Dangerous Complexity: What To Do About the Complex Problem of Complexity?

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Air-travel has become safer than ever and that due, in large part, to the increase in automated systems in the cockpit. However, with this advanced technology there comes a downside and the downside being that an otherwise perfectly functional aircraft (I.e., mechanically sound) with competent operators, can be lost because of a small electronic glitch somewhere in the system.

This issue was discussed, at length in response to the crash of Air France flight 447, an Airbus A330, in 2009, when an issue with an airspeed indicator and automated systems led to pilot confusion—which, in the end, resulted in a plunge into the ocean and the loss of all 228 people on board. The pilots were ultimately responsible for not responding in the correct way (they were in a stall and needed to push the nose down to recover lift) and yet the reason for their failure is as complex as the automated systems that were there to help them manage the cockpit.

It is this problem with advanced electronics that is summarized as a “systemic problem with complexity” in the quote below:

One of the more common questions asked in cockpits today is “What’s it doing now?” Robert’s “We don’t understand anything!” was an extreme version of the same. Sarter said, “We now have this systemic problem with complexity, and it does not involve just one manufacturer. I could easily list 10 or more incidents from either manufacturer where the problem was related to automation and confusion. Complexity means you have a large number of subcomponents and they interact in sometimes unexpected ways. Pilots don’t know, because they haven’t experienced the fringe conditions that are built into the system. I was once in a room with five engineers who had been involved in building a particular airplane, and I started asking, ‘Well, how does this or that work?’ And they could not agree on the answers. So I was thinking, If these five engineers cannot agree, the poor pilot, if he ever encounters that particular situation . . . well, good luck.” (“Should Airplanes Be Flying Themselves?,” The Human Factor)

More recently this problem of complexity has come back into focus after a couple disasters involving Boeing 737 MAX 8 and 9 aircraft. Initial reports have suggested that at an automated system on the aircraft has malfunctioned—pushing the nose down at low altitudes on take-offs as if responding to a stall—and with catastrophic consequences.

It could very well be something as simple as one sensor going haywire. It could very well be that everything else on the aircraft is functioning properly except this one small part. If that is the case, it certainly not something that should bring down an aircraft and would not have in years past when there was an actual direct mechanical linkage between pilot and control surfaces. But, now, since automated systems can override pilot inputs and take away some of the intuitive ‘feel’ of things in a cockpit, the possibility is very real that the pilots simply did not have enough time to sift through the possibilities of what was going wrong enough to diagnose the issue, switch to a manual mode, and prevent disaster.

The FAA, following after the lead of China and the Europeans, has decided to ground the entire fleet of Boeing 737 MAX 8 and 9 aircraft pending the results of the investigations. This move on the part of regulators will probably be a big inconvenience for air travelers. Nevertheless, after two incidents, and hundreds dead, it is better to take the precaution and get to the bottom of the issue.

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President Trump’s off-the-cuff Twitter response, basically stating “the complexity creates danger,” was met with the usual ridicule from those who hate the man and apparently do not understand hyperbole. (It ironic that some, who likely see themselves as sophisticated, have yet to see that through Trump’s putting-it-in-simple-layman’s-terms shtick.) However, technically incorrect is not the same as totally wrong and there is absolutely nothing ridiculous about the general point being made—there are unique (and unforeseeable) problems that come with complex systems.

The “keep it simple, stupid” mantra (aka: KISS principle) is not without merit in an age where our technology is advancing beyond our ability to control it. If a minor glitch in a system can lead to a major disaster, that is dangerous complexity and a real problem that needs to be addressed. Furthermore, if something as simple as flight can be made incomprehensible, even for a trained professional crew, then imagine the risk when a system is too complicated for humans alone to operate—say, for example, a nuclear power plant?

Systems too complex for humans to operate?

On the topic of dangerous complexity, I’m reminded of the meltdown of reactor two at Three Mile Island and the series of small human errors leading up to the big event. A few men, who held the fate of a wide swath of central Pennsylvania in their hands, made a few blunders in diagnosing the issue with serious consequences.

