Never Achieving Alone

The United States is focused on achievement and success and we use a few basic measuring sticks to compare ourselves to others and to display how successful we have become. Money is our main yardstick, tied to other measures of success such as home-ownership and the size of our homes, the number and types of vehicles we drive, and so on. When we talk about our own success and reflect back on our path we tend to look at the tough decisions and sacrifices that we made along the way. We focus on the obstacles we overcame where others faltered and we create a highlight reel in our minds that emphasizes our good qualities in the face of adversity and downplays the help we received from others or the advantages we started with. When we do this we begin to develop a false sense of what was truly necessary for us to get to where we currently are, and we begin to overestimate ourselves, our importance, and our relation to society as a whole.
In his book Between the World and Me, author Ta-Nehisi Coats reflects on his life journey and the lessons he learned in a long form essay to his son. He at one point reflects on the poets and writers who were influential to him at college and includes a quick note to his son that stood out to me. Coats writes, “It is important that I tell you their names, that you know that I have never achieved anything alone.”

 

We often miss how dependent our lives are on those around us. We look at the smart decisions we had to make and praise ourselves for being disciplined, for not getting in trouble, and for being more industrious than those who are not as successful as we are. Money becomes the measure of how well we have done on our own, and fancy cars and houses become the way we display our value as human beings and our self-reliance through tough times.

 

These displays and our memories however, do not reflect the realities of our lives and our interdependence on other people. We never truly do anything alone. Our lives do not take place in a vacuum and we are not born as the amazing all-stars we make our selves out to be. We are dependent on other people from the very beginning, and often times, the success we achieve can be attributed to luck, to meeting the right people, and to having the right support at the right times in our lives. We have a large role to play in along this journey, and our attitudes, decisions, and work ethic greatly influence where we will end up, but we never truly achieve something without the help of others. We do not choose our parents and we do not choose our genetic pre-dispositions to things like disease, addiction, physical height and weight, or mental focus. Each of these areas could be managed and improved through personal decisions, but it is important to recognize that many of us do not start with equal footing and we do not all face the same levels of adversity.

 

In a quote written to James Harmon for his book, Take My Advice, philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote, “even though we develop a degree of mastery and independence, we always remain alarmingly weak and incomplete, dependent on others and on an uncertain world for whatever we are able to achieve.” Great business decisions and adventures can never be undertaken alone, and sometimes the people around you explain more of the success of your business than just your own hard work. We influence the outcome, but we never truly control where we end up. Even the best business idea and the best team focused on reaching smart goals can be taken down in an unpredicted market collapse.

 

In Meditations Marcus Aurelius wrote, “a branch cut off from the adjacent branch must of necessity be cut off from the whole tree also. So too a man when he is separated from another man has fallen off from the whole social community.” What Aurelius is explaining is that we are connected to others and dependent on others to grow and thrive. Like a branch cut from a tree, we will wither away on our own. We may be able to become successful through smart decisions and hard work, but constantly operating in the background is a society that supports us. Cory Booker in United writes, “our rightful, long-cherished veneration of individual freedom and self-reliance and our faith in the free market must not be accepted as excuses to fail in our individual responsibilities to preserve our communal treasures.” One of those communal treasures is a society that still manages to support others and create opportunities for others through our connections and collective abilities. What makes us great and has allowed us to grow did not occur on our own, and it is up to us to reflect that support back onto others.

 

Ultimately, our money and wealth say nothing of our value or of the obstacles we overcame to get to the place we find ourselves. Looking back, it is easier to see our sacrifices and hard work, and harder to see the advantages we had. We are dependent on society at the same time that society depends on our best efforts. Being aware of how we benefitted and the advantages we received will help us make better decisions and live less selfishly in respect to others and our society.
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Remembering Black History in the Face of White History

