The Human Race…
It’s Christmas, a time of the year that can create both a feeling of community and togetherness (we) while (ironically) also drawing us easily into a world of ‘I’ and ‘things’ (me). Christmas, set within the Christian tradition, is a story about the birth of Jesus as a human on earth and among other things, reminds us of our; human fallibility, weaknesses and imperfections, all of which are fundamental to being part the ‘human race’, a term that is often used to describe our collective being.
I wonder though, if at times we may more aptly be described as; ‘humans who race’?
The signs of our racing, especially at this time of year, are ubiquitous. Whether it be rushing to finish Christmas shopping or sprinting for bargains at the ‘Boxing Day sales’, we seem in such a hurry. It occurs in our everyday life too. For example, we no longer seem to cope with even the most basic of ailments without seeking to overcome them as quickly as possible. Even in our search for a new job, or in completing a course of study, we seem intent on finding the quickest and most efficient way to achieve these tasks. As we move through this life so quickly, there hardly seems enough time for any real living along the way. What do I mean when I suggest this?
Martin Buber may help our understanding when he proposes in I-Thou that; “All real living is meeting” (1958, p.26). However, one cannot meet alone, nor whilst racing! Let’s explore.
When we truly meet; time is not a factor (we need not race), power doesn’t differentiate us and there is no agenda to be accomplished. Instead, space and time are created to just be together. Meeting often unexpectedly emerges as we engage with others (Thou). We need not try to find it, for as Buber notes; “The Thou meets me through grace – it is not found by seeking” (p.26). Conceivably moments of meeting are both rare and (relatively) short?
This is a particularly helpful question to contemplate if we consider the thoughts of Graham Long who, in Love Over Hate (2013) suggests we “live for only a minute” (this is in the context of, the history and future, of our world). Consequently, racing through our already short life seems absurd, and hence we may not meet (live) much at all.
We are all involved in our own versions of ‘racing’, it seems impossible to avoid. Markedly, it is amplified in a world where ‘me’ is promoted so readily in nearly all aspects of our lives. It’s what Graham (2013, p.12) calls the “privitisation of self”. We only need to look at how we commonly communicate with each other through social media to see this at play. Achieving the greatest number of ‘likes’, in the shortest period of time, is equivalent to winning gold in a race; it’s all about self!
‘Self’ too is especially prominent at this time of the year, where presents (‘things’ for ‘me’) often trump presence (we). This focus on ‘things’ and the over commercialization of our world, despite its promise of happiness and delight, often leads to loneliness and disconnection (‘me’). So, what does this look and feel like?
I was talking with someone recently who ‘has it all’. A good job, hefty salary, latest model prestige car and a house filled with buttons that control everything from the air conditioning, television and even the temperature of their swimming pool. If you were to assess their life on the scale of ‘me’ and ‘racing’, they are ahead by several lengths. However, as I sat with this person, it was clear that while they were well into their ‘minute’ of living, they had almost no relationship with their children or partner. While they could all sit in the same room adoring their big screen television, there was no meeting. This person was lonely and were desperately seeking connection with their family, yet at the same time was not keen to give up all that they worked hard for.
What a struggle, to deal with the paradox that is being an individual (me) within our social world (the human race)?
In order to contend with this, perhaps we ought to; give to others, be vulnerable and to bare our weaknesses? This seems far from a fast, efficient and easy way of living (racing). Imaginably, it could be challenging, stressful and at times, painful. It may require faith and hope, rather than the simplicity of certainty and assurance. Holding this paradox may also bring with it the gift of meeting, that’s the very nature of the paradox. What are some examples of us ‘racing’ for the purpose of ‘me’ and, what may we do about it?
Let’s start with an obvious case as noted above; social media. This is a medium born out of an addiction to efficiency and homogeny, where we can in real time (i.e. while racing), ‘like’, ‘share’ and ‘comment’ on the lives of others, and ourselves! I hear people mistakenly refer to such forums as ‘communities’. Can they really be described as community when we rarely venture outside of the comfortable place that feels safe and secure (a world of ‘me’)? Social media rarely offers places of love (‘we’); rather, often self-boasting. There is certainly no meeting.
We need to be alert to paths where we become quickly fixated on ‘me’. Paths where we feel ‘safety in numbers’, with others who think like we do. We often seek out those who make us feel safe and are not threatening; either to our way of seeing the world, or to our physical and psychological safety. What are some examples of this?
We often see, feel and experience the ‘race to sameness’ in the workplace. Take Safety, it seems especially seduced by the worship of efficiency and uniformity, and hence they ‘race’ toward these things. This is particularly true of the ‘Safety Crusaders’ that dominate the industry. These are the people who just love systems that allow them to efficiently; police without conversation, to inspect without discussion and examine without dialogue. Their systems are built on a foundation that only those in Safety know how to be safe, only they know the one best way and so it is their vocation to impart this onto others. In Safety, the ‘race’, is toward ‘zero’; good luck trying to halt that contest. Safety is about protecting, not love; for love requires faith, rather than assurance. Love is about ‘we’, not ‘me’.
