When it Comes to Anger: It Usually Misses the Point
By W. Owen Thornton
Being the recipient or maybe even a sideswipe victim of anger for nine years makes you think about what anger really does for us. I believe anger to be an immediate, short-term emotion which helps us grow personally or which helps us to overcome ineffective communication with others and that it should never be an emotion that is held onto for any length of time because it is rendered ineffective when we do so. Anger – this healthy knee-jerk reaction emotion that helps us initially cope with the new information just given to us – if held onto for any length of time is proven to manifest itself in physical health problems and will lead to long-term resentment which also leads us to ill health. To truly understand anger and how it stands in the way of human kindness if held onto for too long, let me first examine its benefits.
The Benefit of Anger
Anger often stems from something genuinely upsetting. Often it is comes from a breach of trust between two people. Someone says or does something to hurt or offend us. They do that which we believe is a violation of our relationship … of the boundaries between us. Anger tells us something about ourselves. It tells us how patient or impatient we are. Patience often relies on how much sleep (or lack of sleep) we’ve had and how much stress we’re under. Catch yourself reacting with anger rather easily and it may be an indicator that your tolerance buffer is down due to exhaustion or stress. But if we’re in balance and something happens to anger us, we learn what we accept … or what we will reject. We learn what people can or cannot do to us before we grow angry. When we enter this state, anger, I believe it is a tool we can use to stretch ourselves. Rather than focus on the violation we should focus on why we have it. When an act occurs that makes us angry, rather than focus on the anger and enter a battle, we can use the anger as a trigger to ask ourselves why we are becoming angry. Anger can be the trigger, then, to help us grow in a new direction. And this, naturally leads to human kindness.
Anger can also help us become more sympathetic and empathetic. If someone is doing something to make us angry, that action often says more about them than it does about us. If we become angry because of someone else’s deed, we need to become sure that the anger is about us and not about them and their actions. If it is about us, then I refer you to the previous paragraph. Learn something about yourself. But if we realize there is no need to be angry, that the action which makes us angry is unimportant or does not impact us, then anger can be a helpful emotion which leads us to communicate effectively with others who make us angry and thereby we can build bridges with them.
Anger also tells us who we care about. People we don’t care about cannot make us red hot with anger. If we don’t care about them, our fuse to becoming angry grows incredibly long. How sad it is that anger mostly comes as a result of something someone we deeply care about has done which violates us in some aspect. How deeply sad it is if we allow anger to act as a wedge to breaking up that relationship.
Tips on Managing Anger: Solutions
Say someone does or says something which makes you angry. Go inside and see if the issue is about you. If yes, save the quick retort for later and in a quiet time, find a way to deal with your own issues. Find a way to protect yourself. Reduce the availability of your hot button so others cannot press it so easily.
If the action seems to be more about them, save the quick retort and then consider your options. Do you care about this person and having a relationship with them? If no, then ‘Fog’ them. Agree with them. If you defend yourself from an attack, the other person thinks you don’t get it! If they say you’re a jerk and you disagree, they will do what they can to convince you they are right. If you agree with them … and you truly don’t care about what they think of you (this is a bit harder to do sometimes than you might think), then you can say, “Yeah … you’re right. I can be a jerk.” That doesn’t admit that you were in this instance, but it is a truism. All of us can be jerks at one time or another! The admission will end the attack. Fogging is considered as a tactic where someone throws a snowball at you, but into a bank of fog. If they can’t see if they’ve hit you or hurt you … then they stop throwing the snowballs.
But if you care about them, you might consider the total truth option. “When you say or do (whatever, and retell it like it happens) I feel ... (state how their comments make you feel. (I feel statements are very powerful!)) Why do you do that?” They then could come back with one of three responses. An attack, a deflection or … the truth.” An attack might be, “Oh yeah … well you …” and they will proceed to list a flaw or six of yours. Use Broken Record. “I may have those flaws (Fogged) but we’re not talking about that right now. When you say or do … “ and you calmly and evenly repeat what you just said (Broken Record.) You do this until you compel them to answer you no matter how often they attack or deflect.
A deflection will sound something like, “I don’t want to be analyzed,” or “This isn’t important.” What you endeavor to do for them in this case is helping them become aware of their deed/words and this may be difficult because they may be working on autopilot and not truly aware of what they are doing or why they are doing it. Here, your response might be, “Look. I’m not attempting to analyze you,” or “This is important because when you do (Broken Record) it makes me feel (feeling statement) …” deal with your feelings and their actions and that alone. Once they comprehend their actions actually do make you feel badly it may turn out that that wasn’t their motive at all … that that kind of comment doesn’t offend others or it might motivate others (perhaps in a bad way, but it works) and that you can tell them what you really want them to do for you. “Instead of saying or doing … (whatever) I’d probably respond favorably by you saying or doing …” where you tell them what YOU need in that situation which would be helpful and effective. You help them build a relationship with you that you can both live with.
The third response is what you’re always after, and you either achieve it after the counter attack, deflection or you may move immediately to, “Hey! I didn’t realize my action/deed was doing that! I’m sorry. I’ll try not to do that from now on.” This honest response may not happen immediately, but it is the destination where you’re heading towards when you begin the broken record technique.
It is important to note that you must make your decision if you want to ignore the problem (Fog) or deal with it (Broken Record mixed with some Fogging). It is important too, to try these strategies and to be prepared to fail. Trust me when I say they work. Failure usually comes at inappropriate timing/application or that the person you’re dealing with is a really tough nut to crack. Refuse to get down and to give up. Keep trying. This kind of knowledge is hard to bring about the right way the first time because it is not how you are used to behaving. It also needs to be used at the right moments, which are usually difficult ones. It’s hard to draw this information into your mind and to own it immediately. Keep trying. You’ll hit the right time and place and when you see it work, you will feel very, very empowered.
The Error with Anger
But what’s really important here, to return to anger specifically, is that I believe most reasons why we fall into anger are incorrect. That if we actually dealt with the incident immediately and evenly (if you can’t deal with it evenly, promise yourself time to calm down and return to it later: and do this quickly because to hold it in too long … can be devastating to you) there would be far fewer arguments in this world. But we’re so easily offended and so quick to write off other people – and I include myself in this group – that we make life and the world harder on ourselves than we need to. For more about judging and accepting see article 118. What we are indeed angry about is often a misinterpretation that we allow to be blown way out of proportion. Anger needs to be reserved for those exceedingly rare occasions when someone deliberately means to hurt or offend. And even then … well, that offense might still be about them and not about us. In all cases what you’re aiming for is to not let your anger be about you!
Anger is also about whether we love someone enough to delve into the situation. Anger makes us ask, “How much am I willing to do to try to save this situation?” And sometimes, even though we may delve into a situation, sometimes the atmosphere between two people really is toxic and even though there may be an understanding between them, sometimes, it is right to separate yourself from them so that you don’t continue to harm one another. We can agree to disagree. But I still hold out for the human kindness solution that most conflict leading to anger could or can be solved reasonably.
I think anger is also a test of our mutual understanding of one another and of our ability to effectively communicate with one another. What do I mean by that? This ‘supposed violation’ which we have interpreted as a breach of our trust and faith in one another may not be the violation that we think it is. Here’s how I’m going to deal with this. I’m going to share with you three stories of people being angry at me for reasons they deem to be proper and correct. They feel that way and … they are right … but with some second sober thought, maybe they could have found an alternate way of dealing with the situation. (I’ve picked these incidents because it is easier for me to see their misinterpretation of me, rather than seeing my misinterpretation in others. I didn’t say this process was easy. Stick with these examples as I will direct the results towards your understanding of anger.) These are people I have lost for reasons which they have deemed irreparable. These are people who I deeply miss in my life. I want to share these stories because one they help in seeing the error of anger and its uselessness, but I also want to share these stories with you, because two, I have established myself as some sort of kindness guru, and yet, I still mess up. I don’t always get it right and I think it’s important for you to know that. I’m human. Three, I would like to apologize for any anger I may have caused others. Not because I think it’s possible to reestablish contact, but because I would like to release my own guilt (real or imaginary) for any hurts incurred and because I would like others to stop being angry … and thereby having any other negative thoughts that might lead to discomfort in any way … and that in itself is an act of kindness. So if you, Tim, Tom or George, stumble upon this essay, please accept my apologies.
Story One: Are you so sure you have interpreted the other person’s actions accurately?
Is your anger just?
This story is about Tim. He was a great friend who had moved away and had found his true love. Things progressed quickly and marriage was imminent. I was asked to be best man. As the date approached, a situation occurred to speed up the marriage and for reasons unknown or unexplained to me the marriage was downsized to immediate family only. I was un-best-manned by a long-distance phone call. Thinking back on that, perhaps a personal visit might have taken the sting out of things and would have allowed for us to deal with the issues between us face-to-face. But that wasn’t considered, so we had to deal with things long distance. Out of my hurt and my concern for my friend, I went to his family who were local and talked with his parents in order to attempt to create greater understanding for myself. My actions were interpreted as meddling and interfering and this interpretation of my actions caused a breach of trust leading to my friend being angry with me and never speaking to me again.
