Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Mudville Odyssey

Something like 25 years ago, in what I think was probably 1993, I had a rare treat of a conversation with a friend. I think it was 1993 because I somehow recall that we both had beers at the table, and that would have been the year we both turned 21. My friend Geoff and I were both back in our hometown of Clayton, CA for the summer. We were sitting on the patio at what was at the time a place called "Mudville Grill" in what is now "the old downtown."

We talked about where people were from our high school graduating class - who had gone away to college and where, who was still there in town just working a local job, who had already disappeared entirely. At some point, we shifted to the nature of humans in groups, and specifically corporations. I had a model in my mind that cast the corporation as a living entity. To me, it did all of the things that organisms do - it grew, acted to protect itself, and tried it's best to survive and reproduce. Geoff was pretty unconvinced by any of it, believing as I recall that it was actually just the individuals acting in those ways that created the appearance of a real living thing.

We bounced around on the topic for a good couple of hours before moving on to I-don't-remember-what, but the way that one topic had fully occupied and engaged our admittedly young and pretty naive minds has stuck with me ever since. Neither of us had any background whatsoever in organizational psychology, or sociology, or any other thing that might have lent credibility to the discussion. The fact that, in recent years, the debate on whether corporations should be treated not just as living things, but as people - the living things to which we accord all the highest rights and privileges (well, some of them, some of the time) says nothing about any wisdom or knowledge that fed the conversation - there certainly was none on my part. But it stayed with me - and maybe with Geoff too.

I feel at times as though I've been trying to get back to that place of ideas ever since - conversations that stretch minds, that break brains a little and then reassemble them in a way that is able to contain this new thing that it couldn't before. Conversations that are unafraid to go to places that don't feel safe, and that perhaps the participants are not "qualified" to go. Spaces in time, place, and mind that aren't cluttered with expectations or appearances of expertise. Places of play. Places of discovery. Exciting and even dangerous places.

Where are those conversations now? How do we have them? How do we connect to that place? All of this technology that has promised it has delivered mostly frivolous, gratuitous, and deadening self-reference - the opposite of the space I'm describing. Face to face, most of us are either too afraid, or too distracted, or too caught up in what we all like to call "busy-ness" to allow these spaces to form. We get together to "catch up" - but we don't connect with any real depth. We voyeuristically listen to podcasts and talk shows to hear other people connect, their conversations having become more entertaining to us than our own. We are treating the resource of thought the same way we treat our other natural resources - what has been built up over millions of years must be consumed and turned to profit as quickly as possible, without ever putting anything back.

And we wonder why we are becoming intellectually lazy. We wonder why we've become so polarized, politically and socially. And we don't seem to notice that the quality of what we're consuming is diminishing as it becomes more and more a set of monocultures that we choose off of a menu of available options. We tie together ideas, values, and feelings into monolithic rafts - liberal, conservative, democrat, republican - and then spend all of our energy trying to keep our chosen craft afloat and sink any others. We look to cultural icons and personalities that have the appearance of greater qualifications or insight - who ultimately lead us to consolidate further, because that is how they keep THEIR rafts afloat.

We don't need to choose this. We each have the capacity to evolve the culture, to challenge our own minds and beliefs. We can find the courage to let our rafts float if they will - or sink, at which point we will build a new raft, or climb onto a more seaworthy one.  Or learn to swim, for pete's sake.

We can get back to Mudville. We can rediscover our capacity for thought and conversation. We can get off the wheel of polarization and division. All it takes is a bit of courage and humility, and a willingness to be vulnerable while being passionate. And we ALL can do that - we don't need to wait for a new captain to arrive while we continue to bail out our leaky boats. We have everything we need.