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The Home Team, Plus Winning As…

When it comes to sports, there are a variety of idiosyncrasies I find capricious and arbitrary. Part of this may simply be my lack of interest in most sports per se, but my pragmatic inner self also finds widely held sports truisms to be dubious. For example, as a pragmatist it has never occured to me that I was somehow obligated to root for the local team rather than favoring a team from somewhere else. I realize many people automatically favor their home team, but I also know many who have moved yet still follow a favorite team located where they used to live or a team long favored for other reasons.

This last summer, during the World Cup, I noted to my wife that too many American fans seemed more intent on fixing fûtbol rules and practices than simply enjoying the matches. My wife’s response was that in supporting their side, they may have become overly critical of a sport they might not know much about. Well, maybe, at which point I mentioned I really wasn’t all that interested in how the U.S. team did anyway. She seemed quite taken aback by this, and when she shared this with other senior executives at work, they didn’t know what to make of it either.

I find the whole home team construct overrated. I know someone who doesn’t want to spend the money for home team baseball coverage on cable, but instead of watching other teams from other markets for little or no additional cost, she watches no baseball games at all. Liking baseball should not require an emotional investment in a home team to enjoy it. For me, I much prefer certain European fûtbol leagues, which have a large number of the world’s most talented players, and I enjoy matches without having a vested interest in either team. I do have a “home team” or two in one of these leagues, but they’re thousands of miles from where I live.

And where but in America would the home in home team be so malleable. Of course players, coaches and managers come and go, but entire teams can and do move from one city to another. Owners punish cities that won’t build them new stadiums by moving their team, becoming a home team somewhere else more willing to have taxpayers fund a stadium. Or they perceive a different city as being a better (more profitable) home for their team. Permanence is not always an enduring quality in American professional sports when it comes to home teams.

Moving on (no pun intended), I have another issue: the famous saying that winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. I’ve always considered this an odd sentiment. First, as an editor, I find it troubling because swapping “everything” and “only thing” doesn’t change the meaning. And when it comes to meaning, the saying is fundamentally incorrect despite how widely it is believed to be a sports truth. In reality, what makes sports interesting to real fans is the process, which is to say, the playing. Winning (or losing) is an artifact of a game played well enough to be enjoyed regardless of the outcome.

Let me rephrase the concept. Winning or doing as well as possible by season’s end isn’t really the most important reason to watch. If that’s all that matters, there are better things to do and ways to spend one’s time. Just keep track of the results. Done. Watching a game has deeper value. There are thousands of games and matches every year, and in every case there are winners and losers, and sometimes a tie or draw (at least in fûtbol). But they’re just numbers. What really matters are talent, execution and strategy, all part of trying to win. In fûtbol, even the losing team can be very good during the 90 minutes of a match. Winning really isn’t everything or the only thing.

Besides, if winning were really the only thing, how does one explain the many fans who continue to support teams that play well but not good enough to finish first (or even close to it), season after season. It could be the home team effect, or it simply could be enjoyment of the game for itself. Indeed, rooting for the underdog is a tradition, and not just in sports. And having the same teams always finish well (including first place) can become tiresome and too predictable. Pragmatically, winning is nice, but it’s also easily an unrealistic expectation.

First World Problems

The phenomenon of first world problems tends to evoke two types of reactions. The first is humor, such as in trying to decide which color of luxury automobile to buy or lease. The second reaction is disdain toward those who share first world “problems,” which is more along the lines of responding to a comment such as waiting to be seated at a trendy restaurant by noting how many people in the world don’t have enough to eat. The first reaction owns the triviality of the problem, the second is an angry overreaction to injustices in the world.

I find the whole first world problem thing snarky and annoying. It’s certainly reasonable to rank problems by importance, but beyond the very obvious, the process becomes dynamic and even arbitrary — not just among different people but even within the same person. Priorities change dynamically and thus so do where problems show up in importance at that moment. Plus a lot of “problems” are really just having to make choices, which is more likely to be problematic for those who have issues with decisions. Ordering lunch or a car are vastly different in cost and consequence, but for some the process itself of deciding is a struggle of right or wrong, good or better.

The real issue I have with the concept of first world problems is the notion that one should be comparing one’s “problems” with those of others who live elsewhere — such as the third world — or do not have fundamental resources. Why? The world has always had and will always have all kinds of inequity. While there has been progress in addressing the economics of poverty, even this has slowed considerably, so that what was going to take only another four or five decades will — at current growth — take at least another 30. Deciding which $700 smartphone or designer handbag to get is not going to alter this, and is not a moral issue.

