Books as Teachers, Books as Atonement, Books as Lifeline

“I cannot live without books.” (Thomas Jefferson to John Adams)

Many years ago, a friend gave me a paperweight with that Jefferson quote inscribed on it. It has sat on my desk for more than two decades. I suppose it is a bit of exaggeration to say one cannot live without books. Maslow’s hierarchy did not lump books with food, water, oxygen, or shelter. Had they been mentioned at all, books might have been relegated to the levels where belonging or self-actualization reside.

Less poetic, but perhaps more precise would be to say I cannot imagine a life without books.

Some of my earliest memories are of books. As a morning child in a family of night-owls, I remember reading in bed for two, three, even four hours before my parents got up on weekend mornings. The best Christmas gifts were always books, and the best activity for whiling away the hours on any holiday was to curl up with a book. I recall the excitement of receiving the periodic Scholastic Books catalog in school and running home to see how many my parents would allow me to order, then poring over the catalog with my pencil clutched tightly in my hand. The day the books arrived was as good as Christmas—maybe better—since it didn’t require getting dressed up or spending long hours with aunts, uncles, and cousins.

The list of things that concern me about our current President is encyclopedic, and high on that list is the fact the he doesn’t read—and that he seems proud of that fact. He doesn’t need to read other people’s words or think about what other people have experienced; he doesn’t need to understand history or ponder the thoughts of wise men and women from the past. He carries all the wisdom he will ever need in that cotton-candy brain, under that cotton-candy hair. He tells us confidently that he is a “stable genius.” It’s scary that he says it, scarier that he believes it. And scarier still that so many people are willing to blindly accept it because he says it’s true. I wonder whether these people are readers, and what they read, and why some never outgrow a juvenile infatuation with Ayn Rand.

I recently read a news story about five teenagers in Virginia who were arrested for defacing the Ashburn Colored School, a one-room, 19th century schoolhouse that had been used by black children during segregation. The teens were 16- and 17-years old; two were white and three were nonwhite. They spray-painted swastikas and the words “white power” and “black power” on the historic building.

Ordinarily, a conviction for such vandalism would probably have resulted in community service, and perhaps a fine, for the underage offenders. But Judge Avelina Jacob, at the suggestion of Deputy Commonwealth Attorney Alejandra Rueda, imposed a very different sentence: She made them read books. And after that, they were to submit written reports on what they read and what they learned.

Among the books they could choose from were Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; Elie Wiesel’s Night, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible; Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner; Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain; Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave; and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

Because of the age of the offenders, their identities were protected, but the New York Times did—with permission—run anonymous excerpts of one young man’s court-ordered essay.

The teen acknowledged that he hadn’t understood what a swastika meant. Now, though, he recognized the swastika as a symbol of oppression and white power, of claims that the white race “is above all else, which is not the case.” He further wrote that “Everybody should be treated with equality, no matter the race, religion, sex, or orientation. I will do my best to see to it that I am never this ignorant again.”

Judging from that statement alone, I would say that lives were changed as a result of this unusual sentence. The reading penance has since been applied to at least one other Virginia case precipitated by teen bigotry.

Reactions to the punishments have been mixed. Marilyn Nelson, author of A Wreath for Emmett Till—a book of poetry about the young black man lynched in 1955 Mississippi—expressed concern. “I can’t say I’m pleased to know that my work is being inflicted as punishment. Will kids punished by being made to read poetry ever read poetry again?” Her concerns were shared by some teachers who didn’t like the idea of making reading a punishment.

Young people were also divided. One 17-year-old said the sentence “reeks of pampering and no consequences,” and doubted that students—especially minority students—in areas of lesser economic privilege, would be offered such light sentences. A 16-year-old said she thought the punishment made sense and would teach the offenders not only what they did wrong but why it was wrong.

T.C. Boyle, author of The Tortilla Curtain, said he hoped an offending teenager reading his book “will be able to live inside the skin of someone unfamiliar to him … and that the experience will enrich his social perspective.”

