Lessons My Horses Taught Me

Horse, Rider and caption, "Things My Horse Taught Me..."
Who and what we love defines who we are without us even being aware of it.

People who know me well know that I have always had an enduring “thing” for horses. They’re inherently beautiful in motion, even the ones with objectively imperfect hocks, with “unnaturally” high withers or with thin, scraggly manes that need to be roached, rather than grown out. I love feeding and grooming horses, picking out their hooves and yes, even cleaning their stalls. For years, horses, along with surfing were as close to obsessions as I get.

I haven’t always had horses & I don’t right now. I literally can’t afford them, never mind not having a place to keep them, here in Orange County, California. But the days when the beginning and ending of every day revolved around my horses are still vivid in my memory. There is something inherently satisfying about entering the barn first thing in the morning, just as the sun is rising to find your horse(s) heads craned out of their stall, bobbing as your approach.

I know what you’re thinking. Horses are nothing if not masters of associative learning. They’d learned to associate my approach in the early morning with a flake of hay and a generous helping of Omolene 200. They were just hungry, which is why Ran and Breeze always bobbed their heads at me when I entered the barn.

Admittedly, it’s probably just wishful thinking, but it always felt to me like it went beyond that. Breeze, my Appaloosa mare, for example, would invariably attempt to steal my hat when I entered her stall. Maybe she was just bored and found the game a distraction. Except she never did that with anyone else when my absence required me to find someone to fill in for me. I know because I asked. And when I let trusted friends ride her, she’d never crane her neck around to nibble gently on their jean rivets, as they picked out her hooves. She did that with me, regularly.

And maybe it was just anticipation of sharing a beer with me (Ran-Man LOVED beer) or an apple that would send him into a cavorting frenzy when I’d call his name while he was turned out. He’d amble up to the fence—treat or no treat—to renew the bond we shared. However either of them felt about me in their equine brains, I loved them both with that special affection that often grows up between horses and humans.

But as gratifying as these little interactions were—& whatever I or anyone else thought they meant—my biggest takeaways from being around horses was how much their communication is non-verbal. Over time, that recognition has spilled over into my interactions with humans.

To this day, I’m of the belief that one of the most important reasons to have and care for horses is to help teach us sensitivity—how we’re being received and to how we might be coming across to others. I have not and never will completely master either reading or controlling non-verbal communication. But I am certain that Ran, Breeze, and the other horses I worked with made me just a little kinder, more sensitive and a little better than I would otherwise have been.

Looking back on those days, I’ve come to believe that kindness, love and giving is perhaps best taught to us by our interactions with critters (or people) who so different from ourselves, that we can only relate to them meaningfully with conscious, continuous effort of heart. Perhaps it is that very effort that brings out the best of who we are, enabling us to see ourselves more clearly in others.

As 2022 winds down, I find myself thinking about those collective “others” who make up my immediate community—they who are part of my life and (more inclusively) that glorious, larger community that all life calls home.

Is it a function in part of my growing awareness of my own mortality? Of how much or little time I may have left to get me and my relationships right, whatever that means? Probably. There’s way more runway behind me now, than lies ahead.

I don’t know what life, however much I have left has in store for me. But acknowledging my own fallibility, I nevertheless hope to be true to my quiet pledge to myself for the coming year. As 2022 winds to a close, I pledge in 2023 to be kinder, within the limits of human frailty. Kinder with my eyes. Kinder with my words—even in the expression of sometimes painful truth. And my thoughts. Mostly especially in my thoughts. Namasté.

DB Sayers is a retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel, former corporate trainer and two-time district manager turned full-time author with six books in print and two more on the way.

How Marriage Works-Or Doesn’t Time to Rethink?

Traditional Cathedral Wedding

Medium, one of the online magazines for whom I write, regularly publishes articles about marriage and relationships. The takes on marriage and relationships run the gamut, from what could only be described as “traditional,” to a proposed socio-political-financial re-think of what we have come to think of as marriage.

One take particular stuck in my mind. Written by Matt Sweetwood, the article was entitled,  “It’s Time to Change the Way Marriage Works.” It’s still there and I don’t think it’s behind the paywall, so you can read the whole post yourself. But summarizing imperfectly, Mr. Sweetwood opined that marriage as currently practiced was a failed institution, to which failure he proposed the following remedies.

  1. Marriage should have a two-year expiration date with an “automatic renewal option, provided both parties agreed within 60 days.
  2. The marriage contract should specify the division of assets and custody (as applicable). If you can’t agree, Mr. Sweetwood suggested, you shouldn’t get married in the first place.

