Humility is universally applicable

Yesterday I had the privilege of moderating a plenary panel discussion at the Thames Valley Family Health Team’s annual spring conference. The purpose of the panel was to share stories about patient experience. Four storytellers recounted personal moments when the healthcare system blossomed beautifully or failed miserably in response to an individual struggling with mental illness, addiction, depression, or post-traumatic stress.

I left the session with two salient points at front of mind. This post is a brief reflection on the first takeaway.

Listening to the panelist’s stories, it occurred to me that the concept of cultural humility has relevance beyond the domain and context of intercultural interactions. (Brief review: cultural humility is the idea that approaching an individual from another culture in a spirit of humble curiosity paves the way for a constructive therapeutic or clinical relationship. Now, juxtapose this approach of gentle inquiry with walking into the room thinking that you are aware of another person’s needs, beliefs, worldview, and convictions because you graduated from the ‘cultural competency’ course over the weekend.)

Conscientious, intentional, self-doubting humility is not only crucial in intercultural exchanges: the ethos transposes seamlessly when listening to individuals struggling with addiction or other psychological complexities. Assuming to know ‘the answer’ to another’s situation because you have a clinical category for their condition is something like ‘psychologicalism’ — similar to the way that a racist assumes to know particular facts about another person based on specific physical characteristics or ethnic appearances.

It is interesting to think about the ways that ‘cultural humility’ might be taken up as ‘clinical humility’ or in a broader sense. But creating more jargon is not the point: figuring out how we can inspire one another towards greater humility — and the curious, individual-centric inquisitiveness it fosters — is the bottom line.

It boils down to a question: as a healthcare system, how do we treat individual people as individual persons? The second takeaway from yesterday’s session follows from this question. It’s a reflection about the bottlenecks and potentials of bureaucracies. Will post shortly.

Taking Health for Granted

[This is part three of a series reevaluating some propositions that I perceived as crucial and important in my early thirties.]

Proposition: Health — while prob­a­bly the easiest thing to take for granted — is the most frag­ile gift I will ever have. It is the ful­crum upon which every­thing else balances–I will respect and nur­ture it as such. To seek health is to seek life. They are synonymous.

Several years on, I want to think I have a somewhat more nuanced idea of health than I did when I wrote the above paragraph. In the intervening years, I’ve wrestled more with the adaptive nature of well-being and the psychological, social, and experiential episodes that frame how we define ‘health’ in a physical sense. Today, I find myself increasingly curious about ‘health’ as a political and corporate narrative, too.

It is easy, perhaps too easy, to define health as the absence of disease and disease as the absence of health. I am now less inclined to describe health in such choice-oriented, individualistic terms than I did in my thirties. Health is a much more complicated concept now. It is something that somehow involves us, not just me alone.

While I would revise the wording and some aspects of my original statement, I am nonetheless acutely aware that health is, for all its complexities, precious. On the morning I feel better after a bout of fever or flu, the first thought I have is: Why don’t I intentionally celebrate health every morning I wake up without feeling sick with every ounce of fanfare I can muster? Health is remarkably easy to take for granted, but maybe some of the ideas we have about health continue to mature with age.

Blogger Pronouns: thoughts on simplicity, exclusivity, openness, and privacy

Hi Eli, Colin, Serena, Josh. Thanks so much for your thoughts on the Blogging in the Second Person post.

Eli, your response makes me think of Dear Dealer, a recent segment on This American Life. It is an essay addressed in the second person. For this essay, at least, the POV frames the story in such a way that personalizes the issue far beyond a third person report on the subject. Tying the idea of simplicity to POV here is interesting. By no means do I think we should say something prescriptive, such as a blog reply ought to be in the second person. But perhaps what we can say is that the second person might help simplify some responses in ways that give them much greater clarity and meaning?

Colin, I agree that the “reluctance to exclude some readers” is probably a key reason why we bloggers sound like editorialists. This thought provokes the question further for me: I’m curious to what extent does it feel alienating to read a text that is written as correspondence? Is this principally a concern with perceived contextlessness? I am imagining someone reading these words who did not read the initial text that sparked this conversation: does this reader presently now feel more left out or uninvited to participate than had I written this in the third person? (It’s an honest question: I’m not sure.)

