Are you contagious?

Contagion is the second most popular movie on Netflix this year as people turn to this 2011 thriller for some combination of information and escapism. I watched this movie when it first came out and remember it as absolutely terrifying. But not for the reason you might think.

Yes, the physical effects of the virus that spreads rapidly across the globe are devastating and graphic (it is portrayed as exponentially more lethal and dangerous than the coronavirus.)

But it is the spreading of fear and panic that is most horrific. People turn on neighbors, violently compete for precious resources and become primal in their quest for survival.

The circumstances in Contagion are more extreme than what we currently face.  Yet you can begin to see the fraying of the social fabric that binds us together.  Even as it is so desperately needed to protect us during especially trying times.

We have seen seemingly innocuous hoarding of hand sanitizer (which is now causing a sharp increase of prices online).  I have read coarse online conversations that criticize closings and cancellations.  I have even heard of numerous reports across the globe of Chinese people being taunted, even beaten, for reasons related to the virus.

As public officials promote “social distancing” in an effort to prevent community spread, we need to better appreciate what is and is not meant by the term. It is specifically asking us to be smart about our physical distance and contact with others.  We can do this without emotionally distancing ourselves from the needs and feelings of others.

Fear makes us do strange and terrible things, often bringing out the worst of us when it is the best of us that is required.

So yes, we should be prudent and prepared to keep our physical distance, when appropriate, so the actual virus does not spread. But we should also be kind and supportive, closing our emotional distance, so that our goodness does.

For your information on what you can do to prevent the spreading of the virus, see this valuable CDC resource.

For more inspiration on how to cause the spreading of goodness in your community, skip Contagion and check out the film Kindness is Contagious instead.

“A true genius….”

In the the film, And Justice for All, Al Pacino gives an impassioned speech about the meaning of justice and its pursuit. He is defending a judge he knows to be guilty of a heinous crime and is part of a system he knows to be imperfect if not corrupt.  He laments that justice is not the aim of a court proceeding, winning is.  

Ultimately he must choose whether to pursue this objective or to sacrifice ego and reward.  You can watch here to see what he does.

The film itself is a lesson in humility. He spends the film asking questions, trying to figure out how to do the right things.  He willfully professes his ignorance while reaching for a higher goal – truth.

All around us we see examples of people whose chief desire is to prove that they are right.  To win. To win an argument, to prove our point, to confirm our existing beliefs.

In the workplace, with the students I teach, in myself, I have seen many times the presumption of knowing the answer and an unwillingness to accept that someone might have a better answer, idea or approach.

Einstein himself said, “A true genius admits that he/she knows nothing.”  Yet all around us we see self-anointed geniuses who profess to know everything.

There are many benefits of humility. Research shows that people who are humble do better at work, in their relationships. They are more helpful and generous to others and better leaders.  And perhaps not surprisingly, students who are humble and willing to be wrong or admit their ignorance actually do better in school.

In our schools, workplace, and culture we find few examples of rewarding or recognizing humility, despite these many benefits.

Winning?  Well, we see that recognized and rewarded everywhere. 

If you have the chance and you can think of any examples of humility in our culture or in your lives, please share. We can all probably use a larger dose of it. 

Heroic Hospitality

Recently, we took our daughters to go see the play, Come From Away. It tells the story of how the small town of Gander, Newfoundland came to the aid of over 7,000 passengers whose planes were forced to land as American airspace was closed in the minutes after the 9/11 attacks. They provided not only lodging, food, and clothes, but also comfort, compassion and love to the strangers who doubled the size of the town’s population for almost a week.  

While 9/11 is unquestionably one of our nation’s most tragic events, this play captures a lesser told aspect of the events that followed. When people came to the aid of others, bringing kindness and charity and help to anyone who needed it.

Sadly, I knew people who died that day and others, who while spared by fate or circumstance, were traumatized by the events that day.

I lived and worked close enough to the towers that I was displaced from my home for weeks.  So I spent the majority of that first day surrounded by strangers all searching for some way to help someone else. With some I shared a blood type and a city bus that escorted us “universal donors” from one hospital to another. Later with others, I shared a desire to volunteer and a seat in a high school auditorium.

The American Red Cross asked those of us who had experience conducting interviews to interview everyone else – to better assess the skills that might later be useful.  Who spoke what languages? Who had construction experience? Who could provide grief counseling? I have no idea how many or how long I interviewed. But I still recall clearly the longing I saw in each face, a shared desire, a desperate need, to help in any possible way.

