Feeling/Doing

“In one word, write down how you are feeling right now.”  

This was how I started each class over the last month at the two different universities where I teach.   

Students were encouraged not to use terms already added to the zoom chat by another student. Some results were predictable.  Anxious, tired, afraid, nervous, unsure – always made the list. More practical needs were also expressed – allergic, hungry – as were, albeit more rarely,  the aspirational – hopeful, grateful.

This simple exercise created an opening to a dialogue that put that day’s lesson in its proper context.   

Some students were waking up at 3:00AM to join class from South Korea or China – often having internet issues, especially when they were in state ordered quarantine, separated from their family.  Others were experiencing loss on all scales – from their jobs to their homes to the lives of loved ones.

Last week every one of them finished their final projects – which was the focus of their semester’s work and the culmination of their education. As all would now enter or return to a very uncertain job market.

In watching them approach the finish line, we emphasized not grades but finding satisfaction and taking pride in what they were able to accomplish under spectacularly difficult circumstances.  Intrinsic, not extrinsic, value was the currency of our courses.

If they asked me to write down how I was feeling after having reviewed their final papers and presentations, I would have had to choose from proud, impressed, respect. 

But ultimately I think I would have written “optimistic.”

You see each of them had been working on projects that in one shape or another would improve the lives of others – addressing issues ranging from mental health, grief alleviation, prison jobs programs, sustainability, child hunger, education, mentoring, financial literacy, green jobs programs and so on and so on. It would have been understandable if the present conditions would have led to cynicism and doubt. Instead, and despite their daily feelings and realities, their projects were driven by hope and a confidence that they could make a difference in their world.

It is so important that we take the time to speak and share our feelings – and to create the space for doing so. It is a necessary prerequisite for moving forward.  Once freed from holding them in – what can come out next is often powerful.

So how are you feeling right now?  And what will you be doing next?

Open?

There has been a lot of talk and some action about “opening” lately.  Most of it has been focused on opening the economy, or more specifically businesses.  Some are clamoring to get back to life “as normal” while others are concerned that such a move would endanger our individual and collective health. This debate, if you want to call it that, is taking different shapes depending upon circumstance, geography and is greatly affected by leadership of lack thereof.

While the pragmatic question of opening the economy rages on, it reveals an equally important personal question also around the issue of “opening.” 

This report from the CDC, The Psychology of a Crisis, suggests that during times like these, when we most need to be open to the ideas and experiences of others, we often do just the opposite.  Among the common responses during a crisis are:
– Oversimplifying what we hear: often missing the nuance of the situation
– Holding on to existing beliefs
– Looking for additional information that confirms what we believe
– Denying of the potential harm to ourselves or others
– Seeking special treatment for ourselves or those close to us
– Stigmatize others who behave or believe differently than we do
– Creating or spreading damaging rumors directed at others
– Encouraging an unfair distrust of others

Generally speaking, I like to consider myself an open-minded person. But reflecting on the list above, I see myself in too many of them. This has been a time when it has become all too easy to judge others for behavior or attitudes inconsistent with our own.

Looking from my perch of privilege that so far has allowed me to be remain unscathed by the crisis, I can espouse the benefits of sheltering in place for as long as needed.  

But would I feel the same if I was unable to feed my family?  Or if I lived in an abusive household?  

I run a small business whose work is made more relevant by the crisis and is well acclimated to done virtually. But what if I owned a restaurant or event business?

My family is healthy, but what if a loved one had an underlying health condition that put them at particular risk?  Wouldn’t I want everyone to stay at home as long as possible?

I can continue to home school my children as we have both the time, technology and schools that have allowed a relatively smooth transition. But what if I had a child with special needs or a school that was under resourced and my child was struggling to keep up? Wouldn’t I clamor for a return to school?

In difficult circumstances it is natural that we all turn inward to protect ourselves, our families, our dreams.  But with this can come a shutting out, a closing down.  

All this at a time when it is more important than ever that we remain open to see the pain and the possibility, the fears and hopes of others.

Regardless of how long parts of our lives and economies may be closed, let us all strive to keep our hearts and minds open for as long as possible.

Insufficient?

In the face of our current challenges, I’ve heard many echo my own feelings that our personal actions have been insufficient. This is especially true when we compare ourselves to others whose roles are deemed essential and actions heroic.