And Khaled Hosseini said, “Books allow us to see ourselves in another. They transform us. I hope reading The Kite Runner was a small step along that transformation for this young man.”

Personally, I see mostly positive in this creative sentencing approach. While an author might feel a bit of a sting in seeing their book assigned as “punishment,” the possibility of changing lives through one’s words and stories outweighs the sting. Changing and challenging the way people think—including ourselves—is one of the reasons why we write. A young person—or older person for that matter—who sees only the punitive element of being required to read is not likely to be a candidate for further reading, so it’s doubtful that the court has squelched a growing passion.

A larger question—and one that there’s neither time nor space to explore here—is why aren’t kids learning about the meaning of swastikas, the history of oppression and intolerance, and the cultural differences that make us richer as a nation? I was alarmed last month to hear that two-thirds of American millennials have never heard of Auschwitz, and a large number are unaware that the Holocaust took place. Such ignorance is dangerous, dreadfully dangerous.  

Perhaps more of us need to be “sentenced” to read books that will enlighten us and make us think.

Let’s start with the folks who live and work at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 

“The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.” (John F. Kennedy)

[You may have noticed some changes to my website. It has new headers, a new look, and some new pages—huge thanks to my friend Christine for her help. One new feature that I hope you will like is on the home page where I share brief stories of kindness. If you recall a kindness, experience or witness one, I hope you will consider submitting it for inclusion. There’s a link to the submission form. Let’s spread the kindness!]

 

The Vanishing Art of Paying Attention

“Tell me what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are.” (Jose Ortega y Gasset)

Attribution: Donna CameronWhat do you pay attention to? I know a woman—an artist—who notices color and texture and light everywhere she goes. And she thinks about capturing it on canvas, or fabric, or even just memory. Another person—a devoted animal lover—has her radar out for dogs: big ones, little ones, quiet ones, yappy ones, puppies . . .  she adores them all and it makes her quite a canine magnet. And then there’s my acquaintance who is always on the lookout for slights, for people who disagree with him, for comments he can interpret as disrespectful or confrontational. With his detector tuned to these encounters, he tends to find offense everywhere. He lives in a perpetual state of raised hackles.

There’s even a world leader who purportedly only pays attention when the news or information he’s viewing is sprinkled generously with his own name.

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about fear as one of the biggest barriers to kindness—both to our extending kindness and our receiving it. In the comments, Janis, of the delightful Retirementally Challenged blog, observed that for her the biggest obstacle to kindness is “not being in the moment,” and thus unaware that kindness may be needed. She notes that opportunities are lost if we fail so see what’s happening around us.

Janis is right. Our own obliviousness is one of the biggest barriers to kindness. If we’re absorbed in our own private world, or our technology, we simply don’t notice that the person right in front of us needs help, or that a child may need comforting, or that a kind word could lift someone’s day. We fail to see when one person goes out of their way to help another. On the receiving end, our obliviousness prevents us from noticing a stranger’s smile, acknowledging someone who held a door for us, or even recognizing our own need for self-compassion.

Since I started thinking about, writing about, and trying to live a life of kindness, I am ever so much more aware of it—of opportunities for me to extend kindness, of kindnesses extended my way, and of kindnesses—big and small—all around me. I still miss a lot, though. I tend to spend a lot of time in my own head, and, as my husband kindly points out, I can be oblivious not just to kindness, but also to clutter, dust, thirsty houseplants, and sometimes speed limits. Paying attention requires practice.

Technology is one of the things that gets in the way of our being attentive to our surroundings and the people around us. According to a 2016 study, most of us spend about two-and-a-half hours on our smartphones daily. Heavy users—the top ten percent of phone users—spend closer to four hours, or one-quarter of their waking time, on their phones. These heavy smartphone users click, tap, or swipe their phones an average of 5,427 times a day, while the rest of us clock in at a mere 2,617 times daily. It would be interesting to find a study that further breaks down phone time into work and non-work usage. Since my own average is probably about five touches a day, and perhaps five minutes—if that—I am clearly not holding up my end of this devil’s bargain.

