Have you ever said to yourself, “I made myself breakfast.”
This morning, I made myself breakfast, and the picture below is what was left. A few shreds of sauerkraut and one moldy blueberry.
The complete breakfast included an English Muffin, Peanut Butter, blueberries, kale, sauerkraut, two garlic-stuffed olives, and a cup of coffee with cream and sugar.
I made myself breakfast.
But did I?
In this picture you see a plate, a fork, and a napkin. Not only did some person initially come up with idea, but hundreds of people vastly improved the making of pottery and silverware and napkins. These particular items probably travelled many miles and were touched by many people’s work before they ended up in my possession. I can afford them because we live in a peaceful, mainly cooperative society. I certainly couldn’t make them on my own. And if they were made the way that they were a thousand years ago, only royalty could afford them.
The wooden tray? That too shows obvious signs of change over the years from the time one of our ancestors decided to eat off a half-log. You might see some lettering. The tray says, “LET IT SNOW!” None of the other things mentioned above would have been possible without the invention and improvement to language.
So far, my “self-made breakfast” involves thousands of ancestors who made any of this possible.
My “self-made breakfast” also involves thousands of contemporaries from around the world who cooperated to bring these particular items to the San Diego area.
We haven’t even gotten to the food.
Let’s take the English Muffin, just as an example. Some of our ancestors might well have procreated and then “tried out” something as a possible food but guessed wrong and died. They figured out which grains could be eaten, how to grow them, how to harvest them more effectively than to shell one seed at a time; how to make flour; how to bake bread. In my case, there’s another whole line of inquiry related to the discovery of electricity and its taming and distribution so that I can toast my English muffins. There are similar hundreds of our fellow human beings (and their supportive communities) who were involved in today’s peanut butter, today’s sauerkraut, garlic stuffed olives and so on.
Once again, there are not only countless people from all over the world who were involved in the development of these food items. There are thousands of people from all over the world who helped get these particular items to our kitchen.
It’s also true that if I’d been brought up by wolves, I wouldn’t know how to access or use any of these items. Not only that, my life has been saved numerous times by modern medicine. But “modern medicine” didn’t just drop out of the sky one day. None of these modern luxuries popped up like a mushroom. People worked hard and thought hard in order to all me to have a nice breakfast. However, it would be more accurate to say:
Poetic Commentary: I’m trying Sonnets and variations on Sonnets on Sunday. Here, I used the traditional iambic pentameter but slightly changed up the Shakespearean rhyme scheme ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG to ABBB, ACCC, CDDD, EE The idea of rhyming lines one and five is to reflect some unity among those five which deal with fairly direct perception of the here and now. In line six, I begin to move into “conceptual” shadows. Line nine rhymes with the previous three because this is meant to unify those lines more. But line 10 begins a contrasting thought. Though the couplet introduces a new rhyme, it is also a restatement of lines 10, 11, & 12 so the long “e” is kept and repeated internally as well (“me”, “thee”, “De-“, “sweet”, “de-“).
Political Commentary: In the photo above, you will see shadows of leaves and shadows of birds, though without movement, it may hard to tell which is which. But birds and olive trees are not the only shadows here. We are here at this particular spot partly because of our puppy Sadie. But how did Sadie come to be? Dogs were bred over thousands of years and while Sadie is still a puppy and very uncivilized as yet, she’s learning and a lot easier to deal with than her wolf ancestors. It isn’t just our training that helps Sadie live with us. It also depends on thousands of our ancestors taking the time to train and breed dogs to be our companions. There is a slab of concrete. Where did that come from? When did people invent that and perfect it? There is also a railroad tie. Railroad? Without early scientists and engineers and mathematicians, how would that have happened? And, of course, there are the builders who put this here and did not “cheat” so that the concrete was improperly made. Some other hundreds of folks arranged systems of commerce and government so that all this was possible. And how did you come to be looking at this photo and reading these words? Wait did I mention reading? You & I can read or write because someone took the time to teach us. And seeing it across time and space? Taking a picture with my iPhone? These depend on millions of people working in tech. But how could people spend so much time working on tech unless farmers made the food and truckers brought the food to a convenient place? But none of that system would work without government and police and armed services.
There are many shadows here and most of them are thousands of years old. The truth is that we are vastly interconnected. We have what we have and can achieve what we achieve because of countless others alive and long dead. Setting citizen against citizen is a ploy so that a very small number of people can end up controlling everyone. It’s an old, old cancer of society, but that makes it no less deadly.
