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On Transcendent Courage

The following includes an excerpt from Saving America in the Age of Deceit.

Successful leadership requires the most important element of all: courage, more specifically, transcendent courage.  Courage is the spine of character; it is the synaptic command and control system for all other virtues.  We are all familiar with courageous acts; the firefighter who rescues the child from the burning building, the soldier who throws himself in the path of danger to save his comrades, or the passengers who uttered “Let’s roll” and gave their own lives to protect other innocent Americans that terrorists intended to kill at their target in Washington DC on 9/11.  There is no question these acts are heroic and worthy of significant praise, even reverence.  Are they born from courage?  Panic?  Desperation?  Are they reflexive or triggered from a deeply wired sense of personal responsibility?  Is courage inherited or learned?  Are courageous people attractive, intelligent, wealthy, or prophetic?  Do they attend church every Sunday?  Do courageous people necessarily perform heroic acts or is courage a state of being that may never be overtly expressed?

The etymology of courage, found in The Oxford English Dictionary shows that the word has been used to describe the “quality of mind,” heart, spirit, disposition and nature of a person which “shows itself in facing danger without fear or shrinking.”  This history of usage indicates a much broader notion of courage, which is revealed by perilous circumstances of life; circumstances that by their very nature are not within the control of the courageous.  9/11 pilot Mohammed Atta, who committed a horrific act when he flew American Airlines flight 11 into the north tower of the World Trade Center, is heralded as courageous in many parts of the world.  Dutiful?  Absolutely.  Brave? Perhaps.  Fearless?  I doubt it.  Courageous?  I don’t think so.  But what if Mohammed Atta had flown his plane safely to an airport and freed the passengers?  What if others who are ordered to act in a manner they know is wrong face their circumstances by acting contrary to those orders?  More recently, what if more Republicans like Senator Mitt Romney had faced down Trump during his impeachment trial?  He took action in the face of perilous circumstances he did not control.  And, he did so, consistent with what I will call his truth: which is the first dimension of transcendent courage as a state of being.

The truth in transcendent courage is based in the simple reality that we know what the right thing is to do; the difficulty comes in listening to and honoring our sense of truth, allowing its transcendence and ours against the pressures of competing influences.  These influences take many forms and have many origins.  They may be internally generated, like greed; or, emanate from the pressure of peers, family members, superiors, or clergy.  Consequences imposed by these influencers, positive or negative, act to tether or suppress our truth.  A person possessing transcendent courage however, has immediate and undeterred access to their truth.  They do what they believe is right without regard to competing influences.  They are the most innocently (or unapologetically) honest among us.  They live in their truth all day, every day.

The second dimension of transcendent courage is the capacity to subordinate consequence to the importance of action; consequences are inconsequential.  Fears are faced down.  The prospect of immeasurable burden is accepted with grace and dignity. Physical pain, ridicule, even death are accepted as the inevitable partners of a courageous life; one which, above all, honors its truth.  Many, like Romney, arrive at transcendent courage by the commitments they have made to their God.  Others believe that actions taken consistent with their truth will mitigate the severity of consequence, in time.  I will suggest there is simply no other honorable way to express freedom.  If we hesitate to do what we know is right in the face of consequence, our own chains forever shackle us.  We abdicate our freedom.

The third dimension of transcendent courage is selflessness.  Selflessness enables us to honor our truth and readily accept consequences.  Many people define their lives by their service to others, consistent with servant leadership.  They measure their self-worth by the extent to which they make others smarter, healthier, happier, and safer.  Teachers, doctors and nurses, clergy, police, firefighters, paramedics, military, and community volunteers come readily to mind.  By their very nature or life choice, people who spend their time serving others have a significantly greater propensity to possess transcendent courage; they deserve our reverence.  Service to others teaches us the intrinsic value of selflessness.  It isolates the influence of adoration and remuneration from consideration.  It gives us the opportunity to embrace our humanity and feel connected to community while enhancing our self-esteem.  Selflessness produces that warm feeling many call peace.  Selflessness is the liberation of the soul from the oppression of our desires.  Think of those who have served you well in your life—who have enriched your life.  Are they profoundly successful, high profile, and wealthy, flamboyant people?  Maybe.  I’ll bet they are quite the contrary: quiet, unassuming, self-assured, and humble.

The fourth dimension of transcendent courage is self-acceptance.  Are you comfortable in your own skin?  Do you like you?  Have you resolved with yourself who you are?  People who have access to transcendent courage accept who they are and live lives bounded by dignity and imbued with grace. They are at peace with themselves, in the present.  Only when self-acceptance has occurred can our consciousness turn to the needs of others; only then are we open to leadership through service; only then is transcendent courage a natural state of being.

The fifth dimension of transcendent courage is the transmission of strength.  I’d like to tell you about Sara.  I met Sara at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas at the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders where she was being treated for an aggressive form of leukemia. I was a volunteer there for several years helping out with everything from restocking the shelves of videos in the infusion room to comforting patients who were having spinal taps to access bone marrow. I also spent a fair amount of time supporting the parents of patients; trying to help them make sense of the cruel hand they had been dealt.

Sara was five when she started her treatment and like most five-year old girls Sara liked everything as long as it was pink, purple or somehow related to Barbie. Sara had pale, crystal-blue eyes and strawberry-blonde hair, always gathered with a satin, clip-on bow. She loved to have her nails painted and preferred patent leather shoes. Soft and shiny was her style, which meant that both silk and fleece could be mixed in the same outfit without offending her aesthetic sensibilities. Sometimes she looked like a kid who had dressed herself while standing in her closet, blindfolded. Everyone who spent just five minutes with Sara loved her, including me. Sara is the most courageous person I have ever known.

During Sara’s three years of horror battling leukemia I never saw her cry out, whine or complain.  I will never forget the last few days before Sara’s death. Sara was the first one to accept what was coming. She helped everyone else through the painful anticipation of losing her. She smiled every moment she was awake. She never expressed concern for herself. She only wanted to make sure her mother, father, and little brother would be okay.  Sara’s legacy is the strength she transmitted to those around her.  Her courageous behavior made anyone who was in contact with her a better and stronger person. This is the fifth and final dimension of transcendent courage. Those who act courageously enhance the lives and behaviors of everyone around them. This is the true evidence of transcendent courage.

As we mourn those we are losing in the fight to contain Covid-19, and suffer our own inconvenience and disruptions due to social distancing, we must summon our transcendent courage in all of its dimensions and forms of expression.  If we do, we will emerge from this crisis a stronger more resilient people, and will then be able to shape our future rather than fall into a morass of listless self-pity and vulnerability.  The latter is just what Trump and the Trumplicans, and every despot around the world desire.  Please join me in assuring they don’t get their way.

By |2020-04-18T19:27:44+00:00April 13th, 2020|General, Leadership|0 Comments

Old Words for a New America

As hellfire rains down upon the land and the world grinds slowly toward a Covid19-induced coma, there is much to be said and written about the perfect storm of a viral contagion, incompetent leadership, and eviscerated government institutions.  But, today I want to lift our eyes above the flames lapping at our feet and look—longingly—at the horizon of what seems today a distant tomorrow.  For this moment, while the orange orb in the Oval continues to flail in dyspeptic fits as the truth closes in on his presidency, we need to consider setting targets for a better future.  This period of crisis in American history, which I call the Age of Deceit that began with the Bush-Cheney lies and (hopefully) ends with the fetid stain left on our flag by Donald Trump, also provides an opportunity for transformation.  The good news is that deep crises not only allow transformation, they demand it.  The cycles of history suggest that a new normal, framed by a new American identity, will rise to put the Age of Deceit in our rearview mirror.  Everything, from the values that define us to our modalities of behavior will change for better or worse.  Let’s focus on the better.

