Watching for Signs

For the past few months, my neighborhood has been slowly filling with signs. Lawn signs, mostly – signs about war and peace, signs rallying support for different points of view. One morning last week, I went out for my morning run and noticed that all the signs belonging to one camp had disappeared. Overnight, I presume, one side took down the other side’s signs – an effort that would have required both trespassing and stealing.

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Looking at the empty posts, I couldn’t help but wonder if the other side would now follow suit, retaliating by ripping up the signs of the opposing view. As I jogged past the remaining signs and imagined them gone too, I realized that if this were to happen, it wouldn’t matter which side had started it. The notion of citizens on either side of the debate demonstrating their respect for freedom and democracy (to say nothing of peace and/or patriotism) by trampling on the rights and property of their neighbors was disturbing.

While I ran, I tried to imagine the mindset of the late-night sign stealers. Did they really believe the best way to represent and serve their cause was to deprive others of their right to free speech? How did this act of petty theft sync with their personal values and the values of the movement they were representing? Had they paused to consider any of this before acting? Or after?

It suddenly struck me that for a country whose political history is associated with an overarching emphasis on the individual – individual rights, individual liberties, individual initiatives – the United States is also a land in which individual self-knowledge is often surprisingly limited and compartmentalized.

That’s no surprise.

From school age, we are mostly educated to see areas of our lives as separate and distinct. Reading is distinct from science is distinct from history. Art, music and gym are distinct from academic classes; classes are distinct from recess and lunch; and school often seems totally distinct from the rest of reality. People rarely ask us about our “inner life” or encourage us to think big, connecting thoughts about our relationships with others.

If we’re lucky, as we get older, we develop deeper insights about how people and things and systems relate. However, much of our culture still encourages us to see our professional goals as distinct from our personal values, our health and fitness challenges as distinct from our emotional and spiritual concerns, our public acts as distinct from our private convictions.

The “I” of one context doesn’t always have a lot of interaction with the “I” of another. As a result, we begin resorting to situational ethics. We justify choices and behaviors in one area of our life that we would never dream of entertaining in another. Over time, as the separation between our categories grows more rigid, our sense of self becomes more fragmented. We rely increasingly on a narrow sense of “us” and “them” to help us define ourselves more confidently, and the more inclusive, more humane sense of “we” suffers.

I thought about all this stuff as I ran. By mile two, my sense of judgment and disappointment was displaced by a welling up of compassion – for all of us trying to understand and peacefully tolerate each other’s sometimes maddening differences. By the time I got home, my head was in a different place, calmer now, and beset by new questions – including some about the nature of my own categories and motivations.

I started thinking about the run itself. Was it a purely superficial, self-serving act, or was there a larger benefit from the 30 minutes I’d spent moving and thinking and feeling? Was it an exercise in simple cardiovascular fitness or an act of meditation and contemplation? Had it made me a better athlete, or had it, in some small way, made me a better neighbor, too? Perhaps it was about all those things.

The only hope of truly understanding anything about ourselves, it seems to me, lies in reaching in and looking out, cultivating both deep knowledge and broad integration whenever we can. Developing our best selves not only lets us more fully experience the potential of our own bodies and minds – ideally, it also helps us perceive the world around us in new, more hopeful and more generous ways.

In this and every issue of Experience Life, we present information and ideas designed to inspire you in both regards.

Pilar Gerasimo is the founding editor of Experience Life.

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