Today, in the United States, we vote. We celebrate a country that allows its citizens input into this remarkable experiment of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
We honor this country and its principles of equality, freedom, and justice for all. Our understanding of those concepts has evolved over time, and taken some steps back, but today let us be grateful for how far we’ve come and consider the steps that we each might take today and every day to make this country move closer to the ideals for which it stands. It is both a privilege and a responsibility to vote.
None of us knows what the future holds. But we do know the values we hold dear—honesty, integrity, love, compassion, empathy, respect, tolerance. As we raise our children, we instill these values. As adults, we model these values whether we win or lose, succeed or fail, sink or swim. Watching us, they learn, and, as they go forward into their futures, they will bring these values to their own decisions. If each of us does this, we will leave the world a better brighter place for our having been here.
Do you like to read the end of a novel first? Maybe especially when it’s a particularly stressful novel, and you want to make sure your favorite characters come out ok? It’s comforting, isn’t it? To know how the story ends, that no matter how deep the characters are in trouble, they will find a way out. And then you can read the book without being so nervous.
In this world, though, we don’t get to peek at the end of the book. We soldier on hoping and working toward better tomorrows. And we don’t know what will happen to our favorite people. Or even ourselves, for that matter.
But we do know, when we look back at the story of our own life, or at the greater story of the world, that great things have often come out of very trying times. Great art, certainly. But more than that, great advancement–inventions, cures, technology. Maybe even peace.
As we go through these challenging times, let us keep our hopes on the possibility that tomorrow will be a better day, even if that tomorrow is still a ways away.
In this increasingly polarized world, how do we come together to solve the very real challenges we are facing? If conversations with those who disagree lead to broken relationships rather than common ground, how will we work together?
In this insightful article, Kern Beare offers some insights:
Prioritize the relationship over being right. Research shows that our fight/flee/freeze survival drive is often triggered when someone challenges our deeply held beliefs. Research also shows that when that happens, we lose a host of cognitive capacities that are at the heart of being human, including empathy, moral reasoning and even intuition. Bereft of these capacities, the conversation — and sometimes the relationship itself — typically comes to an unsatisfying and even ugly end.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Evidence abounds that differences in values, attitudes, and beliefs become far less significant when a deeper basis of relationship is formed — especially when it’s rooted in our common humanity. [It’s important to] learn strategies for building such relationships, in turn strengthening the critical capacities you need for creative engagement.
See beyond your story. Most of us have the (often unconscious) assumption that our “story” — the particular set of life experiences from which we derive our sense of self — is the totality of who we are. This merging of “self” and “story” explains one of the most surprising findings of neurobiology: threats to our story-self — to our values, attitudes and beliefs — activate the same parts of our brain as threats to our physical self, triggering our fight, flee, or freeze reactions. When this happens, simmering disagreements can quickly become combustible.
At the same time, we’re learning that our identity encompasses far more than our story. Studies show that a more expanded sense of self emerges when we “switch off” our story-self, unleashing a host of positive emotions and attributes. These include joy, compassion, gratitude, flexibility, creativity and receptivity to new ideas — all of which counteract our survival drive instinct. [Learning] more about this “expanded self” [can help us] to access its capacities.
Transform resistance into response. Resistance is our early-warning system that our survival drive is beginning to kick into gear. When we’re in resistance, our attention narrows, our heart rate increases, and our stress levels rise — all signals of an emerging fight, flee, or freeze reaction. The neuropsychology of resistance [helps inform] why transforming our resistance into response strengthens our cognitive capacities, and how the brain has evolved to actually help us undergo this transformative process.
Preface to the book: Difficult Conversations: The Art and Science of Working Together by Kern Beare
Perhaps these strategies can change the thermostat in our conversations and help us reach a place where we can work together to solve the problems ahead.
Sometimes we start down a path that feels, after a while, like a wrong turn. We think of turning back and taking a different path at the fork, but it’s a long way back, and we’ve made good time on the path we’re on. So we keep pushing forward. We still think we’re on the wrong path, but the fork in the road is even farther back and we’ve learned to get along on the path we’re on. Sometimes we make a mess of the path we’re on, or it becomes impenetrable. And yet we hesitate to start again. So we keep messing up or butting our heads against immovable objects. Because starting over sometimes feels like defeat rather than victory. But is it?