A little over a year ago I began a post entitled Ferraris Or Food with this sentence: A friend, upon spotting a silver Ferrari convertible with a glass inlay in the rear cover to display the engine, seemed unhappy. Just think, she said, how many children that could feed. I noted to her that a lot of people had jobs because someone had the financial means to afford that vehicle, and the economic activity from those people spending their money created more jobs. Admittedly, one doesn’t “need” such a car to get from here to there and back, but it’s not as if this person is going to send 200,000+ USD to a small village in a land of abject poverty instead.

Life has always been “unfair,” whatever we think that means. There’s a lot of ambiguity in common terms we use. That said, studies have consistently concluded that beyond having enough money, which by itself depends on who you ask, there is little correlation between money and happiness. If the Ferrari owner is lonely and unhappy, and someone who drives a 10-year-old Toyota has a loving family and good friends, who has life been fairer to? And don’t they both have first world problems? Even citizens of Denmark, who claim 95 percent contentment, have problems of first world order.

Given how problems — issues, decisions and options ranging from life-changing to trivial — are just part of life, it’s not surprising that they tend to vary with who you are and where you are in life and are located. Note that I said part of life, not what life is. There are lots of aspects of life that are not about problems but rather how the world is viewed and our place in it. Somewhere between taking care of number one and worrying about all that’s wrong in the world is being pragmatically optimistic, pessimistic and just happy.

If you have first world problems, be happy. Don’t feel guilty or undeserving. There are no rewards for these. To avoid not enjoying your life as much because others are not as fortunate requires two assumptions. One is that feeling worse will not change anything…it really won’t. The other is that you can find ways, no matter how modest, to make the world better in one way or another and still be grateful for what you have. It’s a wonderful life when it’s a pragmatic one.

The Game Of Risk

A couple months ago I noted that governance applies to a wide variety of endeavors beyond government. It’s the expectation of all stakeholders that those responsible for governance (businesses, institutions, organizations; for profit, non-profit) will both follow applicable policies and procedures while also ensuring that in doing so other issues aren’t created. Certain choices are sometimes necessary for the good of the entity that may not satisfy everyone. This is widely known as risk management. Depending on the specifics of governance, risk management can be the responsibility of boards (executive, specific, full), senior management, risk managers, compliance officers or some combination of these.

The primary goals of risk management are to reasonably anticipate what might pose risks (which can be broad and diverse), how to minimize these risks and how to manage those risks that become reality. Despite efforts to do all of this, unexpected and unanticipated risks can and do make themselves known, and while rules, policies and procedures, and bylaws can be adjusted after the fact to address such issues, the immediate response has to be that which minimizes consequential risk.

Unfortunately, not everyone has the experience, skills and temperament for this. Risk management is a task best left to pragmatists who can compartmentalize with minimal emotion, which includes implementing an old adage that’s a cliché yet highly valuable: it’s not personal, it’s business (even when it’s a non-profit, charity, school or church being governed). Emotions easily result in misguided responses and can easily escalate risks rather than minimizing them.

I recently experienced this when a non-profit executive board I am on had to meet and deal with an issue involving a volunteer. The goal was to resolve this with the least risk to all by having the problem go away quietly (including invoking confidentiality), which we accomplished. Unfortunately, a member of the full board was angry that the details were not made public to that board. She insisted all other board members would never share this information with others, as the full board would be in executive session with no minutes. Her assertion was simply not credible given the inevitable realities of human nature, and this board member had herself inappropriately already shared information with others.

I have made it clear in numerous previous posts that total honesty is overrated and often not desirable — with negative consequences. In this case, there was no need for others to know any details. It served no useful purpose, and the executive board was actually protecting both the organization and all other board members because the volunteer had resigned without the issue in question being raised by either party. Liability and thus risk are sometimes minimized by not discussing details.

Problems arise in risk management when one or more individuals hold two specific non-pragmatic beliefs. One is the us versus them theme, with “them” being management-administration. The implied and even expressed assertion is that those in charge make decisions that are in their own (and thus, by association, their organization’s) best interests, and not what is “right” and “just.” Second is that wrongdoing should be punished and made public even when there are compelling reasons to invoke confidentiality. It’s a black and white approach that sees the world only in a good-bad context. This is naive and problematic at best.