I have no doubt that I caused a breach of trust in my friend’s opinion. For that I apologize. What is interesting to all of you, in learning about anger, is that creating a breach of trust was the absolute last thing on my mind. My actions were completely misunderstood. I think the genuinely sad thing is that my friend never knew how much I loved him and that had he known this, he could have never thought what he did. My first error was in not letting him know the depth of my friendship. My second error was in not finding a way to have a coffee with him and talking with him directly, but I was less wise then, and too hurt to think of doing that. Such is the problem with not being able to see the forest for the trees. Sometimes you’re just a human being doing your level best and sometimes … that’s just not very good!
But the great problem was one of ineffective communication. To this day, I do not know how my actions even led to anger. And that is my former friend’s lack of communication problem. In the end, it became easier to believe in my unintended offense as one that was directly intended than to confront me with what I had done, or to perhaps deal with how he had hurt me along the way too. I believe my actions had pushed the boundary of the degree or level of friendship that my friend was willing to sustain. Rather than going through the messiness of working things out, it became easier to cut me loose, letting anger for my actions be the culprit and telling himself a story he could live with. The problem is that this sentiment remained unidentified and anger was used to cover over the feelings of hurt and the pain of loss: the unwillingness to fight for the friendship. Anger was the cover-up for the mislabeled truth in this case.
Now the reason why my friend never challenged me on my supposed egregious offense in order to resolve our ‘dispute’ may also lie partly in my corner. I may also project that I don’t want someone to ‘come at me’ that way. They may feel unsafe confronting me in a manner that may have enabled us to solve the situation before it escalated into a dissolved friendship. And if that is the case, for that too, I am sorry. (Or it could be that they are unable or unwilling to deal with that kind of pain and so again, they use the anger directed at me to avoid dealing with their own pain and anger.) I don’t know if this is true in Tim’s case. But it could well be true in my own life where this sort of thing has happened: where I have become angry at someone else. And I’m assuming it may be true for some of you. But let’s take ‘anger’ off the hook for it cannot do the things we are accrediting to it. And once anger settles in, pride also takes over and pride leads us to a place where we’re unable or unwilling to overcome the reasons behind our anger.
What I find interesting, and what I hope you take from this story, is that innocent deeds can create anger responses which could have been solved with a reasonable confrontation between adults. But instead of digging in and solving the situation we let our anger convince us that it is better to cut our losses. And … we also are running from that confrontation too. Let us not forget that. But let’s never mislabel “running from confrontation” as anger. Anger can’t do all that work. It’s only our excuse for why we cut and run and why we don’t have to face the real heart of the problem. The difficulty with this scenario is that we never came to realize these things and we let the anger remain as the barrier between us and this is an unhealthy manner in which to lead our lives.
When it comes to becoming angry, we would be better off to calm down and ask if our interpretation of an action is correct. If we find that the person did intend to meddle, then the breach of trust is real. Then we can move towards grieving the loss of a friendship. Had my friend called me and said, “You were meddling and I resent that.” Then using the techniques above to help prevent me from going into attack or deflection modes could have saved our friendship. I could have told him, “There was absolutely no intent on my part in the world to meddle. I’m sorry. I was hurt and confused and my actions were an effort to resolve those feelings.” And after that we could have assessed whether or not our friendship could survive. But to leave a bomb crater between us for years … that wasn’t helpful at all. Deeds that create anger can be fundamentally misinterpreted. Anger, unleashed in this incident destroyed, where, had it been used more cleverly as clues to what was really going on it could have been used to build.
Story two: Did you really think that comment was meant to drive a life-long wedge between you?
My life-long friendship with Tom came to an end because I made a political statement that I had recently learned from a university professor on American foreign policy. Can you imagine losing a life-long friend because of that? I can’t: which suggests that I wasn’t attempting to destroy a friendship, but to discuss with a friend some interesting new perspective. Well, the circumstances may need to be clarified. My friend had to move away to the United States to receive his medical education and to receive his license to practice medicine. There he found a wife, a job and started a family. He really rather did this in spite of Canada: he couldn’t get into med school here for reasons beyond fathoming. My friend wanted to be a doctor more than anything and I remain immensely proud of him for his accomplishments. The United States gave him his whole life, really. So, in hindsight saying something against his adopted home probably wasn’t wise. My error? I thought he was a Canuck who was living in the US who could give me insights into how the people there think. But he’d become an American … a Red, White and Blue flag waver and looking back on that, I can see why, because the Maple Leaf forever, did nothing for him and drove him to another country to live the life he desired.
I truly am sorry that my off-hand comment … something I was just interested in exploring with a friend who might have had insights into the topic because he lived there … offended him so deeply. And the last thing in the world I would have ever expected was that he would never speak to me again because of it. My friend became so heated by my comment that he launched a full-scale assault: a defense of his new homeland. I was so taken aback, I simply attempted to change the topic (a clue to both of us that I didn’t care enough to wage this battle and that I was sorry for introducing the topic), but that wasn’t in the cards. I learned in no uncertain terms that my position was wrong. Okay. I’m wrong. (Fogging!) I really don’t care enough about the subject to argue about it (not like this (as a personal attack), at any rate)! And I don’t place enough value in my view to care enough to … well … to care actually. Certainly if my view is something that would drive a wedge between a life-long friend and me, I’ll keep the view well buried!
What I find interesting about this case of anger is that again, both parties cut and bailed as opposed to calmly returning to one another and asking, what just happened? What do I mean? What I’m learning here is that what we get angry about appears pretty foolish. I don’t mean to be pointing a finger at my friend when I say this (I can point it at both of us!). I mean that when I get angry, most of the time, it would be about foolish things: misinterpreted things where no intentional motive was ever expressed. If story one was a misinterpretation of actions, this one is simply an unfortunate accident. Had I thought this kind of reaction were even possible, I never would have introduced the subject. But therein lies a communication problem, doesn’t it. I had lost touch with my friend and didn’t know the kinds of things that concerned him anymore. Not only do I deeply regret losing Tom, I regret causing him anger and I regret not communicating with him previously to that time such that I would have known where the minefields laid. I simply wouldn’t have gone there.
But the message for you dear reader is: that person you’re angry with ... did they just make a mistake in subject matter? Did they intend to make you angry? (Sometimes, rarely, people do mean to goad you!) And just because you disagree with them, does that mean they aren’t entitled to your opinion? I mean, when it comes to passionate politics, I think of Arnold Schwartzenegger and Maria Shriver a husband and wife who believe in opposite sides of the American Political spectrum. If they can remain married and passionate about opposite sides of the political coin, you’d think my friend and I could live with differing views too! (Especially when I don’t really care?)
I’m beginning to think that anger must be connected with deliberate intent of the person who makes you angry. If there is no deliberate intent then anger is less about boundaries being broken and more about our ability to interpret actions and our willingness (or lack of willingness) to communicate with others about how we feel in a reasonable way. Okay. I’ll extend that thought. It may not be about a willingness to effectively communicate. It may be more about the fact that we lack the skills to effectively communicate with one another in a successful manner.
I’m wondering even now, if these two relationships (Tim and Tom) weren’t already in jeopardy. Had lines of communication been open a misinterpretation of an action or an accidental mention of something obviously in a heated subject area may have never occurred. Where those relationships already in jeopardy? Tragically, I think, maybe they were although I wouldn’t have thought so at the time. Either we never knew each other well to begin with, or we had known each other once and we lost each other along the way. I remain saddened by the loss of both friends. But … anger wasn’t helpful here like it should have been. It was the leading cause of many mistakes, hurt and isolation.
Definitely, these relationships broke up in part because one or both parties lacked communication strategies to overcome anger. Acts and words which were not intended to be personal were interpreted that way. The lack of skill or inability to express what was really going on and the will to challenge the other person to come to the truth were lacking in both parties. Direct meetings to solve the problems were in order, but no one even thought of that. How odd!
Story Three: When the other person lashes out, does that action merit anger or … compassion.
Okay. When it comes to George, I’m just plain sorry. I know I screwed up. The words came out of my throat like someone else was speaking them. I couldn’t believe it was me. This time, I full well know what I did! What I said was mean. But I still didn’t mean for my words to break us up forever. I think, though I know they were hurtful, that they were a cry for help … for him to help me be a better friend. Let me set the scenario.
My friend was going through a nasty break-up. He spiraled down into a nasty vortex of isolation and drinking. I desperately wanted to help. To be a good friend … to help him go through what he was going through. He desperately wanted to be left alone. I didn’t respect that. I felt like I just couldn’t do the right thing to help. I kept trying different things … offering to help in different ways. I felt powerless to help my friend. Slowly his rejection of my offers of aid became about me … about being rejected. Being rejected plugs into my own problems stemming from child abuse. And those thoughts don’t take me to a very good place. Not only did I feel like I couldn’t help, I felt like I was unworthy of helping. This is my problem. Not George’s. My misinterpretation, which under the terms of someone who had not yet recovered from his abuse story, couldn’t have been interpreted by me in any other way. And so out of this bad position, I said something mean. I lashed out to hurt someone as badly as I thought they had hurt me … and my words were harsh, believe you me. And I lost a friend. And for that I am sorry. I felt like I didn’t know how to be his friend … I couldn’t reach in … couldn’t do the right thing … and … I felt rejected for trying, which led me to feel like a piece of crap and boom: something stupid exited my mouth.
