When Cat Eyes had finished reading aloud the story of The Wobby Man, she put aside what the ancients called a “book” and looked expectantly at Tu-Swift. He seemed lost in thought — tortured thoughts filled with thorns — by his visage. Cat Eyes stood and grabbed nearby water pouch. Reading made her thirsty. She sat back down across from him. She smiled. She was happy to see him again; happy to be reunited with her parents; happy at all the tribe had learned from their discovery; happy that it had taken both of them working together, with their mutual friend Suze, in order to discover how to read. The joy of Cat Eyes felt a sharp edge though because Tu-Swift seemed anything but happy.
“But, I don’t — .” Tu-Swift didn’t finish what he said to Cat Eyes because he didn’t know what he himself meant to say. Instead, he shook his head from side to side. “Why?”
Cat Eyes took his hands into her own and looked at him with love in her eyes, a love that he did not see because his head bowed down and his eyes were only upon the ground. After a few moments she put one of her hands under his chin and lifted it up. They looked into each other’s eyes and she could see that his eyes were tearing up. “It’s okay. It’s to learn from, like all the stories here.”
Tu-Swift shook his head from side to side and bit his lips. “But why?” His voice was plaintive as though he had a thorn stuck painfully under his fingernail and pled for her to remove it.
Cat Eyes sighed and asked gently, “Why what? What are you struggling with? Maybe we can work it out together. Often, life is a fight, but it doesn’t mean you have to be alone in every fight.”
Tu-Swift nodded. After a pause he said, “Why did The Wobbly Man do all that evil? And why did they let him?! Why couldn’t they see what he was up to?”
Cat Eyes nodded. “There are people who do things — evil things — such as steal children. Perhaps there always will be. But I don’t think they think of it as evil. To them, it’s their way of … living … or of having fun. They like destroying life and love in others … I guess because they cannot experience it themselves. I don’t know.”
Tu-Swift sighed. “You are right of course. Within the Veritas where I grew up, there was one such. The Wobbly Man sounds much like him. He manipulated others. He was cruel. Yet, he was such a good liar that he almost fooled our leader, the wise She Who Saves Many Lives. He actually betrayed the tribe to NUT-PI. And here’s the worst part. He got several other braves to go along with his schemes. Without ALT-R, I don’t think POND MUD or KAVANUT would have even been evil.”
“Yes.” After a pause, Cat Eyes added, “It’s much like that Red Spotted Death. It can spread from person to person. And, just as there are evil people even in societies based on truth and trust and love, so too there are people who act in good ways even among the Z-LOTZ and the ROI. It’s much like the story about the two wolves inside someone and which one you feed. The customs of the tribe can make it easy to feed the good wolf — or easy to feed the bad wolf.”
Tu-Swift let out a long sigh. He stood up and held out his hand. Cat Eyes took it and, for a time, they walked in silence. Without intending to do so, they ended up at the entrance to the now dysfunctional tunnel. They stood for a time, holding hands in silenced staring at the tunnel. At last, Tu-Swift voiced what both were thinking.
“How could a people know so much as to build a tunnel through a mountain — and yet be so ignorant as to let a liar destroy their village?”
Another long silence ensued until Cat Eyes sighed and spoke again. “We still have many books to read and understand. Many books are filled with words whose meanings we have yet to understand. It appears that it wasn’t just a village here and there. The plague of evil lies destroyed everything. I know you have struggled with whether to use the fire sticks….”
Tu-Swift wondered why Cat Eyes stopped speaking. He looked at her and saw that silent tears were streaming down her cheeks. He squeezed her hand and asked gently, “What is it, Cat Eyes? Why are you so sad?”
“Actually, I was just thinking a little while ago how happy I am about so many things. Yet … we had so much. We knew so much. But we destroyed it. If the books are true, and if our understanding is correct, weapons were developed that … weapons were created that were far worse than fire sticks. Far worse. Yet, there were also treatments for every disease. But the people forgot that they were part of the Tree of Life. People forgot that they were all one. People — not everyone — but enough — just began to grab everything they could for themselves. Lying became commonplace. Once the truth meant nothing, decisions were made by power alone. That is bad enough in the Z-Lotz or, from what you told me, among the Cupiditas. But imagine that they had — not just fire sticks — but horrible weapons that could destroy many villages and all the people in them. Of course, in doing so, these weapons killed birds and butterflies and trees and no-one even seems to have noticed! Maybe … perhaps, we are not really understanding. Maybe they are just stories to prevent people from becoming what the books say that they became. Maybe.”
Tu-Swift bent down and plucked up a small flower that had grown in the cranny of the wall that held the now defunct controls for the tunnel door. He gently braided the stem into the silky hair of Cat Eyes. When he was done, he said, “Well, the tunnel is real. Yet, no-one really knows how it works. How could that be? I mean, unless there was some great loss of learning. I don’t know. Perhaps, we can learn from these stories, whether real or not, how to … how to ensure that we do not fall so far again. From what you said, it sounds…it sounds as though the people became sightless and witless. How can the people not see that they are a part of the Great Tree of Life? How can they not hear the song of the bird or the murmur of the stream? How can they not see the beauty of the trees and flowers all around them? How can they not taste the sweetness of honey?”
Cat Eyes nodded. “That is the question that we — those of us who are studying the books — keep asking ourselves. But when these questions are asked, none of us answers. Each of us is hoping someone else will explain. But what comes to our ears is only the silence and the cedars sighing in the wind.”