Serena, I have also contemplated the concern that blogging as correspondence might “restrict the conversation between the original poster and the responder.” On the one hand, I agree it’s a very fair and valid concern. And, simultaneously, I wonder if there anyone reading this post who feels excluded from this conversation, or unable to participate in it? If we grant the hypothesis that public writing is about engagement, does not a text’s inherent publicness itself invite input? Perhaps this exchange is akin to leaving messages to your pen pal on a public bulletin board, or adding to the ‘thread’ of a graffiti exchange? Could we also suppose that open dialogue is in another way more inclusive and invitational of external input than it is exclusive?

Josh, I love your question, “would some individuals be uncomfortable having a ‘letter’ written to them made public without prior permission?” I’m fascinated by the psychology and cultural underpinnings here, and the proposition that a shift in pronouns might be felt to necessitate acquiring the permission of the intended recipient — who is the same person regardless of the POV of the text. I wholeheartedly agree that the grand traditions of ‘open letters’ and ‘letters to the editor’ in print media have earned reputations for public shaming and one-sided takedowns. But how much of this expectation is contextual, genre-based behaviour? As Serena says, “I’d have no qualms about responding to you in the 2nd person if I was replying to you in the comments section.” Do we not write very open, public messages to one another all the time already? I wonder: by nature of maintaining a presence on a platform — one which bakes comments or responding into its infrastructure — do we not implicitly agree that others will write both to and about us? What does this mean in the blogging context? By nature of a person presenting their ideas publicly to the whole world, do they not inherently invite the world to respond however it so will?

I appreciate the input and perspective that all four of you bring to this question. The more I think about, the more the blogosphere sounds like a parliament: instead of addressing our interlocutor, we address the Speaker of the House, who happens to be the impersonal whole of the internet. This observation isn’t intended to outline a ‘problem’ that demands a prescriptive ‘solution.’ But I am thankful for the opportunity to engage in this discussion with you.

Why Press the ‘Publish’ Button?

In thinking about ways that the internet is changing writing, Colin Walker asks: what exactly happens in a person’s mind when they push the ‘publish now’ button? Why make one’s words public?

Writing privately, as a way of life, might be a means of self-development. Maintaining a personal archive of thoughts for future reference is a way to grow and hone my understanding. But why am I posting this text publicly, for all the world to see?

(Hold on: this is about to get real meta. Only continue if you are ready to ingest yet another blog post in the overly saturated genre of writing about blog posts!)

The reason I made this text public, so far as I can reckon, has something to do with you, the reader. These words are here — and not in a private journal or encrypted file — because I want to share them with you. If this were text intended for my purposes alone, it wouldn’t be here. And there are untold rough drafts and iterations of these paragraphs that I am inclined to keep private.

I think we must acknowledge the performative, ‘recipient-oriented’ dynamic of any public action. As Maria Luisa commented earlier: a dancer who says, ‘I don’t care what the audience thinks of my performance’ seems to be making an incoherent statement. Why perform in front of an audience at all if audiences are nothing more than fake brain ornaments, propped up in rows of chairs like mannequins? If the thoughts of audiences are categorically void of all meaning, why bother climbing on to a stage at all?

To me, this is why the grand declaration of selfie culture — “This is my identity, and I don’t care what you think of me!” — boils down to a non sequitur. “I don’t care what you think of me” dissolves into a self-contradictory statement. As humans who have opinions, it seems nonsensical to act under the pretence that the opinions others do not matter.

I made this text public because I want your attention. Like a performer preparing for opening night, I have spent time in private orchestrating these words into a (hopefully) coherent structure. And, like a photographer who has toiled with light, I now present my creation to you. The culminating question of our inquiry is, therefore: now that I have your attention, what do I want you to think or do? This question might not only be applied to this blog post, but to every public presentation. Why post a picture of my dinner? Why share a status update that places me at a specific event or with particular people? What am I hoping that you will think or do as a result of me posting a picture of the skyline on my way to work?

How do we separate the performer from the performance? What is the dance without the dancer? What are words without the writer? How are thoughts distinct from the thinker? What is beauty without a beholder? We do not share our photos, dances, and blog posts as disembodied, discreet objects: we share them to share ourselves. We press ‘publish’ to inform the way others think, and I purpose this act is indistinguishable from seeking to inform the way others feel about us as individuals. It does not make sense to separate the act of publishing from the desire to engage other people. (There is a much longer discussion to be had here about individualism, the renaissance, and whether the reliefs Pharaohs and self-commissioned oil paintings of nobility count as ‘selfies,’ but I digress.)

A creator might envision limited directionality (I post, you ‘like’) or a multidirectional interaction (here’s my book to contribute to the discussion in a particular field, and thus an invitation for others to debate or refute my ideas), but in either case the project sets out to intersect the attention of others. ‘Publish now’ presumes that human brains could or should connect or influence one another in some way.

