Disney and Springsteen as misfits

Dan Pallotta offers a perspective on creativity. He identifies vulnerability and the willingness to be a misfit as two traits of visionaries:

Imagine Walt Disney at the age of nineteen. His uncle asks him what he plans to do with his life, and he pulls out a drawing of a mouse and says, “I think this has a lot of potential.”

Or Springsteen. In a concert he once told the story of how he and his dad used to go at it—how his father hated his guitar. Late one night, Springsteen came home to find his father waiting up for him in the kitchen. His father asked him what he thought he was doing with himself. “And the worst part about it,” Springsteen says, “was I never knew how to explain it to him.” How does he tell his father, “I’m going to be Bruce Springsteen?”

Someone interviewed me a few months back for an entrepreneurship project, and he mentioned that in his conversations the thing that stood out most was the willingness of great entrepreneurs to be vulnerable. It’s not the first association you’d make with an entrepreneur. Words like “driven,” “ambitious,” and “persistent” usually come to mind. But the moment he said it I knew he’d hit the nail on the head.

Vulnerability. It is the most poignant quality in every entrepreneur I know.

There’s a misfit in each of us, and it’s the most delicate, precious thing that we have. Sadly, most people make it their life’s mission to hide it, to cover it over in the same clothes, the same work, the same “regurgitations,” as Thomas Merton wrote, as everyone else. This virus of homogenization has infected the landscape. Our backdrop in real life now mimics the scenery repetition you’d see in a Fred Flintstone cartoon as he drove down the street. But now it’s Home Depot-Walmart-McDonalds-Starbucks; Home Depot-Walmart-McDonalds-Starbucks; Home Depot-Walmart-McDonalds-Starbucks.

Ironic that all those enterprises were begun by entrepreneurs trying to do something different. And poignant that in the absence of Walt Disney himself, the Walt Disney Company just keeps building more Disneylands.

I used to visit the merry-go-round in Griffith Park in Los Angeles where Disney once took his daughters, asking himself, “Is this all there is? There has to be a better place to take my children.” And the rest is history. The great entrepreneur — the entrepreneur who really changes things — is the one who, in 2010, goes to Disneyland and asks the same question: “Is this all there is?” And the new world she or he will create as a result of that audacious inquiry is one that cannot possibly be conceived by people busy trying to fit into the world as it is.

To question the hegemony of merry-go-rounds — to actually care that there should be something more magnificent than a merry-go-round — is to be a misfit. I mean, who worries about these things?

“Vulnerability is the absence of cynicism,” writes Pallotta. “And the absence of cynicism is love.”

McSorley’s and wholeness

Maria Popova writes on wholeness, and the ways in which our intentior life lives in harmony (or not) with our public identity:

Where Walt Whitman once invited us to celebrate the glorious multitudes we each contain and to welcome the wonder that comes from discovering one another’s multitudes afresh, we now cling to our identity-fragments, using them as badges and badgering artillery in confronting the templated identity-fragments of others. (For instance, some of mine: woman, reader, immigrant, writer, queer, survivor of Communism.) Because no composite of fragments can contain, much less represent, all possible fragments, we end up drifting further and further from one another’s wholeness, abrading all sense of shared aspiration toward unbiased understanding. The censors of yore have been replaced by the “sensitivity readers” of today, fraying the fabric of freedom — of speech, even of thought — from opposite ends, but fraying it nonetheless. The safety of conformity to an old-guard mainstream has been supplanted by the safety of conformity to a new-order minority predicated on some fragment of identity, so that those within each new group (and sub-group, and sub-sub-group) are as harsh to judge and as fast to exclude “outsiders” (that is, those of unlike identity-fragments) from the conversation as the old mainstream once was in judging and excluding them. In our effort to liberate, we have ended up imprisoning — imprisoning ourselves in the fractal infinity of our ever-subdividing identities, imprisoning each other in our exponentially multiplying varieties of otherness.

This inversion of intent only fissures the social justice movement itself, so that people who are at bottom kindred-spirited — who share the most elemental values, who work from a common devotion to the same projects of justice and equality, who are paving parallel pathways to a nobler, fairer, more equitable world — end up disoriented by the suspicion that they might be on different sides of justice after all, merely because their particular fragments don’t happen to coincide perfectly. In consequence, despite our best intentions, we misconstrue and alienate each other more and more.