Many groups, and not only religious groups, perform various rituals. Some are done periodically like daily prayers. Some are done on special occasions such as baptism, graduation ceremonies, marriage ceremonies, last rites, funerals, etc. Rituals appear to address many issues simultaneously.
Rituals, so far as we can tell, are quite old. They seem to serve several purposes. It isn’t clear to me which of several purposes they were originally “designed” to solve.
Here are the problems they seem to touch on and offer partial solutions to:
In many cases, it is necessary for groups of people to work in a coordinated fashion. If each person separately develops their habits for dealing with things, conflict and confusion can arise. How can the group behave without interfering with each other?
Some rituals deal with major life changes. When Complex Adaptive Systems are faced with major changes, a whole host of individual changes and adaptations may be necessary to deal with the new circumstances. Too much change can induce exogenous depression. The person simply does not know what to do. Exogenous depression may be a coping mechanism to avoid making a catastrophically wrong decision before the person has had a chance to adapt to the new circumstances. However, in some cases, action must be taken before people have had a chance to let the implications of the new circumstances “sink in.” For instance, a death in the family has many implications. No-one knows quite what to do. Yet, something must be done. How can one behave when one is too depressed to think straight?
In very small groups, such as the tribes we evolved in, everyone knew everyone personally. As groups grew larger and larger; in order to accomplish more ambitious tasks, for instance, it became difficult for people to recognize who was in their “in-group.” How can one recognize who is in one’s group when there are too many people to know personally?
People grow aware of their own mortality. How can one gain a sense of belonging to something that transcends the boundaries of their own bodies when their own bodies are limited in space and time?
As groups grow larger and larger, there will be more and more diversity of abilities, capacities, styles, and so on. How can we keep track of what people are like?
Human life is complex and so is the human behavior that attempts to deal with that complexity. Our behavior at time t is influenced by what happens before hand and especially what happens directly before a given activity. If it is important to perform something at time t precisely, it helps to preface the action with a series of actions right before the critical time t. This also “loads” working memory with the same material.
Individuals naturally have somewhat different ways of doing things.
Having individuals do things in different ways means that some individuals will discover, invent, or happen upon ways of doing things that are superior.
Group behaviors, to be most effective, require some degree of coordination.
* Some situations are so stressful and/or novel that people cannot make reasonable decisions.
* Some situations require action in a timely fashion.
Communities develop rituals over time. A community ritual may address any subset of at least five problems at once:
It provides a set of roles and procedures so that people may act together without interfering with each other.
It provides people with a “plan of action” that they can follow in times of change without having to try to think it through individually.
A ritual provides a kind of behavioral “test” that shows whether someone is in our “tribe.”
A ritual, since it has many common elements over time and space, reminds us that we are part of a larger effort.
Precisely because rituals are to be done in a common way, they partial out those aspects of behavior which are due to circumstances and motivations from those that are due to abilities and inherent styles.
When someone seeks optimal performance of a complex behavior, it can help to preface the complex behavior with a series of preparatory behaviors that are performed in exactly the same way over and over.
First, I present below some “porto-rituals” from my own life that I don’t claim are examples of what people generally think of as rituals, but which are behavioral “in that direction” which solve each of these subproblems.
I do most of the food preparation for my wife and I. We mostly like the same things, which is handy. But sometimes, there are slight differences in preferences. For instance, I never add salt to my portions. In some things, my wife likes additional salt. Therefore, I alway prepare her drink or dish on the left and put mine on the right. This just avoids confusion. One might imagine however, that over generations such a heuristic could evolve into an actual ritual; e.g., women’s portions are on the left; men’s are on the right.
As I learned more and more psychology, it became more and more feasible to use what I learned in order to teach others or help others. But when? How much is enough? When do (or should) people “trust me” enough to take my advice? The ceremony, credentials, and rituals around getting a degree provide a handy shorthand that is generally though not universally accepted as showing that the point had been reached where my advice was “valuable enough” to receive credence (and reimbursement). This was much better, in my opinion, than having to decide every single day, “Should I stop learning and get a job today? No? How about tomorrow? How about the day after?”
One of the things that people in many academic communities do is review papers and grant proposals. In my experience, the reviewing process is partly influenced by reading signals about whether someone is in or not in the appropriate “tribe.” In a study of a new computer interaction technique, for instance, in my “tribe” it is not enough to simply claim that a new technique is superior. One is expected to show empirical evidence to that effect. If one does not do that, it detracts from the credibility of the claims. More than that, however, it signals to the reviewer that the author is not yet a full-fledged member of the community.
My mother was one of those people who always returned shopping carts to the store rather than leaving them in the parking lot. I do the same. I want to model good behavior for others, and avoid unneeded wreckage of carts and unneeded scrapes on the paint jobs on cars. But another motivation is that it reminds me of my mother. Since I am carrying on her tradition, it gives me a small feeling of continuity across generations.
In a similar fashion, my grandmother told me stories that she made up herself. I create stories for my grandkids (as I did for my kids as well). Apart from other benefits, this gives me a feeling of being part of a tradition which I think is beneficial for me, for my descendants and for society.
I organize some tennis games for some of the local tennis players who are about my age and ability. In order to do this, I book courts and then send out email asking everyone on the distribution list whether they can play. Anyone who wants to play replies. Around 7 pm the evening before the upcoming tennis game, I let everyone know whether they are “in.” I’m not claiming it’s exactly a “ritual” but only that it’s a kind of “proto-ritual.” It has ritualistic elements. One of the people I play with — actually one of the very best players — cannot consistently perform this ritual. Sometimes, he shows up without informing me. Sometimes, he send three emails telling me he wants to play. Sometimes, he responds to an email from weeks prior. The fact that he is unable to perform the ritual shows a fair degree of impairment in working memory. If you simply observed him playing tennis, you might never know this.
