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Archive for the ‘Love’ Category

In the Shadow of Terrorism: Loving Kindness and Permission to be Human

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Here’s what I ate the weekend ISIS attacked Paris: pizza on Friday night; leftover pizza for breakfast, a big bowl of buttered rice and veggies at lunch, and pasta for dinner on Saturday; and on Sunday, granola for breakfast, ravioli for lunch, and more rice and dal for dinner.

Here’s how much I exercised: not much. Mostly I was a love seat potato.  I sat bundled under a blanket, just me and my laptop, with its images and articles about the Paris and Beirut terrorist attacks.  I made myself watch the disturbing home video of the exterior of the Bataclan Concert Hall, a video shot as concert goers escaped the killing.  I forced myself to read a lengthy March 2015 feature in The Atlantic, “What Isis Really Wants” and other articles that spelled out how globalization and climate change would continue to create conflicts over scarce resources.

As I immersed myself in learning, I questioned my choices.  Should I really be drenched in so much negativity? After all, I consciously never watched any Isis beheadings.  I felt the same way for a long time about watching videos of unarmed black men being fatally shot by police officers.  Eventually I decided that it was my responsibility as a United States citizen to watch some of those videos.

Saturday, I felt that same responsibility as a citizen of the world.  As soon as I heard about the carnage in Paris, I believed we had slipped into something like what Pope Francis called a “piecemeal third world war. I had to know more –and even more, when I found out about Beirut.  Why wasn’t that city receiving the same media coverage and sympathy?  Do Parisian lives really matter more than Lebanese?  What was going on? I plowed doggedly through the weekend, with my body taking on what my mind wouldn’t let me feel.

Not that all this information provided answers.  It is a big, nasty, complex mess requiring tough choices by people with higher pay grades than mine.  However, it is clear to me that both systemic and personal happiness thinking and strategies have important roles to play in the upcoming days, weeks, and years.  When you combine climate change with its droughts and natural disasters, along with the demands of an insatiable growth economy, the result will be wars, famine, and refugees.  Warning lights are flashing and the sirens are going off: we need to move toward a new economic paradigm of well being, much like that advocated by Gross National Happiness USA.

On the personal side, to stay sane and productive no matter how all this plays out, we need to invest in: nurturing and savoring relationships, growing community,building resilience, living with gratitude and meaning, practicing forgiveness (maybe not of ISIS just yet, I’m no saint), experiencing joy in the here and now, and tending to practical matters like getting a good night’s sleep.

Perhaps the two most important personal happiness strategies are kindness and permission to be human.

In the preface to Piero Ferrucci’s The Power of Kindness, the Dalai Lama wrote,  “It is clear that our very survival, even today, depends upon the acts and kindness of so many people.  … our happiness is inextricably bound up with the happiness of others.  Similarly, if society suffers, we ourselves suffer.  On the other hand, the more our hearts and minds are afflicted with ill will, the more miserable we become.  Therefore, we cannot avoid the necessity of kindness and compassion.”

Some of the necessary kindness will be on a grand scale, like the Beirut father who tackled a suicide bomber, thus sacrificing his own life but saving scores of others, including his own little girl.  Some kindnesses will become viral, like the man who saved the pregnant woman’s life in the Bataclan video.  But for most of us, most of the time, our kindness and compassion will be small because we are only human.

I learned the phrase “permission to be human” from the fabulous Tal Ben-Shahar.  He helps happiness students understand that we can do ourselves and others a big favor by embracing the fact that we are beings with bodies, biology, emotions and sometimes very whacky brains.  Permission to be human does not mean permission to misbehave, or to hurt another.  It means sometimes being a lot angrier than we would like — or feeling a myriad of other less than desirable emotions.  Last Saturday it meant my body compensated for all the work my brain was doing by demanding comfort food and lots of carbs.  Permission to be human — that is where kindness can start.  Cut our own poor hearts a little bit of slack.

Then, with more compassionate hearts, we can radiate greater kindness and understanding to friends and loved ones.  That day with my laptop, I was frustrated with friends who seemed too strident with their Beirut postings. Their reactions were different from mine, but no less valid. Permission to be human.  The next day, when I asked a friend why he was only talking about Paris and not Beirut, he was shocked.  He hadn’t heard about the Beirut suicide attackers.  Not omniscient?  Permission to be human, my friend.

The next layer is sharing kindness and compassion with our broader communities.  Later that day, I had the opportunity to do just that, when I found myself walking next to a friend of a friend.  He was weighed down by personal troubles and shared some of his sorrow as we walked.  Before going our separate ways, we hugged for a long time.

Hugs.  What a great expression of mutual kindness.

Finally, in prayer and meditation, political action and choices, and our use of social media, we can extend our kindness and compassion to wider and wider circles — even to those we don’t understand, who infuriate and frighten us.

But there are caveats and limits.