I recognize that to decry technology is to declare myself a Luddite or at least a very old fogey. I don’t believe I’m either. But I am mindful of something that I tell strategic planning clients with some frequency: Everything we say “yes” to means we must say “no” to something else, so we need to think long and hard about what is most important to us and whether that’s where we’re putting our time, attention, resources, and energy. What are we saying no to as we say yes to a five-inch screen and perpetual connectivity?

There are good reasons to stay connected to our devices, but it’s worth asking occasionally if we are making a conscious choice or simply succumbing to addiction.

What we choose to pay attention to creates the world we live in. If our radar is focused on dogs, we will live in a world of laughing golden labs, cuddly collies, and frolicking puppies. If we look for slights and reasons to be angry, our world will be rife with insult and offense. If we pay attention to gratitude, we will find ourselves surrounded by things to be grateful for. And, if our attention is on kindness, there will be no end to our opportunities to experience or extend kindness.

I believe there are several “secrets” to living a good life. High on that list is the simple—though not necessarily easy—habit of paying attention. It all begins with choosing to be present and choosing what we will pay attention to.

“We become what we love.  Whatever you are giving your time and attention to, day after day, is the kind of person you will eventually become.” (Wayne Muller)

When Kindness Is Needed, There Are No Small Kindnesses….

“Wherever there is a human in need, there is an opportunity for kindness and to make a difference.” (Kevin Heath)

Participate in the Hand In Hand Telethon on September 12 to benefit hurricane relief efforts

For people directly involved in hurricane response, as well as those of us watching it on our newsfeeds, there comes the danger of compassion fatigue—it’s what we might feel after lengthy and constant bombardment of distressing news. When we are fed a daily diet of news about natural disasters, crime, poverty, nuclear threats, and corporate malfeasance, after a while despair settles in and we may feel a loss of hope. Pretty soon, we just stop feeling anything when we hear of another hurricane, another shooting, another crooked politician, or another starving child.

Sometimes it’s good to look not at the disaster itself, but at those little stories of people helping others, to remind ourselves that there’s good news to balance the bad.

Acts of kindness—big or small—can be overlooked in the midst of tragedy or overwhelming catastrophe. Over the last week, I’ve been hearing stories of kindness and generosity as people respond however they are able to the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. We have seen people at their best in the worst of times. Unsung heroes who just want to help, and don’t ask or care if the person they’re helping is conservative or liberal, Christian or Muslim, black, white, or brown. Likewise, those being rescued or receiving aid don’t care about the background or beliefs of their rescuer—they are grateful to be seen and helped.

I don’t need to write a post saying, “this is how we’re supposed to care for one another … this is who we are.” Those who agree already think so and those who don’t 1) aren’t likely to change their minds, and 2) aren’t likely to be reading.

What I want to do is just share a few stories of kindness that came out of Hurricane Harvey. They warmed my heart and gave me hope, and they reminded me that when we want to, we can be much better at this business of being human than the daily news might lead us to believe.

