“You first!” “No, After You!” From optimism to resolve…

Malcolm Gladwell, in his recent article in The New Yorker, looks at the fragility behind the resilience of our network-based aspirations. This goes much deeper than just the way we relate via networks, he opens up a discussion that connects directly with the topic of my last post, The Price of Ease.

Everything we do, every expectation we have seems to fall on the side of wishing that an easy optimism will take us there while cringing in fear of some ultimate payback for the “passes” we’ve taken to get us where we are today. After more than a century of ubiquitous advertising having replaced all other modes of persuasion, we are so conditioned to its ways that the first question we ask of any possible call on our attention is that it be easy. Whether taking something in: being consumers of information; or creating something to share with others: being a content creator; our first demand is not to be taxed by the effort.

It’s all just too much trouble! Unless it’s wrapped in candy and easy to swallow we wrinkle our noses. We’re too busy! This is where our miss-identification of our aversion to futility comes into play. No one believes that what merely keeps us busy is anything but a futile effort, yet instead of facing this existential threat of misdirected action we succumb to the eroding effects our experience of futility has on our abilities to function and turn away in exhaustion from anything that might actually turn things around for us.

By demanding optimism, the universal sweetener, before we will engage, and then faltering as soon as we detect the hard reality welling up from below, we ensure that we remain firmly in the realm of futility, and the process feeds on itself.

Nobody makes decisions anymore! We complain about it, while continuously looking for excuses for why we couldn’t possibly make a deliberate choice. It’s either God’s Will or the Invisible Hand, or for those of us beating against the edges of the known, it’s the sheer weight of precedents for defeat that keep us wondering, instead of deciding, and then acting.

If we take John Boyd‘s OODA Loop (…Observe Orient Decide Act) as a guide, we’re all stuck in OO, unable to get on with DA.

Granted, faced with either unreal or unappetizing options, it’s easier to call for more study, to bring in another opinion, to keep our options open. It’s all a lot of work! It keeps us busy. Too busy to decide, too tired to act.

Spinning our wheels feeds our sense of futility, making us less and less able to find the energy to engage. Our aversion to difficulty grows, our demand for rosy optimism – having someone tell us it will be easy, it will be fun, it will turn out fine; whether it’s someone else or just us convincing ourselves. Without these guarantees we are reluctant to go beyond what we already know to be no more than futile gestures.

Resolve. We have a fuzzy nostalgia and a hero worship for those in the past we think have demonstrated resolve. Gladwell brings up the Civil Rights Movement. Much is made of the Greatest Generation. Hindsight puts these, or any past example, in a false perspective lit by a golden glow. Our knowledge of the outcome – selectively remembered to give the illusion of a strong linear causality to their actions and remove all ambiguity – makes us envious of their having lived in moments of such clear purpose and rewarded sacrifice. We expect the predestined certainty and cut-to-the-chase concision afforded only by the full Hollywood treatment.

We know this is false. It doesn’t take much introspection to realize this. The trouble comes in how we react to this realization. It sends us reeling by further convincing us of our futility.

Gladwell makes a good point, bringing up the importance of close association in the process of screwing up our resolve. This comes out of our strong, innate instinct for altruism; as much as we care to minimize it or explain it away. Most often, when something threatens someone we love we find reserves of strength and purpose and we don’t hesitate waiting for a favorable verdict, a known surplus of available optimism, before jumping into action.

He loses me when he tries to tie this into the benefits of hierarchy. Hierarchy has taken advantage of resolve – look at boot camp or the cooking up of a Grave National Emergency to justify aggression. Trying to tie our resolve to such manipulations only sets off our resistance to futility yet again.

While loss of resolve leaves us living in futility, looking past the scales that blind us to its causes and effects releases reserves of resolve we had no idea we possessed. Learning to avoid the traps of futility imposed either through narrow self-interest or simply out of reactionary fear, lets us gain confidence in our abilities to maintain focus. Not the tunnel-vision of panic we so often mistake for focus, but a clear open gaze ready to take in what is all around us. Just as the vicious cycles of futility and wishing for ease feed themselves and make us weaker, the virtuous cycles of clarity and growing resolve release our capacities from their constrained and diminished states.

This isn’t another way of couching a message within an optimistic angle. This can only occur when we leave that crutch behind. When it’s time to “sink or swim” there’s no room for optimism or pessimism, wishing is a mere distraction. Hope, what I’ve called a Shoal Hope, is the awareness that at such times all we can do is rely on reserves that lie beyond cajoling or berating.

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