This life—which had filled a hundred years in the last month—it was over. All that he knew so well would pass from him… Strange to think that each true life was ony a few years long—that one passed through several in each bodily span.
That quote comes from The Years of Rice and Salt, a curious novel I’m reading. It weaves an alternate history of our world over centuries, with the same cast of characters continually reincarnated as new people in each generation. Life can feel like that sometimes. In the passage above, Bistami is about to leave home on a great journey to Mecca, from which he’ll probably never return. Leaving the familiar—ending one phase of life and embarking upon another—can feel like reincarnation, like becoming a new person.
Today marks the end of my 31st lap around the sun. A bit more significantly, in a week and a half my daughter will celebrate her first. In many ways—most of them I’m sure you could guess—this past year has been unlike any other. For one, my life is even less about me now, which is frankly a relief. When I got married three years ago, it had a similar effect. If I have a bad day but my wife has a good one, then it’s still a good day for our little clan. Now, if both our days fail to inspire us but our daughter discovers an exciting new sound her mouth is capable of making (and repeating), then there will still be joy in our house.
I’m grateful also for the sense of focus that parenthood has given me. It would be poetic to say that’s because I now have this little embodiment of the future crawling around the house, and that is true. But I think it’s mostly because keeping her clean, fed, and happy occupies so much of my time that I have no choice but to focus with what little I have left. What I miss most are the long, luxurious stretches of time I used to have to read and write, especially in the morning while my wife used to sleep in. These days, our daughter wakes up at six, so I had to get myself up a couple hours earlier for the chance to write this.
I have, perpetually, at the top of my to-do list a reminder: “What are you doing to make the world your daughter deserves?” If you read my last birthday reflection, I ended it on an optimistic note about the future of our species. While I remain hopeful, this year in politics has been something of a wake-up call to say the least. My heart breaks that the first president my daughter will remember is a man who bragged about sexually assaulting women like her, and still got elected. (And I fear for the message that sends to the boys she’ll grow up with.) If there’s any good in the situation, it’s that it’s caused me to take nothing for granted. I regret that before 2017 I had never contacted a congressperson or senator, but since then I’ve made dozens of calls to my representatives. If someone actually answers, it’s usually a friendly staffer happy to “pass my thoughts along” and get back to work, but every now and then they’ll engage me in dialogue about the issue. Initially, that caught me off guard, as I’d often call with strong feelings about an issue but few actual arguments. That’s led me to take the time to get more informed about issues, which can only be a good thing.
For Lent this year, I resolved to appreciate the basic humanity in most people, especially those on the other side of the aisle. Mostly, this was for the sake of my own sanity. In the wake of the election, I heard a lot of people interpret the results to mean that half the country is unrepentantly ignorant, delighted by a descent into fascism, or thinks groping women against their will is okay. If this were true, it would not be a world I could bear to live in, but I don’t think it is. I think back to Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and the idea of moral capital, the awareness of shared values and institutions which binds societies together. When moral capital is depleted, people retreat from the common good into selfishness, and the usual norms of human decency tend to break down. I see this election more as a symptom than a cause of that. I don’t think people voted for the president because he was indecent, but because decency doesn’t matter so much at this moment in our history. That’s a problem we need desperately to address. But it makes no sense—and can change nothing—to blame the canary for dying in the coal mine.
In any case, as I get older, I’m finding it less and less useful to see bad outcomes as the result of bad individuals, and instead look for bad incentives or malfunctioning systems. In my profession, we have what are called “no-fault retrospectives”: when something goes wrong, we look not to attribute blame for the mistake but to identify what conditions made that mistake possible in the first place, and then try to fix them. People are much better at solving problems when they’re not on the defensive. And the more I read about the human brain and its myriad kinks and biases—the fewer rights I think I have to judge anyone for acting irrationally as I would see it.
I’ve only just started trying to learn about systems theory, but if you’re interested I can recommend the blog post “Patriarchy, traffic jams and complex systems”, which illustrates the kinds of properties and effects systems have apart from those of their constituent parts. And Donella Meadows’ “Dancing With Systems” is a delightful primer—and pleas for humility—on studying and influencing complex systems.