In tennis serves, golf putts, baseball pitching, and many other athletic and non-athletic behaviors that require top performance, many people find it helpful to engage in a consistent series of overt behaviors and thoughts before the critical activity. Engaging in a preliminary ritual is not only a performance enhancer; it is also a learning enhancer. It essentially means that if you are trying some new “tweak” in your tennis serve, the way you putt (or trying a new putter) or trying a slightly different way to throw a knuckle ball, you are keeping every other variable as constant as possible.
The earth revolves around the sun. If the the gravitational attraction between earth and sun were much less, the earth would fly off into space and soon all water would freeze and life would soon cease. If the gravitational attraction were much greater, the earth would soon spiral down into the sun and the planet would be incinerated.
A society, group, team, or partnership must similarly have a balance between centripetal forces that tend to make it collapse into a singularity and centrifugal forces that tend to make it fly apart. Ritual can be seen as one of the centripetal forces that keep groups together.
As an individual lives their life, they will typically do some things in a fairly creative and ever-changing manner and other things will become habitual and routinized. For example, there are several ways to tie shoes but most adults only use one way. Unless, as once happened to me, you break your arm, you need pay little conscious attention to shoe typing. Anything that gets the job done is sufficient.
Singing “Happy Birthday.” Playing the National Anthem before sporting events. Taking exactly two practice swings before a golf swing. Saying grace before a meal. Going out for a beer at a particular pub after every game. Reading the mission statement at the beginning of each “All-Hands meeting.” Reading the minutes of the previous business meeting at this business meeting.
Pan, Y., Roedl, D., Blevis, E., & Thomas, J. (2015). Fashion Thinking: Fashion Practices and Sustainable Interaction Design. International Journal of Design, 9(1), 53-66.
Schuler, D. (2008). Liberating Voices: A Pattern Language for Social Change. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
Thomas, J. C. (2017). Building Common Ground in a Wildly Webbed World: A Pattern Language Approach. PPDD Workshop, 5/25/2017, San Diego, CA.
Thomas, J. C. (2012). Patterns for emergent global intelligence. In Creativity and Rationale: Enhancing Human Experience By Design J. Carroll (Ed.), New York: Springer.
What new rituals could be designed to remind people of their relationship to all life on earth and the impact of today’s actions on future generations? Could such rituals help remind people to “do the right thing”?
Are there existing rituals which could be used as is, or modified, for ecological purposes?
Trunk of Tree had been in a foul mood. Hunger made his belly growl. He had had terrible luck even trying to track a deer. But the sight of two of these two Veritas, well-known to him, and the smell of cooking venison lightened his mood considerably. He said none of that, but instead asked again how they found him.
Cat Eyes explained quickly to Trunk of Tree that they were near her village. She explained that a feast was being prepared right now in honor of the knowledge that had been gained from decoding a substantial part of the great library that had been recently discovered. The Veritas had split up decoding the numerous tomes in the library. It was far too much for any one person although, among all the Veritas, Cat Eyes knew the most of what had been garnered by the people. She had been sharing much of what she learned with Tu-Swift. Now, she explained, a great feast had been arranged and the afternoon was to be spent eating and listening to the lessons that had been gleaned. In the evening, the people planned to reflect on the totality of this information in a great dialogue.
Cat Eyes explained all this to Trunk of Tree as they took the short hike back to the place where he had emerged from the hidden cleft in the rock wall. Tu-Swift and Cat Eyes marked the place with broken branches and a small rock cairn so they could be sure to find it later.
Then, the trio strode back to the center place of the Veritas across the Mountain. Cat Eyes and Tu-Swift kept having to stop for Trunk of Tree to catch up. At last, Cat Eyes said, “Trunk of Tree. All you all right? You are limping. You are wounded? What happened? I see a bandage and blood. Were you attacked?”
Trunk of Tree’s mood darkened again. He did not want to explain how he had wounded himself through his anger and carelessness. “I’m fine. Just a scratch.” He swallowed hard. The truth was that the wound was not healing all that well. He grimaced and tried to keep up with the youngsters so they wouldn’t ask any more about his gash.
The reappearance of Cat Eyes caused more of a stir than usual when people noticed that Trunk of Tree was with them. When he explained briefly how he had come here, the Veritas from the other side of the mountain furrowed their brows. How could a passage out of their valley exist so near that no-one had discovered? Even Trunk of Tree could perceive the skepticism on their faces. He explained that he had only come across the path by sheer accident born of desperate hunger pangs. Tu-Swift explained to the small group how he had marked the trail and three of them jogged off to see for themselves.
Soon, Tu-Swift, Cat Eyes, and Trunk of Tree were seated on overturned tree trunks. People kept coming to Cat Eyes with small questions about the upcoming feast. As she answered their questions, she simultaneously pulled up the pant leg of Trunk of Tree, ignoring his protestations that nothing was wrong with him. He was immensely powerful and could have easily kicked her away. Although a part of his mind pictured that, some more fundamental part seemed to know that his leg was more important than his pride so he let her unwrap the bandages.
When she did so, her nose wrinkled up immediately. She glanced at Tu-Swift who noticed it as well. The wound stunk. Just then a young warrior came up to Cat Eyes meaning to ask her opinion about her role in the upcoming knowledge exchange. Cat Eyes answered curtly and then begged the young warrior to bring her the pouch of blue-green mold that sat in a dark corner of Cat Eye’s cabin. Soon, Cat Eyes was applying the mold to the oozing wound of Trunk of Tree despite his objections.