Human operators aren’t even able to comprehend the enormous (and awful) potential of their errors in such circumstances—they cannot fear to the same magnitude or to the proportion of the possible fallout of their actions—let alone have the ability to respond correctly to the cascade of blaring alarms when things did start to go south:

Perrow concluded that the failure at Three Mile Island was a consequence of the system’s immense complexity. Such modern high-risk systems, he realized, were prone to failures however well they were managed. It was inevitable that they would eventually suffer what he termed a ‘normal accident’. Therefore, he suggested, we might do better to contemplate a radical redesign, or if that was not possible, to abandon such technology entirely. (“In retrospect: Normal accidents“. Nature.)

The system accident (also called the “normal” accident by Yale sociologist, Charles Perrow, who wrote a book on the topic) is when a series of minor things go wrong together or combine in an unexpected way and eventually lead to a cataclysmic failure. This “unanticipated interaction of multiple factors” is what happened at Three Mile Island. It is called ‘normal’ because people, put in these immensely complex situations, revert to their normal routines and (like a pilot who has the nose of his aircraft inexplicably pitch down on routine take off) they lose (or just plain lack) the “narrative thread” necessary to properly respond to an emerging crisis situation.

Such was the case at Three Mile Island. It was not gross misconduct on the part of one person nor a terrible flaw in the design of the reactor itself, but rather it was a series of minor issues that led to operator confusion and number of small of mistakes that soon snowballed into something gravely serious. The accident was a result of the complexity of the system, our difficulty predicting how various factors can interact in ways that lead to failure and is something we can expect as systems become more and more complex.

And increased automation does not eliminate this problem. No, quite the opposite, it compounds the problem by adding another layer of management that clouds our ability to understand what is going on before it is too late. In other words, with automation, not only do you have the possibility of mechanical failure and human error, but you also have the potential for the automation itself failing and failing in a way that leaves the human operators too perplexed to sort through the mess of layered systems and unable respond in time. As the list of interactions between various systems grows so does the risk of a complex failure.

[As a footnote, nuclear energy is cleaner, safer and far more reliable than wind and solar farms. And, in the same way, that it is safer to fly than to drive, despite perceptions to the contrary, the dangers of nuclear are simply more obvious to the casual observer than the alternatives. So, again, with the fierce opposition to nuclear power by those who are unwittingly promoting less effective and more dangerous solutions, the human capacity to make good decisions when faced with the ambiguous problems created by the interaction of various complex systems does certainly come into question.]

Has modern life become dangerously complex?

There is no question that technological advancement has greatly benefited this generation in many ways and few would really be willing to give up modern convenience. That said, this change has not come without a cost. I had to think of that reality over the past few weeks while doing a major overhaul of how we manage information at the office and considering how quickly years of work could vanish into thin air. Yes, I suppose that paper files, like the Library of Alexandria burned, are always susceptible to flames or other destructive forces of nature. But, at least fire (unlike the infamous “blue screen of death“) is a somewhat predictable phenomenon.

Does anyone know why the Bluetooth in my car syncs up sometimes and not always?

Or why plugging my Android phone into the charger causes my calls in Facebook Messenger to hiccup (I.e., disconnects and reconnects multiple times) sometimes but not always?

I’m sure there is a reason hidden somewhere in the code, a failed interaction between several components in the system, but it would take an expert to get to the bottom of the issue. That’s quite a bit different from the times when the problem was the rain and the solution was cutting down a few trees to create a shelter. That was also true in the early days of machines as well—a somewhat mechanically inclined person could maintain and repair their own automobiles. However, the complicating factor of modern electronics has put this do-it-yourself option out of reach for all but the most dedicated mechanics.

Life for this generation has also become exponentially more complex than it was for prior generations when travel was as fast as your horse and you were watching your crops grow rather than checking your Facebook feed updates every other minute. It is very easy to be overwhelmed, as individuals, by information overload. The common man is increasingly over his head in dealing with the technological onslaught. We have become increasingly dependent on technology that we cannot understand ourselves and fails spontaneously, without warning, at seemingly the most inopportune times.

