Looking Back to a Kinder Future

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Vonnegut gave us more than an anti-war book; he gave us safe passage to our former selves

It didn’t work out well for Lot’s wife. As you might recall, she was warned not to look back at the Almighty’s wrath. “But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human,” Kurt Vonnegut said.

And I love Vonnegut all the more for writing this line. A timeless vulnerability.

In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut’s best known book, both time and seeing (what we’re able to see) are tightly woven themes. Vonnegut finished Slaughterhouse-Five two decades after witnessing the horrors of World War II. Maybe that time enabled him to find humor in the absurdity of violence, chaos, power, and death. So it goes.

In my worn 1969 copy, flags and folded pages help me locate dozens of jewels. But it’s a smaller, less shiny line, early on in the book when he’s speaking directly to the reader, that intrigues me the most:

People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.

Vonnegut does find a way to look back by creating Billy Pilgrim. Through Billy we can time travel to witness Billy’s past, present and future moments. In order for Vonnegut to tell his story (including the obliteration of Dresden), he needed a character who was both clueless and without choice. One that became unstuck in time, ping-ponging around from his death to his birth.

It’s a genius device, still, 50 years later. Slaughterhouse-Five is also the book I’ve found to be helpful, even therapeutic, in accepting the less-than-book-worthy stories I’ve told myself about my life.

Sometimes the war is within

Let me be clear: I’m not comparing a soldier’s war experiences with my own civilian, privileged life. I do suggest that Vonnegut’s approach to revisiting the horrors of what he experienced could be a useful way to make peace with the past.

If the looking back is painful or keeps you stuck, create a character you can empathize with.

Consider your younger self as a character in a chapter of your life’s book. I had an opportunity to try this on during my recent trip home to the Midwest. Before I left for the airport, I got in my head about letting my close high school friends know I was coming. I felt guilty for two years going by and I didn’t want to come across as ‘Hey! I’m on my way back! Drop everything!

So I tried to imagine a young girl (me) 40 years ago — as clueless as Billy Pilgrim. Not stupid, just ignorant about who she could become and all the possibilities her future might offer. As my compassion grew for her, so did my desire to see my friends.

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In fact, they were incredibly kind. Debbie came over to my parents’ house after she’d worked a full day and helped care for her friend’s aged father. Steve bought me a drink the day he was struggling with news of his sister’s cancer diagnosis and getting through the anniversary of his partner’s death. Teri treated me to breakfast, then later dropped off a gift bag with my favorite things. Signe rearranged her hospital schedule so that we could meet.

The day before we left my hometown, my husband looked at the sun setting on a 180-degree horizon. “I could see myself living here,” he said. And, while I knew he wasn’t asking to move, I didn’t roll my eyes or laugh at the idea. Instead, I remembered what Alain De Botton said,

“[It’s] Never too late to learn some embarrassingly basic, stupidly obvious things about oneself.”

Here they are:

When I moved away, I was not running from home; I was running from me.

Of course, I had a bunch of good reasons for venturing out into the world after high school. Like college and starting a career with a global company that liked to transfer employees, and going back to grad school. Each of my children were born in different states and life on the whole has been a great adventure.

Moving makes a great case for self-development, back in the day what we called “finding yourself.” But the truth is, I’m not lost. Yet, I don’t go home often. And when I do, I get anxious, feel a bit displaced.

What became apparent on this last trip home was this:

I desperately didn’t want to be who I thought I was or who I thought other people thought I was — all those years ago.

As sociologist Charles Cooley pointed out over a century ago, what I think about myself and what I believe other people think about me tend to be the same thing:

I am not what I think I am. I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am.

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I probably wasn’t that different than most of my peers. But it’s hard, even now, to see who I was beyond my neediness. My insecurities. My constant worries over being good/nice/popular/smart/pretty enough.

In fact, in seventh grade I ended up in the ER a few days after the most popular girl in our school screamed obscenities at me with her circle of sycophants gawking at my verbal beatdown. I learned I had ulcers.

Someone told me later that Miss Popular made up the accusations just to mess with me. She wasn’t to blame for the ulcers (I’m sure my worries were eating my stomach lining since elementary school), nor was she the worst thing that ever happened to me. I had a pretty good life then and now.

But my small character didn’t know how to handle conflict.

She didn’t know that conflict is not just okay, it’s inevitable and necessary for social and emotional growth. Instead of avoiding conflict (how I handled the seventh-grade incident and throughout high school) I needed to address it. I needed to save apologies for when I had wronged someone. I needed to stand up for myself, even if I stood alone.

I didn’t know what I needed, because approval was paramount.