In follow up to my earlier Writing versus Posting? article, David Ashworth speculates that “posting is about me and the space I live in” and therefore amounts to a diary that one intends to be read by others. A monologue for an audience, as it were. (I like the theatrical description of a soliloquy here.) On the other hand, “writing [in contrast to ‘posting’] is about us and the space between us.” Writing sets the stage and invites dialogue, which is distinctive from broadcasting the personal details of one’s life for an audience that may or may not be listening. One activity tends toward fishing for validation, and the other tends toward courting variant perspectives. (Corporate social media has excelled in incentivizing the former largely at the expense of the latter.)

At the bottom line, my motivation for publishing this blog post and another person’s reason for sharing a selfie with their breakfast cereal is the same: we are both looking for engagement. It is the same reason dancers perform, and painters exhibit their work. The kernel of difference between our publications and presentations rests in the kind of interaction we hope to galvanize or inspire in others. The distinctive ways we frame these ‘terms of engagement’ in our public activities reflects something about how we define value versus minutiae.

So, what do you think? Does pressing ‘publish now’ boil down to a desire to engage with others?

I am not convinced

I am not convinced that ‘online communities’ will be defined as ‘communities’ indefinitely: it is quite possible some future generation might rebel against pixel-based approximations of human interaction as the sham of their parent’s age.

Critical Thinking: A Cheatsheet

  1. What would it take to convince me that I am wrong? (Falsifiability)

  2. How could I empirically prove the exact opposite of what I suspect to be true? (Null hypothesis)

  3. How could someone else argue that my position is illogical or irrational? (Self-debate)

  4. Who benefits the most when I hold this belief? (Critical discourse analysis)

  5. How would a rational person who holds an opposing viewpoint explain and justify their position? (Empathy)

  6. Can I conceptualize an alternative position that does not yield a binary ‘true or false’ dichotomy? (Non-dualism)

  7. How does my position and experience in society inform my assumptions and perspective? (Reflexive intersectionality)

  8. What unconscious mental shortcuts can I identify in my reasoning and rationale? (Cognitive bias mitigation)

  9. How can I guard myself against the illusion that I am reasoning objectively? (Skepticism)

  10. What beliefs have I already unconsciously accepted in order to arrive at my present position? (Presuppositions, tacit assumptions)

  11. What do the words that I use to express my beliefs connote implicitly that they do not denote explicitly? (Semantics, pragmatics)

  12. What are the psychological, social, institutional, or cultural costs of changing my mind? (Motivated reasoning)

  13. How would my identity be threatened if my beliefs or reasoning were shown to be flawed? (Externalize epistemology)

  14. If faced with sufficient counter-evidence, would I care about truth enough to abandon my present beliefs? (Ideological commitments)

  15. Who is framing, shaping, and informing the questions that I can even think to ask? (Social influence)

  16. What questions am I most afraid to ask? (Courage)

In Praise of Being Wrong

The fear of being wrong is a monumental obstacle to learning. Herein lies the persistent inclination to keep one’s opinions to oneself for fear of being proven wrong. And here is the home of close-mindedness: the union of identity and defensiveness.

In a way, learning is what happens when you end up agreeing with people who disagree with you. Growth requires a steadfast commitment to pivot and adapt. An eagerness to learn demands the willingness to lose an argument on occasion. In fact, sometimes the best debates are the ones that are lost.

Learning requires the defeat of old ideas.

‘Being wrong’ sometimes is critically important.

So celebrate beliefs that have long revision histories. Yearn for the acute sensation of being wrong. Subject everything you believe to scrutiny, eager to discover what buckles under the pressure. Test it. And test it again. And when you can’t sustain a position any longer, revel in its demise, as you move on to critique other beliefs with newfound perspective.

‘Being wrong’ can be one of the best parts of being alive.

If you can’t possibly imagine

If you can’t possibly imagine a scenario where your mindset changes, evolves, or adapts, then you possess a ‘mindset’ in the sense of dried concrete — ‘mindstuck.’ Or: ‘this mind hereby refuses to actually think any further.’ A solidified mind is basically ‘set’ like a brick.

If you were teleported here

If you were teleported here from a planet that didn’t have a moon, I’d bet that you’d describe viewing Earth’s moon with the naked eye from here on the surface of the planet as one of the most profoundly beautiful, mesmerizing experiences of your life.

Do religious communities provide ‘something’ that no other kind of community can offer?

There are interesting implications however you answer the question.