Given the state of affairs in America, which may, in the end, rival the effects of two prior crises—the Civil War and the Great Depression—the words we choose to express our feelings, frame our thoughts, and describe our plans must be chosen wisely.  The features of any targets are relevant, but the words we use to describe them tell a tale of their own.  In studying the cycles of American history, I found a rather stark contrast between the words that dominate discourse during periods of high idealism, which precede periods of crisis, and the words most prevalent during the periods of objectivism that follow. I won’t go into the ~70 year cycles that contain periods of crisis, objectivism, liberalism, and idealism; a complete illustration of them will be in my forthcoming book, Saving America in the Age of Deceit. Today, I will simply introduce the words—the colors we choose from the palette to paint our future.

I describe periods of idealism as those times when mixing tequila and steroids somehow seems like a good idea.  The most recent period of idealism began in 1980 and ended in 2003 with the onset of the War on Terror, followed by the Great Recession, and now the Trump/Covid19 disaster.  The linguistic modalities of the idealism period bled through the onset of our nation’s fourth crisis—the Age of Deceit—and will expire as we emerge from this crisis and enter the next period of objectivism.  During idealism, zealotry, rectitude, and righteousness—from all participants on all sides of every issue—become the prevailing modus operandi.  Hubris and certitude, grandeur, conspicuous consumption, hyper-individualism, speculation, deregulation, class inequalities, invincibility, abundance, and high religiosity are terms that dominate discourse.  These are often very entertaining and unfortunately reckless times to be alive in America, which is no doubt why the hangover—periods of crisis—always follow.

As we emerge from crisis, new words replace the old.  In this phase, terms like unity, reason, inclusion, pragmatism, tolerance, risk aversion, stability, containment, self-reliance, standardization, meritocracy, frugality, humility, redemption, secularity, family and community are prevalent. In short, realism, rationalism, and humanism reign.  Presidents with military backgrounds like George Washington, Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower have traditionally performed well in these periods.  In many ways, the nature of the objectivism phase is the antithesis of the crisis phase.  The political upheavals from the crisis phase give way to a settling of political modality around a common theme: the federal government must recede from its high levels of engagement at all levels of society as a result of both budget realities and electoral fatigue.  People and the communities they live in take higher responsibility for their fate.  In periods of objectivism, tribalism gives way to communalism and stewardship prevails over isolationism.  Nationalism is set aside for localism which, as I wrote last fall at this blog, is why our focus must shift now to building stronghold communities and demanding a return of authority and resources from the federal government to our state and local governments.  See https://ameritecture.com/hope-at-home-shifting-our-focus-to-developing-stronghold-communities/.

One thing is certain, the current crisis will end someday.  To affect transcendence sooner rather than later, we should begin to adopt a new language to inform our dispositional values and the social, economic, and political policies we craft.  Lift your eyes; lift your mind; lift your heart. The path forward is ours to choose.  Old words can create a new America.

By |2020-04-13T22:08:02+00:00April 2nd, 2020|General, Leadership|0 Comments

How We Can Win: Understanding the Physics of Viral Contagions

Defeating Covid-19 and returning to a world we once again recognize may have less to do with biology and epidemiology and more with physics.  To be clear, viruses have unique and at times confounding characteristics that can be very difficult to assess, especially as they continually mutate, playing a biological game of hide and seek.  We must further acknowledge that our scientific and medical community is doing everything it can, motivated by both public policy supports and economic incentives, to introduce vaccines and therapeutic treatments to defeat Covid-19.  But, victory over this insidious disease will come sooner if we focus on what we can affect today—the physics of Covid-19—that include two principal factors: the density and flow of human beings.

Humans play two viral roles: hosts and vectors.  We host the virus as its vessel of life and we transmit the virus as its method of transportation.  Without access to our warm nurturing and mobile bodies, it dies.  There are, therefore, two and only two elements of physics we must interrupt to defeat Covid-19: the density and flow of humans.  And, as is often the case, the data tells the story.  Look at the data and the maps they illustrate and the big numbers and big red blobs confirm the hypothesis: places with both high density and rapid flows of humans are hit the hardest, like New York City.  Meanwhile, the Dakotas appear as if they are sitting this pandemic out.  Admittedly, some of this gap in viral incidents can still be blamed on a lack of testing, but that gap is shrinking as more testing occurs.  In my own county of Ouray, Colorado, our commissioners and public health officials continue to tout “no confirmed tests in the county!,” which amounts to little more than a head-in-the-sand proclamation due to a lack of testing.  It’s an easy claim when one’s eyes are shut that dangerously lulls the community into a false sense of immunity and careless behaviors.  As humans, we are hosts and vectors just as humans are in large cities.  But, what we have going for us is a lack of density and flow.

In an attempt to gain more materiel support for New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo asserted, watch out America, “We are your future.”  As welcome as Cuomo’s veracity and tenacity are when compared to our president, his assertion is false.  Few places in the United States have the density and flow of humans that the New York metropolitan area does.  The New York City metropolitan area has around 24 million people in 3,450 square miles, or 7,000 people per square mile.  By comparison, the State of Texas has around 28 million people occupying 268,597 square miles, or 104 people per square mile.  New York City then has 67 times higher population density than Texas and, understandably, has (currently) 32 times more confirmed Covid-19 cases.  To get a sense of flow, historically Texas has 255 million visitors while New York City has 65 million, or 4x more visitors in Texas.  This flow multiple in Texas is, however, spread over a vastly larger geographic area, which partially explains a less than 4x adjustment to expected viral infections in Texas.  Density and flow must be considered together, as a dynamic duo of physical impacts.  But, it does (along with levels of current testing and medical interventions—much higher in New York City than Texas) help explain why there are (only) 32x more cases than the 67x suggested by the density data alone.  I recognize this back-of-the-napkin analysis will be cringe-worthy to some epidemiologists who would argue for much deeper analysis, but they might also recognize that the availability and quality of data today does not yet exist to satisfy their desire for a broader and deeper plunge.  Regardless, we know what we need to know to guide public policy and personal behaviors: keep our distance and stay in place.

Colorado has done a fairly admirable job of affecting density and flow.  With less than a quarter the population of New York City or Texas, density is less of a problem in Colorado.  Looking at the state map of Covid-19, the axis of incidents follows density and flow, from Denver west along I-70 to several ski resorts, and north and south from Denver along I-25, a major commercial corridor and the unfortunate venue of a bridge tournament a few weeks ago in Colorado Springs that created a Covid-19 hotspot.  Colorado Governor Polis was absolutely right to shut down ski resorts on March 15th; in hindsight, he should have done it sooner.  Eagle County, home to Vail and Beaver Creek ski resorts, is second only to Denver in Covid-19 cases.  Flow (of snowbound tourists) matters too.  Moving forward, notwithstanding damaging economic effects, or the prospect of a scientific and/or medical breakthrough, we must do everything we can to reduce both the density and flow of humans.

I understand we all want to get back to social interactions and freely going wherever we desire.  Lately, our president is making noise that he wants our wealth and his poll numbers back where they were in February, and is suggesting we will be able to return to our active selves by Easter, but doing so prior to seeing data that confirms viral transmission and death rates have both ebbed and are in retreat is a foolish violation of the physical realities that confront us.  Economic activity, which (at least as of today) requires both the density and flow of humans will increase both the velocity of money and the virus.  Releasing our bonds of probity would sacrifice any flattening of the curve we have thus far sacrificed for, and put us back where we were, on a steep ascent to death and further economic destruction.  If we want to get out of this sooner than later—if we desire the summer of 2020 to be similar to 2019—we must have the discipline to take our medicine, as distasteful and disruptive as it is.  Discipline will end this crisis; social, economic, and political greed may produce years of peril rather than months.

It’s going to get tougher rather than easier for the foreseeable future, but we must honor the challenge we face with both fortitude and compassion.

By |2020-04-02T20:30:40+00:00March 25th, 2020|Donald Trump, General|0 Comments

Will Staying Apart Bring Us Together?

The irony of “social distancing” is that we may finally reunite as a nation.

