Ever since I read Sherri Mitchell’s book Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change, I have thought a lot about the values underlying the dominant white culture’s view of right and wrong, proper behavior, relationships, and what we should aspire for. For example, the notion that children, when they grow up, should move out and often far away from their families of origin. Why? Why is that considered the right choice?
Mitchell, who is also known as Weh’na Ha’mu’ Kwasset (She Who Brings the Light) in her Penobscot tribe, did indeed shed a lot of light on the matter for me. Our individual and collective decisions are often based on a set of values which we are mostly not even aware of.
We don’t all have the same values, of course. And we can interpret those values differently, and to vastly different extents. Over the weekend, I heard a radio report about a man who had built the world’s biggest private house. The details were outrageous, including the fact that this private house has a garage built for 50 cars! To me, that’s repulsive — but don’t I also want to own my home, and have a variety of personal comforts? Have we internalized the same basic values, perhaps with different checks and balances? I can scoff at that man with his 50-car garage, but what do I need to see and perhaps shift within my own self?
Some of this is ridiculous, like the “rule” that you mustn’t wear white shoes after Labor Day. But other values may be limiting our capacity to be happy, sapping our souls, harming our communities, and may even lie at the heart of our failure so far to adequately address climate change. Why, when climate change is an obvious and existential threat, why aren’t we doing what needs to be done?
Maybe it’s our values. And maybe we need to look at, and change some of those values.
This is why, on Indigenous Peoples Day 2021, I am grateful: in her book, Sherri Mitchell makes it easy to see and understand both the dominant cultural values (what she calls “Euro-American Values”) and what she calls “Native American Values.” The light that she shines allows us to learn, grow, and perhaps make better choices.
I don’t want to romanticize the relationship between Native Americans and nature because a) that feels like stereotyping to me and b) what do I know anyway? Instead, I will just say, I find Mitchell’s listing of the often conflicting values to be compelling. She suggests that “the contrast in these basic values has influenced the conflicts that we’ve experienced, and … the values held by the larger society have led to division, breakdown, and destruction of our key relationships, including our relationships with Mother Earth and the rest of creation.”
I won’t list all the values, because that is Mitchell’s creation and her intellectual property. Instead, I urge you to get a copy of her book (from the library, perhaps), and read it for yourselves. But I will share just a few:
— Native American value, cooperation; Euro-American value, competition
— Native American value, harmony; Euro-American value, conquest
— Native American value, sharing; Euro-American value, saving
Mitchell doesn’t just list these values, she explains her thinking with evidence, experience and wisdom. I, for one, was convinced that my/our values need closer examination and an overhaul. It is knowledge for which I am grateful, and which I wish to hold up to the light on this day.
What if being happy was as simple as making the choice to be happy? Ha! It can never be that easy, because when it comes to humans, nothing is ever simple. Still, in almost every moment of every day, we can make the happy choice or the less happy choice. Or not choose at all — which, unless you’ve worked really hard to rewire your brain for happiness, likely means a less happy choice by default.
Fortunately, I have been working on rewiring my brain for more than a decade. Covid has given my happiness a run for its money, but even so, happy choices are frequently my default mode.
Here’s an example: last week, I had more bad eye news. I’ve written about my eye problem before — something called neo-vascularization, or bleeding in the retina. Untreated, this condition leads to blindness. I was diagnosed five years ago. For a while the treatments — injections in the eye, but that’s not as awful as it sounds — seemed to be working just fine. I went many appointments without any injection at all.
Then in December, the doctor was alarmed at my loss in vision. I thought it was just a scratched, used-up pair of glasses and finally got a new prescription from the optometrist. I did much better at the next appointment with the retina specialist, but really, not good enough. The vision loss remained.
This week, again, my vision was worse (and boy have I come to hate those eye charts!). The doctor wants to see me for treatments more frequently. Nothing was said out loud, but the subtext was, I am gradually losing sight in my left eye. The injections will slow down that process, but they can’t stop it.
So could I, in that moment, choose happiness? Well, sort of. At the same time that I was feeling anguish as I tried to process the reality of failing vision (in only one eye, thank goodness), I was also working hard at holding on to the good. I wanted to be honest, to give myself grieving time, while also being aware of everything I have to be grateful for: I am getting excellent medical care, by a retinal team which is kind as well as knowledgeable; the drugs used to keep blindness at bay are still relatively new, so I am fortunate to be benefiting from them; my treatments are covered by medical insurance; and my very loving husband takes me to every appointment and waits patiently to tend to me when the appointment is over.
Plus, it was a gorgeous early spring day in Vermont. Bob and I had plans to walk on the bike trail next to Lake Champlain. We’d been on the same trail three weeks earlier when the lake was totally ice-covered and the trail itself had plenty of snow and ice, too. Now, Lake Champlain’s blue waters were shimmering in the sun, with the majestic Adirondack Mountains rising up on the other shore. Our walking trail was clear and dry. It was a blessed day. I was sad, but happy too. Both. Absolutely both.
It’s not that I intend to ignore my eye problem. How can I, when every six weeks or so I have to get an injection in the eye? Nonetheless, I want to savor all the happiness that’s available to me. That’s my choice.
The sadness in any given moment isn’t the only obstacle to choosing happiness. More often, we just forget. Our brains are wired to be on the alert for threats, not joys. Yet, as with my day by the lake, the joys often exist side by side with sorrows and threats. The trick is, remembering to look for your happiness.
For me, that’s the point of putting a slice of paradise into my pocket. It’s a remembering stone.
I have been aware of the value of having a happiness remembering device — specifically, a happiness bracelet — since studying for my Certificate in Positive Psychology (CIPP) with Tal Ben-Shahar. Tal was an understated dresser, not the type to wear a bracelet. Instead, he wore a rubber band. I love the simplicity of that choice. I don’t wear much jewelry myself, but decided to wear a happiness bracelet when I found the one pictured here at a second hand store. I adored wearing my used bracelet until one day the elastic gave way and beads rolled all over the floor.
One of my CIPP classmates, Laurel Burns, a marriage and family therapist and artist, even started a business making happiness reminder bracelets!
My wrist has been bare lately. Maybe it’s covid fatique. Plus, I don’t really go anywhere these days.
Then the other night, the happiness bracelet morphed into a paradise stone. This wasn’t my idea. Rather, I found it in the poetry of Roger Robinson, via the Onbeing Project. The project published Robinson’s poem, “A Portable Paradise,” which I shared with my weekly Tuesday night meditation class. I chose to share Robinson’s poem because it spoke to me of being mindful of the good in our lives (in the poem, the paradise can be found in a pocket). I really appreciated his awareness that we can carry a piece of personal paradise with us — a profound happiness reminder of not just the joys but the actual paradise that is there within, if only we remember to pay attention.
The next day, I decided to make my pocket paradise a bit more tangible. I looked around and found a small stone my granddaughter had painted to look like a present. The stone was no big deal. In fact, when she and her mom moved from Wisconsin to join us in Vermont during the time of covid, the stone was supposed to have been thrown out. It appealed to me, though. I stuck it in a pocket on moving day and brought it back to Vermont.
Now I stick that stone in various pockets, depending on what I am wearing. No big deal? The stone represents love, art, everyday beauty … all the joys and gifts in my life. I need only stick my hand in my pocket and rub the stone between my fingers to remember that my life is filled with enough good and happiness to create my own personal paradise. Paradise does not equal immortality for me or any of my body parts. But it does equal smiles in the storm and serenity in the sadness. It equals happier choices — and that is priceless.