O’Donohue offers a gentle corrective: “Each one of us is the custodian of an inner world that we carry around with us. Now, other people can glimpse it from [its outer expressions]. But no one but you knows what your inner world is actually like, and no one can force you to reveal it until you actually tell them about it. That’s the whole mystery of writing and language and expression — that when you do say it, what others hear and what you intend and know are often totally different kinds of things.” …

Today, we seem to serve not as custodians of our inner worlds but as their terrified and terrible wardens, policing our own interiority along with that of others for any deviation from the proscribed identity-political correctness. And yet identity is exclusionary by definition — we are what remains after everything we are not. Even those remnants are not static and solid ground onto which to stake the flag of an immutable personhood but fluid currents in an ever-shifting, shoreless self — for, as Virginia Wolf memorably wrote, “a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living.” To liberate ourselves from the trap of identity, O’Donohue implies, requires not merely an awareness of but an active surrender to the transience that inheres in all of life and engenders its very richness:

“One of the most amazing recognitions of the human mind is that time passes. Everything that we experience somehow passes into a past invisible place: when you think of yesterday and the things that were troubling you and worrying you, and the intentions that you had and the people that you met, and you know you experienced them all, but when you look for them now, they are nowhere — they have vanished… It seems to me that our times are very concerned with experience, and that nowadays to hold a belief, to have a value, must be woven through the loom of one’s own experience, and that experience is the touchstone of integrity, verification and authenticity. And yet the destiny of every experience is that it will disappear.”

To come to terms with this — with the impermanence and mutability of our thoughts, our feelings, our values, our very cells — is to grasp the absurdity of clinging to any strand of identity with the certitude and self-righteousness undergirding identity politics. To reclaim the beauty of the multitudes we each contain, we must break free of the prison of our fragments and meet one another as whole persons full of wonder unblunted by identity-template and expectation.

I woke up in New York’s Financial District to the above in my inbox this morning, and thought it was an appropriate reflection on the topics of our interior life, wholeness, and the identity politics of our time, because I spent last night at McSorley’s Old Ale House in the East Village with Peter Atkinson:

McSorley’s is one of those places that stands outside of time, to a large degree—if you let it. It’s the sort of place where it’s still literally possible to almost meditate, if you want, in a public place. You’re surrounded by 163 years of history, real historical memory and the artifacts left behind by real people who stood in the same Ale House you’re standing in now. It’s custodians over the years have respected McSorley’s as they’ve inherited it, and not tried to make it more relevant, or to change it with changing times. What they’ve come into, they’ve passed along, unchanged in only the smallest and most necessary ways—no more live cats wandering the place, for instance, thanks to stricter New York health codes.

But McSorley’s seems to me to be an example of the sort of “wholeness” that Maria Popova writes on above, albeit in physical/place form rather than personal form. It is confidently what it is, and doesn’t explain itself or adjust itself to changing fashions for the sake of anyone’s affections. It has earned the love and returns of so many generations because it is authentic, meaning that it simply is what it is.

A place like McSorley’s might also just provide the context for a discovery of a renewed interior life, especially in the quiet mid-day hours of a Wednesday, for instance, when you can see the dust falling through the air with a burning stove fire nearby, and the warmth of generations seeming to envelope you in one of the few public places in the world that doesn’t seem to want anything from you, in particular, other than to sit and be for a while.

War and the ‘pleasure of agency’

Shadi Hamid writes on Omar El Akkad’s American War and asks, “what holds a society together in the absence of common ideas?” Excerpting:

During the war, dying, as Drew Gilpin Faust writes in her seminal history This Republic of Suffering, became an art, and Christianity was central to dying well. “It is work to die, to know how to approach and endure life’s last moments,” Faust writes. Christianity, already infused in daily life, became even more so as the death toll rose: “Redefined as eternal life, death was celebrated in mid-nineteenth-century America.” After the war, as the realities of defeat settled, there was inevitably the question of “why?” Was the fall of the Confederacy, suffering a significantly higher mortality rate than the north, a punishment from God?

