Monday, January 16, 2012

Ubuntu: Inspiration to Work with, through, and for Others

Naomi Tutu promoted the principle of “ubuntu”, during her keynote speech at this morning’s Martin Luther King Holiday Breakfast in Minneapolis. She emphasized that we have not yet reached “the Promised Land” and we will not arrive there until we successfully address such issues as poverty, social disparities, poor educational achievement, violence, and environmental pollution in our nation and in the world. Unfortunately, many of us understand the indicators related to those issues. Such understanding could lead to discouragement and feelings of ineffectuality. But then, would such lack of hope follow in the tradition of Dr. King?

To make progress, Tutu exhorts us to recognize that our humanity depends on other people. We become human by virtue of our connections to other human beings.

That constitutes ubuntu. It is a belief, a philosophy, that we all have multiple connections with others. Our individual well-being and the well-being of the entire human race inextricably join together. Ubuntu supplies us both with standards for positive behavior and with the self-assurance to live out those standards. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu described the concept: “A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.”

Similarly, Dr. King inspired us to recognize that “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”

The poet, John Donne, offered much the same insight 400 years ago: “No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; … any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

As we move forward in 2012, let’s acknowledge that as long as someone suffers in our neighborhood, our city, our world, we all suffer. And, based on the wisdom of Naomi Tutu, let’s address the issues that confront us with the recognition that it’s not “us and them”; it’s all of us on this fragile planet together – collectively creating our society and defining what humanity means in the 21st century.

Quoting again Naomi’s father: “We are made for goodness. We are made for love. We are made for friendliness. We are made for togetherness. We are made for all of the beautiful things that you and I know. We are made to tell the world that there are no outsiders. All are welcome: black, white, red, yellow, rich, poor, educated, not educated, male, female, gay, straight, all, all, all. We all belong to this family, this human family, God's family.”

Happy Martin Luther King Day!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Should Martin Luther King Day Be A "Holiday"?

I wrote this last year and received many comments and questions (most of them positive). So, I'm bringing up these thoughts again, as we approach Martin Luther King Day. Should it be a holiday?

Depending on your definition of "holiday", maybe not.

For about 10 of the past 20 years, I've started Martin Luther King Day early, with the privilege of attending the annual MLK Breakfast, in Minneapolis.  I've listened in person to luminaries such as Harry Belafonte (more than just a singer, believe me!), General Colin Powell, Andrew Young, Cornel West, Julian Bond, and others. In addition, twice, I attended neighborhood breakfasts, watching the annual event on a large screen, alongside others from my Saint Paul neighborhood and from the broader community. Each year, such events offer time to reflect on the principles and the values which Dr. King espoused, the inspiration he provided to us in the sixties, before his assassination, and the continuing relevance of his words to the challenges of the 21st century.

Nonetheless, in the nineties, as many organizations debated whether to offer their employees a three day weekend, or to retain Martin Luther King Day as a work day, I expressed some concerns. Might Martin Luther King Day become no more than an opportunity for recreation, with no time spent on reflection about the importance of this great human being and about the effect of all that he accomplished for our country?

Other holidays don’t have much effect on us, do they? How many of our nation's residents take time on Presidents Day to reflect on the presidency and the importance of our Constitution, the Executive Branch, and the separation of powers? How many use Washington's Birthday as an opportunity to remember the history and principles of the American Revolution, the original "Tea Party", the evolution from monarchy to democracy? How many pause on February 12 to remember the man who led our country through the struggle to free slaves and promote equality?

I suggested that we might produce more benefits by having people report for work, but requiring workplace education and discussion of the life and values of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Needless to say, such a provocative suggestion lacked political correctness; it garnered little support.

My concern returns every year, including this one. Consider this:
  •      Several colleagues noted less traffic during their Friday commutes. They guessed that some commuters had likely begun their weekend early, turning it into a four-day occasion. Had people left for the weekend to visit the King historic site in Atlanta (an excellent museum; as you know if you have been there)? Had they traveled to Washington, D.C., or to any other place with special events this weekend? I think I know your answer.
  •          This year, in contrast to the early years of the Minneapolis MLK Breakfast, some organizations which purchased one or more tables’ worth of tickets had trouble finding enough employees willing to attend. Why should someone get up and get out of bed at 6:00 a.m. on their “holiday”?

In fairness, Martin Luther King Day does bring out crowds to some events in Minnesota – true to our deserved reputation as some of the most engaged people in the country. (See  However, is it enough?

At the 2010 MLK Breakfast, the keynote speaker, Dr. Joseph Lowery, encouraged us to move from “charity” to “love”. He suggested that we not just focus on occasional, episodic endeavors to work for the good of our fellow humans, but rather that we apply ourselves continually to empowering all members of our communities to do more to increase our quality of life.

Doing what’s necessary to make this world a better place requires more than taking a “day off” on Martin Luther King Day. It requires making each of the 365 days of the year a “day on”, living out the values and vision of Dr. King, and encouraging others to do so. Let’s all make this third Monday of January 2011 a day to work hard to “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood”. We all deserve relaxation, fun, and time with family and friends; but let’s do the work of the holiday, before we play.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Violence Among Humans: Up Or Down?

“Car wash shooter has violent past” “Saint Paul man charged in fatal shooting of woman, 21” “Police arrest two after man brandishes gun, officer fires” These stories appeared in the Local Briefing section of yesterday’s Pioneer Press, along with the story: “Traffic deaths could be lowest in Minnesota since 1944”.

