Stress. We all have it, to one degree or another, it’s part of life. But why? Why do we put up with it? Stress, medically speaking, and in manageable doses, is good for us, but who likes anything in manageable doses? Not us. Not Americans. We don’t do “manageable”. We go All Out, All In, All The Time. We like our heroes/heroines larger than life, our predicaments overwhelming, our dramas Real Housewives size, or bigger. We simply don’t like things that are manageable in any way, shape, or form.
This seems counterintuitive. Why would we want unmanageable stress? Why would we want to raise our blood pressure unnecessarily? Why would we want to spend money we don’t have seeing doctors we don’t believe and taking prescriptions we don’t think are working? (OK, I hear the murmurs, the crowd of folks saying “I don’t like stress, I don’t go looking for stress, stress finds me”, I don’t believe you). Whether or not you think you are intentionally engaging in stressful practices, you are.
Do you watch t.v.? Stressful. Do you argue with friends about politics? religion? the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots battle to be the most despised team in America? Stressful. Do you partake in team-building exercises at your office? Stressful. Do you dine at places that offer 18,637 menu choices? Stressful. Are you employed, unemployed, under-employed, overworked, underpaid? Stressful. Everything we do (aside from bubble baths, petting animals, & listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon), is stressful. The problem isn’t that we do these things – these stress inducing “pleasures”, the problem is we don’t know how to engage in these acts dispassionately, like a good judge is able to do (with the case before them), maybe not a “so-called” judge, but a good judge.
Managing stress is essential to living a healthy life. We need some stresses to make sure we don’t get “soft” but we don’t need to take all of those stresses to bed, or make them a part of our physical being. Management, real management of stress, is essential…especially in the age of Trump (doesn’t matter if you love him or wish the “Witch Doctor” from Beetlejuice would pay him a visit, the man induces stress with his incessant whining and crying and bullying and lying). So there are two viable options available for most of us (that would include everyone who can’t afford to “get away” for six months at their villa in Manarola, Liguria). Manage the stress, or…stop caring.
This makes for a tough choice, for some. If you are of certain means, and not generally on the receiving end of aspersion casting (think White, male, “good looking“, like David Beckham, Tom Hardy, or Chris Hemsworth), it’s easier to say “fuck it, who cares!“. But, if you’re like the rest of us, the Betties, Als, Geralds, Janias, Estephanies, Juan Pablos, Ntsums, Xangs, Khadiijas & Suleymanns, the choice is not so easy. Our lives are more complicated in all matters relating to “us”. Caring, about everything related to who we are, how we feel, how those close to us feel, and even the concerns of those who aren’t close but are part of our larger community/humanity. We can’t say “fuck it”, it’s not how we do.
Stress defines us— who we are, why we exist, our raison d’être, so to speak (not the beer). It offers others a glimpse into what drives us, what sustains us, and why some days are especially difficult. We need stress, we just don’t need it to control us. So, rather than running away from it, or from who you are, figure out how to manage it and then help others do the same. What this looks like (management) will differ based on the individual. But remember, although we are individuals, we’re all in this together…well, most of us. And, as Prince reminds us, when “the elevator tries to bring you down, Go Crazy“. Occasionally, that’s the best response to any situation.
failure. a small word, relatively speaking. a word that evokes images of “losers“, “has-beens“, “never-will-be’s“, and their ilk. a term that reminds us of what we do not want to be, do not want to be associated with; that thing we wish to never experience. it is what drives us to, if not greatness, mediocrity, because mediocrity is not failure, for most. But the truth is, we all fail, daily. Some of us more than others. And that is not ok…
Failing is as much a part of our lives as sleeping, eating, and interacting with our surroundings. As surely as one gets out of bed in the morning, one fails. These failures can be related to money (made or spent), time (wasted or just lost), status (at work, in school, amongst family, friends, the Jones’(notice the failed attempt at spelling “you’re”)), or anything else that consumes your thoughts for more than a few minutes a day. Don’t fret, you’re not alone, you’re part of a club with over 7 billion members. And, with each failure, a new opportunity to learn is presented.
This is where The Art piece comes into play (I’ll leave the science part to the neurologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, et al.). Life, like art, provides us with extraordinary opportunities to try something, repeatedly, until we get it right, or give up; the choice is ours. Each new attempt is practice, something Mr. Iverson broke down for us in 2002 (and A.I. was talking about so much more than just “practice”). Anyway, the idea of trying repeatedly should not be viewed with an eye on how many times we fail, rather we should see each new attempt as being that much closer to success.
