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Archive for November, 2013

Consider that history is a fragment of biology — the laws of biology are some of the fundamental lessons of history.  For example, we humans are subject to the processes and trials of evolution.  We are dependent upon a variety of groups if we are going to survive the trials and the strife that come with being human AND the groups themselves are always in peril — if they don’t survive neither will I, neither will you, neither will we.

Given this, gentle reader, consider that one of the first biological lessons of history is that life is competition-based.  Now, for example, competition is likely to be rooted in cooperation when food is bountiful but when food becomes scarce violence might well replace cooperation.  We humans will within the next two or three generations face a shortage of fresh water and my anxiety rises when I image what will then happen to us humans.  Because our nature is relational we do respond to a natural disaster by reaching out to those affected; the loss of fresh water however will not occur as a result of a ‘natural disaster’ but because we humans are not good stewards of what we have been entrusted with.

We humans are living paradoxes.  We are caring and supportive AND we are acquisitive, greedy, and war-like because deep within our psyche we remember that we had to chase and kill in order to survive (our forefathers and foremothers would stuff themselves when there was food to be had for they did not know when they would have food again).  Consider, gentle reader, that war is a nation’s way of eating.  Ironically, war promotes co-operation because it is the ultimate form of competition (we fight together to obtain more land, more food, more slaves, more status, more power, more ‘wealth’ and to bring the conquered into the ‘fold’ — they will embrace our political system for example [or will they]; we also defend ourselves against those who want to ‘conquer us’).

A second biological lesson of history is that life is selection.  In the competition for food or mates or power some organisms succeed and some fail.  In the struggle for existence some are better equipped than others to meet the challenges of survival.  It is helpful for me to remember that Nature [here meaning the total reality and its processes] has not read the American Declaration of Independence or the French Revolution’s ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man’ and therefore, we are all born ‘unfree’ and ‘unequal.’  We are subject to our physical and psychological heredity and to the customs and traditions of our group.  We are diversely endowed in health and strength and in mental capacity and qualities of character (gifts, talents, abilities that are ‘natural’ to each of us and that might serve us well or that might actually hinder our progress within our specific culture).  Nature loves difference.  ‘Difference’ is the necessary material for evolution (even identical twins differ in hundreds of ways).

Inequality is ‘natural’ and ‘inborn’ AND it grows with the complexity of civilization.  Here are a few to consider: Hereditary inequalities breed social inequalities; an invention or discovery tends to make the strong stronger and the weak relatively weaker; economic development specializes functions, differentiates abilities, and makes individuals unequally valuable to their group.

Nature laughs when humans speak of the union between freedom and equality.  Why?  Consider that freedom and equality are sworn enemies and when one prevails the other perishes.  What!?  Leave humans free and their natural inequalities will multiply — probably geometrically — as in England and the United States in the 1800s under laissez-faire.  To check the growth of inequality, liberty will be sacrificed (see Russia, 1917).  Alas, even when repressed, inequality grows (see Russia after 1917).  As one philosopher noted thousands of years ago, only the man who is below average in economic ability desires equality while those who are conscious of superior ability desire freedom (freedom from…freedom to…).  It seems that in the end superior ability will have its way.  It does appear as if equality of legal justice and educational opportunity helps mitigate some of this inequality and those who have the ‘power’ seem to know this (which is why in our country there continues to be a movement to weaken our public educational systems — how about this for a conspiracy theory).

On the positive side, a society in which all potential abilities are nurtured and developed and then function will have a survival advantage when it comes to the competition between and among groups.  As we are learning (are we truly learning what I will now note?), competition becomes more severe and perhaps more violent, as distance between societies and cultures diminishes (via technology, education, and economics).  Resources are, indeed, becoming more scarce (fresh water, clean air, food, forests, etc.) and history teaches us that when this happens co-operation among all decreases and competition increases.  Sadly, we humans, are causing most of this to occur; Nature is powerless to stop us . . . well, Nature could literally stop us and she might well do so as a result of our being poor stewards of our earth. [to be continued]

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Gentle reader, you might explore some of my previous postings where I quote from Epictetus’ “Discourses.’  Today I will share with you a ‘smell’ of what he wrote when it came to ‘Progress.’  Epictetus writes:

Whoever is making progress, after learning from philosophers that desire is directed toward good things and avoidance directed toward bad, and having also learned that impassivity and a good flow of life are not attained except through unerring desire and unfailing avoidance — that person will do away with desire altogether, or else defer it to another time, and exercise avoidance only on things within the moral sphere.

