Each year-end I look back and reflect. I look at all areas of my life: family, professional, personal, spiritual, physical, financial.
Across all of the major areas of my life, this has been a pivotal year of conceptual progress for me. I developed great clarity on my personal mission. And three ideas that began to gel for me in 2017 continued to gather strength.
Thinking about 2018, it is fair to say that this mission and corresponding three ideas have revolutionized how I approach almost all of my interactions.
My mission: To spread personal and collective agency. This is true in my professional life (where I explore ways that people can develop their own sense of democratic power) but also across my personal life — where I see my role as creating the conditions in which others can see the power and ability they already have.
Three principles have increasingly governed how I think about this mission:
1. I increasingly see propagation as the key means by which personal agency spreads. This recognition must be passed on from person to person to person. Through direct contact. I am convinced that as an individual my highest and best use is in fostering this spread. More and more, I am trying to organize all of my work with attention to how it might later propagate – not just from me to someone else, but from them to yet another. This is a kind of intentional “viral” strategy.
2. I have come increasingly to place learning at the center of all of my interactions. This is the central consequence of the above point. All progress, whether personal or collective, starts with a mindset change. That means that my task is not just to convey “knowledge” but a way of thinking. Agency must be learned, it cannot be taught. I try to interact in ways that encourages others to discover for themselves.
3. More and more I try to act through attraction. If propagation is the means by which personal agency spreads, and if learning is fundamental to that, then the nature of my interactions changes. When interacting with people, my task is to invite and interest them.
The future may always bring more change and upheaval, for me and for others, so I hesitate to say this is all set in stone. But looking back it is remarkable to me how powerful these ideas have been in my inner life over the past twelve months. I am looking forward to seeing how they further take root in 2019.
Public life is beset by three problems. Each is an extreme expression of a fundamentally human trait, exacerbated and amplified by some aspect of modernity.
Anonymous Atomization. It is a normal aspect of the human condition that we struggle to really take others into account as anything more than actors in our own dramas. Our modern society has amplified this to the extent that we have, each on an individual level, lost most of our sense of connection with others. We live in separate bubbles and the more our lives become driven by free choice, the less we see other people as “real.”
The Promethean Impulse. We want definitive answers and certain results, and we have built system upon system to make us more efficient. We live in a world of interlocking institutional mechanisms. The desire for assurance is natural. The myth of Prometheus is about humans’ yearning for technical power. Today’s scale has made this the only sort of knowledge. This has squeezed out our fundamental human abilities to manipulate our environment through small-group, collective behavior. When faced with a problem, our first thought is to search for an institutional or organizational response. This creates a bias toward ever more mechanistic responses.
Hyper-tribal-polarization. Humans naturally form groups and identify with them. Our most fundamental evolutionary piece of learning is that survival is collective and therefore our membership in a group is our one of our chief imperatives. This group identification is a double edged sword, and can create conflict between groups where they compete for some perceived or actual power or resource. Yet if survival is collective, then problems are best solved with others. In today’s environment, first two problems above have intertwined to create a hyperpolarized world of conflict in which our group identification is so strong, and our denial of out-group people’s humanity is also so strong — that we hate, and we even proclaim it as a mark of our allegiance. We hate to the extent that we cannot solve collective problems, we cannot interact individually with members of other groups, and indeed we ostracize those in our group who dare to behave moderately.
Are these the only three problems? No. But they are ones I have been thinking about the most over my career.
The good news is that the remedy in each case is within each individual person’s control. All by myself, without needing outside help, I can try to see other people as human beings, look to my immediate companions for problem-solving, and behave in more loving ways to my so-perceived enemies in other groups.
Early reviews of the book, titled, I’m the One Who Got Away, have been hugely positive: a starred Kirkus review proclaiming “stunning;” author Dani Shapiro saying it is “brave, clear-eyed, compelling, and powerful;” author and Washingtonian editor William O’Sullivan calling it “as riveting as a mystery and as filling as a feast.”
Andrea was kind enough to allow me to read the full work ahead of time, and I am telling you it is terrific. I can’t wait for it to hit the shelves. Order it here on Amazon.
When Andrea Jarrell was a girl, her mother often told her of their escape from Jarrell’s dangerous, cunning father as if it was a bedtime story. In this real-life Gilmore Girls story, mother and daughter develop an unusual bond, complicated by a cautionary tale of sexual desire and betrayal. Once grown, Jarrell thinks she’s put that chapter of her life behind her—until a woman she knows is murdered, and she suddenly sees how her mother’s captivating story has also held her captive, influencing her choices in lovers and friends. Set in motion by this murder, Jarrell’s compact memoir is about the difficulty that daughters have separating from—while still honoring—their mothers, and about the perils of breaking the hereditary cycle of addiction. It’s also about Jarrell’s quest to make a successful marriage and family of her own—a journey first chronicled in her “Modern Love” essay for The New York Times. Without preaching or prescribing, I’m the One Who Got Away is a life-affirming story of having the courage to become both safe enough and vulnerable enough to love and be loved.