As I watched Come From Away, the first tear I shed was not of sadness but of appreciation.  Watching the community come together anticipating the needs of these thousands of strangers brought me back to my time in that auditorium and on that bus.

I remembered seeing the eyes of the bus driver, who looked back at us from his rear view mirror.  Saying that “I was never prouder to be a New Yorker than I am right now driving this bus.”

The same day we saw Come From Away, a wonderful display of people coming together, I watched six people with professed shared values, tear each other apart on the Democratic Debate stage. It was a sad embodiment of a process ripe with infighting and short on unity. One marked more by daily desperate pleas for our cash than by calls to act compassionately toward one another.  

The title of the play refers to a Canadian phrase to describe people not from Newfoundland. It is a tell of our times, that there have been recent discussions to ban the term “come from away” as some may construe it as divisive and unwelcoming. This is a far cry from a phrase one reviewer used to describe the play, calling it “a portrait of heroic hospitality under extraordinary pressure.” 

Which begs this question, does “heroic hospitality” or coming together require extraordinary pressure or national tragedy?  Or can we find ways to bravely show compassion for each other in our daily lives. 

Let’s see how your mind works

In this interview, Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, recounted what attributes are common among musicians. One that resonated was the idea of musicians having especially patterned minds. The term refers to the ability to remember and think in patterns. In music this comes in especially handy in remembering chord progressions, lyrics etc. For an average person, we might be able to recite the words to a song we know only if we begin at a familiar place, like the beginning or at the chorus. For a skilled musician, they are likely able to pick up anywhere in a song and just go from there.

As a novice guitar player, this rings particularly true, as I often struggle to remember chord patterns and become too reliant on reading the music vs. intuitively playing a song.

Inspired by Grohl, I went searching for a better understanding of the patterned mind and found this fascinating article. While it provided an accessible explanation of the neuroscience behind a patterned mind, it was the day to day examples that were most revealing.

For instance, in your mind recite your social security number. Easy right?  You know that pattern. Now try reciting it backwards. Not so simple.

Or try this. What word is this?   “Appl_”. As you read this, you presumably filled in the blank and knew the word was apple before you even got to the end. These are both examples of how we condense and process information into familiar patterns.

On one hand this makes our lives infinitely easier but on the other, as the article points out, it can also lead to oversimplification and blindspots.

When our mind fills in the blanks based on familiar patterns we can jump to incorrect conclusions. When we see something and assume it is similar to what we’ve seen before we miss exceptions and opportunities.

So what are we to do?  Well it starts with having a basic awareness that this is happening.  Patterns are foundational to our thought process and provide an incredible service. But if we only think in patterns we become robotic and prone to error. Our intelligence becomes artificial.

Which brings me back to Grohl. Among the other attributes among musicians he admires were openness, humility, diversity, and curiosity. In other words, traits that take us out of our patterns – introducing us to new information and inspiration and eventually leading to something new and original.  

And that should be music to our ….  (I hope you inserted any word other than ears).

That’s Weak

Over the last two weeks, I have spent more time on my back than on my feet. I cannot recall a flu that has hit so hard and lasted so long.  While there were the usual aches and pains, nothing has been more persistent and debilitating than the constant state of fatigue and weakness.

There is a helplessness that goes with such weakness. You have no strength for much of anything — to stand, to walk, to eat, to read, to watch, to work, to talk.  You are useless to your children and if you’re fortunate – like I am – you have an incredibly strong partner to do the work of two parents. While appreciated, witnessing the strength of others actually makes you feel weaker.

In our society, it is hard to imagine a trait that we look down upon more in ourselves and in others, than weakness. No one likes to feel weak or see weakness.

We perceive weakness as the opposite of strength.  And we often see both as something within our control.  We chose to be strong or weak.

But what is really happening when we feel weak?

In the case of the flu, a virus is introduced into our system. This infection is, in and of itself, a bad thing. However, many of the symptoms including fatigue and weakness are actually caused by your body fighting this infection.  The energy required to destroy influenza cells actually depletes your ability to do much else.

How ironic that what we perceive as weakness is actually a mask for a system acting out of strength?

This applies not only to the flu but also to what may be happening when people are struggling with a whole number of ailments that some see as weakness – from poverty to unemployment to depression. 

The next time you are feeling weak or tempted to judge others for their perceived weakness, look beyond what meets the eye.  Instead imagine the fight going on behind the scenes in an effort to get better.

This Week in Courage

As many lament what they see as a lack of moral courage in our politics and society, it perhaps is helpful to take pause and appreciate how rare and special this particular type of courage actually is.

