Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Intractability and Obsession

In life, a little conflict is inevitable.

We don't always agree with one another.  We don't always see things the same way.  That's just how things are, given that we're not creatures with a hive-mind.  Well, not yet, anyway.

But conflict can escalate, and reach a point where it ceases to be a place of mutual decision-making.  It can become charged, and then heated, and then?   

Then it can become intractable.

Intractable conflict is tricky, because, well, it's intractable.  Once you've reached that stage, you do not want to have a facilitator working you through to win-win with your *cough*  "conflict partner."  You want to immolate your "conflict partner."  You want them to burn.  You want their utter destruction.  They are the devil incarnate, a monster above all other monsters.  You despise them with a rage that goes way down deep, hating every single thing about their being.

In conflict resolution circles, and amongst counselors and mediators, this is a problematic stage.  Such conflicts often defy resolution.  Because, well, duh.

That friendship is broken.  That marriage is over.  You will never, ever ever have your former relationship with that person.  Period.

But that stage of conflict dynamic doesn't just permanently color your view of your enemy.  When you're enmeshed in intractability, it messes with you.

You start seeing echoes of that conflict in every aspect of your life.  You become obsessive, coloring each and every thing you encounter with the blood red hues of that particular hatred.   Intractable conflict flavors everything with its sourness.

Let's imagine, for example, that you watched the recent eclipse.  Here, an event of unique cosmic beauty, remarkable and glorious.  Under normal circumstances, in the absence of intractable conflict dynamics, you'd simply marvel at it.  "Wow," you'd say.  "I know, right?" would say your neighbor.

If you're mired in intractable conflict, you will mutter, "I wonder if X is watching the eclipse.  God, I hate X.  I can just imagine their [profanity deleted] face looking up all stupid and [profanity deleted.]  I hope they burn out their eyeballs."  "Um." would say your neighbor, looking at you with faint alarm and edging away slightly.

Meaning, your ability to see any beauty or joy or wonder in life has been eclipsed by your obsession with X.

Good thing that didn't happen, huh?  Whew.

This is the danger of that depth of hate.  It consumes all of your other relationships, as it pours out over the floodgates and inundates every other part of your soul.

Which, for our own well being and sanity, and for our capacity to maintain a modicum of graciousness in life, is why attentiveness to its hold over us is so significant.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Luxury of Wonder

The light grew dim, though it was a cloudless mid-day, and it was a thing to behold.  It was the height of the day, but wrong.  Off.  Strange.  Even the shadows seemed deeper.

I and the lad wandered out again and again into the driveway, peering up at the dimming sun through a set of approved glasses.

A mom wandered up the street, her two bustling little boys in tow, each holding a cardboard pinhole contraption.  I offered the glasses to her, and she accepted.  "Oooh," she said.

I helped her place the glasses on two upturned and eager faces.   "Oooh," went the little voices.

A cluster of neighbors gathered on their lawn, each with glasses, gazing upward as they lounged in the grass.

Two houses down, other neighbors peered up from behind the shade of a tree, seeking a glimpse.  I walked over, offered the glasses, and they both happily accepted the opportunity to look up at the 80% occluded disk.

Then, peals of thunder, as a great thunderhead billowed up, moving towards us.  There was a rumble.  And another.  Rain, coming with the stillness of a once-in-a-lifetime event.

The birds grew quiet.  All was hushed.  A little magic.

All except for the sound of the gas-powered line trimmer, snarling hornet-high from the bottom of the street.  And the roar of a stand up riding mower, being started up.

It was one of the lawn care teams that bustle through our neighborhood all through the week.  The men, all Latino, recent immigrants, most likely.  They were hustling hard for their money, putting in hour after hour in the hot sun.  Now slightly less hot, not that they seemed to notice.

There was work to be done, and a schedule, and the eclipse that caught the nation's breath did not slow them.

Even when the sun itself faded into the magic halflight, and the air cooled, their pace did not change.  The lawn had to be mowed.  The task had to be completed.  They were fiercely diligent about their labor.

I watched them, for a moment, for three, to see if they peered upward.  But they did not.

They did not have the luxury of wonder.

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Amoral Leader

What does amoral leadership look like?

It's a pertinent question for anyone in a community.  Or a company.  Or a nation.  Because amorality, in a position of power and influence, does damage.

Morality is about purpose.  It requires an individual or group to be oriented to a particular end, one that exists outside of themselves.

That can be a beautiful thing, when a leader casts out a vision that transforms a community.  That kind of leadership created this nation.  Such visions took us to the moon.  Such dreams began the long, slow process of healing our racial divide.

But morality has a shadow side.

Nazis and Klansmen and Bolsheviks are "moral," in that they have a worldview and a vision.   That vision would move a group towards a particular end.  The dominance of the master race is a purpose.  Brutalized, sanitized conformity is an end.    Those ends are monstrous and demonic, but nonetheless "moral." 

But amoral individuals have no worldview, because they don't really see the world.  They stand in relation to nothing but themselves.  Nothing outside of them matters.   Their "morality" is recursive, solipsistic, and tautological...which is a fancy pants way of saying, simply: it's all about them.

That is not morality.  Morality requires orientation to an external reality.  If a self has nothing towards which it orients itself other than itself, it is a vortex, a collapsed star, in which no action has any meaning towards any end.