The spite and abject selfishness of those who have worked so hard to divide us has proven toxic in our time of pandemic crisis.  The institutions and social safety nets that were built during and following our last crisis—the Great Depression and World War II—have been systematically dismantled since the end of the Cold War, first by the Tea Party and now by Trump and the Trumplicans.  Trump’s “very stable genius” appears to be as phony as his spray-on Orangu-tan.  I cannot decide between “appalling” and “despicable” as the best adjectives to describe his performance in the Covid-19 pandemic, but the results are certainly catastrophic.  His self-awarded grade of “10” is both laughable and extremely dangerous.  Delusion reigns in the White House while people are losing their livelihoods and lives.  If there is a hell, Trump needs to take his throne there, sooner rather than later.

When presidential historians finally unearth all the documents related to the Trump administration’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, I suspect they will find there was a concerted effort to delay testing for Covid-19 in the United States because, as Trump himself put it, he did not want to see “rising numbers” that might hurt his reelection campaign.  Forget the fact that early testing would have provided critical intelligence to thwart what we now have, a pandemic, Trump opted to preserve his poll numbers rather than preserve our lives.  Further, we need to be aware that he will undoubtedly instruct his Diabolical Department, headed by the reptilian Stephen Miller, to look for every way possible to use the pandemic to manipulate the election process—including attempting to delay or cancel the presidential election in November—to keep him in power.  Trump clearly cares more about being a full two-term president than he does preventing the deaths of thousands—perhaps even millions—of Americans.

As we keep our distance from each other, we must find a virtual way to come together.  Earlier in Trump’s presidency, efforts at unification were aimed at preserving our democracy and the American Dream.  In the last few weeks, the stakes have become much higher.  We now face a president who is literally trading our lives for his ego.  All of us, regardless of party affiliation, must summon our strength, wisdom, and compassion and come together (virtually for now) to defeat both the virus and Trump.  In November 2016, we traded the audacity of hope for mendacity and hate.  In a “letter to my children,” published on November 9, 2016 at www.ameritecture.com, I wrote,

So, what to do? First, focus on your own physical, psychological, economic, and intellectual strength. Protect and strengthen those four cornerposts. Second, focus on the well-being of your family and friends. Their welfare is your direct responsibility. Finally, get politically active and organized. Your generation has more voters today than mine. The reality, however, is that we vote and too many of your peers ignore this solemn duty. Do not allow my generation to continue to damage America. You have the power. Do not squander it through apathy or neglect. In the end, we all—individually and collectively—are responsible for Trump and what happens next.

Inject the above call to action with steroids and jet fuel today and we may have a fighting chance at ending this nightmare.  But, we can only succeed together.  Yes, we must keep our distance to flatten the curve of the Covid-19 outbreak, while coming closer together than this nation has been since it faced the fascists of Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito.  It is not just about our way of life anymore; it is a battle for our very existence.  We must stick together and look out for each other today, or face the collapse of both America and world order.  This is the challenge.  We must prevail.

By |2020-03-25T18:11:51+00:00March 18th, 2020|Donald Trump|0 Comments

Out of Crisis, Salvation

Nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of imminent death.  Throw in a global economic collapse and we might just achieve the kind of clarity and inspiration to, in Thomas Paine’s words, “make the world over again.”  As one who fits the definition of “at high risk due to underlying health conditions,” I do not take the COVID-19 global pandemic and associated economic effects lightly.  Yet, as an historian I know the rhythm of history and expect this collective calamity—an unforeseen development—may be just what we need to wake-the-fuck up and realize that we are all culpable for the path we have taken and the leaders we have chosen.  The unforeseen has always driven world events more than the foreseen.  As Michelle Obama suggested, power does not change people, it reveals who they really are.  And, times of crisis quickly reveal who among our leaders are authentic and capable and who are incompetent frauds.  Unfortunately, for this moment in history, we do not have a Washington, or Lincoln, or Roosevelt, who led America out of the peril of our three prior American crises; rather, we have a president whose sole concern—even with crisis raging—is, as it always has been, himself.  How I wish Michelle was wrong.

Most (but not all) of us will get through this.  Markets will recover once supply chains and demand are restored; washing hands and “social distancing” are welcome improvements on past practices.  However, we should and must take this opportunity, afforded by crisis, to change our leadership and restore America’s Probity Values that have been squandered since the end of the Cold War.  Responsible individualism must displace the narcissism that denominates too many of our behaviors.  Exemplar exceptionalism—setting the example for others to follow—must subvert the arrogant imperial impulse that seeks to remake the world in the image of America.  Perfectibility—leaving things better than we found them—must, once again, prevail over our sense of entitlement.  Moreover, we must realize we are stronger together—united in common purpose—than we are pursuing power and wealth at the expense of our neighbors.  We are capable of better behavior.  Crises make transformations easier; in the chaos of creative destruction we must seize the moment.

The time is now to set a new course.  Our differences and disagreements—stoked by those who benefit from divisiveness—must be set aside in favor of building stronghold communities.  A stronghold community is a shared place that is largely self-sustaining and foundationally resilient; which looks no further than its common interests to guide its application of power and resources; and which seeks to achieve a sense of virtuous humanity where every member holds both the responsibility and opportunity of participation in advancing the objectives of the community.  Our communities may be small, but we are strong.  We must quit staring at the clown show that is our federal government and demand the return of both authority and tax dollars to our state and local communities.  If we believe in ourselves and each other, we can create a better community, country, and world.  The work begins now.

By |2020-03-18T22:07:55+00:00March 11th, 2020|Donald Trump, Leadership|0 Comments

Hope at Home: Shifting Our Focus to Developing Stronghold Communities

One of Ronald Reagan’s favorite go-to one-liners was to suggest that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”[1]  Following the Viet Nam War and Nixon’s Watergate scandal that led to his resignation, Jimmy Carter tried to heal the nation with the disposition of a Baptist minister who sought redemption for his flock through his jeremiads built on the theological triad of sin, repentance, and salvation.  Reagan had a much simpler and more appealing approach, which made his defeat of Carter in 1980 a relative slam dunk.  Reagan offered Americans absolution by a theological slight-of-hand when he relocated the entire Calvinist concept of original sin away from the individual to the institution: Americans were not the problem, government was.[2]  In his words of absolution, Reagan began a movement to view the federal government as the enemy of the people that has slid from constructive criticism during his presidency to outright demonization in the current Age of Deceit that began with Bush 43.  The New Deal institutions and attendant bureaucracies that proved critical in America’s recovery from the Great Depression and World War II had become, in Reagan’s view, lead weights wrapped around the ankles of enterprising Americans.

The Republican Party under Reagan became as libertarian as it was conservative, which eventually manifested as the Tea Party movement at the onset of Crisis IV in the early aughts that mixed a rather schizophrenic blend of libertarianism with social conservatism.  This progression of anti-government sentiment made way, finally, for Trump’s faux-populist ethno-nationalism to destroy the federal government’s institutions whenever and wherever possible to give cover to, and create space for, the exploitation of government by Trump and his co-conspirators both inside and outside government.  Trump’s “Drain the swamp!” mantra, which is a common anti-government trope has, of course, only resulted in the expansion of the swamp into a small ocean with small craft advisories posted daily, punctuated by the occasional orange-hued hurricane.

This progression—from Reagan’s focus on individualism over institutionalism where government was the problem to Trump’s claim that only he can fix it (while in reality being, himself, the existential threat)—has ridden a wave of growing anti-government vitriol resulting in most American’s view of the federal government as a very expensive travesty of trust.  In fact, since 2007, American’s trust in the federal government—”to do what is right always or most of the time”—is the lowest in more than fifty years.  78% of Americans report either being frustrated with, or angry with, the federal government.[3]  Congressional approval ratings, which is probably the best proxy for American sentiment toward their federal government, have languished in the mid-to-upper teens for most of the recent decade, ironically only breaching 20% once the impeachment of Trump began.[4]  In this Age of Deceit, marked by extraordinary partisan divisions, the silver lining here is that most of us—a clear majority—actually agree on this: the federal government does not serve our interests.  Even though a sad commentary on the federal government, this consensus is also our common ground from which to begin the restoration of America in the Age of Deceit by shifting our focus, our energy, our resources and power away from the federal government and toward our state and local governments.

