The current state of the world and my life in it is far different than I could have ever expected, and to be honest, not in a good way. It is frustrating to look at my own lack of progress in life, and what to me seems like regression around the world in so many aspects of human interaction. There are many times I am discouraged; mornings that I do not want to get out of bed; evenings that I just want to be alone and hide from the cruel world.
Yet, despite these struggles, in general I usually find a way to get outside of myself and struggle towards improvement, both of myself and the larger world. In fact, in the face of all the negativity, I believe myself to actually be a rather positive person. Do not get my wrong, I am still the same cynical smart-ass I’ve always been, and black humor is a major aspect of my personality that I will never abandon. However, even deeper in me is a fundamental undying love of life and the world.
My outlook basically comes down to three main philosophical aspects:
- Wisdom is being aware of how little I know.
- My blessings at birth are a debt to those not as lucky
- Don’t complain; even when it’s rough, life is still amazing
Wisdom is Being Aware of How Little I Know.
This is a lesson I think we all need in this hyper-partisan environment we find ourselves in. One of my favorite stories from history is that of Socrates and the Oracle of Delphi. A friend of Socrates asked the Oracle who the wisest man in Athens was, and the Oracle said it was Socrates. When told of this, Socrates said it could not be true because there was so little he knew about the world, and there were many others in Athens that had much confidence in their wisdom. Socrates then decided to try and prove the Oracle wrong by speaking with these learned men. As we went to each man of renown, he asked them various questions and in each case, he found that while the men claimed wisdom and knowledge, when faced with difficult questions, they would prove to not be as smart and wise as they thought themselves to be. Eventually Socrates became aware of what the Oracle meant. He was in fact the wisest man in Athens. Not because of his knowledge, but because he was aware of his own ignorance.
That was about 2500 years ago, and a more modern take on this situation of overly confident ignorant people is the Dunning-Kruger Effect. A quick summary is that, in general, people vastly over estimate their abilities and knowledge when in fact they have very little. Whereas true students and experts in certain fields are more cautious and humble in their self-evaluations. A colleague once informed me that this peak of ignorant confidence is sometimes called Mount Stupid.
Unfortunately, our current society seems to award those at the peak of Mount Stupid. Confident certainty is valued above wise and humble flexibility. I saw a post awhile ago on Facebook about how women can be more “like a boss” to counteract the sexism that exists in the workplace. Unfortunately, instead of being more “like a boss”, it read like how to be more “like a horrible boss”. It had advice like not apologizing and don’t suggest doubt when offering suggestions. As I read through the post, I thought about how I would absolutely hate to have this person as a supervisor regardless of their gender. (As a related side note, I have had amazing women supervisors in my career and they never acted in such a manner.)
We need to have leaders in business and politics that realize they don’t know everything, and in fact, it is very likely that they could be wrong. Changing one’s mind as they get more information should be recognized for the wisdom it is, not something to be criticized.
When having political discussions with a friend, he once told me that he approached such conversations with an attitude that “I have an opinion about this, but I’m probably wrong and I want to find out why.” That is exactly the mindset we need to promote because it facilitates respect and growth, regarding of the starting positions.
This is the spirit in which I approach difficult conversations in different scenarios: politics, work, religion, pretty much anything. As such, it helps me to (usually) have pleasant and deep conversations with people from a variety of perspectives. And that in turn has helped me to more greatly appreciate the amazing variety of life.
My Blessings at Birth are a Debt to Those Not as Lucky
I don’t remember when I came to this line of thinking, but it’s been awhile, and I’ve done the math a few different times.
I was born on a November day many years ago (I don’t feel like saying how many). Based on an estimate of global birth rates, about 350,000 babies were born on that same day in the world (actually a bit less than that, but I want to use round numbers). Based on an estimate of infant mortality rates at that time, about 50,000 of those babies never made it to their first birthday. So that leaves us with about 300,000 people with my same date of birth living past one year of age.
I was born into a middle-class family in the United States. If you look at general income comparisons, if your household is above the median income in the United States, you have more income than about 95% of the world population. That brings the 300,000 of my cohort down to about 15,000 with similar or more income than my family. (Note: obviously the lower income would also have a higher proportion of the aforementioned infant mortality, but this is a general illustration, not a true in-depth analysis).
Now this next point is not meant to brag or anything, but is simply an acknowledgment of my reality and privilege. I was fortunate enough to have a fairly high academic aptitude. According to most standardized tests throughout my school days, I’ve usually been around the 95th percentile. This is not because I am a hard worker or a great student, it was simply a measure of the aptitude I happened to be born with. This takes that 15,000 down further to 750 people.
