A Different Kind of Inconvenient Truth

“Be kind to everybody. Make art and fight the power.” (Colson Whitehead)

Attribution: Donna CameronEvery day, there’s a new one, a new allegation of sexual harassment, abuse, or misconduct, by a person in a position of power toward someone he holds power over. The perpetrator is invariably male, and his victim is usually—but not always—female. This is nothing new. It’s been going on for . . . well, probably forever.

We see it in politics, entertainment and sports, the military, academia, corporate settings, and anywhere else where people work or interact.

Is the Tide Turning?

It seems, though, that we’re beginning to see some changes. People who have been preyed upon are speaking out. The tactics abusers relied on to keep them quiet and to disguise repeat behaviors and patterns—legal settlements, money, threats against career, intimidation, warnings of backlash—are losing their power to silence and shame. Women are speaking their truth. They’re claiming their power, and they aren’t backing down.

The shame women (this includes exploited boys and men) have felt—sometimes for decades—is giving way to an understanding that they have nothing to be ashamed of. They are survivors, they are strong, and they are courageous. As more women say “me, too,” shame loses its might. Strength and resolve take hold.

I don’t like the word “victim,” it carries a lot of baggage. It implies weakness, when, in fact, carrying scars of abuse and speaking out are strengths beyond measure.

It does feel like a tide is finally turning, but before we congratulate ourselves too much on starting down the road to remedy long-overdue injustices, we need to recognize just how tenuous this path is.

There are still situations where it may not be “convenient” to condemn a predator, where some prefer to give them a pass. Take the case of Alabama Senatorial candidate Roy Moore. Five credible women have gone on record describing his sexual advances and predatory behavior toward them when they were teenagers—one as young as 14. There are numerous corroborating witnesses, more than 30 sources total. Yet there remain many people for whom it is more important to elect the ultra-conservative Moore to the Senate than to denounce his vile behavior.

For the people who still support Roy Moore, maintaining their “club” is more important than upholding justice, recognizing truth, or righting wrongs. The “club” may be white nationalism, it may be evangelical Christianity, it may be holding a Republican majority at any cost. Regardless, it’s the club that matters. To these women, and to future victims, they’re saying: You don’t matter.

When people deliberately choose not to believe women or evidence that’s clear and compelling, what message are they sending to children? We want you to speak up if someone tries to hurt you, but be prepared to be disbelieved, shunned, or dismissed if the person wields power, or if your truth is inconvenient.

Want another example? Look no further than the White House. That we elected a predator to the highest and most honored office in the land is our nation’s shame. But one we have the power to rectify.

Is Harassment Training the Answer?

Elsewhere, in our haste to fix, patch, and even minimize a problem we can no longer deny or hide, sexual harassment trainings are being looked to as the solution. Congress has deemed that all lawmakers and their staffs must undergo harassment training. Corporate America and the military are embracing harassment education and training as the solution to the endemic ill-treatment that plagues their workplaces.

That’ll fix things. Those who transgressed in the past, or who stood by and ignored or allowed the predatory behaviors of others, will see the error of their ways, express contrition, and we’ll all link arms (wait, no touching!) and advance together into a future devoid of harassment or abuse. Kumbaya, indeed!

I don’t mean to minimize the importance of sexual harassment training, but anyone who sees it as a panacea that will rout these long-standing, firmly entrenched behaviors is minimizing an enormously complex problem, and is also more than a little bit naïve.

This problem needs to be addressed long before people enter the workplace. It probably needs to be addressed in utero. How we raise our sons and daughters determines how they will behave as adults. What messages are we sending them when they see boys praised for what they do and girls praised for how they look? What messages are we sending when noisy girls are shushed and boisterous boys are encouraged?

I heard a brief, but interesting story on NPR’s Morning Edition the other day. Marketplace senior reporter Sabri Ben-Achour was speaking with Vicki Magley, professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut, about the implementation of sexual harassment trainings in the workplace.

Magley cautioned that there is still very limited research about the effectiveness of such trainings. Initial outcomes haven’t been all that encouraging. In some cases, training leads to a backlash. Their effectiveness in changing behavior is uncertain and dependent upon whether the organizational culture is perceived as ethical or not by the employees.

In essence, if employees feel the training they are required to take is only window dressing—the company’s way of meeting an obligation or protecting its corporate ass—and it doesn’t truly represent the views and commitment of the organization, they are unlikely to take the training seriously or to respond in any meaningful ways.

Magley cited a 2016 EEOC report which also showed mixed results from harassment training, and suggested that it might be more effective to shift the focus from harassment to civility.

Magley noted, “When you enter into [a training program] prepared to be told that you’ve been naughty, you go in cynical.”

But if you shift the paradigm: “When you enter into a training scenario where you’re being told explicitly that we’re going to give you ideas on how to create community, on how to bond with one another in productive, cohesive collaborative kinds of ways,” it changes the mindset. The training is viewed as an opportunity for growth and professional advancement, rather than as punishment.