We’re all in it together.
Those who would tear us all apart do not admit to their outsized greed. Instead, they wear camouflage of “patriotism” or “religion” to try to fool others into helping them steal. The plane hijackers who wreaked destruction were convinced they were doing it for “God” not for their pocketbooks. To be radicalized into killing others is to be blinded. At first, people are told to tell a little lie for the good of God. And, a little later, they are taught to believe a slightly bigger lie. Until, in the end, they are willing to kill hundreds of innocent people and give up their own life as well. It’s all based on lies. One way you can tell they are lies is that the lies must never be questioned. Not to believe the lie is to be punished or even kicked out of the club.
After some delicate and delicious love-making with Shadow Walker, Many Paths decided to check on She Who Saved Many Lives. If she seemed well enough, it might also be good to see whether her mentor had any further wisdom to share about Many Path’s plan to gather all the tribes. Her goal was to bring about peace but she realized that in trying to accomplish that, she might trigger the very things she hoped to avoid. Her tentative plan was therefore to gather as much wisdom as she might from many sources — but not to wait overlong. As the story goes, she thought to herself, if you waste the entire warm season deciding where to plant, you will starve in the season of great ice and snow.
Many Paths called out to her friend and mentor and received a surprisingly strong and cheery response. “Come in, Many Paths. Come in! I’ve been meaning to ask your advice about something. Do sit down. I will get you a cup of tea this time.”
Not for the first time, Many Paths wondered whether it was actually possible for She Who Saved Many Lives to see into her heart and mind. After serving them both a cup of spicebush tea, ever so slightly flavored with mint, She Who Saved Many Lives went to her work area and brought over two patches of weaving. She placed one on each knee of Many Paths. The older woman smiled and said, “It never fails to amaze me how strong a weave of reeds is! It’s so wonderful. Just as I hope our community is.”
“I have had that exact same though,” Many Paths replied. Then, she laughed and added, “Likely because you pointed that out to me before I was even old enough to remember.”
The Elder Shaman tilted her head and nodded ever so slightly. “Perhaps. But you have made so many wonderful discoveries. And, not only you but the entire tribe. That’s because you have been open to learning and seeing what is there. But enough of that. I did have a question for you. Which of these two do you think is better?”
Many Paths frowned. “Better for what? What are you making?”
She Who Saved Many Lives considered, “A basket to carry things.”
Many Paths nodded, “What things and how many? This weave has these stiffer switches to help support the weight. If you’re making a small bag to collect mint, for example, you wouldn’t have any need. If you’re making a large bag to collect apples, however, you would want the extra structuring support.”
She Who Saved Many Lives nodded. “Yes, yes. That sounds obvious when you say it. I guess the fever must have addled my brain a bit. Anyway, thank you for reminding me. Soon, I will have to decide on what I want to use the bag for; then I will know which one is likely correct. Now, what did you want to ask my advice on?”
Many Paths took in a deep breath and slowly let it out. “I am quite sure I didn’t say anything about asking your advice.”
She Who Saved Many Lives nodded. “I think you’re right. Sometimes I confuse us.” She laughed. “I know it sounds crazy but any way, I will get back to my weaving — or at least deciding why I’m weaving and let you go about your business — unless, of course, there was something else you wanted to talk about.”
Many Paths chuckled. “As it turns out, I did want to ask your advice about something. You know I want to convene a — Let me ask you another question first. Are you going to teach me how to see into another person’s mind?”
She Who Saved Many Lives laughed surprisingly long. At last, she caught her breath and said, “Many Paths! You won all seven rings of empathy! Of course, you can see into others. Of course, you can never be perfect at it. But you already do it. I knew you were busy. Yet you came to see me. You probably wanted to see whether I was dead or not, but even your footsteps and the way you called out told me you had something else on your mind. In fact, whether you knew it or not, you assumed I was alive. There was no edge of anxious worry in your voice. It was friendly — but also a bit — plaintive. I knew you wanted something from me. Now, you can see I have very few possessions. I find too many to be intolerably distracting. I am not going to help you with any arduous physical task. What is left? You want to offer me the opportunity to share my experiences; that is a great gift. For once we die, what else is left? So, naturally, I am more than willing to try to see what grows from our discussion.”