. . .What is the goal of virtue, after all, except in a life that flows smoothly?  So who is making progress — the person who has read many of Chrysippus’ books?  Is virtue no more than this — to become literate in Chrysippus? 

. . .Don’t you want to show him the purpose of virtue, so that he will know what real progress consists in?  Look for it in your volition, friend — that is, in your desire and avoidance.  Make it your goal never to fail in your desires or experience things you would rather avoid; try never to err in impulse and repulsion; aim to be perfect also in the practice of attention and withholding judgment. 

. . .If you aim to be perfect when you are still anxious and apprehensive, how have you made progress?  So let’s see some evidence of it.  But no, it’s as if I were to say to an athlete, ‘Show me your shoulders,’ and he responded with, ‘Have a look at my weights.’  ‘Get out of here with you and your gigantic weights!’ I’d say, ‘What I want to see isn’t the weights but how you’ve profited from using them.’ 

‘Take the treatise “On Impulse” and see how well I’ve read it.’  Idiot.  It’s not “that” I’m after, I want to know how you put impulse and repulsion into practice, and desire and avoidance as well  I want to know how you apply and prepare yourself, and how you practice “attention,” so that I can decide whether with you these functions operate in harmony with nature.  If you “are,” in fact, acting in accord with nature, then show me, and I will be the first to say that you are making progress.  But otherwise, be off, and rather than just comment on books, you might as well as write one yourself. 

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I flew to Minneapolis yesterday.  My flight was delayed and this added an hour+ to my travel time (or waiting time).  I began to think about a private high school that will soon celebrate its 100th birthday.  I than began to think about my undergraduate alma mater which was founded in 1842.  Lots of history for both.  As I was reflecting the following question emerged into my consciousness: “Do I (you, we) really know what the past was?”  When we speak of ‘history’ do we know what actually happened or is history more of a fable that contains some ‘truth’ and at the same time is not quite agreed upon by folks?  I understand that our knowledge about the past is incomplete and at times is inaccurate and the clouds of ambivalence cover much of what actually happened.  Then we have the biased folks who attempt to research the history; they are prone to distort it simply because they are humans.  The historian Will Durant wrote that “Most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice.”  Anyone who attempts to research and then write about history will be influenced by his or her prejudices, race, creed, socialization and biases (to name but a few of what will influence the person).  Because of these, and other, things, the person will choose certain adjectives, ask certain questions, choose to leave out certain ‘facts’ (space, after all is limited).  Historians oversimplify and choose to focus on a minority of facts and faces; the majority of each are left out — if known at all.  A good story-teller on the other hand will embellish a story in order to offer something richer and more seductive to the potential listener (a good story-teller never lets facts interfere with the story).

What continues to complicate the study of history is the increasing rapidity of change.  The world has changed more in the past 53 years than it did in all of history before 1960.  Every year (is this too long a period) — and during wars perhaps every month — a new something will emerge.  Perhaps it is a new invention, perhaps it is a new innovation, perhaps it is an archaeological discovery, or perhaps it is a new way of doing an old thing.  Consider that the rate of our learning must be equal to the rate of change and technological change, for example, is occurring so rapidly that few can truly keep up (it seems to me that cooperative learning might enable us to learn at the rate of change).

Then we have the ‘quirks’ that occur and that upset all that seemed solidly in place.  I am thinking of Alexander the Great.  He drank himself to death and allowed his empire to fall apart (323 B.C.) — of course there is a question as to what exactly took his life; was it drink; was it disease, was it poison.  Does it matter?  History is not scientific.  It is, however, an industry, an art and a philosophy (to name three things it is).  As an industry it seeks to uncover the facts — ‘nothing but the facts sir, just the facts’ (remember Joe Friday’s stoic demeanor as he uttered these words).  It is an art for it endeavors to bring order out of chaos or to help us understand the beauty of the chaos itself.  It is also a philosophy for it seeks to put things in perspective as it seeks to help us ‘see the light’ of the past.  As a wise person once wrote: In philosophy we attempt to see the part in the light of the whole and in the philosophy of history we attempt to see this moment in the light of the past.  Since we are not perfect in any of these endeavors we might well be offering illusion more than fact.  We are challenged to embrace history knowing we have partial knowledge and all historical surety should be suspect (think of all that we were once ‘sure’ about and that today we ‘know’ to not be true — the atom is the smallest we can get; there was no ‘history’ before the Sumerians, to cite just two examples).  In history it seems that relativity rules.

