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Designing a Better Map to Guide Us

Every now and then my petulant 14-year-old daughter will extract herself from the latest viral TikTok video and declare her thoughts about a real-world issue. This week she surprised me by blurting out something that I suspect lurks deep in the minds of many Americans:

“Mom, I think we should get rid of political parties. We shouldn’t have Democrats or Republicans. All it does is keep everyone divided and nobody listens to each other.”

She went on: “If you are Republican or Democrat, then it seems like you have to believe or agree with everything they say. It’s stupid. People should think for themselves.”

Brava, my girl, brava.

Any history buff or Hamilton musical fan would know that George Washington agreed. He feared that political parties would end up destroying our nation as they compete for power at the expense of unity. Here we are almost 250 years later, living within a system that pits us as opposites against each other. George is weeping in his grave. We’ve boxed ourselves into parties that have turned us into knee-jerk extremes of each other. For one party to win, the other must lose. If someone says Left, the first thing that comes to mind is Right. You say Up; I say Down. I go South; you go North. Together, we are lost.

Like the compass rose on a map, to orient in a direction — whether literal or figurative — one needs an actual “map.” Without such a construct to serve as a frame of reference, all these oppositional terms mean nothing. Picture a random star out in space. Because no frame of reference exists in the endless universe, the notion of North or South is absurd. Yet down on earth we operate as though there is a map that delineates and orients us.

What we desperately need to face is the fact that the map we’ve been using is disintegrating. The constructs and systems we’ve created — economic, health, legal, educational, etc. — are breaking down a little (or a lot) every day: The pandemic is out of control; schools are in disarray; respect for the law is withering (from the highest levels of leadership all the way down). The economy is *not* humming along. Our natural environment screams instability. The reliable indicators we’ve always used to guide us in the past are crumbling. So what’s next?

I sense we are on the brink of something dramatically new as a country—even if it feels like a spectacular freefall. What’s clear is that we need to create a new “map”—together—impossible as it seems during this wild, paradoxical moment we’re living in. We may be divided into two political “realities,” but at the same time, we’re more interconnected than ever at a most basic level. Wildfires at one end of our continent create the smoke we breathe on the other end. People we’ll never meet grow our food on random farms in places of the world we’ll probably never visit. The very nature that feeds us and breeds us is one giant network of molecules that allows a virus to jump indiscriminately from host to host. We keep operating as though borders, walls, or ideologies separate us when in reality we’re a collective of beings hitching a ride on a pretty planet floating in the Milky Way.

The dualistic Left-Right/Up-Down/Win-Lose lens we’ve lived with has informed every system we’ve ever created as a country. If we keep looking through this lens it will break us. We can’t just keep going for the “win” without asking bigger questions: What is the winner winning? What is the loser losing? Are we able to answer these questions in a unified way anymore?

Instead, this country needs a new vision. We need to build a construct that encompasses all of us — not just one sector or another. The closest one I’ve seen is the Donut Economic model. It’s smart and easy to grasp. And it embraces the truth that we are one people on one planet while also allowing for individuals to thrive and achieve. But no matter what “map” we design (or re-design) we have to do it awake and together—by participating in our democracy. If you are an adult American citizen, you get to vote. It may not be within the ideal no-party system that George Washington wanted or that my daughter envisions, but it allows us to take a collective step in a conscious direction.

Shaping a healthier and more holistic “map” also happens outside of elections. One of the most powerful actions we can take is also one of the most simple: Share your vision for what an inclusive, ideal way forward could look like. But do it from a place of unity by removing any divisive Left/Right labels attached to the people you connect with or the ideas you discuss.

When I launched my book along with this blog a year ago I never would have imagined the life we’re living today. If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that we can’t begin to predict what life will be like next year, much less next week, or even tomorrow. And as tempting as it is in these times to lean into “wake me up when it’s over,” we can’t just sit back and see what happens. So when the future makes us nervous, maybe we harken back to the revolutionary days of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton where inspiration springs from the wells of gratitude: Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.

Indeed, how lucky we are — we get to decide the next step we take, and how we re-map our future together. I vote that we step toward the direction of becoming better people—all of us

Democracy may be the best form of government we have to shape our future, but it’s not without its problems. Learn about a great nonprofit dedicated to tackling those problems in Becoming People Who Protect Democracy

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