There’s a lot more to changing the world than just pointing to a problem and saying “This is wrong—fix it now!” Yes, identifying the problem is necessary; but it’s generally not sufficient. That is because the existing situation, however unjust or illogical, has (or had) some degree of social utility—otherwise, it never would have happened. So when a particular way of doing things isn’t working well in today’s society, we should first examine how it was meant to work, and then consider how the problem might be solved while still accomplishing the intended goal.

Several years ago, I had a conversation on a forum with a woman who complained about her husband’s inconsiderate behavior. She was a short woman with a mobility impairment, and she couldn’t access the higher shelves in her kitchen cabinets without great difficulty. When she needed something from one of those shelves, she generally asked her husband or one of her children to get it down for her. Of course, it would have been much easier if all the items she regularly used were on the lower shelves; but when her husband did the grocery shopping, he often put some of them on the higher shelves without thinking about it. Although she had reminded him many times, he never paid enough attention to get it right, and there was always something she wanted that was out of reach.

The husband evidently had good intentions—he wanted to take care of his family by bringing home the groceries and putting them away. He probably felt that he was being unfairly criticized because the grocery shopping was enough of a chore in itself, without also being expected to remember what shelves his wife had in mind for everything. He wasn’t trying to be a jerk, but simply couldn’t keep track of all the details of what items she wanted where. Nagging him was counterproductive because it wasn’t likely to improve his memory and would only make him resentful.

I suggested that she reorganize the kitchen, with her children’s help, one day when her husband wasn’t at home. To the extent possible, everything would be moved to the lower shelves. Then the upper shelves could be filled with bulky extra items, such as multiple packs of paper towels and toilet paper bought on sale. That would ensure her husband couldn’t put any groceries there. She would also save money by stocking up on paper products while they were on sale. And because her husband paid so little attention to detail, he probably wouldn’t even notice that anything in the kitchen looked different. From then on, he would always put the groceries on the lower shelves, without even thinking about it, because that’s where all the free space would be.

In the context of changing the behavior of societies, rather than individuals, filling the available space also works well. Prejudiced assumptions and insensitive attitudes can be dealt with by ensuring that the public discourse reflects many different perspectives. This approach often results in more success than yelling at the majority group that they’re a bunch of bigoted jerks who don’t understand how privileged they are. Even if it’s true, they are not going to want to hear it, and they’ll dismiss the criticism as unfair and unreasonable.

But if people going about their everyday business just happen to find other viewpoints taking up the cultural space where the prejudices used to go—well, then it’s not so easy to stuff those big awkward prejudices into a space where they don’t fit anymore. And when there are a lot of diverse perspectives occupying society’s cultural-narrative shelves, there’s probably going to be something that looks more useful. So those outdated prejudices simply end up being set aside, like worn-out clothing or obsolete technologies, because they no longer have a place in today’s world.

‘Tis the season when many of us start thinking about changes we want to make in the coming year. We talk over potential New Year’s resolutions with our friends and family. Perhaps we focus on improving our personal lives, such as by resolving to eat healthier, get more exercise, and clean up a cluttered house. Or we plan to get involved in volunteer work—serving meals at the homeless shelter, for example, or teaching adult literacy classes at the library. By talking about our plans with others, we give the details more clarity in our own minds and become more determined to follow through.

But the idea of making long-term changes can be discouraging to us, especially in today’s busy and complicated society. It’s hard enough to keep up with everything that’s changing around us—advances in technology, reorganizations at work, and so forth. When we consider how many things need improvement, both in our personal lives and the world in general, we’re likely to feel overwhelmed. It seems like there’s just too much going on that we can’t control. Why even try? It’s easier just to fall back on our familiar comforting habits, even though they may not be good for us in the long run.

I recently had an email conversation along these lines with a friend who described her perspective on changing one’s own life and the world:

Sometimes I feel like all I can do—in a world that can sometimes seem so filled with strife—is continue to be positive in my own life and with my own situation, and then hope that my positivity can radiate out to others and uplift them as well (even if it’s just a smile I might share with a stranger). Lately when I meditate, I’ve been sending bright energies out to envelop Mother Earth. I wish there was something I could do to make everything okay for everybody. And that thought always leads me back to the saying “If you want to save the world, all you need do is save yourself.”

After I’d had a few days to reflect on her words, I thought more about positivity in the context of the Internet—and blogging in particular. There are plenty of blogs whose authors write cheerful, kind, uplifting material, but they don’t get much traffic. Although we may browse their blogs on occasion, we may feel that we haven’t got the time to visit more regularly or to write meaningful comments. Meanwhile, political bloggers stir up anger and often have long comment threads full of arguments. This skews the Internet toward negativity, even though most blog owners just write about everyday life.

