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More Grace, Less Perfection: A Plea for Better

More Grace, Less Perfection: A Plea for Better

January 12, 2021

Dear Friend,

2020 was a doozy, wasn’t it? Good Lord have mercy! Do you realize that all in one year our president was impeached, a pandemic encircled the globe, rioting gripped our country, and we teetered on the edge of having our election process, and maybe more, compromised and undermined? I mean, if you put it that way, it sounds kinda bad, right? Right, but that wasn’t even all of it. Don’t you fret, though, that is all that we will be recounting here.

We Are All Human Beings

There might be a little dose of irony in 2020, though. Other than the year, I think most of us associate 2020 with being used in conversation to refer to perfect vision. Heck, there’s even an aphorism alluding to that: hindsight is 20/20. I actually think that we can learn a lot from that observational statement and it might be a little hindsight that I’m invoking here. If nothing else, I think 2020 taught us just how easy it is to lose focus—on ourselves. Granted, it’s not like 2020 didn’t pile enough on our plate, but I’m more talking about the fundamentals—the little things that can maybe tell us how well we’re keeping it all together. In particular, I’m talking about the way that we treat each other.


Source: Unknown

The Source Of Our Problems Might Be Our Failure To See Each Other As Human Beings

There was a particular word that I had not really heard used too often prior to 2020, but that I observed being used more and more frequently as conflict accumulated: dehumanize. The definition of dehumanize is to deprive [someone] of human qualities, personality, or dignity.[i] My translation: to deprive someone of their identity as a human being. Obviously, in order to understand what it means to be deprived of something, you have to first know what it means to have possessed it. So, what does it mean to be a human being?

What Does It Mean To Be Human?

If you were to ask a scientist what distinguishes a human being as a species, I’m certain that at some point in the conversation cognitive ability is going to come up—i.e., not only can we think, but we can think on a level greater than any other species on the planet. You and I both know that our ability to think at a high level is great and all, but I don’t know if that’s what necessarily makes it special. I would argue that it is our ability to think independently that makes our cognitive ability so special. Granted, that is not necessarily a point that distinguishes us from other animals, but that only serves to emphasize the real point being discussed here–if independent thought can be found in animals, then what does that say about a person who chooses to abdicate his/her ability for independent thought? Having said that, one of the lessons that 2020 revealed to us is that we might not really want to think independently, and that we seem to prefer to engage in groupthink. Moreover, it was also revealed that we have apparently organized certain societal fixtures in a way that seems to serve as a positive feedback loop for tribe mentalities.

One Extreme Needs Another

I believe it was Dr. Jordan Peterson, a world renowned psychologist and Biblical scholar, who said that an extreme cannot exist by itself–in order to have one extreme, you have to have another. If for no other reason, one extreme must have another to argue against. What this means is that even if one extreme succeeded in eliminating another, the extreme that has been eliminated must, and most certainly will, be replaced. I don’t recall if he went into much detail on that last point, but from what I can remember, he discussed this concept in the context of God and Satan. The examples that I would add would be good and bad, truth and lies, or light and dark—what would make light so special if we didn’t know what it was like to be in the dark? At a certain point during all of the Charlie Foxtrot that 2020 dumped on us, I recalled Dr. Peterson’s statements about extremes, and it occurred to me that I was potentially observing proof of that right before my eyes.

News Stories Are Manipulated On Purpose

I don’t know how long it’s been since I watched the news, but I hit a point a few years back where I was fed up with it. It really began to weigh on me that no one was having conversations, every possible little piece of news was treated as urgent, the same stories were hashed and parsed into nothing more than mush, but most importantly, I wasn’t learning anything that was helping me throughout my day. If I could put a nice bow on it, I would say that it seems that the media establishment has decided that they are going to focus on the drama around politics (yes, that seems kind of redundant to say), in an effort to drive conversations toward the extremes. I don’t think it’s any secret that certain news channels lean toward one political side or another, and I suppose that’s fine. What’s not fine, however, is what the pursuit of profit in the name of news has done to what stories are presented and how.

