Reflecting on 2012

download

“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” ~Robert Frost

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted. Partly, because the holidays are meant for laziness. And partly because of the dreaded creature of the black lagoon: writers block. It happens to the best of writers and I can safely say I fall somewhere in the middle of the pack. Besides, posting weekly without a break inevitably leads to repetition and before you know it one ends up writing the same story about how extremist Republicans are out to destroy the world and its up to the forces of logic and reason to stop them. Is the point to this reflective rambling? Not sure, but I suppose now is as good as time as any to throw in a quick segue about how taking time off from blogging should lead to plenty of topics to write about (for next couple of weeks anyway). So without a further ado, time to recap some important lessons (political and otherwise) I took away from 2012.

Despite all beliefs to the contrary the world is unlikely to end in our lifetimes. While 2012 brought plenty of calamities, (Hurricane Sandy, a rash of mass shootings, and mass animal suicides to name a few) last time I checked we are all still here. There were plenty of changes of course. The revolutions of the Arab Spring continuing in nations like Syria has led many to question the stability of the region. Climate change is definitely having its effect as 2012 was the hottest year in recorded history. And perhaps most importantly of all, George Lucas sold the legendary Star Wars property to Disney ensuring the force will be with us well into the future. Despite all of this, the fabled end of the world predicted by the misinterpretation of the Mayan calendar did not materialize. Also, there are no zombies shambling around so that apocalypse has probably been staved off for at least another year or so (Though with this year’s flu season, I’m not convinced it’s too far off). Moral of the story? As long as you are still alive the world hasn’t ended. And if you’re not alive, than you probably aren’t really worried about it anyways.

Tell yourself a lie enough times and you start to believe it. Defining truth is tricky business. There are so few definitive truths out there. Even the one’s that do exist can be questioned and argued against convincingly (For example, death and taxes may be certain, but there are still plenty of people who would tell you taxes are criminal and would like them eliminated and death is only certain until we find a technological solution for it). So it probably should have come as no surprise that telling ourselves lies more in line with what we want to see happen can easily become our version of the truth.  This was no more prevalent than during the 2012 presidential election. Despite the facts predicting a solid, albeit narrow reelection for President Obama, many of the talking heads on the other side of the debate refused to believe it. Some going as far as to claim a landslide victory for Mitt Romney. While others continued to deny the results of the election after every major news outlet had called it in favor of Mr. Obama. Sadly, as our ability to pick and choose what information we consume increases we are able to ignore everything but what we want to hear. Which leads to a culture where we can convince ourselves to believe anything, no matter how crazy it may be.

Widely believed narratives are not always true. Narratives, whether they be concocted by the media or created through historical context, tend to shape many aspects of our life. This is equally true in the political realm. While I first noticed this during the early months of the Obama campaign back in 2007, the debate over Voter Identification in Minnesota definitively drove the point home. All the experts, the polls and the media believed this fight was lost once the proposed amendment was added to the ballot. Voter ID was such common sense that it would likely pass with little effort. However, as history ultimately showed all it took was education on the realities behind the bill to break that support down and send the poorly worded amendment to the showers. So while we probably shouldn’t completely ignore the preconceived notions held about a situation, its important we do not allow them to discourage us from taking action. So basically, what I’m saying is don’t count out the new Star Wars movie yet,  it might just surprise us.

While there are plenty of other lessons I’m sure one can take from the anti-climatic year 2012 turned out to be, these we’re a few that stuck out in my mind. They may have been peppered with plenty of biased political observations and random asides, but with any luck there are some nuggets of wisdom hidden within that can help prepare for an equally non-earth shattering 2013.  Will I learn greater lessons in the coming years? Maybe. Will writers block prevent me from recounting them? Probably. Either way, I’ll probably keep polluting the web with this nonsense until a zombie or other world calamity extinguishes my existential ramblings once and for all.

Advertisements

Lessons from Sandy Hook

HT_patch_sandy_hook_school_kb_121214_wg

“Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live.” ~Robert Kennedy

The shooting at Sandy Hook elementary in Newtown, Connecticut was a tragedy. No one would argue this fact. The acts of the mentally disturbed gunman who perpetrated this act were inexcusable. The loss of 26 people, most of them children no older than 10 is something that warrants the outrage and despair the public has responded with. Sadly, this is not the first time a senseless act of violence has been carried out by a troubled individual. So while it is important to mourn this loss, it is also necessary we learn some important lessons from it.

