“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Victor Frankl
We each face a choice in every single moment: to act from a place of love or fear.
Fear wins by default, and for good reason.
At the core of the human mind is the construct of our ego, our self identity. The ego has one job, which it does continuously and effectively: it helps us survive.
This survival trait is selected for by the evolutionary process. This is why humans have cognitive biases with regard to loss aversion and a host of other traits that behavioral economists and psychologists have empirically demonstrated.
Ego and Fear
As human beings, we are not our egos and small, contracted self-identities. Instead, we are the awareness behind them – the spaciousness that watches our emotions and thoughts. We are the consciousness that exerts will and takes action.
Yet, left to our own devices, that consciousness becomes enmeshed in fear. We will default to a basic operating mode of survival. This is a place that feels contracted, rather than open. We focus on the differences between ourselves and others. Worse, we foment separation and sow seeds of divisiveness.
This dynamic is amplified at the collective level by our leaders and the internet. Our actions are contagious, impact others, and can be powerfully accelerated by the actions and tone established by leadership, whether they are leaders of our companies or our nations.
In America and across the world, there is an incredible amount of fear swirling around now. People cannot breathe—literally and metaphorically—not just from our physical masks and distancing, but from ongoing systemic racism, massive newfound job losses, and uncertainty about the future.
So, where does all of this fear lead to, by default, if we and our leaders do not actively step back and act from a place of clarity? A brief glance at still recent history offers a glimpse.
In the case of 1940s Germany, people felt the fear, anger, and economic loss following World World I. The Nazis began channelling this fear for political gain by defining an external enemy and dividing the nation between “us” (i.e., the Aryans or “true blood” Germans) and “them” (i.e., all other sub races).
Nazi propaganda leaders cunningly channeled and amplified this fear using stories and labels. This trend accelerated with Nazis and others perpetuating dangerously racist stories of blood libel and tales of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Next, it led to verbally labeling Jews and others as “non-German,” followed by adding actual labels on clothing, in the form of bright yellow Jewish stars.
This process ended in six million Jews killed in concentration camps, in high-efficiency killing machines for which some major corporations even filed patents. Nazi propaganda leaders like Joseph Goebbels possessed extraordinarily bright minds, but minds deep in the grip of collective fear. It not only killed one-third of all the Jews in Europe, but also countless others – including political enemies, homosexuals, the disabled, Romani people, other minorities, priests, and righteous dissenters.
Again, this was all started with labeling people and political opponents, which seems to be an increasingly notable part of our US political discourse on Twitter and in the media, whether through the propagation of outright (((racist labels))) on social media, or hatred sown by those in positions of power, who have the capacity to heal, but utilize their influence to turn Americans against each other.
Just two decades later, the founding story of Singapore — founded at a time of deep communal tensions and racial riots — concluded quite differently, as community and national leaders channeled this fear differently. I witnessed this firsthand during the many years I lived in Singapore.
Singapore was essentially created as a result of racism on behalf of a nationalist Muslim Malaysian political party, directed against a small, predominantly Chinese region in the South.
When Singapore was kicked out and left to fend for itself, Lee Kwon Yew (LKY) and his People’s Action Party emerged as a political force of nature, uniting the country through economic growth, and creating a multi-cultural society characterized by a peaceful co-existence between citizens of Chinese, Malay, and Indian descent.
LKY and his political party sought to very consciously weave together the fabric of the country across different ethnic communities, from ensuring that housing units have a roughly equal mix of ethnicities, requiring everyone to serve in the army, and carefully regulating displays of nationalism to be inclusive.
It is indeed a very heavy-handed, patriarchal approach. Some have called it a rare example of successful benevolent dictatorship, or a country operating like a well-run corporation. I am by no means endorsing all aspects of it; it’s near impossible to hold large public events in Singapore or publicly express dissent. That is a very heavy price to pay, and one unimaginable in a place like the United States.
However, I do believe that LKY led with the right intent: an intent to build a flourishing city-state where Singaporeans of all ethnicities could live safely and happily. It is ultimately that intent that has served Singapore well, despite being far from perfect. Moreover, it is this intent that has led Singapore from being one of the poorest regions of the world just a few decades ago, to being the fifth wealthiest nation per capita across the globe.
In 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin stood alongside PLO Leader Yasser Arafat—his lifetime military and political enemy—in the Rose Garden of the White House in a peace ceremony facilitated by President Bill Clinton.
What it took to get these three leaders to shake hands was a modern miracle. For decades, Yitzhak Rabin had led the Israeli military in campaigns against Yasser Arafat, a leader of the Palestinian people who had actively encouraged terrorist campaigns that took the lives of countless Israelis.
What I admire most here is the intent. Yitzhak Rabin felt the pull between love and fear, and I believe he acted from a place of clarity, and from a belief that in order to build a truly stable, happy, safe, and vibrant Israel decades from now, peace was needed. This peace would allow Israel to protect its borders and people, first and foremost, but simultaneously acknowledge the Palestinian right to co-exist in their own peaceful and vibrant society.
Rabin ultimately paid the price of his life for the gesture, killed at his own peace rally by a Jewish extremist driven by fear, separation, and hatred of a world that acknowledges multiple narratives. Years later, hawkish Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also took a similar turn toward peace in his later years. We’ve yet to see that recently, but I remain hopeful.
In the end, however, it is the intent that I look back on, and the intent that I know millions of Israelis and Palestinians still yearn for, despite the mounting forces of divisiveness and racism that increasingly divide Jewish Israelis, Arab Israelis, and Palestinians.
Enter 2020s America
This feels like a truly defining moment in American history. At its heart, this is essentially a choice between love and fear. We can focus on our common humanity, and ways to uplift the wellbeing of all Americans, or focus on the differences between us.
It’s clear that very powerful forces are pulling for fear. The classic Russian Cold War playbook calls for dividing, and we saw that in our last election, with specialized Russian intelligence units using our own social media to pit Americans against Americans, to have us focus more on our differences than what unites us.
Those forces are empowered by fear and economic hardship. However, we’ve seen this story play out in different ways. In 1940s Germany, it involved labeling groups of people as the problem, rounding them up, and killing millions. In 1960s Singapore, it involved a strong leader working for decades to heavy-handedly squelch the forces of divisiveness and build an economic powerhouse. In 1990s Israel, it involved one hardcore right-wing leader uniting the left and right political factions and making peace, and ultimately paying his own life.
A Commitment of Right Intent
The story of 2020s America is yet to be complete, but it is a test for each of us as individuals and a nation.
We are 300 million strong, and have always been a nation of immigrants, innovators, and survivors.
I don’t yet know what the components of a right answer looks like yet, but I know that I am committed to finding those.
I’m committed to sitting in the question.
I’m committed to listening to the messages of those taking to the streets.
I’m committed to speaking out against systemic racism.
I’m committed to working toward economic justice and broad economic uplift.
I’m committed to listening to others on any side of the political spectrum.
I’m committed to advocating for what I believe is right, in a way that allows others—even with differing views—to have a fighting chance to hear me.
With ancestors that survived the holocaust, and as an American, an Israeli, and former Singapore resident, I’ve seen how this story has played out around the world, toward both uplift and division.
I look forward to doing my small part to bring the right intention to all aspects of my life, operate from love rather than fear, catch myself and others when we slip, and keep moving forward on the messy track toward collective progress and upliftment.