Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.


We Are Social Creatures to Our Cores

One of the ideas in seminary that really spoke to me was relational theology, that we know, express, and love God through our relationships--relationships with ourselves, each other, all others, nature, and the world around us.  As this website (via a quick Google search) puts it: God is relational, present in every moment of our lives and in all entities and levels of being.  The world is interconnected in effect a giant ecosystem where what harms or blesses one, harms or blesses all.  So it should come as no surprise that I took all of my electives in the areas of social theory and social ethics, that I’ve had a life-long interest in sociology, that I’m intrigued by quantum physics and information theory and their focus on the interconnectedness of everything, or that I was drawn to The Social Animal by David Brooks.  I’ve already had a few long posts about the book (Imagination: Not Just for Kids, Perception: The Interplay of Habit and Attitude, Another Convergence, Intellectual Humility, and Good Thoughts, Bad Thoughts, and the Importance of Having Hobbies), and here are some more quotes of sections that I noted during my reading:


Adults should want two things, he said, and these were the two things he wanted from his own life: First, he wanted to have a successful marriage.  If you have a successful marriage, it doesn’t matter how many professional setbacks you endure, you will be reasonably happy.  If you have an unsuccessful marriage, it doesn’t matter how many career triumphs you record, you will remain significantly unfulfilled.

Then, Harold continued, he wanted to find some activity, either a job or a hobby, which would absorb all his abilities.  He imagined himself working really hard at something, suffering setbacks and frustrations, and then seeing that sweat and toil lead to success and recognition.

He knew that his two goals were in conflict.  Marriage might drain time away from his vocation, and his vocation might steal time he could be spending with his friends.  He had no idea how he’d navigate those problems.  But these were the things he wanted, and neither of them were compatible with the sort of peripatetic, freewheeling life Mark was interested in.  Harold had grown up in a culture that, for forty years, had celebrated expressive individualism, self-fulfillment, and personal liberation.  But he sensed that what he needed was more community, connection, and interpenetration.  He couldn’t bring out his best self alone.  He could only do it in conjunction with other people.


He found that whether on the left or the right, people in this world shared certain assumptions.  They both had individualistic worldviews, tending to assume that society is a contract between autonomous individuals.  Both promoted policies designed to expand individual choice.  Neither paid much attention to social and communal bonds, to local associations, or invisible norms.

Conservative activists embraced the individualism of the market.  They reacted furiously against any effort by the state to impinge upon individual economic choice. . . .

Liberals embraced the individualism of the moral sphere.  They reacted furiously against any effort by the state to impinge upon choices about marriage, family structure, the role of women, and matters of birth and death. . . .

The individualism of the left and right produced two successful political movements--one in the 1960s and one in the 1980s.  For a generation, no matter who was in power, the prevailing winds had been blowing in the direction of autonomy, individualism, and personal freedom, not in the directions of society, social obligations, and communal bonds. . . .

These policies had produced bad effects for a common reason.  They rearranged the material conditions in positive ways, but they undermined social relationships in ways that were unintended and destructive. . . .

In a densely connected society, people can see the gradual chain of institutions that connect family to neighborhood, neighborhood to town, town to regional association, regional associations to national associations, and national associations to the federal government.  In a stripped-down society, that chain has been broken and the sense of connection gets broken with it.  The state seems at once alien and intrusive.  People lose faith in the government’s ability to do the right thing most of the time and come to have cynical and corrosive attitudes about their national leaders. . . .

Freedom should not be the ultimate end of politics.  The ultimate focus of political activity is the character of the society.  Political, religious, and social institutions influence the unconscious choice architecture undergirding behavior.  They can either create settings that nurture virtuous choices or they can create settings that undermine them.  While the rationalist era put the utility-maximizing individual at the center of political thought, the next era, Harold believed, would put the health of social networks at the center of thought.  One era was economo-centric.  The next would be socio-centric. . . .

Everything came down to character, and that meant everything came down to the quality of relationships, because relationships are the seedbeds of character.  The reason life and politics are so hard is that relationships are the most important, but also the most difficult, things to understand.

In short, Harold entered a public-policy world in which people were used to thinking in hard, mechanistic terms.  He thought he could do some good if he threw emotional and social perspectives into the mix.


Then there are the psychic effects of inequality itself.  In their book The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argue that the mere fact of being low on the status totem pole brings its own deep stress and imposes its own psychic costs.  Inequality and a feeling of exclusion causes social pain, which leads to more obesity, worse health outcomes, fewer social connections, more depression and anxiety.  Wilkinson and Pickett point, for example, to a study of British civil servants.  Some o the civil servants had high-status, high-pressure jobs.  Others had low-status, low-pressure jobs.  You’d think the people in the high-pressure jobs would have higher rates of heart disease, gastrointestinal disease, and general sickness.  In fact, it was the people in the low-pressure jobs.  Low status imposes its own costs.


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