Several writers — Alain De Botton and Peter Sloterdijk come to mind — have considered the plight and future of the secular practice of community. The fulcrum of the discussion seems to boil down to commitment. Membership in a religious community is ‘transactional’ — a declaration of faith/devotion to a creed/doctrine in ‘exchange’ for belonging/identity.

In a sense, of course, all communities are transactional. (If you punch your friends in the face every time you see them, you will undoubtedly be seeing less of them.) But one could argue that religious communities tap into something more primordial. For example, in In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion and Violent Extremism and Sacred Values, anthropologist Scott Atran speculates about the possibility that belief in the spiritual served as the psychological basis for civilization itself. Perhaps believing in gods was the evolutionary precursor to collectively believing in things like states and constitutions. Before we could believe in kings, laws, and borders, perhaps we had to nurture the capacity to believe transcendent ideas by first believing in things like gods and the idea of order itself?

One could make the argument that a religious community is unlike any other kind of community and that a religious community ‘delivers’ something that no other group of humans can provide. If you move into a new city, as a person of faith, you can probably look up a list of religious communities that share the essential points of your beliefs. Amazingly, at least to some extent, your deepest, most cherished tenets — the convictions that orientate you to and in the world — find resonance and affirmation. Your creeds are sung.

Conversely, if you move into a new community as a nonreligious person, your ‘innermost circle’ typically forms around shared interests and experiences — work, hobbies, civics, etc. But do these associations ever reach ‘religious-grade’ community in the support, solidarity, and inclusion they provide?

Can you be a part of a ‘religious-grade’ community without ‘religious-grade’ commitment?

On the other hand, what if religion doesn’t have any exclusive claim to the depth or legitimacy of community? Anecdotally speaking, there seems to be a ‘scale’ of social integration that correlates with any shared values — especially shared values held in spite of external pressure. Consider the bonds of a military division or any high-stress, dangerous work that requires unequivocal trust among team members. A potential implication here is that the ‘thing’ to which people commitment in unison may not necessarily need to be a supernatural proposition, but perhaps just about any cause, narrative, rhetoric, or identity will do. What matters is sharing it in common.

Furthermore, a sense of ‘duty’ may superficially differentiate religious communities from ‘secular’ communities. Do people join chess clubs out of interest and churches out of duty? Or is participation in either simply and equally driven by the human need to belong? Or does the sense of duty felt by a detachment of soldiers create a connection deeper than any chess club or church can provide?

In the end, the relativity of our question creates more problems than it solves. If this is a research question, it is plagued with severe study design challenges. What seems evident is that people who need religious orders join churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues, and people who need chess clubs join chess clubs. Defining a certain ‘type’ or ‘grade’ of community is arbitrary to the extent that we humans (apparently) have a diverse range of needs and desires of association and tribe.

So, do religious communities provide ‘something’ that no other kind of community can provide? Probably, yes. But chess clubs probably provide ‘something else’ that religious communities cannot deliver. Perhaps the question should be less about the particular nature of religious belief and more about the dynamic and diverse nature of human community in general.

That said, I think there are still lessons that the rest of us can learn from religious communities — even if for no other reason than that religious traditions have been sculpting and experimenting with community for centuries. With Alain De Botton, I suspect that there is something profound (and, yes, likely primordial and evolutionary selective) in the idea of scheduling ‘sacred’ times to gather and in the practice of preparing and sharing meals together. Religion effectively constructs a bureaucratic hierarchy that coordinates the dreary logistics of gathering for the faithful. Taking an intentional approach to organizing live, in-person sharing of ideas and meals is the critical lesson that religion has been evolving over millennia. But can we genuinely commit to community without the gods?

Questions about Questions

What happens when you change a proposition from a statement to a question?

What is more disarming and invitational than an honest, curious inquiry?

If you want someone else to honestly consider an idea outside the schema of their present beliefs, what better way to invite consideration than to pose the alternative as a hypothesis?

How else do you engage counterpoints with inciting defensiveness?

But even more importantly, how can you hope to share your perspective with another person unless you can understand something about their point of view?

And how can you understand another point of view unless you ask?

What better way to discover why an interlocutor holds their convictions than to invite their knowledge and experience to inform your perspective?

What is better than a good question?

(Want to talk about it?)

Changing the World (is an incoherent idea)

I am skeptical of books and blogs purporting insights and instructions on how to ‘change the world.’ There seems to be a disconnect between books about How to Change Society and books about How Society Has Changed, the latter most commonly referred to as ‘history.’