And what about those who never achieve the goal they’ve set? Aren’t they failures? No, it doesn’t work that way. The person who tries to quit using tobacco 10 times and starts back 10 times hasn’t failed, they’ve simply made it more likely that they will succeed the 11th time, or 12th, whatever. And maybe they’ll never quit, maybe smoking is the one thing they have in life that is comforting in their extremely high stress job/life. Maybe having a cigarette keeps them sane when what they’d really like to do is take a baseball bat to their boss’s car. In this case, success is represented in the form of a Beamer without 30 dents and missing windows. We don’t know what people are going through, how their individual experiences have shaped them and how those events have affected their current state of mind.
The failures we experience are lessons to be studied. They offer advice on how to do better the next time—which is not to say that the next time will be any more successful; but the next failure may occur due to some other unforeseen circumstance, if you learned from the previous attempt. If not, then the next failing will likely exhibit, not-so-surprisingly, familiar events and outcomes. This is true in any type of policyformulation and/or implementation as well, failures occur everywhere and on a continuous basis (we also see massive failures in the problem definition, agenda setting and evaluation stages). What is rare, and therefore celebrated, is success, in any arena.
Success, the opposite of failure, is almost never captured on the first attempt. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again” is good for kids to hear but it might be better to tell them, “At first, you will fail; fail well, learn, and try again“. The failings are the very phenomena we need in order to figure out how to be successful. Success comes over time; the getting there part is not easy, quick, nor a particularly glamorous undertaking. And that is what makes It so much more satisfying when It is finally achieved.
Malcolm Gladwellstudied people who had become masters of their professions and found that what many had in common (aside from greater access and opportunity (from birth)) than the average individual) was the number of hours they were able to dedicate to mastering a particular concept/field. As others have found, however, this theory rests, at least in part, on the stability of the particular profession, i.e. rules, regulations, static conditions, as well as the individual’s penchant for the work. Taken together, this leads me to believe that life, in it’s simplest form, is all about failure. The countless hours spent learning, enjoying the process of learning, which is to say learning from the failing, is what ultimately makes one successful. And so those rare moments, when we aren’t failing, are so out of sync with the rest of our routine that we have to stop and take notice, celebrate, dance, hoot-n-holler, and partake in all form of Tomfoolery. That is, if you are of this world. There are those who, practice aside, make their job look too easy, they mock us mere mortals by their very existence.
Back to The Art of Failing. Find new and unusual ways to fail (meaning try things in new ways). The more you are able to learn from each failure, the more quickly you are able to find A successful way, which is different from THE successful way. Very few activities have just one way that they can be accomplished. That’s the beauty of art and failure, we can each produce our own “works” that make sense to us (if nobody else), and which we can learn from because we understand our own methodologies, our own thought processes, better than we understand someone else’s.
In policy making, this idea becomes more difficult, some would say an exercise in futility. When multiple sects/groups (extreme or otherwise) are attempting to craft any policy, they should consider the effects said policy will have on the larger community (school district, city, state, nation, etc.), not just the intended recipients. Policy failures are not bad if the failure occurs prior to the implementation stage, where they can still be reworked. But once you’ve gotten to the point of execution, it means the policy has become law; and if mistakes/bad ideas are uncovered by those affected by the policy, the enactment will likely still go forward while people look for loopholes, end-arounds, and other ways to mitigate the bad policy that passed through the system (which is to say lots of meetings that are unlikely to produce much in the way of good ideas).
