Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

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Get Friendly, People

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Our lives, over the past twenty-five years or so, have become increasingly hectic, almost frenetic. The demands of home, work and even such simple things as commuting have grown, eating away at more and more of our time until we have less of ourselves to give.

So we adapt. We spend less time with old (and new) friends. Instead of meeting in person, we connect on Facebook and Snapchat and Instagram. We use social media to maintain our relationships, staring at a screen rather than another human face.

We tend to forget that we’re social creatures who need real human interaction. We think that this electronic substitute will serve the same purpose, or near enough. And it does to a degree. But it’s not the same as visiting a friend in person, putting down the cell phone and just catching up on each other’s lives.

It can be hard because as much as one of you wants to stay engaged, the other might not feel so strongly inclined. Or the logistics of getting together impede your efforts, as family and work and other obstacles emerge.

We think there will always be another opportunity sometime down the road, perhaps when the kids have gone off to college or when chaos at the job settles down, even though new obstacles tend to enter the scene. So we have to work hard to make the relationships work, and we eventually come to feel that they may not be worth the effort.

But I suspect that when you do finally make the time and the effort, after you’ve connected or reconnected and caught up with your friends’ lives and given an account of yours, as you’re heading home, you feel pretty good, almost euphoric at the bond you have strengthened.

The benefits of good social networks are well established, so I won’t go into them in detail, but I will say that science shows friendships improve your chances of living both a longer life and a healthier one. Your mind is likely to stay sharper if you engage with friends, particularly those who don’t always agree with you. Back and forth respectful dialogue keeps you thinking, building brain plasticity.

And you can’t help but have more positive thoughts and emotions if you engage with friends. That positivity can assist in warding off high blood pressure, digestion difficulties and immune system responses. Of course, you can get that same beneficial effect by walking through a forest, but you may not always have easy access to a grove of trees.

A few years ago, an older guy from my gym approached me in the locker room and suggested we have lunch or meet for a drink after work sometime. Although my first inclination was to decline, I nevertheless agreed. And I’m glad I did.

He and I are very different in some ways, very similar in others. He’s very religious. I’m not. But he’s also curious about the world, as am I. We both seek answers to questions we’re not even sure we’ve framed properly.

We talk about the absurdities of the human condition. We talk about our government. We talk about riding bicycles and discourse on the existence of God. We give each other grief without ever crossing the line into meanness. And even though we’ll never be best friends, we’ll always like each other. And we’ll go on connecting for as long as we can.

So catch up with an old friend or make a new one. Reach out and engage with others. You’ll find that it not only benefits you, it benefits your friends, and their friends, and ultimately the whole world.

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Should Everyone Have an Equal Voice?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Do we all deserve to be listened to equally? Or do some of us deserve more heft?

In a perfect world, where everyone gave equal thought to every issue, where worries about universal health care took up the same amount of mental space in each person’s mind, where concerns about despoiling the planet consumed as much gray matter in all the planet’s citizens to the exact same level, the answer would clearly be yes.

However, the world we inhabit is populated by a broad spectrum of individuals, some well-read, some invested more heavily in lighter fare, like drinking and watching romance dramas and contemplating the benefits and drawbacks of spending a month’s salary on those killer new boots. (They look fabulous on you!)

So when one person studies a subject in great detail, learning about all the candidates for a judgeship, for example, and another person doesn’t even know the names of the candidates, we obviously want to listen more closely to the knowledgeable person.

And in elections, those people ought to have more say than the people who just enter the booth and say to themselves, “Eeny meeny miny Joe. I guess I’ll vote for Joe.” But how do we do that? One way is through a concept known as liquid democracy.

Here’s how it works: we individuals identify people we trust (like friends or relatives or friends of relatives, etc.) who know a lot about school boards, for example, people who perhaps have kids in the system and who are familiar with all the candidates. Then we authorize those people to vote for us in the next school board election. We give them a proxy vote, which would be permitted by state law.

Those people would only be able to vote for us in that one election for school board, not for anything else. They might accumulate hundreds of votes to spend. And all those votes would be coming from a well-informed voter. So because of liquid democracy, we would be more likely to get a good school board member as a result.

This option isn’t available yet, but it probably should be. Yes, there’s a chance someone could pass himself off as an expert or buy votes to get a particular candidate elected, but that’s already happening and voter fraud laws would address many of those concerns.