In this case the hurtful words were a cry for help. How can I help you? What do you need of me? But I had a very peculiar way of asking those questions. Certainly there was no way in the world my friend could have heard that plea in the words I chose. In this case I wish, for my relationship with George that I’d had therapy sooner, so I could have identified my problem, and then I would never had to have said what I did. I miss George.
But still, for you out there … and for me too … when we feel anger … even when someone says something that might fall under that untrue category we call unforgiveable (for everything is forgivable), there may not be an intent to hurt or to make us angry in the way that we think. And there are few occasions where we become angry where the situation couldn’t have been solved by a calm response of “What do you mean by that? That comment makes me very angry!” But the problem is we let our anger possess us too much. We knee-jerk react and rarely come to that calm approach. Anger is something … when we feel it … that indicates our barriers are being pressed upon. We should pay attention to this, because if someone’s actions are being deliberate we should react appropriately. But in the big places where I have seen anger against my actions, the incidents were unintended, accidental or a cry for help. Anger was immediately appropriate, but was not long-term appropriate.
In the future, when someone angers me … or you …
• I hope to become aware more quickly than I have in the past that anger is most often about me and not about the action I may ineffectively be interpreting.
• I hope to release the anger because the person who loves me cannot obviously mean to be hurting me in the way that I “THINK” they are hurting me.
• I hope to turn to calm communication more quickly to resolve the issue. Loving people … people who care about us in order for us to care about them so much that we can become angry at them: are rare and I refuse to throw them out because of a misinterpretation, an accident or a cry for help. I will say, “That really makes me angry, but I may be misinterpreting what you mean. What do you mean?”
• I hope to identify that anger is only a hint that a personal barrier might be in the process of being violated, but that anger should be set aside quickly, recognized as a knee-jerk emotional reaction and that effective communication to discern intent be initiated.
• I will ask myself: “Do I believe that this person’s words or actions were meant to so seriously offend that I am willing to cut myself off from them forever because of it.” I would think that in 98 percent of all cases the answer to that question must be no.
o As a corollary: Does this mean that I have to like their words or actions? No. I may desire to reconsider being friends with this individual if this kind of behavior persists. But I want to make that decision after dealing with the issue at hand, rather than throwing away great people out of a heated moment. Cutting them some slack does not mean I give them permission to dump on me regularly. If they show no inclination to change even after we’ve talked about it, then my decision may be made for me. But if I can help them to be more effective around me … to give them permission to be clear and to deal with me in a way that is effective, that is helpful … that is exhibiting human kindness. “When you say things like that it makes me angry. But as we’ve discovered this time, if you had approached the subject in this way … we’d get along fine …” and if they make the effort to change, the friendship may well be worth keeping.
• I will acknowledge that if I am already upset, tired, stressed out or exhausted that recovering from an interpreted hurt is more difficult than when I am in balance. If I make a mistake under these conditions, it is regrettable but understandable. I am human and prone to make mistakes: especially when I’m tired.
o As a corollary I will endeavor to place myself in a sound, balanced position so that this will not happen.
• And lastly I will cut myself some slack if I fail in these endeavors because catching yourself in a moment of heated anger is difficult … dialing back the hurt, recovering, asking calmly what was intended, these things are not as natural for us as perhaps they should be … I accept I will mess up from time to time. I will accept that this is temporary, shadow knowledge working its way to becoming permanent full knowledge. Long have I held the concept of shadow knowledge. I know I should do something one way, but fail to do it … but then think about what the appropriate response should have been moments later. This is a good sign. It suggests that this new learning is with me, but not an immediate part of me. Each time I fail, the reminder of what I should have done comes closer to my being able to do it properly the next time. And then one day, I do things exactly as I know I should have and in that moment, the knowledge is mine. I own it. And I no longer have to let anger have too much power … I no longer have to lose friends, or recover with apologies for embarrassing slip-ups.
Human kindness lies in coping with your anger more effectively: in understanding what anger really is and how it works to help us to do the right thing. And human kindness lies in being able to say you are sorry when you did something to upset someone whether the act is misinterpreted, accidental or a cry for help (deserved). One thing that is incredibly ironic to me is the last thing I will say about this issue. Anyone who knows me knows that I do an incredible dance so as to prevent myself from every harming or hurting anyone. That I do hurt people is obvious. That I do so with deliberate intention is impossible. And if there is anyone out there whom I have hurt that I have missed apologizing to … know that I never meant to hurt you. I acknowledge, however, that I did hurt you. I don’t expect you’ll call me and say, “Our friendship is back on again!” I know that’s not a realistic expectation. But I could hope that you forgive me and stop being angry at me. That would be my gift to you … that you no longer have to carry anger or long-term anger (resentment) against me ever again. Be free. Be wonderful. Be safe. Lead a wonderful life. And never, never let anger get the best of you again … or … at least try to let this last wish become true for you. Overcoming anger … well that takes awareness … and some deliberate work on the self.
God Bless everyone.
NOTE: The following essay has been written twice. I first attempted to make it accessible to everyone by making it generic. But it was really an essay directed to a specific friend with a specific challenge and so I thought the first draft was too vague. So I rewrote it to make it an essay directly targeted at him. That made it too specific and too personal for all of you. However, he has given me permission to print this draft of it, making him a ‘generic professor’ somewhere out there, and now it holds relevance for anyone who might read it. I believe it is some of the most important thinking I have done in some time.
What IS the Point?
By W. Owen Thornton
A friend of mine is a university professor somewhere in Canada. There he brilliantly leads his life as the head of a department teaching and leading. First let me say that I admire him greatly for all he has achieved in his life. Had I to live my life over again, I would be more like him. If I had a do-over, I would have found philosophy at the same time he found his discipline, and together we’d have been professors these long years. Where I failed in my career path he has succeeded. He is tenured and I’m only now going to school in philosophy after years of being lost in the wilderness.
Initially I say that it is shocking to me that someone who would seem to have so much of his life together would come to a point in his life where he would be asking a question like, “What is the point?” But I know I shouldn’t be shocked because I think nearly everyone comes to that place eventually. None of us is immune to it. Maybe what I’m feeling is a genuine sadness for my friend because I know what it is like to ask that question (or similar ones) and not be able to come up with a very good answer. It’s a terrible place to be and I would “will” it that he would not be in that place. But … there he is. And so, after a conversation with my friend which further clarified some of his challenges, I will now do the human kindness thing and see if I can help answer some of his challenges from the various perspectives we have taken here in this weblog.
“What is the point?” is a question with an unspoken ending. It is really asking “What is the point of my waking up in the morning doing what I do?” Before embarking on the specifics of this question and what it means for my friend, I feel required to address the theoretical issues of what is going on in this real-life scenario. First, I believe introspection in our society is far too rare. And for those of us who arrive at an introspective time in our lives, it is often not well tolerated by others who want us to pick up our socks and get on with life. Some introspection is what being human is all about, if we but knew that fact.
The problem with, “What is the point?” is that the question doesn’t allow us to come up with a satisfactory answer. Therefore it is not that helpful in the introspective collage. “What is the point?” seems to direct us to two pretty poor answers. First there is the easy answer, which remains erroneous: “There is no point.” Second there is the ignorant but somewhat better answer, which equates to nothing more than a shoulder shrug combined with a hapless, “Eh!” This answer reveals that there may be a point, but we haven’t got a clue what it might be. Neither answer helps us find what we’re looking for in our lives when we ask, “What is the point?” And the answer we’re looking for is finding meaning in our lives. If we desire to find meaning in our lives we need to begin to ask better questions that will compel our minds to give answers where we will begin to once again see the point.
In terms of early modern philosophy (1600s) “What is the point?” leads to the very skepticism promoted by Montaigne, and which Rene Descartes fought against when he attempted to defeat skepticism by rebuilding the foundation of knowledge on God by using the cogito: “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes believed that the rising skepticism of his day not only required a hearing, but demanded a response because he felt skepticism was dangerous to human kind and to our relationship with God. If nothing matters, we really don’t have any reason to wake up in the morning, and Descartes knew, as I believe, that there is ALWAYS a reason to wake up in the morning.
“What is the point?” allows total skepticism to thrive and this must not be tolerated by any of us. If we have a friend whom we love and we hear them using this kind of language is it up to us to help them to help themselves refocus their compass so that they can once again find meaning in their lives. I have read Frankle’s “Man’s Search for Meaning,” and I can tell you that if a person can find a reason to live his/her life in a Nazi death camp, we can find meaning in our lives whether it’s being a second year university student taking philosophy or a tenured professor.
So, the result of this ‘theory’ is that we need to ask better questions than, “What is the point?” I’ll return to this in a moment.
