Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

One of the things that struck me about Cory Booker’s United is  the way in which he draws unusual connections between people in society, particularly the connections he highlights between people who live during different times. Going back several generations, Booker’s family had lived in poverty as the descendants of slaves, something Booker did not actually know until he had an ancestry check as part of a television show. His parents were able to escape a cycle of poverty that had dominated both sides of his family. Growing up, his parents made him deeply aware of the sacrifices made by his family and by people in the United States that allowed him to have greater opportunities.

 

He writes, “I’ve said many times of my generation that we drink deeply from wells of freedom and opportunity that we did not dig, that we eat from tables prepared for us by our ancestors, that we sit comfortably in the shade of trees that we did not cultivate. We stand on the shoulders of giants.”

 

The saying, “shoulders of giants” was originally used to demean a politician, but Booker repurposes it to show how close we  truly are to the people who came before us. We benefit from the choices and decisions of our grandparents and ancestors and owe much of who we are to the people whose hard work helped create the situation and environment we were born into. Through our childhood we are supported and dependent on others to prepare a life for us where we can truly survive and thrive.

 

In a recent episode of the Brookings Cafeteria Podcast, Brookings Scholar Richard Reeves shares a section from his recent book, Dream Horders, and the section he shares describes the American Dream as an opportunity for man and woman to reach toward their full potential, unhampered by society. For so many of us, this potential is only possible thanks to the members of our family who made choices that paid off not so much for them, but rather for us. Booker recognizes how much our lives are influenced by what happened before we were born and when we are infants, and he points directly to the benefits we enjoy that we did not earn.
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Lasting Imprints

“What we do or fail to do—to one another, for one another, or with one another—leaves a lasting imprint beyond what we can imagine.” Cory Booker includes this early on in his book United as he reflects on the lessons he learned from family and the connections he sees between all people. We often fall into a world where we think primarily of ourselves and we do not consider those around us. If we do consider those around us, we usually only think about those we are the closest to, our family and close friends, and we do not see how we are connected with those we have never met. Remembering that our lives are deeply connected with everyone, including those who came before us and those who will come after us, helps us remember just how important our actions are.

 

No matter what we do, our actions will always be infinitesimally small in the history and course of the entire world, but we always have an opportunity to improve someone’s day or to help establish a world that we would be proud to live in. Despite the limited impact of our actions on world affairs, the simplest gesture can still be important in the life of another person. What Booker is explaining in his quote, is that we can never predict how our actions will truly impact those around us and those who are connected to us, and we can never predict the value that our tiny action will have on the world. By believing that our tiny actions can be of value in the world and shape the planet in the direction we want, we can begin to approach the world in a more deliberate sense.

 

Booker’s quote is interesting because he directly refers to the impact of what we do not do. Do we fail to stand up for justice? Do we fail to acknowledge the value of another human being? Do we restrain ourselves from lashing out at others when we feel threatened? Thinking about what we do not do, not just the actions we perform, helps us value our decisions even more strongly. Recognizing the times when it is appropriate for us to show restraint and to honor another person builds self control in a respectful manner. Being aware of times when we want to move toward passiveness and inaction helps us confront fear and develop the courage to stand up and act during challenging times that require our effort.

 

Booker’s ideas align with Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle is the Way and a quote he shares from Leroy Percy, “A man’s job is to make the world a better place to life in, so far as he is able—always remembering the results will be infinitesimal…” We cannot predict what impact our actions will have, but we can make sure they are moving people in the right direction and helping us make a difference in the world.

 

What Booker and Holiday truly encourage is to consider our actions more deeply. To think beyond how out actions benefit us right now, and to ask ourselves, what impact do out actions have on the lives of those around us, on the lives of those beyond out community, and on the lives of future generations? When we build this sense of awareness into our actions we can begin to make the world a better place, and we can begin to also recognize the things that have helped us and allowed us to become the people we are today.

