Challenges Today

In Cory Booker’s United, the U.S. Senator relives moments from his past that shaped him and his politics. In his book he shares the story of a night when he and his father were out for drinks, and heard gunfire on their walk back home. Booker rushed toward the sound of the gunfire, arrived as one of the first people at the scene, and attempted to stabilize a man who had been shot. He explains the almost shock-like state that he was in following the incident, and examines a thought that he and his father wrestled with after the shooting.

Booker’s father was born in 1936 to a poor family. He was bright and hard working and rose to be a regional sales leader for a large company. Booker’s mother was also a trail blazer, running up the ranks in another company, and together Booker’s parents moved from poverty to wealth and to a suburb in New Jersey that had been almost exclusively white. Booker’s parents pushed to give their children new opportunities and pushed to make the United States better for black people, but the thought which challenged Booker’s father was this: “All this work, advancement, and progress, yet a kid like I was faces more challenges today than ever before. How could it come to this?”

It is very popular to write about the death of the American Dream and many people feel as though current generations do not have the same opportunity today to live better lives than their parents. Throughout American history my sense is that people believed their lives would be better than the lives of their parents, but this seems to no longer be the case, and seems to contribute to the sense that the American Dream is dead or dying. My personal sense is that this is especially true among black and minority families. The pressure we put on minority youth and the social decisions we have made regarding our responses to crime, education, and support have created a system where the American Dream is not equally encouraged and provided to everyone, but instead limited and offered to only a few.

I don’t want to say that any single factor has contributed to the sense that American across the country share regarding the death of the American Dream, and I don’t want to say that minority populations have a greater claim to the feeling of despair than others. I think we must take a more nuanced approach to the way we think about the opportunities we provide to children today, and recognize areas where we can make a difference. There is indication that we live in neighborhoods today that may be less racially segregated in the past, but are far more financially segregated, and research supports the idea that economic segregation leads to a stagnation in social mobility. There is also research suggesting that there are fewer social groups and community groups proving services, help, and support to people in local communities today, and this may further the isolation that so many people (especially young people) feel.

What is important to do in regards to our nations racial challenges, our sense of the decline in the American Dream, and the thought that Booker’s father wrestled with is to recognize that we are united, that we share a common future, and that we will be in that future with other people from our community. We must recognize and try to understand how people are thinking and feeling, even if we think their thoughts are misplaced. By learning to listen and understand others, by pushing past the urge to tell someone that their feelings and interpretations of the world are wrong, we can connect and begin to help and aid people in personal ways, even if that is just by listening and acknowledging the challenges they face.
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Ready to Grow

In his book United, Senator Cory Booker shares a quote from W.E.B. Du Bois, “The most important thing to remember is this: to be ready at any moment to give up what you are for what you might become.” Booker used this quote to start the second chapter in his book, and to begin discussing the important moments of change that we experience.

 

This quote to me refers back to the reality that our lives are often best described by the theory of punctuated equilibrium. We may constantly evolve and change throughout our lives, but often times we are pretty stable and follow predictable routines and patterns until at some point we go through large changes. For many people there are predictable points of change such as graduation and retirement, but often times the changes can be less predictable such as the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, or on a more positive note an unexpected promotion within a job or a chance meeting that leads to a new opportunity. The quote from Du Bois is about living in such a way as to be ready to adapt during these moments of change. We can be successful in our routines, but we should also be ready to embrace change when it occurs.

 

The quote also reminds me of a conversation I had last weekend with my wife and a very close friend of her’s from college. We were discussing plans and trying to predict what she should do as my wife’s friend tries to find the right path in life. I shared ideas of being prepared and engaged in the world for unpredictable changes and ended up searching Google for a quote about planning from Dwight D. Eisenhower, “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” The quote from Du Bois aligns with the quote from Eisenhower by connecting with the reality that our plans for the future will never play out in our complex and connected world, but it is important to be planning our growth and thinking about how we can take advantage of future opportunities. When we have a plan we have something to work toward, but we must be ready to give up that plan and take advantage of the opportunities that actually arise in our lives and allow us to become something we could not have predicted. We must give up who we are to take advantage of the chance to pursue who we might become.