Notwithstanding the many social, political, and economic issues that divide us, America is, as Yoni Appelbaum, ideas editor at The Atlantic pointed out, “a land of continual change and a nation of strong continuities.”[5]  Things must change; that much is clear, but the remaining continuity—the common ground—that all of us must embrace is that the hope of restoring America begins at home—away from the klieg lights of congressional investigations, narcissistic Twitter feeds, and the shrill cable TV pundit-criers—where it is far more likely to reach agreement due to the communal necessities of compromise, performance, and accountability.  It is one thing to sling insults at your opponent through national and social media, it is much more difficult to sustain such behavior when you have to stand next to that person in the grocery store checkout line, or passing the “peace’ in a church pew on Sunday morning.  We tend to find common ground more easily when the ground beneath our feet is where we must stand every day.

These structural realities are fortunately also met with a higher general trust of local government, which has been rising, rather than falling, during the Trump presidency. In fact, approval ratings for local government at 72% are the near-inverse of those for Congress and the federal government.  Even state governments garner a 63% approval rating.[6]  Potholes cannot tell the difference between Republican and Democrat tires.  That’s not to say ideology and partisanship remain clear of local politics, but the simple reality is that problems just out your front door are less tolerable and, therefore, more likely to be solved through creative compromise.  The immediacy of issues creates an intrinsic sense of urgency all on its own.

There is another structural trend that supports turning our attention away from the national level toward the state and local level, and that is the waning influence of the nation-state.  Globalism, decried by Trump and other faux-populist wannabe dictators around the world, is affecting the decline of influence and relevancy of the nation-state.  In their attempt to debase the very idea of globalism, Trump and several white nationalists have even tried to restore  globalism as an un-patriotic anti-Semitic slur.[7]  However, the fact is that centralized state authority is being slowly but surely diluted by the distributed information systems that affect all aspects of our lives enabled by digital technologies.  All forms of communication and commerce may now occur without the participation of the nation-state, unless impeded with even stronger technologies to interrupt the channel, as China does with its peoples.

Hierarchies of all kinds are being challenged and usurped by horizontally aligned, web-styled networks.  Regardless of attempts to keep the world dumb—as in disconnected—the benefits and efficacy of connection—of a smart world—are simply too attractive and too durable to be suppressed in the long run.  The collision of imagination and critical thinking that drives creative solutions does not require nation-state intermediation in a smart world.[8]  It is highly likely that what we are seeing today, both in America and across the world, represents the last agonizing dyspeptic reflux of centralized authority as people realize more and more every day that America’s Trump, Russia’s Putin, Turkey’s Erdogan, Hungary’s Orbán, Philippines’ Dutertes, Iran’s Khamenei, China’s Xi, and North Korea’s Kim have little interest and even less capacity to meet the needs of their peoples.[9]  Borders are, after all, a manmade artifact of the nation-state era that become meaningless when transcended by technology and the will of people.  We may as well turn our attention away from the crazies at the national level and connect our communities directly, without the intermediation of the nation-state.  As Lincoln showed in his address at Gettysburg a “government of the people, by the people [and] for the people” draws its legitimacy and power from one source: the people.  Both because of, and in spite of, our national leaders, the time is now to move “the people’s” attention to the local development of stronghold communities.

“Stronghold” is actually a term borrowed from Tucker Malarkey, author of a book of the same name that recounts the valiant efforts of Guido Rahr to create stronghold habitats for wild salmon across the Pacific Rim.[10]  Stronghold in the case of human communities means a shared place that is largely self-sustaining and foundationally resilient; which looks no further than its common interests to guide its application of power and resources; and which seeks to achieve a sense of virtuous humanity where every member holds both the responsibility and opportunity of participation in advancing the objectives of the community (in spite of the interests of outside forces like the federal government).

Regardless of how the impeachment proceedings or the 2020 presidential election turns out, we, as in We the People, have it within our power (paraphrasing Thomas Paine) to begin America over again.  Restoring America is unlikely to occur at the national level.  In 2020, we should begin a movement for the development of stronghold communities by demanding a slow but certain inversion of power and resources back to the local and state level.  Rather than continue to stare at the circus in Washington, D.C. we need to elect people who embrace the stronghold ethic and affect the restoration of the American Dream from the ground up.  Yes, we may end up being the Affiliated States of America, rather than the United States, but I am afraid that we really have no choice.  And, those communities that achieve stronghold status will, very likely, become the most attractive and successful in America while others, stuck in the deceit of “Making America Great Again” will, no doubt, languish; that is, until the truth comes home to roost.

 

[1] Ronald Reagan, Presidential News Conference, August 12, 1986, Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, https://www.reaganfoundation.org/ronald-reagan/reagan-quotes-speeches/news-conference-1/.

[2] See William Steding, Presidential Faith and Foreign Policy: Jimmy Carter the Disciple and Ronald Reagan the Alchemist (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), pp. 100-101.

[3] Samantha Smith, “6 Key Takeaways About How Americans View Their Government,” Fact Tank News in the Numbers, Pew research Center, November 23, 2015, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/23/6-key-takeaways-about-how-americans-view-their-government/.

[4] “Congress and the Public,” GALLUP, https://news.gallup.com/poll/1600/congress-public.aspx.

[5] Yoni Appelbaum, “How America Ends,” The Atlantic, December 2019, p. 51.

[6] Justin McCarthy, “Americans Still More Trusting of Local than State Government,” Gallup, October 8, 2018, https://news.gallup.com/poll/243563/americans-trusting-local-state-government.aspx.

[7] See Ben Zimmer, “The Origins of the ‘Globalist’ Slur,” The Atlantic, March 14, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/03/the-origins-of-the-globalist-slur/555479/.

[8] See Richard Ogle, Smart World: Breakthrough Creativity and the Science of Ideas (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2007).

[9] See David Brooks, “The Revolt Against Populism,” The New York Times, November 21, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/21/opinion/populism-protests.html?searchResultPosition=3.

[10] Tucker Malarkey, Stronghold: One Man’s Quest to Save the World’s Wild Salmon (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2019).

By |2020-03-11T19:12:12+00:00December 11th, 2019|General|1 Comment

Steel Thyself, Part IV: The Stoic Disciplines (6-9 of 9)

In Part III of this series, I discussed the Stoic disciplines of controlling your destiny, an optimistic disposition, seeking truth through reason, a commitment to learning, and employing negative visualization. This post completes the disciplines with a discussion about positive visualization, our duty to community, suppressing anger, and dying a good death.