Many Paths looked down and slowly shook her head. She realized that she could read people. She simply forgot sometimes to do it. If you really take the time to put yourself in their sandals, of course, you can make a good guess at what they’re thinking, she thought. Aloud, she said, “Yes. You’re right. So, I want to convene the tribes and I am wondering how, exactly, to go about it. How can I make sure it helps bring greater peace and doesn’t somehow spark off violence. Maybe it’s better not to try?”
She Who Saved Many Lives replied, “I can say that no-one has attempted to bring all the tribes we know about together — not in my lifetime or the lifetime of my mother or the lifetime of my mother’s mother. During that time, there have been many wars and other atrocities. People stealing other people’s children? Even in our own tribe, we had some who forgot they were not the Tree of Life but a small and temporary part of the Tree of Life. I judge it’s worth the attempt.”
Many Paths. “As to how…?”
She Who Saved Many Lives said, “What comes to mind for what you are trying to do is more akin to growing things than it is to making things. I am making a basket, and I will use it for a time. I don’t ever imagine that it will live forever any more than that I will or you, my dear. But if I know your heart correctly, you don’t want to make a thing, which will at some time break or dissolve. You want to make something grow for a hundred years, like a giant oak. Ideally, it would be an oak that would seed still more oaks when old mother oak also died.”
Many Paths nodded. She realized that her mentor had described her desires precisely even though she herself could not have articulated so succinctly. “Yes, that’s exactly right.”
She Who Saved Many Lives nodded. “Let’s suppose then that you want to plant something so that it’s likely to grow. What do you need?”
“A seed. Fertile ground. Water. Sun. That’s it. Is there more? Love! It’s all more likely to grow with love.”
She Who Saved Many Lives nodded. “Yes. That’s it. I would start with the love. You already have that. Then, you need to know what seed. The seed determines what will grow though not exactly how. But you will need the ground, water, and sun so it can grow at all.”
Many Paths continued the thought stream. “If you know what the seed is, then, you know what kind of place to look for. You know whether you need to plant it in bright sunlight or in shade. You know whether it needs very fertile ground or if it can grow in dirt and rocks. And, you know whether it needs to be in very wet ground or if arid ground will do.”
“Yes,” Many Paths, “and it occurs to me, that you might choose a place with enough light first, because, you can make the ground more fertile and bring more water, if need be. But brining light is more difficult.” She Who Saved Many Paths sighed. “Once, apparently, we knew how to bring light as those which lit the tunnel that leads to the Veritas on the … on the other side of the mountain.”
“I do wonder, Old Mother, whether such light would is strong enough to grow plants. And then, Shadow Walker used reflections of the sun, along with other captives, to escape from the City of the Z-Lotz. It seems too contrived and elaborate for growing plants, but … perhaps writing is a little like that when it comes to providing enough truth so that peace can grow. It allows you to bring the light of wisdom to places that are many days walk from where they started. More importantly, you can place the light in a different time as well. We have all learned so much from the books uncovered in the great library. But, as usual, you are right. We must determine what type of thing we want to grow. That decision will determine the type of seed. The type of seed will determine the proper material, sunshine, and water.”
Many Paths arose and began pacing around in the Old Leader’s shelter. “Of course, since the outcome could impact everyone, I need to know how everyone believes it should be. Or, at least, find out as much as they know about how they want it to be.”
“Yes.” She Who Saved Many Lives considered for a moment before answering. “I suspect some will have many ideas about that while others may not care that much. Nearly everyone wants peace. On other matters, there may be great differences.”
Many Paths sat back down. The two sat in a comfortable silence for a time. Many Paths rose at last and said, “Thank you for sharing your wisdom. I will look for some to walk with me a bit and contemplate the plants and their nature and try to see among them what it is that the people may be seeking. I’m glad you seem so much better.”
“As am I, Many Paths. You know, you give me much to live for.” She Who Saved Many Lives smiled and added, “But I do think I will lie down for a nap now. Though some time in the near future, I might accompany you on such a walk.”
Many Paths left and saw Shadow Walker coming toward her. From the look on his face, Many Paths judged he had some news. His smile broadened as he approached and he said, “Hello my love! Can we go for a bit of a walk?”
Do you remember the song, “Take me for a ride in the car car”? Here’s a link to one popular version. Peter, Paul, & Mary also sang it. Nice song. But you may have experienced it being repeated too often. At a certain age, some kids seem to discover that they can be really annoying simply by singing a song over and over and over and over.