First, being kind is not being spineless, as was powerfully demonstrated by the reaction of Parisians holding a vigil for victims of the ISIS attacks.  When confronted by anti-immigrant protesters, the larger crowd rose up in love and forced the hate mongerers to back off.

I also want to shout “Boo! Boo!”– and plan to do essentially that tomorrow at a counter protest in front of the Vermont Statehouse.  In response to a previously scheduled anti-Syrian refugee, Islamaphobic protest, the word has gone out to rally in support of justice, fairness, and accepting Syrian refugees into our cold but loving state.  I will be there.

Sometimes kindness is hugs.  Sometimes it is saying loudly and non-violently, “Your actions are unacceptable!!”

Second, there are limits.  When I played Barbara Frederickson’s inspiring “Loving All” guided meditation for a meditation class this week, I just could not extend loving kindness wishes to “all.” Though Fredrickson urged listeners to emphasize “all,” I thought not only of ISIS but also of the hate-spewing, anti-Syrian, so-called political leaders.  At this point in time, I just cannot open my heart to people engaged in such mean-spirited and dangerous tactics.

Cultivating kindness and compassion is a lifelong practice.  It can be challenging in the best of times, much less in these anxious days.  I would never deliberately hurt anyone, but just now, if my heart isn’t as open as I would like it to be, so be it.  Permission to be human.  

 

 

 

Too Much of a Good Thing, Or Where Did I Put My Air Mask?

Reading to my granddaughter at nap time? Priceless.

Reading to my granddaughter at nap time? Priceless.

Ugh.

I like my coffee dark, but yowza.  On the final morning of my nine-day full-time grandmothering trip, my decision to use all the remaining coffee grounds for that one last pot definitely resulted in too much of a good thing.

Any one who makes coffee, or cooks with garlic, or indeed cooks or eats anything at all, knows that too much of a good thing is no longer all that good.  My coffee that day was more swill than the hoped-for elixir.  In positive psychology terms, it’s what Tal Ben-Shahar calls the Lasagne Principle.  Tal explains that he loves the lasagne his mother cooks, and savors the opportunity to eat his mom’s lasagne on a regular basis.  Regular, but not every night.  Having to eat even the best lasagne meal after meal after meal would soon become altogether unappetizing.

Here’s what I love: my 3 year-old granddaughter Madeleine.  Living in a different state from this beloved child, I both anticipate and savor opportunities to spend quality time with her on a regular basis.  However, on that nine-day trip, I began to feel as though I was having metaphorical lasagne for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and midnight snack.  Morning and afternoon snacks, too.

I was round-the-clock grandmothering because my daughter was attending an important professional conference thousands of miles from home.  We both knew her extended time “at work” would be very challenging for Madeleine to weather.  Thus, I chose to put on my “Bama” hat and help both my daughter and granddaughter flourish during their time apart. It was a good decision, and … at times, it felt like too much of a good thing.

Like any metaphor, the lasagne comparison falls short.  Choosing to care for Madeleine in her own environment was a great deal more textured than sitting down for a heaping helping of Tal’s mother’s lasagne. Still, I’ll carry the metaphor just a little further, perhaps to the straining point, to note that there were plenty of side dishes as well.  For example, my husband Bob (AKA, “Poppa”) volunteered to come with me.  He put in his regular work week at an office about 40 minutes away, but his presence in the evenings and on the weekends was immeasurably helpful — even though Madeleine continued to want my attention most of the time.  Though she was especially clingy in her mother’s absence, and I was especially solicitous for the same reason, Poppa nonetheless provided respite.

From Metaphor to Reframing

We can find the good in almost any difficult circumstance — or, conversely, spotlight the negative in even the best situations — by the frames we put around our experiences.  One way of framing these nine days of intense child care (24-7, thanks to co-sleeping) is to label it a sacrifice.  It cost us thousands of dollars to make the trip, I gave up at least $600 in paid freelance gigs (and, as I’ve mentioned in previous essays, it’s not like we have lots of spare thousand dollar bills lying around), and lots of my work did not get done (classes not planned, sermons not written, movements not organized …).  It was not an inexpensive trip.  Plus, I had to choose between helping my daughter get to an important professional conference or going to my own important professional conference.  Goodbye, International Positive Psychology Association 2015 conference.

However, there are many ways of framing this story. In most life situations — including this one –we can choose between focusing on the positive aspects instead of, or as well as, the negative.  So let me reframe those nine days: what an amazing opportunity for my granddaughter and me to grow even closer.  Since she and her mom lived with us for Madeleine’s first 16 months of life, we have a very tight bond.  But babies — they just keep growing!  And they don’t remember all the hours devoted to their infant care.  Now, Madeleine may be old enough to remember the time Bama came and took care of her while Mama was away.  I hope I will long remember how precious she was at this three year old stage.  It’s just astonishing how fast young children develop.  It will only be a few weeks till we’re together again, but I’m sure she’ll be very different already.

