If you don’t already follow Shane Parrish at Farnam Street, or listen to The Knowledge Project podcast, I highly recommend it. In this week’s newsletter, Parrish describes how he engages his kids when they exhibit ‘ineffective’ behavior (such as picking fights with each other). He coaches them to pause and think about their actions: Is what they’re doing going to make their lives easier or harder? Will it get them what they want? He asks them what things would look like if they poured gasoline, versus water, on their current ‘fire.’ “With water or gasoline, you can start a fire, make it bigger, or put it out. The choice is yours.”
What fires burn in our lives? Which ones warm us, give us light, and bring us together, and which scorch and destroy?
Obviously we don’t pour gasoline on a wildfire, unless we are arsonists or sociopaths. And we all rue the careless camper or hiker who accidentally sets our beloved forrests aflame with an errant cigarette butt or the like. What anaologies to our lives can we make of these events? Maybe the overwhelming emotional hijack of a post-traumatic trigger, a cutting word spoken or argument erupting in the heat of anger and resentment? In these moments, how can we slow down, recognize the gas can in our hands, loosen our grip, put it down and screw the cap on tight? Where did we put that water bottle? Better yet, can we just leave the cigarettes at home next time? ** deep breaths **
That scenario is less interesting to me, though, than the campfire or bonfire. I feel like I’ve written this analogy before on the blog, but I can’t find it. I don’t camp, but I love communing around an intentional, contained flame with good company and comfort food. This is the kind of fire that gathers us, warms us, strengthens our bonds. Right now it’s phone and FaceTime calls, hikes, and generally carving out time to spend together–these are the fires that feed me. The flame of a good, strong hearth requires tending, though. Someone needs to find and bring the wood; it has to be dry enough but not too much so, and made into the right size. Orientation of logs and branches matters for optimal airflow, so smoke billows skyward rather than swirling and suffocating the gathering. We must stoke and stimulate the flames to keep them going, and fuel them regularly to maintain light and warmth for us all to enjoy. It’s best if we take turns. Like maintaining strong fires, good relationships require us to participate actively, thoughtfully, and regularly.
As our collective care and attention perpetuate warmth and light, the best thing is when we attract others to join. When they hear the crackling flames and campfire songs, the laughter and joy emanating from intentional communion, they want to connect, and we widen our circle of friends. Cold and dark no longer feel so daunting; we feel safe and secure; we belong.
As we enter the coldest and darkest part of the year, I’m gathering my firewood and piling it high. Come to think of it, I must also tend to the forrest where the trees grow… An analogy for another time, perhaps.
“Negative polarization (or negative partisanship), as I’ve written many times, is the term for politics that is fundamentally motivated by animosity for the other side more than affection to your own party’s leaders or ideas.
“Under the malice theory, the key to electoral victory is unlocking that anger. That means highlighting everything wrong with your opponents. That means hyping their alleged mortal threat to the Republic. Because of pre-existing animosity, your message will fall on fertile soil.
“In this context, it’s easy to see how kindness and graciousness are seen as weakness, or at least as a lack of conviction.”
Basically, if we think of our political opponents as a ‘them’, an other, we make them an abstraction. If we paint them with broad brushes in various shades of ‘evil,’ then we make ourselves fundamentally susceptible to tyrants who manupilate that fear and hatred for their own purposes. We follow blindly out of emotional hijack, deluding ourselves that we are being totally rational. The ultimate tool of such tyrants is dehumanization, making ‘the other’ a thing rather than a person, something we could not possibly relate to or care for.
One potent antidote to dehumanization and malice politics is emotional validation. I found this article while writing Monday’s post on how to be less shitty to one another. If you read any of the essays from this post, read this one! More highlights:
“Emotional validation is the process of learning about, understanding, and expressing acceptance of another person’s emotional experience. Emotional validation is distinguished from emotional invalidation, when a person’s emotional experiences are rejected, ignored, or judged.
“Validating an emotion doesn’t mean that you agree with the other person or that you think their emotional response is warranted. Rather, you demonstrate that you understand what they are feeling without trying to talk them out of or shame them for it.”
When we talk about people on the ‘other’ side of politics from us, what do we say? Do we speak in generalizations? Do we assume nefarious motives, declaring that they are just bad people? Maybe we say we ‘can’t imagine,’ ‘don’t understand’ how anyone would vote the way they do? What assumptions do we make about how they live their lives and how it must be completely different from us? Validation requires us to put down these generalizations and see each other as individuals, humans, people with whom we are in relationship (and we are all in relationship)–to move in closer, as Brene Brown asks us to do. It’s a practice in empathy and ultimately, a neutralizer of negative partisanship.