Privilege, Opportunity, Character, Honor

United is Senator Cory Booker’s story of his time living in Newark, New Jersey and the start of his venture into politics. The son of IBM business executives who overcame racial obstacles to find success in the business world, Booker grew up keenly aware of the challenges that people face on their journey through life, and he received down to Earth advice and support from his parents. Booker’s parents, despite their wealth and success in the business world, always remembered the struggle and fight of those who came before them to create the opportunities they enjoyed, and they made sure Booker understood the ways in which he had benefitted from the actions and decisions of others.

 

In his book he shares a quick message from his parents, “Privileges and opportunities say nothing of character and honor, they would tell me. Only actions do.” His parents taught him that social position and that a person’s socioeconomic situation at birth are not what define them, but rather actions are what make us who we are and who others understand us to be. For Booker’s parents, character is enacted in our actions, and honor is demonstrated by the way we live.

 

The quote from Booker’s parents reminds me of three quotes that I recently wrote about. In his book, Come Back Frayed, Colin Write states, “We show with our actions what our priorities are. Time unclaimed, time traded for something else, is one’s priorities in practice.” His idea of actions aligns perfectly with the message from Booker’s parents. Having privilege and opportunity means nothing if our actions are not in alignment with the message we try to present to other people. We may be able to fool ourselves by telling others about our character and about what we want to do, but ultimately, our actions reveal what is truly important for us and demonstrate our true character.

 

On opportunity Ryan Holiday writes, “If you think it’s simply enough to take advantage of the opportunities  that arise in your life, you will fall short of greatness. Anyone sentient can do that. What you must do is learn how to press forward precisely when everyone around you sees disaster.” The idea in Holiday’s quote stretch beyond the lesson of Booker’s parents, but still connect through the idea of actions and opportunity. Booker’s parents did not simply accept the status quo in their pursuit of career success and the lifestyle they wanted, but instead they made deliberate decisions to drive toward the future they wanted. The opportunities they experienced were open to many, but they put forth true effort and lived in a way that made the most of the opportunities presented to them.
The final quote that comes to mind from Booker’s parents also comes from Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle is the Way, and is a quote he uses to express the importance of our actions:

 

“The great psychologist Viktor Frankle, survivor of three concentration camps, found presumptuousness in the age-old question: “What is the meaning of life?” As though it is someone else’s responsibility to tell you. Instead, he said, the world is asking you that question. And it’s your job to answer with your actions.
    In every situation, life is asking us a question, and our actions are the answer. Our job is simply to answer well.
    Right action—unselfish, dedicated, masterful, creative—that is the answer to that question.”

 

What builds our character and our honor, in the eyes of Viktor Frankle is not the outcomes of our lives that we often drive toward, money, nice things, a powerful career, but rather the actions we take to reach those end goals. The opportunities and privileges we are born with are nothing if we cannot make unselfish and creative decisions that we can act on in dedicated and masterful ways. Through action that is beyond ourselves and designed to put others first we can show that our honor and character are priorities in our life, and we can use the opportunities we experience to build something greater than ourselves and the situation we are born into.

An Unwavering Commitment to the Common Good

This post is a continuation of my previous post: Personal Responsibility.

 

Growing-up, Senator Cory Booker was told over and over about the importance of taking ownership of his actions, his efforts, and his attitude. His mother demanded that he put his best effort into anything he did, whether it was cleaning the garage or going to school. His family demanded the best effort he could put forward because it was only through excelling personally that they believed one could make the biggest difference in the world. By accepting personal responsibility, one could give back to the community and put oneself in position to truly better society. Booker writes,

 

“My family also insisted that personal ethic must be seamlessly bound with a larger communal ethic, a sense of connectedness: a recognition that we are all part of something and have reaped the benefits of the struggles waged by those who had an unwavering commitment to the common good. From my earliest days, I was informed that I was the result of a conspiracy spanning apace and time—that billions of meritorious actions past and present yielded the abundance I enjoy.”

