hope

The Negativity Bias

 

Still Life With Jar, Cup, and Apples, Cezanne, www.metmuseum.org

 

Good news. Things really aren’t as bad as we think they are.

I’ve been learning about neuro-plasticity lately—the study of how brains change.  Not just over millennia but in weeks, months or years depending on the stimulation given.

Apparently our brains have a built-in bias towards the negative. They’re like velcro for negative impressions but teflon for positive ones, according to Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness. The good just slides right on by, in and out of consciousness, while the negative sticks.

The negativity bias makes sense given that our ancestors needed to figure out where saber tooth tigers lurked, remember their telltale traces and communicate that information to the family. Our brains have dedicated significantly more storage space, neural wiring, and chemical transmitters for avoiding tigers than for appreciating butterflies.

Finally I understand why negative political ads are ubiquitous. Why headlines scream horrors. If it bleeds, it leads. And why parking lot conversations are so often downers.

I’m not advocating a Pollyannaish attitude to life. Just think positive! No.

Horror, suffering, and tragedy are real. But so are beauty, joy and love. Even though our brains would tell us otherwise.

 

I volunteer weekly with women in a court-mandated residential drug treatment program. They’re in very difficult situations, with many negative aspects to their lives. We’re going to spend the summer noticing the positive.

Yesterday I took them outdoors.  They called out everything positive they noticed: sunshine, breezes, how good it felt to get outside, the smell of mown grass, stretching, breathing, laughing.

Once they started talking, the words poured out. I was astonished at how much they noticed. How much they savored. And how much lighter they seemed afterwards.

Back in the musty house we acknowledged that the challenges have not gone away—their court dates remain on the calendar, Child Protective Services still control their children’s lives, jail is still a possibility—but they marveled at how much stronger  and calmer they felt.  As if the dark realities were storm clouds in a larger sky.

Do this daily, many times a day, I urged them, as I handed out logs to record small moments of goodness. In thirty seconds you can notice, savor and store a positive experience. Do it! When bad experiences come along, your brains will have pathways towards hope, antidotes to despair.

Still Life With Jar, Cup and Apples, Cezanne, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art


 

 

 

Posted by admin in Inspiration, 2 comments

Taste of Hope

R-20100106-0003.jpg  Hope

I certainly received it—a taste of hope—at The Ruin last weekend. The Ruin is a wondrously made outdoor environment built by Gabe and Sarah Acrich at their home in the Sierra foothills. Envision a very large living room, made of rock walls, minus the ceiling and fourth wall, so the space is open to the sky and fields. Now imagine that the walls slope downward, lined with tall glass votive holders, and pierced with niches, so the perimeter is dotted with candle light. Within this powerfully moving space, Sarah staged a play set in a Nazi concentration camp: Taste of Hope: A Play in Three Courses.

Hope and concentration camps might seem mutually exclusive. But the profound territory that this play explores is how hope was kept alive in a hopeless situation.

The Acrich’s have a personal connection to the Holocaust; Gabe’s grandfather survived Mauthjausen. When Sarah read In Memory’s Kitchen, A Legacy From the Women of Terezin, a nonfiction book based on recipes secretly collected in a Czech concentration camp, she was immediately inspired to work with that material, family material, and other Holocaust stories to create a play affirming the faith, strength, love, and courage of the women in the camps.

Sarah is a woman of extraordinary vision, creativity and energy. Not only did she write the play, create The Ruin, recruit talented actors and musicians (drawn from friends, students and family), she also cooked latkes, matzo ball soup, carmels and honey cake—recipes which the women discussed fervently in the camp. After each act, the audience was served a hearty taste of these dishes, which were now soaked in meaning, significance and wonder.

I was seated next to a Jewish woman. Her husband did not attend; Holocaust events are too raw for him. She, however, was delighted with the play, and during each course shared with me how she had learned to cook that dish, family variations in recipes, and memories of the holidays. I was thus privileged to experience the continuity that the women in the camp desperately longed for and dedicated themselves to insuring.  

