Thursday, April 14, 2011

One Size Doesn't Fit All

I don't need to tell you that we face a lot of problems. We face those problems as individuals, as families, as communities, as nations and as a species. It seems like no matter what direction we turn, problem after problem vies for our attention, if we're lucky, because someone brings them up to us, if we're unlucky, because they hit us in the face demanding our immediate attention. With the many problems that we have, we are also faced with many people who claim to have solutions. Like the problems, the people with solutions are on a vast scale, from well meaning friends, family members and associates, to local know-it-all's, to experts, to pundits and ever campaigning politicians.

How we deal with problems and people with solutions, of course, always has to do with circumstances. If the problem is that the sewer is overflowing into your basement, your grandmother might just have lots of experience with this problem and be happy to give you advice. If the cause of the overflow is in pipes owned by the city, the local know-it-all or politician may just have the answer. Probably you're going to need the expert aka a plumber.

Sometimes problems come in a cascade of problems. You may not have the money for a plumber, the local politician may be inaccessible due to how your problem falls on his priority list, corruption (he takes bribes from the guys who put too much stuff in the sewers) or incompetence.  Fixing the pipes isn't enough, you also have to disinfect the basement.

If the problem is a relationship problem, your mother or sister may have a lot of wisdom to share, or might be completely clueless but, sure that she has lots of wisdom to share. You may want that advice, you may not want that advice preferring to deal with it on your own, which, may or may not be wise. Mom and sis could be problems in and of themselves, refusing to leave you alone, always at you with their advice, making you feel worse than you already do. Sometimes mom can feel so much pain in sympathy with you over your problem that she becomes a problem. You don't want to hurt her, so you don't tell her your problem, even though, you'd like to talk about it with someone that you trust.

Sometimes you want the expert advice which could again be mom... or... could be a shrink. The problem with the plumber, the shrink or mom is, how do you know that they really know their stuff? Sometimes mom's are clueless, sometimes plumbers and shrinks are incompetents or con men and always expensive. It's always best when we are the experts. We may be a plumber or a shrink. We certainly should know all the details of our relationships more completely than mom or sis.

The thing with our example problems is, they are unique. While plumbing is plumbing and relationships are relationships, meaning that the basics are the same to every house with plumbing or every relationship, it is also true that different houses have different layouts and may be constructed with different materials. If you need a plumber, you have to have one who can figure out the layout of every house he walks into and can work with pipes of lead, copper, plastic or clay. Every person has unique quirks, outlooks, likes and dislikes so every relationship is going to have it's own unique spin.

The biggest problems that we face are the most intensely personal, you've lost your job, there's a guy pointing a gun at your head, you're sick. But... these problems can be the results of large social problems. You lost your job because the popping housing bubble bankrupted the company you worked for, the guy pointing the gun at your head is from a neighborhood ruled by drug gangs, your illness is part of a pandemic sweeping the world.

These Larger problems are the reason we have governments. To do the things together, that we can't do ourselves. This is also why we have big business. Producing products that thousands, millions, even billions of people want.. requires a large operation.

One of the reasons why government solutions to big societal issues seem so unsatisfactory is the disconnect between the deeply personal and the institutional. It's like the difference between home cooking and fast food. If you are cooking for you and your family, and have the time and ingredients, you can make a meal with an eye to detail that will please everyone (or at least yourself.) With fast food, the menu has to be prepared with an eye to pleasing millions of someone's and, as a result, the meal may be acceptable but it's most important value isn't how good it tastes or how nutritious it is.. but how convenient it is. 

Government solutions have to do the best that they can for an enormous number of people, if we're talking the United States, that's over three hundred million people to please. Global solutions are even tougher. Take climate change. It's a big issue and getting six billion people to agree on solutions seems like an impossible task. So, while a big solution to a big issue may help you personally, the odds are that it isn't going help you as much as you'd like, or in the way that you'd like, or take into account the cascade of problems that flowed off of the original problem.