There are many examples of policies that are failures—were bound to fail from the beginning, and for all the good intention of those involved, their lack of prior learning (first-hand knowledge gained by failing in the setting/system) led to the failed policy being implemented. The field of education is ripe with this type of failure. Too often, in recent decades, we’ve seen well meaning (always assume best intentions) politicians, with the assistance of lawyers, business folk, PhDs armed with literature reviews and in-depth research, and lobbyists, come up with new ideas to address students and teachers “shortcomings”. The primary issue that is almost always immediately apparent upon the policy taking effect, is the lack of teacher and student input concerning the new rules. Sure, they probably interviewed a teacher or two, from the “best” school in the state, to get their thoughts, but never considered talking to the educators who work in the schools where 95% of students are experiencing poverty, trying to learn in severely crowded classrooms with textbooks that are 30-plus years old and kept together with duct-tape, masking-tape, glue, and pixie dust. In these settings, students and teachers first priority is not a test score improvement or the closing of an achievement gap, but ensuring the students are not hungry, not suffering any form of abuse, physical ailment, mental health condition, and if so, finding them the proper professionals to help. Additionally, teachers are trying to ensure that their classrooms are safe spaces for all students; preventing bullying behaviors of LGBTQ, smaller, weaker, “different”, and those students who have been singled out for any number of reasons (all non-sensical) has become a priority that many schools are no longer ignoring. Beyond that, most teachers know that a test score means virtually nothing when it comes to finding success beyond high school. Understanding social mores, developing soft skills, learning how to adapt to the culture of a new work/school environment, these are the concepts most important for the more than 50% of kids who never attend a four year institution (and, these concepts are important to the students who do attend 4-year schools, but these students are more likely to get away without mastery of or competence in the aforementioned areas because of a variety of other factors, to include theutterly ridiculous,appalling, &repugnant).
Failing is something that is done both with and without intention. Like the Potter who is creating a vessel for aesthetic and functional purposes, she intends to make a unique creation and therefore tries new ideas/methods. Rarely does the new technique work the first time, but she tries again, and again, learning, relearning, perfecting the imperfections until…Voilà!So too is life a series of failed attempts that over time enable us to accomplishdaily tasksandgrand achievements(this is similar to what I do on a daily basis, literally and figuratively). Don’tallow yourself to get caught up in the failure, use this new knowledge to reconfigure and move forward (the glass half full concept is good to remember, it means there’s room for more beer learning).
I fail, to my wife’s chagrin, a lot. I’ve got well over the requisite 10,000 hours needed for mastery of this non-professional profession. Every day, upon waking, I know I have already failed. My lack of height (Vikings are supposed to be at least 6 feet tall), lack of six/seven/eight-figure salary, my messy office space, my inability to grasp the ridiculousness of trying to do it all, and that’s just in the first few minutes of being awake. I failed to take the Dutchess on short walks (going around the block routinely turned into an hour of lollygagging around the neighbor’s (a pizza joint) garbage can, the smell of pizza crusts, sausage, and pasta remnants emanating from its interior proved too strong a temptation to resist. And the list goes on, and on, and… But, for all of my failings, I have gained knowledge, great volumes full of all manner of wisdom and scholarship. And I’m not done, I’ll continue failing until I go to that big Beach in the sky, the one where dogs and cats are welcome, the two best beers, Cold and Free, are served on tap, and the failures of the past are no longer relevant.
And so, the idea of failing not being ok is still true—it is better than ok, it is wonderful, and great, and stupendous…and, necessary; because repeated failures often lead to the greatest success. Without failure we don’t advance, we don’t learn, we don’t move civilization to new heights (some would say this has been the model of the GOP recently, I won’t go that far but I do wonder if the word “progress” is in their dictionary). We get stuck and sit around waiting for somebody else to do something, just waiting on the world to change. Each new failure means we aren’t waiting on anybody, we’re doing it, we’re taking the reins for our particular situation and doin’ the damn thing.
I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career/ I’ve lost almost 300 games/ 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot/ and missed./ I’ve failed over, and over and over again in my life./ And that is why/ I succeed.
The last thing graduates need at this time of year is another article extolling them for their hard work and dedication, and offering unsolicited advice that pertains to their future. That said, it may be handy to reflect upon the skills and knowledge that have been picked up along the way. From that starting point, one can expound on the deeper meanings and offer takeaways that expand future opportunities. Moreover, this would be an appropriate topic for a blog that logs millions of hits daily and is ranked as a perennial “Top 10” (according to people who know these things); but since The Oatmeal is a little busy with other fun stuff, I guess I’ll do it. Whether finishing up your first full year in kindergarten (a disproportionate percentage of my readers fall into this category, but that bodes well for 26.3s long-term viability), leaving elementary behind for middle school (a.k.a. Junior High), pushing on from 8th to 9th grade, receiving your high school diploma, or attaining one or another type of college parchment pronouncement, here are some Best Practices for life (and these should in no way be confused with the “best practices” used by Trump University, Enron, Washington Mutual, or Lehman Brothers).