The play worked with the theme of continuity by having three areas always present on stage: a modern kitchen, with a contemporary mother and daughter cooking and occasionally  talking; a kitchen from the pre-war era with a grandmother instructing a granddaughter; and the main focus of the bunks, where four starving women prisoners engaged in intimate dialogue.  I would have found the concentration camp conversations almost too excruciating to bear, if not for the silent testimony of the past kitchen anchored in tradition and the modern kitchen witnessing  to ongoing life.  In this way, the play’s structure beautifully gave us a paradigm of time’s effect on suffering, evil, and healing.

In a further amplification of the themes of food, community, and hope, each performance was a fundraiser. There was no admission fee; all donations received went to hunger-relief organizations.  The performance I attended was an Empty Bowl Project in support of the Gathering Inn, a private nonprofit serving the county’s homeless. 

After the play, audience members lingered in the ruin, licking honey cake and carmels from our fingers. A slender moon hung overhead.  “Puts things in perspective,” someone said. “Made me think about hope,” another affirmed. And then there was mostly the crunch of gravel as we made our way down the driveway, our flashlights flickering in the dark.

The sketch above is Giacomo Cavedone’s Clasped Hands, 1612, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

The photograph was taken during a performance.


 

Posted by admin in arts, community, Inspiration, religion, 5 comments

Tell Me About Your Shoes

     HangingSneakerjmsnewpairofshoesjs10053

 

Lani Peterson, a psychologist and storyteller, posted this story on the Healing Story Alliance listserv. It was told to her at the Women’s Lunch Place, a soup kitchen in downtown Boston, after Lani had offered the prompt, “Tell me about your shoes.” Lani passed the story along in honor of the woman who shared it.

 

 

You see these beautiful white sneakers? I didn’t always have them. My last pair of shoes was pretty sad. After many winters of walking through snow and slush, I was holding them together with cardboard and masking tape.  So I decided to go to the mall to get a new pair. There’s a Payless Shoes store there that often has sneakers I can afford.

 

Walking through the mall I knew everyone was looking at me. They didn’t like me being there. I wanted to get my new shoes quick and leave. Walking down the aisle, I saw a really nice pair of white sneakers. There was only this one pair in my size left. I put them on and couldn’t believe how good they felt. I walked all around the store in them, thinking how nice it would be if they were mine.  I knew I didn’t have the money to get them that day but I also knew that if I waited, they’d be gone. I brought them up to the front of the store and asked the guy behind the counter if he would hold them for me. He said it was against store policy. I promised him I would come back as soon as I could to buy them, but he just kept shaking his head and saying no, he couldn’t. I put my masking tape sneakers back on and left the mall as fast as I could.

 

For the next two weeks, I scraped by until I had enough money to go back for my shoes. Funny how I kept calling them mine, as if somehow I could protect them from going home with anyone else. The day I had enough money, I ran all the way to the mall, and ignored all those people staring at my masking tape shoes. I went to the shelf where I left them, with my eyes half shut afraid to look.  Sure enough they were gone. I looked at every pair of shoes in the aisle that had my size, but there were no shoes left like them. They were gone.

 

I started for the door. I wasn’t ready to try on anything else that day. I just felt too worn down to look any more. That’s when the manager yelled at me. I started to walk faster to get away, but he ran after me, still yelling. “I have your shoes”.  It took me a few times of hearing it to get what he meant.  ‘I HAVE YOUR SHOES.’

“OK”, I said. “I’ve got the money now to pay for them.”

“No. No”, he said. “They’ve been paid for. That’s why I’ve got them. They’re all yours.”

 

I can’t tell you fully what went on in my head in that moment. I only remember leaving my old shoes in the trash bin and walking out into the mall wearing my new white sneakers with money still in my pocket. I took my time leaving that day. As I walked past each stranger, I looked them in the eye and smiled. I felt so good.  It wasn’t that I thought that they were looking at me differently because of my new sneakers. It was more that I was seeing them differently. I used to think no one was on my side.  But that day I knew that any person I walked by could be the one who gave me my new shoes.  Whoever they were, I wanted them to know I was saying “Thank you”.

HangingSneakerjms Hanging Sneakers, JMS, Dreamstime.com

 newpairofshoesjs10053 New Pair of Shoes, js10053, Dreamstime.com

 


 

Posted by admin in Inspiration, story, 2 comments