This governmental problem is a problem not only with specific issues, education reform, unemployment etc. but with the law itself. The idea of equality under the law is a good one. Everyone is treated the same. Sure, a law may sometimes list exceptions to a rule but, it isn't really possible to think of every possible circumstance that might occur, at the time the law is written and forever after. That's one of the reasons that we have judges, juries and courts. So that each circumstance can be examined. So that the intersection of "the public" and "the personal" has a chance of being fair to "the personal". Whether or not this system works is open for debate.

The American system has tried to deal with this disconnect by, as much as possible, letting issues be decided and administered locally. I'll use education as an example. I've heard an enormous amount of complaint that government programs "No Child Left Behind" and "Race to the Top" are no good and doomed to failure because, among other reasons, that, they create a one size fits all style of education that is completely divorced from the uniqueness of each teacher and student and that therefore, it is best for the government just to give the money for the programs to local school boards and let them tailor programs to the realities in their classrooms. The same arguments can be seen on both sides of any number of other important issues. The problem of course is... what do you do when, at the local levels, the well meaning friends, family members, associates, local know-it-all's, experts, pundits and ever campaigning politicians are incompetent or corrupt or just have no idea about what is going on in the larger world. In a worse case scenario, like many uncovered during the civil rights struggles of the 1960's, it is possible that local government can be down right oppressive.

So what do we do? If a problems needs all of society to pitch in on it... aka... the government needs to handle it... but.. the solutions have to work in individual personal ways which, just isn't possible, how do we get solutions? Well... there is no one answer to that. (There are probably six billion answers to that.) The more people are affected by any particular issue, the more complex the problem really is, the more complex the solutions have to be. The complexity of course will be expanded by the fact that we have to expect that a certain percentage of the people with problems and the experts offering solutions will be incompetent or con-men. 

As we struggle with our problems, we have to be aware that the reality is, we are not going to hear answers in five second sound bytes on television, no one person or ideology will have all the answers, as there are no simple problems there will be no simple solutions and that, solutions themselves may cause a cascade of new problems that no one anticipated. This is the way life is. We must always be working towards solving our problems, and yes, make sure that the people we elect to represent us in the larger world really understand our problems. We must listen to and critically judge experts and those with experience and when we find them wanting add to their experience and expertise by sharing what we know that they may have missed. But.. we must be realistic and realize that, there will always be problems and that constant fault finding adds to them and doesn't help in solving them. We must also know that sticking to a position or idea from which we will never allow ourselves to budged is very dangerous. If the problem is a tidal wave headed right for you, standing your ground might be a really bad idea.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Taking Lack Of Respect Too Seriously... AKA Oversensitivity