When I was in my early teens, I took a car trip with my Uncle Paul and his wife and three kids out to see his brother Bob who headed up a psychiatric hospital in Pennsylvania. It was a long drive. At some point, to pass the time, we sang some songs. When the last song was over, Paul’s youngest son began to make up new verses for one of the songs. At first, it was rather cute to watch him try to build a story, rhyme, and keep in tune, none of which he actually succeeded in. But after about a quarter hour, he began to annoy people with his off-key, non-rhyming, senseless continuations of the song. After about a half hour he was annoying everyone. After an hour, we began to discuss leaving him by the side of the road and returning in another ten years to see whether he was still there.
On car trips, we used to play a number of games to pass the time; e.g., seeing how many different states license plates we found find. Later, I learned to play “The Alphabet Game.” There are several versions, but basically, you must find, in order, the letters of the alphabet from passing cars, signs, etc. Stuff inside your own car cannot be used. (You could easily find all the letters in a book or magazine). I’ve learned to know where to look for J, Q, and Z. I’ve been in cars where we played twenty questions, Botticelli, Buzz, and Ghost. When I was a kid, I also simply looked out the window to entertain myself. Sometimes, I would imagine that the dotted lines that divide the lanes were like tracer bullets shot from our car. Then, I would watch to see whether another car got “blown up” because they crossed our fire. I would also imagine myself “flying” alongside the car, having to bob and weave to avoid telephone poles, trees, signposts, etc.
Traveling in a car with a family or with a group of friends or your car pool is potentially a social opportunity as well as an opportunity to save money. Since you’re in the same car, you need to agree on destination. To some extent, you need to agree on temperature & what to do about the windows. As a kid, everyone also lived in the same “sonic space.” We would have to “agree” on a game or on a radio station. This is no longer the case. Now, often times, everyone in the family may have their own individual entertainment. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Even in the modern day, driving in a car with others is different from driving in a car on your own. If you’re by yourself, you can decide on the temperature and entertainment without having to take into account anyone else’s wishes. If others are in the car, some kind of negotiations have to take place.
At least, that’s what most people do. You could decide: “Hey! It’s my car so I’m going to drive and I get to determine everything about our common space — temperature, entertainment, windows, whether we stop, etc.” This is what is known in academic circles as the “A$$hole theory of cooperation”: Get everything you possibly can for yourself and to hell with everyone else. And after all, they’re doing the same exact thing.
Notice too that to some degree, the amount of accommodation you have to do depends on how much humanity is in the car besides yourself. It also depends on how “luxurious” your vehicle is. If you have a tour bus or a camper, six people might be relatively comfortable. If it’s a VW bug, you won’t be. You’ll not only be crowded; you’ll have to be careful every time you move not to accidentally elbow someone in the eye. Have you ever been in that crowded of a situation for hours at a time or even days at a time?
It isn’t just cars. In general, the more people occupy a given space, the more they are going to have to cooperate in order to survive and thrive. You can provide individuality support with technology, up to a point. In a way, clothing is like that. We can peacefully co-exist in a car without either of us compromising out comfort because I can wear a sweater and you can wear a thin shirt. You can provide everyone an iPhone and everyone can play their own game without having to agree on a common game. Of course, there’s a downside to that. First, we don’t have practice getting along with others. Second, we don’t share a common experience.
Even if the “typical” family of four interrupts their car trip and stops for lunch and agrees to talk, they are likely coming from very different places. Dad has been listening to Mozart and was in good mood until he suddenly remembered he was supposed to have sent out a memo to everyone in the department about last month’s sales figures. Damn. Maybe he can do it from the Motel but it will take longer than it would have at work. His son Sam, meanwhile, was trying to use sexting to convince his girlfriend to “take their relationship to the next level.” As a result, they just broke up. Dad doesn’t know a thing about that; nor does Sam know anything about why Dad suddenly seems put out. Mom meanwhile, was listening to Fox “News” where she “learned” that it’s Biden’s fault Putin “had to” attack the Ukraine because Biden was too tough on Russia and also too easy. Her daughter Sally, on the other hand, has spent the last 45 minutes on twitter learning about the Putin invasion. She is wondering whether atomic war might start.
Now, they stop for lunch. That’s nice. And, maybe they’ll talk about something common; perhaps the weather, or the scenery or the food. But they might just revert to what they were doing before they got together at the restaurant. Even if they all have the willpower to put away their personal devices, they are still coming from very different places emotionally and experientially. Dad might make a comment about how he forgot to write an important e-mail and he’ll have to do it from the Motel. Sam just shakes his head and says, “Important e-mail? My life is ruined! What do you care?”