Even if we never get to that point, we need to realize that we never have perfect knowledge, and that we should be relying on those with subject matter expertise in certain circumstances. We just need to find the right experts.

Not everyone’s voice ought to have equal power. Yet under our system of democracy, and under the rules of society we adhere to, everyone’s voice does. This makes for a hodgepodge of ill-formed opinions and situations in which the loudest voices (those that acquire the most money) generally win.

We can do better.

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Everyone Is a Contrarian

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

It seems odd to make this pronouncement. After all, if everyone is a contrarian, then how can there be a majority viewpoint on anything? But here’s the qualifier: not everyone is a contrarian on all issues.

We are only contrarians at certain times. For example, I know people who believe that genetically modified foods are disastrous for humanity. They think such products are Frankenfoods, unhealthy and destined to destroy us. Never mind that science has determined nothing of the sort.

There are also people who have convinced themselves that immunizations are harmful, that if we inoculate our children, we’ll be giving them terrible diseases like autism. Again, science has shown that vaccinations aren’t the cause, but you can’t get such believers to change their minds by arguing the science with them.

Flat earthers still exist, long after we’ve known the world is a globe. Moon landing conspiracists continue to be convinced that NASA’s feat was a hoax. Climate change deniers refuse to accept that humans are warming the planet.

It doesn’t matter if 99 percent of the population believes something. There will always be a group that rejects their beliefs. And at least 99 percent of us believe something we oughtn’t believe, something that science tells us isn’t true, but that we choose to believe anyway, because it fits into our narrative of the world.

Most of the time, being a contrarian on a given issue isn’t problematic. But it becomes more so when the president is not only a contrarian on many issues, but also encourages people to be contrarians, to accept “alternate” facts as truth.

When that happens, when people begin to believe strongly that they’re the few who are absolutely right and everyone else is absolutely wrong, and when their leader implicitly encourages the use of violence by using violent rhetoric, then it’s a short step to dangerous action.

It’s easy to deflect blame and say that even though he uses hyperbolic words to make a point, he isn’t actually advocating violence, but the truth is that some blame must attach to those who incite violence, because we all know there are people out there who will believe even the most outlandish claims – like that Hillary Clinton was trafficking in girls at a pizza parlor in Washington DC.

I choose to be a contrarian with respect to movies. When people tell me I should see a great movie like Pretty Woman or E.T. or Schindler’s List, I generally stay away from it for years, sometimes intending to watch it later, sometimes deciding never to see it.

That’s a pretty harmless contrarian view. It doesn’t hurt anyone that I choose not to see one or more of them. But if I choose to believe that a politician is trafficking in young girls, I might – particularly if I’m a bit unstable – choose to take actions that could harm someone else.

So try to be a contrarian only when doing so won’t cause pain to others. You’ll be doing the rest of us a favor.

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Why Definitions Matter

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Definitions are vital. No matter what you’re trying to convey, you need to know how others define what it is you’re talking about.

People often believe that it’s easy to know a definition and that once you do, everyone who understands that definition has the same one, but that’s not necessarily true. It is in some cases. For example, when we define the moon as the large planetoid object orbiting the earth, everyone understands that.

However, when we define something like love, we come to much shakier ground. What is love? Does it encompass both romantic and platonic love, as well as agapé love, or is it to be construed more narrowly? And when I think of romantic love, do you think of it the same way? What about neighbor? Does that mean only your immediate neighbor or someone who lives in the house next door to your neighbor?

Also, when the Bible says to love your neighbor does it mean only the persons on either side of you or does it mean more than that? And if it means more than that (which it surely does), then who all qualifies as a neighbor? Those of our faith? All humanity? All life on earth? Where does one draw the line?

Now, if we extrapolate out to every conversation, every attempt to communicate with others, we see that confusion is inevitable because my definition of everything is likely to be at least a little different than yours.

When a candidate says he wants to make health insurance better, what does that mean? Does that mean more affordable? Does it mean broader coverage for the same price? Does it mean a free market system or a single payer system? And who gets to define what is meant by better? Insurance companies? Doctors? Consumers?

Not only that, but consider that your answer is probably different than the answer your neighbor will provide. And your neighbor’s neighbor. The point is that definitions matter and that they’re never exactly the same between two people, let alone among a broader gathering.

So it’s a wonder we can agree on anything at all.