First off, make sure you have a list of life policies that you support (e.g. people should be nice), policies you could support, if they were enacted (like, free ice cream every saturday, for everybody), policies you don’t find logical (such as, one can join the Marines at 18 but can’t legally drink a beer until they are 21, with minor exceptions), & policies you believe were written by cavemen (Smoot-Hawley, yes, literate cavemen). And then expand your list based on what you’ve learned in your time on earth.
Kindergartners often leave their first year with a sound understanding of basic social skills. It’s not a stretch then to move from simple niceties (Hello, Please, Thank You, Sorry, Pardon me, snack sharing) to the ideas of: sharing more than a snack with your fellow wo/man; holding a door for the person behind you; comforting a person or animal that is scared; standing up for those who may be unable to speak/act for themselves: the elderly, children, persons with physical, mental, emotional, disabilities, pets and other animals; and those who often go unheard: the homeless, people experiencing poverty, individuals suffering any form of abuse, the marginalized members of our communities. Six-year-olds know many of these things a posteriori, there’s no reason the rest of us shouldn’t be able to think about others’ well-being, in addition to taking care of oneself.
By the time kids finish 5th grade, they have figured out that what they are good at is very often an activity that they enjoy, it’s not a coincidence. Some have a natural talent (e.g. athletics), some have been gently pushed in a general direction (e.g. readers/writers), some find that numbers just make sense in their heads, and others, well, some kids like everything, they are curious about the world.
Curiosity is a trait we are born with, i.e. it is innate. As children grow, and learn, and make mistakes (lots of this by the end of 5th grade), most of them come to understand that curiosity is a precursor to ridicule. Anytime you admit that you don’t know something, you open yourself up to comments from those who know, or think they know. Due to this form of “peer-sneering”, the overtly curious fall into two camps, those who keep the questions to themselves (which then divides into another set of camps; the closet nerds/dorks/geeks and the kids who learn to become less curious and accept the status quo without question)…
And this is a good opportunity to talk about sheep. Those who “follow blindly” as some would say, are not sheep. Two differences; 1) this assumes sheep are not smart, au contraire. Sheep understand that they are not lions or tigers or bears and therefore they place their trust with the shepherd and the sheep dogs (the caretakers/protectors). 2) People are smart; they have figured out how to navigate their own waters without capsizing their boat. This doesn’t make them weak, or stupid, or followers, it makes them people. Not everyone was born to lead, or question everything, or fight the power; nor was everyone born to build bridges, analyze massive volumes of excel data, or teach children how to read. Remember that if we were all the same, our world would be a very dull place and we know what the dull life leads to.
…and those who don’t care (like me) about what others think, we are just curious about everything and want to know who, what, why, how, when, where, and furthermore, are you certain.
Another thing noticed by graduates of the 5th grade is the speed at which life is moving—the pace of everything has quickened (excluding snails, tectonic plates, & molasses). This is to say, the adults are cramming more stuff into the same number of hours (13 & ½ to be exact). Therefore, regardless of what category of curiosity you fall into, attention spans need to be lengthened if you hope to pick-up all of the bits of information that are being thrown at you. And whether one is trying to learn everything—because why not, or because that’s the better of the two options you’ve been given in life, or you are focusing on exactly what the adults existing in your hemisphere have asked you to focus on, remember how much fun it is to be curious and learn new things.Appreciate the fleeting moments of bliss that come from every extraordinary discovery. They are often unexpected and appear out of left field—from people that you may not even be aware of. Therefore, introduce yourself to classmates that are outside of your peer-sphere. Share the joys of an aha moment as you get to know your cohort. Each member has a strength or three and a weakness or five, learn from each other, help each other, and begin to engage in the larger community you are a part of. Middle school can be scary, do everything you can to make the next few years as pleasant as possible.
If you’ve made it to the end of 8th grade, you’ve gotten through the most confusing and confounding part of life (for most). Congratulations! Between the ages of 10 and 14, our bodies and brains undergo a lot of changes. Physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social, and environmental transformations (i.e. health & wellness) can make your head spin out of control. It is at this point that you need to “Slow It Down“. Put more thought into your actions, inactions, and potential actions. Don’t “just do it”, as the shoe company implores you to. Contemplation should become a staple of your lifestyle diet.