Over a hundred years ago, Claude Monet wrote “It is a tragedy that we live in a world where physical courage is so common, and moral courage is so rare.”

Fifty years later General George Patton said, “Moral courage is the most valuable and usually the most absent characteristic in men.”

And perhaps Robert Kennedy said it best when writing:  “Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change the world which yields most painfully to change.”

It is easy to lament its absence and call people cowards who in our eyes fail to stand up for what is right. 

It is far more difficult to find ways to exercise moral courage in our own lives or at the very least call attention to others who bravely act on moral grounds despite their own self interests.

Imagine if there was a newsletter called, This Week in Moral Courage.  What would you read about? What could you contribute?

The answers don’t come easily to me either. But it is something worth imagining, even aspiring towards.  These are the stories we must write and find, to share with our fellow citizens and teach our children if we wish to see more of it in others. 

That is very kind of you

“That is very kind of you”  I said to the man on the train who offered up his seat so I could sit next to my mother.  I’m not sure why I used that somewhat antiquated phrase. Perhaps it is because I have been thinking of kindness a lot lately.

It began last month when my wife and I took our three daughters to see Little Women. In previous readings of the book and versions of the movie, I – like most – was primarily invested in the success of the independently-minded Jo March. But in this latest version, it is her kindly sister Beth who shines most brightly. And while her generosity of spirit is most notable, the movie is replete with acts of kindness. In fact, one cannot think of a significant character in the movie who does not commit an act of kindness for another.

I began wondering why this wasn’t clearer in my previous viewings and readings of the same basic material.  Why are we so drawn to rooting for the success of one while missing a chief characteristic of them all?

Part of the answer was revealed in a recent Atlantic article, titled:  Stop Trying to Raise Successful Kids: And start raising kind ones. The authors write “Kindness and concern for others are held as moral virtues in nearly every society and every major religion. But when you ask children what their parents want for them, 81 percent say their parents value achievement and happiness over caring.”

If even our children see us prioritizing success over caring, it is little wonder why we ourselves see it more plainly in acts of fiction and life. 

Like many parents, we spend so much of our “free time”  involved in organized sports and other activities which have some type of defined success built into them. You win a game, learn a new skill, have a successful performance.  All valuable experiences, but are there other ways to organize their time – not for success but for others? 

Last week, my wife and another family took the children shopping to buy hats, gloves and then baked cookies for the homeless.  Later that afternoon, through Sunshine Snail Mail, they  huddled around a coffee table and wrote postcards sending kind thoughts to strangers who signed up saying they could use a little support.  One of my favorites was “Imagine I’m sending you a warm hug right now” sent to an elderly woman who had just gone through three surgeries. Is it possible that this one day could be more important for the development of their character than a season of soccer?

Our culture is more individualistic than most. Our chief narrative, the American Dream, teaches us that if YOU work hard enough you can become anything.  That “anything” is implicitly understood to be some type of personal achievement.

Yet what if we aspired to a different definition. One captured in this quote by Jennifer Dukes Lee: 

“In a world where you can be anything, be kind.”

Recognizing and naming the kindness around us, whether delivered in a movie, on a postcard from a child or by a stranger on a train, very simply perpetuates more of it.

And who could argue that the world could use a little more kindness. 

I hope you see and spread some today.

Cats & Dogs: Two stories about kids and culture

As I walked my dog on a blistery January morning, I noticed that every block or two, bundled up children were being dutifully escorted to their street corner. Waiting for the bus to take them to elementary school.

It would be impossible to know the exact political orientation of the parents and grandparents who had risen early and braved the cold that morning.  But given that particular Pennsylvania town’s voting history, one might surmise that it was divided politically. 

Yet here they were, united through the love of their children and belief in public education.

There is nothing extraordinary about putting your child on the school bus, except as a subtle expression of our culture, which Seth Godin often refers to as “People like us, do things like this.”

Two weeks later, I sat in a New York City movie theatre with thirteen girls between the ages of eight and twelve. It was my oldest daughter’s birthday party. As a musical theatre buff, she was desperate to see the movie adaptation of Cats – so much so that it required trekking into the city as low box office numbers ended its run closer to us. Despite its poor reviews and to my great surprise, this NYC theatre was packed – largely with high school students. My presumption was that they too were theatre buffs. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Within minutes, through their jeers, laughs and loud jokes, it became apparent that they had decided as a group to come see Cats for the express purpose of making fun of it.