Beyond that, I happened to have been born into a stable family. My parents are still together and we’ve never had any major family drama beyond normal issues that everyone deals with, in my experience. Based on the oft-cited 50% marriage failure rates, I’m going to drop that number again to 375, and for the sake of illustration, let’s round that down to 350 out of the original 350,000 babies born on the same day as me. This means that, through no efforts of my own and purely by the accident of my birth and the ability I was born with, I was born into a better situation than 99.9% of all the babies born in the world that day.
Those fortunate circumstances have helped me to have a life that so many in the world could only imagine. Because of this realization, I feel not only fortunate but indebted. I feel that I owe something to those 349,650 other babies that never had the opportunities that I had simply because they weren’t as lucky in birth.
I was reminded of this while I was travelling the world and was once staying in a Masai village in Kenya. Cattle are an integral part of the Masai life, and while out walking, I came across a young boy of about 11 or 12 years of age tending to a herd of cattle. When I saw this, I was reminded that when I about the same age, I also would tend the cattle at my grandparents’ farm, especially at the county and state fairs. So while I felt a kinship with this youth based on our similar responsibilities at a similar age, I also realized how unlikely it was that he would one day grow up and be able to travel around the world and see other youths on other continents tending livestock like I was able to do.
That is why I feel I need to do my best to make the world a little better and a little more just, so all those who aren’t as fortunate in birth have a little more opportunity than they otherwise would.
This isn’t too dismiss the extraordinary struggles that you or I may face. However, at the same time, we have all been blessed in one way or another. And it has been shown that volunteering and helping those less fortunate has a range of benefits on your mental health. So instead of focusing on your own problems, how about changing your approach and seeing how you can help someone else with their problems?
Don’t Complain; Even When It’s Rough, Life is Still Amazing
Of all the people I’ve known in my life, the one I admire the most is my grandfather, John Hausman. I, and anyone that knew him, could easily go on and on about his many virtues. But while I don’t think I could ever live up to his humility and genuine kindness, the one trait of his that I think I can realistically emulate is that I never heard him complain. (In full honesty, while I don’t remember personally hearing it, I know that he would occasionally complain about my grandmother’s cats, but I’m going to give him a pass on that.)
As I’ve gone through life, I’ve found that one of the traits that turns me off from people is consistent complaining. That is not to say that I never complain, because I do, and far too often, and I hate it when I do. Also, I’m not equating complaining with venting or discussing your problems, because I want to encourage people to be able to talk about it when they have problems. I also don’t count it as true complaining when it is done in a humorous and tongue-in-cheek manner for the sake of light conversation.
Instead, I am talking about when people complain about others, places, events, the weather, or life in general purely for the sake of complaining. It serves no purpose whatsoever. I am currently reading The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and one of the passages discusses the worthlessness of fault-finding (Book 8, Paragraph 17). My bad paraphrasing of this passage is that if something perturbs you, then you should attempt to remedy it. If it is impossible to remedy, then you should just accept it and move on because dwelling upon it is wasted effort.
This really came into relief for me in the past couple of years during the course of my travels, both globally and locally. Since I’ve returned to the US, I’ve often gotten the question as to which place was my favorite, and then which place I really didn’t like. During the course of my travels, there were definitely a couple of places that I was miserable in for a time, and occasionally for the entire time I was there. However, looking back on them, there were amazing aspects of those places that I truly did enjoy. One example is Varanasi, India. I’m not going to list all the different things that bothered me while I was there, but I will say that even while I was there I appreciated the amazing history and culture I was fortunate enough to witness, and while I have no real desire to ever go back, I greatly appreciate my time there, and would never speak ill of the city in total.
I was reminded of this last fall while visiting my brother and his family in Chicago. Down here in central Illinois, I often hear people complain about Chicago for one reason or another, whether it be politics or general city life or crime or whatever. However, as I was walking alone around downtown and the lake shore after watching a matinee performance of Hamilton, I thought about all wonderful things Chicago has to offer. And while I understand many people may not be interested in the same offerings that I am, and I also realize Chicago has a myriad of problems, I still find it not worthy to complain about and write off a place.
And the same could be said about life in general. It is easy to fall into the trap of complaining about life and the difficulties it entails. But, in the end, life is full of so many incredible opportunities and so much beauty, and to complain about it and write off this miraculous adventure, to me, is a terrible waste.