Advanced modern technology represents a paradigm shift as much as the invention of the automobile was a revolution for personal transportation. We have gone from analog to digital—a change that has opened a whole new realm of possibilities and also comes with a new set of vulnerabilities as well that go beyond the occasional annoyance of a computer crash. We really have no idea how the complexity of the current system will fare against the next Carrington Event (a solar storm that caused widespread damage and disruptions to the electric grid in 1859—a time of very basic and sturdy technology) nor are we able to foresee the many other potential glitches that could crash the entire system.

It is easy to be lulled into thinking everything will be okay because it has been so far. But that is a false security in a time of complex systems that are extremely sensitive and vulnerable. As when a pilot of a sophisticated airliner fails to comprehend the inputs or like the flustered operators of a nuclear reactor when the alarm bells ring, our civilization may be unable to respond when the complex systems we now rely on fail in an unexpected way that we could not predict. It is not completely unlikely that a relatively small glitch could crash the entire system and lead to a collapse of the current civilization. That is the danger of complexity, having systems that are well beyond our ability to fix should they fail in the right way at the wrong time.

The last human invention will be too complex to control and could be our demise…

Computers far exceed the human capacity to process information. We’ve come a long way from Deep Blue versus Garry Kasparov in the 90s and the gap between man and machine continues to grow wider after our best representatives were surpassed. Yet, while vastly faster in their abilities, computers have long only been able to do what they were programmed to do and thus their intelligence is limited by the abilities of their human programmers.

However, we are on the cusp of development of this technology and the implications far beyond the finite capacity of the human mind to grasp. We could very soon couple the processing speed of a computer with a problem-solving ability similar to that of a human. Except, unlike us, limited by our brain size and relatively slow processing speed, this “machine learning” invention (a video on the progress so far) could continue to expand its own intellectual abilities.

Machine learning is a massive paradigm shift from the programmed computers we currently use. It would lead to super-intelligence beyond our ability to fathom (literally) and, any more than a monkey can control us, could not be stopped. Imagine something that is always a hundred steps beyond any scenario we could imagine and has less in common with us (in terms of raw intelligence) than we do with an ant—would it have any reason not to treat us better than bacteria?

There was a time when I would not have believed that artificial intelligence was possible in my lifetime and a time after that when I would’ve thought it is something we could control. That was naive, artificial intelligence would, at very least, be unpredictable and almost totally unstoppable once the ball got rolling. It could see us as a curiosity, solve cancer simply because it could in a few nanoseconds—or it could kill us off for basically the same reason. Hopefully, in the latter case, it would see our extermination as not being worth the effort and be on to far greater things.

It remains to be seen whether artificial intelligence will solve all of our problems or see us as a problem and remove us from the equation. This is why very intelligent men, who love science and technological advancement, like Elon Musk, are fearful. Like the atomic age, it is a Pandora’s box that, once opened, cannot be closed again. But unlike a fission bomb that is dependent on human operators, this is a technology that could shape a destiny for itself—an invention that could quite possibly make us obsolete, hardly even worth a footnote in history, as it expanded across our planet and into the universe.

Whatever the case, we will soon have an answer…

Neural nets, the key component to artificial super-intelligence, are already here…

In fact, it is in your smartphone, it enables facial recognition and language translation. It also helps you pick a movie on Amazon by predicting what might interest you based on your prior choices.

Artificial intelligence technology could be our future. It could be that last invention that can finally manage all of these dangerous complex systems that modern convenience is so dependent upon and allow us to return to our simple pleasures. Or it could be a dangerous complexity in and of itself, something impossible to control, indifferent to our suffering and basically (from a human perspective) the greatest evil we ever face in the moments before it ensures our extinction.