One year ago today, after several days of driving from dark and snowy Vermont, we were just hours away from our sixth annual, two-week Christmas at the beach on Florida’s Gulf Coast. This was a big splurge. I saved all year to pay the beach house rental fee. The island we like to visit has been getting more and more expensive, but it the high quality family time we enjoyed together made it all worthwhile.
This year, thanks to our intergenerational living situation, we will still be together, but nowhere near the beach. It was 9 degrees below zero when I got up this morning. I hope to go for a walk after it warms up a bit, but it will be a far cry from bare toes in warm sand.
There’s also a lot to be said for spending the holidays in Vermont — normally. It is still lovely outside, with shiny diamonds gleaming in the snow. But the caroling party, the Hannukah party, the Yankee Gift Exchange, the annual service at the Old West Church, various open houses … all canceled. Happily, some of these celebrations will still be offered online, but, of course, that’s hardly the same.
I am not complaining. I know we are fortunate. Our barn-turned-house provides plenty of inside space, room for two Christmas trees this year. Outside, we have some small but serviceable sledding hills. We have heat, we have food, we have each other. And Christmas cookies, board games, colored lights, and presents under the tree. I know life is a real struggle for millions of Americans right now, and I am deeply appreciative of my family’s gifts and comforts. No complaining, for sure.
What I am doing is pondering the nature of celebrating in a pandemic. Recently I have started watching Nicole Wallace’s broadcast on MSNBC. Each night at the close of her program, she airs “Lives Well Lived,” a brief segment lifting up some of those who have died from Covid-19. Last night’s segment told the story of eight nuns in the same religious order in Milwaukee. All eight of these women, who had retired after lifetimes of service, died in one week. One night, Nicole told us about a baker in Brooklyn who used to put out free bread to feed the hungry during the pandemic, until he, too, was claimed by Covid. Another night it was a five year girl. Then there was a pregnant woman in her early 30s; the baby made it, but she didn’t.
These individual stories bring the pain and grief alive in a way the experts warning us to stay home, and the astonishingly high daily death toll, don’t. The stories make me cry. These brief segments feel like a daily gift: they allow me to honor some of the lives lost, and to feel some of the overwhelming national grief. But, as the pandemic goes on and on and on, so too do our everyday lives. It seems intuitively obvious to me that celebrating the good in our lives is just as important as grieving the sorrows. And the older I get the more the phrase “life is short” resonates with me. We need to seize our celebrations when we can, in part because we really don’t know how many opportunities to celebrate we’ll have.
Plus, not surprisingly, Americans as a whole are not doing well, emotionally. We need to grab onto what can help us feel better and get through. New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo calls our mental state, “The Hidden ‘Fourth Wave’ of the Pandemic.” He writes, “Nine long, deadly months into the pandemic, Americans report severe psychic distress. It’s dark, we’re stuck inside, and we’re isolated from friends and family. Politics is fevered, the economy continues to struggle, and the coronavirus rages on. Many of us may be at a breaking point.”
So here’s something that feels helpful to me: holding on to both the grief and the joy simultaneously. That’s life. Both are going on. So, yes, cry. And also, celebrate — safely, of course. And perhaps with some consideration of the massive personal challenges all around us.
Ross Wilson of the Growing Organizations website goes so far as the say that celebrating helps keep us sane. In his “Straight Talk” column in June 2020 he wrote, “While we cannot ignore the challenges of the current climate, it’s dangerous to dwell on these and let them overwhelm us. … Psychologists agree that 3 things are crucial to keep us sane during difficult times: 1) practicing gratitude and celebrating even small successes, 2) focusing only on what we have control over, and 3) maintaining a positive environment.
Which brings me to my big celebration a couple of weeks ago: Bob’s and my 50th wedding anniversary.
The first wedding I ever attended was my own, on a dreary November day in 1970. I don’t think many of the guests were in a particularly celebratory mood. The reception in my mother’s living room was subdued, with lemonade and cake — but no alcohol. After all, neither the bride nor the groom was of legal drinking age. And the bride, a senior in high school, was also three months pregnant.
I was wildly in love with Bobby Sassaman, but I didn’t have any confidence our marriage would last. Both my mother and grandmother had gotten divorced. I suspected I would, too. It didn’t help that Bobby’s job was being a paper boy — the only job he had ever held. Nor did it bode well that he was a freshman at the local community college, despite his awesome brain power (he got a perfect score on the math section of the SATs). I also knew the odds did not favor teenage newlyweds with a baby on the way. I didn’t have a job at all; I’d recently been fired from my job in the kitchen of a family-oriented restaurant, because, the manager told me a few years later, I was pregnant.
Bob, though, always believed our marriage was of the “till death do you part” variety and, amazingly, he was right. For 50 years, so far. There are many reasons we have thrived, not least of which is the financial and emotional support we continued to receive from both sides of the family. Analyzing our successful marriage deserves its own essay, but, especially given our starting point, I thought our 50th anniversary was well worth celebrating. Not just still married, but actually thriving. Happy to still be with each other..
Our anniversary was November 28th — 50 years after the wedding, 51 years after our first kiss, and two weeks after the Governor of Vermont issued tighter Covid restrictions, banning any size social gathering, indoors or out. Hmm, so how to celebrate?
I know that question has arisen over and over for so many celebrants of all ages this year, whether for weddings, graduations, birthdays, even celebrating the end of life. In our case, we don’t even normally celebrate our anniversary. It’s just another year gone by. Plus the timing is never good, since it usually falls just days after Thanksgiving. The past seven years we’ve been in the middle of a two-day car drive coming home from our daughter’s house. But early in 2020, I decided this year would be different. Fifty seemed like a noteworthy number, for sure. Neither Bob nor I are fancy, so there was no thought of anything grand. Also inclusivity is very important to me. I hate the idea of inadvertently hurting someone’s feelings by shutting them out of the party. So inviting everyone far and wide to an open house seemed the way to go.
Obviously, the pandemic forced me to change our plans. Instead, we got a firepit for the front yard and put up a tarp with colored lights. The idea was to have friends stop by, just one or two at a time, masked, and enjoy each other’s company outside for a few minutes. The Governor’s order against even outside gatherings nixed that plan, too. So we dropped back to a Zoom gathering, along with an invitation for friends to drive by and honk-and-wave as we sat alone by the firepit. Since we both believed going inside a restaurant for dinner was a very bad idea, covid-wise, and neither of us wanted to cook, we had microwaved TV dinners by the dwindling fire on a chilly November night.
And it was all wonderful!! The Zoom format allowed us to welcome and share with friends and loved ones from all over the place, both geographically and in terms of their roles in our lives. From the neighbor across the street to a classmate from fifth grade, we got to feel the love of a lifespan — so much so, I almost missed the honk-and-wave because the Zoom was too wonderful to bring to a close. But that part, too, was so much fun. And TV dinners, in the right frame of mind and with a little red wine, are just fine.
This probably sounds like a line from a Hallmark Christmas special, but my experience was that the celebration that mattered was in our hearts. Honoring this day as meaningful allowed Bob and me to pause, and consider our lives and love together in a way we rarely do, and that made us both happy. Sharing the occasion with family and friends far and wide was a way of giving and receiving love and joy in a time when we all need it. I was positively blissful by the end of the day.
So here we all are, in a time of celebrations that on the outside may not live up to anyone’s hopes or expectations. But on the inside … ah, my friends, may you celebrate till your hearts are full.