6. Practice positive visualization through affirmations.  When I was a teenager in the 1970s, I was introduced to the power of visualization through affirmation. At the time, the practice fell into a quintessential 1970s kitschy mind-bending program name: psycho-cybernetics. Originally published as a self-help book in 1960 by Maxwell Maltz, Psycho-Cybernetics was used principally by athletes who used affirmations to visualize success. As a member of a highly successful basketball team, my teammates and I were asked to apply this practice to certain aspects of the game, like sinking free-throws. The visualized affirmation was always considered as if success had occurred: with all of our senses we experienced the sight, feel and sound of the ball leaving our hands in a perfect arc and snapping the bottom of the net as it passed through the hoop without touching the rim. One could even add a bit a crowd reaction—applause—to boost the affirmation (and ego). The result? We had the best free-throw percentage in the league.
It may seem corny, but damn it, it works. In effect, the affirmed visualization became a self-fulfilling actualization. Psycho-cybernetics has proven a very durable practice applied today to everything from athletic endeavors to academic performance, to job performance, and general development of the practitioner’s self-image. One becomes what one conceives themselves to be. It has been employed by self-help gurus like Zig Ziglar, Tony Robbins, and Brian Tracy. It has been written about and re-written about every few years by various authors since Maltz in 1960. Today, we have updated, but equally kitschy terms like “imagineering” (trademarked by Disney Enterprises, Inc.) that emanate from this heritage of positive aspirational thinking. These meditative manifestations of success are entirely consistent with Stoicism as they contribute mightily to what stoics call “building your inner citadel.” Stated otherwise, steeling thyself.
These pursuits of self-conceived success have become the focus of one of the most popular Stoic writers of our time, Ryan Holiday. In The Obstacle is the Way, Holiday argues that many, if not most, threats can be recast as opportunities if one sets aside emotion-based fears with a subscription to “intense self-discipline and objectivity” that can turn trials into triumph. Reflecting the stoic lesson that it is your response, rather than the event or issue you are responding to that is most important, he implores his readers to channel Marcus Aurelius who said, “Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been.” Ryan employs positive visualization in the re-conception of obstacles when he suggests, “through our perception of events, we are complicit in the creation—as well as the destruction—of every one of our obstacles.” Once such obstacles are addressed as opportunities, victory may be snatched from the jaws of defeat.
This meditative nature of Stoicism that harnesses the cognetic system as a powerful state of mind recasts the world in terms that nurtures well-being and expands personal capacities such that the future becomes a vast array of possibilities rather than a dangerous cauldron of imminent peril. Stoics are cheerful people who make a habit of identifying silver linings in dark clouds. This stoic perspective of positivity must, however, also be accompanied by a sense of humility and one of the best ways I have employed to both maintain and refresh a sense of humility is to consider myself as a speck in the vastness of time and the magnitude of the universe. As the Roman stoic, Seneca, offered, “imagine the vast abyss of time, and think of the entire universe; then compare what we call a human lifetime to that immensity.” We are more than nothing and greater than something, but our significance must be considered with due humility. Nor are we the first or last to meet the challenges of life, we simply aim to do so with a sense of virtue that, if properly embraced, will contribute to the greatness of humanity in our day.
7. Honor your duty to community. I am often humored (and occasionally disgusted) by those who claim their success is the sole product of their personal brilliance and extraordinary work ethic. It is fine to feel a sense of accomplishment, but one must also acknowledge the people and institutions that played a significant supporting role. The most immediate and impactful of these are the community—writ large— in which you live. Parents, teachers, spouses, friends, mentors and, yes, perhaps even a politician or two, all contribute to the supportive net of community that made your success possible. Make sure you both acknowledge and square those contributions with your own. The ultimate aim of stoics—tranquility—can only be achieved by those who are engaged in their community with the aim of leaving things better than the way they found them; the “perfectibility” value (one of the three American Probity Values). When I look back on my own successes, the greatest triumphs have not been in what I directly accomplished, but in the unsolicited expression of gratitude, usually many years after the fact, from someone who has reached out to tell me that I changed their life, or even saved their life. Pay-it-forward (instead of back) is a powerful concept in strengthening communities. Mahatma Gandhi is credited (after substantial paraphrasing) with the prescription “Be the change you want to see in the world,” which is a clear call to this form of exemplary service.
America’s historical proclamations of self-reliance and self-directed lives provide a durable myth, but the reality today is an America (and world) that is much more interdependent than the American frontier romanticized in the late 19th century by Frederic Jackson Turner in his book, The Frontier in American History.  This binding of one’s self to one’s community is what Marcus Aurelius described as contributing to “the service and harmony of all.”  Trump’s “America First” treatise completely ignores this stoic discipline and his behaviors are hardly aligned with any sense of humility.  Isolation leads inevitably to inhumanity, as we have seen in many of Trump’s policies and practices. It is, therefore, now more than ever, essential that we each accept our role in service to others, looking for no greater reward than the welfare of our neighbors and the strengthening of our communities.
In the face of the extraordinary and seemingly intentional failure of our national leaders and Federal government to serve our interests and our communities today, we must shift our attention from the daily clamor of ignorance and avarice being practiced by these national politicians to create stronghold communities. Independent and self-sufficient communities look no further than their residents and local authorities to meet the challenges of the day. Marcus Aurelius, who himself was no great fan of humanity, acknowledged that since we “are an integral part of a social system, let every act of yours contribute to the harmonization of social life.” While we certainly can and should pay attention to things that occur in our nation-states that we find inappropriate and even offensive, we must, as President Theodore Roosevelt argued, “do what you can with what you have where you are.” The “common welfare” (a topic often explored by the Stoic teacher Epictetus) may be best achieved in the one realm we can have a discernible impact: our local communities.
The stoic understands the reality of interdependence, which ironically is even more pronounced today than during ancient times owing to the technological and economic systems that allow each of us to offer our specialized areas of expertise that collectively undergird our daily lives. The renaissance man who could face any task or challenge on his own is a mythical remnant of a bygone era. Sick communities are comprised of self-contained and selfish actors in their residents, businesses, and politicians. Stronghold communities are comprised of those who recognize they must be willing to make their particular contribution if, for no other reason, to inspire their neighbors to reciprocate such that the independence and resilience of the community is assured. People bound, if only by a sense of place, must, as stewards of the community, advocate for the welfare of their neighbors and must similarly have the courage to confront those who behave in divisive and self-serving ways. For the stoic, ignoring this duty is an affront to both reason and Nature.
8. Anger is toxic to tranquility. There is much to be angry about today and anger is at natural response to the powerlessness and plague of dissonance that afflicts so many of us. Yet, look no further than Donald Trump if you want to see what anger can do to a human being; he lives in a persistent state of anger. How often do you ever see him express any evidence of joy? Yes, he smirks and engages in sarcasm as a proxy for humor, but his life is framed in by his own self-inflicted (and fraudulent) victimhood that he deploys as a tool of attraction to bind other angry Americans to him to protect his power. Clever? Perhaps, but also profoundly malevolent and, frankly, deranged. As many have observed—especially those who worked in his White House—despite all his power and wealth Trump is a miserable human being who works hard to make others miserable too.
In existing in a perpetual state of anger, Trump has made himself increasingly irrelevant. In effect, he has transferred his power to the targets of his anger much in the same way we do if we react angrily to those who attempt to incite our wrath. On the other hand, expressing indifference to those who attempt to offend us strangles them with their own anger. Anger begets misery, which is an unsustainable and unstable state of mind. For stoics, anger is the most dangerous and debilitating negative emotion known to humans. It is not only psychologically damaging to ourselves and others, it has physiological effects, like spiking blood pressure, that endanger our health and well-being. Yes, anger is a fact of life, but once one realizes that the negative effects of any anger almost always outlast the negative effects of the event that has caused our anger, we must embrace our stoic preference for reason and work to avoid the onset of anger in the seconds before our anger manifests into a response.
As one of the best writers of Stoic philosophy today, William Irvine, explained in his book, A Guide to the Good Life, both Stoicism and Buddhism teach that we must develop the capacity to, in Seneca’s words, “turn all [anger’s] indications into their opposites.” This means substituting anger for humor, empathy, and even love. I attempt laughter in the face of anger, especially if the source (like Trump) can be considered more cartoonish clown than threat. I often reframe his antics within the realm of entertainment, which allows me to laugh rather than dive into disgust. After all, why would I let someone like that affect my mental and physical health? This technique works well with pathetic agitators, but when the effects are more substantial the challenge is much greater. Irvine suggests, “we should force ourselves to relax our face, soften our voice, and slow our pace of walking,” all in an attempt to arrest the anger response and replace it with a sense of calm. The rationale is pretty straightforward: one cannot be angry and calm at the same time; let calm prevail. One must literally change their physical response to affect a return to reason over emotion. Buddhists practice forcing themselves to think about love for the same reason; anger and love cannot coexist. Whatever technique works for you, practice it, refine it, and practice it again. Don’t sacrifice your tranquility to fight with assholes.
9. Live a good life and die a good death. No one knows if there is life after death, but all of us know there is life during life. A guiding stoic premise is that we must take care of what we know, which means it is our high duty to live the life we know that we have to the best and fullest extent possible, in concert with reason and Nature. Death is another exogenous variable; it is beyond our control. The stubborn reality is that today we are all one day closer to death. As Seneca taught, “be neither careless nor impatient nor arrogant with respect to death, but to wait for it as one of the operations of nature.” That said, our response to death should be contemplated as a sort of exit exam. If this was the last day of your life, would you pass? If everything you did today was the last time you would do it, did you do those things as well as you could have, and did you appreciate the chance to do them? Among other things, these questions—this discipline—has the effect of focusing our minds on the present moment to assure we are doing the right things as best we can. Considering these questions allows us to take stock while we are alive, followed by asking the ultimate question: are you living your life in a state of tranquility? If you pass these tests, you may die a good death without fear or regret. You have known thyself and steeled thyself; you will leave this world better than you found it; you have prevailed in the game of life. Your farewell will undoubtedly be sorrowful for those who love you, but you have earned the right to put a smile on your face, close your eyes, and rest in blissful peace.

