The Power of Contribution and Compensation: A Whackadoodle lesson in setting boundaries and demanding accountability, along with a short reminder in how to add negative numbers. If you have entered this story in the middle, click here for the table of contents.
She sat with her head in her chin, watching me check her math homework. “You mentioned last time something about contributing boundaries and accountability if we want to be compensated with fairness and justice,” she reminded me.
“Hum hum,” I murmured, distracted by the mistakes in her math that I kept seeing. At last I looked up, “You’ve got several of these wrong because you keep forgetting how to subtract a negative from a negative. Look here,” I added, pointing to a particular line in her solution, “Negative 8 minus 7 does not equal negative 1. It equals negative 15. You add the two numbers, but you keep it on the negative side of the number line because negative numbers always move left on the number line.”
“But the equation is negative 8 plus a negative 7,” she insisted. “Addition move right on the number line.”
“You are adding another negative. Adding a negative, it is the same as subtracting a positive. They both move left on the number line.”
“This is why I hate math,” she sighed, taking her homework back to stare at it. “Too many weird rules.”
“The rules make more sense if you remember how number lines work.”
She looked up to stare at me blankly. “My teachers have not made us work with number lines since the third grade,” she said dryly.
“Well,” I stared back. “Perhaps if number lines can help you understand why -8-7=-8+-7, and why both equations equal -15, then maybe you should use a number line to help you stop making the same mistake.” I tapped my finger on the back of the paper she was still holding.
She sighed again and began packing up her math. I decided to add, “I’ve circled the answers you’ve gotten wrong. Your mistakes are always based on the same confusion, so I’d like you to fix the rest on your own.”
“Sure, sure,” she assured me, but I had a feeling that I’d see the same mistakes again.
“You seem distracted,” I told her. “What’s on your mind?”
“Your stupid speed bumps,” she mumbled.
I was surprised. “You think speed bumps are stupid?”
“No,” she looked up suddenly. “The county is actually putting in a lot of them. I have a couple that went in close to my house, and you’re right. They make the roads safer for pedestrians, and the answer is so simple. People have to slow down because the consequences of not slowing down effects them immediately. Sort of how people click-train dogs.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“I have been trying to figure out how to use speed bumps in other situations,” she grimaced. “Situations that have nothing to do with roads.”
I wasn’t sure if I understood her correctly, so I asked, “By speed bumps, do you mean providing boundaries and accountability to everyone equally?”
“Well duh,” she rolled her eyes.
“So what situations are you talking about?”
“I don’t know,” she scowled. “Take your pick. Let’s start with the justice system; where if you are rich and powerful, you get treated differently than someone homeless and poor. Or how about the media, where if you’re a celebrity, you get noticed, while the rest of us are invisible. Or the Internet, where people are allowed to sell lies for profit, promote their own products, spew hate speech, and promote violence. I mean, people are getting so filled with hate, they go into nightclubs with automatic weapons. Oh, and let’s not forget the school boards who are trying to dictate what kids can learn and what teachers can teach, or the legislatures that are gerrymandering the vote.”
“You’ve got a lot of pent up worry in that heart of yours,” I observed.
“Well double duh!”
I watched her head swing back and forth like a bobble. I asked, “Have you considered that one reason you’ve been feeling so frustrated and worried is because you’ve been spending too much time focused outside your circle of influence and control? Remember, when you worry about situations over which you have no control and little influence, you end up wasting what little energy or power you have.”
I began to re-explain the circle of influence concept when she interrupted me, “No, I am not focused on what I don’t control. I understand the concept perfectly.” She began to imitate me as she continued, “I can only control my own thoughts and actions. I can only influence,” she paused. “I suppose that’s the trouble,” she finished glumly.
“I am not always sure how to use my influence.” She looked up. “In fact, I sort of feel like I have no influence.”
“Nobody starts out with influence,” I assured her, then felt a need to add, “unless of course, they are born into money, celebrity, or power. People like that always have a bit of a head start. However, for most of us, our influence increases in proportion to our contributions; and believe it or not, the most effective contributions have nothing to do with money.”
“Like what?” she looked skeptical.
“Like what are your personal boundaries,” I suggested. “What will you put up with from others? What are you willing to ignore, and what would you be willing to fight for? How far are you willing to go in that fight? And finally, what are you willing to contribute in order to enforce your boundaries?”
“What do boundaries have to do with contribution?”
“Our boundaries are something we contribute to the world around us.”
“What kind of boundaries are we talking about?”
“Oh no, no, no,” I shook my head. “You can’t just adopt other people’s boundaries. You have to determine your own.”
“How can I do that if you don’t give me at least one example?” she said pointedly.
I looked her in the eye, and I knew that she would not let up until I gave her at least one example, “Okay,” I said at last. “One of my boundaries has to do with how I determine my facts.”
“Huh?” I could see she was surprised by my choice of example. “What do facts have to to with boundaries?”
“Well,” I scratched my chin, considering how to explain. “When we are children, we have no boundaries about what we take to be real. Someone tells us about Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny; we don’t question them. We go to school, and we accept what our teachers tell us. We never question them. We go to church, or temple, or mosque, but we are not always encouraged to ask questions regarding what we are taught or why. Our boundaries are determined by the people and culture around us.”
“Okay,” she said tentatively.