Nuanced decisions have two defining goals: resolving an issue but not by creating one or more other issues, and protecting stakeholders — be they taxpayers, shareholders, associates, clients, beneficiaries — from risk to the degree this is possible. Pragmatism is easily more functional in this regard than simply adhering to principles regardless of consequences. Doing what is “right” is dependent on where one assigns priorities, and the “obvious” answer may not be the best one.

This is why emphasizing the “business not personal” approach sets the tone for risk management. And, it’s business not personal actually works — ironically — in personal life. Risk management, when it comes to family and friends, can be simply protecting someone’s feelings or avoiding causing them anxiety for no compelling reason even though these are essentially lying by omission. I have no problem with lying by omission.

For a pragmatist, risk management is really just like morality — amorphous, ambiguous, ambivalent. A guiding premise of this blog is there are no universal truths. Universal truths are how people get locked into beliefs, frames of mind and certainties that keep them from seeing all the alternatives. The person noted above could not get past her “givens” and thus could not understand or accept the executive board’s decision. She sees it as a misuse of authority, not as a reasoned choice that reduces risk. She rejects any need for confidentiality. As a result, she becomes the risk, but she’s insufficiently pragmatic to comprehend this…or care.

Historiography

At the beginning of my graduate work in history was a required class in historiography — a history of history, if you will. Its primary function was to instill the professional standards of historians, to understand the fundamental principles of the historical process and to apply the standards of determining historical truth versus historical fiction. The basics include gathering all available evidence, sorting it for relevance and discarding what isn’t, and then synthesizing conclusions from what remains. For a pragmatist, this search for historical truth is compelling.

I should note three corollaries regarding the work of historians. First is that it matters most what those who were alive at a given time believed was happening. That is, what their “truths” were in the moment. Second is that it typically requires 50 years or more before one can accurately assess the who, what, where, when, why and consequences, and the context of these. Third is that the work of subsequent historians will often result in revisionary interpretations. Throughout all of this, the use of factual information remains unchanged even if the conclusions vary in different ways.

In other words, for historians, the process can result in more than one interpretation. The facts are not changed, but the meaning and results of them are open to differing perspectives. For example, I had one fascinating textbook about the origins of the civil war in which each chapter was written by a different historian laying out his or her evidence and rationale for causation of the war. There were a dozen chapters, each of which made a compelling case. The overriding theme was not that some historians were correct and some were not, but rather how there were multiple factors resulting in this conflict and they were typically interrelated.

Unfortunately, history has also been used to manipulate and deceive, to rewrite the past and to serve agendas by those who do not want history as truth. This is not the work of historians but of others in legislatures and on school boards. Emphasis, omission and selective phrasing are common ways to manipulate what students learn about the history of their country, leaving out much in order to create a mythology that serves the ideological desires of those in authority. Current examples range from China at a national level (to preserve social order) to state legislatures and local school boards in the U.S. in which conservatives seek to emphasize their values and alter context. Objective history is traded for subjective history.

For the ideologically motivated, subjective history is justified by their goals. For the pragmatic and seekers of objective truth (and thus context as well), such goals are misguided at best. More often, they sow the seeds of distrust that will actually undermine those goals while creating the very dissension ideologists loath. Besides, with the easy availability of more objective truth in print and online, pretending it doesn’t exist is foolish and futile.

So, what is the pragmatic value of history? It’s been said that those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it, but despite the seeming wisdom in this observation, the reality is that knowing what in the past applies to here and now is not all that obvious. And it requires critical thinking because similarities may be superficial — and the differences may matter more. The lessons from the Vietnam War, for example, are many, but not directly applicable to conflicts in a different century with their own global realities. History more often repeats itself simply because the vagaries of human nature are consistent. “Wisdom” from the past may actually become a liability when misinterpreted and misapplied.

Conservatives look to the past for values and traditions, moderates-liberals seek solutions to issues with roots in the past that have meaning now. The former want to reinforce that past by tweaking the emphasis of history, whereas the latter want to broaden the scope of history to include that which conservatives prefer to minimize. Obviously these divergent approaches to history reflect fundamental differences in political viewpoints. And, yes, historians may also range along a spectrum of viewpoints, but most also want to adhere to historiographic best practices, bringing relative neutrality to their work. The true value of history can only be found in its truth (despite sometimes multiple interpretations of that truth).

Using history to instill appreciation for, say, patriotism, capitalism and American exceptionalism is a crooked path that seeks to avoid the historical dissension, negative realities and shortcomings that are also part of human history. This results in disinformed, distorted historical mythologies that lead to nationalism, denial of issues and hostility to other points of view. Selective history obviously doesn’t actually change the past, but those who participate in this behavior join the legions of dictators, tyrants, zealots and ideologues who have always depended on historical and intellectual dishonesty to maintain control and promote their ideology.