Here’s one more frame: much of the work we do in building and strengthening relationships is, indeed, work.  The same is true of parenting and, sometimes, grand-parenting.  Although I disagree with the title of Jennifer Senior’s book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood (because, happily, my daughter and her daughter actually have a lot of fun together), raising children is very hard work. But rather than focus on this trip as a sacrifice, I like thinking of this time as an investment — in our relationship and in helping to shape her as a happy, healthy, empathic, emotionally intelligent, and just generally awesome human being.

For me, the truth of the situation meant using all three frames.  I’m okay with that, life is complex.  There were sacrifices and there were joys and there was hard work in the now as an investment in the future.  Not a bad mix, really.

Even so, after a few days I started to feel an undercurrent of unhappiness.

That’s okay.  I’m not one to run away from unhappiness.  Though I never wish to wallow, I embrace unhappiness as part of life’s journey.  However, given my perch as a student and advocate of greater happiness on both the personal and systemic levels, I often wonder at and explore my unhappiness.  Plus, when I posted on Facebook that I was having some grandmothering struggles, one of my sisters expressed surprise at my complaining tone.  My daughter also emailed me to ask what was going on, why was I having a hard time.

Good question.  First of all, we had a rough day.  I had thought I could put Madeleine in day care for a few days, for her sake (I thought she might be more comfortable with some of her normal routine) and mine (I could get some work done).  But when I left her at”school,” she was so distraught that I drove away shaking and close to tears.  After talking with my daughter and with the school, I decided to go back and pick her up.  I didn’t have to do work that day, and her pain was too big a price for me to pay.

One of my favorite happiness quotes comes from Aristotle: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”  Compassion for her meant no day care during my visit.  Compassion for me meant accepting the fact that I wasn’t going to get any work done.  Letting go of expectations is a classic Buddhist prescription for limiting our suffering, but western happiness scientist Rick Hanson suggests the same thing.  In his Foundations of Well-being program, neuropsychologist Hanson espouses the value of accepting what we cannot change.  Or, in this case, choose not to change.  With that acceptance, I grew calmer.

Second, I thought often of Christine Carter.  Carter starts her amazing book Raising Happiness (a highly recommended guide to growing deeply happy children) by emphasizing the importance of putting on our own oxygen masks first.  Those nine days, I mostly could not even find my oxygen mask.  Much of what I do to keep my happiness muscles toned — such as, getting a good night’s sleep, a daily meditation practice, singing in the church choir, going to yoga and bone builders classes, keeping a daily gratitude journal — fell by the wayside.  I was aware of everything I wasn’t doing. Really, it was a good experiment: the absence of my happy exercises was so noticeable, it highlighted their value.

Of course, on the flip side, there was more play, more touch, more laughter, and ongoing gratitude practices (something the whole family does each night at dinner).  Still, if this were an ongoing situation, in order to best teach and model happiness for my grand child, I would definitely need to put that oxygen mask back on.

Maybe there are some systems issues here, too.

At the time, my thoughts were very focused on the internal, personal factors enhancing or detracting from Madeleine’s and my happiness.  But upon reflection, I began to wonder if some of the stress and distress I was felt was because I have inevitably internalized the values of a Gross National Product paradigm.  I’m not sure … but I think it’s helpful to examine just how deeply imbued those values can be, even for those of us who have been striving for years to move toward a happiness paradigm.

At home, I found myself reviewing my experience through Martin Seligman’s P.E.R.M.A. lens.  As usual, I found this theory of flourishing helpful.  My grandmothering intensive had plenty of positivity (the “P” in P.E.R.M.A.), though there were some tears and several very sad hours.  As for “E,” I was often very engaged in our activities, though (here again there is a “but”) three year-olds like repetitive play a lot more than 60+ year-olds.  Sometimes, I was just plain bored.  “R,” for relationships, was nothing but strong, with both Madeleine and Bob/Poppa.  Meaning, the “M” word, was also powerful.  Since the point of the trip was to help my daughter’s professional development and my granddaughter’s emotional development during her mother’s absence, the entire experience was deeply meaningful.

It’s the “A” that I found particularly enlightening.  I realized that much of my stress came from a sense that I wasn’t accomplishing anything.  Yes, yes, caring for a young child is meaningful — but it’s not like at the end of the day I could check the “done” box.  I think that’s part of why I felt the pressure of wanting to do my own work.  I wanted to accomplish something!  I wanted to cross something off my list.

Also, despite the hard work, I wasn’t getting paid for anything.  This is where my questions about internalized GNP values come into play.  Did I feel like I wasn’t accomplishing anything because I wasn’t contributing to the GNP?  And, therefore, everything that I poured into being the best grandmother I could possibly be was less valuable to society than a wide range of other well paid activities?  Certainly, I don’t think grand parenting is a high prestige occupation.