This makes so much sense, but again, we mustn’t wait until boys and girls become men and women and join the workforce. Civility must be instilled from the moment they begin to walk and talk. Parents must model these values and teachers must impart them—over and over again until civility and kindness become as elemental as our need for oxygen.

It starts with civility . . . . It starts with kindness.

“Many men fail because they do not see the importance of being kind and courteous to the men under them. Kindness to everybody always pays for itself. And, besides, it is a pleasure to be kind.” (Charles M. Schwab)

The Heart of Gratitude

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” (Meister Eckert)

attribution: Donna CameronIn the United States, we talk about gratitude a lot during November. We celebrate our Thanksgiving holiday, often spending it with family, friends, and food—lots of food.

It’s lovely to have a day specifically designated for giving thanks, but ideally that would be only one of many days we pause to express our thanks. It seems churlish and small-minded to discard gratitude as merely a quaint holiday tradition. Gratitude, like kindness, is not a weakness to be dismissed or derided, but a strength to be claimed and exercised. Plus, there’s a cornucopia of scientifically-based reasons why gratitude is good for you.

Gratitude is Heart Healthy

Several recent studies have shown that patients suffering from cardiovascular disease experience measurable—often significant—improvement when they engage in a simple, regular gratitude practice. It could be keeping a gratitude journal, or pausing daily to think or meditate about what one is grateful for, or taking time as a family to share experiences of gratitude. The outcomes of such simple gratitude awareness practices include stress reduction, reduced depression and fatigue, confidence in one’s ability to positively influence personal health and wellbeing, and reductions in systemic inflammation.

In one study, patients with heart failure were asked to keep a gratitude journal in which each day they noted two or three things for which they were grateful. A control group facing similar levels of heart failure did not keep the journal. Both groups continued to receive their usual medical care for their condition. After two months, those who engaged in gratitude journaling showed reduced inflammation and increased heart rate variability (HRV). Increasing HRV is an indicator of disease improvement.

Gratitude Improves Our Sleep 

In recent years, sleep has been increasingly recognized as an essential restorative for physical and mental health, as well as for heart health, longevity, and personal wellbeing. Sleep deprivation has been shown to cause accidents, increase errors, and to cost U.S. companies more than $400 billion each year in lost productivity, according to a 2016 Rand Corporation study.

One way gratitude improves sleep is by increasing our positive pre-sleep cognitions (thinking about the pleasant things in our lives), thus inducing sleep. Gratitude also decreases the negative pre-sleep cognitions (critical thoughts and worries) that impede our ability to fall asleep. In one study, people who kept a gratitude journal slept an average of 30-minutes more, woke up feeling more refreshed, and stayed more awake and alert throughout the day than those who didn’t journal.

Gratitude Counters Feelings of Excessive Entitlement

There’s entitlement—the belief that one is deserving of certain privileges—and then there’s “excessive entitlement”—the belief that one deserves a disproportionate share than others. Those who feel excessive entitlement are rarely satisfied with what they receive—be it attention, pay, or praise. They always want more. Excessive entitlement can lead to toxic and destructive behaviors in relationships and in the workplace.

If one always feels entitled to more, there is little room for gratitude. Where gratitude is encouraged and practiced, we see an increase in positive emotions—joy, enthusiasm, optimism—and a decrease in such destructive emotions as envy, greed, resentment, and blaming. In a study entitled “A Grateful Heart is a Nonviolent Heart,” researchers led by psychologist C. Nathan DeWall at the University of Kentucky, found that people who experience gratitude are 20-30 percent less likely to be annoyed, irritated, or aggressive.

What’s Keeping Us from Feeling Gratitude?

With so much evidence pointing to the positive benefits of gratitude, why aren’t we all looking for things in our lives to appreciate and finding abundant ways to express our thanks?

In an article in U.C. Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine, Robert Emmons attributes our failure to sustain—or sometimes even muster—gratitude to:

  1. A materialistic and consumption-based society that fosters both a sense of entitlement and a sense that we can never have all that we deserve. Says Emmons, “We believe the universe owes us a living. We do not want to be beholden.”
  2. A lack of humility in our culture. Those lacking humility, Emmons says, succumb to the myth of self-sufficiency. They hold the illusion of being self-made, discounting any dependence on parents, friends, colleagues, the government, or a spiritual foundation. With humility, we readily see our interconnectedness, and for that . . . we are grateful.

I believe there is a third reason for our all-too-frequent failure to feel or express gratitude: we simply aren’t paying attention. We are rushing too fast, preoccupied with our technology, or simply oblivious to our surroundings. We don’t notice the woman who holds the door for us, or the car that slows so we can merge, or the autumn colors that would take our breath away if we could just see them.

There’s no question that there are many great reasons to implement a gratitude practice. Whether we take five minutes to jot our gratitude in a journal, spend our last few moments before sleep recalling all the good things that happened during the day, or take time at the dinner table to share appreciation, these simple practices can be life-changing. If you have a favorite gratitude practice, please share it in the comments below.

Welcome to November, and to perpetual thanksgiving!

“Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.” (William Arthur Ward)