The Sky Isn’t Falling, It is Just a Bit Tilted

Every day we hear atrocities on the news:  another plane crash, in the French Alps or in the Orient; Islamic extremists have bombed a museum or a mosque or yet another site; Robert Durst, serial killer, is suspected of killing yet more women over many years; yet another black unarmed youth is shot by a white police officer.  Yet another celebrity or journalist or politician or sports figure or campus-based group is behaving badly, cringe-worthy.  And there is Ebola in Western Africa.  And on and on it goes.

With these thoughts in the periphery of my mind, I read a newsletter entry by the pastor of a church I attend, and he said the following:

You would never know it from reading the newspaper, but our world is more peaceful that it has ever been in human history. And, though it is far from perfect, we have made indisputable progress toward equality on a global scale.

Local news tells us stories of crimes and house fires. National news tells us about global terrorism, vindictive national politics and environmental devastation, even as a greater and greater majority of humanity lives in peace and dies of old age.

The world is not falling apart. The kinds of violence that affect most people—homicide, rape, battering, child abuse—have been in steady decline in most of the world. Autocracy is giving way to democracy. Wars between states, by far the most destructive of all conflicts, are nearly obsolete.

From time to time I hear talk of a broken and hurting world. I drift in that direction myself from time to time. But at our core we are a tradition of hope and gratitude. As we embrace the season of renewal and hope, let’s remember the sky is not falling. In fact this is an absolutely amazing time to be alive.

Well, he hasn’t cited statistics to bolster his comments, but if he is right, then I think this is a good example of “glass half full;” vs.“glass half empty.”  And yet I still have this nagging feeling that things aren’t quite right with the world; after all, these atrocities being cited on the news aren’t invented.  OK, some networks might over-catastrophize a bit much or put a negative spin on things, but some are more “just the facts” than others.  Drive by shootings and child abductions are not a figment of my imagination.

So what if we made a vow that each day, or each week, we would look through the news to find some positive stories – people giving back, local heroes, social activists supporting worthy causes?  This is one way to restore your mind to some semblance of calm.

So to put my actions where my mouth is, I looked through the news and found the following.  For instance KNX 1070, local CBS radio affiliate, honors people who make extraordinary contributions to the community.  They name a Hero of the Week every week.  One such nominee is actually a group involving three teenage girls who founded a service called “A Call Away.”  Each of them had at one point had some family emergencies that threw their families into disarray and chaos, disrupting regular meals and shopping, involving increases in medical bills.  Regular bills went unpaid while they attended to the plight of ill or hospitalized family members.  So their service, “A Call Away,” provides such services as grocery shopping, running errands, homework help, delivering meals to families, playing with kids while adults make hospital visits, pet care, laundry, etc.  These services are rendered to those who have family members in a hospital, or dealing with a sudden death in family.  The girls do this on a complimentary basis, except for out-of-pocket expenses actually incurred, like the cost of groceries.  It would be noteworthy for persons of any age to extend themselves like this, but these are young teens with studying and school assignments to complete regularly.  Yet, they use their spare time to help others.  Surely they are role models for peers and younger kids they meet.  Instead of hanging out at the mall, or tagging neighborhood block walls, they are actually making a difference.

I also recently was reminded of an activist faith-based group in Orange County that works on restorative justice, peace-building from the ground up, and allows members of the community to gather and tell their stories about living with crime, bombings, sniper shots, homelessness, school drop outs, poverty, unemployment.  Together, they seek positive ways to change the social, environmental and behavioral realities in their world to bring about positive change, even though it may start slowly and build gradually.

Another group I know visits detainees at a local Orange County immigrant detention center, detained while they await a court date, to find out if they will be deported or allowed to remain in the US.  After concerted effort, the visitors were able to get their visitation program approved by ICE.  The detainees request visits using a signup sheet posted in their dorms.  Some of them have been detained for months, their families in their native countries not knowing of their plight.  Some have fled a country of violence and unrest and are seeking asylum.  Some have children they have not seen for a long time.  Some have had no visitors for months and are just grateful to see another human presence.  I know many who think these folks should just be deported and they have their reasons, their arguments, their points of view, their justifications, and their biases.  But after I hear my friends, who are part of the visitor program, talk about their feelings after hearing the stories of the detainees they’ve visited, I realize there are almost always two sides to each story.  And these visitors are taking the time to listen to the stories.  And they are changed, transformed by the listening.  As one visitor says: “I realize that I cannot solve all the problems of the immigration system, but for 30 minutes I can listen and remind someone that they are not alone.”