  • A group of neighbors formed a human chain to rescue an elderly man trapped in his flooded car. Elsewhere, another group of neighbors also formed a human chain to rescue a woman who went into labor while trapped in her apartment. Their maneuver helped the woman through the floodwaters to a rescue vehicle.
  • Dr. Stephen Kimmel, left his own flooding home and canoed through floodwaters to reach a hospital where he performed emergency surgery on a teenage boy.
  • Jim McIngvale, known as “Mattress Mack,” opened up several locations of his furniture store to Houstonians displaced by the hurricane. He sent out his big box-trucks to pick up more than 200 people who were stranded by floodwaters. More than 200 others found their way to his stores where he urged them to make themselves at home on the beds, mattresses, chairs, and sofas. “To hell with profits, let’s take care of the people,” said McIngvale. His furniture stores also became a place to crash for exhausted National Guard troops who were deployed to Houston.
  • Three young men were on mission to rescue stranded hurricane victims when their boat hit a bridge and capsized. One man was rescued, but two, Alonso Guillén and Tomas Carreon Jr., drowned. Guillén was part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, created under the Obama administration to protect from deportation undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. The current Administration has called for the end to DACA. “He died wanting to serve,” said Alonso’s brother, Jesus Guillén. “He could have stayed home watching the news on television, but he chose to go help.”
  • Nick Sheridan drove his truck 200 miles to participate in rescue efforts. Along with two other big-rig drivers, he rescued more than 1,000 people. “We worked together. We drove through the streets in teams so that if one of us got stuck we had each other to keep moving…. I was really able to put my equipment to use here being a freelance rescuer.”
  • Teams of medical professionals from all over the country have gone to Houston to help with the medical response. University of Washington professor and emergency physician Stephen Morris is part of one disaster medical assistance team from my own state working in a field hospital just outside the city. Dr. Morris notes that his team is addressing significant numbers of wound cases, high blood pressure, medication issues, and severe distress related to loss of homes and livelihoods.
  • There were also countless stories of animal rescues. You may have seen the film of two men riding horses through the flood waters to save livestock, including a penned-in horse that was standing in water up to its neck. A national effort was undertaken by the Humane Society of the United States and several other animal rescue groups to transfer animals in shelters to facilities in other parts of the country, where they hope the animals will be adopted. Texas shelters are expecting a large influx of lost pets and abandoned animals in the wake of Harvey.

These are just a few of the innumerable stories of kindness, compassion, and heroism that have come out of Hurricane Harvey. It appears that we’re likely to see more in the wake of Hurricane Irma as she devastates parts of the Caribbean and approaches landfall in Florida and potentially other parts of the Southeastern U.S.

We saw twelve years ago with Hurricane Katrina that recovery from a disaster such as this does not come quickly. It may take years. People tend to be great at responding immediately to disaster, but we have short attention spans. It’s too easy to forget that people who have lost their homes, or whose homes are badly damaged, will be dealing with the stress and expense of recovery for a long, long time.

Let’s all remember to be supportive for the long-haul, in whatever ways we can. One great way to be supportive and also to provide a bit of relief for any compassion fatigue you may be suffering is to join the September 12 Hand In Hand telethon, helmed by a number of caring celebrities to benefit those affected by Hurricane Harvey. It’s now been expanded to include Hurricane Irma victims, too.

Alarmingly, Hurricanes Jose and Katia are not far behind….

“The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.” (Paulo Coelho)

 

Are Wealthy People Less Compassionate?

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt)

Attribution: Donna CameronSome time ago, I came across an article citing research that I found fascinating. I wanted to write about it in YOLK, but was deterred by a concern that it’s just one more thing that divides us . . . and there’s already way too much of that.

Still, I think it’s important information and perhaps if approached with curiosity and a desire to inspire change, instead of finger-pointing or rebuke, it might be beneficial rather than divisive.

U.C. Berkeley psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner conducted several studies examining whether social class affects how people think about and treat others. They defined social class by such measurements as wealth, education, and professional prestige.

In one study, they observed motorists at four-way intersections and reported that drivers of luxury cars were more likely to cut off other drivers, rather than wait their turn at the intersection. Interestingly, I had noted this phenomenon first-hand several years ago when I traveled to California’s wealthy Marin County for a business conference (confession: I grew up in Marin, but escaped in my 20s). At a four-way stop in the affluent town of Mill Valley, my lowly rental Taurus was cut-off first by a Maserati and then by a Mercedes convertible. At another intersection, I stopped, but a Lamborghini breezed through the stop-sign as if it didn’t exist. Piff’s and Keltner’s research confirmed this behavior in luxury car drivers regardless of time of day or density of traffic. They also found that these drivers were more likely than others to ignore a pedestrian trying to cross at a crosswalk.

