If there is one lesson I learned from the Chinese during my time living among them, it is the universal reality of duality. The Chinese refer to it as yin and yang, represented by the black and white symbol known the world over.
Two is a recurring theme throughout all of life. It takes two to make a pair. It takes two to make a baby. It takes two to tango. We have two hands, two feet, and two eyes. We experience highs and lows. We are happy and sad. We become ill and get better again. We record our commerce with double-entry accounting. There is sunshine and there is shadow. The workweek has a beginning and an end. We live and we die.
In the Chinese world view, yin and yang define the universe and everything in it. They are opposing but complementary forces. One cannot exist without the other.
Ideally, yin and yang exist in balance. If a person has too much of either they will live in a state of great imbalance and the quality of life will suffer. To achieve the understanding that leads to peace and serenity balance must be restored.
Singularity is impossible to achieve. It is foreign to this universe. The path down each extreme of yin and yang is never ending. It is infinite, leading only to greater and greater disillusionment and angst.
I was reminded of this dualistic reality recently, in the simplest example, as my wife and I went on our daily walk. As we walked through an older neighborhood with relatively high housing density, but plentiful and well-maintained sidewalks, I casually observed how few people we encountered on our daily excursion compared to our experience on the crowded sidewalks of China.
Much of that, of course, is simply a function of population. In a country of 1.4 billion people, with cities that house in excess of 20 million residents, the lack of personal space is a given. Every public space is inevitably crowded.
Some of the foot traffic is explained, however, by the Chinese obsession with health and fitness. Elderly Chinese, in particular, spend a good part of their day outdoors, weather and air quality permitting.
The Chinese government promotes fitness on a grand scale and has installed simple exercise equipment, often geared to the elderly, in public spaces large and small. No need for a large public park. Most installations occupy considerably less than half the area of a typical middle-income suburban housing lot in the US.
There are no elliptical machines or treadmills, and while the exercises don’t normally lead to excessive sweating, they promote skeletal movement and cardiac fitness. No fancy electronics to keep track of your heart rate or record your exertion. Just simple mechanical machines and, often, a couple of cement ping pong tables thrown in for good measure. (You have to bring your own paddle and ball.)
The scarcity of such simple government investments in such tangible tools to help fight obesity and improve general health is ironic, to say the least, given the amount of political attention given to rising health care costs and the financial strain they are exerting on government entitlement programs. Certainly such investments would show a better rate of return than public service advertising, which typically does more to line the pockets of creative agencies and media moguls than it does to improve the well being of the target audience (whoever that is, in many cases).
I have to believe that part of the reason for the absence of such obviously beneficial investments is the threat of being sued should someone be injured or develop a medical condition that can even be remotely linked with any particular exercise. Accident has been written out of the lexicon of American life and living. There are no accidents any more. There are only stronger or weaker cases for obtaining a financial windfall.
We like to blame the lawyers for this reality, but that is not entirely fair. Insurance companies looking to limit their losses and maximize their bottom line play a role. Social media plays a role as well. Once a video taken on the smart phone of a partially informed bystander goes viral, only the size of the settlement remains in doubt.
Our democratic politics have come to follow a similar pattern. Virtually everyone in America, it would seem, other than the consultants, is unhappy with the current political environment. Virtually no one appears to be winning, least of all the American people.
How can that be? Our political system is supposed to be the envy of the world. At one time, in fact, it was.
The simple answer is that social media and technology have empowered the dark side of political duality in the same way it has empowered the dark side of legal accountability. Democracy is a noble institution. It demands, however, that the people exercising democracy are fully informed and knowledgeable.
They aren’t. And it has nothing to do with which political party you align with. It has nothing to do with your personal values.
Accountability is its own duality. While democracy provides us the ability to vote the bastards out of office, it provides those same bastards with a strong incentive to keep us misinformed, a product of both misinformation and the lack of any information at all.
Technology and social media are dualities themselves, as a result. We have access to a virtually unlimited amount of information but the length of a day has not changed. As a result, consciously or not, we are forced to develop priorities. Which story am I going to read? Which link will I click? Will I, in fact, rely exclusively on a news source that serves to reinforce my existing and inevitably biased opinions? Will I only listen to those who share my world view?
That is the duality of choice. Choice enables accountability. Accountability, however, comes in many shades. The difference is in the world view of the beholder. And that world view is defined by our interpretation of the reality around us. And therein sits the sticky wicket.
My mother used to say, “Everything in moderation.” She understood duality. Not many people do any more.
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