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.

A Relationship With Yourself

When we think about relationships, thinking about ourselves is easy. What do I want, what kind of person will make me happy, why is my partner acting this way toward me? We spend a lot of time thinking about ourselves and about what we want, but all this thought rarely leads us to actually reflect and get to know ourselves better. We spend a lot of time with our impulses, desires, and the things that satisfy us, but we don’t often take the time to truly know ourselves. Author Colin Wright believes that we must focus beyond our desires and what makes us happy to understand who we are deep down in order to become better people for the world and better people in relationships. At the end of his book Some Thoughts About Relationships he writes,

“Your most intimate relationship is, and should always be, with yourself. Acknowledge and maintain that foundation, then reach out into the world and help others do the same. Ensure that your sense of “me” is mighty so that your sense of “we” can follow suit.”

Inward reflection helps us understand our impulses, emotions, reactions, and expectations. When these remain hidden from us, we act in ways that are guided by thoughts that we do not always understand, and our life is likely to be out of alignment as we strive forward based on ideas and pressures that impact our lives without our knowing.  Getting to know these parts of ourselves helps us make better decisions and act more rationally in any situation.

Knowing who we are also means reflecting on the parts of ourselves that we try to hide from the world so that we understand not just the positive side of who we are, but also the negative side. The end of Some Thoughts About Relationships aligns with previous work from Wright. In Considerations he wrote, “Reach deep and acknowledge the dark parts of who you are, then sand smooth or sharpen those aspects of yourself, just as you would with any bad habit or misfit trait. It seldom serves us to conceal any part of ourselves, especially from ourselves.” The better we become at working through the negative parts of ourselves, the better we can empathize with others and connect with people facing the same challenges. In this way, our obstacles help us grow and help us aid others in their growth. A strong relationship with ourselves helps us better know humanity, and helps us connect with others on a more personal and meaningful level.

Trying to Change Others

Author Colin Wright has an interesting perspective of the efforts we make to try to change other people in his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships. For Wright, trying to change the person in our relationships is a very selfish act, limiting the growth of the other person and of ourselves, and preventing both of us from expanding who we are. He writes, “Finding someone you intend to change means you’ve decided that who they are, what they want, and how they live is inferior to who you are, what you want, and how you live.” By trying to change another person you are forcing them into a mold that you have preselected. You are not working with them to soften your own rough edges, and you are not allowing each other to grow according to independent desires, interests, and shared commitments and connections .

 

This selfish type of relationship is never going to be based on reality as you force another person to be an incomplete version of what you think a successful partner looks like. The other person won’t be able to fully express themselves, and you will only know a false version of them. There are parts of ourselves that we know well, parts of ourselves we don’t know well, parts of others we know well, and parts of others that we don’t know well. Assuming that you can change another person into what you want assumes that you fully understand yourself and the other person, something undoubtedly impossible.

 

Wright continues, “approaching relationships this way means you’re partnering with someone who you consider to be a block of raw material that you can chisel into whatever shape you prefer. You want to whittle away who they are so that they become the person you want them to be, or whom you feel you should want them to be. This typically results in negative complexes and disappointment on both ends.”

 

When you set out to change the other person in a relationship you are setting out to force them to be an incomplete version of themselves. Because we can never fully understand even ourselves, we can never predict and prescribe who another person should be. Development as an individual, both within and outside relationships, is filled with value judgements about relationships, about other people, about ourselves, and who we think we want to be and be with. Allowing both ourselves and the other person in our relationship to be complete human beings allows for growth, both personal and as a pair, and working together to understand this growth is the only way you can help develop another person.

Wins and Losses

An idea that I have come across in my own life and in several of the books I have read focuses on winning and losing, and how building consensus and compromise is the only way to move forward and truly win.  Our society focuses on always being the champion and succeeding against all odds, and in many ways this has created a society focused on binary outcomes. We seem to approach most issues in life as zero sum contests, when in reality very little is zero sum.

 

This mindset is perhaps best embodied by our current president, who views the world as an inherently zero sum competition for wealth and success, and the issues he has grasped onto the most ardently are ones that can easily be reduced and comprehended from a win/lose perspective. Immigration means that native born citizens compete for and lose jobs, and trade deficits are a clear indication of selling less than other nations and losing out in the profit game.