September through November, Andrea will go on a book tour that will hit many of the major places in the book (like New York, Los Angeles, Maine) as well as other key cities (like Philadelphia, San Francisco, Portland) — go here to see the full, up-to-date list of events. These will be fun events, typically featuring Andrea in conversation with another author as well as reading excerpts.
Andrea has set up an email newsletter that will contain exclusive material. I urge you to sign up here for the newsletter. It is easy and free, and aside from buying the book is one of the best ways for you to show support.
Today I came across a relatively new (month-old) feature in Facebook Messenger: you can hail an Uber from within the app. Both Facebook and Uber act as (and have aspirations to be) interesting “front door” or “gateway” apps. For instance, for more and more people Facebook is not a page on the World Wide Web: it is the Web. All browsing starts in Facebook. Similarly, Uber has aspirations to be the first thing people think of when they want to move themselves around in a place.
Both of these “front door” functions actually are about reducing hassle, or friction. It is a hassle to find links to visit. It is a hassle to get in a car, drive yourself to a place, and park. Facebook and Uber remove those hassles (or intend to).
This frictionless society has been building inexorably, and it is interesting to think about its timeline and to reflect at how different the world has become and is becoming.
In thinking about this timeline, it is possible to start as early as 1969 when Arpanet was created, or 1989 when AOL was launched, or 1991 when the first Web page was published (actually that link points to a replica).
But instead I am thinking about the efforts and effects of major companies. Depending on your viewpoint, this could be a dystopic history or the description of a pathway to an easier lifestyle — or it could be both.
In any event, think about it:
Amazon (buying things) established 1994
craigslist (local want-ad stuff) established 1995
Wells Fargo Web banking established 1995
Peapod (groceries) established 1996
Google (searching) established 1998
PayPal (paying people) established 1998
Wikipedia (knowledge) established 2001
iTunes (digital music) invented 2001
Gmail (best email) launched 2004
Facebook (social community) established 2004
YouTube (video) established 2005
Google Maps (wayfinding) launched 2005
Twitter launched 2006
Apple TV launched 2006
Hulu (broadcast TV) established 2007
iPhone launched 2007
Spotify (even easier music) established 2008
Uber (transportation) established 2009
Just the above list does not do justice to the massive dislocation that a handful of these companies have created. Just think about how altogether possible it is to:
Buy everything you need through Amazon (groceries through local delivery service like Peapod)
Maintain connected to community, communicate, and learn about news through Facebook
Pay all bills through web banking
Listen to any music you want through Spotify
Watch any filmed entertainment (TV shows or movies) through Apple TV
Get around using Uber
Find people to do housework through craigslist and pay them through PayPal
Each of these services is attempting to create a total “front door” ecosystem, and they have to varying degrees created footholds among and between each other (Facebook + Uber for example).
What else is ripe to become more frictionless? Making objects (3d printing)? Learning (Lynda)? Remembering things (Evernote)?
This morning, I wrote this in my journal, my letter to whatever the force is that drives the universe:
What would it mean to lead a life of true faith? I would trust absolutely – trust that all I need would be provided, that no trial would be greater than I could bear. I would also have trust that I would know the right course of action – that guidance would come.
To live a life of true faith means that I would seek not to listen to my own will, and to not concern myself with outcomes. A life of true faith means my only productive expenditure of effort is in discerning your will, and trying to carry it out. Everything else is wasted.
Almost ten years ago, when the kids were still in elementary school and I was two years into what would be a long period of working independently in my home office, a situation that my wife had enjoyed already for eight years, I wrote a column for The Christian Science Monitor about my situation.
And my situation? It was perfect. Everything — home, family, economic well being — all revolved around our thriving household:
As I rise in the early morning, I often imagine a farmhouse in a small, agricultural community, perhaps in Maine 80 years ago. This imaginary farm provides the means for the family’s getting by. The chickens give up eggs; the cows, milk; and the soil, vegetables. Well-tended, the farm generates income at market as well as sustenance at home. It is the economic engine of the family. All hands work at making it run.
Our own house is like that farm, updated for the early 21st century. Instead of milking the cows, I fire up my screen and scan the night’s e-mail. Instead of harvesting the turnips, my wife drafts a new report for a client. Instead of feeding the chickens, the kids could collate a mailing (admittedly a rare occurrence). All of this puts food on the table. And it all happens at home. . . .