Dad might say, “What do you mean by saying that your life is ruined?”
Sam might even share, “Jackie broke up with me!”
Dad, meaning well, and wanting to offer a solution before he starts reminiscing about his own high school days, blurts out: “Oh, Sam, don’t worry about it! You’ll have another girlfriend in a week.”
That may well be empirically true. But to Sam? He feels he has just lost the love of his life. His father’s comment seems to him to be dismissive of his feelings to the point of cruelty.
Sally pipes up, “How can you be worried about such trivial things as e-mail and dates when we might be blown to smithereens at any moment? Do you ever pay any attention to the world outside yourself? Putin is a monster killing innocent civilians so he can slake the thirst of his pathetic ego!”
Mom is taken aback. The only news she doesn’t dismiss as “lies that are out to get Trump” has been Fox “News” for the last few years. She says, “Don’t be saying bad things about Putin! He’s a nice man who just wants his Ukraine back.”
Sally’s jaw drops. “Are you serious! He kills journalists who write the truth about him. He’s a corrupt crime lord. He played Trump like a fiddle … no … not that complicated … played him like a drum … no … still too complicated … played him like the triangle. You know. Bang it every once in awhile and it reverberates. Anyway, it isn’t “his” Ukraine. It belongs to the Ukrainian people!”
Some families are better at getting through all this than others. These four have not shared a common experience and are coming from very different places. If they have no practice playing a game according to a common set of rules, what chance to they have to settle deeper differences?
Maybe avoiding little conflicts by giving everyone their own personal entertainment device means that when much bigger and more difficult conflicts arise, no-one remembers how to resolve things. Why shouldn’t everything by how I want it? Let others do the same! Let the best man win!
Except, of course, it isn’t the best man or woman who actually wins in a land where no-one plays by the rules. It’s the most corrupt. And the net result of everyone spending so much time competing and so little, if any, time cooperating is that nothing much is actually accomplished. It doesn’t even work very well in a small group. In a large nation, a dictatorship is almost invariably associated with less for everyone except the dictator and the immediate surround. Dictatorships do sometimes manage to steal from neighbors who are productive because they are cooperative. If all countries were dictatorships, they would all perish, probably in atomic war, but possibly in ecological collapse or just mass suicide.
In 2018, I worked on a “Pattern Language” for collaboration and cooperation. Here’s a link to anindex of the Patterns. One of them is called “Small Successes Early.” Should I be worried that we seem to be moving into a world where there are fewer and fewer opportunities for peacefully resolving small conflicts? Avoiding unnecessary conflict seems like a good thing. But … is the downside that people have no practice resolving conflicts? And, is the further downside, that people eventually end up with huge differences in their notions of reality when it really matters? It seems to be the very thing that Faux News has been counting on; that people would not only listen to them but not listen or dismiss any other views. As a result, people end up with very different models and explanations of the world. That is always a bad thing, but in a world where people are unpracticed at resolving conflicts, it’s even more problematic.
There is always a tradeoff between cooperating as a whole and letting each individual do as they wish. One thing seems crystal clear. As the number of people in your car increases, their individual freedom to do just as they please decreases. So, too, with the world. In my own lifetime, the population of the world has quadrupled. Of course, it’s not equally distributed. People are more concentrated in cities than ever before. Many of these cities are located on ocean coasts. What does the continuation of global warming mean to population migration and crowding?
I’m not sure how many people realize this, but we’re still in a pandemic. If people were very sparsely populated, we probably wouldn’t be. But as we continue to get more crowded, humanity will become more susceptible to pandemics. That in turn, means people will have to accommodate to each other’s needs. As a background rule, a person can choose to wear what they want. There are, of course, many exceptions to that. In many situations, you have to wear a shirt and shoes. In some situations, you have to wear a suit and tie or a uniform. If you might be spraying germs at other people, it seems totally reasonable to change your behavior or clothing to minimize that spread. But some people apparently think that they should be able to do exactly as they want regardless of the consequences to others.
As the earth becomes more crowded, we need to be more cooperative, not less. The presence of a large number of deadly weapons also makes it more important to cooperate. The race to ensure survival by having ever larger numbers of ever more deadly weapons is not a path toward that greater cooperation. Dictators, for instance, tilt toward war to consolidate their power.