If It Bleeds, It Leads

At the risk of insulting your intelligence, fear sells. In fact, you might have even heard a one-liner people sometimes throw around to explain how news channels choose their stories: if it bleeds, it leads. I would submit that in choosing and presenting news stories, there is a particular fear that is intentionally being targeted. Based on my experience and some research that is generally available, the fear of loss can be a very powerful motivator, and maybe even the most powerful motivator that exists. I would submit that the news media and politicians know this. In fact, I would also contend that they have turned this fear, and its ancestral adversary, safety, into a drug for consumption.

“The Other” Is Allegedly Always Out To Get You

The particular fear that political and media types peddle is that of the loss of life and/or property—i.e., there’s always someone out to get you and/or your stuff. Don’t believe me? In case you don’t have the ability to hop on social media to see the extreme in action, allow me to just say that working in the financial services profession, you see more than your fair share of fear when it comes to what is going on in politics and what it means about money—stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying whether that kind of fear is justified or not—all I’m saying is that it’s there. More importantly, the media and politicians know it’s there, and when you’re in the business of selling news or buying votes, knowing that kind of thing is good for business.

Fear Is The Stick, Safety Is The Carrot

Obviously, knowing that kind of thing is really only half of the battle—you also have to know how to apply it to bring about a result that you want. So, how do they use it? It’s relatively simple: they paint anyone and everything that is even remotely in disagreement with them as a member of some ominous tribe out to get them, and you—oh no!—, and they issue a tribal call, beckoning you desperately to join their tribe, lest ye shall be smite…smote…smitten? You get the point. Obviously, I’m walking through some of this in a lighthearted way, but the reality is that this stuff works, and it works well, because of the fear and our desire for safety.

Tribal Coordination

There is a very interesting thing that I have observed that occurs after a tribal call is issued. The individual, freshly adorned with his/her new coat of fear and tribal programming, now believes that he/she must join a tribe for safety—and heaven forbid you pick the wrong one. One of the things, if not the main thing, that tells me if someone has joined a tribe is the language they use and/or the topics they discuss. As we discussed above, there should be no secret that certain media outlets lean certain ways. What this basically means is that each tribe has at least one news outlet that is a part of the tribe and is responsible for issuing marching orders to its members.

Individuality And Conformity Are Not Complementary

There’s a slight problem, though: I think we can all agree that no two individuals are identical. Well, if that is the case, then it must be asked and considered how these tribes manage to coalesce and remain intact. The short answer to that seems to be that individuals conform to the platforms that are established by their respective tribe. This seems to make sense, if only because comments that tribe members make seem to be parroted versions of what tribe media is broadcasting and tribe politicians are saying.

We Value Original Thought

I think we’re all familiar with the concept of plagiarism. What some of us might not have thought about, though, is why plagiarism is a thing—i.e., why do we care if someone copies someone else? Well, sometimes I find it instructive to consider what it must have been like to be the first person to come up with an idea. From that vantage point, I can only imagine that the concept that defines plagiarism betrays the fact that we value original thought. In other words, the first guy or gal to ever shout plagiarism! was essentially saying, “Hey, that’s not your idea; that’s mine!” Mine…indicative of ownership, something important, maybe even something you’re proud of—I don’t know too many people rushing around to own, or express pride in, their mistakes. If that is all true, then why would the spoken word be any different than the written word, in terms of the value of original thought?

Plagiarism As Conformity

Here’s the kicker, though: if words are merely parroted, then, by definition, they are a sign of unoriginal thought—an idea has been plagiarized. Frankly, I think this begs the question of whether the things that we hear being parroted have any value, but I would actually contend that it’s a bit worse than that. If all someone is doing is repeating what someone else said, then this may very well mean that what’s being said is not necessarily what the speaker believes—that’s wild. In effect, what they have done is they have replaced the process and result of sincere contemplation of the issues with the platform their tribe has provided to them.

Conformity Has Implications

As I mentioned above, the one thing that I find most special about our cognitive abilities is the fact that they are independent. In order for them to be independent, however, they have to be unique and original—not plagiarized. This doesn’t mean that one person’s views can’t be similar to that of another, but when you can’t tell the difference between statements that two different people are making, you begin to wonder just how original the thought processes involved are, and for me, it calls into question whether the person is willing to have a conversation as an individual. Before we get too cavalier and dismiss parroted ideas as virtually meaningless, though, it’s important to point out that language and parroted ideas seem to play a fairly important role for tribes.