But there are ways to make it easier to agree with our neighbors. The best way is to be flexible in our definitions and our expectations. The rigid mindset is rarely helpful. For example, a recent president once declared, “You’re either with us or you’re against us.” As if there were only two options available.

But there is always a third possibility if you look hard enough and if you’re willing to put in the work. It’s just that most of us aren’t. We want the quick fix, the easy answer. We’re wired for simplicity. If you define people as either with you or against you, it becomes a lot easier to order your world.

Understanding that the way we define the world needs to be fluid – this is a difficult concept for us to grasp, but it is achievable. We just need to slow down and be thoughtful.

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Should We Really Forgive Our Trespassers?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

When I am wronged, I find it difficult to forgive. My sense of fairness activates, screaming for balance in the world, demanding justice, sometimes even for the smallest of slights. And the greater the harm, the more my heart hardens, marking down insults in its ledger, carefully toting up the damage as if life were some sort of card game or accounting device.

My heart, the abacus of dispensation, shifts beads from side to side, adjusting the ever-shifting negatives with the seemingly smaller influx of positives, trying to maintain the weight on the side of vengeance, not just for me but for the karmic health of the universe.

If I add these six instances of disrespect to those four elements of slander, and combine a dash of ingratitude with a pinch of insensitivity, I will achieve a result that cannot be overcome except by the most abject of apologies, accompanied by some valuable token.

For what is forgiveness undeserved?

Isn’t it just another word for sucker?

Of course I forgive those who deserve forgiveness, especially if they ask for it. I’m not a monster. I don’t walk around in a constant state of righteous indignation.

But what about people who have harmed you and who don’t ask for forgiveness? Indeed, they don’t even acknowledge that they’ve harmed you. How should we handle them? Some say we should forgive them, not for them, but for ourselves – so that we can move on and not be eaten up by anger and resentment. But what happens after you try to forgive them and find yourself consumed by resentment that you’ve been forced to forgive someone you don’t want to forgive?

What if the cost of forgiveness is to lose an essential part of yourself? Part of what makes me who I am is my refusal to forgive certain people who wronged me in the past. That doesn’t mean I can’t be polite to them if I happen to run into them on the street. It doesn’t mean I spend a lot of time plotting revenge or wishing for bad things to happen to them.

What it does mean is that I remember. I learned from that bad experience, and I’ve applied that knowledge to circumstances and people I’ve encountered since. I trust others a little less, perhaps, and myself a little more.

So I’m not convinced we should forgive all our trespassers. Sure, put them out of your mind. Ignore them for the most part. Live your life to the best of your ability, keeping your injuries separate from the present moment.

But total forgiveness might require forgetting the mistreatment, and I can’t condone that, because forgetting encourages bad actors to act badly again. After all, they suffered no consequences for their behavior.

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Our Unhealthy Future

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

The older generation is slowly yielding to the ravages of decay and the inevitable march of time. But they have lived full lives, enjoying the greatest average prosperity the world has ever known, doing better than their parents in almost every measurable way, including financially and health-wise.

My father turned 90 the other day and apart from some orthopedic issues and a few other minor annoyances, he’s doing remarkably well. Yes, age has slowed his movements; his vision and hearing no longer work as well as he would like, but overall, he manages his life quite well.

My mother turned 85 earlier this year and is doing less well. She has a pacemaker and multiple orthopedic issues in addition to severely restricted vision, which, for an avid reader, is quite a punishment.

I write this not to elicit an emotional response, but to make the point that they have been extremely lucky. So have their children. We grew up in a time when people didn’t talk about what was happening to our environment – mostly because we didn’t really know what was happening to our world.

Serious, numerous scientific studies of our impact on the planet only really began about thirty or forty years ago. There weren’t many voices cautioning us to slow down. And even today there are yammerers telling us not to worry, that we small humans can’t influence an entire globe.

But we’ve already witnessed great change. Look at the planet from the International Space Station and tell me that humans can’t influence Earth. At night, the planet is lit up like a Christmas tree. During the day, you can see metropolises encroaching on undeveloped land.

According to the World Health Organization, only 12 percent of the people who live in cities that report on air quality (1600 cities across 91 countries) breathe air that meets WHO guidelines. And over 2 billion lack access to safe, readily available water at home, while over 4 billion lack safely managed sanitation.

Since 1970, the amount of chemicals produced and dispersed around the world has increased exponentially. Chemicals are used in as much as 96 percent of manufactured materials and products (per the American Chemistry Council). Some of these are harmless, no doubt, but many more are toxic, even though they are usually individually dispersed into the environment at nontoxic levels.