Second-wave feminism was happening somewhere, but it was not happening in rural Illinois. Not only were other girls’ judgments of me potential powder kegs, I continued to harm myself by acting how I thought boys needed me to behave.

By conflating a location (home) with a fixed identity, I missed opportunities for character development.

Not only my own character development, but those of my friends and family members. I’d been short-sighted and unfair, somehow assuming that friends and especially my parents would be virtually the same people they were (and only as I saw them) decades ago. So I assumed they continued to see me as I was.

My own stuck perceptions were the problem.

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A steel helmet, a pipe, and a one-way train

If the former you as a sympathetic character doesn’t work, Vonnegut provides another theme: how little each of us is able to see.

Thanks to Billy’s abductors — four-dimensional beings who see all events in time simultaneously — we’re given this Earthling metaphor: Billy is strapped to a flat slab on a railway, his neck immobile, a long narrow pipe attached to one eye.

Every human perspective is all of a stationary pinprick. And the train we’re attached to is moving in a single direction.

“Whatever poor Billy saw through the pipe, he had no choice but to say to himself, ‘That’s life.’”

But aren’t I different? What about that free will thing?

I’d like to believe that I can see more than a pinprick. But I think the metaphor works. I may have added detail to my tiny aperture when I moved from place to place, but I don’t have a wider perspective than anyone else.

It literally took going home after recently rereading Slaughterhouse-Five to see that I have been unnecessarily stuck in the past.

More than anything, I want to believe I have choice. To change, to love, to learn — even if it means finding out more embarrassingly stupid things about myself.

But those rascally abductors, the Tralfamadores, tell Billy, “Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”

Whether free will exists doesn’t really matter.

I found a way to get unstuck. I’m giving the credit to Mr. Vonnegut.

There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

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What if We Faced the Facts? I Am Part of this Cult and So Are You

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David Brooks’s Five Lies can empower us, one truth at a time

Before I’d finished reading Five Lies Our Culture Tells, I wanted to send it to everyone I know. David Brooks had clearly articulated my reasons for leaving a profession I’d worked so hard to join. (The article summarizes some of his new book The Second Mountain: The quest for a moral life.)

Given that higher education, business schools in particular, rely on and reinforce these lies, it was hard for me to pretend, to lie about the lies not being lies.

These lies (myths if you prefer, and I’m getting to them) have seeped into America’s water supply for so long, it’s hardly fair to pick on higher education. Or to assume that most educators and staff consciously choose to drink them down. But make no mistake: Education does Corporate America’s bidding. Whether there’s enough money for 2.5 percent merit increases or clean classrooms, the amount of corporate funding for public research and influence over curricula is staggering.

Administrators don’t push back too hard. They can’t afford to. Nor can their faculty afford the freedom to communicate ideas or facts (including those that are inconvenient to external political groups or to authorities) without being targeted for repression or job loss. A little erosion of academic freedom can seem a small sacrifice when program funding, endowments and naming opportunities abound.

I wish I had a dime for every time I heard the term “professional” used in lieu of “political” or “quiet” or “agreeable”. As in, “She needs to be more professional in how she comes across.”

Professional is code for not stirring shit up. And by shit, I mean acknowledging that cultural lies exist. And that they’re passing for truth.

I tried my professional best. During corporate and big donor visits, it helped to pretend I was in a movie. But I didn’t pretend with students. And every once in awhile, when I assumed that those bright, blithe kids weren’t interested in questioning what they were fed (your brand is everything, people treat you as you train them to), one of them would prove me wrong by holding the lie up to the light.

The Five Lies

1. Career success is fulfilling

This is the lie we foist on the young. In their tender years we put the most privileged of them inside a college admissions process that puts achievement and status anxiety at the center of their lives. That begins advertising’s lifelong mantra — if you make it, life will be good.

I see it as a hamster wheel or the “come on, kitty kitty” described by Alan Watts in Music and Life. After the AP classes, the perfect resume, the six-figure salary: You’ve arrived! Soon followed by inevitable letdown.

Brooks says, “The truth is… if you build your life around [success], your ambitions will always race out in front of what you’ve achieved, leaving you anxious and dissatisfied.”

Of course, the hamster wheel is only available to those with enough privilege, access to loans, or luck to get their educational ticket punched. Not all beckoned kitties are able to follow the carrot when they’re malnourished or overwhelmed by the sticks.

And even if we were to imagine all Americans healthy, eager, and equally able to be herded, a career will not help us discover our life’s meaning. A career requires time and focus, usually demanding time away from those we love. Careers are simply how one or more jobs hang together over the course of our lives. What we do within the confines of each job can be meaningful, but the work cannot love us back.

