reality that there are places in this world where the rules of polite society do not apply, places where the trains do not run on time and the water is filthy and security comes from an AK-47 rather than a burglar alarm. They face up to the fact that the world, in its natural state, is chock full of bad people who do bad things, and they face that reality in foreign lands far from any semblance from home. They voluntarily disabuse themselves of the notion that the world is fundamentally a good place, and yet, all the same, make themselves part of an effort to work toward that very ideal.

Of course, this aspect to their service isn’t unique to military veterans. Whether it's those who devote their lives to teaching autistic children, or those who go into social work in order to help folks on the fringes of society, or underpaid and overworked public servants who fight fires, staff hospitals, prosecute criminals, or defend indigent criminal defendants all do the same -- the world is also chock full of people who are willing to look its more unsavory aspects dead in the face and yet continue to keep life's darker aspects from blotting out the light.

Unfortunately, it's too easy for many of us (myself included) to block that out. If your interests or career path doesn't take you toward the seedier side of life, especially if you're an electrical engineer or a musician or a patent lawyer or any other number of professions that give you an opportunity to move through life without having to pay much heed to its ugliness. Or, if you heed it, to think of it as something foreign, something that must be kept out at all costs, with security systems and burglar alarms and private schools and gated communities.

So, yes, thank the veterans. But also try to take what they do to heart. Our veterans have exposed themselves to the worst of what the world has to offer. And yet, at the end of the day, though, they are still flesh and blood human beings who made a conscious choice to make some little corner of that world a little better. That is a choice that’s available to anyone – look around with your eyes open, and you can probably find any number of people you can help.

That’s how you can thank a veteran. If you truly venerate heroes, then strive to follow their example in whatever small way you can. Don’t let your gratitude for their efforts become an excuse to let them do it alone.

If you're not going to get mad, at least don't be lazy

Recently, I spoke to a friend of mine about the value of voting in particular as well as the value of worrying about politics and government in general. The attitude of this self-employed single mother of two was that as far as she was concerned, the world is more or less controlled by folks who are wealthy and powerful, and she’s not terribly interested in wasting her energy by getting invested in outcomes that are totally out of her control.

The conversation came at a time when I'd already been mulling over an election that mostly went in a direction that was disappointing to me. And, in the course of said mulling, I came across a reference to the famous scene from Network where Howard Beale, a beleaguered news anchor on the verge of psychological collapse, experiences a breakdown that most folks are familiar with, even if only through cultural osmosis:

We know things are bad - worse than bad. They're crazy. It's like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don't go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, “Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won't say anything. Just leave us alone.” Well, I'm not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad! . . . I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, “I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!”

Personally, I’m not really big into rage for the sake of rage. Surveying the current political scene, it seems as if the Tea Partiers have that covered quite well, and all that nameless rage appears to have gone into either (a) re-electing Republicans who have gotten no more serious about small government or debt reduction than they were two years ago, or (b) creating an internecine war within the Republican party that’s just fantastic for the cause of ideological purity, but will do little to give us a government that responds in any substantive way to the reality of the world around us.

Faced with the reality of that, my friend’s point was well-taken. It certainly makes sense to look at the world around you, and rapidly conclude that you have a limited number of choices in how to respond. One is the sort of formless, incoherent rage articulated on the far right. The other is an apathetic acquiescence to the notion that the rich and the powerful hold all the cards, and that either things will either work themselves out without you worrying about them or that things are just too corrupt for your worry to make a difference.

And here's the rub: neither reaction is an illogical one. After all, people have bills to pay, and kids to feed, and careers to pursue. It’s perfectly reasonable that in a 15-20 hour day, filled to the brim with things that you have to do, either on your own behalf or on behalf of those who depend on you directly, that you decline to invite even more agitation into your life by worrying about things that either don't affect you or that you cannot affect. There's something to be said for conserving your mental energy for more worthwhile, and satisfying pursuits.

(Hell, there's certainly very little reason for me to follow politics. I really don't have much of a dog in that particular fight. I'm a white male heterosexual with both a college and a post-graduate degree. If I put in the effort, I'll probably make plenty of money. So, I actually will probably be all right no matter what jackassery the government gets up to. Given everything I see on the news, a disengaged, ironic attitude would certainly save me a lot of trouble.)

Nevertheless, I find myself coming back to the scene from Network. What struck me upon re-watching the scene is a small, almost throwaway line in the middle of all that exuberant rage:

Things have got to change. But first, you've gotta get mad!... Then we'll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis.

My emphasis highlights a subtle point that gets lost when this scene is referenced: Anger is a useful antidote to apathy and a necessary pre-condition to progress, not an end in itself. It’s easy to forget that formless rage can easily be harnessed to destructive ends. But that doesn’t mean that the only alternative is resigned, world-weary apathy. (And frankly, I figure that if you’re under age 45, it’s a bit pretentious to be acting world-weary in the first place.) I’ve frequently been told I’m cynical, but as a casual student of history, I believe whole-heartedly in the notion that “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” And while inchoate anger isn’t particular useful, letting in the sort of anger that rouses us out of apathy is what bends the arc in that direction.

