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It’s Not Always Possible to Be Happy, and that’s OK

“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” Robert Frost

 

The first house I owned was built in 1760, located on what is today the edge of the Quabbin Reservoir. As someone who had never lived in a home built before World War II, I was enchanted by all the colonial details: the 12-over-12 windows, the enormous block of local rough-hewn granite that sat above the fireplace (rumored to have taken six men to carry and install). I marveled, too, at the wainscoting in the living room—single boards measuring 3’ x 16’—made from King’s Pines, the oldest, tallest New England white pines reserved exclusively for ships’ masts by the Crown in 1691, but frequently nicked by local colonists for their own building purposes.

Discovering the history behind my new home made me curious about the history of the community. Who were these people who inhabited what would have been an isolated area in the years before the “horseless carriage?” How did they manage daily life?

Among the exhibits, artifacts, and papers I perused, it was a collection of women’s journals and letters I remember most, especially the ones dealing with the death of a child. Infant mortality was a serious threat well into the nineteenth century. For 1850, it’s estimated that almost 25% of white babies, and over a third of black babies never saw their first birthday. Virtually no family was left untouched by this kind of tragedy.

The women’s writing bears witness to the deep sadness such loss evoked. Letters filled with poignant reminiscences of a “wee one” asleep in its mother’s arms, a toothless smile on its lips. Heart-rending descriptions of a child’s last moments, gasping for breath or burning from fever. Sorrow, heartache, grief—they were part of the emotional landscape in the 18th century. Openly acknowledged and vividly expressed.

In the intervening years, much has happened to reduce infant death and combat disease. Pasteur formulated germ theory in the 1860s. An effective vaccine for tuberculosis became available in 1921. Penicillin arrived on the scene in 1928, a “miracle cure” for millions. But sadness is not so easily eradicated.

Death, displacement, loss, rejection—these things still dog us, an inescapable part of the human condition, as core to our being as an arm or a lung. Only our acceptance of sadness, our ability to deal with it or even to admit to it, has changed.

Sad Shaming

In a 2013 article for scientificamerican.com , psychotherapist Tori Rodriguez describes how startled she was to hear a patient apologize for talking about his painful experiences. “I’m sorry for being so negative,” the man said.

People who seek therapy presumably do so because they recognize the distress of their situation is greater than they can manage alone. Therapists don’t expect them to “put on a happy face.” But Rodriguez has noticed a definite uptick in the number of patients who feel guilty or embarrassed by what they perceive to be their own negativity. “Such reactions undoubtedly stem from our culture’s overriding bias toward positive thinking,” she says. “Problems arise when people start believing they must be upbeat all the time.”

John Naish, author of Enough: Breaking Free From The World Of More, writes: It’s almost as though we must have a duty to be happy in today’s highly developed Western world.

Conversations you may have heard or had:

“Hey, how it’s going?”

“Good. Great. Everything’s going well.”

I actually knew someone who responded this way though her 15-year-old daughter had recently been arrested for prostitution, her son was in rehab, and her husband was jumping ship.

Are we in denial here or what?

A quick google on the matter reveals that, at best, we are confused about just how happy we can or should be, as the following subject lines attest:

Is Being Happy All the Time Possible?

Are Humans Supposed to be Happy All the Time?

Is it Normal to Feel Happy All the Time?

Why It’s Not Normal to be Happy All the Time

And, my personal favorite: 10 Scientifically Proven Ways to Stay Happy All the Time

So, how did we get from those letters of our foremothers with their unabashed expressions of sadness and grief, to thinking we’re supposed to feel happy all the time? Where did this sad-shaming come from?

I can’t pinpoint the moment it arrived, but the $10 billion-plus (annual) self-help industry might be a good place to start.

The Happiness Industry

In 1952, a Reformed Church (RCA) minister, Norman Vincent Peale, published a book that would remain on The New York Times bestseller list for 186 consecutive weeks. The Power of Positive Thinking, using a blend of what can best be described as glib spirituality and pop psychology promised readers that if they could imagine it, it would come.

“Stand up to an obstacle,” Peale exhorted.  “Just stand up to it, that’s all, and don’t give way under it, and it will finally break. You will break it. Something has to break, and it won’t be you, it will be the obstacle.”

BigThink.com

By way of explanation, he offered:  “When you expect the best, you release a magnetic force in your mind which by a law of attraction tends to bring the best to you.”

It’s all a matter, as Peale would explain again and again in his next 45 books, of changing your thoughts. “Change your thoughts and you change your world,” he told a readership hungry to swallow the idea that eternal happiness was theirs for the believing.

(Interesting side note: Peale was a close friend of Richard Nixon and he officiated at Donald Trump’s wedding to Ivana. According to The Washington Post, Trump sings Peale’s praises when asked about his own religious convictions, and Peale described Trump as “kindly and courteous” with “a streak of honest humility,” touting him as “one of America’s top positive thinkers and doers.”)