To help you understand the situation more fully, my friend teaches liberal arts. Universities encourage scholarly subjects which do not guide students towards a specific career whereas folks in the real world wonder “what is the point.” An internal battle ensues for my friend because s/he would like to teach what he does while appeasing the others who want him to make a practical contribution towards the student’s education. My friend is a gifted teacher and administrator. I believe he has a true sense of his own worth, but I also believe his efforts are not recognized and therein lay a part of the problem. Students come and go, papers are graded, marks are dispensed and little is seen in regards to the impact in their lives. The administration knows he does his work and like many work environments the good employee is ignored while those who don’t do their work well get the ‘attention’ whether they like that attention or not. So thousands of students are tested, the department runs smoothly, courses are taught, grades are submitted on time, extracurricular work is done which makes the university look good … all these things are what’s supposed to be achieved, but there is no good word, no follow-up … no appreciation and definitely no pat on the back. The time when you might hear about something is when something has not gone well. Administration pays attention to mistakes, but fails to recognize accomplishments.
So, dear reader, you need to hear that I completely understand why someone would ask, “What is the point?” under these circumstances. Oh, and lest you think that I believe that everything would go away if my friend received a pat on the back … well I’m not that naïve. “What is the point?” is not about to be completely solved with a pat on the back by the boss. It’s not ALL about the rewards. They would help. They would alleviate the situation … but they wouldn’t solve things entirely. Sadly life is not that simple.
Two paragraphs above I said a large part of the problem is a lack of recognition and then I said that being recognized by administration is not the be all and end all of solving our problem. There is a second ‘body’ that isn’t recognizing my friend’s achievements. Sadly that person is my friend. This is also a tragically normal syndrome. In the book “Discover Your Sales Strengths” authors Smith and Rutigliano talk about the 31 predominant themes people have. (Remember from early essays that they have interviewed hundreds of thousands of people from different walks of life through the Gallop organization, asking them millions of total questions to come up with their ideas about how we operate as a species!) Of the 31 themes, we excel at five of them. These themes are how we behave and why. They are our greatest gifts. We know these aspects of ourselves so well they are like four-lane highways. We travel along them often. Mid-range themes might be like two-lane roads, while the last five themes might be like dwindling tracks in the wilderness. Smith and Rutigliano argue against the commonly held theme that employees should be well rounded. They say that regardless of what the lower five themes in our lives are no amount of training will bring those themes up to ‘average.’ We fail to do those kinds of things because we hate doing them and because we don’t see the point! They tell the story of the crackerjack salesperson who could sell igloos to Eskimos but who hated to fill out the paperwork for the orders. He knew how to do it, he just hated doing it. Finally the company hired an administrative assistant to do his paperwork and once they had freed him from having to do this tedious task the salesperson went out and sold that much more product which paid for the assistant, gave him a hefty bonus and made the entire company more prosperous.
They go on to note that when asked about our five best themes in our lives, people often struggle to come up with any gifts. This is the taken for granted syndrome. People believe because their gifts are so second nature that their gifts have little value. They come to erroneously believe that everyone must have those gifts and therefore they don’t see them as an asset. But ask people to make a list of shortcomings and the list might be longer than their arm! I have another friend who found this situation to be absolutely true. In a church of over 2,000 members they decided to conduct a faith skills survey over a couple of months. The people whom they had a hard time getting a survey response from were those who were afraid they had no spiritual gifts to offer!
It is difficult to know how to help someone become realistic about their giftedness. Personally, I have had an eye-opener in my spiritual life. People who consider themselves Christians are supposed to be saints first, sinners second. Most often they see themselves the other way around. I know that I make a first-class sinner. Lately, I’ve become tired of being a sinner first. I’m a pretty good person. I’m not perfect, but I’m pretty good. In fact, I’ll wager I am more of a saint than I am a sinner. In the reformed faith, Calvin created the prayer of confession as part of the order of worship. It was designed to acknowledge that we are sinners and that we need God to help us overcome that nature inside of us. But Calvin also felt it was wrong to dwell on our sin. If we are ‘holier than thou’ because we acknowledge our sins over our saintliness, we fall victim to pride. Therefore it is better and appropriate to see ourselves as saints who err, rather than sinners who occasionally get things right.
In other words to fail to recognize our gifts and to dwell on our failings is theologically erroneous (a sin) and it is simply plain WRONG to fail to acknowledge our giftedness … our saintliness. We need to give our heads a shake and wrap our minds around that! (And you’re hearing this from a person who until a week or so ago lived his life this way, so I KNOW what I am talking about!)
Reframing the Question
And now, I’d like to look at reframing the question, “What is the point?” I’m convinced by things I have read that if a human asks themselves an inner question that the mind feels compelled to go about finding a meaningful answer. Ask bad questions. Get bad answers. Reframe your question to get the answer you’re really asking yourself, and you may begin to get better answers.
And so, I would reframe “What is the point?” with something like …
“What kinds of things do I do where I find meaning in my life?”
“Where do I find meaning in my life?”
“How do I go about finding meaning in my life?”
If we start asking questions like these, we begin to have introspective thoughts which redirect our minds to meaningful answers that lead us out of the “What is the point” syndrome. I think therein lies another thing about, “What is the point?” It’s a treadmill question that doesn’t yield a good answer and so we keep asking that question of ourselves waiting to see if we can come up with some kind of meaningful answer, and the problem is, there is no specific and meaningful answer to that question.
Now things get really tricky. First we have to give ourselves permission to win. In other words, when the mind comes up with meaningful answers to the above questions we have to pay attention. We cannot ‘dismiss’ these good answers.
Now I need another sidebar to talk about honoring ourselves and the answers we come up with. In fact, I need to tell one sidebar to lead to another sidebar before I get to my main point. My friend said that he could not succeed because he could never be done. For example, in preparing for a lecture my friend said that he could never succeed, because there would always be another essay/book/article he could read that would help him prepare for that lecture which would make the lecture that much better.
Now let me say that we need to understand that ‘Being Done’ is a fallacy. We are never done. Businesspeople often never have enough or all of the information they require before they feel compelled to make a decision. To wait for all the facts would force the decision to be too late to be effective. That’s one perspective on the ‘being done’ fallacy. Here’s a very theoretical one. We should celebrate the fact that we can never be done. We should celebrate the fact that we work in such a field that is so rich we can never be done. This gives us the motive to wake up and read another essay/book/article because it leads us to a new place of learning and growth and understanding. This is the exciting part of the world we live in.
Personally, in thinking about this line of reasoning, I believe I never want to be done. If I’m done, I’m at the end. There is no more. And if there is no more and that’s what I love to do … now, perhaps I really do have a reason to ask, “What is the point?” or at the very least, “Now, where do I go from here?” To return, for a moment to our earlier meanderings perhaps we have a third answer to “What is the Point?” which might be our best yet: “The point is the point!” Still to rework a beer advertisement metaphor this answer might taste better, but it still isn’t satisfying!
And herein lays my sidebar to my sidebar. My friend spoke to me about an exciting essay he had recently edited. In this I want to point out that it’s okay to love what you love. He spoke to me about it with enthusiasm and passion. But, he wanted to know the point of his reading it. It didn’t change the world. It didn’t matter. It felt like to him, that only about six people in the world would care about this content.
The thing is the essay meant something to him. It made him come alive. It made him feel vital and excited about his subject area and his craft of teaching. It added value to him which will in turn add value to his teaching which adds value to the students he teaches, his peers across the country and the world and with his team at work and the administrators who will one day wake up and come to care about his contributions. It was important to him and therefore it is important.
Seriously I wish I was a better success at many things I’m writing about. In truth, I think about three weeks ago I couldn’t have written this essay because … I didn’t have these kinds of answers, so I’m hot upon this subject matter for sure, but I am sure as hell no complete expert in living my life this way either … yet. Exploring these very issues are the reasons that both compelled me to create the www.thehumankindnessproject.com project and to go back to school in philosophy.
Here’s my personal example of doing what you need to do. I remember having a recent conversation with a writer friend about an upcoming article I wanted to write for www.thehumankindnessproject.com . I have had other people tell me that I should write how-to articles because that’s what people are interested in reading about. I have had all sorts of friendly feedback about what I should write about and how I should do it, but the advice this writer friend gave me was the absolute best. I told my friend that others had said I should write articles this way or that. With those frameworks in mind for my upcoming theme, I found I didn’t want to write my next subject based on any of those strategies, sound though they might be. And he turned to me and said, “I’m tired of writing what other people tell me to write. Today I write about what I want to write about and in the way I want to write it. If you have these different, clashing ideas which you think add up to some odd, but viable third point and you need to write that article that way … write it that way!”
Bravo! Now I suppose that the other advice I have received might be the kind of advice that helps me write articles/essays that leads me to finding a publisher who puts me in a book where all these articles from the human kindness project earns a skillion dollars. But doing what I have to do because I have to do it because that’s me … well … alas … that’s the way I have to write … isn’t it! I don’t have a choice. And … I’m beginning to become comfortable inside of my own skin because a friend gave me permission to be me. So if you love an insightful article that only you and three other people in the world can appreciate and talk about … read it! Love it! Appreciate it! Talk to your two friends about it. Cherish it. That’s you. That’s who you are. In this regard I would say to my friend, “I love you for it, old friend. Please. Love yourself enough to love you too … you and all your quirks and the rare, scholarly information that makes you my wonderful, unique friend!” (There’s a point!)