Sometimes I am asked, which sermon do I like best in my book, Preaching Happiness: Creating a Just and Joyful World. That’s like asking a mother to choose her favorite child. Not possible! But I will say, one of the chapters for which I have a particular fondness is the one on kindness.
That is not only because kindness warms my heart and seems ever more necessary in our tumultuous, pandemic world. I also enjoy the fact that the kindness sermon sneaks up on people with some unexpected observations.
For starters, I emphasize that kindness is not a fluffy extra – it is fundamentally important to human life. The Dalai Lama has said, “If we stop to think, it is clear that our very survival … depends on the acts and kindness of so many people.” Beyond survival, without kindness, what kind of quality of life would we have? Every day the news brings dreadful stories of humans behaving in ways that are wrenching and horrifying. The bleakness of a world without kindness to balance the scales is beyond imagining.
Yet kindness can not to be taken for granted. Buddhist meditation teacher Katy Brennan sees kindness needs as a moral discipline. “Although human kindness is deeply natural and instinctive,” she writes, “it can also be shaky and unstable. In our present mode of existence, selfishness and mindlessness compete and often trump kindness and mindfulness.”
I know what she’s talking about. I have saved a piece of turtle shell, a turtle I could have been kind to, but wasn’t. It was trying to cross a quiet country road. When I saw it, I thought the turtle might not make it, that I should maybe carry it to the other side. But … I kept driving. Selfish? Mindless? I don’t know. The next day, I came upon the flattened turtle. Pieces of shell were strewn over the pavement. Of course, I felt terrible. If I had stopped to help, that turtle presumably would not have died. The shell fragment is a reminder to heed my kindness instincts.
I immediately understood Brenan’s concern, but Psychology Today blogger Karyn Hall’s observation took me by surprise. She wrote, “kindness has a connotation of meaning someone is naive or weak,” though she hastens to assure, “that is not the case. Being kind often requires courage and strength. Kindness is an interpersonal skill.”
Courage and strength, yes. But Hall’s statement that kindness is seen as naïve or weak definitely shook me up.
Even worse news awaited me in the book On Kindness by Adam Phillips and BarbaraTaylor. Their dispiriting history of kindness eventually arrived in today’s “outrage culture” where “kindness …has become a sign of weakness (except of course among saintly people, in whom it is a sign of their exceptionality).” They write that contemporary society believes “kindness requires a dangerous crack in the armor of the independent self, an exploitable outward vulnerability – too high a cost to pay for the warm inward balm of the benevolence for which we long in the deepest parts of ourselves.”
This is heartbreaking. We must do better.
But not all the unexpected pieces in the sermon are upsetting. Some just take on cliches, like rejecting the old truism that it’s better to give than to receive. Both are important. Afterall, if we’re all intent on giving, who will receive our kindness?
Indeed, both giving and receiving kindness can generate happiness, for giver and receiver. Positive psychology is clear that when we give, we receive many happiness benefits ourselves. Whereas, receiving, done well, benefits the giver. It’s almost like a riddle my 8 year old granddaughter might tell: “What can you give that you will receive back immediately? Or, what can you receive that you will return immediately?”
The answer, of course, is kindness, when given and received in a heartfelt manner. Condescending giving or grudging thanks are far less psychically rewarding.
Here’s a quick story to illustrate: a couple of winters ago, a passing stranger saw me struggling to get my car out of an iced-over driveway. After my car was unstuck, and I offered heartfelt thanks, he replied, “No, thank you for giving me the chance to do something nice today.” My receiving was actually also giving to him. And apparently, his giving to me also allowed him to receive. Not a riddle at all – rather, a reality.
Understanding this equation shines a new light on the idea that anonymous giving is somehow more valuable. I question that. One memorable morning, when I was walking on the same road where the turtle died, I saw five one hundred dollar bills in the grass. There was also some mail that presumably identified the owner. This was just down the street from a middle school, so I went there and learned that, yes, the name on the mail was one of their parents. When I handed over the money, the secretary asked for my name. I demurred, saying my identity wasn’t important.
But maybe it was. I didn’t need to be thanked, but maybe they needed to thank me. That is, I needed to receive their thanks, for their greater happiness.
Receiving what others have to give can be challenging. For example, with compliments, we’re taught to modestly say something like, “oh it’s nothing.” Or with all kinds of presents, from a home cooked meal to a bouquet of roses, we might say, “oh you shouldn’t have!” But such responses diminish the gift, and, by extension, the giver. Better to say, and mean, “thank you.”
Like most happiness practices, this is an area where I’m still trying to improve. One of my friends has thanked me repeatedly but also genuinely for getting her involved in our church choir. I finally said, “please don’t thank me anymore!” But she has thanked me again, just a few days ago. Fortunately, I’m learning to be kinder. This time, I simply said, “you are welcome.”
I don’t just preach happiness. I practice it with a variety of tools: exercise, meditation several days a week, spending time in nature, and a nightly gratitude journal including a quick description of the “Best Moment of the Day.” This last practice I picked up after watching one of my positive psychology teachers, Maria Sirois, describe it in an interview with Action for Happiness. It is an uplifting exercise, no matter the day.
Because happiness is like a “use it or lose it” muscle, I track all of the above along with creativity, learning, and taking the time to be with friends on a daily chart. But for several weeks in September, I stopped any formal version of my happiness practices. The chart stayed blank.
At first, I stopped measuring specific, defined happiness practices because that felt gratuitous while we were on vacation, camping in Burton Island State Park, where many campsites have their own private beaches on Lake Champlain. I didn’t need a journal to feel gratitude; I could just look around. But, while we were there, the sadnesses began to arrive.
First was an email on Wednesday from my oldest sister letting my other siblings and me know that our youngest sister Marybeth had only a few more days to live. This was not a surprise. Marybeth went on hospice in mid-July, thanks to a devastatingly aggressive case of Parkinsons Disease. Despite Covid-19, I had driven to Pennsylvania to be with her one more time, and say goodbye.
Now, while camping, there was nothing left to do. We couldn’t even get off the island for a couple of days, since the state park ferry wasn’t in service again till Friday. So I tried to put the sad news aside and continue relaxing amid the simple pleasures of hiking and campfires.
I didn’t sleep well, and I wasn’t super cheery, but I did okay until Saturday morning. My husband Bob kindly let me drink my coffee before telling me the next sad news, which he had learned a few hours earlier: Ruth Bader Ginsberg was dead. I started crying almost immediately — not little drops sliding down my cheeks but loud, gulping sobs. RBG’s death at an advanced age was not personally tragic, but I believed that her death was also a death knell for the Supreme Court, and many of the fundamental human rights that Court has historically protected. I have revered the Supreme Court since my early teens. Thurgood Marshall! William O. Douglas! Brown v. The Board of Education! Roe v. Wade! Now, I feared the Supreme Court might be irrevocably broken. Nothing left for me to revere.
So I sobbed, for the Court, for our country, for imperiled democracy, for the people likely to suffer the loss of protection. The sobs likely also unleashed months of pandemic and political anxiety. As well, I was undoubtedly crying for my sister.
This time, there was a) a ferry available and b) no way of pretending I was okay. Plus, the campground had filled up for the weekend, and I imagine none of our neighbors enjoyed hearing me bawling. It was time to go home. We decided to pack up as fast as possible, and get a late morning ferry to the mainland.
At some point, during repeated trips between our campsite and the ferry — we believe in comfortable camping, and had a lot of stuff — Bob got an urgent call from our daughter Jennifer. Once again, Bob waited till a reasonable moment to tell me her bad news.
