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?

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.

“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. 

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).

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.

What does a child feel?

We’ve all been there. Seemingly out of nowhere, a child just loses it.  These meltdowns have an almost surreal beginning, leaving us wondering, “Where the hell is this coming from? “  They quickly escalate into an exorcist-like demonic possession. What else can possibly explain what is being spewed from the mouths of babes?  The litany of complaints, grievances, and injustices fly out like one speaking in tongues.
 
Eventually, we lose our patience as the words offend our own sensibilities, the disobedience crosses the demarcation line of disrespect and the behavior becomes unacceptable.  Too easily our initial instinct to calm reverts to a more primal instinct to threaten with punishment.
 
Recently, two films have provided valuable insight into understanding what is really happening – not with them – but with us.
 
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is as simple and important film you will see.  It’s the story of a journalist who has forgotten both how to forgive and how to understand his or anyone else’s feelings.  An assignment to interview Fred Rogers leads to a conversion of sorts.  Mr. Rogers guides him gradually towards discovering and accepting his own childhood feelings.  This is a marked difference from when we dismiss or delegitimize our feelings or those of others. Feelings are real regardless of whether they make sense to anyone else. What we can do by acknowledging them is to move towards a conversation around what we can do with them.  
 
Instead of trying to change feelings, we accept them.
Instead of calling out bad behavior, we call-in more positive alternatives.
 
Throughout the film, Mr. Rogers gently reminds us to focus on how someone is feeling and not what someone is doing.
 
If that film provides guidance on how children can be a window into understanding negative feelings; the upcoming film, Wendy, looks like it might offer child-based inspiration in appreciating more positive feelings.
 
This new take of the Peter Pan tale is seen through the eyes of Wendy, a child who yearns to sneak away for adventure and freedom.  The trailer will make you feel invigorated, awakening a desire to be more free and unconstrained.  To feel unbounded wonder, curiosity, and restlessness.  To have that light in your eye that suggests you’ve never fully grown up.  Watching the trailer makes you not just want to see the movie but be in it.
 
To really see the feelings of children — positive or negative — can be a powerful source of reflection.  One that helps us relate both to them and ourselves infinitely better.

A new way to give thanks this Thanksgiving

This week provides a welcome respite for many, as we put aside our daily troubles, gather with family and friends, and pause to give thanks for what we have and those who helped make it possible. 
 
It can come in the form a few words over a meal, a phone call or a prayer.  All are valuable practices in gratitude.
 
But often these moments can be fleeting and soon replaced by Black Friday sales, workouts, and holiday movies.
 
If you’re looking for a more lasting way of giving thanks than I encourage you to try our new tool,  “Who is your dream team?
 
Simply put, it guides you through a series of quick prompts – about the family, friends, influences, places, work colleagues and other sources of inspiration that made your life possible.
 
At the end, you’ll get a wonderful visualization of all the people who contributed to who you are today AND the opportunity to share it with them as a way of saying thanks.
 
The importance of this last step is best captured in the words of Fred Rogers (aka Mister Rogers).
 
“Whomever you’ve been thinking about… imagine how pleased they’d be to know that you recognize what a difference they’ve made in your becoming.”
 
Taking the time to reflect on where we come from is central to how grateful we feel and our desire to be supportive of others.
 
I hope you can find the time to name and thank your dream team this holiday weekend. You find a few quiet minutes to complete your own online or if prefer pencil and paper you can download what you need and even bring copies to Thanksgiving dinner to do it together with friends and family.
 
This tool would not be possible without the generous support of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Carolinas, the Foundation for the Carolinas, the PBS initiative Chasing the Dream and Sol Design. 
 
And I, of course, would not be possible without my own dream team – captured in this visual below. (A helpful note is that our dream team, like our life, is a work in progress. No doubt I’ve accidentally forgotten people (sorry!) and hopefully will have more names to add as I grow. It’s not about the end product but the act of ongoing reflection).
 
Happy Thanksgiving to you and everyone on your dream team.

Is the force with you?

On a recent flight, I decided to watch the movie, The Last Jedi.

During one scene, Luke Skywalker dispels a long held myth about “the force.”  Over many films the assumption was that the force was something that one possessed, an internal feeling or power that was universally good.  Here Luke explains to the young Rey that the force is actually a connection we have with our world and with each other.
 
Later on that same flight, I was reading the book, The Plateau.  It tells the true story or a remarkable French village, school and people that have historically provided a safe haven for children during times of great need – from those escaping the Holocaust to present day Syria.
 
The book is a testament to moral courage and the ties that bind us.  It is, in essence, a living example of the force being with us.
 
It was against this backdrop having just experienced these two pieces of culture, that a situation arose where the force was clearly not with me and my own courage lacked.
 
Upon our decent, the young woman next to me was visibly upset and anxious. With each bout of turbulence her hand shook, reaching nervously in the air to grab the seat in front of her.  Yet never actually touching it.   Only reaching out.  Each shake and bump unnerved her more as her hand twitched and reached out again and again and again. As the plane descended and her fear elevated, I did nothing.  I did not offer a calming word or even a knowing smile.  I did not offer to show her the pendant that featured a picture of my three children that I held tight in my hand as I always do during take off and landing.  I did nothing, all the while knowing that she was suffering.
 
In the scheme of things this may not seem like much.  It was just routine turbulence and I’ve experienced worse.  But for her it was very real and obviously upsetting.
 
I could give myself a pass and make excuses – like I’m naturally introverted or didn’t feel comfortable intruding in the emotional space of a young woman.  But that would be BS.
 
The reality is that I failed in a moment where a small act of kindness could have brought relief to someone struggling.
 
The force was not with me and I did not extend it to her.
 
I hope I do better next time and when your turn comes, may the force be with you.

What’s on that post-it note?

In the corner of the sixth grade classroom, there was a chart with twenty or thirty hand written post-it notes attached. Each represented a student’s recommendation for their non-fiction essay. 
 
Approximately half were about global warming, several more about hurricanes.  A few would write about inequality or racism. By my estimate at least 80% of the suggested topics were about large societal problems.
 
My initial thought was how conscientious and social minded these students must be – which was admirable. 
 
My second thought was they are eleven years old. What does it say about previous generations that when given the option to write about anything, these children focused their efforts on problems that quite frankly – we should not have passed on to them.
 
Theirs should be an age of wonder – where the whole world is their oyster to explore and learn about.  So much to be fascinated by, curiosities to be followed, passions to be pursued.
 
Recently I heard someone say, “When the only thing you see are problems, that is all there is.”
 
A child who was born around the time of September 11th is now in college or the work force. The children who were killed at Sandy Hook, would now be entering 8th grade with their classmates.  These sixth graders have lived through the great recession, lock down drills,  one natural disaster after another and the most toxic political climate in recent memory.
 
But they also have grown in leaps and bounds,  learned awesome things about nature, science and life.  They’ve experienced joy and play and music and wonder after wonder after wonder.
 
At some point we want our children to be aware of the issues that will impact their future, but I would hope that childhood is not the time of their lives when they should be focusing much of their mental energy on them.
 
In the middle of the chart was one post-it note that simply read, “the deepest part of the ocean.”  Smiling, I thought about how much I would like to read that essay. Believing that it is that kind of mind that grows up better equipped to face whatever challenges we unfortunately leave behind.

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.