“I already put yellow dock and plantain on it,” he protested.
“Yes,” replied Cat Eyes, “and that is good. This is even better. We learned about it from one of the many books in the library. There are many things we learned from those books and you will hear about many of those things tonight. I wish all of the Veritas were here to learn what we have decoded in the last few months.”
Cat Eyes nodded as she noted that the sickness had not spread much from the original injury. She bound up the wound again. She glanced at Tu-Swift. She slowly shook her head. “It’s amazing how much of a great gift we have now from our library — and all the knowledge put there by our ancestors. And to think…it was there when my mother’s mother’s mother lived … and we had no idea what it was. Until now.”
Now, she turned to look at Trunk of Tree. She smiled. “You will see later today, Trunk of Tree, some of the things we have learned. She tilted her head. “There are things in there about fighting and strategy as well as medicine.” She paused, smiled and went on: “And, to use your imagination to make yourself happier and solve problems — not simply as a tool for hurting yourself.”
The eyes of Trunk of Tree widened thus confirming her hypothesis.
Trunk of Tree reddened. Cat Eyes reached out her hand and gently touched his shoulder. “It’s a tendency all of us have, Trunk of Tree. There’s no reason to feel embarrassed.
An awkward silence grew between them. She looked at Tu-Swift and back to Trunk of Tree.
Tu-Swift took a deep breath. “For example, when Cat Eyes came to visit our Center Place, I ran off to see her because…well, because I … because I love her.” Now Tu-Swift reddened as well. “Of course, everyone does. I … especially do. But then, Suze died shortly after and I made myself crazy thinking I had somehow been responsible. I didn’t cause her death. That plague though was brought to us intentionally by the Z-Lotz. They’re the ones I should seek revenge on and not on myself. He looked at the face of Trunk of Tree very carefully, the way he imagined that Many Paths would do if she were here.
“I can tell you this, Trunk of Tree. I’ve known Shadow Walker all my life. As have you. And, we know Eagle Eyes as well. They are both good people. They will do … whatever they think is best for the Veritas … and for all the people.” Tu-Swift let this thought sink in through the thick skull of Trunk of Tree. He surprised himself by his next words. “Sometimes, we must be apart from those we love. It’s always difficult. But don’t make it worse by imagining things that you know are not true. I don’t know why, but Eagle Eyes likes you. Surely, you must know that.”
Cat Eyes nodded solemnly. “That’s right. Shadow Walker & Eagle Eyes — these are people we can all trust. Trust is fundamental. You’ll hear more about that at our feast. The destruction of trust is what led to the destruction of … of civilization.”
Trunk of Tree frowned. “Civilization? What are you talking about?”
Cat Eyes sighed. “Just listen to our stories tonight. It’s … there were many people … and many wondrous things … but the people lost the one thing more important than all the others.”
Tu-Swift saw the tears welling up in her cat-irised eyes. “They let their greed, fear, and hate grow … and their love for each other … and for all life … they let that decay … and when it did, it all fell apart. The words that people said came to mean nothing. All trust was lost. And, Trunk of Tree, when all trust was lost, all the energy of the people was put into weapons. Killing sticks were replaced by even less honorable weapons that killed hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands. The people thought that somehow, if they hurt others enough, they themselves would live forever, not as part of the great tree of life, but as something separate and apart, as hard as the mountains and as mighty and as immortal. So did the people come to think.
“The times came of great killing.
“The times came of great forgetting.”
The voice of Cat Eyes became stronger and though she spoke to Trunk of Tree, all the people nearby heard her and drew near to her.
“Now, we are beginning the time of great remembering;
“The great remembering of who we are;
“The great remembering of what we are not;
“The great remembering of what makes us a whole people;
“The great remembering of the importance of truth and trust;
“The great remembering of the horror and sorrow that comes of the many being misled by the few;
“The great remembering of what we could become instead;
“The great remembering that each of us is ourselves but one marvelous leaf on the great abiding tree of life;
“The great remembering that we cannot make ourselves into something separate and forever by destroying the tree that sustains us.”
I love to play tennis. Before I learned tennis or even knew it existed, I learned badminton. I love badminton as well as table tennis and racquetball. Now, living in San Diego, the weather gods are kind enough to shine sun and blue and warm so that tennis is often possible seven days a week. Unfortunately, my 75 year old body has issues with playing every day.
Before COVID, I went to the gym every other day and lifted. I still exercise my muscles but I can’t quite make it as effective as using real weights. Lack of strength and having flat feet combine to put a lot of stress on my feet and knees. Before COVID (will we call this “BC” at some point?) my strength was good. I was nearly as strong as when I was 16.
As it turns out though, lifting strength is not the only factor that determines how well you can run and jump. The body has, in effect, a number of “springs.” When someone runs (at least when a young person runs), fully half of the power for a running stride comes from the rebound of internal springs which provide power from the previous stride. Our human running springs are primarily the arch, the Achilles tendon and the quad muscles.
My own arches, sadly, have never worked properly. When I step down forcefully, rather than compressing and expanding, my foot slips inward and does not rebound. But the muscles and tendons have also become less resilient with time. Wearing orthotics helps align my body and lessens pain in the arches. But orthotics do not provide the “bounce” of the natural bone arch as it rebounds from the previous step. Nonetheless, I enjoy playing tennis. It’s good for the body, the soul, and the mind.
I enjoy playing singles but I mainly play doubles. And doubles also provides a variety of lessons (and challenges) in teamwork.
