The Forest and the Trees

We don’t often face a stunning surprise in our collective political life.  The biggest surprises in our society are usually the latest whiz-bang gadgets. Occasionally there are unpleasant surprises, like a Katrina or an epidemic – but we accept that nature has its own dynamics, usually favorable to human life but not always.  Every once in a while there’s a terrifying shock from outside like a 9-11 or 12-7 (last week was the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor) or, sadly, a murderer on the loose.

We don’t like bad surprises, so we have a highly developed alert system. We prophesy doom much more quickly than we process goodness, because being ready for doom can be life-saving.  We communicate intensely and profusely when we suspect something dangerous might be lurking around the corner.  But sometimes we are still caught off guard.  That’s what happened this election season.

So what do we do with unhappy surprises?  Let’s not go to life-threatening.  Just think of times in your life when you were extremely disappointed.  The trip that got canceled because your little brother got sick at the last minute.  The promised birthday gift that didn’t arrive – never arrived, because your dad had lost his job. Your fiancé suddenly broke off the engagement.  We all have our own versions, some that don’t seem important later, and others that still hurt.  Some were even life-changing.

Emotionally, we go through the manifestations of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance (not necessarily in that order). With the election, it’s like this:

Denial:  There’s something wrong with the vote count. Let’s get recounts in key states.
Anger:  Spout off about the latest outrage to your friends and on Facebook.
Bargaining:  Can we convince electors in the Electoral College to change their vote?
Depression:  Sink into apathy, and shut down talking about it.
Acceptance:  This doesn’t mean “it’s all okay,” or “we’re normalizing”; it just means that you are ready to re-set, like a car alarm that has been buzzing incessantly, till you’re finally able to turn it off and address the problem.

Now the brain kicks in, from a calmer state.  We can’t change what happened, but perhaps we can deal with some the negative effects of the unpleasant surprise. We can call this strategizing.  How can we keep this from getting worse or happening again?  We begin banding together:  Creating campaigns to write to Senators concerning Cabinet appointments, channeling donations to your party or to other organizations that can help, maybe even volunteering your own time.

But here’s where the title of this essay comes in:  the problem of the Forest and the Trees.  Strategizing is necessary but sometimes kicks in too early. Your brain will work on any problem you give it to solve.  If you aren’t clear about the goal, it will do its habitual thing, which is rework the problem that seems most up front.  You missed this vacation? Plan the next one.  Didn’t get that promotion?  Figure out how to spruce up your resume.

Politically, the equivalent is figuring out how to win the next election.  (And our brain loves it when we give it a win-lose situation to solve).

But this is where we get lost in the Trees.  Winning an election is not the goal.  Elections are a means to a goal.  The goal is a good, healthy society.  Elections are the way we choose people we want to be our representatives in deciding on policies and laws that will give us the framework for a good society. Elections are the way to plant the next bunch of Trees.

Our society – that’s the Forest.  Seeing the Forest means stepping back, looking up and around, maybe getting into a helicopter so we can see the entire area before we decide what to do next.

That’s what we mean when we say we need people with vision. 

The frustration with “Washington” is that millions of our citizens think no one has been up in that helicopter for a long time. They’re following somebody’s old map. They’re just paid to circle around. Or, they just hop in and take it on a pleasure trip. There could be fires smoldering in the forest and no one paying attention.

We the People are being called by this election to take our own look at the forest that we call American society.  It’s not okay anymore to just drive down the old lumber roads or trek the familiar paths.

Once we see the big picture, we will be able to set goals and accomplish them.  But first, we have a little trip to take.  Pack a lunch, hop in, and fasten your seat belt. More to come soon.


To my followers:  Sorry, I’ve been away from Inner Dimensions for two weeks as I had a conference to attend and preparation for that… thanks for asking!

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