Another local news station is having a “Puppypalooza,” an adoption effort to help hundreds of homeless puppies and dogs find homes.  There is a real need and it is a feel good story as well.  It is much more heartening than hearing about another roadside bombing in a third world country.

So, when I hear news that is dreadful, I think of these positive examples, and look for more, and I almost always find one.  It is my touchstone, a reminder that the sky isn’t falling, even though at times I am sure it is tilting.

A Beautiful Thing That floats

written 11/4/13

posted 3/24/15

In a previous essay I wrote about the idea of creating a “Secretary of Imagination.”  I got the idea from Robert Fulghum’s quote about releasing a Crayola bomb:  “A happiness weapon.  A beauty bomb.  And every time a crisis developed, we would launch one.  It would explode high in the air – explode softly – and send thousands, millions, of little parachutes into the air.  Floating down to earth – boxes of Crayolas.”  And I thought that if we had a Secretary of Imagination, we could have more such happenings at regular intervals, because the world was in need of a bit more joy and happiness.

Sometime later I found a sermon published on the web site of a UU church about happiness.  It resonated with the same theme – the basic theme was “Let happiness find you, hold your hand.  Know what it’s like to float in a world that can feel so heavy.”

At any given time there have always been dreadful things going on in many parts of the world.  I attended a play recently – Time Stands Still.  It was nominated for a Tony Award in 2010.  The play deals with two social activists, a photographer and a journalist, both dedicated to covering wars in places like Afghanistan and other violence-torn parts of the world.  And there is a line from a monologue by another character who provides a counterpoint:  “The people who are killing each other have always been killing each other, and the world has always watched while terrible things happened, and terrible things are always going to happen.”

And she goes on to make the point that she’d rather concentrate on happiness and happy events because there is nothing she can do about atrocities in far off places, like Afghanistan.  But she does have some degree of control over her own happiness. And her viewpoint really resonated with me.  It’s like the Serenity Prayer in a way:

Grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.

I know it is hard to accept that war and atrocities are things we cannot change, or maybe to a limited degree, and sometimes not even the most ardent social activist can change them either.  That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try.  But at some point, even they might need to accept that the change they can effect is minimal.  But there are some things I can change.  I can choose to let a little more happiness into my life.  Rev. Makar, in his sermon on happiness, said “Part of the human experience is to feel resistance to happiness but [we should learn] to soften that resistance, to learn eventually the spiritual art of how to hold a beautiful thing that floats and cannot be contained….”  That is how he characterized happiness:  “a beautiful thing that floats and cannot be contained.”  And he also said that “Life is joy and woe woven fine, and there is no enduring the woe, without the joy.”

Actually, it may very well be that launching happiness is a part of our UU heritage as much as the wisdom of Emerson and the social conscience of Thoreau.  Hosea Ballou, a revered and influential 19th century Universalist preacher is given credit for coining a new word – “happify”.   He said that we are “happified” when we believe that we are held in the arms of Love and that those arms will never let us go, no matter what.  That God created us because God thought we might like it.  And if you don’t believe in God, then perhaps you could anthropomorphize the Universe and think of it this way:  the Universe released millions upon millions of bits of stardust in the big bang, stardust that could become human, because the Universe thought we might like it.

Now I like that – I’d rather think that we are here on this earth to be “happified” rather than make reparation over and over again for the sin of Adam and Eve.  I realize that life is a mix of joys and sorrows– joy and woe woven fine – and that we can’t be “happified” all the time.  But I think it is about finding balance.

The Greeks had a word for such balance, and it was an important part of their world view.  They called it “sophrosyne.”  Webster’s defines sophrosyne as “moderation; discretion; prudence” though scholars point out that the word itself has no direct translation into English.  And even scholars have some difficulty in defining it precisely.  It is part moderation, part balance, and part “know thyself.”  Plato and the Greeks considered sophrosyne the ultimate ideal toward which a person should strive.  It meant trying to come as close to excellence as one can within the frailties of human nature, restraining impulses to unrestricted freedom, to all excesses, and obeying the inner laws of harmony and proportion.  In short, being in right relationship with the universe and with the self.  The goal is to be in balance in all areas of one’s life.