Gun control is something that needs to be discussed in an open and honest manner. Within hours of this tragedy my Facebook feed was already lighting up with statements on both side of gun debate arguing their cases for why our current gun laws are the reason for this mess. One side claimed if teachers and other citizens were allowed to carry guns this tragedy would have been far less catastrophic. The reasons for why this is a terrible idea are worthy of a post all of its own, but I’ll just say putting guns in the hands of our educators is not the solution. The other side, (which, SPOILER ALERT, I tend to agree with) claimed this is evidence that military grade weapons are too available to the public. Regardless of your stance on this issue, it is obvious there are problems with the current gun laws in this country and something needs to be done about it.

More funding and attention needs to be placed on mental health. What often gets lost in the debate over accessible, affordable healthcare is ensuring everyone has access to quality mental care and assessment. There are so many factors leading to poor mental health, that we must be working on ways to deal with the variety of conditions and maladies existing out there. How many of these deaths could have been prevented had these individuals been identified early on and provided the therapy they so obviously need? While everyone is quick to write of the perpetrators of these acts as evil and monstrous, it is important we also try to understand what drives someone to commit such heinous acts in the first place.

The media is making a bad situation worse. I am a strong proponent of the necessity of a mass media that keeps the populace well-informed. However, every time they choose to allow a story like Sandy Hook to dominate the news cycle they reinforce the delusions many of these gunmen no doubt have. Going down in a blaze of glory is far less appealing if you know it is unlikely anyone will hear about it. Furthermore, focusing on this type of coverage feeds the dark narrative the world is falling apart. This can lead to a hopelessness among the public that causes further mental duress on an already distressed society. Rather than focus on these terrible stories, the media should spend time highlighting stories of perseverance and heroism. Something, that if they look, isn’t too hard to find.

Tragedies happen every day. While perhaps in steep contrast to my previous point, its important to remember tragedies happen all the time. There are children dying in places like China and Africa from lack of basic necessities like food and clean water. In Syria, over 37,000 people have died in their current civil war, many of whom are most likely children, according to some sources. According to Child Hunger in America, there are 16.1 million children in the United States living in poverty. Something I would call an ongoing tragedy. So while it is important to mourn the losses of Sandy Hook, it’s also important we recognize there are a great deal of tragic events going unheard. As we take the time to mourn this loss and pray for the victims be sure to remember the millions of people suffering around the world.

As the after effects of the Sandy Hook shooting begin to fade into the past and are replaced with the next big news story, it is important we hang on to the lessons we’ve learned. The debate on gun control and mental health must not be put on the back burner. In addition, we must not allow the media to dominate the airwaves and web with tales of sensationalized violence. Tragedies happen every day. We don’t need to hear about them 24/7 on the news to remember this. Instead we should use this as an opportunity to appreciate the life we have been given and dedicate our attention and resources to activities that seek to make the world a better place for everyone. Then maybe we can replace all this distressing news with something worth reading about.

Door Number Twenty: Clean Living

wall-e-and-cleaning-robot

“Better keep yourself clean and bright; you are the window through which you must see the world.”
~George Benard Shaw

From an early age most of us are taught the importance of cleaning up ourselves. Whether it be the countless pleas to clean our rooms as children or the simple hygienic act of brushing one’s teeth cleanliness is a virtue emphasized by our society. Unfortunately, as we get older and find ourselves in a position where accountability falls solely on our shoulders, it is easy to allow many elements of our life to become messy and disorganized. However its important we don’t allow the dirt in our lives to devolve to a point where our surrounding begin to resemble the trash compactor on the Death Star. And if that imagery isnot convincing there are a many other benefits to maintain a clean life style.

A clean environment helps promote clarity of mind. When one’s external surroundings are messy and out-of-order it leads to a cluttered mind. Take any modern office place. They are kept clean and well-organized to promote clear thinking. In addition one has to think legendary victories like that of the Races of Man and Elves over the forces of Mordor were helped in part due to their flawless superiority in this area. And if the champions of Middle Earth think it’s a good idea, it’s probably worth investing some time into.