Perhaps, within all of these limits (and there are many more we could consider) we can learn enough from history to bear our current reality patiently while respecting one another’s delusions about what was — perhaps ‘is’ — true.

Given the following — astronomy, geology, geography, biology, ethnology, psychology, morality, religion, economics, politics and, yes, war — what does history have to tell us about the nature, conduct and prospects for we humans?  Do we really want to know?  Can we really know?  Does it matter?  Are we open to learning?

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As humans we are truly blessed because there are folks who are committed to helping us become more caring in so many ways.  They help by showing us how to care for one another.  They help by showing us how to care for our environment.  They help by showing us how to care by demonstrating forgiveness and by showing us how to heal our brokenness.  They show us how to care by embracing a multitude of diversities.  In short, they demonstrate their caring through their actions — they espouse caring and they live caring lives.

Some say that a major motivator for caring is empathy [Note: The books and articles focusing on empathy are legion; here are a few of the book titles: ‘The Empathic Civilization’ — one of my favorites, ‘The Age of Empathy,’ ‘The Empathy Gap,’ and ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’].  As humans we have ‘mirror neurons’ in our heads and these enable us to feel what’s in other people’s heads and may well lead to caring for others and to our acting in moral ways.  It does appear that people who are considered to be empathetic are more sensitive to the perceptions, the perspectives and the sufferings of others.  They are also, it seems, more likely to make compassionate moral judgments.

It also appears that a significant challenge arises when one attempts to turning empathetic (caring?) feelings into action.  It does seem that empathy helps us become more aware of the other’s suffering but it is not clear as to whether empathy actually motivates one to take caring action.  I am remembering the story of the Nazi who wept as he shot mothers and their children to death; he said he ‘felt terrible’ and he could ‘feel their fear’ and yet he continued to murder them by the thousands.  I am also remembering an experiment where some students administered what they believed were electrical shocks to other students and these students also wept as they were asked to increase the electrical charge (of course it was all a ruse, an experiment to study what it would take to get a ‘good person’ to administer such shocks — all it took was a ‘doctor’ in a white lab coat to give the order).  I am remembering all of the times I have avoided the homeless person even though I ‘felt’ their suffering.

Multiple studies have shown that empathy is like a flower; it is easily crushed by self-concern.  Other studies have indicated that empathy influences us to care more for those suffering who are ‘cute’ than for those suffering who are ‘ugly.’  It has been found that juries give more ‘breaks’ to those who appear to be sad than those who appear to be ‘stoic.’  Also, natural disasters — like the recent typhoon in the Philippines — receive more aid than long-standing conditions (e.g. global hunger).

Empathy is important and, perhaps, it is insufficient.  We can ‘espouse’ caring as a result of being empathetic AND we can also experience a disconnection when we do not act in caring ways.  Those who actually perform caring actions feel for the other AND they also feel compelled to act (this is what caring folks do — they feel and they act).  As I am thinking about this it seems to me that caring-folks have committed to living by a certain code (a code of ethics or morals?).  They have committed, say, to a religious code, or a social code, or a military code, or a philosophic code (to name a few).  Perhaps it is their commitment to their code that spurs them to action and that empathy is one aspect for them — the code might be primary.  This code is a tap root that supports their identity and for some ‘the code’ defines their identity.  People who have integrated ‘the code’ such that it becomes ‘natural’ to them (second-nature if you will) will act in caring ways and not necessarily experience empathy as they do so.  I am thinking of the police officer, the soldier, the fire fighter, the secret service agent who will put themselves (throw themselves) in harm’s way in order to protect others, in order to save others, in order to shield others.  For these folks, empathy is not the motivator, their code and their commitment to their code is the motivator.