And here’s something else to think about. No one has any right to criticize that you love scholarly information in a rarified sphere. I have one friend who reads World War II technical manuals about tanks and battleships. I have another friend who can tell you to go to the page where you can find any answer to Dungeons and Dragons in well over a dozen different books. And depending on the time of my life, I could have been able to quote lines from the original Star Trek, Star Wars (4 - 6) or Spaceballs! Now I ask you what is the point of that? The answer is that’s me memorizing lines from things I love. It might be weird, but, hey! It’s me! Anyone who criticizes your love of ‘whatever’, exposes themselves to have their different, unusual thing that they love to be criticized and no one wants to open that kettle of fish! If you can criticize others then they can criticize you. That only seems fair.
To all of you I include YOU in my list of people who cannot criticize the things YOU love. You cannot run them down because you are in turn running everything down about everything everyone else loves to do which doesn’t seem practical or relevant or perfect, or whatever we think we’re after here. However, in saying that, if not allowing you to talk negatively about an aspect of your life prevents you from opening up to someone special and talking about these issues, you have to ignore that last comment. Talking about these things is another way of processing all these thoughts and feelings inside. Here’s another thought. Whoever said that everything we think or do has to have a specific point? If we believe that point then that too is a dangerous game to play!
Over the years I have come to discern that we have to feel worthy of hearing answers like that friend gave me: to write what I need to write. A few years ago, I would have heard his response, and wrote the article the way other people told me I should have written it. Today, I listen and have the confidence to do what is right for me. I wrote it my way!
Low Ebb Times
I know a “What is the point?” question comes from someone at a low ebb time in their lives. They have been down so long they can’t see that there is a way out. And what’s worse is the only person who can do this work, the work of digging themselves out of their low spot, is the person asking the “What is the point?” question. As an adult survivor of child abuse, I found it exceedingly unfair that after I had had my childhood stolen from me, and because of that I didn’t know how to live in the world, that the only person in the world who could re-parent me back to wellness was … me. It took a lot of work. (Some rare days even today, it takes a lot of work, but I’m getting better!) At the time, my therapist was right when she said I should do little else other than work on my exercises to get well because by the end of the day I would be emotionally exhausted. She was right. I spent six months sleeping … a lot! It is not fair that the person going through the tough times has to do the work of getting themselves back on track, but no one else can ever tell you what the point/meaning of your life is. We can only offer you input to help you change your own compass. You have to find meaning for you on your own. (But I think you already know it, you’ve just been temporarily misdirected. I think you simply need to let yourself see what you love, accept it and find the joy in it! (But that can be so freaking hard to do!))
I think most of us who arrive at, “What is the point?” stages in our lives haven’t completely lost the point. We know what excites us, and pleases us and challenges us. We’ve just sort of temporarily forgot. Maybe we have amnesia. Maybe we begin to believe someone else telling us what SHOULD be important to us and we get derailed. (Sometimes that other person can be our ‘own practical voice of reason’ (which can simply be dead wrong, by the way!)). But being derailed is okay too. We all get derailed at times in our lives. The means on how we get to “What is the Point?” doesn’t matter. What we do about it does! My friend, there is a way out of “What is the point?”
Teddy Bears and Mirror Neurons
By W. Owen Thornton
If what we suspect about mirror neurons is true, then teddy bears may have a phenomenal and positive impact on human kindness. Susan Hurley wrote about mirror Neurons in her 2004 essay, “Imitation, Media Violence and Freedom of Speech.” The material is groundbreaking. Daniel Goleman, in his book Social Intelligence, examines much of the details about mirror neurons calling our experience of it, emotional contagion.
First, let me give you the short, short version of mirror neurons. The discovery of them helps us understand who we are as creatures better than we have known ourselves in the past. They create two direct impacts on our psyche. One, when we see even a picture of a person in terror, we feel the same terror. Put us under an MRI brain scan, have us look at a picture of someone smiling and the same parts of our brain become active as the person who originally expressed the smile. We have the same emotional experience to a “T” though perhaps somewhat lesser. This means that the same brain chemicals that fired in the person’s mind who did the initial action then fire in the exact same way in our own minds.
Two, we also have the desire to immediately copy the act we’re witnessing. The desire to mirror has been proven in two human cases. One, it happens in babies. Have a button on the floor to turn on a light and touch that button with your forehead, and the baby will turn on the light in the same way. Even a sophisticated ape, with similar brain functions, might turn it on like that once or twice, but would eventually realize that a more efficient way of doing it would be to reach out and press the button with your hand. Not so with the human baby. The reason why adults don’t imitate everyone else and can act independently? Eventually a part of the brain evolves that allows us to filter this response and we no longer have to copy people. However, the second group of people who are compelled to mirror others are those who have had brain damage to this part of their mind. Once again they will imitate everything they see. They are compelled to imitate.
Hurley talks about why we resist even allowing this knowledge to enter our minds. One, denial of the desire to imitate appears to be internal … without our own comprehension of it. When you ask someone with the part of their brain that is damaged which prevents normal people from imitating NOT to imitate, they continue to imitate and they simultaneously deny doing it even while they are imitating. For example, tell them to not imitate scratching their face as you are and they scratch their face. Confront them with the fact that they are doing what you asked them not to do and they will say, “I am not doing it!”
Two, denial of imitating others or denying to have the desire to imitate others seems rationally motivated. We believe ourselves to be strong, fierce, independent creatures. We have free will. To even consider that we feel compelled to mirror what we see, even though this appears to be fundamentally true and proven according to the best science we can apply to the situation, would mean that somehow we lose a portion of our autonomy. This is such a hideous concept that we cannot rationalize it and we deny that this element exists within us. We cannot be ‘determined’ to do things based on simply seeing what someone else is doing. If you are one of these latter people, then the speculation portion of this article about teddy bears is not for you. If you can accept the notion that we have mirror neurons that compel us to feel and react in a controlled fashion than you just might be able to use this ability to practice even more human kindness.
Just before we get to teddy bears, then, we need to deal with envisioning ourselves to success. This is tricky business. To lose weight people have often placed pictures of pigs on their refrigerators, or people who are massively obese. But seeing these images mean we are pigs … we are obese. Our minds fire off chemical compounds to confirm that we are these things. Therefore, what we need to do is place a picture of a person on our fridge who looks like we want to look like. We place a healthy-bodied person on our fridge door and then, the mind affirms that we are healthy … we’re experiencing healthy, even if we are at the moment overweight. Remember, see it … and experience it. See it and you mentally have the desire to imitate it. Only place things around the house that allow you to envision what you desire for yourself, and you manifest this result for yourself. Those who emotionally or rationally deny that we imitate therefore lose this special ability we’re talking about.
And so, we arrive, at last, at teddy bears. Let’s think about what a teddy bear represents to a child. Teddy bears are stalwart companions. They are loyal. They love you. They care about you. They are totally dependent upon you. They love hugs and kisses and tea parties with dolls. They like to sit and watch you play baseball, or better yet, they even like to have their own hand of cards in front of them so they can play with you. Humans anthropomorphize teddy bears: that means we project human characteristics into them. And we usually project the best of human characteristics into teddy bears.
Now stick with me on this next bit. Because we, even as adults “know” teddy bears are ‘human’, they therefore still must have human characteristics even if we rationalize that they don’t have any of these characteristics … that they are thread, fabric and cloth … that they are no more ‘human’ than a lampshade. Really! Why else would we buy a teddy bear for a child: because we connote meaninglessness to a teddy bear? No! We buy a child a teddy bear because we connote all of these meanings with them … even as an adult … even though we know it’s not real. If we didn’t believe we were giving all these loving, kind, caring things to a child while we simultaneously gave them a teddy bear, we would buy them a computer game instead … or … a desk lamp. Just think about how long it takes most of us to buy that child’s bear. We examine them, pick the right colour, choose the one with the friendliest face, and determine the one we think will most connect with the child. I’m betting that in almost all teddy bear purchases, they are examined for these human characteristics to some degree. How heartless it appears to us to simply reach out and buy a teddy bear like we were grabbing a box off a shelf that contained an alarm clock.
Just what are we talking about here, when it comes to mirror neurons, then? We make teddy bears real with how we think about them. They evoke real emotions. Therefore just as when we see a picture of someone flirting and we feel ‘flirted with’ then as we see a teddy bear we must be feeling loved, accepted, and cared about. So, when we hug or kiss a teddy bear, or if we tell it our sad stories, then we must be getting the same chemical buzz in our brains as though we had hugged or kissed or told a real person our sad stories.
I believe what I am about to reveal to you is an anecdotal story, that it is not a fiction. A man who had suffered from child abuse became powerful in industry. While psychologists estimate that the dysfunction caused to most people suffering from child abuse is in the billions in Canada alone (lost wages due to horrific low self esteem, costs due to hospital and psychological treatments for physical harm and emotional problems etc.) sometimes these folk can bury the hurts deep enough to truly succeed … for a time.
