Dear Julia, Ada, and Elias:
The world is a little scary right now. In many places, the old ways of being are going away. Many people are having a hard time understanding where they fit in, and they’re reacting by making choices that go against their best interests. You’re not aware of this because mama and I are trying to not worry you, but it’s happening.
A few days ago, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. This is a big change in the world, and it was triggered in no small part by fear, ignorance, and cynicism. In the United States, a dangerously unfit man is running for president by stoking the basest impulses in people, and finding support among many. And he’s not the only one: so-called leaders are once again gaining a foothold in many countries by fanning hatred and fear.
I say “once again” because this has happened before. Almost eighty years ago, the world plunged into a terrible war under similar circumstances. More than 60 million people died, and many more were left without families or homes. I hope you don’t experience anything that awful in your lifetimes. But it could happen, so I want to do everything I can to make the world safe for you.
You’re too young to understand, so I’m addressing this essay to your future selves. I’m publishing it as an open letter because I think other people could benefit from it too.
As you grow older, you’ll find that people will try to sort you into groups. They’ll tell you that your choices in politics are between the “left” and the “right”. In the U.S., these roughly map to “conservative” and “progressive” camps; in other countries, the words used are “liberal” and “socialist”. (You’ll find that most societies put their own spin on the idea that there are ideological camps with different political aims.) People will also insist that you define yourself as a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, a Buddhist, or one of many other established religions.
These groups will often be presented to you as being opposed to each other. You’ll be told that much of the conflict in the world stems from differences between them. But these divisions are misleading. If you dig a little, you’ll find that people in the different camps have more in common with each other than they believe. In most cases, their goal is the same: they want a better world for themselves and their kids, just like I do for you.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any differences between people. In fact, there is an important difference you need to be aware of, one between people with fundamentally different worldviews. You can think of them as molders and dancers.
Molders are people who believe that a mold exists that can produce a perfect society. They believe that the solutions to our problems have already been addressed, whether by a sacred book, a political document, a party line, a strongman’s line of patter (it seems to always be a man), or some other authoritative source. If a society isn’t working well, molders will tell you that it’s because it doesn’t yet look enough like their mold. (Conversely, they’ll say that any society that doesn’t yet look like their mold isn’t working well.) All we must do for things to be alright is implement their system, perfectly. In any group, you can easily tell who the molders are: they’re the ones who are unwilling to compromise. You’ll find them on the left and the right and across the religious spectrum.
Dancers, on the other hand, are people who understand that both the world and our ways of living in it are always changing, always open to re-configuration. Dancers look for solutions to problems not within a fixed ideology, but by choosing from among the many ideas in the world and re-combining them into new, dynamic systems. They seek to understand their current situation as clearly and completely as possible, and then try things out. They quickly discard what doesn’t work, and keep what does. They’re always re-evaluating, always moving. They don’t consider anything to be beyond questioning, and are open to working things out. You will also find them on the left and the right and across the religious spectrum.
In your lifetimes, you’ll probably encounter challenges that we’re currently unprepared for. For example, changes in the Earth’s climate could leave many people without a home. Vital resources we take for granted — like water — could become scarce. Politics could become even more divisive as more jobs are replaced by technology. All of these things could lead to conflict. You and your peers will be called on to explore lots of new solutions, fast.
It’s always tempting to believe that there are easy answers to complex problems. Because of this, the molders will sound very convincing. (They’re always so sure of themselves!) But molders are ill-equipped to deal with complex problems, because molding seeks to constrain solution spaces to fit within the boundaries of ideology. By definition, molding excludes possibilities.
Your world will be in need of more and better solutions, not solutions formulated in (and for) small pre-defined worlds, most of which are long gone. Your world needs dancers.
In order to be effective, dancers must cultivate clear understanding. Clear understanding means learning to see and hear and think and feel for yourself. It means training your mind, and giving yourself permission to change it. It means knowing that you don’t have all the answers. It means educating yourself on the issues, and questioning what you hear. Why are people saying the things they’re saying? Could they be wrong? Could they have ulterior motives? Is there another way to look at a particular issue?
It also means being brave, because being a dancer can be scary. For one thing, you’ll have to create the dance while you’re dancing it — and often do it in public. For another, dancing can sometimes be a very serious matter. Life-or-death, even.
But you must also be brave because molders will do everything they can to “scare you straight”. They will tell you that you will burn in hell. Or that political change requires violent revolution. Or that people with different colored skins are coming for your jobs. Or that people who use the “wrong” bathroom will pervert your children. In extreme cases, they will even resort to murder. They will do and say these awful things because deep down they know that their worldview is a hard sell, and that people who are afraid, confused, and divided are easier to mold.
At this point, you may be wondering, “Who made the molds?” The answer may surprise you: many of the molds were made by people who loved dancers. Some of them may even have been dancers themselves. Entranced by the beauty and joy of the dance, they wanted to replicate it for others. So they tried to turn it a into fixed thing… To turn it into a mold.
But molding is the opposite of dancing. Molds are static and unchangeable. Dances are spontaneous and evolving. It’s impossible to mold a dance.
It’s very important that you understand the difference between molders and dancers. But it’s also important for you to know that few people are extreme in their views. Even the staunchest molder must negotiate with reality at some point. So if you decide to dance (and I hope you do), it’s important that you don’t hate the molders — no matter how despicably they behave.
Molding and dancing are not integral characteristics of people. They are ways of understanding and acting. Most molders are not evil, crazy, or stupid. Often, they’re just scared. Scared of losing their jobs. Scared of their neighbors. Scared of the government. Scared of wealth. Scared of people who refuse to be molded. Scared of going to hell. Scared that people will take their things. Scared of uncertainty. Scared of change. Scared of the world they live in, because it doesn’t — because it can’t — conform to their molds.
Hating them only reinforces their perception of you as “other” — as the enemy. That doesn’t help you, and it makes their situation worse. Hatred divides people. As a dancer, you want other people to dance with you.
Instead of hating the molders, try to understand them. Why are they scared? Is there something you can do to alleviate their suffering? Is there a way for you to bring them into the dance?
And if you do find a way to bring them in, dance! Dance gracefully, powerfully, and bravely.
With love and hope,
This post was originally published in Medium.