This sentiment at times comes when people reflect on their relative good fortune or privilege. But it is not limited to the lucky.

I’ve also spoken to those directly impacted by events. A young boy whose single mom is out of work, laments that he is no longer able to volunteer at his church and feels “worthless.” People whose loved ones have been inflicted by the virus but are unable to be there for them in their greatest hour of need. Business owners who aren’t able to do more for their employees. Employees who don’t feel as if they’re making a real difference in their work. Teachers who are concerned they’re not doing enough for their students.  Students who feel they aren’t doing enough for their parents.

It is of note, that in each of these conversations, I find these people are actually doing more than maybe they realize.  

Let’s start with the basics. “Doing nothing” right now is actually the most important thing most of us can do. A recent New York Times headline read, “Dramatic Behavior Change Leads to Cautious Optimism.”  The article goes on to say “concerted efforts to drastically change human behavior — to suspend daily routines by staying at home — are slowing the insidious spread.”

At a fundamental level, most scientists have been shocked by the level of adherence to social distancing recommendations. Original models assumed that only half of Americans would follow these directives. New models are showing that number to be at least 70% and potentially as high as over 90%. In an individualistic society as ours, such collective sacrifice is remarkable.

Or as one commenter wrote on social media, “When you go outside and see empty streets, you aren’t seeing fear. What you are seeing is love. Our love for one another.”

Beyond these daily sacrifices marked by our absence are also the little ways in which we are present for one another. Undoubtedly, the idea of physical distancing has actually brought us together socially. We have reached out and opened up to friends, family members and strangers with increased regularity. Implicitly saying with each little action, we are here for you.  

In our quest for significant meaning, we can easily overlook how a gesture we may consider insignificant can mean the world to someone else.

There are, of course, other ways, we can help from our seclusion. We can give to local food banks, support local businesses, thank those who are on the front lines, share inspiration, offer consolation to those who have lost, find ways to help others we know or hear about who are in need.  

Listening to experts, following guidelines, being there for one another, offering assistance. These are not insufficient. In fact, for most of us, it is the very definition of sufficient – “meeting the need of; enough.

It is natural to always want to do more, and I encourage people to help as much as they can. But in the absence of things within our control, we benefit no one when we get down on ourselves for not doing more.

In the days, months and perhaps even years to come, our turn and ability to do more will undoubtedly come. We will be asked to step out and step up for others.   And based on what we’re seeing now, I have great faith that each of us will.

Be well.

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).

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.

Wisdom from William Shakespeare and Marc Maron

The irony of self-knowledge is that to gain it, you need to look outside of yourself. Recently I noticed that tucked inside the word acknowledgement are three smaller words – a + knowledge + me.

Yet science shows that we are wired not to see the broader context of our lives. While confirmed by modern research the sentiment goes back at least to the days of Shakespeare – who wrote in Julius Caesar:

Lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the upmost round
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend.

(For those who question whether Shakespeare even authored these words, here is a fascinating new theory suggesting that a women actually wrote his plays).

While there are many benefits to remembering where you came from (e.g. gratitude, compassion, happiness), a more basic reason came from the mind of Marc Maron.

In this podcast interview with Stephen Colbert, Maron says:

“Getting personal context for who the f— you are and really owning that so if the sh– really goes down at least you’ll have that. At least you’ll know who you are.”

Whether you are moved by the eloquent prose of Shakespeare or struck by the blunt WTF of Maron, I hope you’re inspired to spend a few minutes today reflecting on the ladder you’re climbing or the context of where you currently stand. From these moments, self-knowledge only grows.

What are you talking about?

On our bookshelf, there is a plaque with this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: 
 
“Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.”
 
While I’ve always aspired to such an ideal, upon further investigation, I found two problems with this quote:

  1. Apparently, Eleanor Roosevelt never said it.
  2. When you say it out loud, you sound awfully elitist and judgmental.

Meaning in our lives is derived by what we actually do (events) and who we do them with (people).  

So it would seem natural to discuss them. And while abstract ideas can help guide our actions, it is the application of those ideas that matter more than the discussion of them.
 