Why should we validate one another’s emotions? Because it helps us connect, especially across difference. When we feel validated, we let our guard down. When we feel seen, we de-escalate. Then we are more likely and able to engage in discussions, even disagreements, with more openness and curiosity, respect and collaboration. But someone has to take the first step on the path to de-escalation, to lead by example and invitation.
The Butterfly Effect
In my Quirky Nerd post, I mentioned this idea at the end, in passing. I like to include links to interesting ideas, and found the essay on Farnam Street by Shane Parrish and/or his team. Parrish hosts The Knowledge Project, one of my favorite podcasts. Ever since learning about the self-organizing nature of culture, I have felt validated (ha!) and increasingly confident to point out how the impact of any given node in any system both impacts and is impacted by that system–because everything is connected! I define myself as a node, and I am a member of multiple systems at once (we all are). Some systems are nested (family, neighborhood, city, state, nation); some overlap (Chinese-Americans, physicians, working moms). Looking from the most complex and simultaneous perspective, we can then see how the state or movement of any one node may have direct and indirect ripple effects that propagate and eventuate in dramatic multi-systemic change.
Or, it may not. It’s a paradox–anything you and I do can have transformative effects or no effect at all. I wrote about this as the Optimistic Nihilist. From Farnam Street: ” John Gribbin writes in his cult-classic work Deep Simplicity, ‘some systems … are very sensitive to their starting conditions, so that a tiny difference in the initial ‘push’ you give them causes a big difference in where they end up, and there is feedback, so that what a system does affects its own behavior.’
“We like to think we can predict the future and exercise a degree of control over powerful systems such as the weather and the economy. Yet the butterfly effect shows that we cannot. The systems around us are chaotic and entropic, prone to sudden change. For some kinds of systems, we can try to create favorable starting conditions and be mindful of the kinds of catalysts that might act on those conditions – but that’s as far as our power extends. If we think that we can identify every catalyst and control or predict outcomes, we are only setting ourselves up for a fall.”
My point here is that when I start to feel too small to make a difference, I just remember my role as node. I may not see the waves that my attitude, words, actions and relationships create in the world. But I believe wholeheartedly that I can and do make a difference–a big one, potentially. I just don’t know exactly which day, which conversation, which post, which relationship will incite the shifts I agitate to make–toward mutual understanding, accpetance, cooperation, and connection. Thus, anything and everything I do matters, so I keep it up. I commit to playing the infinite game of human connection, and my just cause is to de-escalate, defuse, and disarm us, in service of interpersonal peace. But anything I do could not matter at all, so I don’t have to burden myself with perfection and exhaustive hamster wheeling.
What are the chief operational constraints in your life today? How have they evolved over time?
On a call today with two wonderful friends, it occurred to me (again) that we can choose our suffering in life. A global pandemic with cases and hospitalizations rising across the country in yet another (I’ve lost count) wave; political polarization ever worsening; winter approaching with yet more erratic weather patterns—it did not take long for us to agree that present day is indeed a dark age for humanity. And yet none of us feel hopeless. In fact, we bonded over all the tools at our disposal to suffer less in our lifetimes—mostly tools of inner work, such as Personal Leadership, the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity, and others.
So often we go through life wishing other people would change. If only they could see the light—that I am right—then my life would be so much easier and better! We search for classes, workshops, and conferences that promise freedom from stress, amazing relationships, and professional advancement—all in 5 easy steps! The dopamine-fueled wildfire of instant gratification sucks dollars from our bank accounts like oxygen from the air, at the prospect of success without work. When we look for others to exert all the effort, we choose the suffering of relinquishing control. Innocently, ignorantly, or in denial, we cede responsibility for our own happiness and meaning to those whom we concurrently deem incompetent, misinformed, or otherwise stupid.
I cannot control what someone else thinks, says or does. But I have ultimate agency in how I respond to anyone and anything around me. I can choose to wallow in victimhood, rage at injustice, and lash out at any unfortunate human who crosses my path on a bad day. I can also choose to shift my perspective by getting curious, asking more questions, and making more generous assumptions about people and their motivations. By choosing the latter, whatever pain or cost I incur belongs to me; I own it, I get to shape it, contain it, exercise it. I empower myself as the principal agent of my own life—I am liberated.