Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

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The Inertia of Life

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We wait.

We keep expecting something to happen, something better than what we’re experiencing in the present, a change in fortune or circumstance, an idea perhaps that we can pursue to a satisfactory conclusion.

After all, this can’t be all there is to life. Getting up in the morning, going to work, eating, sleeping, playing, loving, navigating the same old neighborhoods with the same circle of companions, doing things pretty much the same way year in and year out until retirement, at which point we sit in a chair and wait to die.

There ought to be something greater, something that will make a difference to the world, but what? If we just leave our homes and begin walking, what will we find? Maybe we’ll encounter someone who can tell us what we should be doing with our lives. On the other hand, it’s possible we’ll just walk until we lay down by the side of the road and get picked up by the police for loitering.

We think we might be at an important crossroad, where we can either continue on as we’re going or change direction, and yet despite the impulse to change, to go in a more fulfilling direction, we keep to our path. We think about doing something greater, something altruistic, but we don’t actually do it.

We consider how wonderful it would be to fight ignorance or save the whales or donate our time to tutor inner city kids, but we just write a check or maybe we only think about writing a check. We don’t go to the trouble of changing our behavior.

We linger in our present, enduring our ennui, expecting or at least hoping for some sign that now is the time to make the changes we suspect we ought to be making. We’re afraid to set off on our own, without guidance, without confirming that there’s enough support out there to get us through the journey.

All we need is a push, and then we’ll do it. But if we change and no one else does, if we stop fertilizing our grass and using our power lawnmowers and no one else sacrifices for the sake of the greater good, then we’re suckers. If we donate a portion of our savings to help fight illiteracy and no one else does, then haven’t we thrown away our money? Because after all, how much help can our donation provide?

We want to do more, we really do, but we don’t want to engage in pointless gestures. If we give our money away to help the poor, won’t we then be poor? If we quit our jobs and join Greenpeace to try to save the whales when other countries continue to hunt them, have we thrown away our careers?

Inertia is a powerful force.

We admire those who make the sacrifice, who pursue the noble cause. We wish we had that kind of courage, but we accept that we don’t. Instead we applaud their efforts and say that we will join them one day soon. Not today, but sometime.

And in the meantime, we wait.

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How Is Humanity Doing?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Where are we going? We move through spacetime, consuming energy and dispensing it, growing from blastocysts to embryos to babies to children to adolescents to adults, learning as we proceed, but most of what we learn seems to be little better than what our ancestors learned.

Sure, we have different skillsets than our grandparents. Most of us can do things they never dreamed of, while they did things we can’t conceive of. But have we made progress?

Some of the problems we’re struggling with are different than the ones they encountered but that’s largely because we’ve discovered new information informing us of challenges people didn’t anticipate 50 or 60 years ago. For example, few of us understood the severity of global warming back then. A fair number of us don’t understand it still.

Many of the truths we uncover about ourselves are essentially the same truths espoused by Socrates and Aristotle. We fear the new and different. We hang onto our tribal affiliations. When we reach full adulthood, we achieve wisdom of a sort, but as a species, have we actually grown?

A new generation of celebrities writes books about how we can be our best selves, spouting off “knowledge” that has been passed down for generations and yet continually gets forgotten.

Humans today still engage in despicable acts: terrorism, mass shootings, murder, rape, robbery. Those are just a few radical individuals, you say. Most people are good. Yet we can’t stop those few radicals. They continue on, disrupting our society, while we offer thoughts and prayers for their victims as if those words will somehow magically prevent further violent actions.

We rail against the large companies that enrich the wealthy off the backs of the poor and the middle class even as we continue to buy goods from Walmart and Amazon. We decry the spoilage of nature as we dispose of trash that overflows our landfills. We castigate our elected officials and then re-elect those same people, hoping for change.

We don’t seem able to change the groups we belong to, and we can’t change the world if we can’t change those groups. So how are we better than we used to be? In what way have we progressed as a society?

The truth is that we haven’t. We’re not better than we used to be; we’re not smarter; we’re not more ethical. Yes, we’ve made strides. We no longer believe slavery is good (except for a few outliers who think religious texts justify it). We generally believe in gender equality, though that’s not universal.