Interestingly, even the original quote was apparently paraphrased and taken out of context.   According to Quote Investigator (a cool resource by the way), it first appears in the autobiography of Charles Stewart who as a child, heard the history scholar Henry Thomas Buckle say something that sounds even more elitist than the quote erroneously attributed to Roosevelt:
 
“Men and women range themselves into three classes or orders of intelligence; you can tell the lowest class by their habit of always talking about persons; the next by the fact that their habit is always to converse about things; the highest by their preference for the discussion of ideas.”
 
Stewart, actually rejected the remark in his writing and his life, saying “The fact, of course, is that nay of one’s friend who was incapable of a little intermingling of these three condiments would soon be consigned to the home for dull dogs. “
 
In thinking about what initially drew me to the quote, it would be charitable to say that it was aspirational. The reality probably has more to do with feeling self-important or wanting to rise above the ranks of what I was born into. 
 
Now I see the folly of all this. I want to spend more of my time discussing and learning about the lives of others and the events that drive them. In doing so, it activates our ideas, enabling us to become more proximate to the challenges and dreams of others.  Hopefully, in the end, helping us talk less and do more.

The Storm before the Calm

On a recent podcast, Kevin Bacon told a story about what it was like to act in a movie directed by Clint Eastwood. (It’s starts around the 1:49 mark)

On most movie sets, he described a pre-shoot experience marked by commotion, noise and stress. 

People chaotically running around, barking “quiet on the set” and “rolling” and then slamming down the slate board that marks the scene as loud as humanly possible before the director screams “action.”

In comparison, Eastwood’s sets are a model of efficiency.  No one runs around or yells. There is no chatter on open mikes.  There is no need to bark “quiet on the set” for it is already quiet.  The slate board slowly goes does down and Eastwood softly says, “Go ahead.”

Apparently Eastwood was influenced by his experience on the television western, Rawhide. There he noticed how the pre-shoot chaos and loud noises severely rattled the horses and thought if this is bad for them, it must also be bad for the actors and everyone on the set.

In listening to this story, I thought about how often we create unnecessary storms before an experience designed to be calm.

How we stress out before vacation, get rattled trying to get the kids in the car before a day out. In business it’s the preparation before an important presentation.  In politics it’s the high volume expectations before elections and hearings.

On one level it is understandable that high stakes and expectations lead to higher cortisol levels and stress.  On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine a worse way to prepare for anything good in life.

Want to feel better about your day?

Within one 24 hour period last week:

  • Our dishwasher broke
  • Someone illegally charged my American Express card twice
  • Our laundry room flooded as a result of a major HVAC leak
  • I erroneously received a bill from the state government for $15,000
  • Our laundry room flooded a second time after the technician’s first “repair” didn’t work
  • My wife backed our car into a steel pole rushing to get our child to camp after our carpool partner canceled at the last minute. Causing $6,000 in damage – one month before we were turning in the lease.

 
You read that correctly, that was all within 24 hours. 
 
So how is your day?
 
If  you are suddenly feeling a little better about your problems, you’re experiencing Social Comparison Theory – our natural tendency to compare our success, failures and situation to others.
 
Nearing the end of my own disastrous day, I learned that a friend’s father had died and was reminded of other friends whose children were battling serious diseases.
 
My issues instantly felt minuscule by comparison.
 
When problems mount, we often also feel helpless. Which is why another strategy is simply asking for help.  This was not my first instinct – as evidenced by my disassembling the dishwasher and being no closer to fixing it two hours later. 
 
While asking for help is easier said than done, I was fortunate that, after six phone calls, all of our problems were “moved off my plate” and now in the hands of others to resolve.  We were fortunate to have the right connections to repairmen, the right financial and insurance companies and, of course, the time, flexibility and financial resources to deal with everything swiftly. I recognize this is a luxury we have that many other may not.
 
Finally, all of this unfolded while I was supposed to be spending the day with my seven year old as part of what she called, Daddy Camp.  Each time, I grew frustrated by a phone call with more bad news, there was she was smiling at me, waiting for our next activity.  At one point, we were walking to lunch holding hands and she asked and answered.  “Do you know what my favorite part of today is?…Every part!”  

An instant reminder that waiting beyond every problem is someone whose needs and love exceed our own issues.
 

So maybe the next time you or someone you know is having “one of those days”, consider asking:
 
How is your day… compared to others?
Is there anyone we can call for help?
Is there anything you can do to be the best part of someone else’s day?