The Power of Positive Thinking sold an impressive 7 million copies, but two decades later, the man John Rogers (AP) called “the pied piper of the self-help movement” crushed those numbers. Wayne Dyer’s Your Erroneous Zones (1976) has sold 35 million copies to date.  Unlike Peale who had no mental health credentials—indeed, the psychology community was annoyed with him—Dyer held an Ed.D. in counseling. This, however, did not prevent him from frequently making equally questionable, facile (and highly profitable) claims such as:

It’s been proven that the thoughts we choose have everything to do with our emotions. I can tell you that a commitment to feeling good can take away a stomach ache, fear, depression, sadness, anxiety—you name it. Any stress signal is a way of alerting you to say the five magic words: I want to feel good.

Different Gurus, Same Message

Indeed, if Peale’s and Dyer’s writings were jotted on scraps of paper and mixed together, it would be hard to distinguish one happiness guru from the other. Try it.

Who said:

  1. Our happiness depends on the habit of mind we cultivate. So practice happy thinking every day. Cultivate the merry heart, develop the happiness habit, and life will become a continual feast.  

2. Feelings are not just emotions that happen to you. Feelings are reactions you choose to have.

3. If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

4. When you get up in the morning, you have two choices – either to be happy or to be unhappy. Just choose to be happy.

5. Whatever people can imagine clearly with emotion, by creating a perfect vibrational match, is theirs to be, or do, or have.

6. The essence of greatness is the ability to choose personal fulfillment in circumstances where others choose madness.

(This last reminds me of the parody on Kipling’s “If”:  If you can keep your head while all about are losing theirs … it’s just possible you haven’t grasped the situation.)

Here are the correct attributions: 1 and 4 (Peale); 2,3 and 6 (Dyer).

Number 5 is a quote from Esther Hicks (okay, I wasn’t playing completely fair). Hicks is an inspirational speaker and co-author of nine books, including the popular Law of Attraction series (Abraham Hicks Publications), whose seven titles include Money and the Law of Attraction: Learning to Attract Wealth, Health, and Happiness, and Ask and It Is Given: Learning to Manifest Your Desires. According to Hicks, the books are “translated from a group of non-physical entities called Abraham.” Hicks says she is simply tapping into “infinite intelligence.”

You betcha.

It’s a very appealing idea that one can be happy all the time—no one seeks pain—but is it true?

What unites Peale, Dyer, Hicks and a zillion other happiness gurus is this: Believing makes it so. But if it’s possible to be happy all the time, and it just depends on your willing it, then it’s a short leap to the conclusion that if you’re not happy all the time, it’s your own damn fault. Indeed, Dyer says as much in what may be the sad-shaming daddy of them all: You didn’t come forth into this world to suffer, to be anxious, fearful or depressed. Remember, your thoughts, not your world, cause you stress.

Tell that to a Syrian child who lost both parents and her home when her village was bombed, a refugee orphan whom no country wants to take in. Tell that child it’s her thoughts not her world that is causing her pain. It’s a mythology that can only exist in absolute privilege and the real twist is that it doesn’t even exist there. The monied classes are full of unhappy people who believed that a 5,000 square-foot McMansion, a bright shiny new car, and a load of the latest high-end digital gadgets and appliances would prove a talisman against sadness and disappointment.

We don’t need more and bigger stuff to insulate us from sorrow and pain. What we need is resilience.

Resilience and the Complications of Happiness

Resilience is “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress” (American Psychological Association). Though some of us seem to be more resilient than others, and all of us can increase our resilience, none of us can render ourselves impervious to emotional shocks and pain. “Being resilient does not mean that a person doesn’t experience difficulty or distress,” the APA explains. “Emotional pain and sadness are common in people who have suffered major adversity or trauma in their lives.”

It’s worth noting here that it’s not only sorrow, disappointment, and grief that prevent us from being on a never-ending happy trip. It’s happiness itself. Happiness, as it turns out, is complicated. Just ask anyone who has killed time waiting for a preschooler to make her choice among the list of possibilities at the ice cream stand.

And though the choices change with maturity, the complications remain as we struggle to juggle work, family, friends, personal pursuits, and the need for solitude—all important contributors to our health and  happiness. As Jennifer Hecht, a history professor who studies among other things the history of happiness, says in her book The Happiness Myth, we all experience many types of happiness, but that doesn’t save us from experiencing conflicts. Putting our energies into one source of happiness, say, landing our dream job, takes time away from another source of happiness, our partner and children. Devoting ourselves to raising our kids means many fewer hours for alone time and our own interests. Alas, we are mere mortals and it’s impossible to stretch the day beyond 24 hours or to be in two places at once.

 The High Cost of Faking It

 Okay, so it’s not possible to be happy all the time, but is it even desirable to act as if we are eternally happy, happy, happy?

Consider the following scenarios:

Your house and everything in it burns to the ground.

You are robbed and beaten at gunpoint.

Your best friend betrays you.

You lose your job at age 50 and can’t find another.

Your spouse develops Alzheimer’s.

Your child dies in a car accident. (As a parent, I can hardly bring myself to even write that.)

Can you seriously imagine acting happy in the wake of any of these situations?  Would it even be remotely possible to vanquish all anxiety, heartache, and grief just by “choosing to be happy?”

Our language is awash in words for pain, disappointment, and sorrow because they are part of the human experience. These emotions happen to everyone. There ain’t no way around them. And attempting to suppress them may be the unhealthiest thing we can do. Refusing to deal with something consciously doesn’t stop our subconscious from dwelling on it. And dwelling on it. And dwelling on it some more. It’s only when we allow ourselves to experience and accept difficult emotions that we can open the door to making sense of our feelings and moving on. According to psychologist Jonathan M. Adler, “Acknowledging the complexity of life may be an especially fruitful path to psychological well-being.”