Consider that you are positioned near the baseline of the court (far away from the net) and someone hits a ball right at you. As it turns out, it is much much easier for your partner to tell whether this shot is going to be long or not than it is for you yourself to tell. Just today, for instance, I was standing just inside the baseline when a deep shot was hit right at me, about waist high. My partner yelled, “BOUNCE!” I let it go. I might mention that my partner’s eyesight is not so good as mine is. I’m not putting him down. That’s just a fact. Nonetheless, I prepared to hit the ball out of the air until I heard my partner yell “BOUNCE!” When that happened I pivoted and let it fly by me, turning so I’d have a good at where it landed. Two inches out.
It turns out that a similar kind of teamwork is important in the outfield of a baseball game. If you are playing in the outfield and a long fly ball is hit toward you, it is devilishly difficult to tell whether the ball is going to land near you, in front of you, or behind you. When a well-coached team plays, the outfielders will call out to one another and give guidance about whether a ball hit directly to another outfielder is going to land in front of them, roughly where they are or far behind them. In a poorly coached team, they do not help each other in this way.
In a well-coached team, the fielder who is not going to catch a high fly ball does not simply “zone out” and think, “not my play.” Instead, they are still cognizant of their ability and responsibility to help out their teammate who is going to catch the ball, even though they are nowhere near that teammate. Competition for fame, fortune, recruiting, salary, etc. all push toward not helping each other out. But normal people on normal teams actually have a normal reaction to want to help the others on their team. Good coaching enhances a feeling of teamwork. It also involves explaining, at least to the younger players, the ways in which they can help each other. Calling “Forward” or “Back” to a fellow fielder is only one of the many ways teammates in baseball can help each other.
The man behind the mask (the Catcher) and the outfielder trying to throw a player out who is trying to score — that is a delicate sort of dance so that the outfielder throws the ball the spot where the Catcher can most likely tag the runner (advancing player) out.
For a team to function at the highest level, there has to be both the skill to know how to coordinate and mutual trust. Mutual trust means everyone looks out for each other and wants everyone to succeed. Some teams lack one or both of these qualities. If they lack both, it will be nothing more than a set of individuals doing assigned tasks. That is both less effective and a whole lot less joyous way to play Baseball or Tennis. (Or, Life, for that matter).
Perhaps you’re not a fan of tennis or baseball but you like golf. Watch one of the most prestigious tournaments of all, the Masters, played at the remarkably beautiful Augusta National. The winners of the Green Jacket show their excitement with a riotous palette of smiles, tears, cheers, and beaming. Regardless of how the excitement is exhibited, the winner shows a lot of excitement. That level of excitement does not, however, even begin to compare to the degree of excitement that the victors exhibit in the Solheim Cup competition nor the Ryder Cup where teams are competing against each other.
There’s no comparison, to my eyes; or, in my own experience. Don’t get me wrong. I love to win an individual match. I am very competitive, likely too competitive. But I still experience a team victory as — not only more joyous. It’s a different level of joy. A private victory is much like a bite of my favorite food; perhaps a handful of cashews. I love cashews.
But a team victory? That is more like going out to dinner (if you can still remember BC times) at a wonderful and unique restaurant. I think this feeling is nearly universal. The intensity and even quality of that feeling depends on the quality of the teamwork. If the team really knows how to work together and has the empathy and motivation to do so, and if that teamwork is largely the source of the victory, it is all the sweeter.
The best teams have the skill and the motivation to cooperate well. Mediocre teams will lack one or the other of those qualities. Poor teams will have neither the desire to cooperate nor the skill to do so. But there is a fifth type of “team”: one composed of people who are actively working against each other. This is like a cancer in an organization.
If Susan sees Charlie fail to help Barbara as promised, Barbara will be less likely to help Charlie. She may even help him fail. But Susan does not remain unaffected either. She may also try to avenge Barbara. Or, she may say to herself, “Well, hell, if Charlie can get away with blaming someone else for his mistakes, why can’t I?” Mistrust, disloyalty, inefficiency, high turnover rates, actual violence in the workplace, absenteeism, theft — just as you would expect, higher costs are associated with all of these things and all of these things are more common in a toxic environment — one where people cannot trust each other.
In tennis, the on-court team is only two players. You might think the cooperation is simple. It’s more complicated than that. Believe me — or don’t — but it would be another whole essay to explain. One factor that’s important in all types of teamwork is mutual trust. If my partner says “BOUNCE!” and I let it go repeatedly only to watch it drop well in bounds, I’m eventually not going to trust those judgements of my partner any more.
Notice that trust broken is difficult to bounce back from. And, like arches, muscles, and tendons, when a society gets older, it may well have less “bounce” when it comes to forgiving betrayals. Perhaps the same is true for individuals.
I don’t know. But it seems to me (as a liberal) as though Trumpists believe liberals are betraying Trump. But why should a liberal have any loyalty whatsoever to Trump. Initially, I felt some loyalty to the Office of the Presidency, and was willing to watch him with an open mind, but he has shredded trust like a pet hamster named Liberty that fell in the document shredder. Only, in the case of Trump, the pet hamster didn’t just fall in the shredder. Poor Liberty was thrown into the shredder. And, when the legless and hapless hamster tried to squirm its way out, he grabbed a handy Barr to push it back in.
There’s something even worse, from my perspective. My “teammates” on the “other side of the aisle” are being conned. From my perspective, over here, on the side, it is painfully obvious. To them, it is not obvious. The cons are coming right at them like a high line drive and they cannot see how deep these shots are or how close they take us to the brink of a fascist dictatorship or utter anarchy.