Our group, despite the films shortcomings, were enthralled by the blend of classical and modern dance and moved by the music.  And while many of them shed more than one tear during Jennifer Hudson’s gut wrenching version of Memory, the high school students, as well as other adults, chose to laugh and yell at the screen instead.

After the credits rolled, my daughter and her friends could not fathom why people would pay money to come and make fun of people whose only crime was to use their talent for the purposes of trying to entertain them.

Regardless of the merits of the film, they asked, “Didn’t they have anything better to do with their time and money?”

Initially, I shared their frustration, trying to chalk up the high schoolers behavior to a lack of maturity and kids just being kids. But then, I thought, “People like us, do things like this.”

We reside in a time where our culture encourages and rewards those who spend their time and money, criticizing, scoffing, trolling, or lambasting others.   

In private conversations and public discourse, it is not just accepted but expected that people trying to do something good, will be met with people decrying those efforts. And like moths, even spectators flying about, are drawn into this same crackling flame.

People like us, do things like this.

We love our children and believe in education. But we also rage against the machine more often than we try to fix it

As these two examples show, culture can be a powerful force. How that force manifests itself is up to us.

“We are the flood and we are the ark.”

The last paragraph on page 194 read, “The most hopeless conditions can inspire the most hopeful actions. We have found ways to restore life on Earth in the event of a total collapse because we have found ways to cause a total collapse of life on Earth. We are the flood, and we are the ark.” 

I paused before moving on to the next chapter and looked up at my oldest daughter finishing breakfast. She offered an unknowing smile, which I half heartedly returned before dropping my gaze back to the page to hide my shame.

Ironically, this passage came from the book “We are the Weather:  Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast.” by Jonathan Safran Foer. I had recently recommended this book to a friend, who after reading it, told me “I undersold it.”  So let me avoid making the same mistake twice.  

This book is essential reading. The author takes us through his conflicted and complicated feelings about life, our obligation to each other and to our planet. With great humility he chronicles his deeply personal struggles to square his acceptance of climate change science and his difficulty making any personal sacrifices to address it.

It is a dilemma I struggle with in my own life. Perhaps you do as well.

In short chapters that are not in any way preachy but rather enlightening, the book will change the way you see your place in the world and offer a not too dramatic way for you to make a difference.  As the title suggests, it begins with breakfast and trying to limit the meat and dairy products we eat to just dinner meals.

If, after reading this book, you’re still not convinced that you have a role to play and need a more direct punch to the gut. Then I suggest you pick up Greta Thunberg’s collection of speeches, titled No One is Too Small to Make A Difference.

Reading this book made me feel deservedly embarrassed, perhaps even ashamed at my indifference to this issue. While this sixteen year old girl from Sweden has earned our admiration, she makes it very clear that she doesn’t want it. She wants our actions.

To read this book is to force yourself to ask “WTF have I done to my children and their children and why aren’t I doing more to fix it?”

There is some interesting research as to why people understandably don’t engage in the issue of climate change more (much of it contained in the books I reference.)  But those reasons hold less and less proverbial water as sea levels literally are rising. As Foer’s phrase suggests, we are both the problem and the solution. “We are the flood.”  Now we had better hurry up and be that ark.  

First Day Back

For many, today will be their first day back to work after a long holiday break. Perhaps you traveled, spent time with family, enjoyed some much needed rest and relaxation.

The tendency might be to rush back into work, making up for lost time by sending out a flurry of emails, reminding people of what they owe you, requesting meetings, and trying to get everything “back on track.”

But this penchant for trying to catch up in one day has one obvious drawback  – what goes around comes around. Imagine if in the spirit of being productive or getting on “top of things” everyone takes this approach.

Pick your metaphor. Hot potato, whack a mole, getting a monkey off my back by putting it yours or cleaning off my plate by dumping it onto yours.

Each of those visuals evokes a negative feedback loop, one mired in stressful back and forth, wasted time and frankly an unkind way to kick off a new work year – for you and everyone in your orbit.

(And no, starting an email with “Hope you had a nice holiday” will not in any way mitigate this stress.)

What if you instead tried this?

1)  Spend most of your time just working independently on a project you care about.

2)  If you want to send an email, don’t ask for anything. Instead, send an email complimenting someone for a job well done.

3)  Finally, If you have meetings already scheduled, try to end them early. The gift of found time will be especially appreciated today.. 

At the end of the day, instead of feeling good about how much you got done, maybe you’ll feel even better about how much easier you made someone else’s first day back.

(And if that doesn’t alleviate your pent up work stress, just remind yourself of all the people who had to work over the holidays and didn’t have much of a break at all.)