More from F. Scott Fitzgerald:
For what it’s worth…it’s never too late, or in my case too early, to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit. Start whenever you want. You can change or stay the same. There are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you’ve never felt before. I hope you meet people who have a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of, and if you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start over again.
Isn’t that a lovely benediction?
Making the best of our lives, seeing things that startle us, feeling things we’ve never felt, meeting people with a different point of view, and having the courage to start again if we find ourselves on the wrong path. Yes, please. That.
Sometimes joy is a matter of perspective. It’s reaching down and being grateful for it all, the mess, the euphoria, the triumphs, and the tragedies. Grateful to be here, to have a voice, to have people to care about, to have a chance to make a difference. Joy in it all is a choice.
In Bread for the Journey, Henri Nouwen unpacks this further:
Joy is what makes life worth living, but for many joy seems hard to find. They complain that their lives are sorrowful and depressing. What then brings the joy we so much desire? Are some people just lucky, while others have run out of luck? Strange as it may sound, we can choose joy. Two people can be part of the same event, but one may choose to live it quite differently from the other. One may choose to trust that what happened, painful as it may be, holds a promise. The other may choose despair and be destroyed by it. What makes us human is precisely this freedom of choice.
What is the promise behind the circumstances that threaten to steal your joy? Is there something hopeful there? Seeing that promise may just be the key you are looking for.
Loneliness is an epidemic. That heart to heart connection with others, our world, our communities is lost as we race from one To Do to the next. Superficial greetings take the place of deep conversation, and we substitute more for better.
When was the last time you felt truly heard by another person–not heard so they could diagnose you or give you instructions for how to do better–but heard as though someone paused to notice the real you, the deep down you?
When was the last time you paused to consider another person, not as a means to an end on your own journey, but as a person with their own dreams and heart desires, their own wants and needs, their own untold story hoping to be heard?
When was the last time you paused to consider the world around you, from the beauty of nature to the miracle of your own next breath?
Perhaps our loneliness epidemic would be eased if we all were to slow down and notice each other, pause to realize we are here for each other, and be vulnerable enough to allow ourselves to see and be seen.
Mary Oliver’s poems open us in so many ways– to nature, to each other, to our own hidden places. Perhaps this one on loneliness will speak to you today:
When loneliness comes stalking, go into the fields, consider the orderliness of the world. Notice something you have never noticed before,
like the tambourine sound of the snow-cricket whose pale green body is no longer than your thumb.
Stare hard at the hummingbird, in the summer rain, shaking the water-sparks from its wings.
Let grief be your sister, she will whether or not. Rise up from the stump of sorrow, and be green also, like the diligent leaves.
A lifetime isn’t long enough for the beauty of this world and the responsibilities of your life.
Scatter your flowers over the graves, and walk away. Be good-natured and untidy in your exuberance.
In the glare of your mind, be modest. And beholden to what is tactile, and thrilling.
Live with the beetle, and the wind.
~ Mary Oliver ~
From Shari: what have you noticed today that helps you feel connected?
We humans are an inventive bunch. When confronted with limitations, we’ve always found a way to persevere. Communication was once limited to face to face, but then we thought up written alphabets, mail, books, telephone and telegraph, radio, TV, internet, and now Zoom.
We’ve adopted new virtual ways to hold meetings, teach class, and stay connected. We persevere, and most important, we always look for ways to help, using the gifts we have and perhaps stretching them to fit the limitations of our new normal.
As we make our way through this new normal, rather than mourn the lost way we used to connect, perhaps now is the time to adapt and stretch to fit our present reality. How can we be present for each other, particularly for the youngest and most vulnerable among us, in a way that works right now today?
From Shari: what are some new ways of doing things that you’ve found helpful in our current world?
For me, Zoom has been a godsend. I’ve been able to attend a virtual reunion, participate in book clubs, stay connected with friends, and make author visits to schools all while maintaining appropriate social distance. I’ve also found I’m writing more snail mail.