Along with the changes they’ve undergone, another characteristic of the “rising” 9th grader is their acceptance, to varying degrees, of those with whom they don’t share many visible similarities. Many students are putting 2 & 2 together and realizing that a label: “Brown, Yellow, Puerto Rican, or Haitian” Native American, African American, African, Middle Eastern, Indian, Hispanic/Latina, Asian, Pacific Islander, Indigenous Peoples from every continent, White, Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, Transgender, Queer, Nerd, Jock, Drama-kid, Geek, Punk, Skater, Gearhead, is not as important as the fact that we are all human; one race of people with a multitude of differences that should be respected, celebrated, understood, and cherished for what they are—unique.
High school graduates have learned a lot about the word “character”, and standardized testing. Only one of those will have any long-term affect on their life (I know what some of you are thinking, and no, I don’t think the ACT/SAT etc. are all that important either, not in terms of how one lives their life). Character; what it means, how it affects one’s life trajectory, why it’s important, and which qualities are the most salient in each individual’s particular situation, these are the things that will impact and guide lives. The residue that adheres to the students, from engaging each new day (this is the foundation of character), will carry them through the remainder of their journey. A few of the most essential character traits, in my book, are: resolve (a.k.a. grit, tenacity, sticktoitiveness, all of which tie in to work ethic), empathy, judgement, tact, and optimism; qualities found in many a 26.3er.
The grad who plans to join the Navy needs to have a lot of resolve. They spend long periods of time at sea, often with Jar-Heads aboard. The combination of a new environment and living alongside Marines is more than enough to make them question, if only briefly, their choice of military branch. Resolve gives them the ability to deal with that insecurity and move forward (or let the boat move them forward). Empathy and judgement; these two go hand-in-hand. If a person has developed a strong sense of empathy for others, they are likely to use better judgement when dealing with a given situation. They understand that life is not painted in black and white; it is, rather, a million shades of grey.
Tact. I have noticed a general decline in public prudence and sensibility. This is not to imply that everyone is rude and thoughtless but there are trends. Customer service continues to decline(this could be directly related to wages), both in real and perceived terms (and perception, to the perceiver, is reality). Tact is not reinforced; rather, the opposite of tact, disregard or carelessness in one’s manners, is occasionally reprimanded with little or no mention of the steps needed to correct the behavior. Be proactive, take the opportunity to teach when it presents itself. And if someone is taking time to teach you (without being an ass about it), pay attention. The so called “soft skills” are equally, if not more, important, in many entry-level jobs.
Optimism is maybe the most important of all. We live in times that have seen long-term wage stagnation, hyper-vigilance amongst some individuals who are not comfortable in our increasingly diverse country, extreme political divisiveness, and an economy that works really well for about 1/5 of our population, but not nearly as well for the rest of us. It’s hard to be optimistic when “everything” seems to be working against us. Yet, not everything is horrible. The economy is getting better, if ever so slowly. We’re still waiting for the labor market to hit critical mass, in hopes of seeing wages rise, but jobs are returning, in most places. And hey, by 2021, you might be a “baller, shot caller, [with] 20″ blades on [your] Impala“.
Beyond high school, the age of post-secondary graduates varies dramatically. Non-traditional students are becoming a norm and the subjects covered are much broader now. The variety of jobs that exist today includes many that nobody had thought of 30 years ago (e.g. app developer, Baltimore Ravens cheerleader, professional hacker). So, in order to address everyone, from chefs to shellfish farmers, aircraft mechanics to actuarys, and educators to eco-system managers, I’ll recount some of the most relevant knowledge as it relates to every profession in every field, everywhere, ever (ok, maybe that’s a little too much).
The two concepts that professors should have figuratively beaten into your skull, regardless of what the course syllabus spelled out, are how to think creatively and how to think critically. The combination of these thought processes bear responsibility for our collective future (that’s heavy, maybe too heavy, but it’s true). As a world, we are going to have to be extremely creative in coming up with new ways to support a larger population while witnessing the automation and mechanization of more jobs. This doesn’t guarantee a net loss of future jobs but it does require a lot of thought about how we’re going to make our economy work for everyone, not just the lucky “makers“.