It all unraveled for this man while he was in the midst of running a successful company. The threat of the loss of his livelihood and the negative impact on his employees should his problems run amok and destroy his company compelled this man to do whatever he had to do to overcome the abuse. He sought professional help and did so in a way that allowed him to do whatever was required to get better … fast! He found a counselor who wanted to fix what was broken: the man’s childhood. The only real way I’ve heard of helping folk like this is to have them parent themselves to wellness. This laborious task means buying … yes … a teddy bear and treating it like the abused child within the adult. You have to be emotionally hurt or damaged a great deal in order to desire to be fixed to the point where you will buy a teddy bear and treat it like it was you when you were a child. If you cannot overcome this bit of weirdness, true therapy remains a long ways off.
Guided by the therapist the hurting adult gives the child (teddy bear) the emotional support it needs. The only way to overcome the things never received as a child, which are required to let people be fully-functioning adults, is give the child what it needed when it needed it and how it needed it. This means saying the words of love and comfort aloud to the teddy bear, telling it that it is loved and cared for and wonderful and a delight to be around etc. As the barriers to treatment and a dysfunctional life are broken down, the adult survivor of child abuse slowly comes back to him/herself for the first time. At last the mentally tortured child within integrates with the adult. The child learns it was not the cause of the abuse … that it was not a black hole of evil … and that it was a loving, caring child who is accepted and … well … perfect.
So, this man went through the healing process. A good therapist can walk someone through this healing path in six months. Grateful for the cure, and in love with his teddy bear/child the man then wanted to fix his company. I’m betting that there were two problems with his company at this stage. One, for however long he was in treatment, his company was probably taking second fiddle and so he would have to bring it back to its earlier status. Two, people who suffer from child abuse are most often polarized flight or fight people. In other words the way they survive is by either being so nice no one will ever get angry with them, or they act angry all the time and dominate others before they can dominate you. It would seem likely that the man succeeded by being a holy terror. This then, because people mirror what they see, would have been the dominant attitude of his management team. Be a holy terror or cease to survive in this company and ‘get out!’ The owner had to do something to bring everyone back to a more normal sphere … to make his business a friendlier, more caring place to work.
That’s when he had a stroke of genius. He bought teddy bears for every manager’s desk and sent down an edict that it must be clearly displayed and kept on their desks. Now, the edict might have been a hold-over from his old days and patterns of behavior, but it surely would have been clearly understood by a crew of staff he had groomed to respect that method of management. They would do what they were told upon threat of being fired!
Subtly, slowly, everything in that company changed … for the better. It is unknown clearly why, it changed but the speculation relied on those teddy bears. When employees came into the office to chew out the boss’s a**, they would see the teddy bear. Either they couldn’t take a boss with a teddy bear seriously and so they didn’t yell and shout and complain, or there just seemed something disarming about a man or woman with a teddy bear on their desk that they couldn’t yell, or complain, or … maybe you just couldn’t yell and complain in front of a teddy bear because you simply don’t do those kinds of things in front of loving, caring teddy bears. And if the boss has a loving creature on his/her desk, then maybe the boss is a loving creature (though at the time it may have seemed highly unlikely!).
And the power of the Teddy Bear worked in reverse too. When a manager called an employee into their office to yell and scream at them, bosses found that they couldn’t do it. They couldn’t be taken as mean-spirited SOBs who would fire someone’s a** as soon as look at them because … well … there was that darned teddy bear on the desk. Somehow, people in that company found their humanity in stuffed teddy bears who, in reality, had no more love and affection than a desk lamp.
So teddy bears must trigger reactions in mirror neurons just as though we were dealing with a caring, loving person. What you do and say to a teddy bear is what you do and say to yourself and others. Maybe teddy bears are loving, little ‘people’ because we envision them that way as a child. And because we envision them that way as a child and we carry that vision inside of us into adulthood (even when we know this is silly). I’m betting, therefore that if we could place someone under and MRI and have them hug and kiss a teddy bear we would discover one of two things. Either the same parts of the brain would light up as would in a child doing the same act, or the same part of the brain would light up when you were doing it to a human being. I’m suggesting, though I’ve not seen the scientific study to prove it, that teddy bears are like perfect creations of accepting, loving human beings.
This then has massive and positive repercussions for us. If you’re feeling lonely, or down, you could talk to a teddy bear and receive the same positive brain chemistry as though you had done that with a real person. You may not get the advice you need, (or you may, I’m not sure even about that because sometimes just having someone to listen to you is all you really need) but you would get the same positive feelings as though you told a real person. And you can tell a teddy bear anything. Remember what we said about teddy bears earlier?
Teddy bears are stalwart companions. They are loyal. They love you. They care about you. They are totally dependent upon you. They love hugs and kisses and tea parties with dolls. They like to sit and watch you play baseball, or better yet, they even like to have their own hand of cards in front of them so they can play with you. Better still teddy bears can keep secrets perfectly. And when something is distressing you on the inside, the best medication is to get it out … safely. What’s another great characteristic of teddy bears? They never judge you. You can tell them anything and they still love you.
So if you’re lonely and you need a hug and a kiss, would you get the same brain chemistry reaction from doing it to a teddy bear than if you did it with a person? Well the entire therapeutic model that the business man above went through seems to rely on this fact doesn’t it? Otherwise, the entire treatment method wouldn’t work … it would be powerless to change the person. How could telling a teddy bear, which you project your little wounded child into, that you love it and that it is important and perfect and loving … how could that work if somehow the mirror neurons weren’t aiding the process? I know! I was healed this way!
So where do we find ourselves? Teddy bears may have a great dearth of purposes. Feel lonely? Hug and kiss a teddy bear. If you check in with your ‘numbers’ as I’ve written about before, I bet if you check in before and after the hug, that your number of how you are feeling goes up. Need to confess a sin? Tell a teddy. Want to unravel negative thoughts? Talk them out with the teddy. You’re NOT insane! The beauty of mirror neurons means this is a good thing … this is a good way to be … this is a way to practice real and meaningful change in a completely safe and loving environment.
Can’t say a speech in public? Place teddy bears around a room at home. The great thing with them is they won’t laugh at you if you make a mistake. And they have eyes. As you speak, roam your eyes around the room making meaningful eye contact with the teddy bears. Suddenly the thought of doing the same thing in a human setting isn’t quite so frightening. I wanted to write, “in a real setting” where I wrote a human setting in that last sentence. But the thing is, talking to a room full of teddy bears, because it may be triggering the exact same responses in you as though you were talking to a group of adult humans, means that delivering your speech to a group of teddy bears IS A REAL SETTING!
If you’re nervous for your first board meeting, place teddy bears around the table at home. Set up as many chairs as real people in the meeting. I have over 70 bears around the house. I could probably hand-pick them according to teddy bear characteristics in order to somewhat ‘match’ the characteristics of the real people who will be in that meeting later on!
If you’re running a small business, you know how many hats you wear. But this next example doesn’t have to be about running a small business. Any job today has more tasks required of it than there are hours in the day to get them all done. Sometimes getting all the work done seems impossible. As you can guess I’m a writer. So, I have writing to do most days. But I have marketing, financial (invoicing/accounts receivable and my favorite part, paying the employee!), scheduling, upgrading/training, hardware and software concerns, public relations, branding, ordering supplies, seeking out new clients and new story ideas … all of that. It got out of control. And so, I listed the number of hats I wore, got bears on a table to represent each ‘department’, and had a board (bear-ed?) meeting with them. I would do this whenever I would feel overwhelmed with all the tasks of running a writing business. I even suggested this to the local media and the London Free Press came and took a picture of me in my ‘board room.’ I may have looked queer to people then, but now, with what we know about mirror neurons, I may well have been ahead of the curve!
On the Negative and Mirror Neurons
And here’s my last tip of this article. Always express what you desire for yourself in the positive. This is a sidebar to mirror neurons which is quite important. Scientific evidence suggests that the human mind fails to comprehend the negative. If this way of expressing what I have just stated sounds or ‘feels’ weird, here’s what I mean. To write that, “The human mind does not comprehend the negative,” is improper if we comprehend that the human mind fails to envision the negative. In other words to write, “the human mind does not see the negative,” is to really be writing, “the human mind does … see the negative.” (But it clearly does NOT see the negative.) Therefore in writing what we would consider to be a traditional sentence with a negative in it, because of the way the human mind works, we are stating a sentence which really means the complete opposite to a reader than what we intended to impart. (Maybe this is where reverse psychology comes from?)
All this goes to say that if I ask you to close your minds and imagine the following, “The dog is not chasing the cat,” most people envision a dog chasing a cat. The word NOT goes unheard or unregistered in the statement. So when I look in the mirror (a real mirror this time) and see my ‘muffin tops’ (excess weight around the middle) and I say, “I do not want to carry this weight,” I am really saying, “I want to carry this weight.”