The histories of the universe, our planet and human existence all have much to tell us if we pay attention to them. Pretending they aren’t what they really are is foolish in many ways, if only because such denial makes the future appear to be something it’s not going to be. In attempting to make the world a better place, one has to know how we came to be where we are now…and why. Historical truth will serve us well, whereas selective history will do quite the opposite.

Polls As Agents Of Polarity

My takeaway from reading that a majority of those surveyed approved of air strikes regarding the latest threat on the other side of the globe but not troops on the ground — the president’s plan — while simultaneously disapproving of his handling of the circumstances, is just how little coherence there is in the opinions of many…at least in polls. What the author of the piece referred to as mixed messages I would characterize as the synthesis of not knowing enough, not thinking enough, not having realistic expectations and the inherent shortcomings of surveys regarding complex issues.

I’m already highly skeptical of citizens deciding public and foreign policies. Most of them don’t know what they don’t know, which they consistently fail to recognize. Any president trying to make decisions on the basis of what the public thinks it wants is going to end up doing too little or too much…depending on who you ask. This is also why direct democracy (ballot referendums and propositions) rarely works well. The common themes are missing details, not comprehending conflicting priorities and not accounting for long-term consequences.

Polls are not discussions. They often do not focus on details and nuance unless there are sufficient questions to do so. For those individuals who use critical thinking, surveys are overly simplistic. As a result, support or disapproval percentages may be meaningless relative to the complexities inherent in most public and foreign policy issues. Indeed, while polling has never been more popular (and lucrative for the organizations doing them), they may be doing more to polarize issues than shed light on them.

I recently heard that in a survey of voters, some 45 percent of moderates (Democrats) indicated that perhaps Republicans (conservatives) might get more done if they won enough seats to control both halves of the legislative branch. If this is an accurate polling percentage, it would seem to confirm that Republican obstructionism had the desired effect, or that the survey was not well designed, or that these Democrats are assuming that it’s the president’s fault so little is getting done by lawmakers — thus completely missing the reality that lawmakers are the only ones who can do just that…if they want to.

It’s not that polls can’t add another dimension to issues, but their limitations are not commonly recognized, and I’m not talking about the plus or minus 3 percent statistical variance — an actual range of 6 percent for all questions. What polls cannot do is see beyond the general questions into the complications, variables and functional subtleties of the topics they attempt to measure opinion on. I rarely read or hear these caveats regarding polls and polling data when the percentages are presented. They will be obvious to some, but not to most.

The reason more transparency regarding polls is important is it reminds those who assume issues consist of black and white opinions that this is rarely true or accurate. Critical thinking is already not a common trait among citizens. This is partly a result of it rarely being taught in American education until college-university levels, and partly a lack of ability and/or skill in a significant percentage of adults. I’m not being mean, just pragmatically realistic.

Finally, I question how much percentages for or against really matter. Leadership is sometimes about doing what seems best even when not always popular…or not for long. Then there’s the issue of how many of us would like our civil rights decided by public opinion. There’s also doubt as to the value of approval or disapproval when it comes to issues that may hold little meaning or lots of it for some and not for others. We rely on experts to objectively advise those who are supposed to govern and set policy. Lobbyists can and do distort this process, but that doesn’t make public opinion a better alternative.

Lost In Space

What do uptopians and libertarians have in common? Their principles are both unrealistic and unworkable — doomed to inevitable failure. Belief that like-minded people can live together in harmony with minimal government and maximum freedom by adhering to commonly held principles ignores centuries of human history that say otherwise. Distrust of government only adds to the rate of failure.

True believers invariably have highly selective viewpoints, willingly ignoring how human nature and behavior consistently undermine every attempt to create a more “perfect” form of human existence. Distrusting government is particularly foolish. Who other than government is going to champion the greater good. And even this requires a general consensus as to what the greater good is and how it is best achieved. Citizens have to understand and accept that because of the flaws and imperfections of humans, their institutions will always have these as well.

Libertarianism is really just a variation of utopianism, with deeply flawed assumptions. Inadequate personal freedom and tyrannical government are fictional themes from those who promote a mythology of U.S. history that fails fact-checking and leaves out all the contradictions. Distrust of government includes the assertion that taxes are theft and can never be low enough. This ignores that cutting taxes to make an economy more successful isn’t supported by economic data, but can and does undermine the greater good. (Kansas, thanks to its clueless governor and legislature, is the current example of this.) There’s a trillion plus dollars of student debt now because of inadequate government investment in higher education (matched by inadequate investment in infrastructure). I have long maintained that American exceptionalism is 10 percent true and 90 percent just made up.