I don’t have any answers.  Maybe it was just me.  I really do like to tick off my accomplishments at the end of the day.  Maybe it is also the money- and material-oriented paradigm that hangs over us all.  For me at least, it is worth taking time to think about this.  As much as possible, I want my own personal decisions to be based on genuine well-being — not on accumulating more money or trying to meet GNP-oriented definitions of success.  Trying to understand where the traps lie is a helpful exercise.

But I don’t want to end it there …

… because I’d much rather focus on the magic.  I know I am blessed to have such an awesome little human in my life, blessed to have such a strong bond of love between us, blessed to share her very precious three year old world.  Each day at nap time, for example, as we lay down together, Madeleine would point to the ceiling and whisper in a tone of awe, “Look!  There are millions and millions of stars!”  Then we found stars of various colors.  She always captured the purple one, brought it down from the heavens, and put it in her belly.  When Poppa joined us for this activity, he grabbed a blue one, and put it in her pocket.  Fortunately for me, there was another purple star for me to reach.  I put mine in my heart, for more loving kindness.  Our last afternoon together of this trip, Madeleine predictably caught another purple star, but unpredictably, put this star in her heart, for more loving kindness.

This kind of magic? Priceless.

Meditation Saved My Marriage!!

My husband Bob going volcanic

My husband Bob going volcanic

“If at bottom we are fighters and flee-ers, greedy and addictive, and envious and mean-spirited, then we need to be kept in line by powerful authority figures, strict rules, and heavy guilt and shame.  On the other hand, if underneath it all we are even keeled, grateful, and warmhearted, then we can live more freely, more guided by our own conscience and caring.”  — Rick Hanson, Hardwiring for Happiness. (p.32)

I’m happy to report that, apparently, underneath it all, I am even keeled and warm hearted.  Indeed, I have evidence that my actions can be more guided by caring than by the need to fight.  I can state all this today, on a grey late winter Saturday afternoon, because one week ago my husband’s actions had me at a crossroads.  Down one road lay a fight.  Down the other was compassion.  I am quite sure that in years past, I would have been very pissed, and would have initiated some kind of marital battle.  Instead, I’d say I chose compassion — but the truth is, compassion chose me.  I wanted to feel angry, I felt I should be angry — but it just wasn’t there.  My brain has changed.

All of which tells me that you, too, are “underneath it all” those same good qualities, because I believe my brain changed due to a regular meditation practice.  Nothing remarkable, and nothing you can’t also do. In fact, I couldn’t wait to share my discovery with all my meditation classes last week, to let my students know that my personal experience proved to me the truth of research around the benefits of meditation. Not that I doubted Harvard, Yale, and the University of Wisconsin … Still, it was quite exciting to say to my students, if I can do it — and I did — so can you.

Before I describe what happened, I hasten to reassure you (especially any family members reading this!) that, to say that the headline of this blog is an exaggeration is itself a gross understatement.  And that picture of him “going volcanic” is really … ummm … quite a few decades old.  I’m just having a little fun here.

The incident itself was only fun for one of us, and that one was not me.

Bob, on the other hand, had a blissful Saturday night at the annual Men of Maple Corner “Scotch Slop.”  This traditional event began several years ago in response to the annual Women of Maple Corner Yankee Gift Exchange, to which no men are invited because, after a quick survey, we determined no men wanted to come.  Plus, we never schedule the women’s event on a “date night.”

Anyway …

The timing of this year’s event was unfortunate for two reasons.  First, Saturday was the night we turned the clocks back, thereby automatically losing an hour of sleep.  Second, I was scheduled to deliver a sermon on happiness at my Unitarian Church of Montpelier the next morning — a very big event for me.  This was also a semi-big event for Bob, because he and the rest of the Montpelier Ukulele Players were an important part of the service.  They were on tap for the prelude (“When You’re Smiling”), special music (“What a Wonderful World”), and postlude (“Happy Trails”).  In other words, Bob and I could both use a good night’s sleep.

So, in the days leading up to the Scotch Slop, I repeatedly asked Bob, “please don’t get drunk.”  Not that Bob is any way a drunkard, but I really really didn’t want him to be hungover on this particular Sunday morning.  His reply to me was, “I usually do pretty well.”  Which seemed fair.  He hasn’t come home stinking drunk before.

Before last Saturday, that is.

That night, I went to bed early and slept for a few hours before waking up and realizing Bob wasn’t home yet.  Not a good sign.  My fears about a) how drunk he might be and b) how safe he might be (he was walking home, and it was seriously cold and the roads — covered in sludge which had melted during the day but frozen again after dark — were slick and difficult for even a sober person to navigate) quickly had me wide awake.

Fortunately, it wasn’t long before he walked in the door.  I asked, “How drunk are you?”  He responded, loopily and happily, “Preeeettttty drunk!  It was so happy!  So many nice people!” Then he fell asleep, loudly.  Stinking of Scotch.