The juxtaposition of good and bad led me to reflect on Stephen Pinker’s assertion that violence has decreased since the dawn of the human race, and on Robert Jay Lifton’s counterpoint that perhaps it had not.

Based on as much historical evidence as he could amass on murders, war crimes, torture, assassinations, human sacrifice, slavery, the death penalty for small crimes or for disagreeing with authority, Pinker concluded that violence has declined. The process of civilization has made humans more humane: “The doctrine of the noble savage—the idea that humans are peaceable by nature and corrupted by modern institutions—pops up frequently in the writing of public intellectuals like José Ortega y Gasset ("War is not an instinct but an invention"), Stephen Jay Gould ("Homo sapiens is not an evil or destructive species"), and Ashley Montagu ("Biological studies lend support to the ethic of universal brotherhood"). But, now that social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that the romantic theory gets it backward: Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler.”

Lifton demurs that this conclusion does not characterize the 20th and 21st centuries which he has experienced. He sees Auschwitz and Hiroshima as defining events for our era. Moreover, he points to what he terms “the emergence of extreme forms of numbed technological violence, in which unprecedented, virtually unlimited numbers of people could be killed. Those who did the killing could be completely separated, geographically and psychologically, from their victims.” In disputing Pinker’s assertion, he states: “Dr. Pinker and others may be quite right in claiming that for most people alive today, life is less violent than it has been in previous centuries. But never have human beings been in as much danger of destroying ourselves collectively, of endangering the future of our species.”

Certainly, some recent statistics do look better. As Compass shows, the “serious crime rate” in the United States has declined substantially over the past two decades. The state of Minnesota has experienced a similar decline. Admittedly, if you find yourself in the face of a threatening gun or knife, it matters little to you whether you are one of 5 people in that situation, or one in 25. Nor would Pinker’s statistics on the decline of torture pacify the Afghan teen whose plight involving six months of confinement and abuse also appeared in the same day’s Pioneer Press. However fewer of us have these experiences, than in previous generations (even if the modern news media easily and frequently transmit horrendous stories about oppression by the Taliban and others).

In the end, I think, it comes down to how we treat one another, person to person, in our neighborhoods and communities, and to how we extend our connections to others across land and ocean. Building our social capital may not eliminate all violence in the near future, but it can prevent a lot of violence from occurring, and it can give us the strength to recover and persist in the face of violence. In our globalized world, our quality of life and our fate depend more than ever on how every one of us around the globe acts in concert to promote respect, value all humans, and build societies that meet the needs of all. Local action is global action, and vice versa.

Harry S Truman stated “We must build a new world, a far better world - one in which the eternal dignity of man is respected.” Pinker might consider Truman a cheerleader for evolutionary progress; Lipton would cite Truman's involvement in the bombing of Hiroshima as evidence that we have a long way to go (if we can make it). With a mixture of optimism and realism, I think we can do well if we affirm our commitment to reduce violence, acknowledge the issues that we must address collectively as an interdependent human civilization, and do the necessary work in our hearts, our communities, and our world, to remove those impediments which inhibit us from achieving peace in all its forms.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

New Year's Resolutions: Who Makes Them? Do They Succeed?

How many people make New Year’s resolutions? How many resolvers follow through on their intentions? Do any characteristics of the resolvers or their situations predict “success”?

Surveys from the concluding two decades of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first suggest that 40 to 50 percent of adults in the United States make New Year’s resolutions. A Marist poll of more than 1,000 adults throughout the United States, this past November, revealed that about 38% thought they would make a resolution for 2012. No differences appeared between men and women in expectations to make a resolution. However, a large age gap did appear: almost 60% of Americans younger than 45 thought they would make a resolution, compared with only 28% of those 45 and older.

Survey data, along with anecdotal evidence, suggest that common resolutions tend to fall in the category of health improvement. They involve losing weight, exercising, eating a better diet, reducing consumption of alcohol or caffeine, and related behaviors. Saving money, getting more education, and “being a better person” also received mention in the recent Marist study.

Norcross and colleagues authored an often-quoted study in 2002 in the Journal of Clinical Psychology regarding the factors which lead to success in carrying out New Year’s resolutions, appearing. They based their findings on data obtained in the mid-1990s, by following people who made resolutions and a comparison group of people who did not make a New Year’s resolution but did set a personal improvement goal. First of all, they discovered that making a resolution does seem to help a person to make a behavior change. The resolvers more often persisted with their intended behavior change than did the nonresolvers. In fact, the percentages of resolvers who continued to implement their behavior change over time were: 71% for a least 1-2 weeks, 64% for at least a month, and 46% for at least 6 months (compared to only 4% of the nonresolvers who continued their behavior change for more than 6 months).

For those in the study who made a resolution and succeeded, what seemed to influence their success?  Psychologists tend to look at this question within the context of self-efficacy (the ability to produce results and influence events that affect one’s life), self control, and self regulation. The Norcross study, and similar studies, confirm what you might expect: New Year’s resolvers who strongly believe that they have the power to control their behavior and who believe that they can succeed in accomplishing their behavior change actually end up succeeding more often than those who without such beliefs about themselves.

So, if you have made a resolution, I hope that you believe strongly that you can accomplish it, that you practice positive thinking (with no self-blame), and that you are ready to change. If so, research suggests that you will succeed!

Happy New Year!