So—my New Year’s resolution for 2014 is to radiate positivity by making time, for an entire year, to visit a different blog each day that focuses on random acts of kindness or other positive themes. I’ll write a detailed comment on each of these blogs, describing why I enjoyed it and thanking the author for creating it. At the least, this will make 365 blog authors happier, as well as improving my own mood by giving me positive reading material daily. And I’m hoping other bloggers will join in, which would magnify the effects exponentially! If you’re interested in participating, please visit my new Random Kindness Blog Tour page.

Coffee cups, energy bar wrappers, and other debris from the crew’s long hours littered the narrow countertops of the galley. It wasn’t Woods’ scheduled day to clean up, so he ignored the mess… [This is Part 11. Continue reading this installment, or read the story from the beginning.]

November 25, 2013 · Write a comment · Categories: Musings · Tags:

It’s common in today’s busy society to feel rushed and overloaded. Even when we actually have enough space in our schedules for all that we’re doing, we may still feel that there is too much going on and we’re on the brink of losing control of it all. Maybe we tell ourselves that things will get better when the big project at work gets finished or when the charitable fundraiser that we’re organizing is over. But then we discover that we’re still feeling much the same afterward.

Modern technology has plenty of time-management tools to keep us organized—task planning software, a calendar in the email program, and smartphone reminders of upcoming appointments. Even our plain old sticky notes, pocket-size notepads, and ballpoint pens are much more than our ancestors had before the modern age, back when they wrote with quill pens and wouldn’t have wasted valuable paper and ink on anything that wasn’t going to be kept for years. We have labor-saving devices they could only imagine in their dreams. So why do we feel as if we are, to borrow a phrase from a simpler era, burning the candle at both ends?

Yes, many of us are in fact busy at work and in our family lives. But a large part of that overwhelmed feeling, I suspect, is that our well-organized schedules have created a social environment where we feel obliged to account for every minute. Although our modern-day jobs can’t reasonably be compared to the hard physical labor necessary for survival in the small villages of the past, our schedules are far more regimented.

A farmer in olden times might have risen at dawn, trudged out through the snow to milk the cows, and then moved on to the next chore. No scheduling reminders were needed because the chores stayed about the same from one day to another, with slow seasonal changes, and didn’t have to be completed at an exact time. By contrast, today’s workers get up when the alarm buzzes and spend most days checking off the tasks on carefully planned lists. This is a much subtler pressure than a peasant farmer’s need for a good harvest to avoid starving over the winter; but it is pressure nonetheless, and it should not be ignored.

Because our social environment is the main cause of our rushed and overloaded feelings, just making a few small changes in what we experience every day can go a long way toward dispelling those feelings. For example, my husband recently pointed out that I had been making myself feel more rushed by keeping a notepad on my desk to jot down my work hours before entering them into the timesheet software. Although the notepad was useful, the drawer would be a much better place for it, to keep it out of sight so it wouldn’t be a constant visual representation of having to track my hours.

I took his advice and moved the notepad to the drawer. Then I bought a small battery-operated flameless candle to keep on my desk instead. When turned on, it flickers like a real candle and brightens my work area on dreary days. And because it never burns down, the candle provides a strong symbolic representation of having plenty of time.

desk candle

When we get busy with work and other responsibilities, it’s easy to forget how many choices are always open to us regarding the little details of our environment. Asserting our personal power doesn’t necessarily require drastic changes in our lives. Simple acts can be enough to feel much more in control—clearing away clutter, buying or handcrafting a few decorative items, and organizing one’s personal space more comfortably. Such things may not seem like they amount to much, but given time they can bring about a significant shift in perception.

An extremely thick window, several times the strength of bulletproof, separated the exobiology laboratory from the curving corridor that led to it… [This is Part 10. Continue reading this installment, or read the story from the beginning.]

I came across the phrase “empathy in development” while reading an article by nonprofit leader Molly Melching entitled To change society, first change minds. Although the article is mainly about efforts to achieve sustainable development and social change in Africa, the author’s wise observations can be applied much more generally to the process of bringing about systemic change. She describes empathy in development as involving four key elements, as set out below:

First, begin with human rights — empower people to claim their rights to health and well-being with confidence. Two, start where people are — have empathy and respect while you understand their history, their language and culture and their priorities. Three, do not try to force change — lay the groundwork for dialogue, introduce people to ideas, identify shared values and allow them to decide what the change will be and when they will make it. If you start by just fighting what they are doing, you’re going to get resistance. Finally, and perhaps most crucially, remember the solutions already exist within the communities with which you work.