Artificial super-intelligence will be complexity beyond our control, a dangerous complexity, and comes with risks that are humanly unimaginable. It could either solve all of our problems in dealing with disease and the complexity of our current technology—or it could make our woes exponentially greater and erase our civilization from the universe in the same way we apply an antibiotic to a pathogen. It is not ridiculous or absurd to think a little about the consequences before flipping the “on” switch of our last invention.

Should we think about simplifying our lives?

It is important, while we still reign supreme as the most inventive, intelligent and complex creatures on this planet, that we consider where our current trajectory will lead. Technological advancement has offered us unique advantages over previous generations but has also exposed us to unique stresses and incredible risks as well. Through technology, we have gained the ability to go to the moon and also to destroy all life on this planet with the push of a button.

Our technologies have always come as two-edged swords, with a good side and bad side. Discovering how to use fire, for example, provided us with warmth on a winter night and eventually internal combustion engines, but has often escaped our containment, destroyed our properties, cost countless lives, and creates air pollution. Rocks, likewise, became useful tools in our hands, they increased our productivity in dramatic fashion, but then also became a means to bash in the skulls of other humans as a weapon. For every positive development, there seems to be corresponding negative consequences and automation has proved to be no different.

The dramatic changes of the past century will likely seem small by comparison to what is coming next and there really is no way to be adequately prepared. Normal people can barely keep up with the increased complexity of our time as it is, we are already being manipulated by our own devices—scammers use our technology against us (soon spoof callers, using neuron networks, will be able to perfectly mimic your voice or that of a loved one for any nefarious purpose they can imagine) and it is likely big corporations will continue to do the same. Most of us will only fall further behind as our human weakness is easily used against us by the use of computer algorithms and artificial intelligence.

It would be nice to have the option to reconsider our decisions of the past few decades. Alas, this flight has already departed, we have no choice but to continue forward, hope for the best, and prepare for the worse. We really do need to consider, with the benefits, the potential cost of our increased dependence on complex systems and automation. And there is good reason to think (as individuals and also a civilization) about the value of simplifying our lives. It is not regressive or wrong to hold back a little on complexity and go with what is simple, tried and true.

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Finding the True Legacy of American Slavery

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As a child, because of my father’s work in construction, my family would travel. My mother, someone as inquisitive and interested in learning as I am, would take us children to the various historic sites and museums near the areas we visited. A significant part of our time in the South was spent surveying Civil War battlefields, exploring plantation homes built in the Antebellum era, and pondering it all from the perspective of a proud Yankee.

At the time the devastation and destruction of the war were justified by the righteousness of the victors. Slavery was an affront to the notion that “all men are created equal” and thus this institution of human ownership remains an indelible stain on that founding ideal of this nation. This perspective made Abraham Lincoln a heroic figure, it made the Union soldiers honorable men, the North was morally superior to the South and that was that.

However, that was actually simplistic.

First, many of the casualties of war are innocent, the wrongs of our enemies not justify our own, and the reasons for a conflict are far more complex than the victor’s narrative, Second, slavery had been an institution since the beginning of human history and a subject of debate for the founders who ultimately decided that the constitutional federation of independent states against the British colonial power required some compromise. Third, the aggression of the North may have resulted in emancipation for slaves in the South, yet it did not improve the conditions of those treated like rented mules in Northern industries and mines nor did come without a cost. Furthermore, both sides in the Civil War relied on conscripts (poor men forced to risk life and limb to further the agenda of the powerful) and in the North disenfranchised whites (mostly Irish immigrants) rioted in New York City against the draft and taking their anger out on black city residents.

The human and economic costs of the Civil War were staggering. It is estimated that 620,000 men died in combat or from disease related to the horrid conditions and that’s not to mention the many more ‘casualties’ who returned physically or psychologically maimed. The direct impact was full 1.5 times the GDP of the time, for comparison, the 2017 GDP distributed per capita (19,485,400/325.7×1.5) is $89,739.33, and the indirect costs were far far greater. The total economic price tag of the conflict is conservatively estimated to be 10,360 million in 1860 dollars or an incomprehensible 315 billion dollars in today’s money and at a time when the US population (and GDP) was a fraction of today’s. Every man, woman, and child in the South lost the equivalent of $11,456 during the war and continued to lose long after the war due to the destruction—the vast majority of them never owned a slave.

