Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

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Waiting for Catastrophes

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Pick a problem, any problem. It doesn’t matter which one. It just needs to be a relatively big problem, like a bad job or relationship, climate change or political divisiveness, the opioid epidemic or gun violence.

Okay, now that we’ve done that, we can move on to an understanding that change needs to happen. We can’t continue on like we’re doing because we’re courting disaster. So we research actions to take. Then we initiate a few. Not all, because that’s too extreme. To do everything suggested would require a major disruption to our lifestyle.

But we take small steps even as we worry about the long-term ramifications of our unchecked present. How will our inertial movement affect the future? If we continue on as we have been, making only minor adjustments here and there, will it be enough? We wonder, but we don’t take more radical action.

We see other people taking small actions and we copy them, if we can do so without too much inconvenience, but if they take an action we’re not yet ready to take, we just salute their boldness before returning to our daily routines.

It’s hard to make massive changes to our lives. We’re dug in, entrenched by the small comforts we have accumulated over the years, over decades. And when we see others around us doing less than we’re doing, we feel vindicated to a degree. At least I’m not as bad as Jeremy. I’m doing my part. It may not be enough, but it’s better than Jeremy.

But the reality is that doing my little part may not be enough. It’s possible that only extreme action, extreme sacrifice, will save us. If so, do I care enough to make those sacrifices?

What if I make the sacrifices and it’s not enough? What if all I do is just make my own life miserable and the apocalypse comes anyway? Am I a sucker for trying to make the changes that need to be made when I’m the only one doing so? That’s the problem. We don’t want to be the only ones to incur hardship.

When have we as a people ever made a sacrifice without an immediate crisis forcing us to do so? When have we ever said we will accept less now for the sake of a long-term gain without a gun pointed at our heads?

Yes, there are some select individuals who can do that – a minority of the population – but to get a consensus from the majority for that kind of shared sacrifice is impossible. We need a crisis in order to take action on behalf of the whole.

I wish we could do better, but it may be ingrained in our DNA to wait until the last possible moment to save ourselves. We see that attitude reflected all the time in movies, TV shows and books. Someone says, “Get out of there before the place explodes!” and the hero doesn’t. The hero stays and manages to pull off the impossible. So we think it’s okay to wait until the very last moment.

But what if it’s not?

That’s my concern. We seem to want to wait until we’re confronted with an unmitigated disaster before we leap in to try and save the world. But what if, at that point, it’s too late?


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Live in the Present?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We’re often advised to live in the present. Don’t dwell on the past because you can’t change it. Don’t worry about the future because it may never come to pass. Live in the moment because this is all the time we know we have.

Seems like good advice, doesn’t it?

Well, maybe not so much. Thinking about the past, for example, allows us to evaluate our mistakes in the hopes of not repeating them. We all know how easy it is to make the same mistake twice.

I myself have a problem with certain foods. I’m not allergic, just intolerant. And yet I have, on numerous occasions, eaten foods that I knew would cause a reaction but somehow forgot about. Partly that’s because the list of foods I can’t eat continually changes. Some foods that I used to tolerate I no longer do. Others that used to bother me now don’t.

However, I also have eaten foods that bother me because I completely forgot that I shouldn’t do so. It may have been a long time since I tried that food or I may just have been tired and forgetful at the time I was offered the item. But I shouldn’t have forgotten that if it really bothered me.

So if I recall those foods that caused negative reactions in my past, I can avoid eating them in the present. The same holds true for other scenarios – making a lane change without signaling and then getting into an accident surely impresses upon one the wisdom of using the turn signal.

Likewise, thinking about the future has benefits too. For example, people who think about the future are more likely to save for retirement. And those who think about the future as approaching sooner rather than later do better than those who just generally think about it as being sometime off in the distance happening to one’s future self.

Thinking about the future helps in other ways too. Contemplating the possible outcomes of various actions helps us make better decisions on all kinds of issues. “I should go to that party because Joan will probably be there and I really want to visit with her.”

Thinking about times outside the present moment can bring great joy too – fondly remembering your daughter’s wedding or thinking about your father’s upcoming sixtieth birthday party.

When you live in the moment, yes, you don’t worry so much about things outside your control. But you also forsake the ability to plan for change that you’re capable of making. The ability to think outside the present gives us an essential tool we need to make the world better for all of us.

That doesn’t mean we’ll actually follow through with our ideas, but it at least gives us a chance, whereas if we’d stayed in the present, we would never have considered options that might enhance our lives.


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Understanding Value

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

The other day, shortly after I finished reading a biography on Vincent van Gogh’s life, I was chatting with my friend Jack about it and I mentioned how strange it seemed to me that van Gogh’s works had become so popular, so expensive, when they appeared to be not particularly well done.

He never seemed able to master the painting of people, not like Leonardo da Vinci, anyway, who brilliantly captured form and movement, working at a level of detail van Gogh simply couldn’t match.

Jack then brought up Pablo Picasso and said he couldn’t understand how Picasso’s cubist works had become so expensive when they were so far from depicting reality. All this got me to thinking about value and its subjective nature.

It makes sense that we assign value to things that are rare – gold, platinum, even silver. When items are difficult to obtain, people of wealth and power want to possess them to demonstrate to the world their success.

History shows that many rare things have been used as currency, including shells, salt and leaves (tobacco and tea, e.g.). One reason certain works of art can hold great value is because of their rarity. But Picasso produced many thousands of pieces while a lot of talented artists produced many fewer pieces, so their work ought to be worth at least as much as his if we use that as the sole criterion.

Obviously, we don’t.

There’s also a subjective element at play. Some group of people decided at some point in time that works by Picasso and van Gogh were of great value. Those views were agreed upon by more people and still more people until enough folks decided that they were valuable, at which point their value soared.