You Can Handle This

 

I shared an apartment with a dear friend in my Boston days. Whenever she was sad or distressed, Terri cleaned like a madwoman. She once painted the entire apartment in a weekend after a break-up. In a painful place at the time myself, I watched her as I downed a tumbler of Jameson’s and played all the sad songs my record collection offered. Not the best of times, but we both got through it.  As my dad used to say, “This too shall pass.”

There are many ways to cope with unhappiness. Like Terri, you can throw yourself into projects while your heart calms. You can call a good friend—and if your friends only want to hear from you when you’re happy, it’s time to find new friends. You can go the gym—the workout will flood you with endorphins and do your heart good. You can write or paint or compose a song about what you’re feeling. Much of the world’s great literature and music has its source in difficult moments. I generally choose to “sit” with my pain. Or more precisely, to let my pain “sit” with me while I go about my day, allowing my distress to float through me, neither indulging it nor suppressing it.

And if you find your sadness continues to overwhelm you, there’s a world full of professional help out there. Seek it, and don’t apologize for “negative feelings.” None of us gets through this life without the aid of others. 

Personally, I have always taken comfort from the fact that the moment the bottom falls out—the punch in the gut when your world is turned upside down a little, or a lot—that’s the worst moment. In the seconds it takes to realize what’s happened, that moment is already in the rearview mirror. You’ve survived it. And from there, everything after is movement away, upward, toward the light.

Toward another chance at happiness.

 

 

Hang Up And …Live!

“The only time you ever have in which to learn anything or see anything or feel anything, or express any feeling or emotion, or respond to an event, or grow, or heal, is this moment … You’re only here now; you’re only alive in this moment.”   Jon Kabat-Zinn

 

I’m lucky to live in a state that has over 300 miles of rail-trails, so when I’m done with the morning’s writing (and it’s not January), I often go for a bike ride. Lose the tension in my shoulders. Let go of whatever problems my characters have posed for me that day (and those pesky people can cause real trouble when they choose).

My favorite loop, about ten miles out and back, takes me to Look Park, a vast oasis of  green lawn and blue ponds. The trail there mostly goes through wooded areas. At one spot, chickens and ducks waddle along the verge, scouring the long grasses and wildflowers for a snack to supplement their caregiver’s feed. The first time I saw them, I worried for their safety—so many bicyclists whizzing by—but over the years, I’ve come to realize they are proof of Darwin’s law:  Adapt or perish. They are obviously smart fowl.

At another spot, the land falls sharply away from the trail, and I glimpse the skeleton of a 1940s truck, blue in the patches that rust hasn’t eaten. Time. It’s always there, at some moments shouting, at others whispering.

No matter how scorching or muggy the day, a breeze lifts my hair, cools my skin, empties my busy brain, and I tune into the birdsong, tranquil. Which is what makes it all the more jarring when I pass a woman, walking with her toddler and talking into her cell phone. Seconds later, I cycle past another walker, this one with ear buds connecting her to an iPod while she texts on her phone, fingers flying over the keyboard. There’s even a bicyclist—and I’m not making this up—pedaling along while texting two-handed.

It’s lovely that all these folks are out here enjoying the rail-trail, but my question is: Are they actually enjoying the rail-trail?

Selfie Madness

We’ve all seen the absorbed texter (maybe even bumped into them!) walking through the airport, oblivious to others and their luggage or, like an errant pinball, caroming down a crowded city sidewalk only to step off the curb into traffic, unaware.

CAMERA cellphone user on busy sidewalk caminar-mirando-el-celular3People speak of life passing you by, but our digital addictions are causing us to pass by life without pausing to register its pulse. Texting. Tweeting. And then there’s selfie-madness.

In June, I was at a Yankees-Red Sox game with my husband. Since we only go once a year, we treated ourselves to field level tickets along the first base line. These seats aren’t cheap, so I was surprised at how many people around us spent the entire game taking selfies, their backs to the ball field. They seemed to prefer snapping photos of themselves attending a Yankees-Red Sox game to actually watching the play on the field. And it was a great game. Tense. The lead bouncing back and forth. Close score. But it often felt like my husband and I were the only ones following the action, a task not made easier by the bodies hurtling through our line of sight in search of the perfect location/angle/backdrop for a selfie.

The Digital Invasion

I first glimpsed signs of what would become our digital mania in 2003 while vacationing in Florence, Italy. We were visiting Il Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore) when I noticed a man walking about with a video camera, filming, his wife and kids doggedly trotting after. Although camcorders still used videotape at this time, they had shrunk considerably in size from their dinosaur predecessors of the mid-1980s. And this man was determined to make use of their newfound mobility.

He continued filming as we strolled about the piazza, admiring Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise—ten dramatic bronze reliefs that depict Old Testament scenes on the doors of the Baptistery—and Giotto’s polychromatic marble-faced campanile with its della Robbia panels.

The camera remained glued to his face when we entered Il Duomo beneath the clock designed by Uccello, and traveled up, up, up the 463 steps to stand amazed beneath Brunelleschi’s architectural miracle of a dome, its interior graced with Vasari’s frescoes of the Last Judgment.