This approach, Mr. Sweetwood concluded, would: “fix the fundamental issue with marriage, to wit: “…a lifetime contract that requires no performance.”

His post elicited comments and for anyone who knows me well, they will be equally unsurprised I was one of them. To my surprise, a gentleman commented on my comment, suggesting I should share some of my thoughts under a post of my own. Having more guts than brains, I took his suggestion. Here it is.

Marriage…what is it today?

Can we start by agreeing on what we mean by marriage? Because like so many other things, in the the 21st Century, it has become something of a moving target. To illustrate what I mean, consider the following definitions from my “go-to” dictionary.

Merriam-Webster’s Online dictionary defines marriage as: “The state of being united as spouses in a consensual and contractual relationship as recognized by law.”

Alternatively, my older, hardbound Merriam-Webster dictionary (circa 1998) defines marriage as: “1 a: the state of being married. b: the mutual relation of husband and wife. c: the institution whereby men and women are joined in a special kind of social and legal dependence for the purpose of founding & maintaining a family.”

Traditionalists & free thinkers alike recognize the needle has moved with respect to marriage. After reflecting on both Mr. Sweetwood’s post and the responses it elicited, I caught myself wondering if we aren’t collectively chasing the butterflies while all the elephants get away? Is there maybe a deeper embedment at work that most of us miss with respect to habits of thought? 

 

Marriage and Myth.

Even if you’re not an anthropologist or historian, it the thought experiment of how partnered couples (and groupings of partnered couples) might have formed isn’t much of a struggle. procreation and protection. Given our relative individual frailty as a species & unusually long maturation process, procreation and protection seem like blinding flashes of the obvious, even setting aside any emotional component. But many of us can’t resist coloring the bunny.

Quote attributed to Plato on Love with hearts in the background

Plato seems an unlikely source for this flowery quote, but it serves to illustrate how deeply myth and magical thinking have become embedded in our notions of marriage. As empathetic humans, the foregoing quote, whoever was responsible carries a lot of truth in it, despite how ephemeral that truth proves in the harsh realities of life. Isn’t there more going on besides attachment? To a former organizational man, the answer seems obvious.

As societies grew more complex and we settled down around fixed crops rather than simply following game and gathering as we went, it’s easy to puzzle out how our fondness for stories and myth might have become interwoven with our pragmatic relationship options. Nor is it much of a reach to see how a relationship we now call “marriage” might become first expected, then codified to protect the social fabric.

Marriage...Fortress of the Establishment

Are not those myths (including the religious myths to which many of us fearfully cling) so ingrained in us now that we are simply blind to them? Or (alternatively) did priesthoods and “divine emperors” weaponize our vulnerabilities, exploiting until we began to believe our own propaganda? As a retired Marine officer, former corporate trainer, and sometime Board member, that’s been my experience.

Organizations irrespective of size are self-protective, not unlike the individuals who gave rise to them. Organized behavior almost certainly arose out of the notion of safety in numbers. But I’ve come to believe that over time, organized behavior evolved to serve a broader social purpose. Do we not now join organizations to leverage the power of many to ncrease our own?

Is this rather cynical interpretation open to alternative spin? Perhaps. But in many of our socio-religious, economic & political traditions, it’s hard to miss reason and change are amending our view of many of our most time-honored traditions and habits of thought. Habits at least in part responsible for the internecine strife of America’s culture wars. Maybe it’s time, as Mr. Sweetwood suggests in his post, to re-examine what we mean by marriage.

Marriage and Shifting Paradigms

The simpler societies in which our antecedents lived and died (often within walking distance of where they were born) were radically different than the society we have now. And if you’re anything like me, you may already be muttering under your breath, suggesting we really don’t have to go back very far to make that case.

And arguably, it not just the contextual realities of our times that have morphed. It’s both the paradigms that gave rise to marriage as we’ve traditionally thought of it and marriage itself. So in defense of the question Mr. Sweetwood raised, might we be better off acknowledging the validity of the author’s question, while also recognizing that traditional marriage still has a place?

Someone commented in response to Mr. Sweetwood’s post that social expectations have led us  to see marriage as what mature, productive members of society do, encouraging many to marry who (maybe) shouldn’t. If you’re one of those who have been single “too long,” I’m sure you can relate. Marriage has become a kind of default, and many those opting out will invariably characterized as “commitment-phobes,” irrespective of how well-reasoned their decision to opt out may be.

Marriage and the Ecosystem

With 7+ billion humans on this planet, with many, if not most apparently doing everything they can to render it uninhabitable, might not some of the reasons we used to marry now be counterproductive?