This same dynamic plays out with every product, be it an iPod or a cashmere sweater. Yes, there are inherent costs to producing these products, but there are many instances in history when someone thought to create a great new item that was expensive to produce and failed when the market rejected it – see, for example, the Edsel.

So the cost of producing an item does not correlate that closely with its ultimate value. What determines anything’s value is the group mind, which either pushes the number down or raises it up. That group mind moves with new information and new tastes, sometimes making things that once were valuable practically worthless and vice versa.

And it’s not just products. Look at the Oscars. Every year there’s a dispute over films that should or should not have been included, or actors who should have won but didn’t. Awards are extremely subjective. Even our collective perception of a movie changes over time. Some that were considered classics in their time are now dismissed; others, dismissed in their time, now revered.

That doesn’t mean values are meaningless, but it does mean that we get to assign our own value to anything. If we like something and are willing to pay a lot for it, that’s okay. And if we don’t like something and would never buy it no matter how much others rave about it, that’s fine too. You get to pick your own treasures.

Disaster-FrontCover-230x335 (1)

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Marriage, Partnerships and Family

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Each of us has a natural state, a place we’re most comfortable inhabiting. We don’t necessarily stay there, and that state can change over time, but we all tend to lean toward isolation or company at various times in our lives and even at various times in our day.

Introverts enjoy their time alone while extroverts find greater happiness in the company of others. But overall, we are a social species. We seek each other out because we derive joy from our interactions with others.

Most of us marry or cohabit for at least part of our adult lives. Even those who forswear that kind of life, like nuns and priests and monks, tend to live in a community, sharing meals and other activities.

When we do so, we seek out those who are similar and avoid folks we perceive as different. We are tribal. That’s how we survived for a million years, by tying our futures to fellow creatures we trusted.

Marriage and cohabitation are an extension of that tribal attraction. They allow us to create our own tribe, our own little group with which to face the harsh world. Some of us, however, live alone – an increasing number in fact.

Many years ago, when friends or family would marry, I would find myself the object of questions regarding my plans. “When do you plan to get married and start a family?” “Does this make you want to settle down?” “Are you dating anyone?”

With the passage of time, those questions have dwindled to a paltry few. Partly, of course, that’s because I’m no longer young but it’s also because society has changed. There is very little stigma associated with being alone today compared to 30 years ago.

Back then, people who chose to be single into their forties and beyond were looked at as strange, probably gay/lesbian, somehow damaged goods.

It’s refreshing to see this evolution of attitudes, this acceptance of new ways to live our lives, but we still have a ways to go. The single life, I submit, ought to become the more prevalent lifestyle.

Yes, the family structure has been the dominant social unit for essentially all of our history. It has been necessary to further the goal of procreation, and has fueled the anthropocene epoch.

But just as you can have too many cupcakes, you can have too many people. Third World countries want our First World lifestyles. But if everyone were to live that way, we would need another planet or two to support them. One isn’t enough. We’re already putting unsustainable pressure on the world.

In as little as one generation, many fewer people will be able to live on the coasts; certain parts of Earth will become nearly uninhabitable due to drought and excessive heat; and the amount of arable land will decrease drastically.

All these pressures will force a change in our lifestyles – a change that will likely come with violence. Even now, efforts to mitigate the harm are met with protests and riots although the protests in France, for example, have become about more than just a repudiation of a fuel tax.

Still, we can either make incremental progress now or wait until drastic measures are necessary later.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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The Pursuit of Happiness

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We chase happiness. We hunt it down like predators. And when we finally catch it, we worry it in our jaws, shaking it back and forth until it slips away.

Something else comes along to distract us. Another shiny bauble to chase, something even prettier than the lovely little item that made us happy yesterday, which now looks rather tarnished, dull and faded and even ugly in this new light.

Although the Founding Fathers weren’t expressing a philosophy, they might as well have been when they wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Notice that they didn’t say we had the right to happiness, just the right to pursue it.

We all want happiness, but only some of us are truly wired for it. Some people just happen to be happy most of the time. Those of us who aren’t, well, we envy them. We assume their lives are better than ours: they make more money or have a better home or stronger relationships.

It can’t be that they’re just happier for no reason, right?

Actually, they might be. Happiness, it turns out, is a choice. Not an easy one for those of us who don’t happen to be blessed with overly optimistic wiring, but it IS a choice. And perhaps the best way to achieve it is to redefine what it means to be happy, because happiness means different things to different people at different times.

What about contentment and satisfaction and peace of mind? Those are all variants of a mental state similar to happiness, but they don’t require us to pursue them with the same ferocity, the same fixated passion as is required for following your bliss.

They generally come about as a reward for a job well done. They’re more passive in a way because when you finish that project you’ve been toiling away at for weeks or months or years, you feel satisfied, content, at peace.

That’s a happiness more easily achieved than the bliss of some perfect and possibly unattainable star. When you chase perfection, when you become obsessed with it, you lose perspective. Everything else falls to the wayside while you devote your efforts to this one glorious accomplishment.

And, of course, if you do happen to attain your bliss, your perfect fulfillment, you often find that maintaining that feeling for any length of time is difficult. We are acquisitive by nature, we humans. We want things. We desire that which we don’t have. So no matter what we acquire, we always tend to want more.

If we can understand that, we can take joy from the pursuit of happiness, from doing the kinds of things that will lead us to a place of wellbeing, where we can derive joy from our accomplishments even if those successes aren’t as grand as we would like them to be.

And if we cannot run from our obsessions, if we cannot temper our passions, we have only ourselves to blame.


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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

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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.

Disaster-FrontCover-230x335 (1)

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