I never saw his face that day. In my mind, he remains a figure ambling about with a large camera where his head should be. I’ve often wondered if he and the family ever got around to watching the hundreds of hours I’m guessing he filmed during his Italian vacation. Or did he just move on to the next destination, camera at the ready, missing more moments of his life amid the wonders of the world? Perhaps he morphed into the guy I saw a decade later during another trip to Florence, a selfie stick strapped to his forehead, a camcorder suspended from its top, dutifully recording everything he was walking away from in the Piazza della Signoria, his face in the foreground.

Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing

With smartphones, the capture of every moment is only a click away. On the same trip that took us to Yankee Stadium, we spent a morning in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We were hanging out in European Paintings 1250-1800, soaking up the dark mysteries of Rembrandt, the pink fulsome flesh of Rubens, the broad Flemish landscapes of Bruegel. Darting all about us, like a gnat you can’t seem to lose, was a woman snapping photos of every painting. And not only the paintings, but the little description cards that accompanied each work. Snap. Snap. Snap. She paused only a nanosecond to capture Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher before buzzing off to give Franz Hals’s Portrait of a Bearded Man with a Ruff the same blink of her camera.

I can report she missed not a single painting, but in another, more significant way she missed them all. If that seems an exaggeration, pick up a postcard of Van Gogh’s extraordinary painting of a chair, called reasonably enough Van Gogh’s Chair, and compare it to the original that hangs in London’s National Gallery. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but an amateur photo of a major artwork is… squat.

Patti LuPone Takes On The Texters

And when we’re not filming, we’re texting. Two years ago, while starring in Shows for Days, actress Patti LuPone grabbed the cell phone of an audience member in the front row who had been texting through the entire first act. The cast and audience had already endured four separate cell phone rings during that day’s show, so tempers were somewhat frayed.

“She was sitting in the light, so everyone could see her texting. It’s ridiculous,” LuPone said.

Lupone returned the phone after the performance was over, but gave vent to her distress. “I’m defeated by this. It’s not changing, it’s only getting worse … If something isn’t done, I will think twice before I get back on a stage again.

“It’s not [about] theater etiquette,” she explained. “It’s human etiquette. We’re living in an isolated society, the phone controls our every move, and we’ve lost sight of our neighbor, the people surrounding us.”

One of the great ironies of our cell phone addiction is that it was preceded by an innovation that freed us from our phones: the answering machine. They were a revelation, a revolution. No longer did you have to worry about missing an important call. It would be there on the little cassette when you got home. You were free to go about your day, or travel the world, without once thinking of your phone. It was a golden time, however short-lived.

Surprise: Pop Quiz!

Okay, I’ve had my moment on the soapbox. Now it’s time for you to play along.

When did you last:

  1. Take an evening off Facebook and Twitter to hang out with friends and neighbors?

2. Visit an art gallery or museum using only your eyes, no camera (photos of you and loved ones in front of the museum don’t count here)?

3. Pick a dining spot in a city not your own by walking along the streets “window shopping” restaurants and cafes rather than googling TripAdvisor or Yelp?

4. Enjoy a cup of coffee or a glass of wine at a café with your significant other and no cell phones in sight?

5. Browse a brick-and-mortar bookstore—with actual shelves and real books you can open and read—rather than surf Goodreads for recommendations, then order from Amazon?

6. Go for a hike or a bicycle ride naked—no iPod, no earbuds, no smartphone?

If you can’t recall the last time for any or (yikes!) all of the above, I suggest you get out into the world immediately. Talk to real people. Listen to the sounds of summer—the buzz of bees, kids laughing, birds trilling, the lap of water at the beach. Literally, stop and smell the roses.

And give your texting thumbs a rest. For there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your mobile apps.

The Idea of Democracy

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us … that this nation …  shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”  (Abraham Lincoln)

 

“Father, I Can Not Tell a Lie: I Cut the Tree,” engraving by John C. McRae, 1867.

I have to confess, the history of the American Revolution failed to stir my imagination in high school. Those godawful powdered wigs. The morality tale of Washington fessing up to chopping things down with his little hatchet. Snooze-inducing stuff like The Stamp Act (which turns out not to be boring at all).

The American Revolution. I chalked it up to one big yawn. Especially when compared to the high drama, pathos, and moral imperative of the American Civil War. With its roots in the question of extending/ending slavery, its families divided North and South, and the terrible carnage at Gettysburg, Antietam, and Shiloh, the Civil War had me at hello. I crushed on Abraham Lincoln, that hero of the scruffy cheek; the wise, sad eyes. He epitomized all that was kind and brilliant and just—his own life an enduring reminder that poverty is a condition and not a character flaw.

I first borrowed Irene Hunt’s now-classic YA novel Across Five Aprils from my school library in fourth grade. It was a book I would take out five more times before moving on to middle school. If I’d been awarding points for best American conflict, the score would have looked like this:

Civil War: 100

American Revolution: 0

So I was not prepared to be especially moved by the TV series John Adams (HBO, 2008) based on David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name.

Note to self: It’s important to re-examine one’s assumptions from time to time.