Many Paths frowned. She looked down at the wrinkly old lady who had been — and still was — her mentor, her shaman, her friend. She Who Saves Many Lives was drifting off to sleep but with a smile on her face, despite the difficulties and discomfort of the Red Spider Plague. Many Paths herself smiled. Even in sleep, the old Shaman made her feel better.
She decided to let her mentor sleep. Many Paths had been about to ask for a hint about the puzzle she had just been given. Many Paths laughed to herself thinking, Just as well. Her “hints” are just as likely to lead the student astray as they are to bring sunlight to the right path.
Many Paths left the old shaman’s cabin and walked about the Center Place of the Veritas. She greeted various members of the tribe warmly, and once she had greeted everyone in sight and reassured them that she was cured and that The Old Grandmother was resting comfortably. She had discovered that greeting everyone and having a short conversation with them allowed the maximum chance for uninterrupted thought. So, she settled herself at the porch of her own cabin. She reviewed what the old shaman had said to see if there was a clue to this seemingly impossible problem.
“There are two locked boxes. Each contains the other’s one and only key. Yet, I am able to use the keys to open both boxes. How is that possible?”
First of all, why had she brought this up? Was it just something that bubbled up in the overheated brain because of the fever? Perhaps. But Many Paths reckoned it more likely that She Who Saves Many Lives had intentionally chosen this puzzle because it held something useful for the problem at hand.
Well, thought Many Paths, to be more precise — not the only problem at hand — there were so many. But the one she had shared with her mentor was how to bring together all the nearby tribes and broker a peace deal amongst them. Fires. Wars. Killing Sticks. Stealing children. It was all madness. And the Z-Lotz? Bringing the Red Spiders Plague on purpose? Giving them a gift which was really meant to sicken them? How could there peace with such as that? And yet — and yet, somehow her lover Shadow Walker and one of her closest friends, Eagle Eyes had become the leaders of the Z-Lotz! If, she reminded herself, the note brought by the Eagle could be believed.
Many Paths sighed. She wished she could talk it through with someone. Yet…she had a feeling that She Who Saved Many Lives didn’t give her the puzzle because she wanted the answer. The old shaman already knew the answer. It was specifically designed to move something within Many Paths. Many Paths laughed aloud at her own train of thought. She shook her head and muttered to herself, “Here I am. I can’t solve the puzzle she gave me so instead, I’ve given myself a still harder problem — trying to read the mind of She Who Saves Many Lives! I think if I know why she gave me the puzzle, it would help me figure out the answer. The much more sensible approach is to solve the puzzle and then it will be much easier to solve why she gave it to me.”
Many Paths closed her eyes and put her fingers to her temple. With her eyes closed, she became much more aware of the warmth of the sun on her face. She quite consciously relaxed her muscles and slowed her breathing.
She thought: Inventory. What do I know? There are two boxes. There they are. Many Paths pictured two large wooden boxes side by side. They were identical. What are they made of? Are there holes? Is it still a box if there are holes? Maybe it’s still a box, but they are locked boxes. Locked boxes are not really locked boxes if their are large enough holes for me to slide my hand through and simply grab the keys. They are supposed to be locked boxes. But why are they made of pine wood? No-one said anything about pine or even wood. They could be carved out of stone, I suppose or even of ice. The boxes could melt! But she said ‘use the keys’ — well, I suppose you could take the keys and warm them in a fire and then, use that heat to melt the ice…but no, I wouldn’t yet have the keys. I could wait till they melt naturally. Then I could grab the keys, but I wouldn’t be using them to open the boxes. Is melting a box really opening it?
So, how do I know the boxes are identical? Suppose I am one of the boxes? I am in the tribe but I am also myself — my own person — even though I lead the tribe. Something is nearby. I can hear the answer rustling in the bushes but it is still too dark to see it clearly. Two boxes. Not necessarily the same. One could be the tribe. One could be me. If I had the key to the tribe … and the tribe had the key to me….they could me the key I need to open me and I could give them the key to open them.
In the mind of Many Paths, the two boxes began playing with each other. She made them mentally chase each other in circles. Then, when she grew tired of that game, she had them continue their roles to the end. One of the boxes opened its giant “mouth” — a hinged side — and “eat” the other box.
