Review of Ben Sasse’s book, Them

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Without friends, no one would choose to live, even if he had all other goods.

~Aristotle~

 Our country has lately become locked in a vicious struggle of us versus them. We are right and they are wrong. We have good intentions and theirs are evil. For a while now I have been puzzling over how we got to this point and what to do about it. The title and blurbs about this book suggested that it might be of use in approaching this standoff.

Sasse divides his book into three parts: how we got this way, how it affects our society and what to do about it. I was most interested in the third part but thought the leadup to the problem and an understanding of our current situation might be helpful first. So I delved in with anticipation and hope despite my misgivings about hope for our society.

The author begins with a recollection of the “hometown gym on a Friday night feeling.”  He recalls a time when families in the community came together to spend time together supporting their children’s activities. In my experience this is not just a distant memory. I have attended high basketball, football and volleyball games over the past few years and have felt the feelings he describes.

Early in the book, Sasse suggests that we have lost our sense of being rooted and have descended into loneliness. He describes three ways that Americans live. First is being rooted in family and neighborhood and living with the same people throughout life. He sees this as largely a memory rather than a current reality. Other people are mobile and leave their communities for educational and job purposes and never again stay in one place very long. They leave their roots behind. The third group is those who are stuck in oppressive living situations due to lack of skills, poverty and discrimination.

The author sees the main problem as loneliness and lack of belonging. Many of us have become “hyperconnected” through our electronics. Often we are connected to people whom we will never meet and with whom we have at best superficial connections rather than the real relationships with the people around us. He describes Twitter as a forum for smoke signals rather than essays. We have largely lost our former sense of community.

He notes that sharing a common cause unites people. In the past we relied on natural tribes including family, friends, coworkers and neighbors. As we have abandoned these sources of support, we have attached ourselves to “anti­tribes” focusing on the chasm between us and them and expressing our contempt for the other side rather than what we have in common. In the process we have lost a sense of working together for the common good. Now the challenge is how to “channel conflicts into words rather than swords.”

Sasse sees us as becoming addicted to distraction (television and social media) rather than focusing on how we can help each other live our real lives. Our smart electronics have led to increasing loneliness and “scrolling to escape” as well as looking to see television people living scripted lives rather than focusing on our own lives in our communities. We are so focused on what is happening at the moment that we lose sight of the context provided by awareness of our past and plans for the future. We have lost our sense of humility and self restraint which awareness of our past and future context provides.

When I finally reached the section about what to do about all this, I found tidbits for the future, but also a consistent retreat to more discussion of the problems we face.  As I approached the final few pages I began to feel cheated of the original promise of the book. Sasse does suggest learning to reject “anti­identities” putting politics into its proper place and learning to live local again, reattaching ourselves to natural communities.

I think Sasse does a good job of explaining at least part of the problem facing us. Yet he made two statements that seemed contradictory to me. At one point, he said no one can deal with these issues alone. At another point he lists things each of us can do to make a difference. What I see missing is a plan for how all this will come together for the American community as a whole. But at least this book gives us a good sense of what we have lost and what we need to find again.

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Violence, Fear and Desperation

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What you leave behind
is not what is engraved in stone monuments,
but what is woven into the lives of others.

~ Pericles~

If you have ever studied psychology or even read about it casually, you are most likely familiar with the fight or flight response to fear. Depending on your circumstances, when faced with something fearful to you, you react by attacking the source of your fear (fight) if you think you can overcome it or avoiding it (flight) if it seems more powerful than you are. Fear and these responses to it follow a direct and immediate threat of attack such as by a wild animal or person. You don’t have time to think about it but automatically react almost immediately.

Anxiety is related to fear. The feared object might not be immediately present, but you might worry about what might happen or not happen in the future. You become anxious about your own welfare or that of your family. You might also fret about the possible behavior of other people or the course taken by the society in which you live.

If you are unable to find a way to relieve this anxiety, it builds and eventually leads to a sense of desperation or hopelessness. This can take place inside you and possibly remain invisible to others. You might find someone whom you trust with your concerns and share them or act on your anxiety by lashing out. Based on my experience and reading, it seems clear that everyone has a breaking point when  they feel forced to act in ways not typical of them. Perhaps some people turn to violence as a way to be taken seriously for once. Some commit suicide when they feel their life challenges are more than they can bear.

