Three Paths Diverge in the Woods

I know a lot about communication as it relates to interpersonal conflict. Problem is, I don’t always apply it. Which begs the question, what good does head knowledge do if it doesn’t make its way to the heart?

Case in point, last SatRun. Most every Saturday morning you can find a few of my ideologically diverse friends and me running 10 miles up, down, and around Olympia, WA. I’m the guy with the dorky calf sleeves.

While running, we share eventful stories from the work week, debate political hot potatoes, talk sports, and tell family stories*. The only thing all of us agree on is how fortunate our wives are to be married to us.

Last Saturday, I blew it. Despite just blogging about the futility of imposing one’s views on others, I entered into an unwinnable argument about the relative merits of our last president versus our current one. No argument is winnable when one or both participants’ contrasting viewpoints are based almost exclusively on emotion. No amount of reasoning; no matter how dispassionate, empirical, and persuasive; is any match for strongly held emotions. I forgot that I cannot alter my friend’s fundamentally negative feelings towards our previous president, just as there’s nothing he can say that will assuage my negative feelings towards our current one.

And so the “exchange” spiraled downwards so much so that one teammate purposely gapped us. The two us ended up much, much more irritated, than enlightened, about our differences.

So the first path in the interpersonal conflict woods, emotion-laden arguing, is not recommended. The second path, curiosity-based conversations, is a much preferred alternative.

Had I demonstrated just a touch of interpersonal intelligence, I would’ve asked questions to try to better understand my friend’s warped political perspective. Among others, WHY do you feel that way? Had I done that, two positive things may have resulted. First, he probably would have moderated his most outlandish claims, thus lowering the temperature of the entire convo. When agitated, it’s human nature to assert things much more intensely than necessary. In those situations, we in essence, surrender to negative emotions. Second, had I listened patiently enough; eventually, he probably would’ve asked me some questions in a similar effort to better understand me.

If I had gone full Socrates and focused on understanding my friend’s thinking, I probably would’ve kept my emotions in check. Meaning it could’ve ended up being a worthwhile conversation instead of the pointless argument paralleling the one playing out nightly on opposing cable news stations.

The third path in the interpersonal conflict woods is knowing the limits of one’s capacity for curiosity-based conversation. For example, I cannot practice curiosity-based conversation with anyone who looks passively at the continuous stream of mass shootings in the U.S., and repeatedly concludes, “We’d be better off if more “good people” had guns.” Just. Can’t. Go. There. Of course, there’s nothing requiring me to.

How much time do you spend on the three paths? Depending upon how centered I am, I see-saw between pointless arguing and enriching, curiosity-based conversations. A tiny fraction of the time, I opt out altogether. I hope to eliminate pointless arguing from my life by continuing to learn from my mistakes and living a long, long time.

Before next Saturday’s 10-miler, I commit to not just warming up my bod, but also my heart.

*or they bully the guy on sabbatical, the one with the humble blog

 

 

 

Monday Assorted Links

1. Trump loyalist Matthew Whitaker was counseling the White House on investigating Clinton. 

“Whitaker’s open sympathizing with Trump’s frequent complaints about the Mueller investigation resulted in an unusually close relationship between a president and a staffer of his level. The president met with Whitaker in the White House, often in the Oval Office, at least 10 times, a former senior administration official told me. On most of those occasions, Sessions was also present, but it’s unclear if that was always the case.”

The President lied?

2. American Meritocracy Is Killing Youth Sports.

“Norway’s youth-sports policies are deliberately egalitarian. The national lottery, which is run by a government-owned company called Norsk Tipping, spends most of its profit on national sports and funnels hundreds of millions of dollars to youth athletic clubs every year. Parents don’t need to shell out thousands to make sure their kids get to play. And play is an operative word: Norwegian leagues value participation over competition so much that clubs with athletes below the age of 13 cannot even publish game scores. Remarkably, teams that release their scores online can face expulsion from the Norwegian confederation of sports.

It might seem like any country’s athletic prowess would atrophy under such socialist and anticompetitive policies. Instead, Norway is an athletic juggernaut. In the last Winter Olympics, the country won 39 medals—the most of any country in the history of the Games and nearly twice as many as the United States. It did so with a smaller population than Minnesota’s.”

Interesting throughout.

3. Why I stopped wearing a bike helmet.

“Riders in the United States wear helmets more than anywhere else and yet get killed more frequently than in any other Western nation. In fact, in countries like Denmark and Netherland, where the fewest riders strap on helmets, fatal crashes are incredibly infrequent.

