The privilege of thinking abstractly and the obligation to pay it forward

I’ve often remarked here that one of my favorite writers is Charles D. Hayes, author of wonderful books that integrate themes of adult learning, practical philosophy, and life’s second half. Currently I’m slowly savoring his 2003 novel, Portals in a Northern Sky, a unique work that I can best describe as a multi-character philosophical journey, with a sci-fi, time-crossing element to it. It’s also an ode to Charles’s adopted home of Alaska.

In Portals, philosopher and bookstore owner Ruben Sanchez engages Bob Thornton, an ex-Wall Street trader, in an ongoing dialogue about the meaning of life. Here’s a snippet from Ruben that caught my eye:

There are two types of people in the world, my friend: those who live a concrete existence and those who live in abstraction. The difference is surprisingly simple, and, of course, it’s a matter of degree because all of us require some of both. The people who live in the concrete world lack basic wealth and spend most of their time in a perpetual struggle for survival. Abstraction is a luxury engaged in by people whose fundamental material needs are no longer important issues. What’s misunderstood by those who profess to know how people should be educated is that to be truly educated a person must be able to reside in both worlds at all.

The Sanchez-Thornton dialogues are just one ongoing storyline in the novel. You’ll encounter many other interesting characters and ideas.

Boiled down Maslow?

Ruben Sanchez’s words sound like a boiled down take on psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs. In a classic Psychological Review article published in 1943, Maslow grouped human needs into the following categories, organizing them as a hierarchy: At the base are “physiological needs” such as food, clothing, and shelter, that are central to our survival. Next are “safety needs” such as personal health, security, and financial security. The “love needs” for close human relationships comprise a third layer, and “esteem needs” for belonging in society, make for a fourth. Finally, “self-actualization,” the full realization of one’s potential, stands atop the hierarchy.

Paying it forward

Whether we’re looking at human development through the eyes of philosopher Hayes or psychologist Maslow, I submit that those of us whose basic survival needs are met have a moral obligation to pay it forward in some meaningful way. This includes helping others meet their survival needs and playing some tangible part in making the world a more decent, humane place.

I realize that not all readers are in such a privileged position. (For example, a good number originally find this blog because they are enduring horrible situations at work that are threatening their health and livelihoods.) However, those who enjoy the luxury of living largely in the world of abstraction — engaging ideas, meaningful initiatives and actions, and the meaning of life — have many opportunities to change our world for the better. Whether one believes in fate, random luck, or something in between (another theme running through Portals in a Northern Sky), such an advantage should not be squandered.

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Related post

The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary human need (2013, rev. 2017)

Timothy Snyder on standing out

Historian Timothy Snyder (Yale) has written an important little book for our times, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017), which belongs on the must-read lists of change agents who are confronting abuses of power. Essentially it’s a 128-page expanded essay that can be read in an evening — and hopefully will be re-read to reinforce its core lessons.

Among the 20 short chapters of instruction, number 8, “Stand out,” resonates specially with me:

Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. Remember Rosa Parks. The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

For this chapter, Snyder draws heavily upon examples of heroism during the Second World War, especially that of Winston Churchill. Citing the Prime Minister’s political leadership and brave oratory, Snyder notes that “had Churchill not kept Britain in the war in 1940,” the Allied forces would never have had the chance to win the war. “Today,” writes Snyder, “what Churchill did seems normal, and right. But at the time he had to stand out.”

Of course, even in the fiercest of onslaughts, battles must be picked. Snyder briefly mentions the evacuation at Dunkirk in 1940, a massive operation that rescued what remained of the British expeditionary force after France fell to the Nazis. Dunkirk illustrates how fighting to the bitter end is not always the answer. Sometimes you need to retreat and regroup to fight another day.

History provides us with guidance only; it is not an instruction book. But as Snyder observes, “We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”

Lee Badgett: How can professors influence public policy?

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How can professors harness their research and analysis to have a positive influence on public policy and law reform?