John Adams put me in another set of shoes, in another time. Made me think in new ways. Moved me to reassess old prejudices. And stirred something in my soul. Perhaps one just has to live long enough to appreciate what an enormous, pain-in-the-derriere struggle it was to forge a new nation from 13 wrangling colonies who saw eye to eye on very little. Crazier still, a representative democracy.

For what could be more egotistical, more foolhardy than to declare this fledgling union a democracy in defiance of a Europe still dominated by monarchies and old aristocrats? What living models could the colonists turn to for guidance? The Corsican Republic had a written constitution toward the end of its short life—little more than a decade—but was crushed by the French in 1769. All else was monarchs and oligarchs.

Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and the rest would have to cobble together their new government from the ether of political philosophers’ ideas. Men like Aristotle, Thomas Paine, John Locke, and Baron de Montesquieu. It was Montesquieu’s argument for an independent judiciary that Madison pressed for in the drafting of the Constitution.

Through the Looking Glass of Time

Not surprisingly, historians in every era since have weighed in on what the founding fathers concocted.

Writing in the wake of his extended visit to America in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville credited the rise of equality to greater economic opportunities from increased trade and commerce, the cheapening of the nobility by the royal sale of titles, and the abolishing of primogeniture. He admired much in the new American democracy: the way everyone shook hands with each other, the considerable number of people active in public life, the fabled New England town meetings where all citizens were entitled to a say in civic matters. He pronounced America’s four-year cycle of presidential elections a “revolution.”

Yet, de Tocqueville had his concerns. In a society of equals, he feared, the majority would always hold sway and silence minority opinion and rights. He observed this “tyranny of the majority” in the North where free black men who had the legal right to vote were often prevented from doing so by the white majority. “I know of no country in which … there is less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America,” he wrote.

Boston University political scientist, historian, and activist, Howard Zinn, weighing in 150 years later, viewed the American Revolution through the lens of progressive 20th century sensibilities.  Zinn claims the Founding Fathers received more than their due of adulation, and debunks them as democracy’s true

Shays Rebellion

heroes. While admitting they led the War for Independence, he takes them to task for their motives, stating it was not for equal access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness they fought, but for a government that would “protect the property of slave owners, land speculators, merchants, and bondholders.” The true revolutionaries, he says, were men like the soldiers of Pennsylvania and New Jersey who mutinied against their gentry officers, George Washington among them, for the luxurious treatment they enjoyed. Men like Massachusetts farmer, Daniel Shays, who led a revolt against the seizure of homes and farms for nonpayment of extortionate taxes.

From Harvard historian Alex Keyssar: “It’s hard to argue that we were a democracy while slavery existed or while African Americans were denied the franchise.” To that, one could add the suffrage in 1776 did not admit white men who owned no property, Native Americans, or women of any station.

Two things jump out at me as I read these assessments:

1) Persons and events of historical note are almost universally held to account by the standards of the historian’s day. De Tocqueville, for example, was untroubled by women’s exclusion from the suffrage and did not view it as an inequality because, like his peers in the 1830s, he believed women did not belong in political or economic life.

While there’s no denying that the fledgling America excluded all but propertied, white, Christian men in its concerns for democratic rights, in this the founders were no more backward or reactionary than the world they inhabited. Judging the value of what they created by the measure of modern progressive sensibilities is like decreeing Shakespeare sucked as a playwright because he reflected the prevailing attitudes of 1600, and failed to champion political and social equality for women, Jews, and Moors. In holding the past to a standard it had not yet dreamt of, we may miss what was truly revolutionary in the moment.

2) Almost everything at the hour of its invention is but a poor prototype of what it may become.

Indeed, ratification of the Constitution was held up because a number of the original framers and state delegates insisted it include a list of individual rights. In 1791, such a list was added—ten amendments known as The Bill of Rights specify restrictions on the government’s power. The Constitution, itself, outlines a process in Article V for further amendments to be made through the people’s elected representatives. In the past 226 years, seventeen amendments have been added, including the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery at the close of the Civil War.

History, quite fortunately for historians, always has a tidy beginning, middle, and end, but all the living present ever offers us mere mortals is uncertainty.

The Real Gift of the Founders

John Adams does not paint the founding fathers as heroes of epic stature or selfless idealists. Adams, himself, is portrayed as something of a pompous curmudgeon, riddled with vanity and insecurity, but his dedication is undeniable, unrelenting.

“The Declaration of Independence” John Trumbull

When asked to view John Trumbull’s now-iconic painting, The Declaration of Independence, a mammoth work that depicts Congress gathered in stately fashion for the presentation of the draft document, Adams takes a brief glimpse, then turns away. “It was never like that,” he tells Trumbull.

Apocryphal or not, it may be the truest and most profound line of the series. For it was not an ideal democracy ordained and presided over by godlike geniuses that was the great gift of the founding fathers, but the idea of democracy. An idea that has fired imaginations and shaped the dreams of men and women for the past 240 years.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

The idea of democracy has inspired men and women like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Margaret Sangar, Barbara Gittings, Martin Luther King, Jr., César Chávez, Gloria Steinem, and millions more whose names have not made the history books. It has informed labor unions, the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Movement, The Rainbow Coalition, and the LGBTQ Rights Movement. It has given rise to events such as The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Bread and Roses Strike of 1912, Selma, Little Rock, Stonewall, the anti-war protests of the 1960s, and Standing Rock.