The result can also be a lashing out toward other individuals or society in general if you see others as responsible for your predicament. If you could understand the workings of others’ minds, much of the violence in the world might not seem quite so senseless. Violence often makes sense to people feeling overwhelmed by life burdens. Most people tend to react emotionally to such situations without giving their response much thought.

If you could step back from your emotions, you might see more constructive possibilities and be able to choose one of them. Once you are overwhelmed, it might be too late to step back. You could make a practice of learning to take a break from your daily routine even when you are not under pressure. Then you will have a better idea how to handle stressful life events when they arise.

But what can you do about that pressured feeling? Perhaps the best place to start is to realize that technology has resulted in amazing inventions allowing you to contact others around the world in a matter of seconds. Yet the overload of immediate communication has resulted in separating people rather than bringing them closer together. Here is what General Omar Bradley had to say, “The world has achieved brilliance without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we do about peace, more about killing than we know about living.”

In the process of becoming immediately connected, we seem to have forgotten the purpose of communication. It is to help us understand each other and learn to work together to find harmonious ways for us to exist together. Instead, we use our channels of communication to persuade others to think as we do. We use them for entertainment, validating ourselves and for advertising.

Action Steps:

  • Find a quiet place and time to reflect on your thoughts.
  • What feelings do you have about the state of the world?
  • How much power do you have to change the world?
  • What can you change about your interactions with other people?
  • Try listening rather than changing how others think.

 

Excerpt from my book From Violence to Peace

Solomon and the Half Baby Solution

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Get me a sword.

~King Solomon~

You may recall the Bible story about the two women who came before the wise Solomon. Both claimed a certain baby was hers. After hearing their arguments, Solomon proposed cutting the baby in two and giving each woman half a baby. You can read the rest of the story in the Bible’s Book of Kings.

I thought of this story because I feel we are at the point in our society where we have sides ready to destroy America so the other side cannot have it. Desperate times indeed. We have been at odds before over what is best for our country and have not always come to a peaceful solution. The Civil War is one example. But now even the two sides have a number of factions each claiming to be right while everyone else is wrong. Various factions feel justified in fearing and hating their opponents.

At most times in the past we have been able to listen to each other even if we don’t agree and usually have been able to reach some kind of compromise. The goal is for both sides to have at least some of what they want without toppling our whole society. I am not sure we are still capable of or willing to reach a compromise based on our current state of affairs. Most people feel entrenched on one side or another and have difficulty appreciating anything of a positive nature in each other.

We seem to be living in a precarious time of darkness. Unfortunately we have no national leadership to show us how to compromise and listen to each other. We have a president who seems to delight in seeing us at each other’s throats so he can go about making our country one which serves his needs alone. We may gain short term benefits economically but without an environment, how will we survive. If we destroy the world it will not matter if we are globalists, nationalists, or individualists. Not a promising predicament.

What are our options? One is to stay at each other’s throats until nothing is left of our civilization. Another is to throw up our hands and give in to a life of chaos. In the absence of reasonable leadership, the only option I see left is to take matters into our own hands. To accomplish anything, we must accept that winning at all costs is no victory. We need to keep our own counsel while we listen to each other. Once we understand what is important to others, we can begin to find common ground. That does not mean we will agree on everything but once we start to listen we can start looking for ways to compromise which will help us work toward achieving our common needs.

Action steps

  • Write down what is important to you.
  • Start conversations with others by seeking to understand their needs and goals.
  • Look for overlap between your needs and wishes and those of others.
  • Seek ways you can work together toward this end.
  • In areas of disagreement, look for bridges between you and them.

Back to Back and Belly to Belly­: Where Do We Go Now?

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Enemies are people whose story you haven’t heard, or whose face you haven’t seen.

 

~ Irene Butter~

Take a moment to let your imagination loose. If you were tied back to back with someone and both of you looked straight ahead, what could you both see clearly? Nothing! You can’t see what is behind you. If you are tied together facing belly to belly, is it possible to feel neutral toward each other? Not likely! It would probably depend on how well you knew each other. Lately it seems like we are in both situations at the same time. Either way, the arrangement is most likely uncomfortable on both sides.

Getting back to reality, what can you do to manage your discomfort? You might start by introducing yourselves to each other. Most people start with something safe to see what reaction they get. If they receive a positive response they might try something a little more personal. If something uncomfortable arises, they have the option of a conversation, including listening to each other and explaining themselves.