Conformity Does Have A Purpose

If I were to ask what a Best Buy sales associate looks like, I’d be willing to bet that a blue shirt came to mind almost immediately. Moreover, if you were to venture into a Best Buy and you needed help, you would look for someone with a red shirt, right? Of course you wouldn’t! The blue shirt means something! Obviously, the blue shirt is a uniform, and the purpose of uniforms is that they tell us who someone is. They relieve us of the burden of having to figure a person out—people are complicated and messy. In other words, if Best Buy employees were dressed in their own casual wear and you needed to find one of them, you would have to walk around asking every single person you encountered if they worked there. You know what else we use to tell us who someone is? Identification. Uniforms are a means of identification. What’s the root word of identification? Identity.

Language As Identification

The purpose of identification is that it serves as a shortcut in determining if the person in front of us can help us, if you can trust them, whether you are safe with them, among other things. What does this matter? Language can, and does, work the same way. Use the right words and you’re a member of my tribe; use the wrong words and you’re a member of the other tribe—and just so we’re clear, the two tribes really don’t get along. Most concerning, however, is that as much as we might want to dehumanize someone else in order to score a victory, what we fail to realize is that we have already dehumanized ourselves in adopting the tribe-issued programming language as our means of identification—we shed our own independent thoughts for the platform of the tribe.

Individuals (We) Must Be Okay With Being Wrong

If all of us have been paying attention, then I feel like we are probably familiar with these concepts on some level. I’m familiar with it because of a reason, though: I’ve lived it—and maybe you have, too. I’ve lived it from the perspective that I considered myself a member of a tribe at one point, regardless of whether I was even able to recognize it and acknowledge it overtly. I also left my tribe, however, determined to strike out on my own. I want to be an individual and I want to interact with individuals. I want the unique experience that comes from really exploring an issue in conversation with someone, and maybe that even ends in a place where I am forced to realize that I am wrong.

The Way To Truth Is Through Being Wrong

Being wrong is a very important concept here. Imagine someone coming up to you and telling you that one of your deeply held beliefs is wrong. I suppose the best examples would be of a religious nature—e.g., if you’re a Christian, someone tells you that the details in the Bible are wrong; if you’re an atheist, someone tells you that, as it turns out, there actually is a God; and I could go on, but I think you get the point. Would you even be open to hearing anything else they had to say? Sure, you might humor some additional comments from them, but would you really hear them, or would you be bursting at the seams to contradict them? Either way, the point remains that faith is obviously something that people take very seriously, and it’s probably well understood that it is something that defines, to a large extent, who a person is—his/her identity. That’s obviously no small thing, seeing as how it would seem that a threat to someone’s identity is essentially a threat to his/her very existence. The point here is not to conflate faith or religion with political beliefs, necessarily, but it is to say that if someone has based their identity on some thing, having that thing called into question is no insignificant matter. If a threat to identity is a threat to existence, then having our identity questioned creates an existential crisis—this is the domain of fight-or-flight, which is a part of the autopilot system we have in our brain, not the part that contains executive control, which means that controlling it takes real effort.[ii] While that can feel like a scary place for the believer, if one cares anything about the truth, then one must not be scared of being wrong.

Illusions Of Perfection Reveal The Greatest Flaws

In my humble opinion, that is the fundamental issue with our discourse—we won’t allow ourselves to be wrong and we won’t allow others to be wrong. We won’t allow ourselves to be wrong for protective reasons, but we won’t allow others to be wrong by attempting to seize upon flaws in their beliefs or arguments as a means of defeating them. We need our identities to be pristine, pure, and perfect, and we need to see the members of the other tribe as flawed, blemished, and imperfect. In case this is news to anyone, none of us are perfect, and that’s absolutely fantastic! Why? Well, allow me to answer your question with another question (yes, that was your question—I heard you): if we were perfect, what would we do? What would there be to work on? Being perfect would mean that there would be no flaws, no problems. So, what could/would we possibly do with our time?