 

The problem however, is that almost nothing in life, especially not trade and immigration, are actually zero sum. Author Colin Wright looks at the way we often approach arguments in relationships from the simple win/lose perspective and how that view point is harmful to not just the person viewed as the loser, but also to the winner. His shift in perspective is nuanced and requires reflection and deeper thought, but understanding and beginning to view the world of relationships as more than zero sum helps us better understand other issues in society that are tempting to view as binary and black and white.

 

In his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships, Wright writes, “If ever there comes an argument where one person wins and the other loses, both people have lost. A relationship is weakened if there’s ever only one winner, because you’re a team working together to build something great. A loss for one is a loss for you both.” What this quote does is shift actors in a relationship from being independent of one another to being interconnected and dependent on each other. As one loses, there are a host of negative emotions that arise and a series of opportunities or perspectives that are squandered. The winner may feel successful, but they have done nothing but limit the growth they can experience with another person.

 

Wright’s quote aligns with the views of Bob Berg whose fictional story, The Go Giver, provides a useful allegory for understanding this concept. A main character in Berg’s story says, “Forget about fifty-fifty, son.  Fifty-fifty’s a losing proposition. The only winning proposition is one hundred percent. Make your win about the other person, go after what he wants.  Forget win-win—focus on the other person’s win.” Berge helps us understand that we can become better and find success by focusing not on what we want and winning ourselves, but instead on helping other people win. In an argument, this means not seeking out our own win at the expense of others, and not even finding a place where we both compromise and land in the middle, but rather thinking about what outcome we want, and recognizing that the best outcome is one where we both better understand the other person’s point of view, our own thoughts and ideas, and how and why we think and view the world the way we do.

 

The process involves putting one’s own satisfaction in winning an argument second, in the interest of being supportive and more understanding of the other person. Finding compromise and understanding leads both people to a point where they are not split 50-50, but instead are better able to understand and communicate with each other, and both feel as though they were respected and were able to express their ideas fairly and openly.

Continuing on The One

In my previous post I wrote about the common story we tell ourselves about romantic relationships and marriages that focuses on a single person fulfilling us and make us happy. Author Colin Wright calls this idea the Policy of The One in his book, Some Thoughts on Relationships. Wright thinks the idea is not just wrong, but it is potentially harmful for how we view ourselves in the world, and how we view ourselves in relationships. A better approach, he suggests, is to recognize that we are full people on our own and that we have choice in relationships and can rationally structure our relationships rather than simply hoping to find someone who is a magical fit. In his book he writes, “You are The One. You are the only person in the world who can complete and fulfill you, and ensure your happiness. You are born complete, you die complete, and you decide whom you spend your time with between.”

I am particularly fond of Wrights quote because it reflects what I have seen in successful relationships personally and in those around me. It is great to be in a dependable marriage where you have another person who can provide love, support, and stability, but Wright (and I) would argue that you cannot reciprocate those qualities without first being comfortable and confident in yourself, in knowing that you are a complete human being. Understanding yourself and knowing who you are on your own will make you a better partner in any relationship. Not understanding yourself and not being complete on your own makes it hard for you to truly be honest and connect with another person.

This is where Wright argues that the policy of The One breaks down in an unfavorable way. Believing that you are not complete on your own or without another person in some ways limits your ability to be your true self. Failing to be your true self takes away from what you can provide to another person in not just a romantic relationship but in any relationship. This view limits your possibilities and can lead to poor decisions in relationships as you begin to think out of fear and not out of confidence.

Self reflection can help us see who we are, and understanding that relationships can help us grow, adopt new perspectives, and learn more about ourselves should encourage us to seek strong relationships with others. But seeking out relationships to fulfill ourselves or to make ourselves whole takes away from who we are, and limits what we can be in a relationship. Assuming we are not whole without another person means that we cannot learn, grow, and adjust, in relationships, and that we are dependent on another person to fulfill ourselves and our potential on this planet. Turning this perspective around we can see that on our own we can be complete, and that in relationships we can find new areas of growth to be more for ourselves and for those around us.