I try to tell them, “BACK! BACK!” But instead of going back, or asking someone else, they continually insist they are not being conned. And then, they ask me why I hate America and hate Baseball. (Neither of those are true, by the way).
The ball falls over their head; the other team is scoring runs; and they deny that anything ever happened! They don’t only deny they were not back far enough. They deny there was a ball even hit to them. Or, they insist that they are free and as such, they don’t have to back up just because I say so.
They don’t even run back and get the ball that landed behind them! Someone else has to do that. I look at the scoreboard, and what I see is this:
COVID19 — 300,000 dead America – 12,000,000 unemployed
They apparently look at the scoreboard and see:
Liberal Hoax — 300,000 supposedly dead
Donald Trump worked from day one of his Presidency to put our American “team” in the fifth and last category: a divided team without mutual trust.
We have the skills of teamwork. We have the motivation to act as a team. What is missing is trust. Americans do have the skills to cooperate across every kind of divide. Most Americans do have the desire to work together on some serious problems such as immigration reform, sensible gun control, addressing climate change, increasing employment, decreasing crime, improving our standing in the world, stopping systemic racism. I don’t say all Americans share these goals, but most do. At a more fundamental level, we all want a shot at a decent life and a chance that our kids will do even better. That’s what most people want. We can get all of that and more with teamwork.
The hardest part of that will be recovering and rebuilding mutual trust. There has been colossal betrayal that goes way beyond policy differences between liberals and conservatives or between Democrats and Republicans. Until the Trump administration, there was an expectation of truth; there was an expectation of hiring excellence for the government; there was an expectation that we would face a common enemy like Russia together; there was an expectation that we would all take an oath of office seriously; there was an expectation that people in high places would not, with absolute impunity, line their own pockets from the public treasury. There was an expectation that a President of the United States of America would tell the truth about a deadly pandemic and not spread lies about it and model lethal behavior. There was an expectation that both Republicans and Democrats would put our Democracy and the legitimacy of our elections ahead of conning followers out of millions of dollars just to line the pockets of Donald J. Trump.
All those expectations were broken. Trust was broken. Now, we have to try to see that we’re on the same team and work together.
We can do it. But it won’t be easy.
The most important thing that liberals, Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, and independents can focus on is that our election worked. I don’t just mean that the technology worked or the process worked. What’s most important is that the vast majority of both Republicans and Democrats worked together to make that election happen and be counted and be reported. Yes, there were some high-ranking high-profile Republicans who seemed to be joining the Trump “Let’s Destroy America!” Train; the Trump “If you don’t want me, fine! I’ll burn your silly little democracy down on the way out!” Train. But thousands and thousands of people of all political stripes and all across this country came together to make it work. People in the Great Plains worked together; people in small towns worked together; people in large cities worked together — Republicans and Democrats.
Those who supported Trump need to understand that we were not trying to rain on their parade or hate on them. We were trying to tell them that the damned ball was going over their head! They were being conned! (And many still are). Being conned can happen to anyone. And it’s pretty much always the case that it’s easier to see from the side as shown in the following dialogue.
Grandpa: “Oh, Grandson! You’ll never guess what happened today. I got a letter in the mail from this really nice man in Kremblinia and he’s giving me…us, really… a million dollars! Isn’t that amazing!”
Grandson: “Grandpa. No-one gives away a million dollars!”
Grandpa: “No, no. You don’t understand. It’s not exactly a give away. He can’t get to his money because of political problems in Kremblinia. You know. It’s in Africa. I guess they have corruption there.”
Grandson: “It’s still a scam.”
Grandpa: “No, it’s real. He just needs my bank routing number so he can wire me the money into my account.”
Grandson: “You didn’t give it to him, did you?”
Grandpa: “Of course I did! You think I’ll turn down the opportunity of a lifetime? Why are you being so negative?”
Grandson: “Call the bank. Quick. He’s going to rob your account!”
Grandpa: “Let me just show you the letter. You can just tell he’s sincere. He’s very religious actually. He was taken from his mother when he just a little kid. Horrible. They do that there. Anyway, he became a Prince in this whole region, but then the Muslims came in. I forget all the details. I’ll show you next time you come over. You’ll see.”
A message of hope is always a good thing. It doesn’t mean you don’t plan. It’s just that a hopeful attitude will be more likely to bring good results than a defeatists attitude AND you’ll feel better right up to the moment of success or failure. It’s true that you might be slightly more disappointed if you’ve been hopeful than if you’ve been despairing, but — so what? Hope takes some courage, but it’s much better than the only alternative.
And, to me, there is also another important message in the Easter story. Forgive your enemies. That doesn’t mean you don’t work to put appropriate people in appropriate places based on their actions. But don’t dwell too much on how bad they are; instead, model and rejoice in good behavior and there is — right now — a huge amount of that right now! It is just incredible! We see skill. We see courage. We see discipline. We see leadership. We see all the things on full display that make this nation and this world a wonderful place to live in. Yes, there is an undercurrent of evil, but celebrate and support the good things and the good people and the good leaders. Support the good. Throw your weight and your skill behind them. The forces of light always win over the forces of dark in the end. So, in that spirit, I’ll post this poem from 23 years ago.
The Forgotten Leaf
(Featured poem in Soul to Soul e-zine, Sept., 1997)
Blinding brave and gutful breaking rage made hate!
Gigantic boulders heaped on enemies’ brainless heads!