Cleanliness promotes self-confidence. Good hygiene is paramount to maintaining one’s self-esteem. When you look and smell better, you feel better. Furthermore, when one’s living and workplaces are maintained and kept at an optimal level of order its easier to justify hosting social events. which in turn increases your standing among others. Another notable boost to one’s confidence. Besides, would James Bond have been as nearly as effective of a 00 agent had he not maintained an immaculate image? Of course not, that award-winning confidence would have been replaced with an awkwardness more akin to James Joyce than James Bond.

Being clean is good for your health. Probably not the most revolutionary benefit of keeping clean, but arguably one of the most important. Take food preparation. Food prepared in unclean environment can lead to a number of food-borne illnesses. Furthermore, when one operates in a cluttered environment merely walking from one place to another can be hazardous to one’s well-being. Don’t believe me, just ask Lord Blackwood. So while sometimes cleaning seems like a chore, your life could depend on it.

The values of cleanliness in one’s life not only keeps the mind clear, but also promotes self-confidence and good health. While most of us probably maintain a base level of organization in our lives, by placing more focus on it, we should be able to enjoy the full extent of these benefits. In addition, by practicing this door in our individual lives we contribute to a brighter, more appealing society. Leading us away from the dystopian future of Wall-E and towards the more ideal future chronicled in the inspirational speeches of Barack Obama and the Star Trek universe.

Big Change is a Work in Progress

legopirates_walkt_049

“Always remember that the future comes one day at a time.” ~Dean Acheson

Many of the most passionate people are also the least patient. Who can blame them? History paints a picture of big moments. Where a single act spurred an avalanche of change. An entire country created by the acts of a tireless general. An entire civil rights movement spurred by the defiance of one brave woman.  Example after example of monumental change, by one individual at a key moment in history. Upon closer inspection however,  for real change to occur one must recognize that it is not the dramatic acts of valor that lead to success, but a series of well-planned, coordinated actions that occur over the course of months, years, or sometimes even decades.

This is especially true in our professional lives. An average day in the life of a professional involves a number of seemingly insignificant activities and tasks. Be it the creation of pesky training programs to for future advocates of a non-profits work on a cause or the meticulous work of stripping rust and old paint from a bridge needing a face lift, there are a number of activities that while may seem unimportant at the time, are vital to making any last change. The training program is a necessary element to build the groundswell needed to make progress on any issue based advocacy. In order to improve the integrity of the bridge it is vitally important the rust and old paint be removed so that a new layer of protection can be applied. These outcomes are helpful to remember when works seems to be going nowhere.

As many of us are discouraged by the incremental steps it takes to succeed at work, it’s no wonder there is so much impatience in our political discourse. When President Barack Obama was elected in 2008 he inherited the worst economy in decades. Yet after only a couple of years there were many individuals claiming his presidency had failed. This was despite the steady progress the economy was beginning to make, the gains in healthcare accessibility not thought possible in the 8 years prior, and the elimination of the highly discriminatory Don’t Ask Don’t Tell military policy. Fortunately, enough people were willing to give him a chance in 2012 despite this impatience. The biggest problem with the public policy debate however, has less to do with the support of our politicians and more to do with the impatience of the populace to see lasting change.

Something it would be beneficial for people to realize, especially for those on the extreme ends of the spectrum, is political victory and progress takes baby steps. For example, when Social Security was first imagined and passed under Franklin D. Roosevelt it was a shade of what it is today. Furthermore, it was not the most popular of proposals. Thanks to the work of many individuals working together throughout history is has become a program many seniors and other disadvantaged groups rely on to live better, longer lives. The same can be said about today’s policy objectives. Be it expanding healthcare access for all, or moving our country to a sustainable, secure energy future. It important that we allow our elected officials and leaders the time to make these changes and continue to do our part to make these changes possible. One action at a time.

No matter what aspect of life you are looking to make progress in, whether it be your more localized professional life or the larger societal picture, recognizing the slow and steady, incremental nature of life is key. These steps are filled with details and careful planning that many of us forget about when we get fired up and ready to go. Even the most epic of plots involve numerous unexciting elements (e.g. the construction of a lightsaber or a massive orc army). While not every action will inevitably lead to something greater, there is always the possibility. Therefore, we must not allow our impatience to get the best of us, but rather put our energy into building to the great moments that history will ultimately remember.

