This morning I finished the book Winning Now, Winning Later by former Honeywell CEO David M. Cote, having recently picked it up when David Novak interviewed him on the “How Leaders Lead” podcast. I found it a great book, if a bit specific to Big Company life, but that’s not the point of this piece. Rather here I ponder the pattern of books I read over time and the tension that reflects between desires for growth, civic mindedness, and happiness. Perhaps never has this proved a more difficult balancing act than in 2020.
The books I read immediately prior to this were Bernd Heinrich‘s Mind Of The Raven and before that Behrouz Boochani‘s No Friend But The Mountains, the former a fascinating and heartwarming exploration of the cognition of ravens I picked up when someone referenced it on LinkedIn as a counter to some sappy meme about noble eagles being pestered by nasty ravens, the latter a horrifying autobiographical tale of the author’s grindingly dehumanizing years long ordeal as a refugee within the Australian government’s immigrant detention system. By weird coincidence (or maybe not?) I found myself listening to the latter during my utilitarian slog of an RV trip from Ohio to Utah, feeling a little bit like a refugee myself while also knowing the comparison preposterous.
Having survived listening to Boochani’s harrowing account I knew I would need some lighter fare to recover and thus selected Heinrich’s tome. This approach mirrored a pairing of books I had made a few years earlier for identical reasons. In high school English class we read Tim O’Brien‘s book The Things They Carried and many years later I found myself listening to Bryan Cranston‘s audiobook rendering thereof. I think it may have been an Audible-recommended title and I was probably drawn to it by some combination of loving Bryan Cranston and thinking that being ~15 years older I might more thoroughly appreciate it. The second reading did not disappoint and yet, unsurprisingly, proved profoundly horrifying. One of the most memorable and disturbing passages follows…
In Vietnam, too, we had ways of making the dead seem not quite so dead. Shaking hands, that was one way. By slighting death, by acting, we pretended it was not the terrible thing it was. By our language, which was both hard and wistful, we transformed the bodies into piles of waste. Thus, when someone got killed, as Curt Lemon did, his body was not really a body, but rather one small bit of waste in the midst of a much wider wastage. I learned that words make a difference. It’s easier to cope with a kicked bucket than a corpse; if it isn’t human, it doesn’t matter much if it’s dead. And so a VC nurse, fried by napalm, was a crispy critter. A Vietnamese baby, which lay nearby, was a roasted peanut. “Just a crunchie munchie,” Rat Kiley said as he stepped over the body.
This is the kind of book that people need to read, the purpose being to ensure that we are not too ready to go to war, and the study taken up with the knowledge that the curriculum will make you physically ill. It is also the kind of book you have to recover from reading. In this case I followed it with Jon Mooallem’s Wild Ones after hearing about it on an episode of 99PI. Sometimes you just need a break from man’s inhumanity to man.
2020 has offered a triple horror of macro events in the US between the mismanagement of a pandemic, an explosive and long overdue reckoning over systemic racial injustice, and a sitting president attempting to subvert our democracy. Furthermore, while 2021 seems poised to be a better year, all of these issues will be with us for a long time to come. If you take your cue from the Federal Reserve Board, then you likely imagine our economy to be a dumpster fire for the next three to four years. If you you believe that we have been operating a system with racism woven through its fabric for centuries, then you probably cannot imagine that we will solve this problem overnight. If you feel relieved that Biden won the election with 81MM votes, you would do well to remember that 74MM people punched the “four more years” option on their ballot in one of the most uncivilized and divisive contests in US history.
The combination of real world horrors plus a profit driven news industrial complex can really numb a person out, but allowing that to happen poisons your soul and shortchanges the world, so I entreat you to consciously manage your battle rhythms. I thus leave you with The Parable Of The Choir which, to my recollection, I discovered earlier this year when a friend linked to it as BLM protests roiled the streets of Columbus.
A choir can sing a beautiful note impossibly long because singers can individually drop out to breathe as necessary and the note goes on.