Therefore you need to be clear of what you desire. It would be better to express that which I do want, rather than that which I don’t want. Therefore saying, “I desire to have a trim ‘middle’ or core,” would be better. Better still would be to say it as though I already possess it because this would conscript the positive aspect of mirror neurons. See it or say it and therefore you feel it. “I have six pack abdominal muscles on a trim body.” Somehow, this statement then makes me more like the person I desire to become. In fact, I am that person, because as I say it, the brain chemistry fires in my mind so that it affirms what I have just said. I am pleased that I am the way I envision myself.
I think it is important to examine what is really going on here when we say something like this to ourselves. In one aspect, telling ourselves we’ve succeeded at something when we haven’t feels like a lie. It seems wrong. But mirror neuron science tells us it is truly the way to change ourselves, of how we should begin the process of becoming the people we desire to be. The science doesn’t lie.
For example, here’s an instance of how truth and falsehood exist in the same instant. Hold your arms up in the air in triumph, hold your head up high and then say, in a down, depressed voice, “I feel terrible.” Next, round your shoulders and look down as though the weight of the world were upon your shoulders and shout, “I feel terrific!” Most people experience the body aspect of these moments as the truth and the words as the falsehood. You cannot feel down, when you’re head is held high. So … in holding your head high and sitting up straight, there must be some brain chemistry firing off in the right directions to overcome the audio of the words you are saying. What’s most effective, then, is getting both the language and the body in the right aspect to help begin to change who we are … how we think about ourselves.
This, of course, all sounds too easy … too packaged … too canned. Sometimes you feel crappy. Life blows up. You lose your job unexpectedly, loved ones die, health concerns pile up. There is a time and a place to practice these things. You know yourself well enough to know when you should make the attempt. Use your mirror neurons to your best advantage whenever you can. And when you’re doing nice things for yourself, people see that, and desire to model that, and then they’re doing nice things for themselves and this improves everyone’s attitude and that means … we’re all happier and if we’re happier we have time to practice, just a little more human kindness.
Belated Book Review:
84 Charring Cross Road
By W. Owen Thornton
I just ‘experienced’ a book written in 1970 that oozed humanity and human kindness. It’s called 84 Charring Cross Road and was written by Helene Hanff. The true story evolves over 20 years in a series of letters between a woman in America buying books from a used book dealer in England. This is a book written in a format I would have never read, unless my intelligent and loving wife hadn’t read it to me aloud. I would have been a fool to have dismissed this book. This is a light read you must discover. And it’s easy going too at a total of 97 pages.
What I found endearing about the book is that it is about kind, ordinary people living ordinary lives in an extraordinary way. There’s something comforting about reading how two complete strangers develop a genuine fondness for one another through a series of letters ... connected by the exchange of money for rare books. The story is hopeful and heart-warming. I think sometimes I feel odd or different, even with the intellectual knowledge that Louis Armstrong might have been right when he sang, “No matter, where you go, you’re gonna find, that people have the same things on their minds.” This book is living proof that while we are all unique, we all have similar hopes and desires and fears. So, next time you’re feeling alone, you can think of this book and know that you truly are not alone but just like millions of other people all over the planet.
The letters were written from 1949 to 1969. The book offers an insight into post-war England that I never comprehended before: about the shortages of eggs and meat products. There are other interesting tidbits too. Like the fact that Frank Doel (rhymes with Noel), the manager of the bookstore, can send Helene her books via ‘book post’ whatever that is. This notion harkens back to the romantic times of receiving snail mail at affordable prices. Today, it feels as though you could shop for the same used books in your home town and save a bundle on shipping costs … but in those years … not so much.
I think a part of the power of this experience was listening to my wife’s sweet voice as she read the letters to me. (She was reading them for the first time herself!) Reading them aloud seemed to give the letter-writers voices in my head. While the letters were the real correspondence between Helene, Frank, Frank’s wife and a few other folk from the bookstore, somehow hearing their words seemed to give them life and physical bodies. And so, should you be able to buy the book used, (I think it’s out of print) or get it from your library system, I would encourage you to read it aloud to your spouse, loved one, aging parent, anyone. The book will be a hit, I am sure. I think we blitzed it in less than a week!
Tonight? Tonight we’re going to watch the movie version of the same name. But don’t short circuit this process by going directly to the movie. Get the book. Let the characters become alive for you. Revel in the experience as Frank and the bookstore staff share in the wonderful food packages that Helene periodically sends them … food they cannot ordinarily buy because of the rationing or the shortages. And Frank too, knows that he is providing a much-pleasing service for Helene as she writes him letters thanking him for the delicious books he sends her. Go. Now. Go out and find this book and dig into the human experience of it all and appreciate the loving, caring human kindness that is exhibited towards one another throughout this little gem.
PS: Don’t worry about seeing the movie. Compared to the book it is uninspired. The visual of the movie acts only as a back-drop while the principle characters simply read the letters. In a word, the movie is boring. You will get the same experience reading them for yourself!
Too Much Stuff
By W. Owen Thornton
The rise in self-storage lockers is a sign that people have too much stuff in their lives. Too much stuff hangs like a millstone around your neck. The sudden rise in self storage lockers offers proof that we’re out of balance. When we’re out of balance, we need to work longer and harder to spend $110/month to pay for a storage locker. Perhaps we also need to work longer and harder to fill it … or perhaps to fill it with better quality excess crap! Working more to have more stuff, which we keep “off-site” from our houses, creates less time for us, family and kindness, adds stress and reduces our ability to practice human kindness towards one another.
It would seem the smarter option would be to give the extra stuff away and work less. This plan gives you more time, makes you feel more in balance and affords you the ability to think outside of yourself, which makes you a kinder, gentler person. Now I will qualify the need for self-storage lockers. If you need a storage locker because you’ve been compelled to downsize due to job loss or a divorce or you’ve lost your home, those are different reasons and you must do what you need to do to make life work. Self-storage lockers are not a scourge unto themselves, they are only a warning sign when we’re living normal lives and our houses and sheds and garages are already full of too much stuff.
To live a life of human kindness we need to “be real.” Living outside of your financial means places stress on you and puts you in a dangerous emotional place where your focus is on the wrong kinds of things. “I have to work more to pay for all this stuff,” becomes a mantra we truly believe but the problem is we don’t stop to consider if we even need this “stuff!” Working to procure “stuff” is a treadmill to failure. It seems too that the more we think about work and the “stuff” it buys, the less we think about the people around us. Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” shows we’re no longer as civically engaged in our society as we used to be, that we don’t have family dinners together, and that we want to go to university to earn a whack of cash so we can be rich … and in the process we don’t really care about making the world a better place … as long as we’re rich.
The west has created a consumer society. It works because we continue to buy stuff … stuff beyond what we need or require. Don’t believe me? In a June 11, 2008 article in Maclean’s Magazine called, “Getting Stuffed: Will the U.S. real estate crisis put an end to the self-storage boom?” by Jason Kirby, the facts are in!
In recent decades U.S. houses have doubled in size to an average 2,500 square feet. Their homes are fully 500 square feet larger than those in Canada. In addition in the past decade self storage units in the United States has doubled. Today it is a US$22 billion annual business representing 2.2 billion square feet of space, 85% of which is occupied. Fully ten percent of the home owners in the United States, living in homes larger than the typical Canuck are paying $110/month to cram extra stuff into a storage locker. Stuff, if I’m any judge of human nature we probably never go back to and get or to use. Once it’s off the property, it’s really as good as gone anyway. We adapt and learn to live without it … but there’s some kind of hope there that one day … we will use it again. And to pay for all that stuff? The average individual debt in the U.S., outside of mortgages is thousands of dollars higher than in Canada.
We need to really think about what it means when we write the size of homes have doubled in the past few decades? In the 1950s in Canada, with larger family sizes than today, the typical bungalow ranged from 800 to 1,000 square feet. Today, with fewer kids in the house, our homes are 2,000 square feet. Self storage units in Canada may not be as popular as in the U.S., but in newer subdivisions with these larger homes, you rarely see a garage with one of the family vehicles parked in it. Why? Because it is usually chocked full of stuff that can’t fit inside the house … and that stuff is more than the lawnmower and a few bicycles. It’s full of beer fridges, old computer monitors, pantry shelves, kid’s toys, skis, and old stereo speakers.
The Maclean’s article introduced, but didn’t talk about an important side effect of all this stuff. It asked, “What is all this saying about our souls?” It said it didn’t know … they didn’t want to speculate what it meant for us. They stuck with the facts and perhaps rightly let us think about that answer for ourselves. Interestingly enough, here’s something odd. Noam Chomsky has written about “Manufacturing Consent,” about how media continues to propagate the myth that we need to support the status quo and keep on buying stuff to keep the rich, rich and the rest of us placated … with all that stuff we can buy. I wouldn’t say Maclean’s ran from that idea. I’ve seen evidence that it can and will slam aspects of our culture when they think it needs slamming! It simply may not have wanted to open that kettle of fish. Most articles today are 800 – 1,000 words long and the notion that we’re all playing a role in a society that demands we buy more even at our own expense is the content of books, not short articles or essays!