 

Door Number Nineteen: Reflection

“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” ~Confucius

Our lives are a flurry of non-stop activity. Even in our most inactive states our minds tend to run to and fro. Always looking to the future and what may be waiting around the next corner. Like a young Skywalker we look towards the horizon rarely taking the time to gain a fuller perspective. Affording us little time and focus to analyze past actions and thoughts. However, dedicating a bit of time to reflection provides a number of benefits to our lives.

By reflecting on past actions we are better equipped to deal with future problems.  Life is very similar to history in that it tends to repeat it self. Many of the challenges and conflicts we face are merely a retread of the past. We make the same mistakes, because we fail to analyze the reason these obstacles arise. It’s why the world continues to fight the same wars on different battlefields and why many of us are doomed to a cycle that leads us down the same path over and over again. However, by taking the time each day to reflect on our actions, thoughts and their consequences we can break the cycle.

We can only know where we are going if we understand where we have been. As I previously mentioned, a great deal of our energy is spent planning for the future. However, attempting to determine where we want to be tomorrow is quite difficult if we do not have a better handle on why we want to be there. A feat that is quite impossible if we fail to take the time and think about what we have done and continue to do. It’s why the greatest leaders throughout history have been informed by their past and why reflection on our actions is necessary. Once we have this perspective, only then can we effectively plan for tomorrow.

Good reflection leads to a greater peace of mind. With so many distractions, mental maladies, and other stressful weights pressing down upon us it is vital we find a way to calm our minds. Fortunately, one of the greatest benefits of reflection is it enables us to sort out much of the busyness in our life. Rather, than let the immense totality of it all overwhelm us, it allows one to break things down into smaller, more manageable pieces. This simplification of things contributes to an overall sense of calm otherwise found lacking.

Reflection improves our lives by better equipping us for the future, helping us understand the past and creating a greater peace of mind. While the benefits of realizing this door in our lives may seem like common sense finding the time and focus to dedicate to reflection is less simple. One must consciously and deliberately make time each day to think back on the events and thoughts of the day taking extra care to recognize the trends and patterns inherent in one’s life. Only then will the reasons for reflection fully reveal themselves.

Lessons from the 2012 Election

“If you give the people enough time, they usually will do the right thing.” ~Frank Wright

Another election season has come and gone. As usual there were losers and winners. This cycle saw a correction from the sweeping conservative wave of the 2010 midterms. President Obama won reelection in what turned out to be a more decisive victory than anyone was predicting. The Democrats made modest gains in Congress. In Minnesota the two discriminatory ballot questions: one that would have limited the potential rights of same-sex couples to marry and the another that would have prevented countless at-risk voters from voting were both rejected by a majority of the electorate. And for the first time since the early nineties the Democratic Farmer Labor party has majority control of all statewide offices. While I could spend the rest of this post, basking in progressive glory, I think I’ll take the more prudent route and discuss a few things this election has taught me.

When turnout is at its highest the United States has a slight progressive bend to it. There’s been a great deal of lamenting by some of the more extreme elements on the Right regarding how this election proves traditional America no longer exists. Mr. O’Reilly’s apocalyptic exaggerations aside, this country has changed in the last ten years. That is it changed from a center right country to a center left nation that believes we need to move forward rather than try to take things back to the “way they were.” The problems the conservatives have is rather than adapt to a changing nation by appealing to the young, women and minority voters making up this new progressive majority, they instead try to limit the rights to vote to those more favorable to their points of view. A strategy that did not pay dividends this time around.

An educated populace usually makes the right decision.When the Voter Identification amendment was first placed on the ballot, many opponents to the bill were talking like its passage was forgone conclusion. And who could blame them? Support for such a measure was polling at 80 percent at the time. Getting that number below 50 seemed almost impossible. However, thanks to the overwhelmingly successful education campaign embarked upon by many of the oppositional groups including the coalition Our Vote Our Future, support began to fade. All it took was simple one-on-one conversations explaining all the potential problems such an amendment could cause for those seeking to exercise their right to vote. By the time Minnesotan’s made their voice heard in November, the amendment was struck down by almost 54 percent of voters. Furthermore thanks to a similar campaign by Minnesotan United for All Families Minnesota became the first state in the country to strike down the discriminatory marriage amendment. Proving, when given all the information, people will usually make the morally sound decision.

