Change is driven by the young, not us grizzled elders

Recently I wrote in this space about how humans are born into this world unfinished, requiring a long childhood to learn the norms and practices of their particular community. For the community to thrive, what we pass on to our children must change in step with societal changes. This unparalleled ability to change, as psychologist Alison Gopnik tells us, “is the most distinctive and unchanging thing about us, allowing us to thrive no matter what challenging circumstances we had to face over our long evolutionary history.”1 But societal change isn’t driven by our grizzled elders but by our children. As sociologists like Tressie Cottom tell …

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The Source of Our Discontent

Conservative media and politicians whip their audiences into a frenzy, crying that the sky is falling: that we are losing our birthright as a nation because “hordes” of dark-skinned “aliens” are invading our country. They accuse liberals of being godless heathens for questioning the “natural order” of things in terms of who should be in charge, what it means to be a man or a woman, who we can love, the list goes on and on. In a word, these instigators are fueling moral panic, pitting us one against another, making us ever more polarized as a nation. Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist and prominent …

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Rediscovering Who We Are

I’ve written about this before in this space: We think we act rationally with the cold logic of a computer, but beneath, we remain mere animals driven by instinct, habit, geography, time, and mystery. Toward that end, there’s even a new book entitled How to Be Animal. We are not solitary but social animals, though not always the cuddlesome creatures seen on “Animal Planet.” We can get swept up in the moment and do terrible things, prompted by something sociologists call “social contagion.” There’s a new book about that also, entitled The Delusions of Crowds: Why People Go Mad in Groups.* Examples include the mass …

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The Advantages of Being Useless

This essay is about learning how to be useless. As such, it dovetails nicely with a recent piece I wrote on these pages about striving for idleness. I agreed with Mark Taylor’s Buddhist notion that “idleness allows time for the mind to wander to places never before imagined and to return transformed.”⁠1 Being useless, like idleness, is often equated with being old. And, indeed, that is what I am. I spend a lot of time in reverie, which most would call idleness. I have to keep pulling myself back to the present. However, I’m not meditating but practicing what has been called the curse of …

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Living in Ghost Land

I recently got back from two months in San Jose, supporting Russet, whose son Austin succumbed to a malevolent brain tumor in January. It has been an extremely taxing, long haul for her, caring for him as he went downhill over the last year. After returning home, I’ve been dislocated in time and space, yanked around by a profusion of emotional climates as erratic as the weather, both here and there: From the frigid winter winds blowing across the stark whiteness of Jenness Pond to the feminine softness of mournful, foggy mornings in the Los Gatos mountains. It didn’t help when Coco discovered a dead …

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Is This the Beginning or the End?

I strive for idleness. My best ideas come to me not from hard work but from being unfocused, just lolling around. My creative life, such as it is, coincides with what Mark Taylor tells us in “Idleness Waiting Grace:” “Many of the most important thoughts are unintentional—they can be neither solicited nor cajoled but have a rhythm of their own, creeping up, arriving, and leaving when we least expect them.”⁠1 Certain seemingly inconsequential events stick in our minds. For me, one such thing is a TV commercial, from fifty years ago, about margarine: In the ad, Mother Nature, dressed in a gown of white and …

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