I did not fall back asleep, not for hours.  I left the bedroom and tried the sofa.  After a bit, I left the sofa in favor of the guest room.  No luck there, either.  As you can imagine, this did not make me happy.

Yet, that’s when the magic happened. Or at least, appreciation of the magic that has already happened in my brain.

As I lay there, trying every meditation trick I could think of to get back to sleep, I was intensely aware that my time for sleep — before my big morning in the pulpit — was slipping away.  I also realized, amazingly, that I was not pissed off.  Instead, I felt compassion for Bob.  Not compassion as in “suffering with” — he certainly wasn’t suffering — but more a sharing of joy that he had enjoyed a night of fun companionship with the men of our community.  Maple Corner has a lot of good men, and I was glad for all of the Scotch Sloppers that night.  They do their best to do the right thing — for the planet, for the community, for their families.  If one night a year they gather and get drunk, fine.  Totally fine.

As for Bob specifically, he’s an introvert who didn’t really have friends of his own before we moved to Vermont.  He certainly didn’t participate in the community (not that there was much of a community to be part of).  I am proud of, and happy for, how he has grown here.  He took his responsibility to attend the Scotch Slop seriously.  It was really kinda cute.  Also, he didn’t purposefully rob me of sleep.  Though his choices that night had a negative impact on me, he is normally exceptionally helpful and supportive.  So, it was one bad night. Big deal.

This lack of anger — a clear contrast to how I would have reacted in the past — stands out for me as clear proof that meditation has changed my brain structure for the better.

Meditation isn’t my only happiness practice.  I have a daily routine, which includes watching (& singing and dancing to) inspirational videos; these two by Louis Armstrong and Bruce Springsteen are current favorites.  I also have a daily anticipations journal, a reminder bracelet, a savoring alarm on my phone, and an evening gratitude journal — really, it’s a wonder I have time to do anything else in my life, what with all these sincere  attempts to walk the happiness talk.  Also, because I teach happiness skills, and coach, and write about it … well, the general topic and all that it entails (living a life of meaning and pleasure, being kind, all that good stuff) are never far from my thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Presumably, all this has changed me.  Sometimes I respond to life in ways that surprise me.  Last week, for example, walking on a snowy trail through the woods that opened up onto a sunny, snow covered meadow, I found myself bursting into little ballerina twirls of happiness.  Like a child, just breathing into spontaneous joy.

But who can really tell cause and effect?  Is one particularly fierce hurricane due to climate change?  No one can say.  Still, when there is a pattern of extreme and weird weather conditions (how much snow did Boston get this year??), then maybe something is really going on.

Nonetheless, I specifically attribute my calm and compassionate thoughts and feelings in the sleepless hours of Saturday night to my meditation practice. In particular, I’ve been doing a lot of meditation which corresponds to the three different operating systems in our brains, as discussed by neuro psychologist Rick Hanson in a book I think everyone should read,  Hardwiring for Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence.

Hanson explains that the three major layers of the brain (brain stem, subcortex and cortex) correspond with three operating system that 1) avoid harm, 2) approach rewards, and 3) attach to others.  These systems function to meet our basic needs of safety, satisfaction, and connection — or, writ large, as Hanson himself does in a guided meditation as part of his online Foundations of Well-Being course, “peace, contentment, and love.” I have modified that somewhat to “peace, love, safety, and abundance” — four words that I breathe in and out on a nearly daily basis.

My understanding, based on Hanson’s book and course, is that this meditation is like putting money in the bank for each system, thus allowing my brain to respond to a perceived “crisis” in a calm and compassionate manner, rather than flare up in an intense reactive mode.

And my belief is that I have, to a certain extent at least, re-wired my brain, exactly as Hanson promises. I’m also reminded of this video by Dan Harris, who states that the science favoring a regular meditation practice “is really compelling” including studies that show meditation leads to a growth of the part of our brains responsible for compassion while also shrinking the reactive amygdala.  No wonder, as Hanson says, meditators can become more “even keeled, grateful, and warmhearted.

I have to say, I am convinced.

The next morning, by the way, Bob was not hungover and both the ukulele players and the sermon itself went smoothly and were well received.

Afterwards, in the back of the sanctuary, I was talking with some of my choir friends about the sermon, and some of the ways positive psychology suggests we can cultivate personal happiness.  One of my friends asked, “But does it really work? Are you happier?”

I smiled and said, why yes, yes I am.  In fact, I have proof.  Let me tell you a story from last night …

Thus has my sleepless night turned into a gift, a learning tool I can share with others.  I am actually grateful to Bob for the learning opportunity he provided me.

I am also grateful the Scotch Slop only happens once a year!

 

 

 

All You Need Is Love … Or Some Other Signature Strength!

Bob and I, freshly married, November 1970.

Bob and I, freshly married, November 1970.

