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Thursday, November 17, 2016

Dignity, Always Dignity

Hello, Readers. I really don’t want this to be a political blog. It’s really a personal thing. But politics has intruded of late, and try as I might, like my favorite fashion blogger, to put it all aside and focus on what really matters, in terms of the blog, I have found that hard to do. I'm too busy wondering which situation is more right: One, that we should all be panicking because our civil liberties are about to abridged and we might all be heading off in trains to the ovens; or two, that this is an unfortunate situation that we must endure, but that the much-cited moral arc is bending, just at a lesser angle than we would like it to. It's really hard to figure out. And when that gets too hard, I have been indulging in a little retail therapy. Today it was these: 
That's a chocolate covered graham cracker

All of which makes focusing on my 'lil blog seem pointless. After all, what does one person's ideas about success have to do with the fate of our country? 

Yet, really, if you think about it, this situation is all about how we define success. The larger discussion is how we define success as a nation. The smaller is how we define it as individuals. Yet the two are entwined. The wealthy who voted for Trump want to hang onto their wealth, because that is how they define success. The working class whites who seem to have decided the election for Trump by a small percentage that turned out to be definitive because of the electoral college are mad. Why? Because they do not feel successful. 

Seems to me that without being overtly political, I can say this. There are a lot of people in this country who feel like failures. From where I sit, on my East Coast liberal elite high horse, parsing success and failure, I wonder if what I’ve learned about success for myself can apply to those Rust Belt folks whose jobs have been usurped by automation and factory closings. Would centering activities help them? A little meditation, yoga, or if you like your centering to involve lots of sweat, HIIT classes or a good jog? Well, frankly, yes, I imagine those things would help, to a degree. But let’s talk about meaning and purpose. Let’s talk about work. Because that’s what they’re talking about. Jobs. Just before the election I read an op-ed piece in my preferred liberal propaganda machine, the NY Times. This particular piece was a joint effort by the Dalai Lama and some dude (Arthur C. Brooks) from the American Enterprise Institute, which is, I believe, considered a conservative think tank. This piece was prescient, it turns out. It talks about why there is so much anxiety and despair in our society, which overall, on the books, is actually doing pretty well. Overall, things are looking up. Hey, the stock market has been doing great. But also, you know, finally wages have started to go up. And a lot of people have health insurance. Hell, things have been going so well that we’ve been able to devote time - so much time, so much ink - to issues such as whether a person who looks like a female but is technically a male needs to pee in the mens’ or womens’ room, as opposed to whether its okay to cart off a certain segment of the society and burn them in ovens or something like that. 

And yet, as the Dalai Lama so wisely writes, “Refugees and migrants clamor for the chance to live in these safe, prosperous countries, but those who already live in those promised lands report great uneasiness about their own futures that seems to border on hopelessness.”  

This unease, he suggest, is because despite the overall progress, there are specific areas of the country where these benefits are not accruing. And where the things that make people thrive are  lacking. Again, according to the Dalai Lama, “Virtually all the world’s major religions teach that diligent work in the service of others is our highest nature and thus lies at the center of a happy life.”

And diligent work in the service of others is exactly what is missing from the lives of so many lower income people. I'm not just talking about those white people in the Rust Belt. I'm talking about poor people everywhere or every color. People who lack jobs and prospects, people who are scraping by, or not scraping by but still working hard, lack the three elements of meaningful work: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.(Thanks Dan Pink for your book Drive, which introduced me to these ideas). Even if you’re working a low-skill job, if you feel that you are able, through your work, to gain some autonomy in your life, if you have the opportunity to master a small step towards a larger goal, then you can have a sense of purpose and motivation. 

Related to this idea is an op-ed in today’s liberal propaganda machine by Sherrod Brown, a senator from Ohio, titled, “When Work Loses Its Dignity”. Brown, by the way, starts out by saying this, “Cleveland — Start with this: When you call us the Rust Belt, you demean our work and diminish who we are.”

Oops. Guilty. I never thought about what Rust Belt means. But I get it. The idea of all the rusting, decaying defunct factories and machines scattered across the industrial Midwest is what “Rust Belt” implies. Yeah. Ouch. That isn’t very nice, is it?

Brown continues, “As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us, all work has dignity and importance, whether done by a street sweeper, Michelangelo or Beethoven. People take pride in the things they make, in serving their communities in hospitals or schools, in making their contribution to society with a job well done.
But over the past 40 years, as people have worked harder for less pay and fewer benefits, the value of their work has eroded. When we devalue work, we threaten the pride and dignity that come from it.”  So he’s about raising the minimum wage and preserving the executive order President Obama signed mandating overtime pay. 

So, while the Dalai Lama and Arthur C. Brooks recommend promoting both inner peace and outer security by teaching people they are not superfluous, Sherrod Brown suggests that paying them enough that they can feel like they’re going somewhere other than down, would go a long way towards restoring their dignity. People who feel they have dignity, who feel they are useful, who feel they have purpose, who are able to set goals for themselves and are able to consider things like inner peace, are people who feel successful. 

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