Critical thought is something we’ve always done, it’s just that we aren’t told we’re thinking critically when we are young. The idea of observing, reflecting, thinking about the how and why (analyzing), and then taking that knowledge and forming new ideas and sharing them, is a complex way of describing what four-year-olds do at the beach. They look at a sandcastle and then go about figuring out how to construct their own. And while they’re at it, they often try some new-fangled engineering fete, fail, and move forward. With all the knowledge accumulated over the previous 14 – 20 school-years, post-secondary graduates should have a pretty good idea of how to do this. The real challenge is making sure that they are working across sectors, industries, and geographic locales. Combining creative and critical thought is not new but it should be practiced more liberally so that together we will be able to solve just about any problem we encounter (still working out how to combat Nyquil packaging).
Now Hear This!
Don’t take the bad advice of the “greatest” graduation speakers. “Go[ing] confidently in the direction of your dreams”, “Follow[ing] your passion”, etc., etc., is great… if your dreams include being a math teacher in rural America, lots of call for that particular position. However, if you dream of reading Shakespeare while noshing fish & chips and quaffing a Tallgrass Brown Ale, at the Anchor & Hope, in the Southwark neighborhood of London (yes, the same neighborhood where the Globe Theatre resides), then I might suggest you adjust your navigational settings to something a little more realistic. Like teaching Shakespeare, and Morrison, and Ellison, and Cisneros, and Fitzgerald, to students who will, generally speaking, not show much interest in the subject matter (which is not to say that they won’t learn anything, just don’t expect much when teaching certain books). But that’s ok; because there are students that will be engaged and their lives will be changed by the work you do and the bonds that you build with them. And, because teaching provides a steady wage (not as much as it should, but steady). Of course, if you are independently wealthy or have parents who are willing to bankroll your efforts to achieve Nirvana, etc., no, the other nirvana, then by all means, do it up; and bring a friend if you feel so inclined (back to the kindergarten knowledge—sharing).
I’m not advising anyone to become a disinterested automaton, mindlessly working to increase profits and productivity. Dream; Dream Big; Live withPassion; imagine SeReNdIpItOuS events, do all the things that provide your spirit with the fuel it needs to carry on. But, remember, life is a lot easier when you can pay your rent on time, eat regularly, buy seasonally appropriate clothing, and have a little “back-up” in the bank, for emergency situations. So, if at all possible, find work that pays a living wage, appreciates you, helps to advance your skill set while dropping new knowledge into your noggin, and encourages you to be creative in your processes. Then, each day, use your remaining hours to work on your dreams and passions.
Lastly, here are a few pieces of advice that you probably didn’t learn in school but are of equal import.
When watching/listening to a story that involves people making decisions that you don’t agree with, it’s good to remember that while one may not agree with the action(s) taken by said person/group, those actions, placed in the proper context, can be understood.
Sometimes you need to “Take a Walk“. Not necessarily to Bolivia or even across state lines, just get out and walk, clear the head, breathe, give yourself an opportunity to think.
Whenever you are considering new laws, rules, et al. (in any setting), think about who’s not at the table. Too often we witness the implementation of new policies that haven’t been properly vetted. Key stakeholders are left out of the negotiations and therefore they don’t have any real connection to the new legislation. You can’t blame somebody for ignoring a policy if they had no voice in the process.
Take a road trip if you have the means; “Talladega“, Baltimore, Kansas City, El Segundo, or anywhere else that you haven’t yet ventured. Meet new people, try new foods and see America’s beauty from a different vantage point.
Sometimes you’ve gotta let loose. However, it is advisable, during these escapades, to have a trustworthy friend nearby, so as to keep you from doing anything that may prevent future employment opportunities from occurring.
Best of Luck and Congratulations, as you turn the page and step into a new chapter in your life.
There is a myth that persists in our society, a myth that the rugged individual (RI)(read: male, usually White, tough, rough, “self-made man“, does it “his way”; think – John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Indiana Jones, Donald Trump, George W. Bush, and the Marlboro Man) is the one who gets things done and makes our country the military, economic, and “moral” superpower it is. He explores new places or ideas, fights the “good fight”, goes his own way & finds success, and usually saves the day—in one way or another. He is the reason, some believe, that America is great. He is also the role model for those who wish to remake America in his image (that is to say, without government policies that intervene in social or economic affairs—for the most part). They say that this RI personality trait lies within the social fabric of American society, it’s part of “our” DNA. The only problem with this kind of thinking, is that it’s leaving out 95% of the story, and anyone who is not of the male gender.