That moment came as the ferry pulled away. We were the only passengers on the lower level. Bob told me, our son Ben had been worried about our family friend Chris, who rented the A-frame adjacent to our house. It had been a few days since Ben saw Chris, his buddy for decades, since high school. Ben went to the A-frame and found that Chris was dead.
I screamed, I just screamed right out loud in shock and disbelief. Chris, just 47 years old, a big bold character brimming with life and plans was dead? And my poor son had discovered his friend’s body? And our daughter had to call the police? The police were coming to my house to take away a dead body?
There was no way I could process this news. But I was somehow still able to make an important “happiness” choice when the ferry landed. Thanks in part to the pandemic, our two adult children and one grandchild are all living semi-autonomously on separate floors in our house built within an old dairy barn. Sometimes we’re together, sometimes apart. Coping with the shock of Chris’s death, my children would surely want us to be together. But it would at least a hour and a half to drive home from the Burton Island parking lot. So I reached out to friends. I sent a frantic email to several BFFs with a quick explanation of what had happened. Please, I asked them, can you go keep my kids company till we get home?
The drive home was rough, especially since we had packed so much camping stuff we had driven two cars to hold it all. Now, we were each alone, speeding down the interstate in a state of turmoil. In my car, among so many other thoughts swirling in my brain, I told myself, pay attention. Be safe. Take your time. But I also thought, what now, happiness lady? How does a “happiness expert” approach a situation like this?
The answer, of course, was to be sad. I knew I was in shock. I knew this was a terrible event for my whole family.
I also knew, at some point, the trauma and grief would end. I’m resilient. Five years ago, another dear friend died suddenly — murdered by her husband who then committed suicide — and after a certain amount of grieving and healing, I bounced back to my normal happy self. (To be clear, and fair to his memory, Chris’s death was not violent or suicidal, just shockingly unexpected.) Knowing that I would eventually be happy again gave me the freedom to lean into the grief and trauma — mine, and everyone else’s in the household.
At the same time, because I regularly train my brain to focus on gratitude, I remained acutely aware of the good which surrounded us. For example, my friends did show up for my children, who deeply appreciated the support. Indeed, both my daughter and son may well remember the moment those friends showed up for the rest of their lives. For each of them it was a moment of love and kindness in the midst of chaos — demonstrating yet again one more way relationships are fundamentally important to human happiness.
As a family, we also experienced deep love and bonding with one another. and very special times with each other. I presume no one is eager for our times of grief, but connections with loved ones in grieving times is definitely a silver lining — giving and receiving kindness, cultivating and reaping the rewards of strong relationships. I may never forget how and when I learned of Chris’s death, but neither will I forget how we supported each other.
So there we were, quietly putting one foot in front of the other. I was very tired. I had plenty to do but I didn’t push myself.
And then, just a little more than a week later, my sister Marybeth died.
It was a lot to cope with. I’m not even sure I had the emotional space to grieve for my sister — that space was still pretty full. But I am sure that relationships once again came to the rescue.
I have found that my emotions can be quite complicated when someone close to me dies. In what may be a defense mechanism to buy me time and let the grief seep in slowly, I tend to get angry at the deceased rather than remember all the good parts. Fortunately, two of my dearest friends are psychotherapists. Each of them gave me the gift of a long walk when I could say whatever I needed or wanted to. I cried, I raged, I laughed, and eventually I felt better, calmer, sad but peaceful.
And again I found comfort in familial love — my siblings and nieces and nephews this time. As we planned the memorial service (mostly a zoom affair), and together laughed about Marybeth’s well-lived life, our bonds were also strengthened. We have a shared history. We’re still alive.
Since then, I have had many days of being tired and feeling a little bleak and blue. I have wondered, is it grief? Is it pandemic and/or political anxiety and exhaustion? Is it the normal progression of the seasons, as the darkness arrives earlier and earlier? Is it all of the above? In response, I have tried to work when I had the energy and napped when I didn’t. I’ve been gentle with myself. I’ll be happier again. And some days, I am! Especially when the sun is shining.
In my ongoing meditation classes, I often suggest that it’s best to build our meditative skills when life is more benign, so that these tools are readily available to us when we need them the most. I think the same is true of happiness practices. It’s great to feel happy in good times, but even more helpful to tap into the knowledge and benefits of happiness practice when your life hits a rocky patch. September was rough, but it likely would have been a lot worse without my inner wells of happiness. I am grateful.
In just a few days, my husband and I will drive to a swing state — a state which is considered critical to win for the 2020 presidential election, and could theoretically go for either Biden or Trump. We are going to one of these battlegrounds to serve as volunteer observers outside a polling station on Election Day. We are determined to do our part to help ensure a fair voting process.
We’ve been told to report for duty very early on Tuesday morning and plan on staying till late evening, after the last vote has been cast. We are taking food, water, and lawn chairs. I expect the day to be exhausting, uplifting, interesting, tense, rewarding, maybe scary, and ultimately happy-making.
There are multiple reasons why this experience is likely to increase my happiness, but one in particular is kind of fascinating to me. In my Certificate in Positive Psychology training, lead teacher Tal Ben-Shahar taught us that our brains are happier when our actions are in concordance with our self image — ie, living our professed values. Walking the self-talk.
Being a poll observer ticks a lot of boxes for me. I am a committed social justice activist who has loudly and frequently exhorted others to also do their best to save democracy. Because I have urged others to step out of their comfort zones and don’t fancy myself a hypocrite, I, too, need to step out of my comfort zone. Being a poll observer will take care of that! I also aspire to being a white ally in the fight for racial justice. That is what I’ll be doing if we’re stationed at a polling station in a predominantly Black neighborhood, which is where I expect poll observers are most needed. For these and other reasons — some admirable, others maybe just an ego trip — I should end Election Day with a brain made content by my choice to take actions which live up to my mental construction of who I am.
Of course, it should go without saying, that is not why I signed up to be a poll observer! There are far easier ways to come by my daily dose of happiness. And other factors may overwhelm the concordance factor, leaving me quite unhappy indeed. While we intend to remain peaceful, it’s not hard to image some invective being thrown our way and piercing my not particularly tough skin. There’s also a definite possibility that I’ll make mistakes, and be unhappy about them, especially if I am tired and raw and my resilience is down. Events of the day, combined with exhaustion, could deplete all my emotional and physical resources.
Even then, it is likely that my brain will later feel happy about the whole thing. I hope this will be a day I can look back on with pride.
Here’s another “of course”: since this still very much the time of covid, safety is also a major concern. Leaving Vermont, which has had a very low rate of infections, to go to an area where the pandemic is much worse is starting to make me nervous. We’re going to be outside observers, with masks, and observing social distancing protocol. Still, I hope I’m not letting my determination to stand up for my commitment a fair voting process override my common sense about doing my part to limit the pandemic’s spread. I plan to stay safe — but what if this all turns out to be a bad idea?
Which illustrates that acting in concordance with values isn’t always an easy call. It can require discernment. Sometimes that means stepping up, sometimes that means stepping back. The hardest ethical choices aren’t between a right and a wrong, they are between two rights. Happiness might have a vote in the matter, and might be part of the outcome, but it shouldn’t necessarily be in the driver’s seat.
So why, then, does this matter to you? For two reasons, I think. First, being aware of happiness opportunities in everyday life choices can help you be a happier person. Second, you can use your brain’s desire for concordance to help you achieve your own goals in life and, again, grown a little happier.