But it’s disappointing that we’re still largely the specimens we were a decade ago, a century ago, a millennium ago. The rich and strong still decide the fate of the weak and the poor, who still struggle against the constraints placed upon them by the strong and the wealthy.

We don’t cooperate with each other as much as compete against one another. We work with our tribes to exert control over other tribes, always striving for advantage, never content to assist the whole of humanity unless we can accrue at least the promise of some benefit to ourselves.

We are no better, no more noble, than elephants or lions or chimpanzees. We just think we are. And that maybe makes us worse.

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Pascal’s Wager

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Evangelicals of every religion insist they know God’s will and they’re determined to discuss it with you. They read their holy texts and listen to their preachers and feel compelled to go forth and spread the good word to others. They suffer from the delusion that they know what’s best for everyone, that they alone possess the truth and that we can never be our fullest selves unless we accept their truth as our own.

One of the most common arguments they make is some version of Pascal’s Wager, which delineates four possibilities:

1 – If you believe in God and accept his teachings, and if God exists, you will go to heaven and live in his glorious presence for all eternity.

2 – If you believe in God and he doesn’t exist, you haven’t lost anything. You will live a full life and be a good person, but there will be no downside to your belief.

3 – If you don’t believe in God and refuse his teachings, and if God does exist, you will be eternally damned, condemned to an eternity outside his presence.

4 – If God doesn’t exist and you don’t believe in him, you haven’t lost anything. You get to live whatever kind of life you want.

So of the four possibilities, one provides the possibility of eternal life and happiness, one provides the threat of eternal damnation, and two (the two where God doesn’t exist) provide no real consequences. Why not just give yourself to God? You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

But there’s a big flaw in their argument and that’s the assumption that you have nothing to lose by believing in God. That may not actually be true. For some people, believing in God means giving up everything you are. You might see the universe as ruled by physical laws, and now you’re being asked to surrender that belief and instead believe that an arbitrary being can change the rules as he sees fit.

Instead of being a self-actualized person, you must now be a sheep in God’s flock. You must become one of his many believers rather than the person you spent a lifetime becoming, overcoming numerous obstacles without any apparent assistance from a deity.

Now you have to believe that God is inserting himself into the world, influencing events and making magical things happen as part of his master plan for all of us. We think the world is going to be one way and then God intervenes and changes it in accordance with his will.

So the rules get changed in the middle of the game. You move through life under a certain set of guidelines, expecting consequences to follow from their causes. But according to these evangelicals, God can step in at any time and alter anything so that you can’t predict what’s going to happen even though you should be able to.

This doesn’t sound like you’re giving up nothing. It sounds to me like you’re giving up a lot. Self-respect, dignity, pride in accomplishment, freedom of thought and belief. All these things make up who you are, and you only have to give all of them away in order to accept religion into your life. What’s so hard about that?

Turn me into a sheep, please.

Of course, they don’t see it this way. They believe that they’ve found some divine meaning, some holy First Cause that created everything and everyone, and guides all of us if only we accept his leadership. They just want to help us be “better,” by which they mean they want us to be like them.

“We want you to join us in heaven. We’re only doing this for you.” Sorry, but what they really want is assurance that they’re right. If we just agree with them, if we all believe the same things, then we must be right. Right?

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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The Sacred Individual

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We Americans have come to value Thoreau over Jane Addams – individualism over social activism – preferring to elevate ourselves over our neighbors, convinced that selfishness is the correct approach to living life. Of course, we deny being selfish. Instead, we bandy about phrases like individual rights.

But individualism leads us to bad places. We all need each other to succeed in our society. Even the simple act of driving requires the assistance of our fellow travelers. We assume they will obey the rules of the road just as we obey them.

What if someone decides that the rules don’t matter to him? He’s special, so he ought to be able to drive wherever he wants, on the sidewalk or through a red light because he’s different, he’s following a calling we can’t hear.

You can see how that would devastate our society. So the needs of the many have to outweigh the needs of the few.

Not always, say the individualists. Sometimes we have to give individuals the freedom to succeed without burdensome regulation. Let the market handle all that. Let the meat producers inspect their own products; let Boeing inspect its own planes.