The other 95% of the story tells of how these tough guys were often raised by families that cared about their physical, mental, and likely spiritual, well being. Additionally, they were raised in communities (be it rural, urban, or the netherworld that lies between) where neighbors helped neighbors, believing in the notion that the whole is greater than any individual part. Without this solid foundation upon which they were raised (that the well-being of the local polity and its constituents take precedent over any one individual), it is doubtful that the more interesting 5% of their story would ever occur.
It should also be pointed out that rugged individualism, the American type, is not exclusively practiced by the male species nor dominated by the descendants of European Americans; men & women of all ethnicities have practiced some form or another of this character trait ever since our continent was first inhabited by Native Peoples more than 10,000 years ago.
Whether the communities that raise these RIs chose to act in a collective manner because of the biblical teachings they heard on Sunday’s, or because they knew that their community was stronger if every person was healthy, educated (in whatever professions were important to the continued existence of their inhabitants) and engaged in furthering the group’s well being, they worked together for the common good. This fraternal style of living arrangement does not preclude any RI from performing heroic acts, or spending long, lonely, hours developing a plan/model for a new venture; but at the end of the day, the solo acts are only one small part of the lived experience of every individual’s greater existence. The ongoing support from friends, family, neighbors, teachers, community, et al. is far more important in any success achieved by “The Great One”, and in the telling of the full story. And this is where some of Americas’ Great Divides have their beginnings.
The real history of our great country is not one of solo actors daring to be great, but rather communal actors being supported in their not truly individual endeavors. While the period of the Columbian Exchange and beyond was filled with the efforts of many capable sailors and crew, we only know the names of the ships’ Captains; they are given all the credit for traversing the oceans and seas. Similarly, those brave souls who took their wagons Westward are only remembered by their family, or towns for which they are a namesake (the Donner Party exempted), yet the first Governor of each state is prominently displayed on public schools and other buildings/parks/etc. Civil War buffs remember that General George Pickett showed extreme bravery when he led his men into certain slaughter on day 3 at Gettysburg, but those thousands of men who followed Pickett, Pettigrew, and Trimble, also showed extreme bravery by marching into an open field— knowing the Union Army waited 3/4 of a mile ahead. Certainly, we cannot hope to remember the names of every person who has aided in every successful venture, but neither should we fail to recognize the importance of all those hands that helped to make events possible.
On the one side, the pro RI side, we have people arguing that individuals, not the government, are responsible for taking care of themselves. Whether “care” entails work, medical needs, 2nd amendment rights, education, or basic needs (food, shelter, safety), they argue that individuals should bear the burden of providing for themselves. These folks are more prone to argue for policies that decrease: government oversight generally, business & banking regulations, and taxes.
The other extreme is the far left-end of a socialist-style system (which is very different from a liberal progressive form of gov’t.). Governance of this sort provides many, if not all, of the necessities that people need to survive, though not necessarily thrive; from free or subsidized food and shelter, to healthcare, education, and employment. This extreme doesn’t find much support in the U.S. Neither of these systems, as is, are particularly useful in a modern economy, but they both offer ideas that could, through skillful compromise and some tweaking, be used for the greater good. Compromise, however, according to Cadillac (ads by Publicis Worldwide) and Elbert Hubbard, is for weak men. I would disagree with this premise, as would any wise politician hoping to gain passage of a controversial piece of legislation.
In between the far left and the far right are a wide variety of political ideologies, belief systems, and traditions that dictate, to some extent, regional and personal mores, values, and norms. While it is likely that we (our collective society) agree on far more than we disagree on, some “choose” (aided by various forms of media) to focus on those issues that divide us. The divisive list includes: Roe -v- Wade, 2nd Amendment, proper role of government(s), social insurance & social welfare programs, military spending, role of Christianity in schools/society/gov’t, immigration, minimum wage and the wealth gap (ideal and actual), social justice, and marriage equality. This seems like a big list of very important issues, and it is. But it’s not bigger than the list of items that we accomplish every day.
Work (paid and unpaid), caring for family, keeping up our homes, preparing meals, supporting others (mentally, physically, emotionally), taking care of the self, remembering to be nice to people (because one never knows what another is going through), volunteering, and learning, are accomplishments that many people successfully conquer, daily. So why do we insist on arguing about topics that are not of great enough import to get a majority of us to the polls on election day? (I believe they are important enough, but our national voting record tells me I am in the minority).
