April 23, 2020

A Different Kind of Holiday

My wife shared this phrase with me:

Even the strongest storm eventually runs out of rain.

There's no need to even explain the situation that prompts this post because if you're a citizen of the world in 2020 you're experiencing the same isolation, frustration and perhaps fear as every other person on earth.  I'm a week late mentioning Easter, but I found the following very timely, given our current state of existence.  I share it in the hope you'll take it in the spirit it was intended.  I wish you all health, safety and hope for a new world very soon.

That first Holy Week was likely a very disorienting time for the disciples of Christ. The death of their Lord probably rocked them to the core. And then, with Jesus' resurrection, the entire world was reoriented with a new reality and a sense of hope. Like those original disciples, this year's Holy Week has disrupted life as we know it. Our sense of control has been lost. As we hear daily about sickness and death, we're reminded that life is fragile.

And yet, this Easter, God has given us a chance to reorient our lives around that same sense of hope for the future. Let's not pray that "things get back to normal." Rather, let's reorient our lives around what is real, what is truly important, that life is a gift, and that every day is a treasure to be utilized for great purpose. Let us remember that the earthly relationships God has given us are precious and beautiful and fragile. Let's love the people we've been given to love today, not tomorrow. And let's say the important things in this moment, not assuming that we'll have another.

[Paraphrased from the beautiful Easter message by Pastor Jenny Smith, Mt. Carmel UMC, Frederick, MD, USA, April 12, 2020.]

March 24, 2020

Alone. Together.

There's a new hashtag in social media right now: #alonetogether  It's intended to capture the feelings of most of the world that find themselves in self-imposed (or government-imposed) isolation due to the Coronavirus Pandemic.  People are quickly finding out that we miss the one thing that makes us human: social interaction.

The good news, if there is any, is that we are all in this together. It's one of the few things (if there are any others) that I've ever experienced where nearly everyone in the world is facing the same restrictions and limitations.  For the first time I can recall, we all understand each other. And as bad as a dangerous virus can be, the societal lessons we're learning can only help us all appreciate what we have in each other.

We'll get through this. Hopefully we'll learn important lessons about how to live safely with each other, how to protect the vulnerable while maintaining our societal norms, and how to plan effectively for events like this one in the future.  A popular meme making the rounds lately summarizes it this way:

I, for one, will never take interaction with others for granted again.

February 13, 2020

A Zero Sum Game

Recently, I stepped into an online (Facebook) conversation wherein a group of users on a community page were sharing viewpoints about a fairly controversial topic: socialized medicine in the USA.  Frankly, when I say “sharing viewpoints,” the comments got a little heated, with people “talking” around each other and citing various surveys and studies to support their point of view.  Most of those commenting know each other and we all have to live in the same community. So all were polite, though insistent and a bit acerbic at times.

Some argued that a socialized system would make healthcare more accessible to all.  Others argued that, where such systems have been implemented, quality has been reduced or individuals needing help found themselves waiting for months for treatment—or both.  Then there was the topic of cost.  Nobody thought it would be cheap, but how much (and who pays) seemed a continuous circular argument.  In the end, neither side appeared to persuade the other; but the posts back and forth were quite entertaining, if sadly unproductive. 

To refer back to the title of this blog, I was frustrated that there seemed to be no “common ground” between the two sides.  The Facebook experience, however, got me thinking that, while this particular conversation was focused on healthcare, the topic could have been about any general good or service in our societal system.  And I recalled an economic adage we’d used as university facility planners, related to another controversial topic: parking on campus. 

We commonly explain the perennial complaint about campus parking as a triad of three choices within a zero-sum system.  Specifically, parking can be (1) plentiful, (2) convenient, or (3) cheap.  In the end, you can have two of the three, but not all three.  Think about it.  You can park outside your building, and there may be plenty of spaces available, but it won’t come cheap. Or you can have plentiful parking at a great price, but you’ll walk across campus to your office.  The alternatives are endless, with the goal being to strike a balance to satisfy as many as possible (or, as the pessimist in me likes to say, keeps everyone equally dissatisfied).

So, in an attempt to help find some common ground, I jumped-in and posted my own comment.  I said that, in my opinion, the economic triad of (1) convenience, (2) quality, and (3) low cost applies here. All three cannot coexist in reality; and the goal in the US is to strike a balance among the three.

The access problem in America, I added, isn’t one of convenience. Quality healthcare is relatively convenient in most of the country. The problem is that convenience and quality come at a cost—one that is unaffordable for some. I don’t disagree with that. But in a socialized system, inexpensive healthcare becomes less convenient or of less quality. My preference would be incremental improvements to reduce cost without reducing quality or convenience.

Perhaps the hour was late and people had tired of the online conversation, but that was the last comment made on the thread. Other than a “like” on my comment posted by one participant, no additional comments graced the page.   

I’d like to think that, perhaps, it's because we all began to realize that problems like access to quality healthcare aren’t easily solved through online arguments.  But the endless opinion streams on Facebook and Twitter remind me that many of us haven’t yet learned the lesson that, in order to reach common ground, you usually have to be willing to open your mind and walk purposefully toward the space between.