Dr. M.V. Lee Badgett provides answers to that question in her excellent book, The Public Professor: How to Use Your Research to Change the World. (NYU Press, New York: 2015). Lee Badgett is an economics professor and former director of the Center for Public Policy and Administration at UMass-Amherst, as well as a distinguished scholar at UCLA’s Williams Institute. She is a nationally recognized authority on the economic dynamics of sexual orientation.

Recently Lee spoke at Suffolk University as part of a faculty workshop series that I’m co-hosting, “From Public Policy Scholarship to Public Policy Impact.” Her terrific talk centered on how faculty can create scholarship-to-impact pathways for their work. Drawing from her book, she recommended “three pillars or practices” that should inform how academicians approach this task:

First, professors should have a “big picture view of the work that they do,” which fosters an understanding of “where their work fits into the [policy] decision making process.”

Second, professors should build networks and relationships for sharing their work beyond academe.

Third, professors should “learn to communicate well with lots of other audiences,” fashioning a “jargon-free message” that “taps into people’s values.”

Lee’s talk was just the tip of the iceberg. For any professor, independent scholar, student, or publicly-minded intellectual who wants valuable advice and guidance on how to use their scholarship to influence public opinion and public policy, this book is an important starting place.

Dr. M.V. Lee Badgett

Dr. M.V. Lee Badgett

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Related articles

On this general topic, I’m happy to share two of my law review articles:

Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law.” (Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice, 2016) — This piece recounts experiences and offers lessons and advice from the work I’ve been doing during the past fifteen years, including workplace bullying, unpaid internships, and workplace dignity in general. Alas, I was unaware of Lee Badgett’s book when my article went into production, but you’ll find plenty of complementary advice between our two publications.

Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship” (University of Memphis Law Review, 2010) — This article offers a critique of the culture of legal scholarship and suggests four points toward creating a more publicly-engaged practice for scholarly work.

Related blog post

The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary human need (2013)

A day of TEDx talks at Kent State University

With Mary Louise Allen at Kent State University, Ohio

With Mary Louise Allen at Kent State University, Ohio

On Saturday I was reminded of how much fun it can be to be back in school again, but without those pesky exams and term papers. A weekend trip to Ohio to see a dear friend included a visit to Kent State University for a day of TEDx talks sponsored by the school’s student government association.

The TED brand of lectures features a subject matter expert giving a short, punchy stand-up talk on a topic of compelling or emerging interest, closing with an instructive or inspirational message. The format has proven so popular that the TED organization now licenses other groups to host “TEDx” talks on topics of their own choosing, with the local host groups recruiting their own lecturers.

Kent State’s student government leaders took advantage of this opportunity to organize a day of TEDx talks on the broad theme of “Rewind. Rethink. React. Respond,” drawing mainly on the university community (educators, students, alumni/ae) for speakers. Personal development, entrepreneurship, and social change were recurring focal points throughout the day.

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The Kent State event made for a great day of thinking and learning. My friend Mary Louise and I were among the, uh, more mature folks in attendance, the lion’s share of the audience being students. Nevertheless, many of the talks related easily to a more middle aged population as well.

This started with sociologist and entertainer Bertice Berry‘s opening remarks, which included a warm, funny story about an airport encounter with a woman whose demeanor and beautiful, blonde appearance initially pushed her insecurity buttons but quickly grew into a mutual understanding of how bad experiences and messages planted in us as kids can burden us well into adulthood.

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In fact, two of my favorite speakers were among those who shared important experiences from their youth. Keri Richmond, a student leader at Kent State, talked about growing up in the foster care system and how her experiences have inspired her to advocate for foster children. Phil Kim, a business professor from nearby Walsh University, talked about being a high school dropout and the importance of giving people second chances. Another speaker, Krish Mehra, shared part of his childhood in real time, as this brilliant 11-year-old young man talked about the importance of understanding digital coding! 

For me, the day was one of being an appreciative listener. Usually when I write about conferences and workshops, I’m including my experiences as a speaker or participant. Here I had the luxury of being in the audience and appreciating the work of others, without having to worry about my own presentation! The rich variety of talks once again reminded me of the linkages of between individual and social change. They also reinforced how difficult personal experiences can lead people to become advocates for positive change.