Perhaps we need to develop our capacity for empathy AND perhaps we also need to examine the codes by which we live (we all have codes by which we live — how many of us know what they are).  Ironically (or is it paradoxically) both empathy and codes can contribute to, if not ensure, one’s caring for others and both can totally block out ‘the other’ so that it is truly ‘all about me.’  We, each of us, have choice.  To what extent are we aware of and intentional about what we choose?  To what extent am I, are you, motivated to action by empathy?

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What follows appears today on my other blog — my posting for today on that blog [http://servant-as-leader.com].  In my last two posts I invited you, gentle reader, to consider ‘Leadership’ and the ‘Leader.’  Today I invite you to consider, ‘The Led.’

The Led have choice [choice = the power and opportunity to select].  What might influence one to exercise choice and select to follow?  Consider that some choose to follow because of who the other person is (i.e. because of his or her character), because the other person is also trust-worthy and is a ‘builder’ and ‘sustainer’ of trust and because the other person ‘stays true’ [i.e. to his or her agreements, integrity, vision, care for those who follow, and commitments, etc.] and perhaps because the other person has the gift/discipline of foresight (‘I can see where we need to go or I can see clearly the territory that lies before us or I can ‘see’ with my intuition and I will go there and I invite you to come along with me’).  In this relationship there is mutual trust, there is mutual support and mutual accountability — we are truly in this together; interdependence is afoot.  This leader-led relationship is rooted in commitment rather than loyalty; each is committed to the well-being of the other and each is committed to speaking his or her truth to the other and each is committed to the growth and development of the other AND those who choose to follow are not ‘blindly loyal’ to the leader and the leader does not seek those who choose to follow to be blindly loyal to him or her.  In this relationship, persuasion and influence dominate and both are open to being persuaded and influenced by the other [because we are imperfect and because we are at times reactive and because at times we can be whelmed over with certain stressors or anxieties or fears we — leaders and those led — will choose coercion or manipulation rather than persuasion or influence; the key is to ‘know’ that we are so choosing and then to take time to reflect upon the times we use coercion and manipulation so that we might learn; for example we might learn what motivates us and what intended and unintended consequences followed and what the positive and negative effects were upon the leader and the led].

Now even in this relationship there are important, if not significant, differences.  The person who is leader via his or her role has a type of power that those who choose to follow do not have; this power comes with the role, not with the person [power = one’s ability to act rooted in reflection].  The designated leader has certain power to act that the one choosing to follow does not have.  Also, role defined leaders might ultimately be held accountable (‘the buck stops here’) and this is a temptation for both the leader and the led [the form this ‘temptation’ will take depends upon the character of both, the risk present or anticipated, and the desire of the follower to avoid being responsible or response-able].

Because both the leader and the led are imperfect the type of relationship I am describing also requires that both be able to embrace the following: forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing (to ‘make the relationship whole again’).  This type of leader-led relationship also requires both to be vulnerable (i.e. to take risks, to be open and transparent, and to ‘carry the wound gracefully’ — vulnerable comes from the Latin root ‘vulnus’ which means ‘to carry the wound gracefully’).

This type of leader-led relationship also requires that both the leader and the led ’emotionally own’ all that they embrace together (‘buy-in’ is not enough, but at times is sufficient for the short term); mere compliance and adaptation will not be enough to sustain the ‘we are in this together’ attitude or commitment.

When I describe the above to others I often hear ‘This is too idealistic’ or ‘This is some of that touchy-feely stuff’ or ‘This is soft’ or ‘The real world does not work this way’ [I am sure, gentle reader you can add to this list if you so choose].  My reply: ‘To develop this type of leader-led relationship is the hard work; it is easy to allow the leader to have all of the power, to make all of the decisions and to take on all of the responsibility for it allows those led to not be responsible or response-able and to be dependent rather than interdependent (to name a few of the items on what can be a rather long list).  What I have described takes courage  or ‘heart’ (courage comes from the Old French ‘cuer’ which means ‘heart’).

So, there you have it, gentle reader, some considerations regarding ‘Leadership,’ ‘The Leader,’ and ‘The Led.’  I am remembering Gandhi’s words that go something like this: ‘Become the change you wish to see in the world’ and I am also remembering William James words that go something like this: ‘Act as if what you do will make a difference in the world.’  Both, I think, might serve ‘Leadership,’ ‘The Leader,’ and ‘The Led’ well.

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