And don’t forget constitutional rights like freedom of religion. Who are you, government, to tell me that I have to vaccinate my children? My religious rights supersede your piddly social concerns. Or the right to bear arms. Who are you, government, to tell me what kind of weapons I can buy? I have rights granted me by the founding fathers that you can’t take away.

We love the story of the lone warrior who has endured tragedy and overcome it, elevating those around him in the process, and we imagine ourselves as fighters too, working to change society to align more closely with our view of what it ought to be. Never mind that we might be wrong or that we only fight when someone tries to make us do something we don’t want to do.

This belief in the power of the individual leads us to diminish the needs of the collective. What’s the harm in refusing to vaccinate my child? Or in buying a gas guzzler and driving it around the countryside for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon? Who am I really harming?

I go my own way. No one can tell me what to do. But this is where things break down. If no one can tell anyone else what to do, then attempts at collective effort will be difficult at best. If we all go our own way, we can’t arrive at a common destination.

So we form groups and try to bring others on board. Yet, if the groups pursue opposing goals (pro-choice vs. anti-abortion, e.g.), we get nowhere. And how do we take collective action when we can’t even agree on the underlying facts?

Ideally, we turn over decision-making on the big issues to a consortium of leaders who will, after careful deliberation and consultation with experts, dictate our actions. That’s what government is supposed to be. Unfortunately, our leaders have fallen victim to the same polarization that afflicts us all. Half want X, half want Y.

The individual reigns, society eventually falls.

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Our Post-Reality World

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We live in a post-reality world now, one that allows for truth to be whatever the loudest voice says it is. Obviously, this isn’t true for all of us, or even for the majority of us, but it’s true for a sizable minority.

A basketball star says that the earth is flat and because he has tens of thousands of fans and followers, some of whom aren’t that well grounded in reality, a few believe him. The president lies practically every time he opens his mouth and because he has millions of fans and followers, some of them believe him.

How did we get to this point? Mostly by virtue of disgust over the status quo.

A lot of people have become overwhelmed by the world, by current economic conditions and socio-political happenings. They see others getting ahead while they aren’t, or they witness strange events that appear inexplicable, like a single glacier in Greenland increasing in size as the vast majority around the world shrink.

They hear about ocean rise threatening Miami Beach, yet Miami Beach continues to survive. They’re inundated with talk of collusion with Russia and countervailing chants of hoaxes and witch hunts, and then the summary of the Mueller report glosses over the president’s active encouragement of the Russians’ interference in the election.

All these “truths” come at them 100 miles an hour, all these experts telling them something bad is going on, and they have to figure out who to believe because when they look at the world around them, it doesn’t seem that different. The rich and powerful still get preferential treatment; the poor still get shafted.

Not knowing whom to trust, a lot of folks have decided to get their news from extremist sources, usually on the internet, where the people dishing out the mass hysteria often don’t believe it themselves. They just want the ratings and the attention.

A few take action based on information they believe is real, like the idiot who shot up a pizza place because the psychotic Infowars conspiracy theorist Alex Jones convinced him there was a child abuse operation there run by Hillary Clinton. These deluded individuals are dangerous, but fortunately they’re relatively few.

On the converse side, a lot of politicians and other elites talk about how great everything is and how great it’s going to be. They praise themselves for all the wonderful things they’ve done to make people’s lives better. But the reality for most folks isn’t any different than it’s been for the past decade or so.

There’s a disconnect between what people are hearing and the reality on the ground. The result is that we question why we should believe these people in positions of authority. They tell us things that don’t track with our perceptions of the world. They appeal to our emotions to further their careers, ignoring reality because it’s messy and complicated.

It’s much easier to understand the simplistic assertion that doesn’t align with reality. If none of it is real, then why not accept the word of someone who is like us, someone who claims to believe what we want to believe? It’s comforting to latch onto people who seem sure of themselves, who are forceful in their opinions.

The problem, of course, is that most realities don’t care whether you believe in them. Most realities just exist. A few of them (subjective realities like the fact that money has value) exist only because we believe in them. If we all believed money didn’t have value, it wouldn’t.