Throughout his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coats is critical of Western History and America’s backstory, particularly because of the way that black people are remembered. The history we know and understand as white people looking back at Western democracy is focused on ourselves, which is to say, white people. The story of black people is viewed through our white cultural lens, and other cultures, Asian, Asian Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, Indian, Native American, and others are only included as short side notes to our own experiences. The result of this is a sense that there is only one culture that matters and has driven the progress of humanity throughout time, the white culture. Writing specifically on how this shapes our current thinking, and providing a black perspective, Coats writes the following in a passage addressed to his son,
“Everyone of any import, from Jesus to George Washington, was white. This was why your grandparents banned Tarzan and the Lone Ranger and toys with white faces from the house. They were rebelling against the history books that spoke of black people only as sentimental “firsts”—first black five-star general, first black congressman, first black mayor—always presented in the bemused manner of a category of Trivial Pursuit. Serious history was the West, and the West was white.”
What our history teaches young white boys and girls is that they descend from those who matter and that they have an important legacy to carry on. What our history teaches those who are not white is that their histories are unimportant and only a side note in the history of human progress. We certainly could not cover everything from every culture in our history classes, but we have decided only to focus on what has made America white, and not on what has made America great. The story of our country has always been about incredible diversity and the societal challenges that have accompanied our demographic realities. It is more comfortable to live in a homogenous society of people with similar backstories, but living and working in a culture that is built on differences pushes for new advancements, perspectives, and growth in a way that homogeneity can not imagine. We should do more to understand how the histories of black people and people of other minorities are the histories of the United States. The history of race in America is more complicated than a story of continually greater acceptance and inclusion, and we should be honest about the wretched realities of slavery in the past, and how we have been slow to truly accept other people throughout our history.

Always Asking Questions

Questioning the world around us is part of what makes us human. Our search for answers and a better understanding of the universe is the story of human progress on Earth, and we must constantly ask questions and to find new answers to propel us forward. Often we never reach the answer we were hoping for, but we still ask questions and we still do our best to continue to understand what is taking place in the world around us.

 

In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coats discusses how he learned to question the world, to truly strive to better understand the universe, by observing what took place around him and asking why.

 

“My mother and father were always pushing me away from secondhand answers—even the answers they themselves believed. I don’t know that I have ever found any satisfactory answers of my own. But every time I ask it, the question is refined. That is the best of what the old heads meant when they spoke of being “politically conscious” —as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as a ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.”

 

Recently I have been more aware of the answers people have to the frequent questions our world asks: Who should we elect, what is the nature of religion, how should we organize society to maximize human progress? Listening to the responses people have, it is clear to me that most people do not have answers, but instead have partial secondhand responses that they think they should defend. Most people do not live their lives in a constant state of questioning, and if they do, they seek out certainty to place themselves and their actions on the correct side of any given issue. Rather than inquiry and a deeper understanding, people pursue comfort and reaffirmation. This is clear in the simplistic shallow answers people offer to complex questions.

 

What Coats learned from his parents was to find his own answers. His parents pushed him to learn, to be aware of the world around him, to ask why, and to not accept the simple answers that people offered. His story shows why it is important to be constantly questioning what we know, why we know what we know, and whether our model of the universe is operating with the best information available. It is likely that we won’t find perfect answers, but that does not mean we should stop questioning or that we are on the wrong path because our knowledge is in one way or another incomplete. Recycling answers from someone else, especially secondhand answers that were never formed as complete thoughts, is dangerous and misleading. We fall into cycles where we fail to actually look for answers and build more complete understanding, and instead look past the answer given and find the response that seems to support our identity and the belief we want to hold about ourselves.

 

Our understanding of the universe should be nuanced because the universe, human interaction, and the organization of everything from atoms to people is complex. When we fall back on absolute answers and simple solutions, we are avoiding the nuanced and the challenging investigation of our planet. Easy and assuring answers are nice, but they do not aid human progress and they do not allow us to live in a state where we improve upon our knowledge and beliefs.

Failure in School

Everyone knows it is important for children to be successful in school and to grow to be more thoughtful and successful later in life. One of the challenges with the current school model that Ta-Nehisi Coats points out in his book Between the World and Me is the way in which our education system is designed for a specific culture with specific expectations for specific students. Those who match the culture and who have the right support from parents and teachers find success, but those who don’t fit with the culture of the schools, who don’t have support from parents, and who don’t have safe environments are left behind. Our individualized culture, focused on self-reliance and self-responsibility often looks at schools as though they are an equalizing force, giving each student an equal opportunity to grow and succeed, but Coats views schools differently.

“The society could say, ‘He should have stayed in school,’ and then wash its hands of him,” Coats wrote about the system he found him self in as a child. The great equalizing power of school, was an equalizing of blame, moving the responsibility for success or failure from society on to the individual. This meant that the child whose parents worked two or three jobs, the child whose parents dealt with substance abuse, and the child who had to walk home along dangerous streets was now on equal footing with the children in gated communities with parents who could afford to stay at home and pay for private tutors. In this model it is not the parents, not the society, and not the culture of the school that are responsible for whether kids learn and grow, but rather the children themselves who bear the responsibility of success in school.