I believe these insights are equally valuable in the context of bringing about social change in one’s own country. It’s not just those working abroad who need to take a respectful approach when dealing with differences of culture and perspective. Especially in today’s rancorous political climate, it has become all too easy to dismiss other points of view. When we treat our own beliefs as obvious facts, then surely there must be something wrong with anyone who disagrees. Maybe they’re ignorant, corrupt, lazy, immoral, or otherwise deficient in some way. Wholly oblivious to the irony, we may claim they lack empathy or suffer from black-and-white thinking. After all, there’s got to be some reason why they aren’t behaving like sensible people.

How we respond to others’ differences is itself culturally determined in many ways. Even when we see ourselves as respectful and open-minded, we may not be fully aware of the underlying narratives that frame our worldviews. In any society, the words commonly used to express an idea tend to shape how people think about that idea. I’m not just referring to political buzzwords aimed at provoking emotional responses. On a much more basic level, our vocabulary reflects the structure of our society, whether or not there is any conscious intent involved. As we go through life, we routinely make assumptions and take actions based on this familiar structure.

In modern-day Western culture, development connotes a distinction between the complete and the incomplete. Nations are either developed (suggesting a past-tense, finished process) or developing (they’re not yet like us, but they’re working on it). Although today’s development narrative avoids the obvious biases of language used in the past to describe other cultures, such as “backward” and “savage,” it still describes a linear scale that puts us at the top, with others striving to reach our level. It further suggests that development should proceed along the same trajectory, rather than having many possible paths.

A similar dichotomy can be found in the language our culture uses to describe individual development. People are seen as either normal (that is, fully and properly developed) or struggling to overcome their challenges (not like the normal folks, but trying to be). And of course, it goes much deeper than just choosing one word over another. Changing an occasional word or phrase doesn’t do much if the underlying narrative stays the same. Our language is full of terms that started out as politically correct euphemisms and ended up being used as insults, just like the words they replaced.

I believe this cultural framework is a large part of why empathy in development can be so hard to attain, whether we’re aiming to change other nations or to change the behavior of people within our own society. As soon as we decide they need to be changed, we subconsciously start to think of ourselves as superior. We’re developed, they’re not. We’re normal, they’re not. We’re enlightened, they’re not. So naturally we should tell them what to do, since we know and they don’t. Eventually they’ll come to understand it was for their own good…

This mindset has become so ingrained in our culture that sometimes we’re not even aware of it. Thoughtful reminders such as Molly Melching’s four principles of empathy in development are much needed. And I suggest another point on which reflection would be helpful: Remember that we, ourselves, are still developing. There is nothing shameful about acknowledging this simple fact. The opposite of development is not perfection—it is stagnation. As we interact with others and explore our world, we continue to learn, both on a collective and an individual level. This necessarily means that when we seek to change others, we are also being changed. So when we find our views in conflict with those of other people and cultures, it may be useful to consider not only how we can change their minds, but also what we can learn from the situation.

Even in a time of tremendous cultural flux, when many of the historical reasons for marriage have become outdated, there are still people getting married. One might wonder why, given the advantages of staying single in today’s world. Children are very expensive, unlike in the past when they worked on their parents’ farm. Having a family restricts the career opportunities available to modern parents, both because of the time involved in caring for children and because of the expectation that a responsible parent should bring home a steady paycheck, rather than being free to take chances and follow passions when building a career. Marriage has economic pitfalls even for childless couples, who may not want to pursue promising job opportunities in other cities because it would be hard for the tag-along spouse to find a good position. And there’s always the risk of divorce, which can be messy both emotionally and financially, even when a couple has no children.

Some people simply dismiss the whole idea of marriage as an antiquated relic of primitive times, which continues to exist only because traditional society has conditioned us to want it. But I think those who opt for marriage often do so based on the perception that it is a promise of stability in a rapidly changing world. Even when we don’t feel confident about navigating the huge cultural shifts going on around us, marriage (if all goes well) gives us a constant, predictable home environment. The family unit becomes a micro-culture with its own comforting traditions and rituals.

I recently had a dream that dealt with these themes. Although dream interpretation based on cultural archetypes mostly fell out of fashion along with psychoanalysis a few decades ago, it can sometimes prove interesting. In this particular dream, I was assembling a four-poster bed by putting on the posts. After that, I was on a dock at the river, putting oars in a boat (a double scull) that my husband and I had rowed over the summer.