But for objective reality, our beliefs matter not at all. So it’s discouraging that so many of us have conflated objective and subjective reality, deciding that we can choose whichever truth we want. We need to do a better job of educating ourselves as to what objective reality is.

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Time May Not Be Linear

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

One theory posits that time, as part of space-time, exists at every point, always, in conjunction with space, so that what we think of as the future and the past exist simultaneously with the present.

Your birth and death are already written into space-time; you just haven’t experienced the latter yet. Every decision you make, every action you take, is already plotted on a four-dimensional graph such that a being (say, God) could look at your life from outside that graph and see it all at once.

There’s your fifth birthday party, and that’s the time you had to go to the hospital. And there’s your wedding and the birth of your first child. This is when you lost your job, that over there is when you will suffer your first heart attack, and that other point is when you will enter a nursing home.

It’s just difficult for us to understand this concept because we perceive time in a linear fashion, passing from events we remember to those we can only imagine. For us, time appears to be flowing like a river, from the source to the sea.

If this theory is true, and there’s a good chance it is, then there may be no such thing as objective free will. Our lives may be preordained by whatever power created the universe, whether that be a deity or some unknown causative factor like a simple explosion.

But even if there really isn’t true free will, I would submit that there still is a kind of subjective free will, an individual free will that’s personal to each and every one of us. We have the ability to decide our lives and even if they’re already locked in, we don’t know that, so for us, it still seems like free will.

If you don’t know that you’re going to pick up that apple and eat it, then it still feels like a choice when you decide to do it. And in fact, it still is a choice. It may be one that “God” has already seen, but you yourself haven’t seen it. You don’t know, going in, that you will make that particular choice. So it’s still a choice freely made.

Only something outside the space-time continuum would be able to discern that the choice was inevitable. Everyone inside the continuum would have imperfect knowledge of your actions. We might guess that you would choose to eat the apple, but we can’t know.

For us then, not knowing the inevitability of the future, our will is essentially free. We perceive that we have free will just as we perceive that time flows from past to future. If we knew we were destined to make a specific choice, that would be different. But even if you know that you will make a choice between eating and not eating the apple (without knowing which you will choose at any given moment), that is not the same thing as knowing you will eat the apple.

Thus, our imperfect knowledge, our limited perception of the universe, makes our choices, for all intents and purposes, free from predestination. Our limited ability to understand the universe actually benefits us. Since we, trapped inside space-time, don’t know what we will do at any given point, we get to choose.

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Who Wants to be a Superhero?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I used to want to be a superhero. How cool would it be to fly or pick up a car with one hand, to save the day for the good people around me and make life miserable for the bullies and criminals and immoral jerks who seem to be everywhere?

I think a lot of you would like to be superheroes too, at least judging by the tremendous success of many recent movies. And the increasing diversity of the characters on screen is designed to allow all viewers to imagine themselves with superpowers. Films like Black Panther, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel have been among the best box office performers, expanding the base of superheroes beyond white men.

But what if you really were a superhero? What would that be like?

Obviously, to start with, you’d need the secret identity. Otherwise people would be constantly asking you to use your superpowers on ordinary tasks. Hey, Clark Kent, can you fix my fence for me? The posts are crooked from frost heave. Just pull them up and put them back down in the ground so they’re plumb and level. Thanks, buddy.

But aside from that, there are other concerns. First of all, who do you help? You can’t save everyone. Do you focus on the macro or the micro? Do you save the city from a flood or prevent a bank robbery or stop a mugger? Do you destroy all the nuclear weapons in the world or do you build thousands of homes and create farms for the destitute in Third World nations?

What is it like when you prepare for bed at night, pondering what you’ve accomplished and what you failed to do? Can you sleep? Or do you toss and turn, wondering if you made the right call when you used your powers to extract those miners trapped underground? Maybe they would have been saved by someone else anyway. So maybe your efforts would have been better spent rescuing someone else.

And what if the people of the world come to rely on you and stop helping themselves? What if they expect you to bail them out of every dicey situation? How long should you keep aiding them? After all, you don’t want to enable them to avoid handling their own problems.

People need adversity. If you take that away from them, they won’t grow properly. They’ll become marshmallows, easy to fleece, easy to defeat.