By |2019-12-11T19:36:33+00:00November 24th, 2019|General|0 Comments

Steel Thyself, Part III: The Stoic Disciplines (1-5 of 9)

There is no bible for Stoicism, nor does it proffer the prospect of everlasting life, which are a couple of reasons Christianity gained much more popularity over the centuries even while the two philosophies shared the same time frame for their early development and share many of the same values.  However, unlike Christianity, Stoicism is much more interested in life than death. Whereas Christian theology and ritual are centered on the contemplation of death and resurrection—on a continual bargaining for the prospect of an afterlife, Stoicism is focused on achieving tranquility while living where death is an inevitability that should be met with dignity and grace.  Furthermore, contrary to popular (and superficial) stereotypes, Stoicism does not embrace the humorless, bereaved, and austere character of the ascetic; rather it seeks joy through purpose and welcomes the celebration of success.  Nor does Stoicism have one deified teacher.  While Christianity had Jesus Christ as its earthly leader (and “Son of God”), there is no Mr. Stoic.  Stoicism had both Greek and Roman teachers who came from various levels of social, economic, and political power.  Zeno of Citium (Greek), Cleanthes (Greek), Chrysippus (Greek), Panaetius (took Stoicism from Greece to Rome in 140 BC), Epictetus (Roman), Musonius Rufus (Roman), Seneca (Roman), and Marcus Aurelius (Roman) are some of the more important contributors you will encounter when studying Stoicism.  

Owing to the lack of paper and printing at the time, there are few documents that survived that can inform us about Stoic philosophy.  Stoicism (even though largely theoretical) was a practiced philosophy taught through oral discourse rather than the written word.  Its name is derived from the Greek word stoa, which means colonnade or porch where the philosophy was taught through public lecture and discussion.  Dialogue, letters and short essays comprise what little is available to scholars who wrestle with (and over) the philosophy as they attempt to apply Stoicism to contemporary issues and affairs.  In this post, and the concluding post in this series that will follow next week, I will summarize my interpretations of the principle tenets and disciplines of Stoicism.  Scholars may quibble with my interpretations (as is the scholar’s wont), but my objective is to make Stoicism accessible and relevant—for your use today—rather than become mired in a professorial game of bushy-browed niggling.  Applied diligently, Stoicism provides powerful disciplines to employ in order to steel thyself and achieve a fulfilled and tranquil life.

1. You are in control of your destiny.  Although you do not control everything that happens to you, you do control how you respond to that which affects your life.  Your response, or whether or not you respond at all, are nearly always within your control.  Let’s unpack that concept a bit further with two realizations.  First, one of the great skills in life is knowing what to respond to and what to ignore.  You will find that much of your meaningful outcomes (successes and failures) emanate from a small percentage of that which you have responded to, or engaged with.  Over time, pay attention to those few things that produce most of the meaningful outcomes in order to improve your causal acuity—your capacity for discretion about where you focus your time and resources.  One of the big mistakes I have witnessed when coaching young executives is that they feel they must be in the middle of every issue, event, and reconciliation thereof.  Notwithstanding the inconvenient fact that hyper-involvement is humanly impossible, the simple reality is that your success rate will rise proportionally with your capacity to discard and/or ignore those things that require large investment of personal capital while only contributing marginal (rounding error) effects.  The first question to ask is: “Does the opportunity set (issue, company, organization, initiative, etc.) respond to intelligence?  Then, if that hurdle is cleared, assess the importance or payoff of the desired outcome.  In my experience, only about one-in-five pass these tests.  Be stingy with your commitments.

Second, realize that while you control your response, such response is a product of how you interpret the events and the context surrounding the issue, which emanate directly from your cognetic system.  (Know thyself before steeling thyself.)  This is, in effect, the cognetic system’s job: to interpret factors relevant to the issue and, thereby, simplify that which is before you to enable your decision—your response.  This is why it is so important (through solitude summits and mindful meditation) to keep your cognetic system healthy.  Seeing things as they are, and in harmony with your cognetic system (in which you have carefully curated your knowledge and beliefs), are critical to maintaining internal and external integrity that assures you do not fall into the trap of debilitative dissonance or worse: moral suffering.  Virtue, defined by Stoics as being “wise, just, courageous and moderate,” is a fundamental tenet of Stoicism that can only be assured if your interpretations faithfully reflect your cognetic system producing responses that honor the essence of what you know and believe.  Similarly, tranquility—a fundamental aim of Stoicism—is only possible in a state of harmony by and between one’s cognetic system and the actions born therefrom.  

2. Accept the past for what it was and remain optimistic about the future.  A stoic maintains a vigilant focus on the future, while accepting the past as it is.  It is true that humans learn more from failure than success, but once those lessons are learned, move on.  There is little you can do about things that were, or was.  Stewing about the past diminishes your capacity to succeed in the future. Stoics do not participate in victim culture, which seems to be a rising, even popular, social modality today.  There is nothing more anti-stoic than participating in the blame and shame game of those held captive by their miseries (whether real or perceived).  And, be ever mindful about how you evaluate success in the past, present, and future.  Those addicted to fame and fortune, as measured principally in public acclaim and material possessions become hostage to their wants and desires that have a curious way of expanding to bigger and better things to sustain a superficial sense of satisfaction, which is prima facia evidence of their actual lack of value; satisfaction remains ever beyond the grasp of those who pursue the next round of applause or shiny object.  Chasing hedonistic desires is an endless loser’s game.  To the stoic, fame and fortune are matters of indifference.  Moreover, stoics view with contempt anything—especially trivial pursuits of fame and fortune—that threatens the attainment of tranquility.  

Stoics maintain that if one pursues a virtuous life, consistent with the constraints of Nature (capital “N” in the sense of a holistic entity), tranquility is assured.  I will add to this stoic discipline the aim of transcendence—particularly in politics—that compels one to rise above partisanship and serve truth and Nature above the pettiness of partisan rancor.  Transcendence requires a sense of selflessness and the dismissal of popular anxieties promoted by pundits and politicians who are more interested in audience ratings and self-aggrandizement than in improving the welfare of their fellow citizens.  Optimism aimed at worthy outcomes engenders transcendence and a state of tranquility.

3. Seek truth and live in concert with Nature.  One of Stoicism’s most basic subscriptions is to the pursuit of reason and truth, which also means practicing the corollary: rejecting magical thinking and deceit in all of its forms.  I have been described as one who does not suffer fools.  Another, perhaps nicer description is that I honor knowledge and do so in concert with the realities of the natural and mystical world we live in—with Nature.  Stoic practice involves the pursuit of truth with all senses and faculties trained on the detection of bullshit, which in the current Age of Deceit has become a constant challenge.  Detecting the deceits of others is fairly easy, the harder part is calling it out and assuring neither you nor others become its victims.  As we have seen with Donald Trump, power and position can cause many—indeed millions—to accept deceits as truths for various (usually selfish) reasons.  This is what I call magical thinking: the distortion of reality to affect an outcome consistent with the way we wish things were rather than the way they actually are.  The problems with magical thinking are many, but above all is the fact that decisions made based on falsehood, or not in concert with Nature, will, sooner or later, result in failure.  Actions based in deceit or that are incongruent with natural realities are fundamentally unsustainable.  