The Center for American Progress writesThe activists and leaders of these movements believed deeply in the empowerment and equality of the less privileged in society, the primacy of democracy in American life, and the notion that government should safeguard the common good from unchecked individual and commercial greed.

The idea of democracy.

No Great Idea Goes Unchallenged

It would be disingenuous to suggest the struggle for democracy goes unchallenged. It is and has been challenged every day since the ink was still wet on the Constitution. John Adams, himself, took potshots at it during his presidency. Afraid France would make war on the new nation, and distressed by increasing press attacks on his administration, he passed four pieces of legislation in 1798, known as the Alien and Sedition Acts, granting greater authority to the federal government, especially the president.

The last of the four laws, the Sedition Act, allowed Adams to define what constituted treason including writings he deemed false, libelous, or malicious. He intended to silence the newspapers and pamphlets he felt unfairly criticized him. Twenty-five men were arrested and imprisoned, including Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, a newspaper editor.

Backlash was immediate. Adams actions were rightfully considered abuse of his powers and a threat to free speech. Jefferson’s party gained control of Congress and the presidency in 1800, where they let three of the four Acts expire. (The Alien Enemies Act, though modified, has survived into the present and was used as an argument to intern Japanese, German, and Italian Americans during World War II.)

Fifty-seven years later, on the eve of the Civil War, the Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sandford that “a black man has no rights a white man is bound to respect.” In what has been called the worst decision the Supreme Court ever made, it was decided that black Americans whether enslaved or free were not and never could be U.S. citizens.

Shortly after the Civil War, Myra Bradwell applied for admission to the Illinois Bar, but was denied admittance by the Illinois Supreme Court because she was a woman. Bradwell appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming the 14th Amendment’s Privileges and Immunities Clause protected her right to practice law. The Supreme Court disagreed: The 14th Amendment did not apply and therefore the decision was up to the state of Illinois. Bradwell’s gender was a critical factor for several SCOTUS judges. Justice Bradley noted: [the] natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life… The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the creator.”

“The Creator” has often been used to justify denying various groups of American citizens their democratic rights—women, people of color, LGBTQ folks. It was a cruel irony that black American soldiers sent to fight Hitler in World War II returned home only to suffer the fascism of the Jim Crow South.

In recent years, the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC has allowed corporations and their billionaire CEOs to drive America’s destiny by heavily funding extreme right wing candidates who do their bidding, and financing hundreds of millions of dollars in attack ads against any candidate who supports environmental protections, stricter gun laws, or checks on Wall Street—even though most Americans support these things.

Greed, racism, misogyny, homophobia—the idea of democracy has always been challenged. Yet, its promise continues to energize millions of Americans to protest, to strike, to risk imprisonment for their beliefs. Witness the recent Women’s March, the constituents speaking out against “Trumpcare” at Town Halls, the No Wall No Ban protests, the Climate March.

The idea of democracy, it seems, refuses to lie down and die. As John Steinbeck’s Tom Joad says in The Grapes of Wrath: “I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.”

The Task Before Us
At Standing Rock Camp

Two days after the 2016 election, author Neil Gabler, heartbroken, wrote: America died on Nov. 8, 2016, not with a bang or a whimper, but at its own hand via electoral suicide. We the people chose a man who has shredded our values, our morals, our compassion, our tolerance, our decency, our sense of common purpose, our very identity — all the things that, however tenuously, made a nation out of a country.

Whatever place we now live in is not the same place it was on  Nov. 7. No matter how the rest of the world looked at us on                                                                                          Nov. 7, they will now look at us differently.

I understand Gabler’s despair in that moment. Empathize with it. Elected officials, especially presidents, and court justices are significant for the power they wield, the good or ill they do to ordinary Americans. They may even threaten the institution of democracy itself. But they can never kill the idea of democracy. It remains impervious to all their blows, their attempts to enslave us for their own greed and aggrandizement. As long as we dream democracy, the idea lives.

We stand at a crossroads. It’s not the first in our history. It is likely not the last. Like our country’s founders, we find ourselves in the living present with all its uncertainty. And the one grand idea they left us: the idea of democracy.

It is up to us to push forward this idea while protecting all that is precious and at risk—freedom of the press, voting rights, civil rights, the environment, healthcare, the social safety net, our public lands, our public schools. It’s a long list at the moment.

Just before finishing this post, I took a trip to that most democratic of all institutions, the grocery store—everyone comes to the grocery store. As I stood in line to check out, I watched the people. Old people, young people, families with kids. Latinos, whites, blacks, Asians. Some people were doing the week’s shopping. Others were grabbing a six-pack of soda and chips. It’s Monday of a long holiday weekend, so people’s faces were more open, their smiles a little wider, their laughter more generous.

I thought about the hopes each of them may harbor. How, basically, everyone wants to live a life free from fear. A life where they have a home and food, and the means to procure both, with a little money and time left over for what they enjoy. How everyone needs to feel respected, a citizen, a voice with a say. A person whose life matters.

That is the idea of democracy. That each of us matters. That we all have a say.

(Featured photo by Franck Prevel)

The Art of Sitting and Being

“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass on a summer day listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is hardly a waste of time.”  (Sir John Lubbock)

[Author’s note: I think of this as the ultimate summer post, which is my way of saying it first appeared on May 31, 2016. Even writers need to pry themselves loose from their laptops and kick back once in a while. If you see me on my deck, give a wave. Enjoy the fine weather.]