Both sides, with presumably “fine” people on each, prayed to the same God and, therefore, believed they were right, and that God would grant them victory. Presumably, if their cause were indeed just, he would also spare them a long and grinding war. In a war’s early stages, ideas and ideals seem more pure, untainted by political calculation or the atrocities of one’s own side. But once you pick a side—or once you’re already on a side because you happen to be of the South or of the North—there isn’t much you can do. War becomes “tribal.” Sarat, a Southern rebel and American War’s protagonist, asks her mentor Albert Gaines, a Northerner by birth and a veteran of Iraq and Syria, why he chose to side with the South:

“I sided with the Red because when a Southerner tells you what they’re fighting for—be it tradition, pride, or just mule-headed stubbornness—you can agree or disagree, but you can’t call it a lie. When a Northerner tells you what they’re fighting for, they’ll use words like democracy and freedom and equality and the whole time both you and they know that the meaning of those words changes by the day.”

Gaines goes on: “Right or wrong, you own your cause and you never, ever change your mind.” This seems to worry Sarat, and so he asks her: “If you knew for a fact we were wrong, would it be enough to turn you against your own people?” “No,” she says.

But for those predisposed to fight—perhaps if they witnessed a massacre, as Sarat did—there is a kind of joy to be found from taking up arms for a cause. Writing on the motivations that drew El Salvadorian insurgents to join together during the 1970s and 1980s, Elisabeth Jean Wood captures this feeling, arguing that “they took pride, indeed pleasure, in the successful assertion of their interests and identity.” Wood calls this “the pleasure of agency.”

There’s something to this, isn’t there? War and the urge toward it boiled down to the simple “pleasure of agency,” with so much justification as some kind of window-dressing for the latent violence in our hearts that flows from the desire to justify one’s existence by one’s own force of being?

The “pleasure of agency” versus the law of the cross.

Health as wholeness

Wendell Berry spoke in 1992 with Michael Toms. I found their conversation recently when searching Berry’s works and enjoyed the entire hour:

…an hour of stirring and straightforward wisdom from one of the most highly respected of modern American writers and poets. Using words like “affection”, “satisfaction”, “care”, and “joy”, Berry calls for a re-evaluation of the basic values and practices of our lives. He illustrates his ideas with glimpses of his own life and those of his Kentucky farm neighbors, and describes a future where we can learn to find love, wisdom and meaning in the people, the places and the work of our own daily lives. “Abstractions don’t work – abstractions are abstractions,” he says. “You have to realize that finally you must do something.”

There was this particular exchange that I transcribed because it was arresting to me:

I thought to myself that health is so much more than just physical.

Yes. It is, of course, physical. But physical health doesn’t exist apart from the health of other things. Health ultimately involves the community, and the community ultimately involves the place, and natural life of that place, so that real health … is harmony with the world. Nothing is left out of health because health always implies wholeness.

And harmony with the world in the sense not of the planetary world out there, but harmony with the place we’re experiencing here.

Yes, the world as it’s represented to you immediately where you are.

So often I think that there’s this projection out there somehow that disconnects us from our ability to manifest creatively or to do something.

Yes. It leaves you with nothing to do. The universe, and even the planet, are ideas with respect to this conversation, anyway. They don’t immediately exist. And being right with the universe doesn’t propose that you do anything. Whereas being right with your local place and community and household—that task proposes many little jobs of work and some big ones.

Listen.

Civilizations without communities

Donald DeMarco writes that “civilization matters”:

The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, once wrote “I scorn to distinguish between culture and civilization.” At the heart of this statement lies Freud’s philosophy of culture. For him, the transition from culture to civilization is not a favorable one. Indeed, he said that “every individual is virtually an enemy of civilization.” In other words, civilization places too many restrictions on man’s need for instinctive satisfactions and too many obstacles in his path toward happiness. For Freud, civilization is man’s enemy. For this reason, Philip Reiff, editor of the ten-volume Collected Papers of Sigmund Freud, refers to him as “the champion of the second best.”

The Catholic view, on the other hand, sees civilization is the crown of culture—it is the condition to which society aspires. Just as the individual person aspires to better things, so too, does culture (a society of persons) aspire to higher modes of civilization. Indeed, the scholars of antiquity contend that if all the great and broad contributions of the ancient Greeks could be distilled into a single word, it would be civilization.

