Dear America: Are You Ready to Grow Up?

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Adults who are in charge of operating big things like countries in a complex world do this: Identify facts. Assess risk. Formulate strategies. Execute. Until now, there seems to have been any number of things preventing us from biting the bullet and growing up. How much suffering can be averted if we choose differently?

by Shawn C. Gay
Earth Advocacy News
December 19, 2017

A Lesson from Defensive Driving

What a sad way to spend the first day of Christmas vacation. For the next six or seven hours, I was going to be stuck in front of a computer taking a Defensive Driving class. To be frank, I consider myself to be a fairly cautious driver and I was not looking forward to hearing a bunch of tropes I already knew coming through the computer about the rules of the road or how to handle your car in dangerous conditions.

Little did I realize that there was another lesson to be learned embedded in this driver education course, a bigger lesson about human psychology as it pertains to risk and complex situations. Over and over, the experts behind this particular version of defensive driving emphasized one psychological factor that dictates how good a driver you might be. That factor is attitude.

According to the course experts, three different attitude states–Child Mode, Parent Mode and Adult Mode–can be identified when driving. Here are recaps of the three modes.

Child Mode: In this mode, a person habitually underestimates risk and doesn’t focus on much except their immediate emotional state. Also in this mode you are not quick to take responsibility for your actions.

Good song on the radio? Let’s push the accelerator a little more. 
Annoying driver in front of you? Let’s pass them and cut in front.
Rules of the road cramping your style? Hey, rules are for everybody else!
Somebody cut you off? Oh no you didn’t, you are not going to get away with that!

Parent Mode: In this mode, a person’s behavior is ruled by the words “should”, “have” and “ought”. You might also be focused on achieving justice using punitive action. In your mind, you are kind of acting out a shallow imitation of how you imagine your parents or guardians would have done. Sometimes this will keep you safer, but other times, this reactionary mode can lead to risky behavior. Does the following sound familiar?

No one should speed in this neighborhood. Let me teach them a lesson and slow down even more! While the intent seems reasonable, it is possible that it leads to more aggressive behavior in the driver you are dealing with and then you are both at increased risk.

Adult Mode: In this mode, your goal is to get yourself and everyone else to their destinations in a safe manner. You make decisions based on identifying facts, assessing risk, formulating a strategy and then executing.

In the situation above where a speeder pulls up behind you, a driver in Adult Mode might assess that for the safety of everyone, more space is needed. Depending on the specifics, you might lightly tap your brake lights to warn the driver behind you to slow a bit, you might speed up a bit yourself, or maybe it is best to just pull over and let the aggressive driver pass. There is no absolute right or wrong, just the ongoing process of identifying, assessing, planning and executing.

Of course, the only attitude state that you want to be in while operating a motor vehicle is Adult Mode. The other two modes are prone to introducing unnecessary risk to you and to the other cars on the road. No matter how good a driver you think you are, if you keep adding extra risk to your situation, eventually a roll of the dice is going to come out against you. That, my friends, is how accidents happen.

And now, after having a night to sleep on this concept, now I can see that this same lesson applies to operating a country. Just like driving a car, when operating a country, we are bound to encounter situations where various risks present themselves. As a country we have economic risks, environmental risks, military risks, health risks, all of which need to be identified, assessed, and hopefully successfully mitigated as we continue on down the road. So, I ask you, which attitude state should we be engaged in if we are going to make it to Wally World without tragedy?

America: Stuck in Child/Parent Modes?

You don’t have to go farther than your TV set (or internet news site if you prefer) to see that, by and large, the USA isn’t working in Adult Mode right now. The whole political theater encompassing our cultural energy right now is obsessed with melodrama, politics as a spectator sport, and shallow identity politics. And that is for the folks who are still engaged. Sadly, over half of the population doesn’t even participate. 

How many of us are in Child Mode, rooting for our own team at all costs, facts and fairness be damned? How many of us have convinced ourselves of the myth that we can’t make a difference anyway? These are both variations of childlike thinking and are not going to help get our country moving in the right direction.

Even scarier, perhaps, are those of us stuck in Parent Mode. The system has to be my way or no way, we might think. Or, I can’t work with those people because they ought to see things as I do! The problem with being stuck in Parent Mode in these times is that we need to agree on and undertake actions that manage our risk. Stubborn partisans or idealists prevent the kind of action we need by locking into self-righteous “should”, “have to” and “ought to” mindsets.

Partisan politics via the Democratic and Republican parties has become nothing more than an endless series of playground scuffles between well-dressed man-children and woman-children. Our elected officials seem to literally think the act of running a country is a game. So, of course they are only plotting and maneuvering to keep their team at the top. They are not thinking of the whole. The concept of the common good is never given weight except for use in rhetorical manipulation. The only real risks being assessed are those that might affect their direct lines of funding, but because they are stuck in Child Mode, even those calculations are short-sighted and doomed to fail.

I think that by being stuck in Child and Parent modes most of the time, the United States has invited unnecessary risks to the table on many fronts. We’re addicted to living in a false reality where we either don’t assess risk at all or else we kind of rigidly put activities into bins of “good” or “bad” without really thinking things through in an honest way. The sad thing is, taking on all of this extra risk is making people suffer! About the only people who have fared well with this behavior are the very few at the top of the economic ladder, but even that is only in a materialistic sense. Spiritually, it really is a crisis of faith for nearly everyone.

What an Adult Mode Country Might Look Like

Honestly, it is a bit hard to imagine what things might look like if enough of us started operating in Adult Mode, but I will toss a few ideas out there. For one, we might actually start to have conversations about the reality we are facing on different fronts, such as energy sources, climate change, population concerns, pollution, resource management and world economics. These conversations have to go beyond headlines and soundbites. And, we have to continually re-scan and update what we consider the reality to be. It is a life-long and demanding effort to take on the project of opening our minds and discovering the facts.

In terms of assessing risks, there is a whole field of mathematics and engineering geared toward that exercise. Unfortunately, there is probably like 0.00001% of our national budget steered into that practice. It just is not a priority for anyone it seems. I think this has to change–the idea of risk assessment needs to become a household term.

In terms of strategy development, I think we kind of have our hands tied right now by putting so much of our country’s budget and resources into one pot: military spending. If to a hammer every problem looks like a nail, then I’m guessing for a military power like the USA, every problem seems like a situation that needs more troops. Our options would open up if we start diversifying some of that investment into other areas that produce value in our system. I think the conversations need to focus on answering how we manage risk on the world stage without resorting to emotional pleas based on nationalistic pride.

Also, in Adult Mode, I think our country would proactively shine a light on it’s shadow side. Our national psyche begs to become more integrated. Perhaps the inability for America to acknowledge and own up to its sins of the past and present are a big reason why we can’t engage as adults in public discourse. It’s just too painful. But that in itself is a big reason why we have to push through and birth ourselves into a more Adult Mode way of being. It is an act of maturity to own up to the often obscured psychological forces that influence your behavior as an individual. I think the same holds true for our corporate behavior as a nation.

Adults who are in charge of operating big things like countries in a complex world do this: Identify facts. Assess risk. Formulate strategies. Execute. Until now, there seems to have been any number of things preventing us from biting the bullet and growing up. How much suffering can be averted if we choose differently? How much more freedom can we guarantee for future generations if we head off big-time hazards before they manifest? I think our spirit as a nation is crying out for us to take this leap.