Some years ago, after a day of rambling through the 300+ booths of the Paradise City Arts Festival, I suggested to my husband Ed that we sit and be for a while. This was one of our early excursions together, and he had yet to master the lingo of his beloved. “Sit and be?” he echoed. “What’s that?” Somewhat taken aback—how do you reduce the irreducible?—I stammered, “Well, you just sit … and you be.”

Most of us feel keenly the press of time. Deadlines lurk around every corner. The rent is due. Taxes are due. Biological clocks are ticking. Careers must be launched and once launched, must be advanced. Running through it all, like a Greek chorus whose role it is to underscore the message, are advertisements exhorting us to Act Now. Don’t Waste Another Minute. Hurry! Be The First To …

timmybrister.com
timmybrister.com

The MO of modern life is constant motion. There must be something to show for every moment. Like some throwback to the 16th century, we have an almost Calvinistic need to justify our existence through keeping busy. What were you accomplishing on the night of June 6? Woe to the person without an answer. When did you last hear someone confess to doing nothing?

Sleep Bah, Humbug!

As a kid, I was horrified when I learned that fish lack eyelids and so cannot sleep in the sense that mammals do. I walked about for weeks trying to imagine what it would be like to be awake 24/7, unable to take a break from the demands of the onrushing world.

Yet, by an extension of logic, if no moment of life must be “wasted,” then we waste 6-8 good hours every night sleeping. Totally unconscious. Not producing one damn thing. (Note: I just googled “guilt about wasting time sleeping” and a whole slew of forums on the topic popped up. People worrying they are wasting their lives by sleeping. People worrying they are wasting their lives over worrying about sleeping. Even one insomniac who confessed to suffering guilt about trying and failing to sleep. People, get a grip.)

But we know we need sleep. Without it, the systems that power all that frantic waking activity break down. Our brains turn sludgy and after a while, we know not what we do. So, we accept (some of us grudgingly) that some portion of every 24 hours will be sacrificed to catching ZZZs. SIT BE CROP deadlines magnet

We have a harder time with the concept of resting when we’re awake. And yet, there is a powerful body of research that suggests we accomplish more when we take frequent breaks. Barreling through our to-do list like automatons on speed stresses virtually every system in our bodies, lowering our mental capacity and performance.

We pretty much know this, that our brains are in danger of frying from the endless rush and craziness, so we seek various compromises. We meditate while jogging. Strap music to our heads while raking leaves or cleaning the kitchen. Keep up with Facebook and Twitter while (ostensibly) vegging with a movie.

But stopping, truly coming to a FULL STOP—we hardly know what to do with ourselves. How can we sit and be? Wouldn’t we go nuts with the boredom?

What’s So Great About Doing Nothing

Calvinist hustle aside, history offers us some compelling examples of the riches to be mined from sitting and being:

SIT BE Newton_appleNewton was not “busy” searching for gravity when he first got the idea of it. No, he was just sitting under an apple tree, doing nothing in particular, when the notion of gravity hit him on the head, so to speak.

In the summer of 1916, Mary Gordon and her future husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley were just hanging out watching a thunderstorm with their friends, the poet Lord Byron and author John Polidori, in Geneva, Switzerland, when one of them proposed a contest to see who could write the best horror story. Mary Gordon Shelley won with her little gothic tale Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus.

I would argue that just sitting and being has inspired more discoveries and literature than any outburst of manic energy. It simply opens up your head once you shut off the distractions.

But what if you plunk your derrière down and nothing genius comes to mind? The workable design for a teletransporter is not revealed to you, nor the plot for a sequel to War and Peace. That’s okay. In fact, that’s really the point of sitting and being. It doesn’t require you to do anything.CROP LEAP NET charybdis and scylla

We used to be a nation of porch sitters. People would hang out on their stoop or veranda and just be. If there were two of them on the same porch, the conversation might go like this:

Person #1: Stars are out tonight.

(Minutes tick by.)

Person #2: Yep.

What I recall most clearly from that crafts fair with Ed is nothing about the fair itself—not the sprawling warehouses crammed with hundreds of booths, nor the vast selection of foods, not even the band. My memory of that day centers on the 15 or 20 minutes (we weren’t checking our watches) we sat together on a bench outside the exhibition buildings, relishing the early October sunshine, letting the hum of a busy world pass us by. Maybe we exchanged a few words. Laughed at something.

What I know for sure is this: We were completely at peace.

Dare To Bare Yourself

“So let it out and let it in, hey Jude, begin
You’re waiting for someone to perform with
And don’t you know that it’s just you, hey Jude, you’ll do
The movement you need is on your shoulder.”
                                           (Lennon/McCartney)

A few months back, I was watching an episode from the first televised season of This American Life. In one part, Dr. Brad Blanton, a psychotherapist, talked about his self-improvement program “Radical Honesty.” He mentioned a group workshop where participants disrobe and discuss how they feel about their bodies. It struck me that stripping down before an audience of our peers is the perfect analogy for being one’s true self in the world.