Biomonitoring shows that we all carry around hundreds of synthetic chemicals in our bodies. What is this doing to our immune systems? What is this doing to our long-term health? Does this have anything to do with the increases we have seen in autism, allergic reactions and autoimmune diseases?

Almost certainly.

And there is no escape without increased awareness and regulation by our government, which is not going to happen anytime soon. The more we cut from our science budgets, the more we relax constraints on industry, the more we champion coal and steel and consumption in general, the quicker we poison ourselves into early deaths.

I don’t expect to live as long as my father, or my mother, come to that. And for the generations that follow, I expect even shorter, harder lives. I wish that weren’t the case, but wishes count for nothing without action.

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Do We Still Need Unions?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Unions are on the decline, and have been for many years. Should we care? Are unions even necessary anymore? Some would argue yes; some no. Many people believe unions were only needed in the early days of the industrial revolution when corporations had immense power compared to workers. Some of them employed children, for example, to work as much as 7 days a week, 16 hours a day.

In fact, it was images captured by photographers that made a big dent in public opinion regarding the harm of childhood labor, and which raised the labor movement into what it became at its peak.

Once the unions, with the assistance of the courts, infiltrated the workplace, making demands for fair pay and fair hours, and once Congress stepped in to prohibit the nastier forms of exploitation of children/workers by employers, many believed unions had served their purpose and were no longer required.

Especially because unions, like employers, often overreached.

Look at some of the outrageous policies brought about by unions – like the teachers’ union in New York that bargained to prohibit incompetent teachers from being fired, forcing the government (us) to pay them to sit around all day doing nothing.

Or policies that specify employees will be kept on the job on the basis of seniority rather than competence. No matter how skilled the junior employee, the senior employee must be kept on the job in any layoff or reduction in force.

Some of these policies resulted from corrupt employers, of course. Certain employers wanted to rid themselves of problem employees who spoke up about worker rights, so these policies were put in place to protect workers from arbitrary and retaliatory actions by management.

So without unions, employers might never have put in place safety protocols and equal pay that we currently enjoy (even though many workplaces could still be safer and equal pay still isn’t as equal as it ought to be). Or those advances would have taken many more years to achieve.

Obviously a group of employees has much more power than any one person. So employers were forced to concede some power in order to keep the company alive. A certain amount of waste (in the form of worthless employees) was acceptable as long as overall the company/government entity could continue as a going concern.

Now many employees no longer want to be part of a union because they don’t want to give up part of their pay to support political causes they don’t individually support, and they see lobbying as entirely political. Sometimes it is. But sometimes it isn’t. Without political pressure, some of the worker rights we enjoy today might never have come to pass.

So where should the line be drawn? How much political lobbying is too much? What limitations should be placed on union activity not directly related to employee pay and safety? These are complex questions with few easy answers.

But one thing I know is this: we still need unions. We still need checks and balances on employer overreach. Employers should not have all the power. Neither should unions. If only the two sides could look at each other as partners instead of enemies, more might get accomplished.

Too often, one side sees the other’s successes as a personal loss. Management wants to maximize shareholder gain, even at the expense of workers. Labor often places its members’ desires above the welfare of the company. Neither position is healthy.

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Voting for Change

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I’ve spoken with many people about the issue of voting over the years and one of the comments I get most often is from people reasonably happy with the status quo who say that if people want change, then they need to get out there and vote. Yes, that’s true. To initiate change, you need to get out there and vote.

But.

Here’s the problem with that assessment: both parties have vested interests in keeping the status quo as it is. Only rarely does a politician come along who wants to completely upset the cart and do things in a different way.

For example, in the previous presidential election, both parties fought like hell to keep the status quo. Republicans didn’t want Trump. Democrats didn’t want Bernie Sanders. Both parties did what they could to ensure their preferred candidates won. The Democrats succeeded; Republicans failed. Then they embraced Trump.

So what happens is that when you vote for change, you’re voting for a candidate who is working within the system, and if that candidate wins, he or she is now butting heads against a machine that cannot be easily overthrown. Lobbyists and elected officials from both parties have certain expectations.