It’s not cynical to note that what worked, or at least helped, in the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries is no longer doing so. Both democracy and capitalism need rethinking for the 21st. This is the utter failure of conservative ideology and libertarianism. They are mired in a past — largely misremembered while being idolized — that no longer exists. This country, like so many others, has changed, and going back is not an option. This century is going to present unprecedented challenges at a time when the U.S. is becoming increasingly dysfunctional politically and economically.

Many U.S. voters are like the definition of insanity — doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Those electing and reelecting candidates who don’t champion the role of government as an agent of change and problem-solving are enabling decline. They get the government they deserve, as do those who don’t vote. The only way to stop decline is by electing moderates who believe in the power of governance to get things done and make things better for the greater good. Elect those who like the way things were back when, and the country’s problems will only get worse.

Here’s an axiom I find pragmatically realistic: If you think your country is the greatest on the planet, it probably isn’t. This belief in exceptional greatness is simply narcissistic nationalism that pretends things can’t be as good or better elsewhere. Perhaps they aren’t better in all ways in other nations, but they often aren’t worse, and many times they actually are better. The U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, and many in that 4+ percent do not experience greatness. Except for perhaps the top 15 percent of the U.S. population in the coming decades, the economic quality of life for the rest will remain static or decline. Simultaneously, it will improve for larger percentages in other countries.

The difference is that capitalism with socialism, taxes with pro-active government policies and an overall trust in government are accomplishing what isn’t happening in this country. The U.S. is the only developed country without a plan. No economic and social roadmap, no defined problem-solving goals and no compelling, innovative governance. In a changed world, American exceptionalism is a liability. Too many Americans distrust their government even as inequity and stagnant mobility erode their lives and their futures. No amount of praying while bemoaning the moral collapse of the country will change any of this.

The moderates and pragmatists who don’t vote, or don’t vote at mid-term elections, aren’t helping. Candidates who are the least capable of, and most inept at, responsible governance are elected by those who are well right of center and vote consistently. These voters represent less than 20 percent of the electorate, so it becomes government by minority, not majority. And that’s the reason for failing governance. When women and ethnic-racial minorities aren’t voting in large numbers in every election, they are contributing to the problem and its effect on them.

Greatness is in the details. I noted months ago that while governance is failing most at the nation-state level, it is thriving and effective at the city level. Mayors are getting things done because residents hold them accountable for doing so. Out of necessity, mayors are pragmatists, not political party failures. But this won’t help with the larger issues that remain unaddressed by national politics and the legislative branch. While the Koch brothers are funding their agenda through grants to colleges and universities with stipulations and through political action committees run by know-nothing tea party zealots, national governance is barely functioning thanks to those who do vote…and those who don’t.

Free Will Is A Question?

While it may be an intellectual exercise to contemplate free will, I’ve never thought it worth the effort. It’s like asking what color the sky is. Of course we have free will. Look around. We experience and see it every day. There are two common approaches to free will for those who feel compelled to examine it: philosophical and religious. The latter requires belief in a higher power with its own free will, setting up a conflict with human free will. At stake is going to heaven or hell, requiring belief in their existence as well. For me. it might as well be science fiction.

The philosophical version has a much wider scope, but basically comes down to free will versus determinism, which itself has a variety of versions. Regardless of version, determinism says that what one decides is set and inevitable, thus making it incompatible with free will. Deterministic choices and behaviors are controlled by numerous variables, such as morality, obligation, love, social conformance and many more. Think of these as malleable versions of the laws of physics — always in play while giving the appearance of free will without actually conferring true free will.

To put it pragmatically and succinctly, this is just mental masturbation. An analogical example of why would be traffic laws. Despite the existence of them and societal mechanisms to enforce them (police, legal system, department of motor vehicles), we actually retain the free will to ignore them, which we do to varying degrees in varying circumstances. The consequences also vary, from none all the way to tragic. In other words, the acquiescence of free will to obey traffic laws is itself a result of free will. This isn’t determinism. We do so because we can assess the potential consequences for not doing so.