While most of us would not relish going the “full monty” in a roomful of strangers, it can be just as intimidating to bare our soul to the unsparing judgment of others. What if they don’t approve of us or reject us? Find us foolish, or unsophisticated, or just too weird?

Well, sometimes, some people will. But trying to psyche out what others want or expect of us, and then act that role is draining. It’s like living in permanent interview mode. The part when you’re asked where you see yourself in five years, and though your honest answer might be Sitting in Barbados, sipping rum and having sex on the beach (the activity, not the cocktail), you spout some corporate-babble about rising through the ranks, assuming ever more responsibility, and increasing company profits.

It’s a great recipe for depression and self-loathing, but not for happiness and health.

So Why Do We Do It?

Why do we hide who we are when the most natural thing in the world is to be exactly ourself?

As a species, we’re not innately, purposefully self-destructive. A considerable number of theories argue that we do things—even seemingly outlandish things—because we perceive a benefit. So, what are the perceived benefits of traveling in disguise?

1. Popularity. We all want to be liked. By aping the opinions and values of people we aspire to connect with, we hope to win their approval and friendship. Ironic though it is in this context, imitation is often thought the sincerest form of flattery.

2. Validation of our own worth. Some people look no further than themselves for confirmation of their own worth. Others look to a partner, a parent, or a few close friends for the occasional ego boost. But many people allow a wide array of strangers to adjudge their value.

3. Enhanced economic status. Money. Power. Fame. These siren songs of our material culture lure us to ditch who we are in order to pursue the acclaim of the high and mighty. Look at me. Look at me. I must be important. I’m a hedge fund manager.

4. Safety. To be our true selves is to risk others discovering our weaknesses and flaws. To be laughed or jeered at for our choices: clothing, pursuits, opinions, music. By adopting what is popular, we hope to escape the censure of others.

 The High Cost of Faking It

If everything comes with a price, the highest price may be the one we pay to win the approval of others.

1. Relentless suppression of own feelings, ideas, likes and dislikes. Not all of us are extroverts or leaders by nature, but each of us knows whether she’d rather eat Chinese or pizza tonight, watch La La Land or the latest episode of Black Mirror, go dancing or read a book. When we always defer to other people’s opinions or preferences, we lose touch with how we really feel. We fade. Compromise may be the bedrock of all good relationships and world peace, but true compromise is both give-and-take, and eternal compromise is never being who you are or doing what you love.

2. Misery of being self-conscious. When we’re faking it for others, we never get to relax; we’re always on high alert. It’s exhausting. And self-defeating, in every sense. Self-conscious people make everyone uncomfortable.

3. Wind up chained to a job, social network, or lifestyle that feels like a straitjacket. Years ago, I was struck by the fact that I have the skills to be an accountant. I’m good with numbers, organized, detail-oriented, responsible to a fault. But I have no love for the job. In fact, there are few things I can imagine loathing more. My temperament’s all wrong for it. I’d make more money but I’d be thoroughly miserable.

Just because we can do something, or act a part, doesn’t mean we should, whatever it gets us.

4. Danger of becoming someone the real you would actually loathe. It happens.

Who Has The Power?

The cost/benefit analysis of concealing our true self begs two questions: Who are these people we’re performing for? And why do we give them so much power?

The answer, in part, is found in our hardwiring. Acceptance by the group meant life or death in the ancient nomadic world where humans were prey as often as predators. Survival rather than happiness trumped all considerations.

But that world is far behind us. The depression, anxiety, and emotional stress that can zap us when we suppress our real self are far greater threats to our well-being than a saber-tooth tiger. As for chopping and changing oneself to fit in, the greatest loneliness often occurs in a crowd. If you’ve ever found yourself in a group wondering who are these people and what am I doing here, you know what I’m talking about.

And those people we think we have to impress, we’re the ones giving them power. A casual acquaintance of some years recently gave me the brush-off at a social event. Although this person had never struck me as a soul sister, her warmth and regard had seemed genuine on the occasions we met. So when she curtly cut me dead in public, it was not only a shock but a sting in that first moment, and then an anger, and finally a shrug. I had given her too much credit. Obviously, she was far less secure than I’d guessed if she felt her social stock would rise or fall on talking to me.

A good rule for us all: Anyone who doesn’t respect me for who I am gets zero power in my life.

Toward More Genuine Interactions

Of course, it’s difficult to be our true self with people who are false with us, and there’s a lot of pretense out there. But someone has to take the risk, break the chain. Be the change we wish to see.

If we want a culture that is more accepting, we can start by refusing to boost our own egos or cement group bonds by making fun of or excluding others based on their appearance, occupation, education, economic status, or preferences in films, books, and music. And we can refuse to “go along” when others do so.

Many years ago, I saw a video of an assisted living community. People in their 70s, 80s, 90s at a dance. They were having a great time talking and laughing. No one was sitting on the sidelines. No one seemed worried about their clothes or their dance moves. One of the beauties of old people is that they are DONE with all that. The posturing. The pretense. They just are.

How wonderful it would be not to waste all those decades before, hiding, worrying.

On a planet of more than 7,000,000,000 people, none of us needs to abandon our true self to find acceptance. There are many people who will share our passions, appreciate our strengths, value our love. How will we find them? By pursuing the things we honestly care about, and living in a way that speaks to who we are. If we do that, one by one those kindred souls will appear.