Consciousness and Culture

"Red Budlea," by Flickr user Kevin Pulker.
Title: Red Budlea | Author: Kevin Pulker | Source: Flickr | License: CC BY-NC-D 2.0

“Love is the motive, but justice is the instrument.”
—Reinhold Niebuhr

I have had a lot of heroes in my life. There are, of course, the historically popular figures like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Einstein, Churchill, and the Roosevelts (Teddy, FDR, and Eleanor). Add there are people currently living who make my list as well, like Nicholas Kristof, Gloria Steinem, and Barack Obama. As a result of some recent books I’ve read and films I’ve seen, I’ve even added some new additions that I believe deserve the hero honorific.

Bryan Stevenson made my list when I read his 2015 book, Just Mercy. If you don’t know his name and story, as I didn’t before I read the book, he definitely deserves your attention. 1984, as a young, black, Harvard-educated lawyer, Bryan passed up a lucrative job in a high-profile firm for a $14K job to fight against unfairness and injustice in the treatment of death row inmates in Alabama. His book describes the front row, nitty-gritty racial hatred and complicity of the legal system against African Americans. I use term “legal system” instead of “criminal justice system” intentionally.

After reading the book, there can be no doubt about the injustice and unfairness of the legal system in America.

In the book, Stevenson describes his lonely, dangerous pursuit of truth and the steadfast commitment to real criminal justice. He took courageous individual action at great personal risk to wage this battle. Stevenson not only founded the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama on a shoestring budget, but over 25 years, managed to build a formidable organization fighting for the rights of the poor and disenfranchised. Over the course of his career, he argued before the Supreme Court 5 times and was successful in having the court write into law that juveniles can neither be held in adult facilities nor sentenced to die in prison for non-homicidal crimes. What struck me in the book was how it showed that truth has become the enemy in our rigged, rigid, and racially biased legal system.

When I read the books Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi CoatesI, was blown away by the accuracy of the respective authors’ description of the African and African American experiences in America.

Just Mercy, however, destroys any illusions that I had that poor and black kids in America have an equal shot at opportunity, justice, or basic fairness, particularly in the South.

Ironically, on my airplane trip back from Punta Cana where I was enjoying my white privilege, I watched Straight out of Compton, Ice Cube’s film about rap music’s beginnings in South Central L.A. in the 80’s, just before the Rodney King beating. It made me reflect on my attitudes toward the provocative and incendiary rappers who dominated the music charts during that period. I remember being appalled at the rage and violence in their lyrics, and I condemned their anti-police rhetoric. After reading Americanah, Between The World and Me, and Just Mercy, however, I had a lot more empathy for the rappers’ message.

Let me be clear, I don’t condone anti-police actions, but I do understand the rappers’ explosive rage and murderous feelings. I’m left with the conclusion that there is still a huge white debt for black oppression, suppression, and depression. And it made me realize that no amount of white soothing can touch hundreds of years of black seething. Facile words are no substitute for fair power sharing. If I had any musical talent and any right to the experience, I would write a rap on the subject. But back to my new hero, Bryan Stevenson.

The reason I added Bryan to my list is because he elevated his level of consciousness to one of enlightened service. He remembered his poor childhood roots in rural Pennsylvania and decided to dedicate his life to serving others when he could have cashed in on his Harvard credentials. He also took the responsibility to impact the culture in which he was living and working.

An even more unlikely hero than Bryan Stevenson is Michael Moore. Unlike previous films (Roger and Me, Bowling for Columbine, Sicko) in which he pointed out wrongs but had no answers, in his most recent documentary, Where to Invade Next, he demonstrates that other countries around the world have a bucketful of solutions to America’s problems—if only we were open enough to adapt them (or reclaim them, in many cases).