Evolution Has Not Ensured We Are Prepared–Only We Can Do That

There’s just one small problem we have to acknowledge here, though: our default seems to be a state of complacency. In other words, if we don’t have to put forth effort, then we won’t. In fact, there’s a bias that has been identified and studied by psychologists called the Inertia or Status Quo Bias that was specifically identified to describe this default. Simply put, this bias “refer[s] to people’s aversion to change”.[iii] Here’s the funny thing about the illusion of perfection: it would seem that if you thought of yourself as perfect, then you would see nothing in need of change. Conversely, I suppose one could also say that if someone didn’t want to change, they could declare his/herself to be perfect. The problem(s) associated with this would hopefully be self-evident, but this is my way of looking at it: if we are not inclined to change, then that also means we are not inclined to grow. If we don’t grow, then we don’t evolve. If we don’t evolve, then we will be ill-prepared for our environment, and I think that is precisely what we are seeing play out.

Only Named Problems Can Be Solved

There’s another thing that Dr. Peterson says that is applicable here: problems can only be dealt with if they are defined or named. In other words, if you don’t point and say, “that thing, right there, is the problem,” then it more likely that the problem will not be addressed–I suppose you could sum that up by saying that you have to acknowledge problems to deal with them (well, duh). In fact, if I’m not mistaken, Dr. Peterson even says that not naming something is often a conscious decision, because naming it would mean that you know you have a problem on your hands with which you must reckon; but again, many of us, if not all, are defaulted to prefer the status quo.

Success And Solutions Are Found Through Being Wrong

I’m sorry to dump this on your plate, but I’ve named a problem, if not the problem, and now we all know what that means: it’s time to deal with it. So, what are we going to do about it? If I may be so bold, I would like to propose a solution: we need to get comfortable with being wrong. I can promise you, with all sincerity, that we all can survive being wrong, but I would go further and say that we could even prosper from it. The proof of this is simple: trial and error.

Patterns Are How We Learn And Interpret The World

Trial and error is the only true original way of learning. Think about it: if you were stranded on an island with no one around (except maybe a volleyball with a face painted on it) and wanted to build a fire, but had never built one without some kind of man-made implement, what choice would you have, other than to start making attempts? Another good example is that of the first person to ever ride a bike. There was literally no one who could give any experience-based pointers. This means that the only thing that could be done was to guess at how one should approach riding a bike, and to put that guesswork into action–i.e., trials began. If a trial fails on a bike, then maybe you fall or you have to put your feet down. Sure, I suppose someone could get really hurt in falling off of a bike, but even in knowing that, the child who never learns to ride a bike is the exception, not the rule–i.e., we aren’t afraid of being wrong in our attempts to ride a bike. Further, if we are committed to success, then the only thing to do is evaluate our performance, make some adjustments, and give it another shot. If a trial is successful, and we want to repeat that success, then we have to make certain that we know what steps led to that success–thus, we attempt to repeat a pattern, and in doing so, we are simultaneously establishing another pattern, hopefully of success.

We Aren’t Always Successful In Identifying Meaningful Patterns

What’s funny about this is that it actually reveals the extent to which we depend on patterns for learning and interpreting the world around us. The Signal and the Noise is a phenomenal book by Nate Silver. Silver has made his name and notoriety in probabilities and statistics. What the title of his book refers to, and what his book goes into great detail about, is how much people misinterpret information around them–they confuse points found in noise, which are just noise as well, as being a signal for something. This misinterpretation can result from numerous causes, but the one that I think is most revealing and impactful, here, is confirmation bias.

Evolution Has Given Us Biases

Confirmation bias is “a type of cognitive bias that involves favoring information that confirms your previously existing beliefs or biases.” [iv] Essentially, this means that someone afflicted with confirmation bias will line-up information that they have cherry-picked to reinforce what they already believe. Frankly, this makes sense, based simply on the fact that we’ve already established that we are inclined to be complacent–we’d rather stay where we are than put forth effort to venture to somewhere that is potentially better; and in case you didn’t realize this, the process of changing your mind takes real effort.