      I recently wrote an article on lack of respect (which you can find at "" I'll try to remember to post a link elsewhere on the page.) and I wanted to follow up by talking a bit about oversensitivity.
     While I know that there are some people out there who are just mean, or who just don't give a damn if they are stepping on someone else's toes... aka... they really don't respect anyone, I feel sure that most of the time lack of respect is caused by a combination of the human ego being lost in it's own little world and ignorance of what is going on around them. For example, people in traffic who are in a hurry seem to often loose sight of the fact that the people in other cars have places to be too that may be just as (or more) important than what they have to do. Being so narrowly focused they don't stop to consider how negatively they can effect the lives of someone that they cut off (or how seriously they can hurt themselves for that matter if they cut us off without giving us enough time to stop). We all tend to think that our problem, our need, our desire is the most important thing in the world. That's the ego. We may have been raised to think differently but, when we are narrowly focused on a task, it's easy to start doing things automatically rather than thoughtfully and when that happens, the ego gains more control and with that control comes an overblown sense of the importance of ourselves and blind spots that block out the needs of others. But... this is the topic of the article mentioned above.
       I did however want to point out that being upset when someone disrespects you can often be just as egotistical. Okay, so you're at the grocery store, you've had a tough day, you just want to get home and you see someone, who shouldn't, park in a handicapped space, or, who cuts you off and pulls into the parking space you were angling into, or cuts in front of you in the check out line... and of course the check out line is for people with seven items or less and they've got eight, well, I don't know about you... but I can have a whole lot of reactions. I can get angry. I can get depressed. With anger comes fuming and fussing and an internal dialogue about how that other person doesn't respect me, about how they think that they are more important than me, about how they somehow took something that was rightfully mine. With depression comes self pity about being invisible. My favorite is disgust, looking down on the person like he's been caught with child pornography because he's got one to many items in the express line. Several events like this during the course of a day can be responsible for me having a really bad day. Then of course, when I go home to my wife or out with my friends, or to work... I have to stuff that hostility or sadness or what have you, down deep inside somewhere because they shouldn't have to deal with it. Of course... at that point that negative emotion is only waiting for one small spark to set me off... again, with anger or sadness, but with more force because it had been repressed and the chances are, I'm going to be responsible for someone else having a bad day. This is of course assuming that I don't go off on the person who disrespected me right there in the parking lot or the store. I've done that. I've seen it done by others a lot more than I've done it. It always makes everyone more uncomfortable than they already are and I've never seen it actually solve anything. Sometimes it looks like it could lead to violence. On very rare occasions I've seen someone apologize for disrespecting the other person. They were wrapped up in their own little world, they admit it and are sincerely sorry but 99.9% of the time they deny that they did anything wrong and go on to express there own anger at the person whose toes they stepped on.
       The problem with all of the above is... I don't own or have a right to any of those parking spaces, or that spot in line. Even if someone cuts me off in traffic when I have a legal right of way, I don't know what that persons situation is. Sure he's probably just in a hurry to do something work related, or to get home, or to get someplace where he's going to relax... like me... but.. for all I know his mother could be dieing in the hospital or his wife could be having a baby. My own perceptions are sometimes off... I've been furious at someone for cutting me off only to have my buddy in the seat next to me tell me that it didn't look to him like I was cut off. We can't trust our perceptions... we are wrong a lot. I saw a piece on criminal court cases a few months ago that proved (to me anyway) that eye witnesses to actual crimes are often completely wrong about what and who they think they saw. Some fear that they are wrong more often than they are right.
       The powerful negative emotions that we feel when we think that we have been disrespected are every bit as much a product of our ego as disrespecting others is. The anger is because that fool thinks he's the end all and be all of existence and somehow missed the memo that I'm the end all and be all of existence. The sadness comes from "oh look at me.... did you see what she did to me." Of course the central part of that phrase is "look at ME... did to ME." My favorite, again, is disgust which sounds something like "Ha, look at that jerk breaking the rules, not me, I obey the rules, that makes me a much superior human being." And, lets not forget that, when we are focused and set on automatic, we are completely unreceptive to the idea that we might be perceiving the situation incorrectly... that we might be :::gasp!::: wrong! Hell, I can think of two people who I've only seen admit that they were wrong twice in the last forty years... and... everyone is wrong more often than that.
      In any event, I said in the article on being disrespected that the world would be a better place if people tried to be more aware of what was going on around them and more aware of how their behavior effected others. I also want to say that our little individual worlds would be better if we didn't take ourselves so seriously. No one will want to be around us if they have to tip toe around us like and egg basket. We often get lost in our own little worlds and we need to cut others a bit of slack when they do. Most of the times we are slighted it wasn't intentional and most of the times we dis someone else it isn't intentional. We need to look at our egos and laugh at them for taking it all so personally, and, once we can do that, we can laugh at others who are oblivious. That laughter disperses the anger and sadness.. and that makes the world better.
      P.S. I would have a word with the person parking in the handicapped space though. Thoughtlessness to someone with limited mobility may be as forgivable as any other thoughtlessness but a gentle word at the moment of the error in judgment might just help someone who really needs the help.