Yes, we need children, and yes, they tend to do best immersed in the love and nurturing traditional marriage often but not unfailingly facilitates. That said, if with fewer children overall, might we be (collectively) better at loving and nurturing them?

But if we remove children from the marriage context, what is the pivotal argument for marriage as we’re inclined to practice it? Perhaps marriage for the childless becomes an aesthetic choice with profound practical implications. Perhaps there’s valid place for Mr. Sweetwood’s modest proposal in some form.

Room, if you will, for more than one paradigm of love/passion/marriage - if we can all get over our own prejudices. And maybe taking the pressures of financial ruin and (in my opinion) misguided notion that marriage necessarily should be forever, maybe we can save a lot of unnecessary angst and heartbreak. Just speculating out loud…

D.B. Sayers is a decorated Marine officer, former corporate trainer/manager, and unredacted multi-genre author of thought-provoking contemporary fiction, whose characters are all dealing with the maelstrom of change that is our age.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one…

Stop me if you’ve heard this one, before. In the midst of a discussion with someone you thought you knew really well, it suddenly goes sideways. You learn they have a “blind spot” where their logic or education should be.

Because you’re invested in them, you want to set them straight, so you start making your case. They push back. Their resistance to logic &/or legitimate evidence is nothing short of breathtaking and nothing you say gets through. They counter with something you know isn’t true, but the more you try to set them straight, the more inclined they are to drop anchor. Been there, done that? We all have, I suspect.

For the same reason we as a species argue endlessly over (for example) the ontological mysteries of the universe or where to go for dinner tonight, we’re going to differ over virtually everything on which two or more strong opinions are possible. (In other words, pretty much everything).

Decision time…fight it out or let it go. If you’re like me, you’re not entirely happy with this binary choice, thinking we can have a “discussion.” But if you’re dealing with, say, motivated cognition, we could be at it a very long (and probably inconclusive) discussion.

Whether it’s the precise nature of “God,” however we choose to define it or what actually happened at the CIA compound in Benghazi, our beliefs have everything to do with how we see ourselves, our relationship with the Universe, truth and each other. Most of us have reasons for believing what we believe and…again, for most of us…those reasons are often hidden, nuanced and multi-sourced.

During the course of that discussion we were talking about earlier, did you feel that hot rush in your gut, or that self-righteous anger over (you fill in the blank)? That’s your emotion and your motivated cognition kicking in. You’re about to make a fool of yourself. I know…I do it all the time.

In the wake of  the 2018 elections, I’ve come to remember what I once knew, in my previous professional incarnation as a Marine officer. Opinions are not the measure of our worth. Behaviors are. We were not perfect when we took our first breath, and chances are we won’t be when we take our last.

But we can each day and every day, work to be the best versions of ourselves. Like it or not, we are defined by our actions. While opinions and facts matter, what we do with them is what matters most. Including knowing when to look someone in the eye and end a conversation with “We’ll have to agree to disagree.”  Civility and the recognition of our own imperfections is the beginning of wisdom. Arguing long after you’ve both stopped listening is…well, you decide.

A Symphony of Complexity

The Reductive Mirage of Simplicity

Maybe it’s an occupational hazard of being an author or maybe it’s advancing age, but for some reason, I find myself more and more preoccupied with matters philosophical. This would probably happen, even if I could avoid the news. I can’t and you probably can’t, either. We’re pretty much immersed in it. Can’t even get away from it on social media. (he observes as he adds a link to his latest blog post…). And I can think of nothing more catalytic of reflection than trying to puzzle out how the hell we got where we are.

The events of the last three years have led me to conclude that a significant number of Americans (U.S. Citizens to be absolutely precise) seem to have fallen for the notion that simple solutions to complex problems are generally our best answer. It’s not hard to figure out why. Virtually all of our political discourse, these days, is reductive. Whether it’s macroeconomics, international security treaties or negotiations, here in the U.S., we’ll bite on simple, despite of (or perhaps because of) the complexity of our world.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m sensitive to the undeniable elegance of simplicity. Reducing anything to a few simple concepts is a very seductive notion. And who hasn’t heard of the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid)? Maybe you’ve even used it yourself. I know I have. And nowhere is the siren call of simplicity more seductive than in political campaigns. Simple concepts are easy to understand. They lend themselves to clever slogans and effective if meaningless rallying cries.

With all that going for it conceptually, what’s wrong with trying to simplify things? I thought you’d never ask. Work with me a minute, here.

Complexity is baked in...

Let’s start with the observation that our world is home to a dazzling range diversity. It always has been. Never mind all of creation…just wrapping your head around one classification: Avians, let’s say. Ask any Ornithologist and they’re sure to tell you it’s a life study. Whether it’s something we think about or not, life writ large strenuously resists our attempts to simplify it.