Xenophon, “history’s first professional writer” according to one classics professor, was born in Athens around 430 BC. His Oeconomicus is influential. It is a housekeeping manual, a discussion between the immortal Socrates and another man, concerning the best way to keep an estate. In this work, the two agree that it is “the business of the good economist to manage his own house or estate well.” It is from this household care manual that we get the word “economics.” It’s about the inflows and outflows that go into keeping a home. Seen this way, “home economics” is redundant: Economy is about the home to begin with.
Now, with daughter at college, son considering, and parents retired, I find I want to double down on this way of thinking. We live in uncertain times. They are made all the more uncertain by social norms that dictate young people should grow up and get out, that as seniors age they should seek out “retirement communities” where they can live with others like themselves.
I want to be a countervailing force.
I want my house to be, and remain, an intergenerational beacon. I want my wife’s mother to choose to live with us in retirement. I want my kids to boomerang back home, not in failure but by choice. Or, at least, I hope for those concerned to see this as a viable and desirable alternative.
So much research points to the benefits of intergenerational connections, and yet our social structures tell us that “moving back home” (both for old and young) is to be avoided. What if it were the norm? It is, after all, why humans choose to cohabit and live in company: to thrive and be secure. Why should a modern life obviate this evolutionary imperative?
In my ideal fantasy, multiple generations live in our 21st century farmhouse, supporting one another, providing the social network and glue that help us thrive. And — hope of hopes — this ethos gets passed on so that my kids feel the same way, welcoming both their parents as well as their adult children to continue to thrive together as we row our lifeboat through the currents.
[UPDATE: Today (8/14) we learned via a statement from his wife that Robin Williams was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease and he was not ready yet to share the diagnosis with the rest of the world. She also reports that Williams’ sobriety was “intact.” The below essay could have been written in the aftermath of any celebrity death that related in some way to a struggle with sobriety, so I will let it stand. However, it does not apply to Williams in this case. I (like many) write before I had all the facts. This is a lesson to learn. — Brad Rourke]
What to say about the death of Robin Williams. It is tragic and like so many I feel a deep sense of loss. It’s funny how you feel like you come to know certain celebrities solely by the cues you pick up from their roles and interviews and what is written about them. As if they are friends.
But I also know how ordinary this death was — like that of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Another life claimed by addiction. Happens every day. I personally knew a number of people who also died, and a number of people for whom it is a surprise they are alive (and a proof of grace).
Some, like Williams and Hoffman, had long-term sobriety. Yes mental illness appears to be involved but the greater factor appears to be the drama of alcohol and drugs. Each had a long spell of sobriety that was recently lost, and they were struggling to regain an even keel.
Such deaths are wasted unless we can take something from them. The lesson I take is that just being sober for some number of years does not cure a person. The disease of addiction is powerful and must be respected. It is the disease that says “I do not exist. You’re fine.” Truly, the essence of the devil.
But here is the good news, to the survivors, to we who face addiction. Sobriety is within reach, even after relapse. Others who face this disease want to help — indeed, need to help, as it keeps us sober. “No matter how far down the scale we have fallen, we will see how our experience can benefit others.” This is not an extravagant promise.
That is the message we carry: there is a solution. It is available to all, and there is help in literally every city, town, and village. It is there for those who want it and we need only seek it. We will be welcomed and understood in those places.
Our national, annual tradition has begun. The leaves have turned, in some parts of the country snow is falling, autumn and cooler temperatures have settled in and taken hold. Something we call the “holiday season” has arrived – a series of festivals with interesting harvest-based and pagan roots but which we have collectively imbued with other spiritual meaning. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s – the end-of-year hat trick.
And the tradition? It’s the handwringing and backlash against those who seek to “distort” the “true meaning” of these holidays. Many will decry the massive partying of New Year’s, the removal of Christ from Christmas, and the removal of thanks from Thanksgiving.
The current example, since it’s November, is the handwringing over the encroachment of commercialism into Thanksgiving. Every year the “Black Friday” sales begin earlier and earlier. More recently, Black Friday sales have given over to Thanksgiving Day sales in stores – retailers used to take a break on turkey day but earnings pressures and consumer desires have conspired with the result that some now shop on Thanksgiving Day.
This has created an anticonsumerist backlash, with people promoting (ironically, mainly through social media which is supported through ad revenues) “buy nothing” days.
I sympathize with the sense that our consumer culture has gone off the rails, and cutting back is a good idea. But to claim that Thanksgiving is somehow a sacrosanct holiday is incorrect and actually disregards the history of the celebration.
Thanks For Bounty
Since the founding of the colonies, various (in fact, many) “thanksgiving feasts” have been held. Our archetypal such feast occurred at Plymouth Plantation and the story goes that after some lean times the colonists, with the help of the friendly natives, finally caught a break and had enough to eat. So they “gave thanks.” (At least that’s how they taught it to me at Will Rogers Elementary School.)