As I recall, the girl sitting next to me in home-economics class was named Diane.  She was a cheery sort, and we chatted amiably while working on our sewing projects.  I was making a pair of identical paisley print bolero vests.  One was for me, I explained, and one was for Bobby Sassaman, the love of my as-yet-very-young life.

“You like him??” she almost gasped in disbelief.  Clearly, Diane did not see Bobby as acceptable boyfriend material.  I saw way more than boyfriend potential: later this month, we’ll celebrate our 44th wedding anniversary.

We still have the vests.

To be clear, when we got married, I believe a majority in the church — including me — were sure the marriage was doomed.  I was a pregnant high school senior, barely 17 years-old.  Bobby was enrolled at the local community college, but he was still just a paper boy.  Neither one of us had driver’s licenses, much less a car.  I was fired from my part time job as a short order cook because pregnant teenagers didn’t fit the restaurant’s family fun image.  Not too promising, right?  I mean, I was crazy in love, but I wasn’t stupid.

Yet, here we are.  Still crazy in love.  Nobody’s betting against our relationship anymore, especially not me.

44 years later, on top of the world, Mt. Mansfield, Vermont.

44 years later, on top of the world, Mt. Mansfield, Vermont.

Perhaps that’s because the odds were in our favor all along.

Recently, I asked Bob (the extra syllable disappeared a long time ago) to take the VIA Institute on Character free online survey.  I’ve taken the “test” a few times, and used it in workshops, so I have a good idea of my top strengths.  I was curious about his, and one Sunday night he announced his results.  Turns out, we have the same signature strength: the capacity to give and receive love.  The fact that humor is also tops for him, and forgiveness is number two for me, doesn’t hurt either when it comes to maintaining a thriving relationship for the long term.

Okay, there are many other factors that helped us along the way, including the love and support of our families.  Still, I was really struck by our common survey result.

I had taken the survey again as part of my home work for the Kripalu Certificate in Positive Psychology program I’m currently enrolled in.  The faculty are very generous with their time and expertise, so I asked program director Maria Sirois if she thought there was any connection between the longevity of my marriage and our capacity to give and receive love.  I wondered, is the shared strength of love the chicken that laid the egg of a long marriage, or, is a long marriage the egg that hatched the chicken of love as a signature strength within each of us?  Maria responded,

“Some strengths – core strengths – seem to be with us from the beginning – I like to think of them as cellular but I don’t know that the VIA people would use that language. They simply are who we are. If you both had this as a core strength from childhood I could see how it could contribute to your longevity in relationship. And since it is a strength, at least in the recent decades, that you share, you can be sure that you reinforced it in each other and in so doing elevated other strengths that support your relationship as well. Self-esteem and competency both rise when we are in our highest strengths, and the love strength is also closely associated with generosity – which can only help a relationship. So I’d say you have a fabulous chicken and a delicious egg thing happening here.”

Thank you, Maria!

Is this one of those silly Facebook quizzes?

Well, no.  Nor is it from a magazine like “Cosmopolitan” or “Redbook” (are they still around?).  The VIA index stems from solid research.  According to “VIA Character Strengths – Research and Practice: The First 10 Years” by Ryan M. Niemiec, Psy.D., the index of 24 universally admired virtues and strengths “emerged from several scientific meetings led by Martin E. P. Seligman and rigorous historical analysis led by Christopher Peterson, who collaborated with 53 other leading scientists over a period of three years.”   This is serious stuff!

I initially learned about the VIA index in 2010, at my first ever positive psychology training led by Dr. Lynn Johnson.  Dr. Johnson shared the VIA list with us, and I now share it with you:  1) Creativity, 2)  Curiosity, 3) Love of learning, 4) Wisdom/perspective, 5)  Open-mindedness, 6)  Bravery, 7) Persistence, 8) Integrity, 9) Vitality, 10) Give & receive love, 11) Kindness, 12) Social intelligence, 13) Citizenship, 14)  Fairness, 15)  Leadership, 16) Forgiveness, 17) Modesty/humility, 18)  Prudence, 19)  Self-regulation, 20) Appreciation of excellence & beauty, 21) Gratitude, 22) Hope, 23) Humor, and 24) Spirituality.

You may glance at the list and immediately have a sense of your strengths, but, if you take the online test at the VIA site, you can learn so much more!  Plus, there’s lots of information about these strengths and how real people have applied them to lead happier, more fulfilling lives.

Here’s the best part about the VIA online test: everybody has signature strengths!  Everybody is a winner!  Go ahead, take the test, find out how wonderful you are!