In today’s politically, socially and morally charged climate, it is easy to wonder if those you encounter are potential friends or enemies. Is that what you want them to wonder about you? Most people don’t. I dare say most people want to be understood, taken seriously and respected. If you are determined to get along with other people, don’t wait for them to make the first move. Take the initiative yourself. If you don’t want to take that chance you can always bristle like a porcupine, warning others not to get too close to you.

Why are we at each others’ throats? On the surface it appears to be a matter of anger with political parties engaged in a struggle for power, racial and ethnic divides and a battle between genders as well as conflict over religious, moral and ethical principles. We have always had differences among groups on these as well as other issues. There have been times when we have been able to talk about these differences and to some extent arrive at a modicum of understanding if not agreement. At other times we have ended up in war.

Finding bridges among groups seems more difficult than ever these days. But why? The anger behind our conflict has its chief source in fear. What are we afraid of? Scott Bonn writes in Psychology Today about General Strain Theory. According to this theory, fear “leads to anger which in turn leads to violence. Such strain results from losing something of value or it can result from failing to attain something of value.”  This could involve loss of a job, loss of financial security or a relationship turning sour.

For lack of any constructive alternatives to handle actual or feared losses, some people end up on the road to anger and possibly violence as a way to express their anger and rage. Some people grew up in families where they never saw good ways to handle fear and loss. They are more likely to follow the path I just mentioned.

So what do we do to get along better and avoid the strain? Here are some suggestions:

Action steps  

  •  Start by finding out what is important to others.
  • When they are ready, ask what bothers them.
  • Mention what is important to you.
  • Talk about what bothers you.
  • Find ways to work together toward mutual goals.

Shame, fear: Survivors explain not reporting sexual assaults

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There are myriad reasons why survivors of sexual assault wait years to come forward — if at all. Indeed, about 7 out of 10 people who experience sexual assault never report it, according to Justice Department statistics.

So survivors responded with fury Friday to President Donald Trump’s remarks challenging the veracity of Christine Blasey Ford, the accuser of Judge Brett Kavanaugh. The president said she would surely have reported the assault to police “immediately” if the attack was “as bad as she says.”

On Twitter, the hashtag “WhyIDidn’tReport” was trending, with survivors coming forward with their own reasons.

(Excerpt from Jocelyn Noveck’s article in the Wichita Eagle- Read more)

The Soul of America and the Souls of Its residents

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If once you forfeit the confidence of your fellow-citizens,

you can never regain their respect and esteem.

~Abraham Lincoln~

Not too long ago, I reviewed John Meachum’s book, The Soul of America. I noted that the soul of which he speaks is a patchwork of all of those who inhabit America and as such is a messy concept to describe and make sense of. Our collective soul is a fabric woven from our individual souls. But what does this mean?

Each of us has a stake in the meaning and makeup of our country. We do have some things in common. I would dare say the majority of us agree that we would like to have the basics to build a satisfying life for ourselves. We would also like to have adequate housing, enough food to eat, good health and the opportunity for our children to make their own way in the world.

Some of us are born with a head start. Support from our parents and relatives, family financial resources and a neighborhood in which we can feel safe give us confidence that we can set and meet goals for our lives. Others in this country barely have a toehold. They may have arrived as refugees from oppressive countries by the skin of their teeth. They may not understand or speak English. They may have valuable skills but not appropriate credentials by which their skills can be recognized or documented.

Some of us had a relatively peaceful upbringing and entered adulthood confident of our ability to make our own way in the world. Others of us have been marginalized and made to feel inferior in comparison with our fellow citizens. We do not all emerge from our childhood and adolescence with the same perspective on the world, our country or ourselves. All of the things I have mentioned go into the makeup of our individual souls.

In my opinion, your soul consists of one’s past experiences and how they have affected your sense of who you are, your feeling of self-worth and outlook on the prospects for a fulfilling life. In addition to thoughts about yourself you also carry feelings which result from these experiences. You might emerge from your upbringing as happy, optimistic and self confident. With different experiences, you might emerge as unhappy, pessimistic and unsure of yourself.

The soul of America is a mixture of all of our individual souls. With our different backgrounds and experiences, it can be very difficult for us to understand and support each other. That is the challenge we face. It may be difficult but that does not make it impossible. Just try to remember that not everyone has had the same experiences you have and may view their life very differently from how you view yours.

Action Steps

  • Take time to understand what lies in your soul.
  • What do you like about what you find and what could you change?
  • When meeting strangers, try to understand what lies in their souls.
  • Think what it would be like to have their history.
  • Try to understand your differences.