In fact, this “original Thanksgiving” was a three-day feast that was meant to celebrate a bumper crop. It was a party specifically built around consumption. And throughout the early days of our nation, various officials declared “thanksgivings” with frequency – almost always in celebration of something awesome happening. George Washington, for instance, declared a “day of thanksgiving” in 1789 to commemorate the “opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government.” Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, declared the final Thursday of November that year to be a national day of Thanksgiving in recognition of all that had gone well even in the midst of a catastrophic civil war which had “not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship.”
The message was not “thank the Lord for what you have,” but it was “thank Providence for this awesome bounty.” A subtle but meaningful difference.
The “holiday” finally began to be codified in 1939. For some time it had traditionally been held on the last Thursday in November. (Prior to that it had been ad hoc.) Still in the midst of the Great Depression, president Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that Thanksgiving in 1939 would be held on the fourth Thursday of November. His intention was to extend the Christmas retail season so merchants would have one more week to achieve profitability. In fact, this idea was suggested to him by the owner of the firm that would become Macy’s.
There was, of course, controversy over this move, as a tradition had grown that Thanksgiving ought to be the last Thursday of November. This backlash was driven not so much by anticonsumerist sentiment but by sports: By this time, there were many traditional sports rivalries that played out on that last Thursday, and it was inconvenient for teams to change their schedules around. There was also a partisan angle: Republicans opposed Roosevelt’s move and called the holiday “Franksgiving.” But Roosevelt stuck to his guns, and declared the next-to-last Thursday Thanksgiving.
In 1941, Congress declared the fourth Thursday to be Thanksgiving Day (this split the difference between the last-Thursday folks and the next-to-last Thursday folks, as the fourth Thursday is sometimes the last Thursday in November and sometimes the next-to-last). On December 26, 1941, Roosevelt signed the bill and for the first time the date of Thanksgiving became a matter of national law.
I don’t plan on going to the mall on Thanksgiving Day. Nor do I plan to go out on Black Friday. But not because I hold these days as sacrosanct commerce-free zones – it’s because I don’t much like crowds, to be honest.
I will give thanks this week: Thanks for the health of my family, thanks for all that has been given me, thanks that we will be together. And I will think with compassion about how it all could have gone another way for me. That’s a sentiment we might do well to hold every day.
I don’t, however, plan on covering myself in sackcloth and ashes. Our Thanksgiving tradition is specifically rooted in consumption. I’m not going to overdo it, but at the same time I’m not going to pretend that Thanksgiving is meant to be a day of abstention. It’s a feast.
Not because it is election season, I have been thinking about Dante’s Inferno these days.
In case you have not read it, the book is a depiction of Hell. It goes into great detail about the various punishments awaiting those who have sinned while they were alive.
I would not say that I am a believer or deeply religious person, but I have always been fascinated by this work. I am especially fascinated by the fate that befalls those who never make a choice in the world of the living — those who do not commit. They are condemned to chase after banners for eternity, just outside the gates of Hell.
The reason that this has been on my mind is that I have been “rebooting” various practices in my life. Yoga, meditation, working out, prayer, and more. In all these activities, it is very tempting to say, for instance, “I meditate,” and yet, not really actually do any meditation. If I never really do the meditation, if I never commit to the practice, I am condemned always to be chasing after a banner — wanting the benefits, but not receiving them.
Over the summer, I decided that I wanted to learn how to do a handstand. I worked at it every day, little by little. Eventually, I was able to do a handstand and stick it for about five seconds. However, I stopped practicing. I can’t really say, anymore, that I can do a handstand. I can get there for a moment, but since I have not been practicing, I cannot stay standing on my hands for any appreciable length of time. It is tempting to say that I am “working on my handstand.” But that is not really the case, I have not been putting in the effort.
I am not steeped in any organized religion, though I do count myself as spiritual. Still, the image sticks with me and I feel in many ways as if I am that person chasing after a banner. In so many areas of my life, my practice has slipped, and I find myself saying that I do more than I really do. I say I meditate when, to be honest, of late I have mostly been intending to meditate. I intend to go practice more yoga than I do. I intend to work out more often. At some point, cognitive dissonance must overcome me, and I must either commit — or not.
Thankfully, there is a way to correct such things. All I have to do is to begin to actually do these practices. So that’s what I’ve done. A reboot, if you will.
[Note: Some friends know that I have become fascinated by dictation of late. The first draft of this post was written entirely using Siri on my iPhone 5 — dictated into the DayOne journaling app and then ported over to WordPress. I then edited in the standard way.]