Plus, who knows if the people you saved are actually good people? Unless one of your powers is knowing other people’s hearts, you’ll only be guessing. So when you save a little boy from drowning, you might be rescuing the next Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot. Do you really want that on your conscience?

Maybe, instead of being a superhero, I should consider becoming a supervillain. At least the ramifications of my actions will be clearer. Grab what I can for myself. Forget everyone else. That’s shallow and selfish, but perhaps more honest in a way.

Although I wouldn’t want to feel compelled to kill anyone, let alone lots of people. And supervillains have to at least attempt to murder a bunch of innocents. So maybe I shouldn’t want superpowers at all. Maybe I should just be content with the powers I have. Kind of boring, but, okay. I won’t be a supervillain either. You’re welcome.

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So Many Problems, So Little Time

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Which problem should we focus on? There are so many to choose from. Let’s start with climate change, which is causing problems all over the world already – from heat waves and droughts to massive floods, from calving glaciers to monster storms and (paradoxically) even colder temperatures in parts of the world at times during the winter.

This last can happen because the pool of dense air that normally stays in place over the North Pole has warmed enough that it isn’t quite as heavy, allowing it to become dislodged by the jet stream and shuttled south, where it hits the Midwest, for example, with brutal cold.

Or we can talk about gun violence, thousands of children killed by guns every year, and more than 30,000 deaths overall each year. This is an epidemic of disastrous proportions that, if it were caused by something else, like a virus, we would be panicking over, but since it’s a byproduct of something as sacred as guns, we don’t do much about it.

Then there’s the opioid crisis, which kills tens of thousands more every year – people who get hooked on prescription drugs pushed by companies like Purdue Pharma (owned by the Sacklers) as well as those who got into drug abuse via illicit paths.

We could concentrate our energies on air pollution too, which kills about 4.6 million people each year, according to the World Health Organization. Despite this, we continue to emit massive amounts of particulate matter, toxins like mercury and lead, which is a neurotoxin that never goes away. It has no half-life like uranium, so once it’s out there, it will continue to be there for our children and grandchildren and beyond.

Perhaps we should focus our efforts on water pollution, which may be a greater problem in the developing world than in the US, although we have our own issues with increasing levels of nanoparticles like plastics in the water as well as drugs flushed down the toilet and of course continuing discharges of pollutants by farmers, manufacturers and miners.

Maybe we should focus on sick and dying children in hospitals and hospice care. Or we could concentrate our efforts on children and adults with disabilities, giving money and time to Special Olympics and other charities that do tremendous work.

We could devote our energies on combatting AIDS or cholera or malaria, or we could concentrate on the overuse of antibiotics in livestock (as well as people), which is accelerating the evolution of bacteria, making it more likely that we will encounter far deadlier germs in the future.

There are so many worthy causes out there, more than we can ever sink our teeth into. We have to pick and choose what stirs us in the moment. But which ones are the most important? Which ones will we not regret focusing on when we’re old and knackered?

I suppose we have to pick the few that feel most urgent and that fit best with our personalities and emotions. They all deserve our attention. We have far more problems than we can solve in a lifetime, so we have to tackle them a few at a time – money over here, time spent over there.

The one thing we can’t do is throw up our hands and say, “It’s hopeless. I may as well not even try.” Because then it will be hopeless. Then the problems will be insurmountable. So pick a cause – any cause – and jump in. The water’s not too bad. Yet.

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Some Truths Are Absolute

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Everything is relative, or so we like to think, because we are wired to compare everything. We begin as infants, putting things in our mouth and noticing that some of the objects taste better than others. We see our mothers and fathers, maybe siblings or pets and notice they’re not all the same. Some are bigger, some smaller, some louder, some quieter.

We find toys, which include our parents’ eyeglasses and car keys. We look at them, shake them, and even put them in our mouths if our parents aren’t quick enough to stop us. This one is louder and more jangly than a banana. That one is hard and tastes strange, not like a cantaloupe.

So we compare everything. It’s part of how we learn about the world. As we grow, we retain what we’ve learned and add to it. This is an apple. It is a fruit. This is candy. It is sweet. Candies are sweeter than apples.