In dream interpretation, the number four can represent symmetry and stability. Both pairs of oars must be rowed in a synchronized motion to make forward progress along a river, which is a symbol often interpreted to mean the river of life. Losing one’s grip on the oar handles, or bumping an oar into a submerged log or other hazard, can easily cause a scull to tip over—it’s a very narrow boat that needs the oars for balance.

When not in use, oars are stored separately from the boat. They must be put into the oarlocks each time the boat is rowed, and the rowers must carefully check to make sure the oars are fastened securely. This can be seen as an assembly process, much as the four-poster bed in my dream had to be assembled. Both a double scull and a bed are places where a couple would be. So I would interpret the dream as referring to the stability provided by marriage, which requires careful assembly.

Of course, not everyone looks upon marriage as a source of stability. Some take a very different view and consider marriage a luxury reserved for those who already are financially stable. Even though today’s families are much smaller than in the past and women usually work outside the home, raising children in the modern world can be very costly. With so much uncertainty in the global economy, some young adults feel that they should wait until they have well-established careers and substantial savings before they even consider marriage. Depending on the extent of their financial anxiety, they may never reach a point where they feel comfortable with it.

There’s no disputing the fact that it is stressful to get married and start a family while living paycheck to paycheck. But it’s important to keep things in perspective, rather than letting financial anxiety take over one’s life to the extent that everything seems too much of a risk. Way back when our ancestors were raising their families in tiny villages, they had very few material possessions, and their lives were far more perilous than ours. Children often died in infancy, women often died in childbirth, and men often died in war. Still, our ancestors did their best to cope with whatever happened to come their way. Because nothing in their society ever seemed to change much, they didn’t have our worries about living in an unstable world.

Unlike our ancestors, we can’t reasonably expect to lead simple and unchanging lives. Some degree of anxiety about the unknown is inevitable. We deal with it by seeking stability in our relationships, our finances, our daily habits and rituals, and whatever else we may feel gives us more control over our environment. Choices that work well for some people, such as marriage, are not necessarily going to suit others. And with all the options available in today’s society, it may take some time to discover what works and what doesn’t. In any event, when pursuing our goals, I believe it’s helpful to keep in mind both that we have more personal power than we may realize and that, as we go through life, some assembly is required.

October 13, 2013 · Write a comment · Categories: Musings · Tags:

Every culture has its folk sayings that help people to get through their days. We rely on them to give our problems a familiar, manageable feeling. Don’t worry about the small stuff, we’re often told. Life’s too short for that.

Back when our ancestors’ lives were indeed short and perilous, this was a very useful way to remind people not to get overly dramatic about small annoyances or disagreements. Why complain today when you might easily die tomorrow from an outbreak of plague, find yourself in the path of an invading army putting your village to the torch, or get eaten by a hungry lion or bear when you went out to gather firewood?

In today’s more civilized world, however, we are far more likely to die of some lingering old-age ailment than of plague or warfare. Our communities have lost many of the close ties that once came from defending against shared perils. It’s hard to imagine what the future will look like, or how we’ll deal with it. Although modern-day humans no longer have to worry about our children dying of smallpox or being captured by an enemy raiding party and sold as slaves, there’s plenty of space in our minds for lesser anxieties to take up residence. Workplace worries, family spats, and political disputes get blown way out of proportion. Perhaps we try to tell ourselves life’s too short for that—but it isn’t. Not anymore.

The primitive parts of our brains still are hard-wired to be on the lookout for anything that might want to eat us. Far below the level of conscious thought, we search for patterns in whatever surrounds us. If it doesn’t all fit neatly together into something recognizable, then we get anxious. Mix that primitive reaction with the massive complexity of today’s society, and it’s no wonder modern humans have sky-high stress levels. Subconsciously, we feel as if there might be unseen predators crouching nearby at any moment, poised to spring. Because we know there really aren’t any, we find other ways to explain our fears. Maybe that lurking enemy becomes our neighbor who votes for a different political party.

How can we convince ourselves that these anxieties are just small stuff and that we’re not in fact on the brink of catastrophe? “Life is short” doesn’t seem to be useful advice in the context of reassuring ourselves that there are no monsters under society’s bed. Such advice might instead make us worry more because it reinforces the subconscious feeling that we could get killed at any moment by something we never even saw coming.

The main challenge for modern humans is learning to deal with change and complexity. So I believe we could use a new folk saying to suit today’s circumstances: Life’s too long for worrying. When we get hung up on our grudges and fears, we might easily wake up one morning 40 years later and realize how much time and energy we wasted obsessing about small problems that could have been solved long ago, if we hadn’t convinced ourselves they were gigantic obstacles.

