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Our Brother’sKeeper

“Everyone is an idiot, not just the people with low SAT scores. The only differences among us is that we’re idiots about different things at different times. No matter how smart you are, you spend much of your day being an idiot.”

– Scott Adams, “The Dilbert Principle”

Three years ago, I was attempting to return to normal life after dealing with my brother’s suicide.  I had no idea how awful my own life was about to become.  Then again, this piece showed that I had a clue.  Yes, I have my moments when I can’t cope with things most of you consider simple and routine.

We all know someone who just can’t handle something we consider part of daily life. The guy who simply doesn’t “get” facebook, the woman with no interest in a cell phone, and in urban areas like St Paul even people who refuse to drive. These are all complications that are a bit too much for their simple life.

There are limits for everyone in this world of increasing complexity. We all hit them constantly, too. For many people, however, life itself just gets past them.

Dilbert is good at what he does, but clueless outside of it.

Dilbert is good at what he does, but clueless outside of it.

The definition of a “vulnerable adult” is “any person who lacks the absolute most basic human life skills by reason of not having learned them through the formative years of childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. A vulnerable adult is unable, rather than unwilling, to properly learn or properly maintain these skills, and is usually completely without, and unable to obtain, any family, friends, acquaintances or other assistive persons in their lives to offer education or assistance in these areas.”

That’s an eyeful, and it’s full of qualifiers. It’s hard to get out of responsibility for yourself once you are over the age of 18 in the US today. Yet beyond the extreme example that serves as a sociological, psychological, and legal standard there are a lot of areas in between.

As Scott Adams pointed out, there isn’t a person who doesn’t daily confront a situation that they simply cannot deal with. Many of them are in technology, but some are in social obligations in an ever more diverse world.

Many people feel angry when the world gets away from them constantly.

Many people feel angry when the world gets away from them constantly.

There are two typical responses to any situation where someone is made to feel stupid. One is resignation and withdrawal and the other is anger over having to deal with the situation in the first place. Much of our politics today comes from anger which comes from people who suddenly find themselves living in a world they don’t understand anymore.

This was made very real to me when combing through the life of my brother, Brad, after his suicide. He was extremely gifted as a technologist, an expert in both lasers and ultrasonics which can pump high energy into small areas. His twelve patents in the medical device area show how brilliant he was. His salary at the last company he worked for showed that he was extremely valuable.

Throughout his life, however, interacting with people was often difficult. Things most people would find simple, such as being at a party, were filled with peril. When he made a lot of money he started playing with stocks and bonds, slowly gambling it all away until he was broke.

This is not business reporting.

This is not business reporting.

Through much of this last week back at home I have had to get over the feeling that I have a blood feud with eTrade. Didn’t they know that he was a vulnerable adult who, for all his brilliance, was too obsessive to handle the world of daytrading? The short answer is no, they didn’t and no, he wasn’t “vulnerable”.

But there it was, this tantalizing world of high finance that promised more than anything else independence from the difficult world. Brad probably couldn’t resist.

The idiocy that we all experience daily should be humbling. It should be the start of a good joke told when friends come together. But sometimes the way the world gets away from us is far more deadly than we know in the moment. Many times we have no idea we’re in over our abilities until it’s too late. Like a kid behind the wheel of a sports car, none of us know what the limits are until we push them.

And at some point, we all have to be our brother’s keeper, stepping in to help avoid disaster. I wasn’t able to do that in time for my own brother for reasons that I will have to talk about later.

But that is the secret of how any of us are going to deal with a changing world that is constantly more complex, diverse, and closer every day. We have to find ways to laugh at our own idiocy and intervene in ways that are not embarrassing or insulting when things get out of hand.

That’s not going to require a lot of new laws, that’s going to take a change in our culture away from the sense of self-reliance that defines being an American. It won’t be easy, but it is essential.

We are all our brother’s keepers at some point. That’s only going to become more apparent as the noise of this bizzy, buzzing world only becomes more deafening.

4 thoughts on “Our Brother’sKeeper

  1. I had no idea of this history or that you had a blog.. This is brave, grounded writing, and very well done. Thank you Erik.

  2. Seeing the similarities between my life and your brother’s story, it seems that I’ve been just a little bit more fortunate here and there so I’m still around today. It’s a thin margin. My sympathies to both of you.

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