First, awareness. Lately, I’ve been thinking asking people to reach for happiness may be too high a bar right now — but most of us can at least be happier. There are so many choices we can make in daily life to be happier — savoring that first cup of coffee, being grateful for a hot shower, etc. I think it’s both interesting and important to understand as much as we can about cultivating personal happiness — especially during a pandemic!
Second, you can actually use your own brain’s desire for your actions and ideals to be in sync as a tool for achieving your goals (something else that makes us happy!). Let me give you an example. I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to write a happiness book combining the perspectives of Gross National Happiness systems change with the personal happiness movement. That book, Preaching Happiness: Creating a Just and Joyful World, became a published reality in May 2020, but for a long time I was stumped. I was busily writing in my head, but couldn’t seem to make myself sit down in front of the laptop and actually commit words to virtual paper. It was frustrating and disappointing.
So I decided to try a method Tal Ben-Shahar had described. Each day, I meditated for 15 to 20 minutes, visualizing the entire process of writing the book, working with an editor, re-writing, getting critiqued, re-writing, until finally I visualized my own published book — which elated me. Critically, though, I had to visualize the work, not just the final happy outcome. Day after day. These visualizations had the effect of convincing my brain that my commitment to the work was real, not just imaginary. Eventually, my brain felt the conflict between my perceived values — doing the work of writing — and my lack of actually doing the work. My brain’s discomfort finally pushed me into the real work necessary to give birth to a book.
In other words, visualization does work — but only if you also visualize the work. There’s nothing magical about it.
Here’s one more, “of course” — the brain can be fooled, but it is very complex. Life is very complex. Humans — phew, do we ever have complex wiring! It’s not as though I sat down after those meditations and whipped out a book in record time. I did not. Nor will brain concordance likely leave me giddy on Tuesday night.
But it’s one more piece of the happiness puzzle, one more reason for each of us to live up to our values, and one more tool for being a little bit happier in the time of covid.
… and that’s okay right now. Indeed, it’s necessary.
I think it’s comfortable for many of us to embrace meaning as a crucial element of happiness, but pleasure is not to be scoffed at. We are biological creatures with physical needs and desires, which no doubt have important evolutionary tasks. Even if they don’t, life is hard. Why not also embrace joy and pleasure?
My primary positive psychology teacher, Tal Ben-Shahar, encouraged us to look at happiness as a blend of both pleasure and meaning. He envisioned a “Hamburger Model of Happiness,” so-called because Tal initially drew the concept on a napkin in a restaurant while pondering healthy and/or tasty burgers. It is a quadrant with four choices, with meaning and pleasure taking the place of healthy and tasty:
The first quadrant, with high meaning but low pleasure, is a rat race. Sometimes we need to live that way—for example, when starting a new and very demanding job, or caring for a dying loved one. It’s grueling and not very happy to stay there permanently.
The second quadrant, with high pleasure but little or no meaning, is hedonism. Though reveling in worry-free pleasure may feel good for a vacation, it can feel empty in the long run. If you doubt me, try it yourself. I just don’t think any of us can go too long without doing something helpful.
The third quadrant, no pleasure or meaning, is just plain bleak.
Finally, the fourth quadrant is high meaning, high pleasure. That sweet spot, says Ben-Shahar, is where happiness thrives.
Ideally, we could all stake out a balance between meaning and pleasure. But, as noted above, sometimes we have to forsake pleasure for meaning. For long term well-being and happiness for self and others, choosing meaning (wearing a mask and social distancing) over pleasure (carefree hugging without the encumbrance of face coverings) is clearly the appropriate choice.
We hope we don’t have to live this way for too long, but our current reinforce the importance of meaning to well-being. Indeed, choosing meaning can be an investment in happiness. Just as tending to an infant’s needs now can result in a more thriving child (and happier parents) later, so too can our Covid prevention efforts (meaning) result lead to less grieving (unhappiness) and a faster return of pleasures like public singing and dancing (happiness).
It reminds me of something else I learned about from Ben-Shahar: the famous “Marshmallow Experiment” led by Stanford University Professor Walter Mischel in 1972. In this experiment, children were offered one marshmallow immediately, or two marshmallows if they could wait for the delayed gratification. I’m not going to get into the results here, but let’s just say, having the patience to wait for two marshmallows is preferable.
But what if that first marshmallow, that first taste of pleasure, meant not only one less treat but also added suffering?
That, my friends, is the question I believe we must all confront right now in the context of the November 2020 election. Are we willing to sacrifice pleasure in the moment not only for greater future pleasure (imagine the possible joy on election night!) but also to avoid the significant and widespread suffering which would surely be a hallmark of a second Trump presidency?
For me — and for many of you, too — the answer is definitely yes. A shout-it-from-the rooftops yes. With roughly eight weeks to go before an election with frightening implications, I am indeed willing to give up a variety of daily pleasures while instead finding enormous meaning in doing everything within my power to elect Democrats up and down the ticket.
Michele Obama put it this way at the Democratic National Convention, “If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me — they can, and they will, if we don’t make a change in this election.”
I’ve been a political junkie since my mid-teens, but I have never felt caught up in such a dire moment. My fears have been heightened by reading Isabel Wilkerson’s 2010 masterpiece, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. I’m wondering if her reporting might also serve as a warning of how things can get worse, and how much worse they can get. She writes of the days following Reconstruction after the Civil War, when:
“Blacks in the South, accustomed to the liberties established after the war, were hurled back in time …One by one, each license of freedom accorded them was stripped away. The world got smaller, narrower, confined with each new court ruling and ordinance. Not unlike European Jews, who watched the world close in on them, slowly, perhaps barely perceptibly, at the start of Nazism,” Wilkerson continues, “colored people in the South would first react in denial and disbelief to the rising hysteria, then, helpless to stop it, attempt a belated resistance, not knowing and not able to imagine how far the supremacists would go … (including) nearly a century of apartheid, pogroms, and mob executions.” (p.38, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration).
Wilkerson offers a breathtaking amount of statistics and stories to illustrate just how bad it got — a deterioration, I want to emphasize, came after a period of seemingly great improvement and advancement in rights and equality. Which is to say, take no comfort in the fact that we recently had a Black president.
Here’s just one gut-wrenching measurement of the post-Reconstruction horror: “Across the South, someone was hanged or burned alive every four days from 1889 to 1929” (p. 39, Suns).
Oh, but that was then. It couldn’t possibly get that bad again, could it?? Or could it? Literally seconds after I typed the above line about lynching, I saw this post on the internet:
New Hampshire State Representative James Spillane is under investigation by the State Attorney General for a comment he made on Facebook. Spillane, a Republican, wrote, ‘Public Service Announcement: If you see a BLM [Black Lives Matter] sign on a lawn it’s the same as having the porch light on for Halloween. You’re free to loot and burn that house.’”
Um, that sounds bad. Inciting arson over Black Lives Matter signs? In quaint New England? We’re in trouble, people.
You could say that Spillane is just another rogue whacko, but you cannot say the same for the Social Progress Index, which according to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof “collects 50 metrics of well-being [worldwide]— nutrition, safety, freedom, the environment, health, education and more — to measure quality of life.” In a September 10, 2020 column entitled, “We’re No. 28! And Dropping!“, Kristof reports that this Index found “that the quality of life has dropped in America over the last decade, even as it has risen almost everywhere else.”
The United States was 19th in the world in 2011. Now, our quality of life ranks 28th. Kristof quotes Michael Porter, the chair of the Social Progress Index advisory panel as observing, “The data paint an alarming picture of the state of our nation, and we hope it will be a call to action.”
