From the earliest of ages, we teach our children to say “thank you” when someone does something nice for them. This is undoubtedly important, as it teaches respect, gratitude and appreciation. But what if we also taught them to try and “hear” thank you each day?
When we hear “thank you” it means that we or someone else nearby has done someone an act of kindness. They have stopped what they are doing and held the door, offered a “god bless you,” bought someone a cup of coffee, or a million countless other gestures, big or small. How many times will you hear “thank you” today? Five, ten, twenty? Thank you’s are a direct reflection of the amount of good we see and put into the world around us.
Listen closely today. I imagine the more you hear, the better the world and your day will be. Oh, and thank you for taking the time to read this and engaging in Moving Up. See you’re at one already.
Consider the following two situations:
- Sitting outside enjoying a beautiful day, you overhear two people engaging in a political conversation filled with hate, offensive remarks and untruths.
- Later that day, you are scrolling through your Facebook feed and you see a short video of a little girl, blood running down her face. She is calling, “Baba”, “Baba”. Looking for her daddy after a missile has just ripped through her neighborhood in Syria.
These scenarios played out within hours of each other recently. In the first, I felt a little mad. In the second, I felt very sad. In both, while feeling something, I did nothing.
When confronted with bad things in the world, our instinct is to feel more than do. The lack of action can be attributed to many things but is often the result of feeling that our actions just won’t make a difference. While this feeling is supported by research, the reality is that our actions have more of an impact than we think.
Take, for instance, this recent article in the New York Times, Lessons in the Delicate Art of Confronting Offensive Speech, that said “a body of psychological research shows that even mild pushback against offensive remarks can have an instant effect.”
In the case of the little Syrian girl (who fortunately was reunited with her daddy), we know that people will give more and be more engaged when they imagine their actions helping one child not millions of children.
All around us, we see things that make us feel all kinds of negative emotions. It can be numbing. Activist, Umi Selah, told me, “What does it say when we scroll through our newsfeed and literally see someone innocently killed and yet do nothing?” I often wonder what I will say when my children are grown and ask what I did about the election or Syria or climate change or any number of issues that impact their lives because not enough people turned feeling into action.
To that end, I’m carving out some time to volunteer at a phone bank to engage in the election, signing a few petitions on change.org for Syria and making a donation today to rescue.org. How much of a difference will this make, I don’t know. But at least I can tell my children I did something.
Which do you believe?
A) Government should help all Americans equally.
B) Government should focus on those in most need.
Now consider this:
When we design for “A” we create things that we universally value (think Social Security, Medicare).
- They are devoid of stigma because we know they are meant for all for us and we each expect at some point to use them.
- They are generally easier to manage as they are centralized, simpler and the same rules apply to everyone.
- They become woven into the fabric of American life and are seldom challenged.
When we design for “B” we still create things that we all value but some don’t have access to (think food or education assistance).
- They are laden with stigma because we make judgements on why some people are able to provide these things for their families while others need government help.
- They are more difficult to manage as they are decentralized, sometimes create unintended disincentives and are by nature more bureaucratic.
- They are under constant scrutiny.
In option A, we build a solid new floor under which no American would fall. In option B, we spend our time constantly trying to fill cracks through which millions of American children, families, seniors still slip through despite our best efforts.
Consider, this recent New York Times article that suggests we give every child in America a monthly check for an even start. It makes for a very compelling case for Option A.
In other words, is one answer to inequality more equality in how government dispenses help? Fund the few basics that every American needs for at least a decent and humane life and we can all go from there.
Ironically this would mean both more government (in terms of the number of people benefiting and upfront costs) and smaller government (in terms of fewer programs and smaller bureaucracy).
To put it on more personal terms, what if we all received food stamps and free public college but no one received a mortgage interest deduction or welfare?
Would you take that deal?
This is the title of a brilliant new PBS documentary about television pioneer, Norman Lear.
It is also his philosophy for creating characters and for seeing “other” people. Whereas someone might look at his most famous creation, Archie Bunker, and see only a bigot, he instead sees a fellow American whose own life experiences have simply created a different version of himself.
In watching clips of All in the Family, it is hard to imagine these shows being able to air today. The topics are charged and controversial, the language offensive.
Yet these raw and real conversations are exactly the types of discussions that we should be having and seeing more today. A strong case could be made for re-airing old All in the Family episodes “as is” as a step in our national healing process post election.
In fact, the arguments between Archie and his son-in-law, Meathead, about race, gender, and economics could be pulled right out of today’s headlines. But what makes them different is that is they are unfiltered voices of two characters struggling to make sense of not just the changing times but the other person — a necessity because they are members of the same family. What makes it palatable for the viewer is that the laughter isn’t derived from making fun of either character but in recognizing our own frustrations in trying to connect with someone with whom we disagree.
Using this as a model, what if we saw everyone we disagree with us as a member of our family (in this case the American family) whose life experiences, while different, are just as legitimate as our own.
Perhaps we would spend less time making fun of each “other” and more time making sense of “our family.”
A recent op-ed by The Dalai Lama and Arthur Brooks discussed the benefits of feeling needed. Studies show that Americans who prioritize doing good for others are almost twice as likely to say they are very happy about their lives.
Yet their central argument was that the fear of being unneeded is driving much of the anger, fear and darkness that we see around us.
So what gives?
The reality is that we don’t make it easy for people to feel needed, go into service or help others.
Consider the following examples:
- Undervalued. Who should get paid more – someone whose life work is to prevent heart disease (e.g. President of the American Heart Association) or someone whose work helps create it (e.g. McDonald’s CEO)?
- Under appreciated. We say we appreciate our teachers, policeman, social workers and public servants. So why do we stereotype or second guess them so much?
- Unseen: What percentage of the stories in your Facebook feed or on the evening news are about someone causing a problem versus someone coming up with a solution?
His Holiness and Mr. Brooks quote Buddhist teaching that says “If one lights a fire for others, it will also brighten one’s own way.”
Yet as a society, what are we doing to fuel these flames?
In the last several months, I’ve visited towns where teachers, EMT workers and nurses could not afford to live in the very communities they served.
I’ve conducted a survey among almost 700 public service leaders, of which only 11% say they feel that their fellow Americans respect their efforts.
And I’ve talked to a doctor from Flint whose reputation was attacked for trying to bring attention to their water crisis.
If you’re tired of the darkness that surrounds us, you don’t always have to light your own fire – just find a way to help someone else’s stay lit.
In other words, instead of just cursing at the darkness, run towards a light. Not only will you like what you see, but I bet you’ll be needed.