Burly muscles slashed and brawny bones bursted;
Horses trample; raw flesh burn; crush the being’s being!
Spiteful, I curse and ravishing prate —
And see the forgotten leaf I laid on my desk.
Shaking hands gingerly hold the withered brown.
I’m calm. My hate was only half-seeing’s seeing.
I just reheated a lukewarm half cup of French Roast coffee. I zapped it in the microwave for 18 seconds. That seemed about right, and it turned out very close to perfect. If I’d put it in for 17 seconds or 19 seconds, I would have been equally satisfied.
Do you think 1 second would have worked equally well? My “microwave,” despite the name, does not let me control the time to a microsecond, or even a millisecond. Do you think a millisecond would have been sufficient heating time? What do you think would happen if I put it in for 18 minutes or 18 hours instead of 18 seconds?
I’ve been watching the US Open on TV. There have been some amazing matches! Like the folks on TV, I can hit a serve. I can volley. I can hit topspin or slice. I can hit backhand, forehand, swinging volley, and overhead. I can aim the ball toward the empty court, or hit behind a player racing to cover the empty court. Yet, I don’t think any of my readers, however much or however little you know about tennis, would ever confuse my play with any of the contestants in the US Open! Why? I mean, is there really much difference between my forehand and Rafa Nadal’s forehand? Sure, he puts more topspin on and hits it with more speed. Why should that make a difference?
On a completely different topic, let’s consider nutrition for a moment. Do you think water is good for you? Yes or no? Without any access to fresh water, people die. How long it takes to die of dehydration will depend on health, activity, ambient temperature and other factors. As a general rule, three days without water will kill you, but it could be much shorter or slightly longer. But you won’t die in a millisecond. And you won’t survive for a year. It’s obvious; right? So water is good for you!
But wait. You can also kill yourself by drinking too much water. It takes about 6 liters of water to kill a 165 pound person. Of course, it depends slightly on the person and the situation. But you will not die from 6 teaspoons and you will certainly not survive drinking 60 liters in an hour.
You can certainly drown in water. People do it ever year. In 2015, it is estimated that over 300,000 people died from drowning! It seems to me that water must be bad for you! Yet, you cannot live without it.
What about exercise? Good or bad? If you never exercise, that is certainly bad for you (which is why I wrote Fit in Bits). If you run as fast as you can for as long as you can, you will injure or kill yourself (as did the very first marathoner). Again, it depends on your health and the situation. Some people can survive a 50 mile race. Others will have a fatal heart attack sprinting 100 yards.
How can life be so contradictory?
Life is not contradictory.
But neither is it composed of a set of perfect dichotomies.
We like to impose dichotomies because it makes thinking and decision making quicker and less painful. In some limited circumstances, this strategy is appropriate. It’s fine to try to avoid cutting yourself. Under most circumstances, you don’t really have to say to yourself, “Hmm. It’s Tuesday, September 3rd. I wonder how much I should cut myself today?” No, any cut means a chance of infection and will take some of your biological resources to heal and recover from the blood loss.
Nonetheless, there is a difference between nicking yourself while shaving and being beheaded. There is a difference between stubbing your toe and being stoned to death by an angry crowd.
I must confess to feeling a bit foolish pointing these things out, because I imagine everyone reading this is well aware that “some” does not equal “all” and that in many circumstances, how much and under what circumstances make a huge difference. If you want to give a pint of blood some day so that others may live, good for you! You’ll be doing it lying down and in the presence of medical personnel who will minimize the chances of infection to near zero. But you can’t give six pints of blood in one day. And, it is not advisable to “do it yourself” by slashing your wrist, collecting a pint of blood and then putting on a bandaid before transporting the blood to a blood bank.
Again — isn’t this all obvious? Well, I would have thought so.
Yet, over and over, when I talk to supporters of the current US President and mention that he has told over 12,000 lies since taking office, people almost always say, “So what? Everyone lies.”
I am a dinner guest for the first time at the house of an acquaintance and they serve overdone salmon with way too much salt for my taste. I might say it’s “good” or that I “like it.” Depending on the situation, and how much they press me, I might also mention that I also eat sushi so I’m okay with having it less done. I might or might not mention that I’m never add table salt to my food.
If they say, “I like it…but I think I might have put too much salt in. What do you think?” At that point, since they are asking for honest feedback, I am going to tell them that I agree with them and that it tastes very salty.” Generally, I like to give people feedback that is honest, unambiguous, and offers a positive suggestion for how to improve. In the case of cooking, it makes a lot more sense to mention my preferences before the meal whether I’m at a restaurant or at someone’s home. Now, if I am nonetheless served over-salted, over-cooked food, I have a basis for being more frank than if I hit them with new requirements after it’s too late (at least this time) to do much about it.
Giving feedback that is honest, direct, and offers an actionable suggestion is a good heuristic to use in the design of user interfaces as well. An error message that says, “Illegal syntax!” is fairly useless in and of itself as is “Stack overflow!” Error messages such as these are written from the developer’s viewpoint. They may serve as useful error messages during debugging. They are useless for the typical user.
All humans are created equal. But not all lies are equally evil. And many many lies are not the same as a few lies. If you still think that publicly telling 12,000 lies that are told by a person who is supposed to be leading the country — lies that are told for the liar’s own short term benefit — if that ocean of lies is the same as a teaspoon of a lie told to encourage a child, or spare someone else’s feelings, then, please re-read this post from the beginning.
Human language enables us to communicate over time and space. It is a wonderful thing. Without language, we would basically be living lives not very different from those of primates in a zoo. Human language allows us to work together harmoniously; to specialize in particular skills; to build roads and buildings; to discover things about nature and ourselves; to invent and to improve. Human language can be used for no other purpose than to attempt to con people.