Today’s Risks Are Not The Same, And That’s A Problem For Us

We can see that it also makes sense for another reason, though, if we compare the risks that we faced early on in our time here on Earth to the risks that we face today. We might have left behind things like the general threat of predators, but we have not left behind our concerns for survival. Given that this has remained with us, we must acknowledge that it has a role to play in evaluating the world around us. When it comes to evaluating potential threats to our survival, there is greater risk involved with missing a threatening signal (e.g., you might die), as opposed to identifying a false positive (i.e., avoiding something that you think will kill you only increases the likelihood that you won’t die from it–it doesn’t prove that it would have killed if you had not avoided it). Therefore, it makes sense that we are more inclined to interpret things as a threat. Here’s a question that may very well tie your brain in knots, though: if we are subject to misinterpreting information, how do we even know if we have interpreted any information correctly at all? I would submit that the answer to that question can be found in interacting with other people–just being a human being.

A Marketplace For Ideas Is Invaluable

I’m sure most of us, if not all of us, are familiar with the concept of the marketplace of ideas. The definition of that concept seems to be fairy self-evident, as the label depicts the exchange of ideas between producers and consumers. It also implies that there is competition, seeing as how that is a cornerstone of a market. Given the fact that there are numerous producers, there would be no real purpose served if they all brought the same product(s) to market. So, what you end up with is the simple fact that not all products (ideas) are created equal, with quality, and even veracity, being two key distinguishing characteristics.

Understanding Comes From Knowing Details–Completely And Thoroughly

In a conventional marketplace, something is offered in exchange for a product–most of the time, what is offered is obviously money. In the marketplace of ideas, however, the price you pay comes in the form of what you devote to understanding an idea, or set of ideas. In fact, the utility of an idea is partially based on a consumer’s willingness to hear it thoroughly and consider it completely–i.e., if you don’t understand an idea properly, then its value would have to be compromised. An analogy that I would provide to help cement this concept would be to compare it to someone shopping for items to make a recipe. If he/she is in a hurry and forgets to grab even one item for the recipe, then the fact is that the dish they will end up making will be some variation of the dish they intended to make. Likewise, if you have not listened to an idea thoroughly and considered it completely, then it cannot be said that you fully understand it.

The Supply Of Information Outpaces Our Ability To Process It

The reason that someone would do a poor job of buying groceries for a recipe, or a poor job of listening and contemplating, is simply because they aren’t devoting the proper resources to the task at-hand. If you aren’t devoting the proper resources, then that means that your focus is in short supply–i.e., you have something else on your mind. This would seem to beg a question: if the problem that causes a lack of attention is having too much on our mind, then what’s the solution–increase the rate at which we can process and act upon information, or reduce the amount of information we are attempting to process and act upon? I submit, as my sincere belief, that our society, as it is currently constituted, produces information at a rate that is faster than what we can process and manage.

Manage Your Consumption Of Information

In my humble opinion, the proof of this is simply how many times we hear someone say that they should have seen something coming. Granted, there is respect that should be paid to that which we can’t possibly know or account for, but it would be my contention that this only serves to increase the value of the information that we can obtain and makes it all the more important that we devote effort to understanding it. In essence, we not only have to filter the information that we are receiving, but we also have to consider reducing the number of sources that provide information to us–if the world is a faucet that dispenses information, then we need to dial the flow back a bit.

Embrace Imperfection By Invoking Grace

If we only know two things–our shortcomings when it comes to processing information and the fact that some people will prey on our worst fears–, then it stands to reason that there will be some instances in which a perceived threat is no threat at all. I can’t help but think of the phrase don’t judge a book by its cover. In other words, my final proposal here is that we need to check our intentions when we interact with others. This means evaluating what we want to accomplish when we interact with someone else. If we are setting out to exact damage or achieve victory over someone we see as an adversary, is it any wonder that the person with whom we are interacting would play the adversarial role? Another way of looking at all of this would be to say that we need to drop these illusions and expectations of perfection and be willing to extend others, and ourselves frankly, a little grace, because we may very well be wrong already. Oh, and by the way, if you are afflicted with anything that we discussed above, the chances are the person sitting across from you is as well, so go easy on them.

I appreciate you taking the time to read this. I wish you a prosperous 2021 and a lifetime of peace and achievement.