There are ‘Crusaders’ in most industries. For example, in social work it is often those who practice ‘fixing’ rather than ‘unconditional positive regard’. I’ve seen it in HR too, where people so often talk about the ‘resources’ they are tasked with ‘managing’, as being problematic and troublesome. If only such ‘resources’ would always (and efficiently) follow the same processes every time… How easy, resourceful and productive would life and work be? It’s as-if some HR people are in a race to rid the workplace of people; how strange. What do I mean?
Case in point is our current fascination with artificial intelligence. I was talking to a friend this week who was being interviewed for a job where all three people sitting opposite them were focused on inputting the answers to their questions into a program on their iPad. So, rather than engaging and conversing with my friend, getting to know them, they were more concerned with efficiently inputting their answers ‘straight into the system’. There was no chance of a meeting emerging through that encounter.
We experience the ‘race’ in manufacturing also, where efficiency, consistency and regularity are Gods worshipped like no other. Of course, in some manufacturing organisations there is some talk of ‘caring for people’, but all too often this is simply rhetoric that quickly translates into a ‘program’ where efficiency wins out (e.g. Lean, Six Sigma, etc…) and meeting again eludes us.
It’s easy to be seduced by efficiency, process and standardisation. In fact, we are often rewarded for it. I recall working in organisations where my job was to develop processes to reduce ambiguity, making sure that everyone knew exactly what to do on every occasion. It felt good, people praised me and it seemed like we achieved something unique. In reality, all that was achieved was a ‘copy of paste’ of what so many others were effecting and, in doing so, we created an environment where we ‘raced toward sameness’, and where there is no place for ‘we’.
There are few who explore this fascination with efficiency and sameness (the ‘race’) better that Jacques Ellul who, in his book The Technological Society (1964) introduces us to ‘technique’, the idea of all-encompassing efficiency, control and standardization:
“By technique, for example, he means far more than machine technology. Technique refers to any complex standardized means for attaining a predetermined result. Thus, it converts spontaneous and unreflective behaviour into behaviour that is deliberate and rationalized. The Technical Man is fascinated by results, by the immediate consequences of setting standardized devices into motion. He cannot help admiring the spectacular effectiveness of nuclear weapons of war. Above all, he is committed to the never-ending search for ‘the one best way’ to achieve any designated objective.” (p. vi)
Ellul further notes about the fascination with standardization that it:
“…creates impersonality, in the sense that organisation relies more on methods and instructions than on individuals. We thus have all the marks of technique. Organization is technique.” (p. 12)
A fixation with the seductive world of ‘technique’, (the race and ‘me’) is one that we are easily trapped in. It does things to us, perhaps much of which we aren’t even aware? It effects relationships, it changes what it means to be and to live, especially our being with others.
A critique of our personal ‘race’ can be overwhelming and certainly challenging. It can feel like a very critical perspective and take on our own life, and we might be left thinking; what is the point? In a world of technique where we race toward ‘me’, at the expense of ‘we’, a world that we cannot escape and must live in, it may feel fatalistic and defeatist. Ellul addresses this when he notes:
“There will be a temptation to use the word fatalism in connection with the phenomenon described in this book (The Technological Society). The reader may be inclined to say that, if everything happens as stated in the book, man is entirely helpless – helpless either to preserve his personal freedom or to change the course of events. Once again, I think the question is badly put. I would reverse the terms and say: if man – if each one of us – abdicates his responsibilities with regard to values; if each of us limits himself to leading a trivial existence in a technological civilization, with greater adaptation and increasing success as his sole objectives; if we do not even consider the possibility of making a stand against these determinants, then everything will happen as I have described it, and the determinants will be transformed into inevitabilities” (p. xxix)
So perhaps we need to carefully critique the life we are living if we too are to “make a standard against these determinants”?
How do we deal with the challenges of the very seductive nature of efficiency, sameness and control (‘technique’)? What is it that we are racing toward; is it ‘we’, or the more common ‘me’? Are we seeking to be part of the human race or like most are we just another human who races?
Author: Robert Sams
 “The Western world has achieved so much, and yet, I believe, has constructed an environment where humans are lonely. We live in a culture that focuses on the self, or ‘I’ – what I call within these pages the ‘privitisation of the self’. We are connected to each other via our clever technological devices, but these same devices allow us to hide from the word of real breathing human beings. There is a crack in the foundation of Western culture. The structure is wobbling and we are in trouble.”
Long, Graham (2013) Love Over Hate – http://donate.waysidechapel.org.au/shop/viewitem/love-over-hate