This observation is not meant to be pessimism about the future. The future, like the past, categorically does not ‘exist.’ It is not a thing or an object that avails itself to direct manipulation. It is perpetually out of reach. It is eternally untouchable.

Sure, I can change things about the world now, but I cannot change a future world that doesn’t exist. And even here and now, my capacity to alter the world has limits: I can only change features of my world, not everyone else’s worlds. (But I take immense comfort in this: if everyone could change the world for everyone else, than anyone else could presumably change my world on a whim. Who would want to live in that world? Terrifying, really.)

We can pick something up and move it somewhere else. We can share a thought or idea with others. It is within the ability of every single one of us to say, write, or do something that changes the parameters of the world right now — or at least a small corner of it. However, I get the sense that many of us are hung up on the issue of scale. We are greedy. Some of us want to be all-star ‘change agents’ who apparently possess more power to incite change in the world relative to other people (or at least relative to the mean average of other people’s ability to change the world). We want more network influence, higher impact metrics, and broader systemic reach.

In short, we want power. We talk about changing the world to encase our thirst for power in a blanket of benevolent feel-good. But it still boils down to the exertion of our will into and over the experience of other human beings.

Let’s put it another way. It seems evident that “Everyone else should be like me“, or “Everyone should do what I think they should do”, or “I can create the conditions that will solve this for everyone” are not viable solutions to most of the problems in the world. But it is intriguing how often these overtures seem to be default reactions.

So, let’s be critical, in a constructive way, about this whole world-changing agenda. Unless the wanton pursuit of leverage over other people is the paramount objective of our lives, it does not make a whole lot of sense to preoccupy our temporal existence with the worry of altering the make-believe future of other people.

What can I change in the world today? I can change the way I interact with others. I can change the duration and depth of my contemplative pondering vis-a-vis my instinctive, reactionary impulsivity. I can take more time to order my words, deepen my thoughts, and invite others to ruminate. I can sit in empathy, stand in solidarity, and explore with curiosity. I can do all of these things. I can do them today.

None of these actions will change the whole world in any literal or measurable way. But upon reflection, it seems like such an ambition — global dominance of my will upon others and the Earth — is a ridiculous self-delusion anyway. That said, I am realistically hopeful that I can change my world: the tiny sphere of existence I will inhabit for the next five minutes. I can become just a little bit more intentional about who I am amongst and alongside the people around me right now.

No one knows the so-called ‘impact’ my actions will have on the so-called ‘future.’ No one can know. But who said the point of nurturing one’s practice of kindness, reflection, gratitude, and one’s investment in justice is exclusively for producing a quantifiable ‘change’ in the world? The question is as least as old as Plato: is goodness good for goodness’ sake alone? When did right living become exclusively valued by its global transformation scorecard?

How is it that ‘doing the right thing’ has become seemingly synonymous with the ambition to ‘change the world’? Often the response to one noble deed is, “But that’ll never really change anything, you know!” What a recipe for cynicism we have created! If ‘doing good’ doesn’t ‘change the world,’ then why bother with goodness at all? What if this conceptual construct of becoming world-changers has become a psychological impediment to, well, actually changing anything about the way we live?

Does donating to UNHCR change Aleppo? Does standing in solidarity for a community’s water rights overcome the power of corporate lobby interests? Does taking a few minutes to listen to the experiences of racialized communities end systemic racism? Does building local networks of respect and understanding curtail the fear mongering of a demagogue? Does one personal effort to reduce, reuse, and recycle empty landfills and clean up the oceans? Categorically, none of these activities do anything to structurally ‘change the world’ — but that does not make them any less important.

Maybe my tribe — my friends and I; my tiny fractal of the global community — will make some positive difference for others. Maybe not. More than likely, if we crunch the odds, we’ll simply never actually know. But knowing the outcomes has nothing to do with whether or not being intentional about our behavior is a worthwhile practice.

If I need the universe to give me gold stars and reward stickers for every effort at doing what is right, I reckon I am just selfish. So, to hell with ‘changing the world.’ If the notion of changing other people is ridiculous, how much more so the delusion of reordering the sum of the whole planet?

Changing the world is either a fool’s errand or an otherwise ludicrous benchmark. Such concerns are only in the purview of the omnipotent. I will not measure or quantify the meaningfulness of my existence by the scale of its global influence. What will I assume complete responsibility for? My time, my resources, my attention, and what I do with the three of these in concert with one another. I’ll only hold myself accountable for the things I can change, not for my transformative impact on the state of the planet.