A couple of caveats and clarifications:

  1. First, the VIA index does not cover all my strengths, or yours.  I know, for example, that I have a facility for painting with watercolors.  Apparently, I also have very flexible shoulders.  Which is to say, we all have many gifts to share with the world and make our own lives more enjoyable.  After you get your VIA list figured out, dig a little deeper.  What else makes you wonderful?
  2. Strengths and Virtues can present in different ways.  Take bravery, for example.  A few summers ago, on a vacation trip with Bob, my sister Kathy, and her husband Rick, we climbed a waterfall trail in the wild woods of Maine.  While Rick clambored to the top of rocks overhanging a steep waterfall drop, I found a rock far, far away from the edge to sit on.  I couldn’t even look at Rick.  I was terrified.  When he was finally safe and we were walking down the hill, Rick remarked on many of the emotional risks I have taken, risks that would have terrified him.  Point taken.  Bravery wears many faces.
  3. Don’t overuse your strengths.  Tal Ben-Shahar, the primary teacher in the Kripalu program, sometimes talks about the “Lasagne Principle.” In short, he loves lasagne, but if he ate it at every meal, the lasagne would be significantly less appealing.  Just as our diets are diverse, so too are our strengths and virtues.  Love is not, in fact, all I need.
  4. Remember your weaknesses.  While our strengths deserve top billing, paying an appropriate level of attention to our weaknesses is also a good idea.  Case in point: for some reason, I am challenged in getting dates and times right.  Twice, I showed up as a weekend guest in a friend’s house a week early.  Once I took my kids to a road show of “The Sound of Music,” also a week early.  Fortunately, there are these wonderful items now called “calendars.”  It’s taken me a few years, but I have finally learned to write down appointments and also to regularly check what’s in there!

“Virtues and Strengths: The Musical!”

As mentioned above, the VIA index is a serious topic for research and discussion among eminent leaders in the positive psychology field — but it can also be fun!  Nancy K, one of the TA’s in the Kripalu program, demonstrated that in grand style when she posted her list of 24 music videos, one for each of the virtues and strengths.  She invited the rest of us to consider what music videos we might choose for our own signature strengths video.

Lord knows, there are a lot of love songs out there, but most of them are focused on romantic love between partners.  The capacity to give and receive love that Bob and I share is broader than that.  Yes, we love each other — and, we each love many others.  So even though love is not all I need, let me close this blog the way I began — with love.  And the Beatles amazing song, “Love Is All You Need” .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Love and Relationships: Keeping the Activists Happy

Getting ready to march with Bernie Sanders in the Warren, VT Fourth of July parade in 2012.

Getting ready to march with Bernie Sanders in the Warren, VT Fourth of July parade in 2012.

The focus on relationships in the prayer from the Hopi elder (see previous blog on the People’s Climate March) has me thinking about love. “What are your relationships?” the prayer asks.  “Are you in right relation?”  Then later, “Be good to each other.” And still later, “The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river … And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate.”

I’m in the river with some pretty good people, which makes a huge difference in my life.  The support I feel from loving friends, family, colleagues, and community gives me strength and courage to do the happiness work I feel called to do.  They are good to me, we are in right relation for the most part,  sometimes we get to celebrate.  Hopefully, most of you can say the same.   Relationships are the number one predictor of happiness.  We need love to flourish under the best of circumstances.  As we move forward to combat climate change and push for a shift away from dysfunctional capitalism toward a well being paradigm, we will need that love even more.

All the loving kindness that flowed through the vast river that was the People’s Climate March brought to mind some experiences I’ve had in the presence of another warrior for well being, Senator Bernie Sanders.  Talk about being in the river!  He’s like the painting of George Washington standing up in the boat crossing the Delaware River.  I know many of you who live outside Vermont are cheering this 21st century leader onward.  Rest assured, on the home front in Vermont, there are throngs of people eager to celebrate his courage, tenacity, and heart in standing up for economic and environmental justice.  Yes, it’s true: we love Bernie.

Twice I’ve had the opportunity to march with Bernie in Fourth of July parades when he was campaigning for U.S. Senate.  The first time was in 2006 in Montpelier, Vermont.  My friend Judy and I were asked to march right behind Bernie because the organizer liked our sign (Women of Maple Corner for Bernie).  As we marched, Bernie would inspire wave after wave of enthusiastic loving appreciation.  The crowd’s energy, directed at Bernie, also landed on us just a few feet behind him.  It was intoxicating and invigorating, to feel the energy of love like that — just awesome.

Even better, though, was the Fourth of July parade in Warren, Vermont in 2012 when Bernie was running for re-election.  This time, I was one of the volunteers holding Bernie’s banner, just in front of the Senator himself.  Over and over again, as large chunks of the parade watching crowd shifted their attention from the float in front of us to the campaigning Senator, massive cheers erupted — and again, the waves of love and gratitude washed over all the volunteers as well.  I heard the same enthusiastic shouts repeatedly, through the entire parade: “We love you, Bernie!” “Thank you Bernie!”  And the occasional, “Bernie for President!”  The love and gratitude were overwhelming.