Consider me called to action. Yet, I know there is reason to hope.
Polls actually show the Biden-Harris ticket with a strong lead, and the Democrats could have major victories in the House and Senate. That is calming, but most everyone I know is hopeful and terrified at the same time. We just don’t don’t what will happen.
Paradoxically, the “not knowing” can also be a source of comfort. Because I did a recent google search for readings on the topic of being present, I recently came a “Brain Pickings” edition featuring the wisdom of a first century philosopher, Seneca. Seneca counseled:
“There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality … What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as f they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not come yet. … Even bad fortune is fickle. Perhaps it will come, perhaps not. In the meantime, it is not. So look forward to better things.”
And I am looking forward to better things! I have made three different week long reservations on nearby Lake Champlain for summer 2021. I visit those websites frequently, and savor the experiences I imagine having there with my family. But, I made sure every reservation could be canceled, and I could get my money back. Because, who knows???
The life trick seems to be holding both the hope and the genuine concern at the same time. To find meaning, and maybe also happiness. Here’s what that looks like for me:
On behalf of organizers on the ground in key states, I have spent months overseeing dozens of volunteers, who each needs is a lot of work. Making sure each other volunteers writing close to 10,000 postcards to Get Out the Vote and/or provide critical registration information, especially to voters of color. You’d be surprised how many details are involved in this effort! But it makes me happy to see my front porch filled with packages for friends and neighbors to pick up. One time we even provided painted rocks as a thank you. That was very happy making.
I also write postcards myself, to voters in Wisconsin, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Texas. The scripts are always provided, and I have to write small but legibly. I’m starting to think I need a new glasses prescription! Here, there is such a sense of accomplishment! Also happy making.
Textbanking — and this is the part that hurts a little bit. Again using initial messages crafted by local groups to achieve a particular goal with voters in their states, I engage in text conversations with anyone who responds. There is much enthusiasm (I’ve recruited a lot of volunteers) but also some truly nasty insults against the candidates and me, the volunteer. I think the ugliness is bad for my health; I know it has caused insomnia on more than one night. But I will keep at it because it is a valuable tool. The meaning is worth it.
Phonebanking — okay, I’ve only done this once so far. I don’t like to phone bank. But again, I’ll do it, because it matters so very very much.
Fundraising — My group has hosted some awesome fundraising concerts in years past. Now, it’s virtual, and highly successful. Thanks to the leadership of my amazing friends at Lean Left Vermont, strategic giving has never been easier. In fact, Lean Left VT has made all of these activities accessible to hundreds of us. You are welcome to join us.
Here’s something else I probably have in common with many of you: my life in these times of Covid-19 already had extra layers of meaning. Our empty next has turned into multi-generational housing. A great blessing, to be sure, but not without a lot of extra stress.
Maria Popova, the intellectual powerhouse behind Brain Pickingsrecently pondered the relationship between meaning and pleasure. “Who can weigh the ballast of another’s woe, or another’s love?,” she wrote. “We live — with our woes and our loves, with our tremendous capacity for beauty and our tremendous capacity for suffering — counterbalancing the weight of existence with the irrepressible force of living. The question, always, is what feeds the force and hulls the ballast.”
For me, some of that ballast is provided by being around an eight year old granddaughter. One recent day, she wanted an audience for her latest exploit: using cardboard to turn the stairs into a sliding board. With her bike helmet on, she sat on a cushion at the top of the stairs, afraid to start.
“Hurry up,” I pleaded, as she had interrupted my texting. “I have to save democracy.”
“Okay,” she said. “You save democracy, I’ll save happiness.”
I was gifted this package of lavender, lemongrass and marjoram candles to ease my way on my second sad trip of the week.
When I started writing this piece a few weeks ago, I was once again grieving, with the sure knowledge that I would bounce back. And so I have. Though I am finding the restrictions of Covid to be more and more disheartening, I’m basically fine. Still, I like the ideas I was jotting down then, so let’s return to the week of July 20, 2020, back to a time of sadness:
I’ve been pretty happy this summer, but emotions are never linear. Neither happiness nor sadness is a destination to arrive at, and declare the journey over. These emotions and an abundant bouquet of other human feelings are constants throughout our lives, especially during this time of Covid, which is both exacerbated by and is also exacerbating political chaos. That chaos last week, in particular the storm troopers set loose on Black Lives Matter protesters in Oregon, gave me plenty of feelings: fear, horror, anger, dismay, empathy, hope, and inspiration. And, sadness. I believe we may well need to traverse some exceptionally muddied (bloodied, even) waters before arriving safely at a happier collective tomorrow, so I try to hold on to the long view. Ultimately, I hope, all will be well. But, oh, the suffering between here and there! We will need to cling tenaciously to happiness to not drown in the sorrow.
My brother-in-law, Richard Sassaman
No matter the big picture, we each have lives filled with our own private happinesses and sadnesses. Last week gave me plenty of both, though ultimately sadness won out. My family and I started the week in coastal Maine, saying goodbye to my brother-in-law Richard, who died suddenly a year ago. I’ve done some grieving, but not enough. I don’t think I’ve fully processed the fact that he is gone. The send-off was a sweet family affair on the edges of Acadia Park — simple and loving. There were many smiles. Yet, the act of literally scattering my husband’s brother’s ashes was devastating. It was pretty darn concrete evidence that Richard no longer exists in his familiar bodily form. I shed a few tears during the car ride back to Vermont.
I’ve written before about the value in recognizing and accepting our inevitable grief. What I want to suggest at the moment is that it is also important to embrace our happiness. Sometimes I think that is harder for us. When we see so much hurt and injustice all around is, it may feel almost immoral to be personally happy. You may even think you don’t deserve to be happy. But we really do need to claim our happiness, for ourselves and others because it is good for us in so many ways. Crucially, it’s important to remember that happiness improves our capacity to minimize the pain and suffering. To build a better world. To love. To laugh. Embracing happiness is a very moral path.
In my book, in sermons, in workshops, in previous blogs, I’ve quoted many an expert on this theme — for example, Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness, who, with other researchers found that myth that “happier people have more confidence, optimism, self-efficacy, likeability, sociability, and more originality. They are more active. Happier people also have better physical well-being, stronger immune systems, and more energy. And, happier people are more flexible and cope better with challenges and stress.”
Or former United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. During the Obama Administration, Murthy made happiness part of his public health agenda. He emphasized happiness as one of the main ways humans can prevent disease and live a long, healthy life.
I greatly appreciate the experts, but I also take comfort from homegrown wisdom. I sometimes reflect back on a conversation one hot summer day years ago with my friend Felicia. We swam across the lake and then sat on a neighbor’s dock, our legs dangling in the water. I told Felicia that I felt like I couldn’t be happy, even though I had plenty of reasons to be, because both my adult children were going through rough times. Felicia set me straight. She told me that my children’s journeys were their own, and I had to seize my happiness when it was available to me. She assured me that I would have plenty of time to feel sad, too.
Such wise advice. I will always be grateful. Indeed, I have had — and will have — plenty of time to feel sad, including the trip I took on July 23rd. I have a sibling who is now on hospice. No need to go into the details, but I needed to make the drive to another state (less Covid free than either Vermont or Maine) to visit with this sibling for what could be the last time. So off I drove, by myself this time. Another weekend, another goodbye to another sibling.
Obviously, this was a recipe for sadness, but even this period of time was interspersed with a variety of positive emotions. Happiness and sadness are not mutually exclusive. Feeling them both at the same time is one of the many paradoxes of the human existence.