Free will is like personal freedom. We readily trade lots of freedom for social order. Why? Because for most people most of the time, the consequences of insufficient social order are far worse than the freedom that is relinquished. Those with certain psychological profiles or issues — I’ll include conservative-libertarian extremism here — do not share this willingness to swap freedoms for government-driven social order. Maximum freedom and minimal or no government are simply not viable realities to reasonable, practical people. In the same way, we willingly trade a lot of free will for the benefits we receive in return from family, friends, neighbors, coworkers and society.

Conflicts between free will and social order are most often the result of those in authority or leadership seeking to control free will for reasons that do not seem justified, appear arbitrary or represent ideological-dogmatic agendas. Religious and authoritarian hierarchies have a long history of attempts to assert control over free will through suasion, edicts and/or threats. The Catholic church and Chinese government are primary examples, the former having done so for centuries while the latter is currently trying to grow a “free market” economy without democracy or freedom of speech. In the twenty-first century, free will is challenging both.

I can’t speak for all pragmatists, but this one doesn’t allocate time on the meaning of free will. It’s obvious enough how delightfully positive to grotesquely negative it can be. Determinism, to me, is like destiny, creations by humans that distort reality in exchange for unenlightened obsession. At its worst it represents extremism, zealousness and insanity posing as self-righteousness. Pragmatism is about balance, reason and reality. It’s the basis for the evolution of human intellect, openness to new ideas and progress toward tolerance and peaceful coexistence. Free will without pragmatism is how we get into trouble.

Detachment

Not everyone values detachment. Just ask the current president of the country. Why isn’t he emotionally engaged, why is he more cool than concerned, why doesn’t he spend more effort trying to work with those across the aisle, why isn’t he doing more (or less) regarding world issues. Even some supporters are complaining. But he remains emotionally detached. I can actually answer why. But to do so, it’s singularly important to grasp what the roles of any competent executive leader include.

It’s not just about making decisions, although ultimately he or she is the decider-in-chief. A critical role is that of steady, thoughtful, consistent leader regardless of the emotions occurring within. What those being led need is the confidence instilled by leadership, be it a corporation, an organizational or national government. And this is only possible when there is emotional detachment. This isn’t to say there’s not emotion, but it’s not on display. Instead, there’s a calm exterior, words of assurance and phrases about issues being addressed. The effect is to encourage others to remain calm and rational.

Unfortunately, unlike, say, corporate governance, the politics of government are often less than thoughtful or rational. Politicians and citizens become increasingly agitated because leadership doesn’t seem sufficiently agitated. That many issues are complicated and require dynamically balancing a variety of competing interests and possible consequences seems lost on those who should know better, or would if they made the effort to discover what these might be. That’s why armchair critics are least likely to form credible opinions even as they rant about the incompetence, agenda and, yes, detachment of those making decisions.

Implicit in detachment is pragmatism, moderation and openness. Principles, values and beliefs are all well and good, but these only function intelligently when applied by reasonable people. When ideology and dogma are influential, pragmatism ceases because the emotional attachments to such beliefs undermine objective opinion and decision-making. Pragmatism requires varying degrees of detachment simply to achieve objectivity. Without objectivity, nuance is not possible because access to all information has been effectively blocked as a result of one’s preconceived tenets.

If I’m asked for advice, I may appreciate any emotional aspects involved, but my detachment gives me the working space fundamental to solving problems or helping someone make choices. Which points to an important distinction. One can simultaneously experience emotion through compassion, empathy and concern, yet set it aside to sort through possible combinations of resolutions. Emotional responses may result in some possibilities being rejected, but at least the merits and consequences of them have been offered.

I’m a big fan of detachment because it opens new pathways. It facilitates taking on topics in ways that don’t fit convention and without emotional baggage, resulting in intellectual enlightenment. This is how thinking outside the box works best. Avenues of inquiry and consideration are revealed. Subsequent reattachment will then include a broader scope and wider range to work with. Sometimes it may become obvious that some problems do not have answers, or at least not ones that precisely achieve desired goals.

Detachment isn’t about not caring. In fact, I would posit it makes caring more effective. Caring itself isn’t a solution. Do you remember the conservative approach to caring referred to as compassionate conservatism? It was simultaneously a pathetic diversion masking disdain of government assistance and utterly ineffective in terms of scalability. Yes, local charities and churches could help, as could business if it chose to do so, but these were not substitutes for broad, sustained assistance on a large scale. Detaching from ideology invariably reveals its many shortcomings.