So to that end – balance – I think we should try to practice Hosea Ballou’s idea of happification.  This is my formula:  in the morning as I get ready for work, I watch the local news, followed by the first few minutes of Good Morning America.  I learn about the latest atrocities in Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Egypt or other hot spot du jour.  I hear about the latest traffic fatalities, police shootings, road rage incidents, spouses who’ve killed their partners on their honeymoon by throwing them off a cruise ship, latest child abductions, and latest mass shooting at a school, a mall, an airport or a fast food emporium.  I marvel at the latest political shenanigans and shake my head at some of the spoken gaffes of elected officials who should know better.  While I watch TV news out of one corner of my eye, I hold one of my cats on my lap and feel her purr.  It is a multi-tasking means of self-preservation in the modern world.  Studiers of cat behavior say that it is an accepted fact that cat owners have lower blood pressure, especially in older people.  The human-feline bond is never quite so close as when a person is holding and petting a purring, vibrating bundle of fur on her lap, and all is well with the world.  So, given a world full of madness on the one hand, I balance that with the purr of a cat.  It happifies me.  Dogs can provide similar therapeutic value.

To continue on – at least once each day I go on the internet and look for some tidbit that I might find amusing.  I am drawn to such sites as The Oatmeal, Reddit, The Daily Currant, UTube, and sometimes Facebook for at least one daily chuckle.  And when I find it, I usually share it with some friends – sending a web link to one or more like-minded individuals so that they can chuckle along with me.  It is one of my ways of spreading happification.

It is possible that one reason we resist or stifle happiness, is that we just don’t know what to do with it.  If you’re really happy, you resist skipping down the street, turning cartwheels, humming or grinning idiotically in public.  Why?  Because you don’t want to look foolish.

Naomi Shihab Nye, says in her poem, “So Much Happiness”:

It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.

But happiness floats.
It doesn’t need you to hold it down.
It doesn’t need anything.
Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing,
and disappears when it wants to.
You are happy either way.
Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree house
and now live over a quarry of noise and dust
cannot make you unhappy.
Everything has a life of its own,
it too could wake up filled with possibilities
of coffee cake and ripe peaches,
and love even the floor which needs to be swept,
the soiled linens and scratched records….. 

Since there is no place large enough
to contain so much happiness,
you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you
into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit
for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it,
and in that way, be known.


The People We Never Meet and Never Know

“All the lives I could live, all the people I will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is all that the world is.” [Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project]

This quote is used as an epigraph at the beginning of Colum McCann’s novel Let the Great World Spin, and gives the reader a hint at what is coming, a glimpse into lives of a variety of New Yorkers we’ll never meet, never know, never understand, never appreciate. Yet through his writing McCann gives us entrée into the closely held secrets, treasures, sorrows and joys of strangers.

In my travels, and even in my daily wanderings – to restaurants, and 7-11s, and Starbucks, and workplaces – I pass people: in elevators, in subways, in waiting lines, and traffic snarls, in bank queues, at checkout stands, at plays, concerts and public gatherings. And if I am not preoccupied with where I have to be in ten minutes, or guilt over the donut I ate that wasn’t healthy for me, or what I will wear to a dinner party tonight, or the need to buy new tires for the car because mine are wearing thin, or the birthday card I forgot to send, then I look around me and marvel at the people I will never know. And even more than that, I sometimes marvel at the people whom I do know, but don’t really know deep down where the sorrows are lodged.

I have thought, more than once, that if I were a teacher of creative writing, perhaps a teacher of “How to Write an Essay’ or “How to Write a Short Story,” that I might task the students to go to some public place, book store coffee bar, library reading room, doctor’s office waiting room, food court in a large mall, airport departure gate, a viewing platform at Niagara Falls, a lecture on goal setting, you name it. And while there, they are to observe a person, or perhaps a couple conversing. You might overhear snippets of conversation. Take careful note of their apparel, demeanor, grooming, accoutrements (back pack, gym bag, type of shoes, name brand of shoes or handbag or man purse, type of wallet or watch, or cell phone) and from this observation write an essay or short story about that person or couple, about what their life is like, about what might be going through their minds, about their backstory, about their hopes, dreams, their resignation, or their despair. Then, we would all come back together again in a week or two, and share the essays, and comment on what we thought. Continue reading