“When I was younger, I was misled a lot by rumors, speculation, and opinions; so now, one of my personal boundaries is that any statement I hear has to hold up to evidence and scrutiny. I no longer trust one person’s opinion no matter how much I respect, love, or trust them. I need to know their sources. In fact, I like to be able to verify anything I hear using multiple sources, and I never automatically trust a statement from a self-appointed non-authority.”
“A self-appointed non-authority?”
“Do you remember back when I was leaching you about all the logical fallacies?”
“How can I forget? You even wrote a book about it.”
“Do you remember the argumentum ad verecundiam?”
“I don’t remember anything said in Latin,” she informed me.
“In English, it means Argument from Authority.”
Her brows knitted together as she tried to recall, “Isn’t that the fallacy which says that you should not automatically accept a proposition just because it comes from someone in authority?”
“That’s part of it, yeah,” I nodded. “But the fallacy actually occurs when someone with no authority on a specific subject is used to provide authority on that subject.” She looked confused, so I tried again. “It’s like, you should not take legal advice from a medical doctor, and you should not take medical advice from a practicing attorney, even though they are both authorities within their own fields.”
“Oh right,” she suddenly sat up. “That’s the fallacy where you used the example of that commercial where the man says, ‘I’m not a doctor, but I play one on tv,’ then goes on to give out medical advice, right?”
“Right,” I agreed. “And it’s also the reason that I pretty much ignore any medical advice paid for by a pharmaceutical company, or offered up by a politician. In fact, I pretty much question anything I hear in a commercial, or read on an internet post. If I don’t know the source, I have learned to be skeptical. I am not gonna ask an Atheist about Christianity, and I am not gonna ask a Christian about Atheism. ”
She started sucking her lips thoughtfully, “I suppose that makes sense.”
“There’s more,” I added. “I also try to contribute knowledge not rumor, facts not assumptions. I try not to jump to conclusions, and I try to ask the right questions. Questions that require people to speak in specifics.”
“What do you mean, specifics?”
“Well,” I considered. “For example, this morning I was listening to a few people being interviewed as they exited the Georgia Senatorial runoff. This one guy said that he had voted for his candidate because they both ‘thought the same.’ They both believed that the government should stay out of their lives. The interviewer let that statement go, but I would have asked a bunch of follow ups.”
“I would have asked what part of the government he thought should get out of his life. The police? The fire department? Roads, rail, tunnels, and bridge infrastructure? Voting rights, or voting procedures? The justice system? Military defense? Public schools? Libraries? Environmental protections? Reproductive rights? Civil rights? I would have asked him to tell me what specific changes he would like to make in the government he wants out of his life.”
“I don’t see how that would help. I bet that all those questions would just make him angry.”
“I’ll take that bet,” I retorted. “I don’t think he would instantly get angry. Not if I asked my questions sincerely. Not if my intention was to truly understand his point of view. Not if I wanted to inspire a critical conversation between two distinct points of view, rather than simply mock and demean his point of view.”
“I still don’t see how this has anything to do with contribution, or boundaries.”
“Can’t you see that seeking to understand someone is one of the greatest contributions you can make? It’s easy to dismiss someone that you disagree with as misinformed, deluded, lied to, confused, stupid, prejudiced, enemy, corrupt, or criminal. The list goes on and on, but I have found that labeling others does little to change them. In dealing with people one-on-one, understanding is everything. You need to understand and respect their boundaries, and you need to make clear your boundaries and demand that they respect them.”
“But what if they don’t respect your boundaries?”
“Well that’s a whole other story,” I smirked. “That’s when you need to be able to enforce your boundaries with consequences that matter, without destroying a relationship.”
“I remember in your book, you wrote about three strikes you’re out. You warned the kids in your class that you don’t want them making guns out of Legos; that was strike one. When they still made guns out of the Legos, you explained what would happen if they did it again; that was strike two. When they did it a third time, you took the Legos away from them, so they could not play with them for a month.”
“That kind of thing works with kids when you have some authority,” I laughed. “But it is not that much different with adults.”
“How does it work with adults?”
“You have to get comfortable with setting your boundaries, and then calling people out when your boundaries have been crossed.” I added as a warning, “You will usually have a better result if you call out the action, not the person. Call out the lie, not the liar.”
“You always come back to that concept. I still don’t really get it”
“Well, if you call someone a liar, they can spin what you said into, ‘Why are you calling me a liar? I am not a lair. That is so unjust of you. I’m am the victim here because you’re labeling me. You are destroying my reputation. You are out to get me.'”
“Don’t you see that by calling someone a lair, you are giving them an opportunity to put you on the defensive. They can demand that you prove your accusation. However, when you call out a lie by asking for proof and evidence, you are putting the liar on the defensive. You are asking them to prove their lie. Big difference.”
“Hum,” she sat considering my statement. “So what kind of boundaries do you set?”
“Oh man,” I laughed. “That always depends on the circumstances. Will I deny you a reward? Will I not take your phone calls? Will I stage a non-violent protest to get media attention? Will I get everyone I know to boycott your product, or all of my allies to sanction your country? Will I take you to court? Will I contact the media? Will I write a parody about you? Will I take away your Legos?” I shook my head before adding, “Your options are only limited by your own imagination and your circle of influence. Just be sure that when you do create a boundary, make your demands and consequences clear, and then be ready to enforce those consequences. Go it?”
“Good,” I smiled before adding one last thought. “And please never forget the most important power of contribution and compensation.”
“Contribute violence, and you will be compensated with violence. Contribute understanding, and you will begin to understand.”
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