We do the same thing with people. This is my brother Joe. He’s nicer than my brother Pete, who teases me all the time. I sometimes hide from Pete but I never hide from Joe.

We go to school and make even more comparisons. That’s what math and science are all about. One thousand is greater than one hundred. Cobalt (atomic number 27) is denser than oxygen (atomic number 16).

We encounter classmates who are either like us or different from us in ways that allow us to classify them as friend or foe. Teachers also get classified as either nice or mean, and not just because of how much homework they give.

Once we reach the workplace, we classify more people: bosses, coworkers, customers, suppliers, manufacturers. And not just people but the space itself and the objects we toil around, the atmosphere and the value assigned to our work output.

Everything gets classified by our brains. Useful, useless, significant, irrelevant, pretty, ugly, hot, tepid, black, green, delicious, bitter, etc. As a result, we come to see the universe as relativistic. There’s even the theory of relativity to bolster our views of how everything works.

But there are absolutes. There either is a god or there isn’t. Global warming is either happening or it isn’t. Not everything is absolute, but not everything is relative either. And it behooves us to ascertain which truths are absolute and which are relative. And to understand which absolute truths can never be known (e.g., the existence of god).

Journalists, for example, are trained to present both sides of an issue. So they might invite a doctor to discuss the perils of refusing to vaccinate children, but then also bring on an anti-vaxxer to spout pseudo-science about increases in autism or some other such blather to justify an idiotic position.

So we need to do a better job of differentiating objective truth from relative truth. It can be difficult. It requires more than a superficial understanding acquired from a brief search on Google. We need to find the people who, with rigor, study the subject at hand and learn from them why the truth is objective and not relative.

And even if it goes against our gut feelings, we need to accept such truth. Yes, it can be hard to admit we’re wrong, but sometimes it’s necessary.

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We Need Our Tribes

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

This tendency to form ourselves into groups is written into us, a carryover from our earliest days, when belonging to a group meant that we had a much better chance of survival. Left to our own devices on the savanna, we were much more likely to perish.

So we joined groups. More importantly, we conformed our behavior and even our thoughts to others in the groups we joined so that there would be less chance of being expelled. We wanted our fellow tribal members to see that we were just like them. And if anyone was going to be shunned, it was going to be an outsider.

We became social mimics, not just identifying ourselves as part of a larger whole, but doing everything in our power to be part of the larger whole. If we could think and act like our compatriots, we could bond with them that much better. That kind of connection brought a sense of happiness and fulfillment.

Psychologists have done studies on exclusion and inclusion to determine exactly how we are wired. They’ve found that people who were excluded from a “task” (a psychological experiment) were more likely to unconsciously ape the behavior of others in a subsequent group setting.

Further, these “rejected” people sought to be included by the group of people they thought had rejected them. Essentially, they wanted a second chance to prove they belonged. They didn’t want to belong to just any group. They wanted to belong to the group that dismissed them earlier. But if they couldn’t do that, they would accept a new tribe.

Tribes give us a sense of common identity and shared fate, which increases the cohesiveness of our group. Rituals of synchronization have a powerful effect on us. It’s one of the reasons armies march together during training. They’re not doing it because they plan to fight that way; they’re doing it to build camaraderie.

This can be good or bad. If we’re part of a group that is lifting us up, we will be lifted up with them. On the other hand, if certain members of the group become dysfunctional, they can bring the whole group down with them.

It’s like trying to diet or give up smoking around a group that isn’t doing the same things, a group that isn’t properly supporting you – either by torpedoing your successes or by ignoring them. You’re much more likely to fail when you don’t have the proper support of your group.

Tribes have enormous power over us because we surrender our power to them. And asking us to stop being tribal may be impossible if we wish to retain our full humanity.

But even though we need tribes to feel whole, to feel completely human, we don’t need to stay permanently connected to any specific tribe. We don’t need to belong to a particular tribe if it has become dysfunctional. We can join another one if the one we’re in has become too toxic.

That’s where logic and intellect come into play. Examine the tribes you’ve chosen to belong to. Determine whether they’re helping or hurting you. And if they’re not beneficial, find other groups to join, groups that lift you up instead of tearing you or others down.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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