Freud seems to be thinking of civilization as a problem for the individual, if civilization means communities and the relationships and duties and rights and responsibilities that come along with it. And Catholics understand civilization as a crowning achievement because it has been the context in which individuals form the relationships that let them practice virtue and try to be moral creatures in relation to one another. What if it were possible to abstract civilization from community life, though? What would that look like in practice, and how would it change human life experienced both in its individual and communal spheres? That’s the sort of civilization we have now, according to Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens:

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the daily life of most humans ran its course within three ancient frames: the nuclear family, the extended family and the local intimate community. Most people worked in the family business – the family farm or the family workshop, for example – or they worked in their neighbours’ family businesses. The family was also the welfare system, the health system, the education system, the construction industry, the trade union, the pension fund, the insurance company, the radio, the television, the newspapers, the bank and even the police.

When a person fell sick, the family took care of her. When a person grew old, the family supported her, and her children were her pension fund. When a person died, the family took care of the orphans. If a person wanted to build a hut, the family lent a hand. If a person wanted to open a business, the family raised the necessary money. If a person wanted to marry, the family chose, or at least vetted, the prospective spouse. If conflict arose with a neighbour, the family muscled in. But if a person’s illness was too grave for the family to manage, or a new business demanded too large an investment, or the neighbourhood quarrel escalated to the point of violence, the local community came to the rescue.

The community offered help on the basis of local traditions and an economy of favours, which often differed greatly from the supply and demand laws of the free market. In an old-fashioned medieval community, when my neighbour was in need, I helped build his hut and guard his sheep, without expecting any payment in return. When I was in need, my neighbour returned the favour. At the same time, the local potentate might have drafted all of us villagers to construct his castle without paying us a penny. In exchange, we counted on him to defend us against brigands and barbarians. Village life involved many transactions but few payments. There were some markets, of course, but their roles were limited. You could buy rare spices, cloth and tools, and hire the services of lawyers and doctors. Yet less than 10 per cent of commonly used products and services were bought in the market. Most human needs were taken care of by the family and the community. …

Life in the bosom of family and community was far from ideal. Families and communities could oppress their members no less brutally than do modern states and markets, and their internal dynamics were often fraught with tension and violence – yet people had little choice. A person who lost her family and community around 1750 was as good as dead. She had no job, no education and no support in times of sickness and distress. Nobody would loan her money or defend her if she got into trouble. There were no policemen, no social workers and no compulsory education. In order to survive, such a person quickly had to find an alternative family or community. Boys and girls who ran away from home could expect, at best, to become servants in some new family. At worst, there was the army or the brothel.

All this changed dramatically over the last two centuries. The Industrial Revolution gave the market immense new powers, provided the state with new means of communication and transportation, and placed at the government’s disposal an army of clerks, teachers, policemen and social workers. At first the market and the state discovered their path blocked by traditional families and communities who had little love for outside intervention. Parents and community elders were reluctant to let the younger generation be indoctrinated by nationalist education systems, conscripted into armies or turned into a rootless urban proletariat.

Over time, states and markets used their growing power to weaken the traditional bonds of family and community. The state sent its policemen to stop family vendettas and replace them with court decisions. The market sent its hawkers to wipe out longstanding local traditions and replace them with ever-changing commercial fashions. Yet this was not enough. In order really to break the power of family and community, they needed the help of a fifth column.

The state and the market approached people with an offer that could not be refused. ‘Become individuals,’ they said. ‘Marry whomever you desire, without asking permission from your parents. Take up whatever job suits you, even if community elders frown. Live wherever you wish, even if you cannot make it every week to the family dinner. You are no longer dependent on your family or your community. We, the state and the market, will take care of you instead. We will provide food, shelter, education, health, welfare and employment. We will provide pensions, insurance and protection.

