Six Words to Write on the Wall
Scholars identify crises as periods when outlier economic events (extreme data points) and social and political polarity (absence of a center or consensus) prevail over what had been considered the normative state. Economic, social, and political order is in peril. Stated otherwise, weirdness reigns. As an Eisenhower baby I am old enough to remember a fair amount of tumult, but the outliers and polarity today seems more pronounced and durable. Someday historians will turn the current noise blaring at us from all directions into something melodic and lyrical, but when you are in the midst of the milieu it sounds more like a kid performing at their first violin recital. We grit our teeth and brace ourselves until the tortuous fraying of the bow ceases. What does this chorus of noise mean? What do the various crises emanating from the political, economic, and cultural spheres portend for you and me? How should we respond to these events? What should we expect of others and ourselves? Even more importantly, what does it suggest about how we should conduct our lives vis-à-vis the purposes and aims that define who we are? Is our destiny still even ours?
To assure that our destiny remains in our control we must first embrace the notion that crisis is good. It is like the fire in the forest that is both devastating in the moment and essential for the future of its eco-system. Crisis on a systemic level allows a cleansing of the detritus that has built up from years of traditional thinking codified to protect the status quo and, unfortunately, compromise our future. What once was thought to maintain stability—like a money supply untethered from the gold standard—may mark the next tipping point toward systemic entropy. Crisis, however, creates new spaces and resources for new actors to create and innovate. It is like rebooting your computer: the operating system remains intact while the application software is disentangled from the remnants of prior tasks. That is not to say crises are thoroughly cleansing; some of the rubbish remains, and that which does will fight mightily to do so. We need look no further than some of the blowhards in politics and media to recognize this. Yet, to succeed in our particular purposes and aims, we must take what space and opportunities arise and run through newly opened doors toward our future.
Embracing crisis as a liberating force also allows us to learn from past crises so that we might identify words, themes, and modalities we should employ to survive and prosper, or at least find a measure of tranquillity, if not a state of grace. Reviewing the history of past crises while also surveying the current political, economic, and cultural landscape leads me to suggest there are six words or themes to write on the wall to guide us in answering the question, how should we conduct ourselves today?
- Authentic. Keep it real, and keep it true. During recovery from crises there is not enough slack in the system to reward work that is almost right. Only the real stuff wins. Like most people, I appreciate irony, but too often today irony is worn in much the same way as a teenage girl wears eye shadow; more comical than alluring. Yet when properly considered the object of irony—exposed in relief—reveals authenticity. The question is, what is the fundamental value expressed in its simplest form? Seek to produce values that are pervasive and durable throughout the system, product, policy, or personal regimen. Once identified, set them like cornerstones to support everything you do.
- Resilient. Here is a not-so-newsy flash: you, your family, your company, your community, your city, and your country will suffer a blow or blows as we unwind from the current crises in the chaotic and messy climb toward a new more settled state. Crises, like forest fires, are indiscriminate. Even if you avoid catastrophic damage, collateral damage is a certainty. Many herald schemes of sustainability and independence, but they are just part of this larger objective of resilience. To survive we must have the ability to bounce back. In our personal lives, this means we have to be mentally and physically fit, and have access to sufficient financial and human resources. On the human relations aspect, trust others as Machiavelli might: expect them to consider their own interests first—always ahead of yours. But, have go-to folks that can bolster your efforts in those areas where they are stronger than you. Take personal responsibility for your lot, however you define it. When the blow comes take the hit, dust yourself off, and get ready to hit back. Make yourself a hard target.
- Gonzo. Just when you thought this was going to be a treatise on conservative realism, I invoke the late Hunter S. Thompson. In shorthand, gonzo means that you should write all the rules down so you know what not to do. Channel your inner Hunter, er Gonzo. The vast majority of rules, frameworks, policies, and structures were adopted to protect those in power, not to protect or serve you. Moreover, in a post-crisis world, they don’t work in your favor even if you were one of their yesteryear authors. In the ascent from crisis, those who set aside tradition and define their world in their own terms will be profoundly successful and yes, much happier. When you face the inevitable admonishment “you can’t do that” or “that isn’t allowed,” simply respond: watch me.
- Transcendent. Rise above the rabble. Don’t be drawn into the muck of ignorance that is so-often the marker of organizations and factions whose survival depends on the condemnation of opposing perspectives. This is the basis of my objection to organized religion—particularly monotheistic religions—that advocate intolerance as a by-product of their own survival impulse. The prevailing principle of these groups is, “if you don’t believe as we do you are wrong and will be subjected to our wrath.” Political parties employ the same thinking. Be wary of ideologies and theologies that practice judgment and condemnation. They are debilitating. Retain your free will. Read often and deeply; look for character, structure, and meaning. Pursue knowledge beyond your comfort zone. What does the artist know or do that might benefit the scientist? This is the best way to nurture the power of an opposable mind. An opposable mind is always open to new ideas that create solutions no one else has thought of.
- Stealth. Several years ago I wrote an essay wherein I argued the next frontier—after my father’s frontier of space—was the frontier of anonymity. It was based on the notion of harnessing the benefits of digital technologies, in particular, networks, to operate in a seamless and borderless manner to master the theoretically endless benefits of globalism. All of this would be conducted in an anonymous manner where code and avatars replaced our traditional analog identities. In many respects today, we are headed exactly in that direction as the anonymity of 1s and 0s dominate our commerce and communications. Aliases have become the norm. However, there are other aspects of anonymity—of a stealth existence—that have value beyond the ability to tweet your every thought behind an opaque hash tag. High profiles are dangerous in periods of crisis and in the period of objectivism that follows in America’s historical four-phase life cycle (crisis—objectivism—radicalism—idealism). Humility and self-restraint are clearly preferable to hubris. There are many people who enjoy health, wealth, and happiness who never stick their head in front of the camera. Be like them.
- Grace. There are many definitions and interpretations of grace, so let me start by suggesting the grace I write about here is when the proper balance of virtues are combined with other elements and resources to produce something beautiful. A state of grace then is the modality that produces beauty, whether it is an object, product, service, idea, or writing. Pierre-Auguste Renoir often argued that the most durable things in the world are those that are beautiful. Grace is the capacity to bring everything together in such a way that people say wow that is beautiful, or amazing, or just plain cool. I am suggesting here that grace is when you bring authenticity, resilience, gonzo, transcendence, and stealth together in just the right way to assure your destiny—which is indeed a truly beautiful thing. Then, you are in a state of grace.
As we emerge from this period of crisis and enter a new period of objectivism, I expect those who seek grace through the careful application of these ‘six words written on the wall’ will retain a handhold on their destiny. The fate of others will be chosen for them.