Want a solution to drug abuse? Go to Portugal where they demonstrated that the decriminalization of drugs led to decrease in abuse and incarceration. Want a solution for crime? Go to Norway where treating prisoners with treated with dignity and respect has resulted in decreased crime rates. Want a solution to childhood obesity? Go to France where school lunches are gourmet experiences where kids learn to appreciate fine food and engage in healthy conversations over a relaxed lunch. Want to improve our K-12 education system? Go to Finland where teachers are recruited from the top third of their graduating classes, are paid well, and are held in high regard in the community. As it turns out, Finland ranks at the top of the list in student achievement tests. Students are exposed to a wide range of intellectual interests, are not burdened by excessive homework, and are not tested on rote memorization so that they can pass standardized tests. Want to decrease the burden of debt for college graduates? Go to Slovenia where college education is free. And yes, many American students go there to take advantage of the opportunity. Want to reduce stress related health problems? Go to Italy where workers get 8 weeks of paid vacation, abundant maternity leave, and are paid good wages. In this brilliant movie, Mr. Moore not only demonstrates his singular courage in exposing American idiocy, but he also shows real examples of what can work and how we might think about changing our culture. Michael Moore is a hero to me because he stood up for what he believed and wasn’t afraid to take on entrenched institutions, even powerhouses like General Motors, the Health Care industry, the NRA, or the US Government.

To me, the two main characteristics that seem to distinguish all these heroes are their commitment to elevate their consciousness and to change the cultures in which they live, learn and work. They all inspire me to take more responsibility for my individual consciousness and the cultures in which I participate.

As always, I need to create scales to help me understand the range of possibilities available if we were to take seriously the challenge of elevating consciousness and changing cultures. Let’s look at each factor.

Hero Factor #1: Elevated Consciousness

In my book, The Consciousness Solution, I review the literature on consciousness and suggest a 7 point scale:

7.0: Enlightened Service
6.0: Harmonious Inclusion
5.0: Empathic Love
4.0: Logical Analysis
3.0: Tribal Compliance
2.0: Physical Security
1.0: Survival Instinct

It seems to me that, at the higher levels of consciousness, people seek the truth, demand justice, and fight for fairness. There are high levels of acceptance, compassion, and forgiveness. At the middle levels, people are open to solutions but tend to be more concerned with their individual success. At the lower levels, people act out of fear, denying the truth and engaging in corrosive, corrupt, convoluted, and constrictive behaviors. In a New York Times Op-ed piece, Arthur Brooks said it well:

“Without consciousness, we mindlessly blow the present moment on low-value activities.”

I wonder what would happen if our mantra was the corollary:

“With consciousness, we mindfully invest in the present moment on high-value activities.”

Hero Factor #2: Commitment to Culture Change

In the several books I have written on culture change, I emphasize the importance of leadership and rewards. People take their cues from leaders and usually do what they are rewarded for. Here is a scale to differentiate levels of leadership behavior and rewards:

  • 5.0: Actively seeks interdependent relationships and rewards service
  • 4.0 Encourages collaboration and rewards teamwork and inclusion
  • 3.0: Welcomes new ideas and rewards innovation
  • 2.0 Protects the status quo and rewards competition
  • 1.0: Punishes threats to the status quo and rewards victimization

In my experience, leaders who relate interdependently and create an inspiring vision for the organization are those who are able to create healthy, collaborative, and innovative cultures. Research indicates that employees who believe their work is contributing to a larger mission are more highly motivated than people who are just putting in their time to collect their paychecks.

In writing this post and taking into account these scales, I needed to ask myself the question: Who are the heroes in my own life that I should take responsibility for helping in whatever ways I can? I gratefully acknowledge that I am resource-rich in my life when it comes to heroic friends. I can easily think about four heroes who operate at high levels on the two scales listed above in whose work I am actively engaged. You can find their stories at the links below. They are inspiring examples of what can be done to help our world. They are all full of love and are instruments of justice.

Dr. Artie Egendorf:
Due Quach:
Master Luke Chan:
Dr. Robert Carkhuff:

All of these heroes serve as exemplars for living more consciously and, through their actions, impacting the culture. We can all be more heroic in our own lives by taking more responsibility for elevating consciousness and changing cultures. I don’t know where the tipping point is, but I do know that we need to reach it soon if we want to realize our true possibilities.

Also published on Medium.

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