 

Booker’s quote ties into a growing belief that I have developed recently, that society only moves forward because some people decide to shoulder incredible burdens and responsibility, not for their own glory, but because they see the incredible benefit our society will receive. They may not be treated well, but they understand that society needs someone to put forth great effort even if there is little direct reward for them. This was true at our nation’s founding, and Joseph Ellis in his book The Quartet explained the incredible sacrifices and burdens carried by individuals to make American nationhood a possibility. Robert Morris essentially funded the Continental Army for two years with his own finances, despite public belief that he was profiting from the war for independence. In my own life I have seen this in the numerous sports coaches who served as mentors and teachers for me through the years, from my first basketball coach to my high school cross country and track and field coaches. With little reward and often much criticism from team members and parents, my coaches shouldered a responsibility to not just teach me sports, but to provide life lessons and moral guidance. Whether it is Robert Morris funding the fledging government under the Articles of Confederation, or a high school sports coach working with young children to help them grow, society demands that some individuals go beyond what is required of them to shoulder a greater portion of society’s demands.

 

The lessons I have learned through reading and sports experiences were taught to Booker growing up. His parents helped him see that his actions, and indeed his entire life, took place in a community, not a vacuum. Everything he did and every opportunity was the result of great people making sacrifices for a better tomorrow. Booker’s parents had been pioneers in the business world  as African American leaders in their companies, and they had benefitted by the few brave people who had stood up and carried the Civil Rights movement forward.

 

A line from Booker’s father is shared in the book to represent the humility with which his family approached the world and to represent the sense that his family had benefitted from those who came before them and laid the groundwork for their current success. “Son, don’t you dare walk around this house like you hit a triple, ‘cause you were born on third base.”

 

While Booker’s family stressed the importance of responsibility and taking ownership of one’s actions, behaviors, and decisions, they also recognized the importance of building an unwavering commitment to the common good into everything they did. Without focusing on community and without recognizing the incredible benefit that we receive from living in America, we risk living with an overinflated ego that leads to false beliefs of our own abilities and hides the efforts of other people to make our lives possible.

Personal Responsibility

How we think about personal responsibility seems to be a driving factor in the decisions we make about society. We are a group of individuals working in our own best interest, but with our interests moderated through a social union to ensure that as we pursue our best interest, we do not unreasonably impede others or damage their health, resources, or wellbeing. For many, our success is seen as a result of our own effort, attitude, and determinism, and without taking responsibility for our individual actions we can never reach our full potential, and we will never uphold our end of societal success.

Senator Cory Booker addresses the role that personal responsibility has played in his life in his book United, detailing the lessons learned from his parents. He writes, “My family worked to have me understand that there are two interrelated ethics critical for citizenship. One is that we all must take responsibility for ourselves, invest in our own development, strive for personal excellence. My family taught me that we are all responsible for our own well-being, our growth, and most of all our attitude: The most consequential daily decision you make, I was told, is the attitude you choose as you engage in your day” (emphasis in original).

Booker continues to give examples of his mother teaching him about excellence and how he learned the importance of always doing our best work, because someone was always counting on us to do our best. His family provided him lessons with actors from the Civil Rights Movement as models, giving Booker a powerful message to endure challenges and struggles and to take personal responsibility for actions and decisions because it is in the best interest of society.

The quote above, in Booker’s emphasized section on attitude, reflects stoic principles outlined by Marcus Aurelius in his writing, Meditations. Aurelius wrote about the ways in which our attitude changes our constitution and our demeanor for the day. If we choose to leave the comfort of our bed knowing that we will meet people who do not hold our standards, but that we ourselves are not lessened by those who do not hold to our ideals, then we can move forward with an attitude that lifts all. If we reflect on our perception we can identify the challenges we face, and turn our obstacles into pathways toward success, bearing nobly that which others see as poor fortune.

Recognizing that societal growth and progress requires our best is a powerful motivator for us to strive toward greatness. Our full potential is the only thing that can carry forward others, open new doors for ourselves, and lay the stones to create paths for other. When we choose to see this, we have a reason to contribute to society rather than to expect society to provide for us. Reflecting on our attitude and deciding that we will approach each day and each decision in a positive light will help us advance and grow for the betterment of all.

