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Could the Wisdom of Ancient Chinese Thinkers Help Our Current Political Climate?

Stars and Confucius

Could the Wisdom of Ancient Chinese Thinkers Help Our Current Political Climate?

I recently came across an interesting article on LinkedIn: The Importance of Breaking Free of…Yourself. It was adapted from a new book published by Simon & Schuster entitled The Path, written by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh. Michael is a popular professor at Harvard. While the article was targeted at new college grads and young professionals rather than a middle aged male, it resonated with me on several levels.

First, the idea of being open and even intentionally seeking ideas and people outside our usual beliefs and experience is a practice that I’ve found wonderfully educational and spiritually nourishing. Especially the last several years as I’ve stumbled across opportunities or sought such experiences and spaces with more intention.

Some of this has come from a couple of groups I help facilitate called Think Again and Faith Again. But some of my most meaningful and heart connecting experiences have been as I’ve engaged in Living Room Conversations in my home and in local Village Square events that I’ve participated in. These forums have given me and others the opportunity, to, as the authors of this article encourage:

“…instead of embracing your self, Confucius urged, overcome your self. Break from who you think you are, because that is how you will change and grow.”

As a Christian, this sounded very similar to Christ enjoining us to find ourselves by losing ourselves.

This leads to my second moment of resonating and the point of me sharing this: What if we approached our political space in this same fashion? What would happen if a politician—rather than extolling their virtues, values, and ideas as the only right way—actually sought to understand and have some respect for those who differ from them? What if we, as voters, did the same? Would the tone and timber of our political conversations change for the better? Would the possibility of progress on some of our most pressing and painful issues be more likely? Would there be greater goodwill and cooperation among us all? Might we better live our nations’ dictum: epluribus unum i.e. out of many one, as well as help quell some of the strident contention that seems to pervade our public square?

Yes! Of course! But practically speaking, how do we get there from here? One way, these authors suggest, is to practice rituals. Rituals? Really? Here’s their reasoning:

“Engaging in rituals in a Confucian sense, though, is transformative. Confucian rituals — or “as if” rituals — come from the small conventional things we do all the time. When you pass a friend on the street and smile and say hi as if you weren’t just stressing over a bad exam grade you got, you’re engaging in an as-if ritual. When you’re tempted to roll your eyes over something your annoying cousin said, but instead respond as if what she said was insightful, you’re engaging in an as-if ritual. 

Yes, these moments go against our authentic, true feelings. They can feel fake, or like we’re being nice for politeness’ sake. 

But Confucius saw value in such rituals — if we do them ritually, and not rotely—precisely because they go against your authentic, true feelings and thus have the potential to allow you to become a different, and a better, person for a brief moment. The more you consciously engage in such moments the more you cultivate yourself. You train yourself not to always act true to yourself, in order to behave better.”

Interesting idea isn’t it? One presidential candidate especially leapt to mind when I read this, because, as best I can tell, his “authenticity” of “telling it like it is” is exactly what is so appealing to his supporters. And, given the natural course and feel of politics, one can sympathize with this hunger for a politician “being real.”

But what if Confucius and Christ actually had it right? What if we practiced treating others like we would like to be treated? What if we expected our politicians to do the same? What if, rather than expressing our rage or dismissal of another’s opinion, we “overcome ourselves” and give the person an authentic and real heartfelt hearing? Would that give space for them to do the same for us? What if we practiced the ritual of “walking in another’s shoes?” At a minimum, what if we at least try ritually “faking it until we make it?

Professor Puett concludes:

“The end result of all of this? As you cultivate your ability to break from yourself, you will continue to grow and change. As you cultivate your goodness, it slowly becomes second nature and radiates outward. Your kindness, rooted in the mundane and everyday, extends from the family and friends around you to town, region, nation, world.

That’s why our Chinese philosophers would say: don’t discover who you are, let alone embrace what you find. Instead of choosing self-acceptance, choose self-cultivation. Instead of embracing yourself, overcome yourself. This is not just how you become a flourishing adult. It is the best way to create a flourishing world.”

Shall we give it a try?

Jay Griffith, Salt Lake Village Square Leadership Team Member

Hedrick Smith: Can we heal our great divide?

President Obama speaks to President Bush to mark the end of combat operations in Iraq; hopefully the conversation went better than the polarized commentary since

Obama in his presidential address Tuesday night:

“This afternoon I spoke to former President George W. Bush. It’s well known that he and I disagreed about the war from its outset. Yet no one can doubt President Bush’s support for our troops or his love of country and commitment to our security. As I said, there were patriots who supported this war and patriots who opposed it. All of us are united in appreciation for our servicemen and servicewomen and our hopes for Iraq’s future.”

“The greatness of our democracy is grounded in our ability to move beyond our differences, to learn from our experience as we confront the many challenges ahead.”

And as night follows day… Commentary from the left since the address were angry Obama would give Bush anything given what they see as the catastrophic nature of the decision to invade Iraq and the falsehoods that led to it. And from the right they accused him of having no class because he didn’t outright credit Bush for the surge (on Limbaugh the guest host said it was a “small speech by a small man”).

In this environment, it’s hard to know how anyone can lead us.

“Backfire” explains a lot.

Joe Keohane writes a powerful piece on how our entrenched political opinion resists fact that contradicts it. Here’s a snip of an article that’s just so good that it’s going straight into the Village Square library, but we’d strongly recommend you head straight to Boston.com and read the whole piece.

Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters – the people making decisions about how the country runs – aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.

The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong, says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon – known as “backfire” – is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”

Read the rest of the article HERE.