When we criticize those who do not complete school and resign them to low paying jobs, poor housing, and exclude them from society, we are reducing their future based on factors they could not control growing up. For me it seems unreasonable to ask so much of a person at such a young age, to demand that they not make mistakes and demand that they become more than human before they are 18. For Coats, it was unreasonable to demand academic success from young children who lacked the support and guidance of parents, who had to learn in schools that  did not accept the culture of the child, and who have to navigate the tough social realities of concentrated poverty. The most challenging part of the system, as revealed by Coats, is the idea that school was a great equalizer, and that after someone failed in school, they could be forgotten by society.

Self-Reflection and Seeing Your Place in the World

When we think of ourselves and who we are as people, we can easily fall into a trap where the best parts of who we are standout and shine, while the worst parts of ourselves are hidden in the shadows where we are not able to recognize them. We are rational beings, and we are so good at being rational that we can explain away almost anything. Our bad behaviors are never just our own bad behaviors but they are a result of someone else’s bad behaviors in the first place, and our bad habits really are not habits and they really are not that bad, and our lack of initiative on that thing we tell everyone we are working on is due to how hard we work on everything else and how busy we are. In the end, we paint a picture of ourselves in our mind that makes us really awesome. Our decisions are motivated by all the right reasons and we are on the correct side of any given political debate, parental decision, and freeway driving style.

 

Ta-Nehisi Coats grew up constantly questioning and challenging this instinctual way of thinking. In my last post I described his mother’s method of punishment when he got in trouble as a school child. His mother would make him sit down and write about his poor behavior and answer questions about why he was disrespectful, why his behavior was frowned upon by his teachers and by society, and why he thought it was ok for him to do the things that got him in trouble. He explains that all this writing did little to change his actual behavior as a child, but it gave him a unique skillset, the ability to look at the world, ask why it was the way it was and why people acted the way they did, and to then turn inward and ask if he himself acted the way that others did, and why he acted as he did. His mother built a sense of self-awareness in him that shaped his life and the way he understood the world.

 

What Coats found when he became more reflective of himself was a world that was not as innocent as many have believed growing up. Each time he got in trouble he was forced to recognize that he was not the perfect person that he wanted to see in the mirror. He was forced to acknowledge his shortcomings and negative instincts, and he began to make connections from himself and his behaviors to other people. About his reflective writing Coats writes, “Here was the lesson: I was not an innocent. My impulses were not filled with unfailing virtue. And feeling that I was as human as anyone, this must be true for other humans. If I was not innocent, then they were not innocent. Could this mix of motivation also affect the stories they tell? The cities they built? The country they claimed as given to them by God?”

 

We all act in ways that best serve ourselves, or ways that we think will best serve ourselves and our tribe. We shape the stories we tell about the nature of the universe to align with the lifestyle, the privileges, and the opportunities we have. This is part of our human nature, evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. When left unchecked, this part of us does not always lead to perfect outcomes for everyone. Our impulses may lead to tribal decisions that reflect discriminatory biases and our habits may disempower other people. If we cannot build a practice of self-reflection in our own lives, then we end up searching out and defending our decisions with information that is comforting to us, but not connected with the reality of our actions and the reality of the world that other people live within. Coats began to question the world around him because he understood his impulses and his own thoughts and behaviors. He understood why he got in trouble, and began to see that other people were not just the perfect individuals they presented as, but dealt with the same impulses and the same dark side that he dealt with. From this perspective, Coats could ask new questions of himself, his society, and how everyone built a shared understanding of who they were and where they came from.

How to Question the World

In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coats describes his mother’s approach to his childhood misbehavior in school. When Coats would get in trouble his mother would not just take away his privileges, she would make him reflect on why he got in trouble by making him write about his behavior, his thoughts, and his decisions. Describing his childhood he wrote,

 

“When I was in trouble at school (which was quite often) she would make me write about it. The writing had to answer a series of questions: Why did I feel the need to talk at the same time as my teacher? Why did I not believe that my teacher was entitled to respect? How would I want someone to behave while I was talking? What would I do the next time I felt the urge to talk to my friends during a lesson?” The questions Coats was writing about at a young age were self reflective questions. Rather than letting him brood and be in trouble, his mother forced him to organize his thoughts and put them down on paper. The act of reflecting is important, but without organizing thoughts and creating a coherent idea behind our thoughts, they simply whip around our head in a slightly chaotic manner. In his book 59 Seconds Richard Wiseman writes the following about the benefits of writing versus thinking or speaking,

 

“Thinking can often be somewhat unstructured, disorganized, and even chaotic.  In contrast, writing encourages the creation of a story line and structure that help people make sense of what has happened and work toward a solution.  In short, talking can add to a sense of confusion, but writing provides a more systematic solution-based approach.”