The extremes are becoming further out of touch with reality every day. One simply had to tune into Fox News or listen to the more extreme elements on the right to learn this lesson first hand. Be it Karl Rove’s inability to accept that Mitt Romney did indeed lose to Barack Obama or Donald Trump’s inappropriate, borderline treasonous Tweets, those at the extreme ends of the spectrum continue to become more and more out of touch with the average voter. Not to mention the nomination of many unelectable candidates during the primary season due to increasing extremism by the fringe of the Republican party. These candidates, espousing outdated views on women’s reproductive rights and many other social issues while failing to focus on the important economic issues of the day enabled Democrats to make gains on both the state and national level. When faced with this reality, rather than accept the people of America are looking for steady leadership, many of these extremists instead chose to blame the electorate for no longer representing traditional American ideals. To paraphrase Mr. Brian Williams, this type of blind refusal to acknowledge the true nature of things put these extreme elements in danger of passing the exit of relevance into something close to irresponsibility.

Every election cycle offers the opportunity for reflection. Many thing are learned. Some, like the realization that an educated, majority of Americans tend to make the right decision give me hope for the future. While others, show that walking too far towards one ideology causes one to lose touch with the finer points of reality. Some are pointing to the recent election as a sign of a deteriorating America, going as far as circulating petitions of secession. However, I believe this election has the potential to be a historical turning point for this country. Where Republicans and Democrats are finally able to break the gridlock caused by their more extreme elements and move towards solving many of the larger issues at hand. At least until the 2016 presidential election anyways.

Door Number Eighteen: Celebrate

“And, yes, no doubt to others, our ways seem quaint, but, today of all days, it is bought home: It is no bad thing to celebrate the simple life.” ~ Bilbo Baggins

We all take part in celebrations of some kind throughout our lives. Whether it be a birthday, an anniversary, or a holiday it is important we celebrate. It’s easy to forget the importance of celebration amidst a life often focused on buckling down and getting to work. We get so caught up preparing and planning for the future we forget to recognize and appreciate those moments in life when we need to stop working for a while and instead enjoy the leisure and excitement that comes with celebrating. While at first glance it may not seem as important as many of the other doors we travel through, upon further inspection its become clear there are many reasons to incorporate this door into the hall of our lives.

Celebration gives us a much-needed break. Life is busy. No matter what you choose to do there never seems to be enough time to accomplish everything that needs to be done. Even on the weekends, when we are supposed to be able to take a break from the rigors of our professional lives it seems like the time slips away faster than we can come with ideas on how to enjoy it. That is why celebrating events like birthdays and holidays is so important. They offer us an excuse to forget about all the things we need to do and focus on the enjoyment of the current moment. Even if the reason for that celebration involves successfully watching all three Lord of the Rings Extended Editions in one sitting.

Celebration is an easy way to let the people in your life know how much you care about them. One of the most notable forms of celebration (as made apparent by my multiple mentions of it) is the birthday. It is the one day of the year when it is okay to be the center of attention. However, as you get older this day become less and less exciting. It is no longer the cake and present-filled affair it once was. Which is why it is even more important to celebrate the birthdays of the loved ones in your life. It lets them know, that no matter how old they get, or how much things in life change, they deserve a day where they are celebrated. Besides, any excuse for ice cream cake should be exploited at all costs.

Without celebration, life would be an anti-climatic march towards nothing. Hard work is a staple to a fulfilling life. However, if we simply work hard towards our goals and then just move on to the next task without acknowledging our accomplishment it is difficult to appreciate the sacrifice. When the Empire was taken down at the end of Return of the Jedi did the rebellion immediately begin the hard process of building a transitional government for the galaxy? No. They celebrated, because not only would that have required a multitude of boring follow-up movies no one would have watched, in order to truly appreciate the gravity of a moment, you have to celebrate it.

Celebration is an important door because it offers us a break, allows us to let our loved ones know how much we care about them, and makes life worth the struggle. We have a finite amount of time in this life and we should take every opportunity we can to enjoy it. Even if we don’t have the resources to throw a huge party every time there is an event worth celebrating, it is important we utilize the resources we do have to recognize and enjoy the excitement. For those having trouble coming up with things to celebrate about, fortunately there’s an election in a little over a week which, with any luck, will give you plenty to celebrate about.