January 2, 2020

Community as a Human Necessity

"The opposite of addiction isn't sobriety – it's connection."

This is the premise behind a fascinating viewpoint on human relations and the importance of community proposed by Swiss writer Johann Hari, author of "Chasing the Scream" and "Lost Connections." In the former, he expands on this view as follows:

If you want to understand why so many people are taking painkillers, you have to understand why so many people are in so much pain--and psychological pain is as real as physical pain.
It is not a coincidence that opiate addition is dramatically higher in West Virginia--where people have lost their communities, their economic security, and their sense of status--than among (say) the student body at Harvard, despite the fact that on average Harvard students have much better health insurance and so would find it easier to get hold of prescription opiates.

The places with the biggest opioid crises are also the paces with the highest suicide rates and the highest antidepressant prescriptions--which help us to see that what is really going on is an epidemic of deep disconnection...

You need to feel you belong. You need to feel you have a future that makes sense. Our culture is good at lots of things, but we have been getting less and less good at meeting those deep underlying psychological needs--and this is the key driver of the crisis.

Hari has been interviewed on numerous occasion for TV and print/online media.  That's where I heard him speak.  He even did a highly regarded TED talk.  Upon hearing his hypothesized relationship between a loss of connection and an increase in rates of addictive activity in society, I found myself understanding more clearly how important it is for us as civilized humans to build on those things that bring us together, rather than the issues and views that seem to pull us apart.

As Hari says, disconnection at the human level pulls the individual toward the use of addictive substances.  At the community level, it also erodes the sense of belonging and foments pessimism about the future.  In a positive sense, however, finding ways to connect with others by seeking common life goals and priorities can only help build more healthy communities.

Families, schools, civic organizations, churches, social media, jobs and even the streets where we live provide opportunities to connect with others.  The simple act of getting to know your neighbors, for instance, and caring about their welfare is a good start. The activity of building those connections and extending beyond ourselves, in turn, helps us as individuals to find meaning in our lives.

And all of this is a prerequisite for... reaching common ground.

November 25, 2019

Happy Thanksgiving!

A number of prior posts here (and here and here) on this page have addressed a common theme in building relationships--that of gratitude.  It's timely, then, that a recent online article in the Daily Health Post cited a 2015 study wherein researchers determined that saying "thank you" while truly feeling grateful had physical and emotional benefits well beyond what you might imagine. In fact, they surmised, being thankful "literally rewires your brain to be happier." The article explains the methodology as follows:

"One third of the subjects in the study were asked to keep a daily journal of things that happened during the week for which they were grateful.... At the end of the 10-week study, each group was asked to record how they felt physically and generally about life. The gratitude group reported feeling more optimistic and positive about their lives than the other groups. In addition, the gratitude group was more physically active and reported fewer visits to a doctor than those who wrote only about their negative experiences."

Research by others concluded that "focusing on the positive and feeling grateful can improve your sleep quality and reduce feelings of anxiety and depression. (Link here) Furthermore, levels of gratitude correlate to better moods and less fatigue and inflammation, reducing the risk of heart failure, even for those who are susceptible" (Link here)

Granted, the value of gratitude isn't really about "us," but about recognizing those who "do for us." But it's nice to know it's a feeling that seems to increase happiness all the way around.  So as you enjoy your Thanksgiving meal this year, keep that in mind.  And no matter your circumstances, always try to find something to be thankful for.  If you look hard enough, you might find there's more than you know.  And the process of looking (and thanking) will make you happy!

October 8, 2019

"We've forgotten that's it's OK we're all different"

On her TV talk show, Ellen DeGeneres explained why she was hanging out with former President George W. Bush at a Dallas Cowboys football game.

Social media had not been kind to her.  Many had criticized her strongly for simply being friendly with the former president.

"I'm friends with George Bush," she said. "In fact, I'm friends with a lot of people who don't share the same beliefs that I have. 

"We're all different. And I think we've forgotten that that's OK that we're all different... Just because I don't agree with someone on everything doesn't mean that I'm not going to be friends with them. 

"When I say-- be kind to one another, I don't mean only the people that think the same way you do. I mean be kind to everyone. Doesn't matter." 

(Link to the video and source of image.)

September 27, 2019

Like Cats and Dogs

My grandkids love a Disney animated series called "TOTS" (info here, also photo source) about a fictional company that delivers baby animals via storks--or, in the case of the series' heroes, a flamingo and his penguin sidekick. Each episode tries to teach some message to the young viewers and one aired recently featured a puppy and kitten who were being delivered together to the same new (adoptive) mother. The two babies quarreled and fought over a ball, until the aforementioned heroes stepped-in to teach them that playing together (e.g., playing catch with the ball) was more fun than fighting over it.  [Spoiler Alert] Ultimately, the two were successfully delivered to their new family and everyone lived happily ever after.

Sadly, the lessons being taught to children by adult role models (in person and in the media) are more about how it's important to argue and fight over virtually anything. Researchers have pointed out for years that, in the absence of biases that are taught and/or instilled in their minds, children have a natural tendency to get along with each other. Perhaps it's time for the adults to start learning from the children that the best way to reach common ground is to find that ground and put aside the differences that keep us from getting there.