If that inverse relationship seems surprising, let me break it down for you: Having quality infrastructure and a culture that respects safety will impact exponentially more lives than insisting that riders wear helmets. Trying to solve the problem of vulnerable cyclists with helmets is like trying to reduce the number of fatalities in school shootings by making students wear bulletproof vests. It’s not actually solving the problem.”

4. We Have to Save the Planet. So I’m Donating $1Billion.

“I have decided to donate $1 billion over the next decade to help accelerate land and ocean conservation efforts around the world, with the goal of protecting 30 percent of the planet’s surface by 2030. This money will support locally led conservation efforts around the world, push for increased global targets for land and ocean protection, seek to raise public awareness about the importance of this effort, and fund scientific studies to identify the best strategies to reach our target.”

5. What’s the most influential book of the last 20 years?

 

Go Ahead, Refashion The World In Your Image

“I don’t shop at Walmart,” the lefty bumper sticker proudly proclaims. Congratulations I sarcastically think to myself, wake me when you convince ten working class families to do the same.

Similarly, I suppose, I deserve congratulations for having dropped my ballot in the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church ballot box last week, but I’d be far more impressed with myself if I convinced another person, or group of people, to vote the way I did.

Whether shopping or voting, I am one drop in ginormous buckets, but what if I tilt the buckets through persuading others to shop, vote, and think more like me? Easier said than done though, because to varying degrees, we’re all engaged in the art of persuasion.

Why are we so intent on getting others to shop, vote, think, and be like us? Because we’re so insecure? If that’s even partially correct, why are we so insecure? As long as I feel good about my daily decision making, why should I care whether others think and act similarly? Fortunately, we’re all different; consequently, what works for me, may not as well for others. And vice-versa. I want the autonomy to decide things mostly by myself, so why my impulse to influence others’ decision-making? Isn’t that a contradiction?

The ecologically minded among us would rightly say because the planet’s future depends upon it. But that reality doesn’t justify projecting all of our myriad beliefs upon others does it? It’s difficult to project our beliefs upon others without a certain arrogance that we know better than you where to shop, who to vote for, what lifestyle is best.

As I touched upon recently, the FIRE—Financial Independence Retire Early—Movement is having a moment. One of the main advocates is Pete Adeney who recently wrote a blog post titled “What Everybody is Getting Wrong About FIRE.” 

To which I wrote as a comment on his blog:

“. . . I don’t understand something fundamental to your thinking. Who cares? That Suze Orman and others hate the FIRE movement? That lots of people are critical of aspects of the Financial Independence Movement? That misperceptions abound? How do inaccuracies or flat out negativity effect you or other adherents of simple living? More generally, apart from the serious, negative ecological consequences of mindless materialism; who cares if someone chooses a long commute to a corporate cubicle? The stridency—everyone can and should follow our example to live better lives—almost harkens of evangelical Christianity. Or intense political partisanship—if only everyone was a Democrat or Republican like me. Every time I walk into the weight room, I see people with scary bad form, but that doesn’t mean I give them unsolicited advice on what to do differently to avoid injury. I totally get sitting around talking in-depth with close friends who are interested in all things financial independence, it’s the caring about what other people think and the proselytizing to the masses I don’t get.”

To which Adeney took issue in this return-of-serve:

“Do you really have to ask why I care about our society’s perception and adoption of these ideas I’m sharing?

I want them to SPREAD, and spread quickly. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t be writing this blog.

I care, because every bit of pollution and pointless inefficiency and unhappiness hurts all of us. And the solution is so obvious and easy.

My own problems and those of my close friends are already solved. Once you have your own shit set up nicely, it’s a pretty natural instinct to turn outwards and try to help others. And it’s also hella rewarding.”

To which I replied a second time:

“No offense meant, but I do. Concern about pollution is admirable; but ‘efficiency’ and ‘happiness’ are relative terms. That’s why social scientists use the term ‘subjective well being’. If the ideas were truly ‘obvious and easy’ financially independent minimalists wouldn’t be a distinct minority.”

To which another reader replied:

“Maybe you SHOULD help your fellow lifters out with unsolicited advice, before they blow out a knee or herniate a disc. They might even be grateful for your thoughtful intervention (like I am economically, with this particular blog here.)”

Adeney is beloved by his millions of readers, so I’ll always get pillared for daring to do anything but completely agree with him. His blog’s comment section, an echo chamber, is boring, but I digress.

In some ways, the weight room hypothetical is the heart of the matter. There is a middle ground, an alternative to my decision to not offer unsolicited advice and the reader’s suggestion to do exactly the opposite. And that is to offer a compelling enough example—through specialized knowledge, kindness, and care that eventually, some people will ASK for input.