Poor whites in America, especially in the South, had the double whammy (or maybe triple whammy?) of being forced to fight on behalf of the rich, of working for very little compensation themselves and then still being called privileged by their actually privileged counterparts. It wasn’t the moralizing Northern abolitionists who freed the slaves nor the Southern slave owners who felt the greatest pain of the brutal conflict. The people who paid the real price were the working class, they were the ones who lost the most in the war, a war over an institution no fault of their own, and are now held as responsible as the slave owners themselves. It is a path to resentment. People who feel powerless often take their feelings out on those with less power than they do. Sadly black Americans have historically been the recipients of this frustration while the true beneficiaries of their exploitation are never held accountable.

Slavery, at its peak, only accounted for a fraction of the nation’s GDP:

In the 1850s, the zenith of the cotton economy, it came to between 1 and 1.5 percent of the nation’s GDP, not a trivial sum. By this period, however, the United States was already the second-largest economy in the world and was investing every year between 13 and 15 percent of GDP in new capital. Even if the entire “slave surplus” were saved (which it wasn’t, because there were mansions to build and ball gowns to buy), it would have made a respectable contribution to growth, but it just wasn’t large enough to be the basis of an empire. (“Was America Built By Slaves?“)

As the quote above suggests, most of that gain likely went to the slave owners themselves, spent on their lavish lifestyles then, on those plantation mansions that still exist in the South, and was not invested back into the economy in general. A significant portion of that wealth evaporated as a result of the war and emancipation. The value of a slave went from being $12,500 to $205,000 (in 2016 dollars) to effectively zero. So, in other words, if the 1860 census were correct that there were 3,953,761 slaves and the average price was around $800 in their dollars (or around $140,000 in our own) then slave owners lost around 554 billion dollars. Slaves, on the other hand, gained something priceless, that being their own freedom, and yet the cost of slavery to black Americans is truly incalculable.

The Incalculable Cost of Slavery…

The cost of slavery to black Americans is incalculable and not in terms of economic impact. It is incalculable because of the lasting social consequences that can’t be assigned a number value. The suffering of black Americans did not end with the Civil War, they faced the lingering resentment of their white neighbors, all forms of discrimination, intimidation tactics and terrorism. Even with Constitutional amendments prohibiting slavery, recognizing their citizenship and granting voting rights, conditions did not improve dramatically for black Americans in the “Jim Crow” South. It took a further effort in the 1960s, the civil rights movement, to finally see some of these Constitutional rights fully realized and not before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was murdered by an assassin’s bullet.

But, perhaps worse than the lynchings and segregation, one time events that can be adjudicated or something that can be addressed through legislation, is the immeasurable impact on the dignity of those who know that their ancestors were once treated as property and sub-human. I can’t really imagine how it would feel to have my own race being counted as 3/5ths of a person in my own country’s founding documents. There is no way to compensate for that psychologically and especially not when the widespread mistreatment was still in full force a mere generation ago. In such a context, it would be hard not to see any misfortune or measurable difference in outcome as somehow related to prior generations being robbed of their dignity and right to self-determination.

However, making matters astronomically worse is the fact that even many of those claiming to want to help often treat black people as their lessor and do more harm than good in their efforts to restore. A prime example of this is the so-called “War on Poverty” and how since then black marriage rates have plummeted and out-of-wedlock births skyrocketed. First, intact families are a greater predictor of future success than race. Second, making a person dependent on government handouts does nothing to restore their human dignity and, in fact, keeps them trapped. The welfare state has more or less enslaved the black community (and many others) to politicians who stoke fear of losing ‘benefits’ as a means to gain votes and maintain their own power.

