Has America Reached Its “Pull By” Date?

“What advantage has the person who will not listen over the one who cannot hear?” (Joyce Rachelle)

Most of the people I know—including myself—consider themselves to be open-minded, fair, and objective. But how true is that . . . really? I fear that for many of us, those sterling qualities have fallen victim to our times.

A new friend recently sent me a link to this clip of Republican strategist Frank Luntz being interviewed by historian Walter Isaacson on Christiane Amanpour’s news show, Amanpour & Co. My friend said it was a fascinating discussion of our current state of toxic politics.

Republican strategist? I asked myself if I really want to listen to a Republican strategist? Was he likely to say anything that wouldn’t piss me off? Aren’t I already pissed off enough? So much for open-mindedness.

But I respect this new friend’s opinion, so I clicked the link and soon was fascinated by a discussion devoid of shouting and name-calling, and offering plenty to ponder. Continue reading

Kindness in the Face of Pure Evil

“There are two ways of exerting one’s strength; one is pushing down, the other is pulling up.” (Booker T. Washington)

Attribution: Donna CameronA friend asked me to comment on how to apply kindness in the wake of the New Zealand shooting. Unspoken in her question may have been the implication that kindness seems awfully puny in the face of pure and undiluted evil.

Sometimes it feels that way.

When something horrific like this happens, we feel shock, sorrow, and anger. We feel bewilderment and a helplessness bordering on hopelessness. And, for many of us, the “Groundhog Day” repetition of mass shootings sickens beyond words. What possible good is kindness when hate is so heavily-armed? Continue reading

There May Be Hope for the World

“It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.” (L.R. Knost)

Attribution: Donna CameronI don’t have children. When asked why, I usually respond with a line from my favorite David Mamet movie,  State and Main, “I’ve never seen the point of them.”

Yes, that’s a glib answer, but it has the desired effect: widened eyes and no further comment. Sometimes, the inquisitor takes a step or two back from me. I’m okay with that, too.

It’s not that I don’t like children, but I have never felt the need or desire to have any of my own.

All that being said, I am pinning my hopes for the future on the youth of today. We’ve screwed up the world royally. I hope they can fix things before it’s too late.

Some recent examples that give me hope: Continue reading

The Gifts of Winter

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” (Dr. Seuss)

Attribution: Donna CameronWhile much of the country suffered through the bitterest winter ever, we in the Seattle area watched wide-eyed, sympathetic, and thankful for our own temperate winter. By our household’s unscientific analysis—the frequency of having to thaw the water in the birdbath or replace frozen hummingbird water—it was a mild winter, indeed.

But early February brought us both humility and snow—lots of snow. More snow than most of us have ever seen in these parts. For an area as hilly as this, even an inch or two of snow can wreak havoc. And when it’s 18-24 inches, with brief thaws that then refreeze to create sheer ice slides, all but the most essential services come to a standstill. Kids have missed a week or more of school. To compound the problem, the fact that snow is such a rarity means we have limited snow removal equipment and it concentrates on the main roads and arterials, leaving the side streets and remoter areas to fend for themselves. Continue reading

Words Matter

“Kind words can be short and easy to speak but their echoes are truly endless.” (Mother Teresa)

power-of-wordsI’ve always loved words. There’s a magic to the fact that we can take 26 letters, combine them into sounds with distinct and nuanced meanings, and then combine those into sentences, paragraphs, and ultimately powerful documents, essays, poems, songs, stories, or novels. We can use words to transact business, fall in love, and engage in deep conversation. We can use them to comfort, connect, instruct, inspire, and control.

I knew the first time I picked up a book that words would open up my world. Later, when I read Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Victor Hugo, Edith Wharton, Robertson Davies, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, Jane Austen and Albert Camus, I saw how books could change not only my life but also the world. I can’t imagine a life where I don’t engage with words—my own words and the words of people who use them with far greater eloquence and wisdom than I.

Words, to me, are organized religion.

Sometimes we underestimate their power. Words can hurt or elevate. They can enlighten or deceive. They can, quite literally, alter our brains. Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, MD, in his book Words Can Change Your Brain, writes that “a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.” He explains that positive and optimistic words—words like “love” or “peace” or “kindness”—can lower our stress, improve our health, motivate us, and build resilience. Negative words, on the other hand—words like “no” or “hate” or “stupid”—can release multiple stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters; they can interrupt the functioning of our brains and diminish our logic, reasoning, and language capacities.

Writing for Psychology Today, Dr. Newberg, along with Mark Waldman, advises us to choose our words wisely. Negative words lead to negative thinking, which is “self-perpetuating, and the more you engage in negative dialogue—at home or at work—the more difficult it becomes to stop.”

Our negative talking influences not only our own mood, attitude, and health, but also those same characteristics of anyone listening to us. “The listener will experience increased anxiety and irritability, thus undermining cooperation and trust. In fact, just hanging around negative people will make you more prejudiced toward others.”

They caution parents: “…the same holds true for children: the more negative thoughts they have, the more likely they are to experience emotional turmoil.” But if we teach them to think and speak positively we can turn negative feelings and attitudes to positive ones. And, of course, we teach our children by modeling the speech and behaviors we want them to embrace.

Because our brains are wired for survival and self-protection they respond more rapidly and dramatically to negative thoughts and negative words than to positive ones. For that reason, Newberg and Waldman contend that “to overcome this neural bias for negativity, we must repetitiously and consciously generate as many positive thoughts as we can.” They cite several other psychologists and researchers who believe at a minimum “we need to generate at least three positive thoughts and feelings for each expression of negativity.” And “to really flourish,” the ratio of positive to negative should be five-to-one.

Those of us who love words and who recognize their power have an opportunity here…perhaps even an obligation: We can consistently model positive language and perpetuate positive expression and behavior. As incivility mounts across our country and across the world, and as many of us perceive our deepest values to be threatened, we are learning to be activists; we are choosing to be more vocal than ever. Let’s get it right. Let’s remember that words matter.

“I simply do not think that yelling, swearing, threatening or belittling will get you to the place you want to be faster than kindness, understanding, patience and a little willingness to compromise.” (Rachel Nichols)