There are even cases, where being “conned” is understood and acceptable. If you see a play or a movie or read fiction, you suspend your disbelief. At one level, you imagine that what you are seeing is actually happening. That makes the story and the experience more compelling. But you know that it’s a move, play, or novel. The same fiction, if it is touted as a documentary, is a lie.
It is fun to see a competent magician perform. Their patter is meant to distract you, to misdirect your attention. It is part of the illusion. It is not “evil” because you know it is all part of the show. As an adult, at least, you don’t think that the woman was really sawn in half and then magically healed. It’s a perceptual challenge. It’s meant to be fun. It would be quite different if the magician murdered his assistant by actually sawing them in half!
Twelve thousand lies. Twelve thousand lies. Not twelve. Not twelve hundred. Twelve thousand. Each one is a cut to American democracy. Each lie reduces the credibility of America on the international stage. Each lie makes people feel less confidence in government.
Yes, there are cases where it makes sense for POTUS to lie. Say that a reporter says, “A source tells me that we are going to try to capture Bin Laden on May 2nd (2011) at his compound in Abbottabad around 1 pm local time.” And then, imagine the reporter asks the POTUS at a Press Conference,“Is that accurate?”
Let’s further suppose that POTUS knows that this is accurate. Should he say, “Oh, yes, in fact, your source is precisely correct.” No, of course not.
That is not at all the same quality of lie as it is to lie in a self-aggrandizing way about your abilities, your height, your vote total, whether or not you have Russian help in getting elected. It is not the same as lying that the Mueller report “exonerated” you.
All lies are not created equal. And one lie or even a dozen lies does not equal 12,000 lies. One cut does not equal 12,000 cuts. One liter of water does not equal 12,000 liters of water. Heating my French Roast in the microwave for 12 seconds does not give the same result as heating it up for 12,000 seconds. No-one would carelessly equate any of these things.
So, why do the apologists for the POTUS respond to 12,000 public, provable, and important lies by saying, “Well, everyone lies sometimes.”
We now live (at least in the USA) in such a divided and divisive political climate that I hesitate to bring up something that sounds political but really isn’t. I don’t even have a position, at least as of yet. It’s just a thought I had while I was reaching out to people in India and inviting them to my blog.
Here it is. The USA has a very competitive and individualistic culture. It’s been that way my whole life, but now, it’s insanely so. For one thing, people spend proportionally much more time watching TV and playing on the Internet than they do interacting face to face. In effect, everyone is “competing” not just with local talent, but with people from all over the country. In a nation of 330,000,000 people, 329,999,999 of them will not be the best runner in the country. The vast majority of people will never be winners. This may be why lotto and the Reader’s Digest drawing may be so appealing to so many.
But it isn’t just running, and throwing, and high jump where we see competition. We have contests around human activities that have traditionally been mainly about bonding and cooperating, not about competing and winning. We have contests about cooking, and dancing, and singing. I grant you that in the past, small communities might have a dancing contest, once a year. But most of their activity was cooperative activity face to face, and certainly not cutthroat competition. Now, the contest is not part of the yearly festival. The contest is all there is. And, for the most part, the contest is all that is broadcast.
It seems that we here in America, with many exceptions and so on, have a culture of individuality and contest is everything there is. Oh, and of course, money. For instance, for far too many Americans the first question they ask about anything is “how much money?” I’ve seen articles that purport to tell retirees what the best place to retire is. Some of those articles focus solely on the financial aspects. Some articles ask which college provides the best education but all they really talk about is ROI.
We’ve actually accomplished a lot as a nation with this kind of crazy culture. It helped us achieve in terms of invention, discovery, and innovation. But what if the problems of the 21st century are of a fundamentally different nature? What if most of the problems we faced in the 20th century resonated well with a culture that encouraged competition, but that now, as we embark on the 21st century, the nature of problems has shifted. Perhaps now we face problems that require a much more collaborative and cooperative cultural attitude in order to solve?
Naturally, these are large trends that I’m talking about. Not every single problem we faced changed lock-step overnight. Let’s examine some examples though. A 1930’s problem might be: “How can we clear cut this forest as cheaply as possible?” And the logging company that solved that problem “won” and got rich. A 2030’s problem might be framed this way: “Is it feasible to provide material by using this forest in a sustainable and humane fashion? How?” One lends itself fairly well to top-down direction. One does not. The reader can guess which is which.
A 1950’s problem might be: “How can we entice consumers into buying one of our new cars when their old car still works?” A 2050’s problem might be: “How do we provide a transportation system that is effective, efficient, and pleasant for everyone involved?” One is about manipulation and disregards collateral damage. The other collaboratively looks to a sustainable solution without side-effects that are so negative they outweigh the good done by the transportation system.
Can American culture evolve quickly enough to be a partner on the world stage in the 21st century? If not, the absolute best we can hope for is slow decay full of internal bickering and hostility as people point fingers and shout loudly in order to establish blame.
Do we really need to change our culture and change it quickly to avoid that? Or, is the emphasis on competition and individuality still the right way to go?
Other countries and cultures are already ahead of us in cooperation. Look at the cost versus benefits of their health care systems for one.
How can we change and work together as a culture to a develop a more cooperative view when we seem to be so divided and competitive? That is a real puzzle.
Do you have a piece of that puzzle? I’d love to hear about it.
Or, do you think we should “double down” on competition and individuality? I’d love to hear about that as well.