A newcomer has limited options. Seniority counts for a lot in politics. Pay your dues and be a good soldier and maybe a few years down the road you’ll get to wield real power. So it doesn’t matter that your constituents voted for change because the people you have to work with don’t want that. They want things the way they’ve always been. And if you fight them too much, you become irrelevant, and even despised by your own party.

So people vote for change, expecting (or at least hoping for) it to come this time even though it never really has for the past four or eight or twelve elections. After a number of failures, they give up and decide that voting doesn’t really matter.

They voted for change in the last six elections and either their candidate lost (the most likely outcome) or their candidate won and wasn’t able to instigate change. Sometimes the change candidate tried to make a difference and failed, and sometimes the change candidate got into office and changed into a traditional politician.

The bottom line is that change didn’t happen. How do you motivate those people who have not done well under the status quo to keep on voting, election after election, when every promise of change is broken.

Of course the people who are doing well will vote. They’ve done well by the system. Why wouldn’t they keep voting? But those left behind do not have unlimited patience. They hear the hollow promises and sometimes they believe them, like Charlie Brown and his football, always yanked away by Lucy at the last second.

Eventually they decide to stop playing the game. And who can blame them?

So yes, we should all get out there and vote, but we need to be aware that even if we win in our efforts to seek change, we’re still unlikely to get it, at least not for a long time. Real change takes years, sometimes decades, sometimes even revolution. The entrenched interests that run this country cede ground slowly, fighting to retain every last yard.

Your vote is a teaspoon of dirt, but it’s not nothing.

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Managing Expectations

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

The world often gives us something other than what we expected. We go to a movie and walk out disappointed that it wasn’t exactly what we wished for when we went inside. Or we finish the work day and on our commute home, we relive an awful moment when our boss trapped us into working unpaid overtime, or we fret over a customer who complained until we were forced to give him a discount.

Our bosses and customers also reflect on how they received something other than what they desired today. They thought they were getting a super dedicated employee (instead of someone who just wants to give an honest day’s work for an honest day’s wages) or a product that was perfectly designed, without a single flaw.

Expectation feeds into desire. Because we expect certain outcomes, we come to either desire them or dread them. We find ourselves planning our lives based on our expectations without giving sufficient weight to unforeseen possibilities.

We let our emotions dictate our actions, and the strongest emotions are negative: fear, anger, hatred. We are less inclined to run toward something pleasant than we are to run away from something scary.

Often we enter a situation with anxiety and emerge on the other side largely unscathed. Or we look forward to a party and return to our abode realizing that we would have had a much better time if we’d stayed home and read a book. Whatever our expectations, they’re often wrong.

They’re also internal. We can change them if we’re willing to open our minds. We just need to edit the story we tell ourselves about what is going to happen. Maybe the movie won’t be that bad. I’m going to open my mind and watch it in a non-judgmental way. Maybe she doesn’t love me the way I love her. Don’t fall apart if that’s the case.

By keeping our minds flexible, we can often deflect both negativity and unrealistic positivity.

So I guess the lesson is this: embrace change, revel in adapting to new circumstances, delight in the unexpected.

Whether your expectations are met or not, know that you have control over how you’re affected by them. You can choose to be a prisoner to your expectations or learn to adjust your mindset so that you are in control.

And know that every situation will eventually change. If you can control your negative impulses during the bad times and embrace the felicity that surrounds the good times, you will become a happier person. Nothing lasts forever, not even the earth and sky.

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Dear Id

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

The certitude of your betrayal

Outrages my soul

Overwhelms my infinite capacity for hope

For a brief time

As I contemplate how idiotic

Your actions and opinions always were.

I wonder how anyone can attain

Such an advanced age

Hold such a position

While holding such dissociative views.

I consider while I quiver

The disasters that await

The agony yet to come

From the fulfillment of your prophecies

Which will come to pass

By dint of your directives.

Yet in the darkness

I ask myself if this is truly wrong

If what you do is actually better

Than the lingering pain

Of all your opponents’ proposals

Which also have the potential

To drive us to the vicissitudes

Of despair.

Your progeny’s progeny’s generation

Will reminisce on your legacy

In their doddering years

And finally decide

What you did was good or evil.

I have no horse in this race.

My concern is purely theoretical

A detached observation

Accepting the possibility

I might be wrong

And you might have stumbled

Unwittingly

Onto the precise combination of stupidity and luck

Necessary to propel us to the next level

Of development

Of evolution

Into creatures capable of more than we currently are.

I still hope.

God help me

I still hope.

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