 

I have found that I often underestimate how intelligent young children are. I am constantly surprised by what toddlers remember and by the connections they are able to make. I would not have thought that a reflective exercise could be so impactful for a young child in elementary school, but Coats describes how these questions and how writing in particular shaped who he grew up to be. He continued in his book,

 

“Your grandmother was not teaching me how to behave in class. She was teaching me how to ruthlessly interrogate the subject that elicited the most sympathy and rationalizing—myself.”

 

Writing and reflecting helped Coats organize his thoughts, but it also built a habit where he thought about his actions and his thoughts, and learned to question himself. Coats explains that he now gives his son the same writing tasks when he is in trouble. He says that he does not expect these exercise to change his son’s behavior as they did not necessarily change his behavior as a boy, but that he hopes these writing exercises will build a habit of reflection and self-awareness into his son’s life.

 

Coats grew up in a household where he was forced to question himself, his behavior, and his thoughts and beliefs. He was not raised in a household that told him that he was already special or great, and throughout his book he reflects on how he felt, why he felt certain ways at certain times, and how his thoughts and emotions drove him to act one way or another. He questioned how society was organized after making strong observations and recognizing that the systems in existence today are the results of real decisions made by real people. Often we go through our lives unaware of our impulses and beliefs, believing that things are the way they are out of some sort of divine providence or simply because they could never be a different way. Coats was raised to recognize that there was no way things should be, and from a young age developed a habit of asking why.

 

What is important to recognize from the his quote is that he is asking why and asking deep questions not just about society or about others, but about himself. When we ask why others error and make poor decisions, we are in a way placing ourselves above them. We assume that we are correct and on the right side of the moral divide, and then cast judgement on others and point out how flawed they are. Coats encourages us not to sympathize with our own self and not to spend too much time rationalizing our own beliefs, but to truly study and be aware of our thoughts, so that we can be more honest with ourselves about why we believe what we believe.

How Close Together Success and Failure Can Be

Ta-Nihisi Coats, author of Between the World and Me, reflects on his childhood and how close he was at many points in his life to stumbling down the wrong path. Coats grew up in a rough part of Baltimore and had to make daily decisions that could push his life in the wrong direction or help him stay afloat. As a young black man Coats remembers the challenge of making these daily decisions and describes how these decisions physically manifested in his life. Making the right decision was not always clear, and making the wrong decision (or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time) often resulted in physical harm. The challenge for Coats was that the right and wrong decisions were never clear. Many times the wrong decision led to physical harm and pain, but oftentimes, so did the right decision.

“What was hiding behind the smoke screen of streets and schools?” Coats asked. “And what did it mean that number 2 pencils, conjugations without context, pythagorean theorems, handshakes, and head nods were the difference between life and death, were the curtains drawing down between the world and me?”

Coats described the importance of being tough and understanding how to navigate the streets where he grew up. Even well intentioned children could unintentionally cross the wrong child or the wrong person on the street corner, and even worse, if their parents had issues with dangerous people in the neighborhood, then so did the children. Not shaking hands the right way with the right people and not being able to give the right head nod to the right guys could place ones life at risk, no matter how well one did in school. With such an imminent threat of danger in the streets, the world of number 2 pencils, abstract education principles, and distant payoffs from education were too hazy to be taken seriously. Survival became the main goal, and survival required a set of skills that did not align with the world of education created by the people outside the ghettos.

All of this created a world where Coats and his friends constantly had to walk a fine line between success and failure. The inability to focus in class and build the mental skill set needed to find a good job later in life put their futures in risk, but at the same time, the inability to understand the streets and protect oneself put ones current life at risk. Few could ever navigate this world by shutting out the negative of the social world around them to excel in school, but all were expected to do so, and many would go on to be criticized for not successfully navigating such treacherous terrain from elementary through high school. A wrong step, a few bad grades, an unintentional insult to the wrong person, and success (or even life) could be taken away from Coats and the children he grew up with.