In these anxious times, let’s nurture our core communities and connections

Image courtesy of Clipart Panda

Image courtesy of Clipart Panda

In my last piece, I spotlighted an important long-form essay in the Guardian newspaper by Indian writer and public intellectual Pankaj Mishra, opining that “we find ourselves in an age of anger, with authoritarian leaders manipulating the cynicism and discontent of furious majorities.” Mishra’s “age of anger” theme resonates strongly with me, capturing the emotional center of gravity that now appears to be shaping too much of our civic and public lives on a global scale.

Obviously developing solutions to this state of affairs is complicated and multifaceted stuff, surely beyond the reach of a short blog post. I would like to propose, however, that at the very personal level, one of our most affirmative responses can be to nurture the core communities and connections in our lives. In other words, we should identify the clusters of people and activities that mean a lot to us and do our best to support their humanity and purpose.

Whether those communities and connections are grounded in a workplace, civic group, creative endeavor, family grouping, neighborhood, cohort of friends, or even a valued online network, times like these call upon us to do our best to strengthen the most positive bonds in our lives.

This is easy to write out on a keyboard, but it takes sustained intention to carry out in practice. I confess that sometimes I fall well short of meeting my own exhortations. Nevertheless, I find that this challenging era is helping me to clarify what is important, and reinforcing the most meaningful connections in my life is heading toward the top of the list. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking this way.

Transforming our “age of anger” with care and understanding

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In a compelling long-form piece for the Guardian, Pankaj Mishra writes that “we find ourselves in an age of anger, with authoritarian leaders manipulating the cynicism and discontent of furious majorities.” Invoking Donald Trump (“the biggest political earthquake of our times”), Brexit, the Middle East, “insurgencies from Yemen to Thailand,” terrorism, and other disturbing events, he acknowledges that “we cannot understand this crisis because our dominant intellectual concepts and categories seem unable to process an explosion of uncontrolled forces.”

He concludes his thoughtful analysis with a call for understanding:

With so many of our landmarks in ruins, we can barely see where we are headed, let alone chart a path. But even to get our basic bearings we need, above all, greater precision in matters of the soul. The stunning events of our age of anger, and our perplexity before them, make it imperative that we anchor thought in the sphere of emotions; these upheavals demand nothing less than a radically enlarged understanding of what it means for human beings to pursue the contradictory ideals of freedom, equality and prosperity.

The complete article is well worth the time of anyone who is trying to comprehend our world today. Also, a fuller explication of Mishra’s analysis will appear in his forthcoming book, Age of Anger: A History of the Present. For now, however, I’d like to take Mishra’s core points and apply them to clusters of events over the past weekend.

Marches and rallies

It could be argued that the marches and rallies that took place around the world on Saturday were a manifestation of that age of anger. After all, the original Washington D.C. women’s march was organized in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, fueled by outrage and alarm.

But something funny happened at these events: Though perhaps prompted by anger, the large marches and rallies were voiceful, peaceful, and — yes — loving. Here in Boston, some 175,000 people (mostly women, but with a good number of men and kids) gathered to be heard, with reportedly not a single incident requiring police intervention.

Throughout Saturday and into Sunday, friends on Facebook posted photos and personal accounts from these female-led rallies in cities and communities across the country. Yes, anger and defiance may have brought them to these places, but their posts and photos communicated a sense of bold, joyous, and uplifting solidarity.

I have been on Facebook since 2009, and I can’t remember that social media site ever feeling so energetically alive. The posts from march participants were fresh, vibrant, even jubilant. My friends felt, quite accurately, that they were participating in historic events. I was so happy for them, and deeply appreciated what they did.

Meanwhile, in a small Boston conference room…

While many of my friends were at the marches, I was participating in a two-day “Integral Practitioner Lab” in downtown Boston, hosted by the Center for Transformative Learning at Meridian University in California. Here’s a partial explanation of the program from the university:

Many of us are are called to lives of sacred purpose where we seek to join professional livelihood with personal meaning and passion. However, there is a widening gap between the challenges of complexity and our individual and collective capabilities.