Although the complexity of our world may often leave us feeling anxious, it also gives us many opportunities to make positive changes. We have a vast array of choices that were unimaginable even a generation ago, and we’ll have exponentially more choices as time passes and technology continues to improve. Having so many options may cause us to feel overwhelmed; but because we have such long lives, we can accomplish very ambitious goals without doing everything at once. All it really takes is finding one way to do something constructive each day. Over time the small changes add up, and we discover that we’ve created far more than we might have imagined.

The red rubber kickball raised puffs of dust when it came rolling toward home plate on a hot, dry afternoon in early September, 2009… [This is Part 9. Continue reading this installment, or read the story from the beginning.]

We all have different perspectives on managing our money. One common approach to curbing wasteful spending is to think about each purchase in relation to the work done to earn it. Before buying an expensive new gadget or a trendy pair of shoes, a person first stops to reflect on how many hours of work were needed to earn that much money.

While this may be an effective way to break a bad habit of impulse buying, I believe it creates more problems in the long term by conditioning the subconscious mind both to see work in a negative light and to see scarcity rather than abundance. When we measure everything in small increments of time and money, weighing one against the other, we’re left feeling as if we never have enough of either.

Psychologists doing research in this area have found that when people look upon their work in terms of how much they’re paid by the hour, they are more likely to feel that they don’t have time to get everything done in their personal lives. Business owners and salaried professionals actually spend more time at work than hourly employees, on average; but they often feel that they have more free time.

Some of that is because they have enough money to buy their way out of time-consuming chores, such as by hiring a maid instead of having to clean the house themselves. However, I’m inclined to think that much of it really is just a matter of belief. Because business owners look upon their work in terms of challenges and accomplishments, rather than hours, their work doesn’t feel like it deprives them of personal time.

In contrast, when people avoid making impulsive purchases by reminding themselves how many hours of work they did to earn the money, this necessarily implies their job took time away from other things they would rather have been doing. Too much of that attitude builds a wage-slave mentality in which work is seen as a misery to be endured for the required number of hours, all for the sake of buying one’s carefully rationed rewards when each paycheck arrives.

One of the reasons wealthy people don’t think like that is because wages are not their only source of income. Maybe they’re working 60 or 70 hours a week to build up the business, but they have investment accounts earning a good return. They probably also have a substantial amount of equity in real estate and other assets. So when they go out and buy things, the cost is only a small percentage of their total wealth. They don’t see it as chunks of time sucked out of their lives in exchange for wages.

Most of us aren’t wealthy enough to make withdrawals from investment accounts and go on shopping sprees whenever we feel like it. We need to put reasonable constraints on our buying habits, while going about it in a way that won’t leave us feeling deprived of time, money, material goods, or some combination thereof.

I believe the key word in that last sentence is “habits.” We live in a very complicated society, and we navigate its complexities every day by relying on whatever routines we’ve developed. When these routines become unproductive or harmful, then they need to be modified by substituting another habit that works better.

We’re all familiar with the need to change our routines in the context of managing our weight. Those of us who have full-time sedentary jobs can’t eat as much as when we were teenagers, unless we want to spend large amounts of time at the gym. Many people avoid eating too much by reminding themselves of how many hours they’ll have to run on the treadmill to make up for all the calories in that fried chicken and biscuits. This is exactly the same trade-off that is often used to curb impulse buying—time vs. overeating, time vs. overspending, measured in calories and cash respectively.

I’ve found that a more effective way to avoid gluttony (of both the food variety and the consumer goods variety) has been to replace an overindulgent habit with a moderate one. It’s basically an “out of sight, out of mind” approach. I don’t often think about eating fried chicken and biscuits since I started regularly buying baked chicken and salad instead. If a particular store or website seems like it’s getting too much of my money, I change my routine so that I’m not visiting it.

And on the time side of the equation, I don’t force myself to do workouts that I dislike. There are plenty of ways to get exercise that are more fun and are just as effective. If a workout routine is so unpleasant that the thought of doing more of it stops a person from overeating, then the person isn’t likely to be motivated to do enough to get results. Same goes for jobs. Anyone who feels stuck 40 hours a week doing a crummy job probably isn’t performing well enough to earn much money there. It makes more sense to change jobs. Granted, the economy isn’t at its best right now; but as time passes, more opportunities come along.

Although it may sometimes feel like a struggle to control time, spending, and food, this doesn’t mean we should obsess about rationing them. Looking at it from another perspective, we have an unlimited supply of time because there is always more of it as long as we’re alive. As time goes by, there are plenty of things we can do with it. What’s needed is to choose wisely from among the vast possibilities available in today’s world, picking those that are well suited to form enjoyable, lasting habits.