“There are three kinds of people in this world. Those who are good at math and those who aren’t.” Ha ha! Along with my “5 out of every 4 people have trouble with fractions,” this constitutes my repertoire of math jokes.
Now that I’ve got your attention, I do think that there are three kinds of people in this world and this is math that matters. Which one we identify with can make the difference between hope and despair. Consider:
The Conquerors: These are the ones intent on power, money, prestige, flexing their muscles to rise to the top, the alpha males beating their chests and hell-bent to win at the expense of others. They hold a Darwin-squared “world as survival of the fittest” mentality, think nothing of galloping in with swords raised and burning the village and murdering the inhabitants or scamming millions out of poor folks’ hard-earned savings or abusing their wives and children (let’s face it, 99% are men with testosterone on steroids). They are the Genghis Khans, the Andrew Jacksons, the Idi Amins,the corporate CEO’s, the Godfathers, the Wolves of Wall Street, the Rambos, the Dick Cheneys, the Trumps. They can’t see beyond their own ego, compassion and empathy are not in their dictionary. The world—its people, its resources, its rainforests— are theirs for the plunder, existing solely to increase their personal wealth and power. They think only of their selfish desires in the moment and don’t care what the repercussions are down the line for the next generation.
They have been with us since the dawn of history and have wreaked havoc in every time period and in every culture. They depend upon their henchmen lower down the chain who have the conqueror’s mentality minus enough testosterone to make it to the top (only room for a few there anyway), the folks who will do their bidding without questions, the hit men, the obedient soldiers, the voters who want to be like their hero even as their hero disdains them. In the big picture of humanity’s evolution, the conquerors are at the bottom, driven by pure animal instinct without tapping into their higher human nature. In fact, they are somewhat below most animals, since no animals commit acts of terrorism or wantonly kills its kind or destroys its own environment.
The Caretakers: These are the ones that have risen to the height of their humanitarian promise, learned to feel the other as part of themselves, developed the capacity to care beyond their own personal needs in service of the bigger picture. From the small acts of lovingly caring for a child or planting a garden or teaching in a school to leading large movements for social justice and environmental sustainability, the caretakers see beyond the moment to a more benevolent future for all. They are the Buddhas and Jesuses and Mohammeds, the Rumis and Yeats and Nerudas, the Harriet Tubmans and Sojourner Truths and Maria Montessoris and Rigoberta Menchus and Helen Caldicotts and Mother Teresas, the Gandhis and the Martin Luther Kings and Cesar Chavezes and the Nelson Mandelas. They are the Native Americans protesting the North Dakota pipelines, the Elizabeth Warrens trying to hold the Wells Fargo scammers accountable, the Colin Kaepernicks using his position of fame to speak courageously on behalf of others. They’re the ones easy to admire in hindsight, but crucified by so many in the moment. They may have the same energy inside as the conquerors, but turn it around to conquer their own selfishness and short-sightedness, dedicate that inner power on behalf of others.
Both the conquerors and caretakers are extraordinary people, blessed or cursed with a higher dose of determination, driven by something that has them in its grip. The difference between them is an inch wide and a mile deep, as simple as whether they harness that power for their uncaring selfish agenda or for a larger caretaking purpose. There are weird contradictions—perhaps Adolf Hitler loved his dog and Gandhi was mean to his helpers (no evidence of either, just using them as extreme examples). In any case, there are very few of us capable of being a full-blown conqueror or world-changing caretaker. But we are all capable of noticing the pulls of each within ourselves and making a conscious choice as to which one we feed.
There is also a third category:
The Consumers: These are the folks who just want to go on with their lives, neither interested in being the top dog nor the crusader for justice. They dutifully go to work, go to church, join the PTA, shop at the mall, watch some nighttime TV, follow a sports team. They might be more interested in the latest ap than the latest news on the pipeline, care more about the Giants baseball record than the voting record of a candidate, are content to sing a few hymns on Sunday and rest assured that Jesus loves them without ever considering the deep radical truths he lived and embodied. They’re fine with having Fox news tell them what’s going on and what they should think about it.
This is the bulk of the population and this is where the most work lies. In a fully functioning democracy, there ideally should be legal ways to contain the damage of the conquerors. Limit their power, hold them accountable, expose the injustices and follow through on them. (We are doing badly here, subject for another blog.) There should be ways to support and enhance the work of the caretakers. Institutions like the Environmental Protections Agency, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Obama Health Care Plan.
But that fully functioning democracy also needs informed citizens capable of critical thought who care about the future of their children in serious ways, about the future of the land they live on, who care about fellow citizens of all classes, colors, genders, sexual orientations, religions, who care about fellow human beings outside our national borders, who have developed the capacity to move beyond the comfort of passive consumption to actively engage and educate themselves. Having just seen a clip of Trump voters interviewed who not only had the most outrageous perceptions (Hilary has Aids because Bill Clinton slept with Magic Johnson, Obama is a terrorist Muslim, why wasn’t Obama in the Oval Office during 9/11? (meaning he had mysteriously disappeared and thus, was part of the conspiracy), but felt that they were entitled to their opinion regardless of anything so inconvenient as a fact. (“Obama wasn’t in the Oval Office then because he actually wasn’t President at the time.” “Well, nothing you say will make me change my mind.”) I don’t believe this country has ever sunk lower than this extraordinary new depth, all the more maddening because real information is so readily available. What to do?
• Limit the power of the conquerors and hold them accountable.
• Increase the power of the caretakers and let’s all learn to care and to take care into the realm of action.
• Move beyond the comfort of mere consumerism and actively create something of value—from crafting a point of view based on multiple viewpoints and actual facts to creating art to creating good schools and hospitals and businesses and government.
My two cents to chip into the bank of needed reflection and action in this election year.