To realize our potential for passionate and meaningful livelihood, we must close this gap by building a bridge of capability.
The Integral Practitioner Lab at Meridian University offers the opportunity to identify, develop and refine a unique constellation of competencies that are required for impact.

This was, in essence, a gently directed, co-created series of conversations, guest speakers, and demonstration exercises embracing the broad topic of building bridges between individual and social change, facilitated by Meridian president Aftab Omer and Meridan faculty member Zak Stein. There were about two dozen of us in all, drawn from a surprisingly varied list of locations.

The major highlight was getting to know a warm, smart, and impact-making group of individuals. Our gathering included coaches, therapists, entrepreneurs, educators, consultants, and writers. With nary a PowerPoint slide in sight, we engaged in some 16 hours of dialogue and exchange about the state of the world and how we can contribute to its betterment. During this time, we learned about each other’s interests and projects, with our final focused activity being a break-out session of small group coaching.

Another highlight for me was an interactive session, via video conferencing, with Jean Houston, a renowned, visionary author and researcher who has joined Meridian as its chancellor. Dr. Houston addressed the anxieties and concerns about the world’s current political, social, and economic disruptions felt by many in the room. Pointing in part to Saturday’s peaceful marches and rallies around the world, but without offering false hopes, she suggested that these stark challenges have led us to a singular, mythic moment of opportunity to transform our society in healthier, more humane ways.

On a personal level, I was gifted with the opportunity to participate in an extended coaching exercise involving the full group and guided by Dr. Omer. In it, I was a client of sorts, attempting to learn more about my “developmental edges,” i.e., those aspects of ourselves that we can develop in order to be more effective in matters that we care about. This session deeply clarified my self-awareness of how I can be a more fiercely effective change agent toward making our laws and legal systems more receptive to psychological health and well-being, while working through feelings of anger over injustice, unfairness, and abuse. (To any of my fellow participants reading this, thank you, I am grateful beyond words.)

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I admit it: Current events of the past year or so have sometimes put me in a funk, capped off by the presidential inauguration on Friday. But between those marching on the outside and the dialogue in our conference room, the weekend gave me a true lift, providing hope — to borrow from Pankaj Mishra — that we can better understand our society and achieve “greater precision in matters of the soul.” Our talents and commitments are needed, so let us work on ourselves and the world around us to make transformational changes.

“Being present with intelligence, knowledge, skills, and strength, but anchored in heart”

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If you can spare an hour to listen to a remarkably far-ranging and compassionate mind at work, please click to this December 2016 lecture by Dr. Michael Britton at the annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network in New York City. The occasion is the workshop’s Don Klein Memorial Lecture, which provides the speaker with an opportunity to paint — in strokes both broad and hard — a connective, contextual, historical picture about our society and how we move forward in the quest for human dignity. Here’s Michael’s bio, and here’s how the lecture is described on its YouTube page:

Michael Britton gives the Don Klein Memorial Lecture on the morning of December 8, 2015, Day Two of the 13th Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict, which took place at Columbia University in New York City, December 8 – 9, 2016. Michael Britton is concerned with integrative thinking across neuroscience, in-depth psychotherapies and historical/cultural living, Michael’s work looks at how participation in the historical life of our times and interior life are deeply intertwined.

At the outset of his talk, Michael acknowledges the “struggle between how you keep faith, love, and joy strong in the midst of . . . also feeling fear and angst about some of the things going on in our country and our world.” He goes on to recognize the challenges of “being present with intelligence, knowledge, skills, and strength, but anchored in heart.”

Michael has a unique ability to integrate individual change and social change, making connections between topics such as childhood neglect and abuse, politics and policy, the environment, and human rights. He is not a hell fire and brimstone speaker, so if you’re looking for someone shakes the rafters, you may want to look elsewhere. Rather, he is a calm, intelligent, impassioned voice who gives us reason for hope without ignoring the challenges we face.

Dear readers, in this age of short attention spans and Twitter, suggesting that you invest some 60 minutes in an old-fashioned lecture is asking a lot, I know. My suggestion? Give this lecture 15 minutes and decide whether it’s worth your time to watch the rest. I hope you’ll agree that it’s worth watching the rest.

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Group photo of our workshop

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