Life thrives on diversity, in part because it allows for experimentation and adaptation, a bedrock of evolution. What adapts successfully survives, barring catastrophic events like asteroid strikes. Collectively, the dinosaurs were remarkably successful (and diverse) adaptations to their environment. Absent the hypothesized asteroid strike resulting in the climatic catastrophe that cut them short, might they eventually have developed intelligence we would recognize? We’ll never know.

In the same way that nature experiments through subtle and incremental genetic adaptation, humans (ourselves a genetic experiment) fiddle with ideas. Successful ideas adaptive to the environment giving rise to them tend to survive as long as the environment remains relatively stable. Please note, here, that I used successful rather than good.

It’s a distinction worth making. Successful ideas aren’t necessarily good ones, from an ethical perspective. It “works” in the context which gave birth to it, hence it thrives. A couple pretty obvious examples of bad ideas no longer generally accepted include the divine right of kings or the sun orbits the earth. But old ideas gave way to new ones.

Humanity and Context

But it’s worth remembering where those new ideas come from. Generally, they emerge from a new contextual reality. They are outgrows of a dynamic situation. The old wheeze “shit happens” is a pungent reminder that change is the lei motif not simply of our age but every age.

But there’s a pivotal difference between this age and all the ages that preceded it. Humans have always been change agents. But considering how much we contribute to shaping our environment today, it’s getting increasingly difficult to escape the conclusion we are now the apex change agents on the planet. 

We are shaping our future and not always for the best. And like it or not, some of the pivotal change agents are not copping to their role either in that change, or for that matter that it’s even happening. For the record, it is. Consider the graph following.

The foregoing graph, even supported by evidence is unlikely to move the stubborn atavisms prone to cling to obsolesence. I’m reminded of the old AA wheeze, “Drop the rock, you’ll swim better!” To which the obstinate alcoholic shouts back, “But it’s my rock!” We all get it. Few things are more difficult than abandoning (or even significantly modifying) a paradigm that has served us well for so long.

As with the bio-genetic adaptation referred to earlier, our adaptation to an emerging reality, even before it’s entirely clear what that reality is pivotal. What is unique to our adaptation is that we are re-engineering ourselves on the fly, whether we’re aware of it or not. And the evolution is much faster. Estimates vary with respect to how quickly the rate of knowledge acquisition is occurring. But if Buckminster Fuller’s knowledge-doubling curve is even close, what we “know” collectively as a species.

A couple of important caveats are in order. For starters, the knowledge-doubling curve above is a highly speculative approximation of what the knowledge growth curve might look like if the continued expansion of what we know continues. As a forecast, it is unlikely to be dead-on accurate, nor is it likely to be even. We should also recognize that the distribution of knowledge across the 7 billion human inhabitants of this planet, will not be very uneven, nor will all of it be accessible or readily applicable in it’s immediate, raw form.

Half an hour West of Tomorrow

Those observations made, the prevailing trend isn’t particularly difficult to puzzle out. When we fold Toffler’s concept of Future Shock, it is no longer remarkable that we have a huge disconnect in attitude between those closer to the leading edges of knowledge acquisition and those who are either unaware or even resistant to it. It is also painfully clear that at some point, those who resist assimilating knowledge as it is gained run the risk of becoming irrelevant in short order.

So, does the desire for simplicity in our lives have a place? I think it does, at least on a personal level. It may even be an indispensible component of our personal sanity. But extending that yearning for simplicity to our exogenous life in general strikes me as an unerring path to frustration and rage. I suspect that we left simplicity behind when we settled down to plant crops and domesticate animals for food.

The more ubiquitous and powerful humans become, the more complex our interaction with the contextual reality we call life becomes. Making America, Great Again is not function of “returning to our roots,” or how they did things, “back then.” We can honor our antecedents best by recognizing what it was that made them great.

Irrespective of the political, social, religious or spiritual framework to which they adhered, our Founders and the ones who followed and made us greater still, successfully balanced  honor for our traditions with foresighted innovative spirits. It is not that “simple” solutions, even to complex problems that we must resist. Sometimes simple solutions are the best ones.

Rather it is the reductive, simplistic thinking to exclusion of the evidence that we need to eschew.The future and the keys to it lie in our ability balance our yearning for a time when life was simpler with the recognition that, increasingly, simplistic answers are at best an illusive mirage. 