Romantic literature often presents the individual as somebody caught in a struggle against the state and the market. Nothing could be further from the truth. The state and the market are the mother and father of the individual, and the individual can survive only thanks to them. The market provides us with work, insurance and a pension. If we want to study a profession, the government’s schools are there to teach us. If we want to open a business, the bank loans us money. If we want to build a house, a construction company builds it and the bank gives us a mortgage, in some cases subsidised or insured by the state. If violence flares up, the police protect us. If we are sick for a few days, our health insurance takes care of us. If we are debilitated for months, national social services steps in. If we need around-the-clock assistance, we can go to the market and hire a nurse – usually some stranger from the other side of the world who takes care of us with the kind of devotion that we no longer expect from our own children. If we have the means, we can spend our golden years at a senior citizens’ home. The tax authorities treat us as individuals, and do not expect us to pay the neighbours’ taxes. The courts, too, see us as individuals, and never punish us for the crimes of our cousins.

Not only adult men, but also women and children, are recognised as individuals. Throughout most of history, women were often seen as the property of family or community. Modern states, on the other hand, see women as individuals, enjoying economic and legal rights independently of their family and community. They may hold their own bank accounts, decide whom to marry, and even choose to divorce or live on their own.

But the liberation of the individual comes at a cost. Many of us now bewail the loss of strong families and communities and feel alienated and threatened by the power the impersonal state and market wield over our lives. States and markets composed of alienated individuals can intervene in the lives of their members much more easily than states and markets composed of strong families and communities. When neighbours in a high-rise apartment building cannot even agree on how much to pay their janitor, how can we expect them to resist the state?

The deal between states, markets and individuals is an uneasy one. The state and the market disagree about their mutual rights and obligations, and individuals complain that both demand too much and provide too little. In many cases individuals are exploited by markets, and states employ their armies, police forces and bureaucracies to persecute individuals instead of defending them. Yet it is amazing that this deal works at all – however imperfectly. For it breaches countless generations of human social arrangements. Millions of years of evolution have designed us to live and think as community members. Within a mere two centuries we have become alienated individuals. Nothing testifies better to the awesome power of culture.

Harari suggests that markets and states foster “imagined communities” that serve as emotional replacements for the community life of the past because they allow for new feelings of participation with our neighbors, even if we don’t know the neighbors.

The civilization of the past is described by Harari as a cycle of “weak individuals > strong family and community > weak state and market,” and our present civilization is described as a cycle of “strong individuals > weak family and community > strong state and market.”

So what does all of this suggest? It suggests that we’ve created a civilization without community life; at least without the sort of specific and obvious community life our ancestors would recognize. It suggests we’re living through something new.

Will we become machines?

Joseph Bottum reviews a slew of recent books on the coming of the machine age, and reflects on what it might mean (or not mean) for the future of humanity. It’s worth reading in whole for how well he skewers confused utopian thinking. In short, we cannot make ourselves immortal by destroying what we are: embodied and finite creatures. There’s also this, which I’m included here as something to look back upon in the years to come as a test of its skepticism:

We seem to have some weakness that lures us to think fundamental change is barreling down upon us. As it happens, the utopians and dystopians do share one thing in common: For centuries now, neither group has been much more successful at predicting the future than the gypsy lady who reads palms down on 18th Street. But still we imagine that this time, it’s going to be different. This time, the world will change.

The current futurists tend toward happy visions of the world to come, but along the way to their utopias they take our susceptibility for the new and divert it to the old, old belief that there’s something ugly and vile, something outrageous, about life in a fragile material body. Why should the new gnostics differ much from the old? Each of them longs to be an animal, a tree, a stone, an angel, a machine—anything but a human being.

What games can teach

Byron Reeves makes a contrarian point in arguing that certain video games teach people how to embrace leadership roles:

People say it’s most important to be born a leader. You get nurtured, you get selected, you’ve probably showed leadership qualities early on in school, you’ve been involved in activities that developed something that naturally existed. In the games [researchers] felt that leadership was not so much an attribute of individuals who were doing the leading, but leadership was an attribute of the environments in which the people were acting.

When players are required to take on different roles in order for their team to win (i.e.-some are warriors, some are priests, etc.), they learn that success requires not only leadership, but also followership. This is just “teamwork” in a sense, but I think it’s more helpful to think about the distinctions between leadership and followership.

John Mayer isn’t great because we all want to be him (though a lot of us do want to be him), but because we recognize his immense talent and are willing to follow him in enjoying a beautiful experience.

We each have a role to play in every scenario. If video games can teach that, it’s a redeeming thing. Real life will always be better.