It’s easy, often too easy, to become emotionally invested to the point where one’s viewpoint is largely irrational. When this happens, not only is pragmatism off the table, so are possibilities that remain unseen, unappreciated, unconsidered. This is particularly true when there is change. If there is ever a time when detachment proves its worth, it’s when unwanted change presents itself and isn’t going away. The pragmatist steps back and looks for all there is to know about it, while those who remain stubbornly attached feel much but see little.

One And Only Isn’t Only One

When we are happy in our significant relationship, we are grateful for having found our one and only. But this is really an illusion of time and place. What is rarely acknowledged is that there are numerous potential one and onlys who would engender the same emotions, feelings and sense of having found the right one. It’s a version of knowing what you have but not knowing what you don’t have. Pragmatically, and despite what song lyrics might imply or express, finding true happiness is not reduced to seeking that singular special person on the planet.

I’m not trying to encourage anyone to look for someone else even though they are content with their current partner. I’m simply pointing out that contrary to the myth and magic about true love we grow up with, one could end up in a very good relationship with a number of individuals (out of a fairly large population) who, while not replicas of each other, are all suitably compatible. Obviously, the challenge is meeting them when they are available, and recognizing the qualities that represent compatibility.

Sometimes, existing one-and-only partners can disappoint, change or grow apart in ways that are unpredictable to themselves and to others. The resulting sense of loss, feelings of failure and emotional trauma can make some believe they will never love again nor feel that special sense of one and only. But they’re really not paying attention to how many people eventually (sometimes too soon) become open to the possibility of another special person, and actually manage to find someone else who, though different, can still be a one-and-only partner.

The possibility of experiencing the same feelings with different people is dependent upon the manner one approaches the goal. While the details may differ among them, there are likely multiple choices — if one has the stamina to see the process through and assess the details. Exactitude of matching is overrated relative to overall compatibility. As always, chemistry plays its unpredictable but important role. An open mind is necessary.

That said, there are relationships that may be difficult to replicate. When a truly compatible, meant-to-be-together partnership is ended by circumstances, such as illness or accident, it may seem even less likely that anyone else could fill the void. It can take a long time to even want to consider the possibility of a new relationship. And odds are this someone would not be identical to the he or she who is gone. If one believes no other combination of traits, personality and characteristics would be equally compatible, there’s little chance of finding a new one and only to share life with.

The adage that life is for the living is recognition that loss can be overcome when one is ready. The emotions and feelings we want for and from another remain fundamental to our being even after a previous one-and-only no longer exists. These emotions may naturally be suppressed for a considerable length of time, but at some point one should come to realize that life alone may not necessarily be better or more desirable than finding someone. A new relationship is not being disloyal to the previous partner. He or she is gone in every sense of the word.

Currently, some 40 percent of us are living alone, many of whom have been married or had significant relationships and have chosen to not negotiate the ins and outs of a significant other again. They still date and enjoy some of the benefits of a relationship, but the freedom of being alone is not discarded. My inner pragmatist thinks much of this ambivalence about relationships is really avoiding the pain and emotional disruption that accompany relationships that don’t work out or last, or end tragically. There is always inherent risk in this regard, but avoiding risk also means denying possibilities.

The prized cultural-social goal of discovering the one person — perhaps in the world, or just close to home — who we are meant to be with can create more expectations than life may deliver. And we can’t know how many mister or miss rights there might be. Finding out depends upon wisdom. Part of successful matching is knowing what matters and what really doesn’t. A relationship doesn’t have to be perfect, because it really can’t be. Disagreement, conflict and issues are normal, not automatically signs of incompatibility, but these do require the ability to negotiate and the acceptance for differences. The end result is why two people come to feel they have found their one and only.

As a pragmatist and a romantic, I have had to learn to combine these two traits. Given the complexity and variables in forming relationships, failures can often help increase eventual success. When the “what works” aspect of pragmatism meets attraction, emotion, chemistry and key compatibility variables, meant-to-be is not limited to only one other person on the continent or in a city. Knowing what absolutely won’t work is often equally important — which eliminates a majority of possibilities. And experience tells me that timing is critical for both people. When timing isn’t aligned, one either waits or moves on.

Marrying for love is considered affirmation of meant-to-be-together, but love exists in the presence of what works and does not exist in the presence of what doesn’t. It’s culturally popular to believe love conquers all, but that’s a rather idealistic concept that has failed many, many times. The song says all you need is love, but in real life, love and one-and-only are not always synonymous. Which is to say, one and only is a state of being, not destiny, even though it can certainly feel like it.

