Right before Christmas I had an apostrophe. You may remember that Susan Scott in her book, Fierce Conversations, recounted a time when her elementary school daughter came home and shared that she had an ‘apostrophe’ at school that day. After a couple of puzzled moments and some clarifying questions, she realized that her daughter had meant an ‘epiphany’. So this morning I had one of those.
I was diligently reading my daily Medium suggestions which, as usual, contained an essay by Umair Haque. I’m going to take a break from my own thoughts here and share a few snippets from Haque’s piece. You may like (I hesitate to use the word “enjoy”) to read his entire piece (a 4 minute read according to Medium’s editors). You can access it here.
Imagine for a moment that you lived in a country with falling life expectancy. Where the young would never retire — and the elderly were often abandoned. Where kids overdosed en masse on drugs, to epidemic proportions — when they weren’t busy shooting each other at school. Where people died for a lack of basic medicine that costs pennies to produce — like insulin — because monopolies have jacked up the price to unaffordability. Where the economy, the social contract, the way of life, had turned predatory — and making a buck off the suffering and misery of your neighbour was not just acceptable, but the necessary price of survival.
You don’t have to imagine very hard. That country is of course America. And yet, almost never do you or I see these issues discussed — in any serious, thoughtful, or considered way. What does “serious, thoughtful, and considered” mean? Take the example. How about a conversation like this?
“Well, the Swiss model of healthcare is a mixture of private and public. People buy insurance on markets — but those markets are carefully regulated, in terms of what insurers must offer, and how much profit they can earn. And people get a subsidy the poorer they are to buy insurance from society. It’s a good system, objectively speaking — people are healthy, happy, and prosperous.”
“Wow. Why don’t we try that here? It seems like an intelligent compromise between private and public — an organizational model that’s been proven in the real world.”
But I have never seen the above discussion once in my adult life. Not anything vaguely resembling it. Thoughtful, considered, serious. Discussions rich in history. Informed by global comparison. Sharpened with pragmatism. Ready to take on the great challenges of a profoundly broken society.”
Regardless of your reaction to the dire descriptions that Haque offers, it’s hard to dispute his assertion that the conversations he suggests are rarely a part of our discourse. As many of us experienced the gatherings of families during this holiday season, I imagine not a few of us recall being told (or even suggested ourselves) that we should avoid any discussions of religion or politics. Don’t even think about asking Uncle Bill what he thinks about impeachment!
What if our current poverty of meaningful discourse and growing levels of polarization stem directly from our lack of skill, practice, experience or willingness needed to deal somewhat comfortably with critical issues? How many of us recall any instances in our school experiences in which we were encouraged or coached to discuss things that really mattered to us? I can personally recall numerous attempts by fellow students (not me of course) to try to distract a teacher from the day’s lesson only to be told… “There’s not time for that now. We’re working on quadratic equations, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, conjugating German verbs, etc.”
And here’s a question I’ll come back to in a moment. How many of us recall succumbing to the annual epidemic of “senioritis”?
Something in our hearts told us there was something more… something of greater importance than the fourth year of math, than of one more year of trudging through the anthology of American Lit, of weighing advanced physics versus another study hall.
What if we abandoned senior year as we know it? What if we organized senior year around the question “What Matters?” Not what matters in Advanced Physics or American Lit but what matters when you have to function as an “almost adult”?
What if we dedicated senior year to the transition to adulthood? What if we dedicated senior year to learning how to have difficult conversations? What if we dedicated senior year to exploring how change takes place? What if we dedicated senior year to learning how to move from an age of separation to an age of empathy? Or why society seems to be characterized more by anger than kindness? Or why we aren’t sure that graduating from college with loads of debt matters any more? Or why we have a Department of Defense but not one of peace? Or why in the richest country in the world, there are homeless people in our community? Or why insulin now costs $500 per dose?
What if senior year became the culmination of 12 years of learning, of testing beliefs, of forming new beliefs?
Couldn’t we/shouldn’t we at least try?