Affirmative action programs do nothing to help confidence. No, if anything, they only further reinforce feelings of inferiority and, worse, feeds a notion that black accomplishments may deserve an asterisk. I can recall very well the conversation I had with a young man in the Midwest whom I confronted over his racism. He made no apologies, he embraced the description and then blamed his own lack of success in college on his not being given the same opportunities as minorities. Whether true in his case or not, it takes an extra dose of grace for a poor white person to not feel slighted and very easy to take out the frustration on the beneficiaries. I’ve had to fight this myself as someone who never finished college for mostly for financial reasons.

A few years ago I had hope, with the election of Barack Obama, that this would heal some of the wounds, bolster feelings of self-worth, and help us turn the page as a nation. Sadly, it has seemed to do the opposite. My opposition to increased government spending, as a lifelong conservative who doesn’t see more government control as the solution to every problem, was characterized in terms of race as was any opposition to his policies. Rather than be seized upon a moment of reconciliation, Obama’s race was used as political leverage, as a means to ostracized political opponents and advance a leftist policy agenda. The specter of racism is used to control, both to frighten some voters and also to smear others.

A decade ago I had believed that we were on our way to colorblind society, one like that Dr. King had envisioned where people would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Today I’m not even sure that is possible, the current political establishment benefits too much from identity politics and tribalism to allow that kind of society to form. It is hard not to feel cynical in a time when white vs black narratives dominate the headlines. And, while I believe this too shall pass, that the current racial tensions are an aftershock rather than a repeat of the past, there is also the reality that slavery is an unpayable debt.

The Unpayable Debt…

Some have suggested an idea of paying reparations to the descendants of slaves to right this historic wrong and would finally, once and for all, reconcile the injustice. There are those who have gone as far as to suggest a number, between $5.9 and 14 trillion dollars, as being suitable compensation or at least as a “meaningful” symbolic gesture and something that could improve race relations.

Those selling the idea of reparations say is that this is similar to payments made by Germany to those who suffered through the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis.

However, those promoting the idea fail to mention the significant differences. The first difference being there are actual Holocaust survivors still alive today to receive the compensation for their loss, but there is not one former slave or slave owner still alive. A second big difference is that the abuses against the Jews in Germany were perpetrated directly by the government itself, whereas slavery was a private institution that existed long before the United States was a nation and was eventually ended by the government and at a very great cost. Hitler’s Germany didn’t stop themselves, the government stole directly from people and sent millions to slave labor camps or gas chambers to be killed—it was literal genocide.

But the bigger problem with reparations is who pays, who gets paid and how much?

It is not justice to make one generation pay for the sins of another. There are many in the United States who did not benefit from slave ownership. My own ancestors, for instance, did not own any slaves and the own possible way they might have benefitted is in slightly cheaper cotton. However, I didn’t receive any inheritance of money nor of cotton clothes from my grandparents. In other words, my savings is my own, from my own work, do I owe anyone (besides my cousin who just helped install flooring in my rental and the bank) nor do I feel any guilt for anything I’ve done. So why should the innocent be forced to pay any more than another person should be forced to work? Do two wrongs make a right? It would only be right to target those who actually did benefit directly from slavery and the complexities of that would be enormous. Would we go after the descendants of European and African slave traders as well?

And then there is the matter of determining who gets paid what. The reparations advocates come up with their dollar figure based on a calculation of hours worked, wages at the time, and interest that would be accrued. But that’s not how things really work. Again, the wages of my grandfathers and great-grandfathers were spent in their generation, dispersed into the economy, and there is nothing left for me. The reality is that the modern ancestors of slaves benefit from the economy in the same way that we all do, thus paying them with interest would not make any sense and especially when that money would be taken from their innocent fellow citizens. Then there’s the reality that not all American black people are ancestors of slaves, some of them are recent immigrants from Africa, some have mixed ancestry and others may actually be the ancestors of black slave owners. Yes, there were slave-owning black people in the American South—should their ancestors pay or be paid?

So, what do we do, start compensating based in DNA tests, as in, “You’re 1/5th black and thus entitled to X…”?

Do we prorate based on how much someone benefited from affirmative action?

Will multi-millionaires, those who obviously have done well, be paid?