The amoral being serves only their own interest.  And having nothing to define their direction outside of that interest, there is nothing to give that self integrity.  They can be anything.  They will do anything.  It doesn't matter if they contradict themselves, because they have nothing that gives them cohesion.  No compass.  No anchor.  No rudder.  Not a single metaphor for coherence applies, because they have no meaningful connection to anything outside of themselves.

Nothing matters, other than sating their hungers and reactively following their impulses, and impressing their will on the subject and objects around them.

Such souls can be wildly self confident, full of bravado.  They can seem strong, because they are willing to do anything and violate any norm.  They can be amusing, because their incongruous actions surprise us, and nothing they do is predictable.  

But put such an individual in leadership, and whatever they are leading will begin to pull apart.  The foundations of stability and mutual trust that give any gathering of humans cohesion will shake.

A family will fray.  A community will be torn by conflict and misdirection.  A ship will founder adrift, whether at sea or traipsing shiny amongst the gorram stars.

And a nation?  What happens to a nation?

We appear to have decided to find out.

Monday, August 14, 2017

His Car

I noticed it, because I have always been into cars.  I noticed it, because in our culture, our choice of vehicles is understood to speak...for good or ill...something about our nature.

And yes, a car is just an object, an inanimate thing.  Yet it can also be a totem, a marker, a symbol.

The car was a Dodge Challenger, the last of the big American muscle cars.  Both the Mustang and the Camaro have transitioned to being sports cars, nimble and smaller and blisteringly fast.  But the Challenger remains unchanged, hewing to classical muscle-car image of beef and brawn and an aura of menace.

In fact, the current iteration of the Challenger has remained unchanged for nearly a decade, with Fiat Chrysler introducing it back in 2008.  The current versions are much improved, with some impressive gains in materials and some remarkably potent motors.

But the Challenger in question appears to be a first generation model, meaning it's an older car.  Cheap, now.

And though it presents the image of a "muscle" car, that particular model clearly (from its lack of visible dual exhausts) is likely running the harsh, inefficient and underpowered first generation V-6 engine, a motor that has fewer horsepower than my family minivan.

It isn't actually fast, no faster than a Camry.  Not that it needed to be, for that terrible, monstrous purpose.  Any car can inflict mortal harm on our fragile bodies.

Left unmodified, it would be an honest, functional full-sized coupe.  But it has been modified.

There on the back of the trunk, a spoiler had been installed...utterly pointless and incongruous on a vehicle with such a low power to weight ratio and such a blunt aerodynamic profile.  The wheels, blacked out but not alloy, and running stock non-performance tires.  The rear window, cheaply tinted black.  Hoodscoops, which serve as functional air intakes in the V-8 cars, but are meaningless ornaments on the V-6.

Understood through the American lens of car as totem, it is a car that is pretending to be something it is not, a vehicle that displays empty machismo, shallow aggression unsupported by substance.  It speaks of personal and financial insecurity.  It speaks of immaturity.

Perhaps it means nothing.  It is perhaps just a car.  One could own such a vehicle and be an entirely decent person.  Whatever vehicle he used to murder and maim, he would still be a murderer.

And yet.


For the last six years, I've delivered meals for Meals on Wheels.

It's a good thing to do, and something that I value.  Nationally, though, Meals on Wheels programs have increasingly struggled to fill volunteer roles.

So in Fairfax County, the County has decided to institute new requirements for volunteers.  An array of forms, all of which must be filled out online.

Releases and contracts governing everything from media use to protocols for client engagement.

References, which are not required, but may be required, depending on what you're volunteering to do.  They don't tell you which.

Then a mandatory one hour training and orientation program, which must be registered for online.

After which, one is given a form that must be taken to the county courthouse, where one must be fingerprinted by police, and after which a criminal background check will be run on all volunteers.

All so volunteers can get their official volunteer badges, and be permitted to continue doing the thing they've been doing without official volunteer badges for decades.

Which is delivering food to the homebound, and talking with them if they feel like talking.  This, let me tell you, is noncomplex.  

Why do we need volunteer badges?  So that the clients can check our badges to be sure we are who we say we are when we deliver meals.  So that the County can have our fingerprints in a database.

This is to prevent elder abuse, and protect a vulnerable population, or so the County tells us.

All of which sounds well and good, only, really?  It isn't.

Are there instances of documented abuse?  No, well, actually, there aren't.  But it might happen.

What is documented is a decrease in the volunteer pool for the program locally, as the dual incomes required to live in the DC area and the bustling schedule of Washingtonians crowd out voluntarism.   Those who do volunteer are mostly older and retirees themselves.

For that population, a complex process involving online registration and multiple trips to orientations will be onerous and confusing.

What the County is doing is making it harder to volunteer, putting structural inhibitors in place to make the act of doing something more challenging.  They are also approaching volunteering as if it required the same oversight as a paid position.

But wait.  What about the badges?  Won't those help?

Not if you've ever actually driven for Meals on Wheels.  If you've ever actually done deliveries, you'd know that a significant percentage of the client population have limited mobility.  Many leave their doors open for volunteers to enter.  Further, many have visual impairments, meaning their capacity to closely inspect an "official badge" is marginal.

I'll complete the requirements.  I will also, once I am done, offer to help any new volunteers negotiate the new thicket of requirements.

Yet I am stuck wondering as to the "why" of them.