There’s little wonder why we’re reluctant to throw stuff out or give it away. It may be about less than what it cost us at the time, and more about what it represents. It represents a great deal of overtime and stress incurred while we paid off the debt to cover it. Throwing it away seems like throwing out the time and effort required to accumulate it. And some city governments make throwing it out totally inconvenient … an additional waste of time and energy. What do I mean? I mean that a computer, its monitor, some old paint from the living room, a couple of batteries, some yard waste (might as well while we’re at it eh?), our son’s old mattress and a couple of expired compact fluorescent bulbs could well mean driving all over the city for hours as each item can only be taken to a specific waste-recovery depot.
But there’s something else being said about us if we’re all becoming pack rats. We’re afraid things are too good to last … that we won’t be able to manifest all this wealth a second time, so we’d better hold onto the stuff we have for fear it won’t come back to us should we get rid of it? What’s that sentiment saying about us? We’re living in fear. Fear that things are too good to last. We have to store it away in case of a rainy day that may never happen. In some ways, it’s a silly thought, really. If we manifested it the first time, we can do it again. We have evidence that it happened and that we could do it the first time because we still have all the stuff! Though, naturally we’re never sure we’ll have the good job to do that again.
Our companies have definitely proven to us that they can function without us. Either we’ve been right-sized (fired) or we’ve watched someone be fired after an amalgamation made jobs redundant. If we’ve survived the purge(s) we still know that the office next door is empty where a friend used to sit. That could be us at any moment! Better buy the stuff while the getting’s good.
Or maybe all that stuff says something different about us altogether. Maybe we’re just a greedy culture. How did we get there? Covetousness has a large role in this I think: keeping up with the Jonses. I sometimes believe people have stuff, expensive stuff, they don’t even really want or need because they think their self worth is somehow attached to that stuff. AND, if our self worth is attached to our stuff, then we cannot throw it out. If we buy a new HDTV to replace a perfectly fine working older model, we don’t throw out the older model … because it still works. We didn’t ‘need’ the HDTV, we simply desired it. But the older model was given to us by grandparents when we first married, so we don’t want to separate ourselves from it for sentimental reasons. Really … sentimentality about a television?
But then, the size of our houses too says something about us. The bigger our homes, the bigger our paychecks must be, the bigger woman or man on campus we must become. It’s all about status, people! To hell with the environment! We’re paying lip service to it if we’re living in homes twice the size they used to be a couple of decades ago with fewer people under their collective roofs!
And there’s something else about these large homes on post-it sized lots. We’re all living inside all of the time. The lots are too small to even play a game of catch on them, so there’s not much point in going outside! We want our homes at 21 degrees centigrade 24/7 every day of the year. We don’t want ambient noise from the street to interfere with our screen-time: whether it is on one of the three or four televisions or computers in our houses. Houses have to be larger to contain all the screens we possess. And larger houses do not speak of family togetherness, but more about family isolation. We’re almost afraid to be together anymore. We may come together in the hallways, but we often retreat to our private demesnes to watch our favorite show or play a game, or surf the internet. Shoot! Young teens now sit in rooms together and text one another. Talking is free, but we get to spend money texting one another … and naturally we need to buy the coolest cells, in order to send and receive the most complex images and videos, so that we can spend more money on the cell phones and on the air time sending all that … stuff!
But maybe there’s a ying-yang to all this stuff which we still haven’t explored. First, we make stuff to be thrown away in five years. If I were to use a voice that makes me sound like an old codger, you’d hear inside your minds, “I-I remember when, back in the ooooold days, people used to take stuff to a repair person and get it fixed!” Now the base charge to fix something costs as much as the item would to simply replace it. So why bother getting anything fixed? But things don’t have to break more frequently simply to get us to buy more stuff. Technology grows by leaps and bounds suggesting we have to continue to upgrade. Computer games make computers obsolete. Why own a computer to play games if you can’t play the games, so, you’d better buy a new computer! Phones are smaller with more features, refrigerators come with ice makers, water dispensers (there’s one at the tap, but it’s not ice cooled … and naturally it’s too much time to waste to walk over to the old fridge to get a cube or two out of the tray of ice!), and televisions built into them. We have to have the best of the best and nothing else will do.
The saddening rise of the self storage lockers is proof that we’re out of control with our spending habits. We’re machines buying stuff for reasons we’ve long forgotten what they are! We’re making ourselves sick over it! There may be only correlation and not “causation” to suggest this last point but all this stuff which takes all this time and money to acquire must be placing stress upon us. Something’s causing our stress levels to rise. In Putnam’s Bowling Alone, a graph demonstrates that malaise and stress are on the rise for each generation, and as the generations grow younger, the malaise and stress is higher for each younger generation than the last. So while seniors are finding more stress in their lives, their children find even more and their children have more still.
I have wondered now for some time why China, Africa, the Middle East and India et al want to ramp up their economies to parallel ours. We’re killing our environment with throw-away appliances and other stuff, and we’re killing ourselves in our attempt to house it and acquire it. Those who hate us for our wealth don’t need to be jealous of it! They should be running from our greed and spending habits. They should be looking for another key element to base a society upon other than consumerism. We’ve made consumerism our God and it’s killing us, but now we don’t know how to stop and we don’t want to look foolish in admitting that we’ve barked up the wrong tree for the last hundred (?) years. There seems to be a notion that we might even be able to buy our way out of … well … spending! Throw enough money at something and all problems go away eventually … don’t they?
Look. Meditation, quietly focusing on a flame, a flower or even the sound of your regular breathing does more to make us feel better than any toy will. But we don’t think we have time to stop long enough to meditate for five minutes. Meditation is stupid! That’s a waste of time. But mediation will go further to balancing us than working harder to get the next toy so we can have more stuff ever will.
Meditation is only one answer that begins to challenge our consumerism. Meditation restores balance faster than any new purchase ever will. But we won’t have anything to do with it! Time with family … really connecting with those we love … that could be a place to start … if we could ever peal each family member away from their large room and their glowing box to make that time. But ‘family’ is stupid! Dumb! A waste of my time. We’d rather be alone in our rooms … apart from one another. But it’s proven that a single, gentle, meaningful touch from someone we love will do more to restore our positive brain chemistry (we’ll be happy, warm, nurtured, cherished, loved) than any degree of ‘fun’ we have watching a television alone in a room by ourselves will.
Playing cards or a board game is less about the game than the social activity around it! How long has it been since you played cards? Bowling Alone proves that we do far less of it than we used to … that and a host of other things that all make us more kind to one another … like having friends over for dinner or a visit. We can’t do that because we’re too busy working too hard and feeling too tired to get together. But we can work hard and buy stuff to fill storage lockers. Yeah! That’s the ticket! That’s the way we want our society to work! We want elevated blood pressure, increased stress, and estrangement from our family members. These are the things we ‘get’ from our stuff. Storage lockers aren’t evil. They’re the lynch-pin to the entire scam of buying stuff to feel better … which really means feeling worse!
Here’s something that is proven. If we suffer from more stress today, than in the past, which is true, and we know that people lived in smaller homes and rented fewer storage lockers, then people lived with less stuff and were happier 20 years ago than we are with more stuff and less happiness today. (Correlation, not causation, but are we willing to BET on that?) Consumerism is on a cascade effect that seems unstoppable. There are a lot of great toys and things to own. I want some of them. Really, I do. But I try to save for those things before buying them. I hope to want less stuff, so I don’t have to save so much, so I can be more available to the people in my life … and to me … so I can meditate … all too infrequently. I fail at this stuff too. I’m in this world. It sucks me in. I swim with the current. What’s important at moments like this for both you and I is that I bounce out of that track from time to time to see its real impact on me and you and all of our society so I can write an article about it to make you think a little. So you can go out and spend some quality time with your family without fear of having to work to buy something because you haven’t been spending enough time with them!
I don’t really know all that much. But I do know that unless you own a storage locker because you’re forced out of your home, or going through a divorce, or maybe you have a large, once-a-year hobby that takes lot of gear that you can’t really store at home, then a US$22 billion dollar a year business in storage lockers is all about the wrong kind of stuff.
|Look for compliments. Have your radar open to receive them. Often we tend to ignore these comments. We were paid to do that, or that's just what we do. Often we feel lost, like we don't know what our contribution to life and society really is. |
It begins with accepting that compliment. We cannot live in a void. People are affirming our actions every day, if we but allow ourselves to see them. We have a nasty tendency to think we shouldn't receive compliments well. We might become big headed or egotistical. But if we feel lost and cannot see our mark in life, then we've gone too far the other way.
If we can discern these moments for ourselves we can get instant life feedback. We can revel in these quiet moments of specialness. When you've truly been complimented and you know it, let how good that moment feels register upon your mind. What a gift someone has just given you.
Now, and this is what human kindness is all about, mind you, actively, intelligently, lovingly and deliberately do that for someone else ... offer them the kind of positive feedback you just received. You can deliver these gifts too. People don't always know how they're doing. You can make their day by telling them something positive, by giving them the feedback they need.
If they too feel good then the may also be disposed to being more kind towards others.
Discern the compliment as it happens to you in your own life. Feel it ... let it register there. And then with deliberation do that for someone else. Watch the atmosphere around you brighten with hope and optimism.