The much more difficult task is detecting deception and subverting it when we deceive ourselves.  Self-deception is the most debilitating practice of all because it is the hardest to detect and correct.  Checking one’s own magical thinking—a closed-loop internal process—is the most challenging aspect of self-awareness.  Fooling thyself has no place in steeling thyself.  Finally, the aesthetic and mystical values of Nature are many, but perhaps Nature’s most important attribute is that it reflects pure truth; it never deceives even while we—caught up in our selfishness and deceit—threaten to destroy it.  As modern stoic, John Sellars describes, “Nature isn’t blind and chaotic; it is ordered and beautiful, with its own rhythms and patterns.  It is not composed of dead matter; it is a single living organism of which we are all a part.”  The poetic justice is, of course, that Nature will cleanse itself of humanity if we prove to be a formidable parasite within its realm.  We can fool each other and ourselves, but we cannot fool Nature.  We cannot fool the truth.

4. Knowledge is power and must be nurtured with an opposable mind.  Knowledge emanates from education and experience; in the vernacular of the cognetic system it is developed in the empirical frame as intellectual capital.  In the traditional model of education, school was to be substantively completed by the time we reached adulthood.  Then, we were to augment such school-based learning with experience to attain wisdom.  Today, largely due to the demands of the modern world and the availability of enabling digital technologies, educational opportunities are now accessible throughout our lives.  Intellectual capital may be developed throughout life such that knowledge can enjoy a completely dynamic system as long as we are active participants.  

In my generation, which was steeped in the traditional format of school, then work, then an undetermined number of years of retirement, then death, it has been interesting to watch my Boomer cohorts either embrace the new dynamism of knowledge development, or stubbornly and defiantly hold fast to the old paradigm.  The stubborn ones endure mid to late life as little more than death without dying; they are surrendering in the face of victory.  They usually fall victim to intellectual sclerosis, or a hardening of the mind that is typically manifested through growing bouts of anger and frustration as the world moves forward without them.  And yes, Donald Trump could be their mascot.  

The questions to ask of yourself and others to determine if you/they possess a sclerotic mind or a dynamic mind are: Do they view the world as a zero-sum game where limits define options, or a world awash in possibilities?  Do they see issues as black or white, good or evil, or are they intrigued by the nuanced spaces between?  Do they have the ability to see and argue different sides of an issue—possessed of an opposable mind—or do they easily dismiss other options in favor of their predispositions?  Are they deliberative or impulsive?  Do they surround themselves with people who can replace them, or with those who see them as irreplaceable?  Are they curious, or are they certain?  Are the unknowns a source of fear, or a venue of creative opportunity?  Those who are open to new sources of knowledge—through both education and experience—easily pass these tests.  A dynamic mind is always open to new ideas that create solutions no one else has thought of—that transcend the moment.

5. Practice negative visualization—a critical element of steeling thyself.  First, a warning: negative visualization can be an emotional challenge, so practice it from a position of strength when you are able to complete the exercise without victimizing yourself with emotional strife.  Threats, like opportunities, are exogenous variables; their occurrence is beyond our control. However, remembering that we do not control everything that happens to us, but that we do control our response, negative visualization recognizes that bad things happen in life and we may as well prepare for them so that when they are encountered, we have, in effect, rehearsed our response.  Negative visualization is a framing device that allows us to steel ourselves in advance of life’s perils.  It acknowledges the inevitability of setbacks, which become tests of character and ingenuity that, if handled properly, lead to strength.  It also has the effect of bolstering gratitude in the present—to appreciate especially those we love today—before they are lost.  Visualizing the sudden loss of someone or something can spark a renewed level of appreciation.  

How would you deal with an illness or traumatic injury?  What if a loved one dies?  What would happen if you lost your job, or your life savings was lost?  What if a natural disaster takes your home?  Today, many folks I know are extremely concerned with the potential reelection of Trump.  What will you do if these things happen?  Will you be a victim of circumstance or will you be prepared with a plan?  What are the immediate effects of these negative threats?  What are the medium and long-term effects?  What can you do now to ameliorate these effects? “I never thought it would happen to me” is not a useful answer.  Yet, this is what we hear most when people are struck by an unforeseen event that causes them extreme loss and sorrow.

Start with foreseeing the biggest threats by asking, “What would devastate me?”  Then, run each threat and its effects out to its logical endgame.  Identify what elements or negative effects you can impact today with preemptive action.  Often, this requires little more than a discussion with other people who might be similarly affected to agree on a What if? plan.  In planning for my mother’s death, I organized a plan with both my siblings and my mother that dealt with everything from funeral arrangements to disposition of assets. Sometimes, securing insurance can mitigate the effects—especially in property losses; check to see if yours is adequate.  My wife and I live in a heavily forested region of the Colorado Rocky Mountains that, due to climate change, is becoming more susceptible to wildfire.  Recently, we executed a wildfire mitigation plan that was very expensive and required the removal of many trees to create defensible zones.  It was not only expensive; it was actually emotionally painful to conduct “responsible deforestation.”  But, in effect, we were taking some pain today to offset a potential calamity; not only might we and our home survive, the remaining trees will be healthier and have a better chance of survival as well.   As the Roman Stoic Seneca suggested, “He robs present ills of their power who has perceived their coming beforehand.”  In steeling thyself, being surprised is acceptable, being ill-prepared for what comes next is not.

Next week: Stoic Disciplines 6-9.

By |2019-11-24T15:26:47+00:00November 17th, 2019|General|0 Comments

Steel Thyself, Part II: Mindful Meditation

In addition to solitude summits (Part I of this series) that are designed to affect a deep and honest questioning of one’s knowledge, beliefs, and circumstances, another beneficial practice to steel thyself is mindful meditation and embracing the present moment.  The simple fact that you are reading this post qualifies you as someone who cares; who possesses a moral compass seated in your cognetic system.  The current Age of Deceit in America is likely disconcerting to you and may have even tipped you from moral outrage into a period of moral suffering.  As the Zen priest, Roshi Joan Halifax argues in her book, Standing at the Edge, “when we are angry and emotionally aroused, we begin to lose our balance and our ability to see things clearly, and we are prone to falling over the edge into moral suffering.” Moreover, such disorientations that arise from suffering make us vulnerable to the deceits and nefarious techniques like gaslighting regularly deployed by perpetrators like Donald Trump who seek to exploit us and oppress us.  Practicing mindfulness contributes to clarity in the here and now, fosters openness to affect creative liberation, and strengthens our focus to discern truth from deceit. A clear vision and a strong mind/heart/body connection is fundamental to steeling thyself.  Practicing mindful meditation affords a time out from the deluge of distractions that degrade our capacity to recognize truth and find purpose in the present moment, which is the only moment that matters.

I have been accused of having the mind of a Border Collie: in a state of constant stimulation.  If your disposition is similar, quieting the mind to develop awareness of consciousness while suspending judgment can pose a significant challenge. Nevertheless, having the tenacity of a Border Collie also portends the capacity and discipline to succeed in chosen tasks which, at the very least, is a useful delusion when it comes to practicing mindfulness.  (I am, therefore, I can!)  As with solitude summits, practicing mindfulness is harder than it sounds, but also holds extraordinary benefits from simple relaxation to mind-expanding clarity.  Think of it as you might working out to strengthen your body; mindfulness meditation aims to enhance your quality of mind—to strengthen the head and heart connection that comprise the cognetic system—the nexus of wisdom and morality that frames our soul.  The neuroscientist, atheist, and author, Sam Harris also suggests that “cultivating this quality of mind has been shown to reduce pain, anxiety, and depression; improve cognitive function; and even produce changes in gray matter density in regions of the brain related to learning and memory, emotional regulation, and self-awareness.”  There exists power in simplicity, and mindfulness is, simply, “clear awareness.”