Individually Together

In his book United, Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey has an interesting observation about American togetherness in a country that is undoubtedly focused on individual rights, liberties, and successes. Very early in his book he writes, “Our nation speaks of individual rights and freedoms, personal responsibility and self-reliance, and yet we have consistently demonstrated, in spirit and sacrifice, the idea that we are better together—that while our differences matter, our nation matters more.”

 

I like this quote because our individual focused nation often forgets or downplays just how much we rely on one another for the lives we lead. It is very tempting, and even encouraged, to think about what we have done on our own to achieve success. We focus on our individual sacrifices to get the things we want, we reflect on our own hard work to get the promotion we wanted, and enjoy the spotlight when we win accolades and awards, but Booker is acknowledging something operating in the background of our individual focus. We could not have made those sacrifices without help from others, we could not have received the promotion had we not been given the opportunity by someone else, and we would not have received those accolades without the support of others. What we do on our own is only possible with the connections we share with the world.

 

Below the surface we recognize this. We have pride in being American even if we put stickers on our car that say, “Don’t tread on me” and we engage in community service to help strangers we have never met before. But because these connections are hiding away from our main focus, we fail to acknowledge them as powerfully as we should, and we risk isolation over unity. Booker continues, “We make a grave mistake when we assume this spirit of connectedness is automatic or inevitable.” Reveling in our own glory makes it likely  that we will forget just how much we rely on each other, and will make it possible for us to turn against each other or downplay the struggles of others in the face of our own challenges.

 

By recognizing that our individual desires are best achieved when we work and cooperate with others, or that our own goals are only possible in a system where others are united with us, we strengthen ourselves, our communities, and the American democracy. The more we elevate ourselves and turn inward, the more we turn away from bonds that connect our nation, and the more we risk the devolution of the American democratic experiment. Seneca wrote, “he is self-sufficient-and yet could not live if he had to live without the society of man.” Our existence is completely dependent on others, on society, and without others we may subsist, but in no way could we truly exist in any semblance of our current self. Non of what we are is purely born of our own greatness and effort, everything is interconnected with others and with a society that was built and shaped long before we came along.

Deep Human Connections

Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey reflected on his life journey, lessons, relationships, and values in his book, United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good. Throughout Booker’s experience, giving the title its meaning, he has become profoundly aware of how connected everyone is. Not just everyone in a small community or everyone in a country,  but truly everyone on earth, even including those who have passed away and those yet to be born. Government is about organizing society and society’s resources in a way that allows people to function together, and for Booker, our connections run deeper and are more profound than many of us realize on a daily basis. Focusing on our connectedness he writes,

 

“One of the most valuable things I’ve learned since moving to Newark almost twenty years ago is the need for a deeper awarenss of our human connection. I’ve learned that we must be more courageous in the empathy we extend to one another, we must shoulder a deeper responsibility for one another, and we must act in greater concert with one another”

 

I think it is very easy to become isolated from those around you, and to turn away from community activities and events. We have constant contact to the internet and television provides us with nearly endless entertainment. As a result we find ourselves content to experience reality through digital devices and do not spend as much time outside and in our community as we did in the past. A common complaint of government today is that it is too large and performs too many functions that should be left to the private sector or to charity. The problem with such a complaint is that as we become more isolated and shut in, there are fewer people and community groups willing to put forth the effort to provide food or shelter to homeless, to ensure impoverished communities receive healthcare, and to maintain recreation facilities. As we have lost our sense of being united in the physical world in preference of our sense of being connected through the digital world, we have left much of society without support, and government has been the necessary agent to step in and support the communities and individuals left behind.

 

The paragraph above is my observation, but I think it helps explain how we have ended up in a place where Booker’s comments on unity are refreshing and profound. The more we can recognize and rekindle our connections with those around us and with the world as a whole, the more we develop empathy by understanding the challenges that others face. By getting out and being receptive to the difficulties of the human experience, we can share our lessons in overcoming such difficulties as we help raise up others. When we think of another’s failure as our failure to connect with another person by encouraging and supporting them, we find a new perspective of interconnectedness on our path forward as human beings living together on planet earth.