And, critically important. A few weeks later, after the parade season ended, Bernie launched his town meetings right next door, at the Maple Corner Community Center.  Unlike most other Washington politicians, Bernie does not charge admittance to these events.  Quite the opposite.  He actually provides a free dinner to everyone who shows up!  Amazing.  But the salad and lasagne were not the reasons why the audience that night was enthusiastic.  We were enthusiastic because of Bernie’s record.  Like the parade crowd, we were filled with gratitude and love for Bernie and his staff because of the work they do.

Before the Senator spoke, his staff member expressed his gratitude for our expressions of gratitude.  He said, essentially, Bernie needs your love, needs to hear your cheers and your cries of thanks because, in D.C., Bernie’s work is damned hard.  He needs to come back in Vermont, take a swim in the river with his supporters here who will celebrate with, and be good to, him.  Like most relationships, it’s circular: we need Bernie, and Bernie needs us.

Right relation.  Being good to each other.  Celebrating.

My daughter Jennifer and granddaughter Madeleine with Bernie Sanders in Maple Corner in 2012, just after his presentation and moments before the baby melted down.

My daughter Jennifer and granddaughter Madeleine with Bernie Sanders in Maple Corner in 2012, just after his presentation and moments before the baby melted down.

Afterwards, before leaving Maple Corner, Bernie  paused to share the love with my daughter and four-month-old granddaughter.  I’d say two out three of them were happy to have their picture taken together!  Anyway, I’m grateful for the photograph.

We all need to share the love.

Bernie may need the love more than the rest of us, because he’s the target of so many more slings and arrows.  But all of us who choose to be activists — for happiness, for justice, for the environment, for a new economy — need the sustenance of love.  Maybe that’s because, like all humans,  we all suffer, and we know that we will suffer more.  Further, those of us who are actively trying to make the world a better place also carry the knowledge that the earth and the people on it are suffering intensely.  “Each of us feels some aspect of the world’s suffering acutely,” writes Stephen Cope in The Great Work of Your Life, “And we must pay attention. We must act. This little corner of the world is ours to transform. This little corner of the world is ours to save.”

Even in our little corners, we can’t do it alone.  We need relationships.  We need community.  We need love.

Fortunately, love comes in  a wide variety of packages — from what Barbara Frederickson calls “micro-bursts” of love which can occur even between two strangers who are momentarily connected, to long term relationships with intimate partners and best friends.

Indeed, the day before I left for New York and the Climate March, I was on a conference call as part of the yearlong certificate in positive psychology I’m earning through Kripalu.  The conference call was focused on the importance of relationships to our personal happiness.  At the close, lead instructor Tal Ben-Shahar wished us all, “many micro-bursts of love.”

And in a way, that’s what the whole trip was — giving and receiving micro-bursts of love, as well as weaving deeper more loving relationships with the people who are near me in the river.  This was especially true for Ginger,  a friend from central Vermont who generously shared her New York City apartment with me and my  happiness colleagues Linda and Paula — who are now Ginger’s friends, too.  Ginger met me at Penn Station, thus soothing my fears of having to negotiate the streets of New York City on my own.  Paula arrived a little later, and Ginger fed us both a wonderful dinner.  We watched a very funny video Saturday morning before a full day playing in a sunny NYC — a free ride on the Staten Island Ferry, a free walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, and indescribably delicious street food at an Italian Street Festival.  Then we welcomed Linda for a lovely evening of pizza and wine.  Sunday, we had a hearty breakfast before heading uptown to march.

Ginger, me, Paula, and Linda getting ready to march!

Ginger, me, Paula, and Linda getting ready to march!

Thanks to a day of being good to each other, and celebrating, we arrived at the march fully supported (and supporting) in loving kindness.  Once there, we were all able to be our best.   When asked to help make and distribute signs, all four of us cheerfully and energetically jumped in and worked for at least an hour and a half.  The march started very late, but it didn’t matter — our spirits were high.  I felt at my best — able to be a happy, well-behaved member of a large crowd, take it in more fully, absorb it, and more ready to share and live the message of the march when I got home.

Okay, honestly, I wasn’t actually at my very, very best for the entire march.   Toward the end of the climate march, there was a small group of individuals holding anti-abortion signs. I thought, if you’re really pro-life, you should be in the march!! We’re talking about trying to save all human life — and most animals and plants, too — from extinction. How pro-life can you be?? But I wisely kept my mouth shut.

A few steps later, though, stood another “protestor” holding a sign, something to the effect of “Come to Jesus.” All I could think was, seriously? Don’t you think Jesus would be marching with us? Annnndddd … that came bursting out of my mouth. I hollered, “Jesus is over here.” Surprise, surprise, that was not well received. He yelled back at me “no over here” and I yelled something like, “no, over HERE!” It was not a particularly sophisticated or mature exchange.

But I was not in the river alone.  I could just feel my friends looking at me.  Imagining my behavior through my friends’ eyes helped me step back from my unhelpful behavior.  I took a deep breath, and returned my focus to the march.

Thank goodness for friends!  I guess we need them in the river with us sometimes to throw us life preservers.  That, too, is important.