In a different, but equally fascinating study, these same researchers manipulated class feelings to examine selfish behaviors. They asked people to spend some time comparing themselves to others who were either better or worse off financially. Then they offered the subjects a jar of candy and told them they could take as much as they wanted and that the remainder would be given to nearby children. Interestingly, the participants who had spent time thinking about how much better off they were than others took significantly more candy than those who viewed themselves as less well-off.

Yet another study by the Berkeley researchers showed that people with lower income and education levels had more compassion for children being treated for cancer than did people at higher levels educationally and economically.

It’s hard to hear about studies such as these and not conclude that wealthy people have a rather warped sense of entitlement and privilege. In a New York Times article, Keltner and Piff postulated that their research may explain why elite financial institutions, such as Goldman Sachs, have been rife with greedy and unethical behaviors. Greed can become morally defensible for those who enjoy wealth and abundance. Further, according to the researchers, the less people have to worry about their own wealth and position, the less they think about others or care about the feelings of other people. “Wealth gives rise to a me-first mentality,” they concluded.

While it would seem logical that those who have little would be disinclined to give, the opposite seems to be the case. The disadvantaged give generously. And those who are prosperous seem less inclined to care about people who are less fortunate. Author Daisy Grewal notes that this is important because people in positions of power—political and economic power—tend to be these privileged wealthy who are not inclined to make decisions that help the poor or the marginalized members of society. Relying on those in power to care for the rest of us is probably a false hope. Greed, says Grewal, “may have the strongest pull over those who already have the most.”

I find this research fascinating. Having spent my career in the non-profit world, I saw abundant research showing that those most generous in donating to causes or supporting charitable endeavors were often those least able to afford it. On a percentage-of-income basis, those with lower incomes tended to be substantially more generous than those in the higher brackets.

Generalities are dangerous, though, and we must be careful not to make blanket statements or assumptions that serve only to widen the rift between those with privilege and those without, or between classes, cultures, or communities. There are enormously generous people with wealth and power (think Melinda and Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Michael Bloomberg, Lady Gaga, Paul Allen, and many more).

Recently, I found it eye-opening (but not surprising) that when presidential press secretary Sean Spicer left the White House, the parting comment for him was not a wish that he would find a new position that challenged and fulfilled him, or that he would find a new way to contribute to society, but that he would “make a tremendous amount of money.” Of course, what is to be expected from the administration of a president who has declared, “You have to be wealthy in order to be great” (as demonstrated so clearly by Gandhi and Mother Teresa…)?

It saddens me that for so many people, success and value—their own and others’—are measured only by wealth. You can’t be successful unless you make a lot of money. And for many, that translates to whatever you need to do to accumulate wealth is justified, because wealth is all that really matters.

Until collectively we can start measuring people by a new standard, it’s unlikely that the growing inequality we see will change. The question becomes: how do we change that standard? How do we stop seeing wealth—or lack of it—as a determiner of value, and see instead such factors as generosity, compassion, benevolence, action on behalf of others, and, yes, kindness? Given the current state of American politics, that change isn’t going to come anytime soon, but each of us can stand up for the values that we choose to be measured by.

We can stop admiring wealthy people just because they’re wealthy. We can stop publishing and reading articles about “the world’s richest people” or “how much do they earn” (how about articles on the most generous, or the most compassionate?). We can stop clicking on “news” that tells us about rich celebrities whose only claim to fame is their wealth and their celebrity. We can put our attention and our support—financial or otherwise—behind people and movements that seek positive change and promote values like equality, justice, and compassion. Where we put our attention should align with our intention.

Times change. People change. People can instigate change. What we’re seeing today doesn’t need to be what we see tomorrow.