Here’s one of the positive experiences that made me happy: I am a huge Shankar Vedantam fan (of course! he’s all about the brain science!) and had loaded lots of Hidden Brainpodcasts on my phone. I listened to Hidden Brain after Hidden Brain and learned lots of cool stuff. Learning cool stuff makes me happy.
Even more — much more — I got to spend quality time with another sister and her husband. I love them both, and savored our time together.
My time with my dying sibling was also precious. Poignant. Difficult. Unforgettable. I’m so glad I made that trip.
Then, I was sad the whole drive home — all 10 hours behind the wheel. Once again, Shankar Vedantam rescued me. More Hidden Brains gave me the equilibrium I needed to stay safe behind the wheel. On one episode, he discussed a very interesting concept, all new to me: our internal “hot and cold empathy gap.” That is, when we’re feeling a really hot emotion (say, anger or desire), it’s hard to remember the cooler emotion (non-anger, or prudence). But when it comes to happiness and sadness, I think we can remember, and that it is helpful to do so. When I am very happy, I know that it is a fleeting sensation — and vice versa.
I actively cultivate happiness because I think it is helpful, as well as more enjoyable. But we have all our emotions for a reason. So let’s have them all, within reason.
How could we not? We’re all being squeezed by virtue of living in an incredible moment in time, with so many pressures already bearing down on us (did someone say climate change?) even before the full-blown Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic was still playing havoc with our social norms and expectations when the murder of George Floyd set off a massive Black Lives Matter uprising, both close to home and worldwide. Life in the United States in 2020 is breathtaking and disorienting. Our brains are on overdrive. I assume I’m not the only one exercising poor judgment from time to time.
Fortunately, when I mess up, I’m able to call to mind and heart Tal Ben-Shahar, my number one happiness teacher. Tal has a number of wise sayings, including “permission to be human.” This is a succinct reminder that we are all biological creatures — animals, actually — with complex brain wiring designed for evolutionary purposes that may or may not be helpful in the 21st century. We often have only a rudimentary understanding of what is going on inside us, and why. Thus, even in the best of times, we are bound to make mistakes aplenty. 2020 is clearly not the best of times — though, I am hopeful, we are transitioning to a time when we can vastly improve our systems, if not our wiring. We shall see.
In the meantime, we might as well get comfortable with the idea that we’re going to make mistakes. Permission to be human, thank you very much. That doesn’t mean it’s okay to cause harm, emotional or physical. We may in fact accidentally do that, and if we do, we must make amends in some way if possible. As one of my favorite conflict books, Difficult Conversations puts it, intent does not equal impact. Still, understanding that we are all humans who simply cannot help but mess up with regularity might allow us to ease up on judging of self and others. We can choose compassion and kindness instead. Yes, I still want to do my best. The same is probably true for most of you. It just doesn’t always work out that way.
Which is to say, one of the keys to happiness in the time of Covid is accepting our basic humanity, our very natural tendency to goof up. As usual, this not only about happiness for self — it also encompasses others. When we can look at ourselves and others with more compassion, we put down the burden of unreasonable expectations for all of us. That can open the door to greater understanding, easier communications, and happier relationships.
We all make mistakes, whether it’s negotiating Covid-19, white supremacy, or standard life challenges. Pretty serious stuff, but it still reminds me of a song from Sesame Street: “Everyone Makes Mistakes.”
Here’s another positive to seize on: we can learn from our mistakes, as I did recently. It was an early May evening. Vermont was still mostly shut down and those of us who could stay home did so, except for essential trips, like buying groceries. Nobody had been inside my house, except the six of us who live here, since late February. But that night a neighbor called with an urgent request. She needed a bed for the night. I was the only one she could call.
Almost reflexively, I told her to come over. Yes was the obvious answer in pre-Covid times. After I hung up, though, I wondered, should I have said that?? It went against our household rules for decision-making during Covid. So I guess that was a mistake. But I did tell the neighbor she needed to wear a mask inside our house. She also brought her own bedding. After she got settled on the sofa bed in my office, she came downstairs to the living room to catch up. Without a mask on.
I was uncomfortable as we sat facing each other, about four feet apart, maskless. I didn’t think this was okay, but I also didn’t want to be rude to a guest in my house, and say, “please put your mask back on.” This was definitely a mistake. In retrospect, I see that a pandemic may be a good time to adjust what being polite looks like. Perhaps it is not actually polite to allow germs to spread to one’s family.
While we sat there, my husband Bob walked through the room. (BTW, I write this with his permission.) Bob rarely gets angry, especially not at me. That May evening was an exception. He was furious. After the neighbor went off to bed, I found him lacing up his shoes, preparing to head out. He was too angry at me for having potentially brought Covid into our house, without even checking with anybody else, to talk about it or even stay inside. He headed out for a walk.
It was a rough night in our relationship, but by morning were able to talk it through. I felt he made a mistake or two also (he agreed), but we were both understanding, and I was definitely contrite for not consulting him and for not insisting that the neighbor wear a mask. I learned from my mistakes, I apologized, and I didn’t beat myself up for having exercised poor judgment. I was behaving under old rules. I haven’t quite figured out the new Covid-19 rules yet.
At this point, after nearly 50 years of marriage, I’m pretty comfortable making mistakes around my husband. I am much less comfortable making mistakes as a white person eager to be a good ally in the Black Lives Matter movement. Part of this, I think, is due to identity — another really valuable concept discussed in the book Difficult Conversations. I consider myself to be a good person, a social justice activist, someone who strives to be open and loving, and definitely not racist. Difficult Conversations teaches that some of us (including me) can have an “identity quake” when one of our self-defining concepts is threatened. Ugh. That’s definitely me. Some mistakes — like saying or doing something that seems to prove that I’m a bad white ally — leave me wanting to hide under the blankets.
But hiding under the blankets is not an option. This is the time we all need to be stepping it up in the fight for racial justice, not nursing our wounded identities in a corner somewhere. Instead, I need to take a breath and grant myself permission to be human. Though I will try my best to do my part to help dismantle systemic racism, I will inevitably say or do the wrong thing. Again, how could I not? Just as I hold onto old, pre-Covid behavior rules in my head and just as we are all governed by stone-aged wiring in our brains that we don’t even know is there, so, too, am I a product of a white supremacy system. There are surely implicit biases wired in there somewhere.
I saw a wise essay on a friend’s Facebook post, but I cannot remember who either the author or the poster was so I cannot give credit. The gist of the wisdom, from an author of color, was something like this: “White people, I know you’re confused. You’ve heard from people of color both to read more books and this moment isn’t about white people being in book club; reach out to your black friends and tell them you care and I don’t want one more of my white friends reaching out to me like this; and, you have to speak up and you have to shut up and listen.” The writer noted (again paraphrasing), “I know it’s exhausting, it’s been exhausting for us black folks for a long time. But you can figure it out.”
It’s hard to imagine figuring it out without cozying up to the idea that I’ll make mistakes. I’m not thrilled about making mistakes, but if I don’t help do the work of ending white supremacy, I will not be living my values, and that will make me unhappy with myself. Doing the work and making mistakes, and then beating myself up about making mistakes, will also make me unhappy with myself. Further, if we all ran away from the work for fear of making mistakes, that would mean enormous continued unhappiness in this country for oppressed peoples of color.
It is clear: for my happiness and yours, I must allow myself to be the human I am, and make the mistakes I will inevitably make. Maybe yours, too — maybe I can give you permission to be human, too. This being human thing isn’t all that easy. No need to make it unnecessarily harder for anybody by pretending we’re better equipped and differently wired than we actually are.