What Do Bunnies Think

Have you ever noticed a rabbit nibbling on something in your yard not meant for it and thought, I wonder what it’s thinking about. No, you have not. You inherently know the bunny is not having a philosophically enlightening moment. One, it does not have the neural hardware for this, and two, its primary “goal,” other than finding food and reproducing, is to spend its non-sleeping hours avoiding becoming a meal for other forms of wildlife that are also not contemplating the quality of life or its meaning. Which is to say, wildlife exists because it exists…until it ceases to.

This means there are no reasons for the existence of nature…or the universe for that matter. There’s no grand scheme, no oversight by one or more deities, no actual purpose. Despite the simplicity of this realization, it is very difficult for many humans to understand or accept. Goals and purpose and reasons are so embedded in our neural existence that the lack of these seems incomprehensible and impossible. The fundamental self-awareness statement that “I exist for a reason” releases a cascade of “reasons” for many things, all seeking to explain the universe, our world and everything in them. For many, these explanations become articles of faith, but for others they only confuse reality.

The failure of faith is in the meaning of the word — to believe without evidence. One has to essentially accept explanations that defy real world experience and common sense. Believers, in their attempts to overcome these objections, resort to claiming inerrancy of texts and asserting anti-science truths. In the end, no matter what they say, their articles of faith lack the ring of truth, that quality which the human intellect finds credible because verifiable evidence supports it.

Humans can exist without divine creation just as rabbits can. The randomness of both life itself and the various permutations of it undermine any order or plan. Design flaws are rampant, with most undermining rather than enhancing existence — hardly the work of “intelligent” design. Yet many people are convinced that the existence of something that’s alive could not be possible without a creator, designer, fabricator. This is because they mistake biological complexity as proof of an unseen hand. Yet it doesn’t require a higher power to design, say, an Airbus A-380, which is a very complex result of human intelligence. The assertion that humans couldn’t design this aircraft without outside help is just a variation of believing complexity cannot be exist because it’s difficult to comprehend and understand.

Why do rabbits not have a language, the capacity for abstract thought or intricate social interactions? Because once sufficient reproductive success is attained — bunnies are famously prolific — there is no need for further mutations. Evolution stops where it’s not enhancing reproduction and survival. (See Stephen Jay Gould’s famous essay The Panda’s Thumb, which demonstrates how sub-optimal morphology confirms evolution.) Beyond that, only adaption to changing environmental circumstances and/or mutations that eventually result in different species represent mutational opportunities. Other mutations will simply either confer no benefit or actually impair reproduction or survival.

The life of a rabbit is mundane by human standards, but more than adequate to ensure that lots of rabbits exist, and for no other reason than that they do. One could say the same regarding domestic cats, which, for all their variations of personality, are remarkably unchanged from the cats first domesticated by humans. Yes, humans have selectively bred cats for specific traits in appearance, often resulting in accompanying physical alterations that can be detrimental to them, but beyond this they remain essentially as primitive as they’ve always been. Their interactions with us do not alter this. They do not need to evolve further to be highly successful at existing.

The difference between humans and other forms of life is we can think about why we exist, whereas rabbits and owls and monkeys don’t know and don’t care. The message would seem to be that we exist because we are alive, and when we die, so does our existence. Why, then, isn’t this enough? I think it’s conflict between our evolutionary-driven instinct to survive and our awareness of mortality. All of the superstition, mysticism and religious dogma surrounding this conflict are attempts to exert control over it, in much the same way that heaven and hell are used to motivate or dissuade others from various kinds of behaviors.

So we arrive back where we started. This short essay is really a lesson in pragmatism. I’ve looked at all the reasons humans have devised to explain the meaning of life and why we exist, and none of them pass my ring of truth threshold. This causes me to return to the most basic assumption, which that existence is its own answer, and the quality of that existence — a distinctly human value — depends on both being able to conceive of the concept of quality and then being able to determine what that is or might be.

I’m not saying all pragmatists will arrive at the same place as myself, but for me there’s piece of mind being precisely where I am regarding existence. Existence without reasons answers why the results of human nature range from the wonderful to the worst in ways that are inexplicable. The evolution of human intelligence and thought is unevenly distributed, and accompanied by a wide variety of personalities and psychological combinations. The results are all around us and stretch back in time for as long as humans have existed.

Existence is precisely what it appears to be. The difference between humans and bunnies is in the complexity of the former. The phrase what you see is what you get may not explain why both exist, but I suggest explanation is superfluous. Besides, in four billion years, when the sun becomes a red giant and incinerates our planet, existence for both will cease anyway.

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