It is okay…even essential…to recognize when we don’t know. Not knowing is the human condition. What must change is how we deal with it. We must collectively recognize the global community as a community. A global community in which each human has a vested and legitimate interest in the impact of others’ individual and collective behaviors. In the same way change is unavoidable, so is the global impact of that change. Disparaging globalists or deifying nationalists completely ignores the truth. We are the world.  It may be a while before we fully grasp the implications of this new reality. But we can’t wait too long. The lives of our children and the quality thereof literally depend on it.

Fear or Hatred?

Aphorisms, Truth Vs. Fact

I must confess I have a weakness for aphorisms. There’s something about the taut simplicity and economy of words that feels like enlightenment. And of course, that’s the point. A well-worded aphorism should feel that way. For refresher’s sake, an aphorism is:

    “a concise statement of a truth, principle or sentiment.” (Merriam-Webster’s dictionary)

In the interests of short-circuiting philosophical debates about what is epistemically knowable, I’m going to focus on the principle or sentiment aspect, rather than “fact.” Facts drag a lot of intellectual baggage around with it, especially today. I prefer to view aphorisms like  Zen Koans. Aphorisms are not neither wisdom nor truth. They are signposts along the way. Work with me, here.

Fear or Hatred?

The last couple years there’s been a lot of angst richocheting around our country over our “direction,” the polarized divisiveness, intolerance, etc. And it has been argued that #MAGA and the “success” 45 is in part rooted in that angst. And it has been further hypothesized that the angst in which that success is grounded had its origins in the financial collapse of 2008 and/or the Obama presidency. As if racism, divisiveness or political hyperbole is new. But this is the United States, after all and historical perspective often gets lost in our quest for simple answers to complex questions, not to mention solutions implemented today and enjoyed tomorrow.

What do you think? Fear or Hatred?

You will likely recall Mohandus Gandhi as the renowned, non-violent activist and the father of India’s independence from Britain, in the late 1940s. Gandhi based his opposition to British hegemony on non-violence and religious pluralism. Given India’s religious and cultural diversity, it isn’t difficult to understand why. The aphorism above is attributed to him.

It would be hard to miss its apparent relevance today. But if you’re also a student of history, you’re also painfully aware of how it turned out for Gandhi personally, and for what subsequently happened in India…not to mention how radically times have changed since.

All that aside, it still feels true, at some level. Does not intolerance, suspicion and uncertainty have some grounding in our fears? If so, does it follow then, that fear is the enemy or is there something else going on? At the risk of disagreeing with someone  whose teachings, life and moral courage I admire, I think it’s a little more complicated.

Are we what we fear?

For the record, I am not contemptuous of fear, or people who feel it. As a retired Marine officer, big wave surfer and snow skier, I’ve learned a little about it and understand how debilitating it can be. Fear is often rational and justified. But while  fear may be rational, it does not follow that our response to it will be. 

My experiences suggest that fear,  (Mr. Gandhi’s thoughts notwithstanding), is not the enemy. Misdirected fear, or harnessed to the wrong purpose,  is. This distinction matters because it focuses on the response, rather than an emotion. Fear is as old as the caves, and natural as breathing. It’s often useful as well, insofar as it often galvanizes us to action. The problem arises when we allow it to replace reason. 

Okay, so what and why now, particularly? Fair question. These are fearful times. Uncertainty can do that to us, if we let it. And we seem to be letting it do that a lot, of late. It tracks along behind us in our personal finances, unless you happen to be one of the exceptionally fortunate. It shrieks at us in the howling winds of hurricanes and typhoons and leers at us in the flames consuming hundreds of thousands of acres in a matter of days. It’s operant in our sense of bewilderment at an age riddled with change so sweeping it defies our ability to make sense of it or see a way  through it. Small wonder nostalgia looks more attractive than trailblazing.

Through the shadowed forest.

Courage and Hope.

But as fearful as the times may seem and as trite as hope sounds as a remedy, in the jaded 2nd decade of the 21st Century, we must nevertheless hope. Individually and collectively we are larger than what we fear and greater than our challenges. All that stands in the way of our success is are clear eyes, open minds and the conviction that we can craft a future in which the fulfillment of all is not merely possible, but in the best interests of us all. 

Courageous men and women do not give in to their fears and they certainly don’t allow the fears to morph into hatred or tribalism. Both inevitably consume. Individually and collectively, courageous women and men connect and find inspiring beauty and wisdom in diversity and difference.  We are one by choice. Not by color or by philosophy but by conscious choice and a devotion to the best in all of us. Today, look a brother or sister you don’t know in the eye…and see yourself.

Dirk is the author of West of Tomorrow and Best Case Scenario, both available in paperback and Kindle from Amazon.