Preface: The following essay, which is longer than usual, was also harder than usual to write, more painful, less happy. But I really wanted to write stories about my own growing awareness of white privilege in a way that might help other readers who identify as white investigate your own privileged experiences. My hope is that we can use our stories to help other white folk better understand the pervasiveness of systemic racism, and to deepen our own commitment to stand up for racial justice as allies. There are so many ways to do this work; you can read a list of 75 options here. And what does all this have to do with happiness? To me, it’s a no brainer. While my anguish at seeing killing after killing of unarmed black people in this country can hardly compare with the pain felt by people of color, the murders and other evidence of ongoing racism do, in fact, make me unhappy. And why wouldn’t they? We are interconnected and interdependent. Most of us are empathetic. We are all sentient beings equally deserving of love, compassion — and economic, political, and cultural systems which provide maximum support for our well-being. The Dalai Lama has said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Now more than ever, that means love. “In times like these,” according to Representative Antonio Delgado, love is “justice in action … grounded in the moral observation that we are all one.” In this moment in time, love and compassion mean: Black.Lives.Matter. For everyone to have a greater opportunity for happiness, we need to see it, feel it, and make it so.
Investigating White Privilege:
When my son was 14, he had a sleepover birthday party. I remember the event so fondly. He and his friends were still ever-so-slightly little boys, innocents on the verge of full blown adolescence. There were lot of giggles, burps and farts (and jokes about burps and farts), and pancakes. By his 15th birthday, it was a whole different scene. But that year, at 14, they were still so young. One of the party guests was Ben’s friend Calvin*. Calvin was very tall. I remember looking way up at him when he came to our door. He was still a child, but because he was black, and so tall, I sometimes worried that people meeting him on the streets would be afraid of him. This was long before 17 year-old Trayvon Martin was gunned down, so I never actually worried for Calvin’s physical safety. I just felt sad to think that people would be afraid of him. This sweet innocent tall boy.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but now I see white privilege in this story. I could and did feel bad for someone else’s son, but I never once worried that anyone would be afraid of my own child — much shorter, yes, but more to the point: white.
A couple of decades later, I had the white privilege of being only the slightest, tiniest bit worried as my pregnant daughter more-or-less breezed through both pregnancy and childbirth. She might disagree with the verb “breezed,” but there was never anything to be seriously afraid of. I didn’t think of it as a white privilege, though, until six years later. That’s when I read an April 2018 article in The New York Times called “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis: The answer to the disparity in death rates has everything to do with the lived experience of being a black woman in America.” Oh. My. God. This article is a must read. A healthy pregnancy is a privilege.
Perhaps the phrase “white privilege” is uncomfortable to you. I’ll admit, it took me a while to accept this description of all the many many ways being white in this society makes our lives easier. Since some of the realities of racism were brought to my attention when I was 14 years old, I don’t think I ever doubted the concept of white privilege — though, it’s taken decades to realize even partially how pervasive it is. It’s just that privilege to me felt like something that belonged to the world of very rich people. It should not be a privilege to believe that your son is likely to come home alive, or that your daughter’s pregnancy is likely to be safe. Those should be more or less normal.
But of course that’s not the reality. In our white supremacy culture, so much of normal life is a privilege not available to all, especially people of color. Recently, when I was writing a sermon on kindness, I was stunned to read a section of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between The World and Me, that illustrated how even receiving kindness from a stranger can be a matter of white privilege. Kindness! I found that devastating. Talk about dehumanizing!
Ultimately I realized it was of zero importance whether not I like the term white privilege. Maybe my rejection of the words was a form of white fragility. I don’t know. What I do know is that is urgently important to get it, to better understand white privilege — my own and others — and then, take whatever steps I can take to help change the system.
As I reflect back, however I named it, sometimes the privilege was immediately visible. When my children were teens, they each brought a friend for a week long family beach vacation. As it happens, both friends were people of color. One night, we went out to dinner at a local seafood restaurant. I can’t remember the specifics of the incident, but both friends were upset at how the staff treated them, presumably based on the colors of their skins. I think we walked out, but I’m not sure. Later that week, though, we definitely walked out of an arcade, after our son’s friend felt unsafe due to racist threats. Lesson learned: in that particular beach town, feeling safe in a restaurant or an arcade might just rest on having white skin.
Just a couple of years ago, I got pulled over for speeding. By this time, not only had I heard the phrase “driving while black” many times, but Sandra Bland’s death was also very fresh in my mind. Throughout the incident, I was well aware of my white privilege. As the officer approached my car, I fully expected to be treated with respect, and I was. I kept wondering, what would I feel right now if I was a black woman? Would I be afraid?
There’s a stop sign on the dirt road in front of my house. For some reason, many people — white people, as far as I can tell — run that stop sign with great regularity. I have often wondered, would these drivers so blithely break the law without the protection of white privilege?
When I take the time to look, at past and present, there are so many other stories where white privilege stands out — like the time I learned taxis didn’t like to stop for black women in Washington, D.C… Or just last Saturday when I decided to check out the lake front property we’ll soon be renting for vacation. It occurred to me that I might not have felt safe walking up the empty driveway if it weren’t for my white skin. Of course, none of this makes me happy. It’s just all so wrong.
One example of white privilege that I’ve thought about over and over was a Gross National Happiness USA project, the Happiness Walk. That Walk covered 10,000 miles over eight years, on foot, often relying on the kindness of strangers. I participated in that walk myself for about 300 miles, and was the recipient of much generosity from scores of very diverse people. Again, though, I often wondered, how many people would have stopped to help — with offers ranging from buying us bug spray to providing housing for multiple nights — if more of the walkers** had been people of color? And how safe would a black walker have felt in accepting those offers? I cannot know, but I think it’s clear that white privilege was on the Walk with us.
My final example is a biggie: voting. Voting in the 21st century should absolutely not be a white privilege. But. The GOP has been systematically gerrymandering and suppressing the vote in many other ways that land especially hard on people of color, who often vote with the Democratic party. This past winter, I saw the movie “Suppressed: The Fight to Vote” several times; one of the groups I am active with sponsored the showings as a fundraiser for Stacey Abrams’ group, Fair Fight. “Suppressed” is a documentary of how Georgia’s then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp and others systemically robbed voters of color of their fundamental right to vote in 2018, when Kemp ran for governor against Stacey Abrams. The film is horrifying. I’ll admit, I was shocked at how brazenly Republicans are stealing the right to vote! from people who fought so damned hard to get that right. In this case, there are very specific ways white allies can help fight back. My activist friends and I have not only supported Abrams’ group, Fair Fight but have also volunteered for Reclaim Our Vote and contributed to the Black Voters Matter Fund. Additionally, we have canvassed, texted, and written postcards for candidates of color — some of whom, like Antonio Delgado, have won.
I’ve been passionate about politics since the second grade, so this is an obvious arena for my involvement. That might not be your preferred way to get involved. Fine. Find something else to do. We all need to do more than post “Make it stop!” in response to yet another video capturing a sickening racist incident. Turns out, we — the big collective we, with people of color leading the way — are the ones who must make it stop. History has its eye on us. We are in a unique moment in time, when we just might be able to make a real and lasting difference. Let’s seize the opportunity to make this country a much happier place for everyone. Black lives matter.
* Not his real name.
** To be clear, there were only a handful of walkers the entire time. Paula Francis, who is white, walked most of the Walk alone.