Do we deduct welfare payments, etc?

Grading everyone based on their ancestors reinforces all the wrong ideas. It is measuring a person’s worth based on their ancestors rather than their own individual merits and exactly the thing we should be getting away from. Besides that, it is severely undervaluing the worth of a US citizenship, there are people fighting for the opportunity to be here, and our economy is much better here than it is in Africa. Yes, certainly a black person born into an urban environment may face unique difficulties. But then there are many immigrants who come here with nothing, who settle in the same neighborhoods and do advance. And where does it end, do we owe the followers of Joseph Smith for the systematic oppression of them and their religion? Do we owe the Republican party for the attacks against them by the KKK and lynchings of party members? It is just not a good direction to go, it is divisive, it will hurt the wrong people, and we are already deep in debt as a nation. Why should our grandchildren (black, white and other) pay interest to the Federal Reserve and other wealthy people for what is only a symbolic gesture and, if we are honest, won’t remove the stain of the past anyway?

The truth is that money won’t change anything as far as the past. Sure, I’m guessing many who would receive reparations like the idea, who wouldn’t take a windfall? But the reality is that all the compensation in the world cannot erase the legacy of slavery and all the wrong people would end up paying the price. A professional sports contract doesn’t make anyone forget injustice, many lottery winners often end up as poor as they were before, and money can’t be used to solve the problems created by money, to begin with. There are times when a financial settlement is the answer, when both parties directly involved (the aggrieved and the accused) are properly adjudicated. But billing the current generation for the sins of the past, especially without due process, is theft no better than slavery at worse and mere revenge at best.

The true legacy of slavery is that some are owed a debt that cannot be paid.

Wake Up, the Matrix isn’t Real!

A matrix, according to Merriam Webster, is “something within or from which something else originates, develops, or takes form.” And we do live in a matrix where our ideas about race, history, advantage and disadvantage matter more than the actual facts. In other words, the matrix is the way we individually or collectively interpret the facts and use them to form our ideas. Our thought matrix, our assumptions based on our own interpretation of facts, plays a significant role in our outcomes. Overcoming the mental processes that keep us bound is key to success in life.

The other week I was driving to a job site and notice some nice new houses with their well-manicured lawns, spiffy two-car garages, and paved drives. I was overcome momentarily with a tinge of envy, a little regret, and mostly befuddlement at how some people could afford such things. The question immediately came to mind, “What did I do wrong?” I thought of my life, my disadvantages, the opportunities missed, and all those things that held me back from reaching my full potential. However, before I went too far along in that thought process, another question countered the first, “What did I do right?” My mind went first to all the thing I did right, but then to all my advantages compared to most people in the world and the things I did not choose.

Did I do anything right, say compared to that Haitian man I saw in Port Au Prince hauling a car body on his back or a woman born in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, etc?

Our mental construct, our prejudices, and preconceived ideas, a product of our culture and choices, can make a real difference in our outcomes. Sure, positive thinking cannot change the circumstances of where we are born, a good attitude does not mean that there will be fewer obstacles to our success in life, yet why not make the best of the opportunity we are given and live in gratitude for what we do have rather than envy of others or frustration because of what we lack?

Part of the problem is that there is a system of control, it helps to create our expectations, it feeds our insecurities and can keep us bound. The real systemic oppression is the idea that politics (or more money in our hands and power over others) is the answer to our problems. Money can’t fix what it created, money itself binds us to the system and the things that money buys rarely deliver the happiness that we think they will. Again, look into lottery winners, many people end up as unhappy as they were before their winnings and some worse off. So why do we measure success in terms of things that will not and cannot make us happy?