Fortunately, mindfulness training is now much more accessible than travelling to the Far East to sequester oneself for days at a time in a state of mute deprivation under the watchful eye of a Buddhist monk, or subjecting oneself to either synthetic or organic narcotics—however effective—before the myriad of research issues associated with their use are available to determine appropriate formulation and dosing.  LSD, psilocybin, ayahuasca, and MDMA (Ecstasy) hold the potential for a number of breakthroughs in alleviating suffering and expanding mental acuity but, as journalist Michael Pollan argues in his groundbreaking personal and journalistic research in How to Change Your Mind, mind manifestation through the use of psychedelics remain in the pioneering stages today due, in no small part, to their politicization in the 1960s  that shut down further research as President Nixon tied them to the political threat of counterculture hippies, which resulted in psychedelics’ unlawful status and a research gap that is only lifting, slowly, today.  In the meantime, there are apps like “Calm” and Sam Harris’ “Waking Up” that provide streaming meditative tutorials and sessions to affect conditioning of the consciousness.  As with physical conditioning, benefits of meditative mindfulness are only available to those with the discipline to do it!

Stated simply, meditative mindfulness is the practice of focusing one’s consciousness on the realities of the present moment, while suspending judgment of those thoughts that appear and recede.  As the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn teaches, meditation begins with relaxation and its end-game is the realization of a “tranquil heart and clear mind.”  As a novice myself, I can attest to the fact that achieving a relaxed but concentrated state of pure awareness is, in itself, an accomplishment of significant benefit.  Relaxing the body and clearing the mind—preferably daily—produces a welcome sense of calm.  The “Calm” and Waking Up” apps offer daily meditations that generally last around ten minutes.  Once you become proficient in these short meditative sessions (which will seem long in the beginning but will eventually seem more like two minutes than ten), you can advance to significantly longer and more involved sessions.  As Thich Nhat Hahn suggested, “In the first six months, try only to build up your power of concentration, to create an inner calmness and serene joy.  You will shake off anxiety, enjoy total rest and quiet your mind.  You will be refreshed and gain a broader, clearer view of things, and deepen and strengthen the love in yourself.  And you will be able to respond more helpfully to all around you.”

Sam Harris underscored the importance of living in the present moment with the observation that “The reality of your life is always now.  And to realize this … is liberating.  In fact, … there is nothing more important to understand if you want to be happy in this world.”  For my own mental health, I like to think of the present moment as my refuge from all those things that bring me worry—that are of deep concern, but are either in the past or future.  Just take a moment and enjoy the now.

By |2019-11-17T14:47:04+00:00November 10th, 2019|General|0 Comments

Steel Thyself, Part I: Solitude

In this Age of Deceit marked by the collapse of traditional American values, and in anticipation of the next twelve months which, no doubt, will be the weird weirder weirdest of the Trump presidency, I am going to share a series of posts drawn from my forthcoming book from a chapter titled “Steel Thyself.”  It aims to provide some tools to regain a sense of responsible individualism in an era that has been overwhelmed by narcissism; a sense of individualism that is one of three of what I call America’s Probity Values, the other two being exemplar exceptionalism (leading by example) and perfectibility (leaving things better than the way we found them).  I anticipate four posts in this series; one each week.

An effective and accessible place to begin strengthening the head and heart—steeling thyself—is with what the psychiatrist Anthony Storr called the “capacity to be alone” such that we might access the redemptive power of solitude.  Our personal cognetic systems (the self-curated constellation of knowledge and beliefs that allow us to simplify the world and make decisions) provides a tool to “know thyself,” which is a critical step in understanding one’s blind spots of ignorance as well as blind spots of certitude—to both reduce ignorance and subdue certitude to enable better decisions.  The next step, after knowing thyself, is to steel thyself—to maximize strengths and minimize weaknesses against the uncertainties and threats of the modern era.  Practicing solitude provides the opportunity for honest conversations with the self in a risk-free environment setting aside the judgments of others to enable the honesty and clarity necessary to improve one’s prospects of fulfilling one’s purpose(s) in life.

The French Renaissance philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, started his long periods of solitude with the query, “What do I know?”[i]  In this question, he starts by taking stock of himself then proceeds to dissolve himself of all attachments to persons, things, duties and grievances to seek a clarity of mind where old truths may be reaffirmed or discarded, and new truths revealed; to sort out and update his “What do I know?” list.  In effect, such periods of introspection allow a reboot of body and soul, allowing a fresh start to the rest of one’s life.  In children, we know that the capacity to be alone is “linked with self-discovery and self-realization; with becoming aware of one’s deepest needs, feelings, and impulses,” yet in the modern era as adults we have ignored this powerful capacity by allowing incessant interactions and distractions (now mostly electronic) that produce more noise than knowledge, more anxiety than equanimity.[ii]   In a return to the self, one might smell the vestiges of narcissism, but in reality the absence of attachments during solitude allows us to strip ourselves of narcissistic self-deceptions to begin anew with a clear-eyed view of who we are and, moreover, who we would like to be.  We are, indeed, who we are; that much is self-evident.  But, we also need to build the runway that allows us to become what we want to be, unburdened by obsolete injunctions and tired conceits. Practicing periods of introspection allows the mind—our most powerful tool—to refresh, and as necessary heal, our soul.

Sounds fairly simple, right?  It is, until one has to actually do it.  Solitude summits (or retreats if you prefer, although where I live we prefer to “summit” rather than “retreat”) require a commitment to the self that is seldom easy until it becomes a routine built into your life-expectations and the expectations of those who rely upon you.  There are a million-and-one reasons to procrastinate about, or otherwise ignore, a commitment to solitude. Feelings of indispensability to work and family (and guilt born therefrom) are the most common hurdles.  Others just can’t conceive of being alone as they mistakenly equate being alone to being lonely.  However, once you grant yourself the indulgence of solitude you will realize that everyone in your life will benefit (perhaps even more than you).  Your clarity and equanimity have a way of bolstering the well-being of everyone in your orbit.  Begin by creating a “Matters for My Consideration” file in which you place things you need to think about during your next solitude summit.  Allow your interests to be your guide.  Schedule solitude at a time and place that suits those interests.  This alignment of interests assures a level of comfort that supports your quest for renewal and, they emanate from your cognetic system which makes them legitimate inasmuch as they are of you; honor them.

Your solitude may involve travel from home, although travel is not always necessary; solitude may be accomplished anywhere the mind can achieve a sense of quiet reflection that allows you to critically review your traditional knowns and creatively imagine prospective knowns. A park bench, or a long walk may suit as well as a journey.  Question all the givens in your life while favoring dynamism over stasis.  Initially, allow for longer periods of reflection then, as your solitude skills improve, schedule shorter and more frequent periods of solitude to refresh your soul.  Beyond reflection and rebooting your knowns, periods of solitude may also recalibrate your compass—the aims and trajectory of your life.  It will also call to question your relationships—those you should continue to nurture and those you should abandoned.  Holding on to extraneous knowns, objectives and destinations, or relationships that are no longer relevant or productive, are an effective way to die while living.  The most important measure of success during solitude is the degree of honesty you employ toward yourself.  This is most commonly referred to as being “true to yourself.”  Seeing things as they are—especially during times of high deceit like today—may be solitude’s greatest gift.

Next week: Mindful Meditation.

[i] See “Michel de Montaigne: On Solitude,” The Culturium, October 7, 2016, https://www.theculturium.com/michel-de-montaigne-on-solitude/.

[ii] Anthony Storr, Solitude: A Return to the Self (New York: Ballantine Books, 1988), p. 21.

By |2019-11-10T15:12:02+00:00November 3rd, 2019|General|0 Comments
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