“How lovely to think that no one need wait a moment. We can start now, start slowly, changing the world. How lovely that everyone, great and small, can make a contribution toward introducing justice straightaway. And you can always, always give something, even if it is only kindness!” (Anne Frank)

 

 

Kindness and Common Sense Often Go Hand-in-Hand

“There are few problems in life which kindness and common sense cannot make simple and manageable.” (Mary Burchell)

Attribution: Donna CameronI’ve been invited to speak at a conference later this month on the importance of kindness in business and the workplace. Working on my PowerPoint (of course, there must be a PowerPoint!) and putting some notes together this last weekend, I kept thinking how obvious it is: kindness is one of the keys to success in business—both individual success and organizational success. It seems like a no-brainer.

I’m old enough that I remember the days of “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap and a proliferation of business books about Winning Through Intimidation, Looking Out for Number One, and Nice Guys Finish Last. There really was a time when “profit at any price” was a prevailing business philosophy and when ideals like kindness, compassion, and even teamwork were viewed as soft, squishy, and oh-so-weak.

Managers believed—they were even taught—that they got the most effort from their employees through bullying, browbeating, and coercion. They overlooked the obvious—that those behaviors resulted in low morale, resentment, and high turnover.

In recent years, there’s been a whole lot of research on kindness. As I’ve noted in many earlier posts, there are health benefits, wealth benefits, relationship benefits, and, yes, many, many business benefits. Just as there were once many books on cutthroat business practices, there are now numerous books on compassion as a successful business strategy. Among them:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unlike the others, this last one isn’t a recent book. It’s 20 years old, but still one of the best business books I know. Certain ideas are timeless, and you’ll find them in this and other books by Lance Secretan.

 

Here’s just a sampling of some of the recent research on kind and compassionate workplaces, found in these books and elsewhere:

Employees of companies described as having kind cultures:

  • Perform at 20% higher levels
  • Are 87% less likely to leave their jobs
  • Make fewer errors, thus saving their companies time and money
  • The companies themselves have 16% higher profitability
  • And if they’re publically traded companies, they have a 65% higher share price.

Research has also shown that compassionate business cultures consistently have:

  • better customer service
  • healthier employees and fewer absences
  • far less turnover and an easier time replacing employees when they do leave
  • higher productivity
  • greater employee engagement and commitment, and
  • an atmosphere where learning, collaboration and innovation are more likely to flourish.

In business, kindness is your competitive advantage.

It helps to have some common sense, too.

Which brings to mind United Airlines’ recent incident. I’m sure you’ve heard the story: Passengers were bumped from their seats and removed from a plane to make room for United crew members who needed to get to the flight’s destination. One bumped passenger, a doctor of Chinese descent, was forcibly removed when he refused the bump, telling airline personnel he had to get home to see patients. Security dragged him from his seat and pulled him by his arms and on his back down the aisle; his face was battered and bloodied in the process. What did United gain by this? Well, maybe they got their flight crew to their destination, but it cost them millions of dollars (one estimate I saw said easily a billion!) in bad press, lost passengers, and worldwide contempt. In China, where United is among several airlines competing for a share of the huge travel market, videos of the incident have gone viral at record rates, and Chinese travelers are vowing never to fly United. The monetary and P.R. costs to the company are incalculable.

Common sense and a compassionate mindset would have told United there were numerous other options: buying tickets for their crew on another airline, seeking a back-up crew, allowing the stranded crew’s flight to be delayed, approaching passengers without the confrontational, stormtrooper tactics…they could even have chartered a small plane. The relatively small cost of any of these options would have been preferable to the “nuclear option” they chose.

But if kindness and compassion—and, let’s face it, common sense—aren’t part of a company’s culture, these are the sorts of things that happen. I’m guessing other airlines, and other businesses in general, are using the United story as a teaching moment for their executives and employees. Let’s hope United has the good sense to be one of those companies.

If they’re interested, I can recommend some good books….

“When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace.” (Jimi Hendrix)