  • How can I improve my finances? How can I save more? How should I invest?
  • How can I build strength without injuring myself? How should I train for a marathon?
  • What do you think about Candidate X? Initiative Y? Why?

Go forth and set compelling examples. And refashion the world in your image one inquisitive person at a time.

Friday Assorted Links

1. What the Hell Happened to Darius Miles? A riveting story about growing up in East St. Louis. I didn’t know it is only 89 blocks. One aspect of the story I found particularly interesting, Miles never seemed to have any concern with whether his teams were competitive. Winning basketball almost seemed irrelevant to him.

2. This is Iron Sarah. The human spirit with excellent pictures.

3. Teens Are Being Bullied ‘Constantly’ on Instagram. Can we put the social media toothpaste back in the tube? Please?

4. We’re Teaching History Wrong.

5. Bohemian Rhapsody. Trailer hooked me, but Jeffrey Bloomer’s not a fan.

Palaces For The People

I’m two-thirds through Eric Klinenberg’s excellent book Palaces For The People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, And The Decline Of Civic Life. The book jacket explains what Klinenberg means by “social infrastructure” and why it matters:

“Klinenberg believes that the future of democratic societies rests not simply on shared values but on shared spaces: the libraries, childcare centers, bookstores, churches, synagogues, and parks in which crucial sometimes life-saving connections, are formed. These are places where people gather and linger, making friends across group lines and strengthening the entire community. Klinenberg calls this the ‘social infrastructure.’ When it is strong, neighborhoods flourish; when it is neglected, as it has been in recent years, families and individuals must fend for themselves.”

Klinenberg makes a particularly strong case for public libraries. If I was Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, or Jeff Bezos, that’s where I’d focus a significant portion of my philanthropy.

Where I’m at currently in the book, Klinenberg is drawing on Jeff Wiltse’s social history of municipal swimming pools in the United States which I may have to read next. Wiltse offers searing reminders of our longstanding struggles with racism. For example, he recounts the story of a Little League Baseball team in Youngstown, Ohio, that celebrated its city championship in 1951 at a beautiful municipal pool in South Side Park.

The team had one African American player, Al Bright, and lifeguards refused to let him past the perimeter fence while the other players swam. When several parents protested, the supervisor agreed to let Al ‘enter’ the pool for a few minutes, but only if everyone else got out and Al agreed to sit inside a rubber raft. While everyone watched, a lifeguard pushed Al around the pool shouting, ‘whatever you do, don’t touch the water!”

Wiltse adds:

“This was not an isolated incident, nor was it restricted to certain parts of the United States. Two years later, in 1953, the great African American film star Dorothy Dandridge dipped her toes in the swimming pool at the Last Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas, which welcomed her as a performer but banned her, and all other blacks, from the water. The hotel responded by draining the entire pool.”

These mind-numbing historical anecdotes aside, Palaces For The People is a hopeful work.

In the United States, there are two fundamental problems with implementing the convincing road maps that Klinenberg and other social scientists outline for safer, healthier, more vibrant communities. Everyone’s ingrained individualism coupled with many people’s refusal to acknowledge that publicly funded government programs often make significant contributions to the common good.

 

 

Of Moods and Madness

One in five Americans are affected my mental illness in a given year.

I knew nothing about mental illness until ten years ago. I’m still skiing on the beginner slopes, but thanks to Kay Redfield Jamison, I am making up for being late to the game.

Her “memoir of moods and madness”, Unquiet Mind, is incredibly illuminating and highly recommended. In addition to being a preeminent scientist, Jamison writes exceedingly well. Of her memoir, Oliver Sacks wrote, “It stands alone in the literature of manic-depression for its bravery, brilliance and beauty.”

A few take-aways.

  • No one chooses bipolar illness, it’s inherited. It’s also treatable with a combination of medication (typically lithium) and psychotherapy. Things do not turn out well for patients who choose not to take lithium. In Jamison’s case, small doses worked better than medium ones.
  • With a combo of meds and psychotherapy, people with bipolar disorder live life as fully and “successfully” as any other cross-section of people. Jamison has done okay.
  • Jamison enjoys numerous, positive friendships. Being mentally ill doesn’t have to limit one interpersonally.
  • Jamison was fortunate to be surrounded by highly educated  and caring scientists who were, with one notable exception, incredibly supportive of her upon learning of her condition.

Jamison’s colleagues and friends, with their unconditional positive regard for her, provide a model for the rest of us to help acquaintances, friends, and family with bipolar and other mental illnesses thrive.