To paraphrase old Howard Beale, I don't know what to do about the recession, and the energy crisis, and the threat of radical Islamic terrorism, or the rising costs of health care, or any of the rest of the Big Important Issues that crop up on blogs and tweets and 24-hour news networks. All I really know is that for all the talk about how the wealthy and powerful control everything, and things are thoroughly corrupt and unchangeable, and civic engagement is a useless exercise...well, to tick off a few counter-examples:

  • sixty years ago, it was acceptable (at least to some) to turn fire hoses on peaceful black protesters; now, the best intolerant folks can do is conjure up absurd little protests about "reverse racism"
  • seventy years ago we didn’t need secret prisons to round up our presumed “enemies” in a time of war; we could just herd Japanese-Americans into internment camps with the approval of the Supreme Court
  • ninety years ago, women couldn’t vote; now, you've got women publicly telling male candidates running for elected office to "man up"
  • one hundred years ago, no one gave a damn if industrial process put poison into our food or children into factories
  • one hundred and fifty years ago, half the country existed in some anachronistic, medieval feudal society that kept human beings as property

And so on. None of it happened because otherwise good people looked around and said, "You know, this is awful but that's just how the world works. I've got my own shit to worry about." It all changed because people cared enough to get mad and stay mad.

That being the case, I can’t help but conclude that unyielding cynicism and apathy, while great coping mechanisms for an increasingly chaotic world, are as much of a short-sighted flight from reality as na├»ve idealism. After all, the people with a stake in keeping the world the way it is are certainly pretty engaged -- seems like the worst one could do is make their task easier.

The Unbearable Wrongness of "Being"

If you listen to a people try to describe themselves, almost all of them will use the phrase “I am …” Which seems innocuous enough on its face. After all, it is natural and appropriate to describe your physical characteristics with the relative immutability that the phrase “I am” implies. When you say “I am tall,” “I am fat,” or “I am a blonde,” most of those traits will remain unchanged absent some drastic intervention.

However, when describing something much more intangible, such as your personality or your proficiency at something, the phrase “I am” is far less helpful.

For example, someone with a health self-image might say, “I am good at my chosen profession.” And, in a sense, it may not inaccurate to say so. That person may very well have the credentials, the experience, and the track record that leaves no doubt that he or she is, in fact, quite good at her job.

What is lost, however, is that it is not being good at your job that made you successful at those tasks. It is being successful at those tasks that made you comfortable enough to be good at your job. And, if you are the type who is inclined to build up an unhealthy supply of ego, treating your successes as flowing from your inherent awesomeness will make you treat the prospect of future success as a fait accompli rather than a goal toward which to work. Probably the most important lesson I learned in five years at Georgia Tech was the fact that I was not inherently smart, and therefore success would come on its own – it was a very necessary ego check for a cocky teenager, and one I’ve tried to keep in mind each time I succeed in life.[1]

The same holds true in matters of morality. Probably the worst way to describe yourself is to say “I am a good person.” You may very well do many good things, but here again, describing yourself as inherently good confuses cause and effect.

Moreover, some studies have actually shown that those who consider themselves as inherently good people tend to engage in a form of “moral licensing,” where individuals who have engaged in morally upright behavior in one area of their lives feel entitled to cut corners in another area:

Earlier this year, researchers at Northwestern reported that subjects who wrote self-flattering stories later pledged to give less money to charity than those who wrote stories that were self-critical or about someone else. In another recent study, participants who recalled their own righteous deeds were less inclined to donate blood, volunteer, or engage in other "prosocial" acts. They were also more likely to cheat on a math assignment.

Why might this happen? According to Monin, now a professor at Stanford, there are two theories. One is that when we've established our rectitude, we interpret ensuing behavior in a different light: I just proved I'm a good person, so what I'm doing now must be okay.

However, doing the opposite by indulging in a negative self-image is hardly an improvement. When one says things like “I am not good with money” or “I am a bad husband,” what sounds like an admission of a personal failing is, in reality, a way of shirking moral responsibility for one’s actions. It’s a way of conflating those personal failings with truly immutable characteristics, and thereby allaying any blame for the harmful actions that flow from those characteristics.

After all, no one blames a person who is short for not being able to reach the top shelf; by extension, no one should blame a person who is lacking in tact for saying offensive things. However, the truth of the matter is that the two things are very different: a short person will never be any taller, no matter how much effort that person puts in. But a person who, through a combination of environment and habit, has developed a tendency to be a bit of an ass can actually put in the effort to think about the potential effect of what he says. He may decide that the effort isn’t worth it or that censoring oneself ultimately does more harm than good, but the salient point is that “being” more or less considerate is a decision, not a description.

Granted, this is a gross oversimplification of human behavior. As alluded to above, everyone is a collection of years and decades worth of learned responses in response to external stimuli, which tend to harden into each individual’s psychological make-up and disposition. Likewise, few will quibble that successful professionals are good at their jobs, notwithstanding a pedantic argument about what we mean by such a description.

All the same, it is worthwhile to avoid describing yourself by what you are in favor of what you do. When you say, “I’ve been successful at my job” or “I try to do right by people,” it conveys the same message about what you’ve done in the past, while hopefully serving as a reminder that tomorrow’s achievements are a promise to no one, and must in fact be earned anew. And when you say things like “I’ve screwed over the people I care about” or “I’ve tended to drink a bit too heavily,” it’s a way of admitting your faults, but it’s also a way of remembering that the choice of whether or not to repeat those faults remains in your control.

[1] Granted, the fact that the most I took from Tech was a bit of motivational self-help gibberish probably isn’t the most desirable outcome. There go five years of calculus and electrical circuit analysis, all gone to waste.