What we really need to do is reorient ourselves. We must reject the unhelpful categories and classifications that keep us bound and change the way we think. Grievance culture, tribal score keeping and trying to rank people by their outward appearance is a backward-facing, small-minded and, frankly, racist orientation. There is no group guilt for slavery any more than there is for inner-city crime, we need to stop seeing people as white, black, orange or whatever, building our own identities around those superficial things, and aim for something greater—aim for the future that we want, yet hasn’t fully arrived, where all people are judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

It Is Time to Think and Act Differently…

If I had my own life to do over I may have dithered less (convinced that higher education was the key to success in life because of what my teachers told me) and started driving truck earlier. It was my own pride (and anxieties) that kept me from taking the better options available to me and I suspect there are many who, like me, prevent their own success because of their aim. And I’m not at all saying that we should sell ourselves short or settle for less than our abilities can afford us. However, many do set themselves up for failure because they keep waiting for the big break, the breakthrough when everything they dream of finally comes to them and refuse to take full advantage of the actual opportunities they have.

Another thing I would do differently is stop worrying that other people had it in for me and believing that I was helpless when the reality was that I was unwilling to make the right sacrifices. Part of my difficulty in life was due to my refusal to act differently or accept that my own behavior was part of the problem. Sure, there is something to be said for authenticity and being true to ourselves, but sometimes overcoming requires us to act differently and accept what is truly reality over our own individual construct. To find success in the religious context where I was born I would need to accept their rules and my fighting with that reality, my “kicking against the pricks” or resisting the flow rather than harnessing it, had some undesirable consequences.

Cutting to the chase, we have agency and we do not. There are well-worn paths to success with risks worth taking, call them cultural conventions, and then there are the low-probability high-risk paths that lead many to ruin. For example, finding a profession like teaching, law enforcement, construction or accounting (as opposed to seeking to be a career actor, model, musician or professional athlete) is more likely to produce desirable results for most people. Feeding our insecurities, dwelling on slights (real or perceived), demanding others conform to our wishes or that they respect us for who we are, expecting too much, is a path to long-term disappointment.

Overcoming the matrix means we need to stop seeing things in black and white terms. Sure, things like “black culture” or “white privilege” do exist in some form, at very least as a construct in our minds, but they really are only terms that obscure a far more complex picture and keep us trapped in the problem rather than working towards the solution. The reality is not as simple as the narratives pushed by academics and advocacy groups. There is no one group with all the advantages nor another with all the disadvantages. There is a reason why the suicide rates for middle-aged white people have skyrocketed while black rates have declined and are considerably lower—something (like connections and community) that might be missed in the commonly touted measures of success?

Recently I read the story of a naval aviator, an officer name Thomas J Hudner Jr, who was awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions in the Korean War. His act? He intentionally crash-landed his Corsair to protect and attempt to rescue a comrade, Ensign Jesse L. Brown, whose airplane had been hit by ground fire and was behind enemy lines. Brown, who happened to be the first black naval aviator, did not survive despite the efforts of Hudner, however, what does survive is an example of brotherly love that transcends artificial racial divides and presents a reality worth building upon. That is the legacy that, if built upon, will free us all from the sins of the past.

Loving dangerously, that is my idea of real success in life.

It is also neat, in these hyper-partisan times, to see George Bush Jr and Michelle Obama share some moments of common humanity together and continue this friendly exchange even at his father’s funeral. That is the symbolism that matters, that is the positive interaction we should aim for and the kind that can make a real difference in the world. If we love all people rather than prefer only those who look or act like us and orient ourselves to the hope of a better future rather than cling to our past and present suffering, we may well have a chance to build a better identity for ourselves as a nation. We may not be able to choose our inheritance, but we can work to create a better legacy for the next generation.

We, like Bush and Obama, have far too much in common to be at odds with each other.

Those who have faced hardship past or present should be heard and forgiven of their current insecurities. Those who have been indifferent to the suffering of others, out of ignorance or hardness of heart, should also be forgiven. And those two groups are all of us and have nothing to do with race. We are all victims, enslaved to a past that we didn’t create for ourselves, and all guilty of perpetuating the legacy to some degree. We can’t know what a person has been through by how they look on the outside and therefore we should love all people as we wish to be loved rather than by what we think they deserve. It is time to be courageously human, committed to true Christian love, rather than tribal, fearful and small.