Many Paths stopped breathing. Her eyes snapped open. “Of course!” She said aloud. Her first inclination was to run back to continue her conversation with She Who Saves Many Lives. But she shook her head. She’s likely still asleep, thought Many Paths, and besides. There’s the other half of the problem. Why did she…? Ah, of course!
Many Paths saw that the second puzzle — why she had been given this puzzle when she had been telling She Who Saves Many Lives how much she wanted to bring peace to the tribes but she couldn’t even control Trunk of Tree — that wasn’t a puzzle at all. It was obvious. If she wanted to change the external world to be more peaceful, she herself would have to be changed — perhaps more peaceful — perhaps not. The puzzle didn’t specify exactly what about herself she would have to change. A puzzle merely illustrates a principle. It never dictates real world action. All the Veritas were taught this early, including Many Paths.
Her intuition led her to believe the two “keys” were different in her dilemma just as they had been in the puzzle. But —she also believed that they would be closely related. Many Paths wanted to the tribes to be more peaceful, more truthful, kinder, more cooperative. She sighed and issued a short laugh.
Many Paths said to herself, I want all the tribes to be more like the Veritas. I want them all to be Veritas. But — I can’t bring six tribes together and explain that they should all be just like me … or even more like me.
Again, Many Paths had a sudden impulse to run back to She Who Saves Many Lives to share her new insight. And, once again, she immediately suppressed that sudden urge. Instead, she sighed. She did wish that she could discuss this with one of her friends. It was clear that she needed to make a change, but it also seemed obvious to her that it was just the sort of change that friends could help with.
She thought, My friends will see in the moment that I am assuming everyone wants to be a Veritas and point it out. Eventually, the new way will permeate my thinking. But which friends? My most trusted friends were all unavailable at the moment. I’m not ready to allow the spread of rumors about a meeting with all the tribes. It can’t be just anyone. Could I talk about it with Trunk of Tree?
Many Paths took a deep breath. She reckoned she could talk about it with Trunk of Tree, but first, she needed to really see and understand his point of view.
She thought, Prior to seeing him, I need to make a guess at his perspective and then I need to check it out with him. I can’t just assume it’s right, but I might make a start. He’s always thought he should be the leader because he’s the strongest. In his mind being strongest is the most important thing. I need to make him see that we all do think it’s important. We value his strength and all wish we had more of your strength. We also believe that other things are also important. And, it may be the case, that in some instances, being the strongest is the very most important thing for a leader to have. And, it may be the case, that in some other instances, being able to see the best, or hear the best, or speak the most convincingly, or think the most creatively. Who knows? We have a way to choose a leader. And in that way, I was chosen. It doesn’t mean that you are not the strongest. It does not mean that we care nothing about you or your strength. It just means that for now, the shaman judges that the seven rings of empathy were the best trials. Of course, the people are the final judge and if everyone wants to change the way we choose leaders, so be it. Perhaps everyone will decide a wrestling match should determine the leader — or, as with the Z-Lotz and Cupiditas, — a fight to the death. If the people decide that, then so be it, and I will support you. And so will Shadow Walker and Eagle Eyes and Tu-Swift. But as it is, I am the chosen leader. That doesn’t make me your ruler. I come to you as a friend and I need your advice precisely because you and I don’t always see eye to eye. Here’s what I’m thinking….
Her thoughts continued: Of course, I must be open to many paths of conversation. Perhaps I should suggest that I speak uninterrupted for a time. Trunk of Tree could be a good confidant if he will hear me out first. It requires so much work though to work with him. Of course, the same can be said of getting the six tribes together. It’s like trying to weave…yes…it is like weaving! The tribes can all be different. We can do things differently. But the question is, what do we want to work on together. And let us move in different directions and make the whole basket stronger.
Many Paths felt relieved somehow and looked forward to having an honest conversation with Trunk of Tree. She circled through the village looking for him but he was nowhere to be found. She wondered if he had gotten so made that he had injured himself or even left the tribe. She shook her head. She was having a bad day of fishing or hunting. She chuckled to herself and thought: I was actually looking forward to talking with Trunk of Tree and he’s not here. Oh, I miss Shadow Walker!
Just then, the attention of Many Paths turned to the air. She heard a distinct drumbeat pattern that someone safe was approaching. She thought: It looks as though I will have my conversation with Trunk of Tree after all.
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 a 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 things that 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 silence 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 one of the main question that we — those of us who are studying the books — keep asking ourselves. But when this question is asked, none of us answers. Not yet. 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 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.”