Part of the problem stems from our lack of understanding each other. We interact with and live amongst people, with whom we share commonalities. This serves to reinforce our beliefs and polarize those who dare to think differently. When we are continually told that our beliefs are right/correct/valid, and we hear the vitriol directed at those with other ideas, it’s natural to assume that “those people” have it wrong. But what if they don’t? Or, what if they do but don’t know it, because no one is willing to engage in civil conversations to understand another perspective. Or, what if the truth lies somewhere in the middle (like the suburbs)? And what about the RIs who claim that all sides have it wrong and that we should rebel against all government action and fend for ourselves (while surrounded by 500 friends and family members, a whole crew of RIs)?
This calls for conversations. Real conversations, one-to-one, face-to-face, “a” to “b”, you get the picture. These conversations take time, and courage, and sometimes cold beer(s). But this is the best way to learn about our differences, our fellow citizens, our brother and sisters, our countrymen/women and those with whom we share so much yet know so little about. Urban and rural people need to connect and learn why each feels the way they do about gun control and gun rights; it’s not as simple as one might think. Republicans and Democrats could learn a lot from talking to each other about the employment, economic, and moral dilemmas that come with income inequality and the pro’s and con’s of unions. Children of privilege could gain new insights into the power of words by talking with Ta’Nehisi Coates. And those Americans in positions of power and/or with greater wealth could speak with folks in middle and lower socio-economic communities and “get in touch” with what it’s like to not be wealthy; possibly giving them pause before spouting off about the minimum wage being one of the Democrats’ “lame ideas“ .
Policies that promote individual risk and reward (such as deregulation of the banking and business sectors or tax cuts that do more for those at the top than those at the bottom) over the needs of the greater society are responsible, by and large, for many of our current economic issues. When more of the wealth (which is finite) is concentrated in the pockets of fewer individuals, it serves to depress an economy. The concept is not complex; if you have less money, you will spend what you have in order to survive and support anyone that depends on you. If you have more money (a lot more), you will invest it, or stash it offshore, or play other sorts of games to keep from paying taxes. Money that is hidden is not helping our economy; money that is spent in local businesses, whether on french fries, fuel, or fixtures for the kitchen, is contributing to the supply and demand cycle that economies rely on.
We have come to this point in our nation’s history (vast economic inequity) in part by crediting individuals with making America what it is today rather than talking about nation-building as an effort undertaken by all of us: enslaved Africans & African Americans; construction, industrial, & agricultural workers; miners; lumberjacks; fishermen/women; teachers; engineers; volunteers; men & women of the Armed Forces; bakers & brewers; salespeople, I.T. professionals, athletes, public servants, thespians & artists of all types, and all the other Americans and immigrants who have taken part in building our country, should be recognized for their substantial efforts in making America the country it is. By placing the elite on a pedestal, we have given them carte blanche to do as they please in all matters financially, legally, and politically; and they have done what is in their best interest, made money for themselves and their friends and left everyone else standing on the far side of the moat.
I don’t begrudge anybody from trying to make money. Money is not the issue; the issue lies in the mindset that those who are the most successful have achieved their goals through nothing more than their own hard work, tenacity, and sheer brilliance, choosing to ignore all the people that have played a role in them reaching their zenith (which tends to lead to less sharing of that created wealth).
While individuals accomplish goals everyday: open businesses, graduate from college, get promoted, win a wrestling tournament, write a book, etc., etc.,; they don’t do it without the support of their extended family/community. Be it financial, mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual, they are supported by many people from the various contacts they have made. Additionally, they are encouraged/motivated by loved ones; AND, the Local, State, and/or Federal government(s) provided services (e.g. infrastructure, emergency services/first responders, disaster relief, education, possibly tax breaks, grants & loans, and much much more) that allowed them to focus on achieving their goal.
Rugged individualism is not a myth, but neither is it the whole story. Some people have the innate ability to rise up and conquer whatever is thrown at them. This doesn’t happen through DNA alone, it is a skill that is first learned, then honed, and eventually ready to be used. It only exists because s/he had the opportunity to learn and the time to hone, and finally, the access to a place where using it offers the potential of reaping great rewards.
If you’re interested in exploring the political relationship between public and private actors and how policy actions shape societies, read Deborah Stone’s Policy Paradox.This book lays out some of the major issues that policy makers have to deal with when considering new policies and the communities they affect.