2. I can make myself happy

As with education in general, I’m dubious about individualism. After years of studying social and organizational cultures, I’m aware of both its empowering and disabling aspects. Self-reliance is a noble value, yet it presumes that we have roughly equal access to food, shelter, education, jobs and mobility. Bootstrapping only works when you have boots that fit your feet.

Brooks points out the “lie of self-sufficiency,” the pretend belief that I accomplish happiness by myself. If I can do x or buy y, then I’ll be happy.

I’m unaware of any deathbed lamentations on not having acquired enough stuff. If you watched Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture, you’d remember he talked a good deal about enabling others’ dreams. What you might not know is that he said “help others” or “helping others” 16 times.

Happiness is not simply found within. As Brooks reminds us, “It is found in the giving and receiving of care.”

It’s easy to say you live for relationships, but it’s very hard to do. It’s hard to see other people in all their complexity. It’s hard to communicate from your depths, not your shallows. It’s hard to stop performing! No one teaches us these skills.

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An invaluable lesson I learned just before I left academia is that no one benefits when I communicate from my shallows. More than a few of my students inspired me to dig deeper and become more vulnerably me, which pointed me away from higher education and toward more community work.

3. Life is an individual journey

This lie is related to ‘I can make myself happy,’ and the one that gives us the false notion that “freedom is the absence of restraint.”

Brooks says that in reality those who live best tie themselves down:

They don’t ask: What cool thing can I do next? What is my responsibility here? They respond to some problem and get called out of themselves by a deep love.

Two years ago I learned that my college wouldn’t support a position I believed we needed: a faculty liaison to connect business students with community leaders through service-learning projects. My idea was to expand students’ work experience (beyond corporate internships) to include non-profits in return for earned credit hours. Other benefits included learning how to work with limited resources on local issues, and the intrinsic reward of helping to improve one’s community.

I no longer wanted a job simply about me or my teaching. I felt less and less comfortable inside my business school silo, especially in a city with 40% poverty. Just as I learned my dream job wouldn’t materialize, a writer for the college’s slick magazine asked me: What do you do when you’re stuck in a career or job slump? I apparently gave this answer:

I’ve had several careers, and the feeling about where to go next has usually come from the community. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. I need to think, ‘What can I do for others today?’

I was surprised to see it in print. As I read my own quote, it seemed to reveal its purpose. Three months later, I gave my notice.

4. You have to find your own truth

This is what Brooks calls “You do you!” It is the privatization of meaning… everybody gets to choose…

The reality is that values are created and passed down by strong, self-confident communities and institutions. People absorb their values by submitting to [these communities] and taking part in the conversations that take place within them. It’s a group process.

Brooks is right when he describes how most of us (who do ‘me’) end up with a few vague moral feelings but no sense of purpose. In fact, how, especially, are teens and young adults supposed to figure out their truth? Especially when:

  • A few people with power, prestige, or personal connection tell them what to believe.

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  • We are increasingly more insulated and isolated. Technology exacerbates these conditions (have you looked around a campus, restaurant or any public space, lately?) and our media — most of it — thrives on promoting fear and divisiveness.
  • The social-emotional guidance some of us received during K-12 is simply not available to millions of American students. As humans, we need time to understand our existence, knowledge, matter, values, reason, mind, and language — the content of philosophy.

Philosophy is not a substitute for religion. What leading a moral life may look like (while still retaining choice), and how morality differs from being lawful or ethical, is missing in education, business, and society at large.

5. Rich and successful people are worth more than poorer and less successful people

This lie blatantly challenges America’s liberty and justice for all but we all know there’s more or less liberty and justice depending on who you are (i.e., what you or your parents are worth).

Although we adore a good rags-to-riches story, I think the truth is this: We love immigrants and native-born underdogs once they become rich, famous, and powerful. That’s when we fully adopt them. The same was true of the Irish, Italians, and Jews at Ellis Island. But this was never true of millions of African ancestors who disembarked from ships during the Middle Passage.

The message of meritocracy is that you are what you accomplish. The false promise of the meritocracy is that you can earn dignity by attaching yourself to prestigious brands. The emotion of the meritocracy is conditional love — that if you perform well, people will love you.

The Takeaway: A Simple Syllogism

What I appreciate most about Brooks’s piece is that he widens our lens beyond faulty institutions and systems. Name something you don’t like about America and chances are it involves a behemoth, faceless institution: our political system, education, the economy, health care, welfare, Wall Street.

Instead, he gives us something we can (and do) own. He challenges us when he posits that our biggest problems are societal: they involve us. The real takeaway, then, is an opportunity. One that can be expressed as a syllogism:

We live in a culture (like any culture) that is based, in part, on lies.

We are each part of, and therefore responsible for, our culture.

We can change our culture.

How is this possible? Culture is vast, pervasive. But culture is merely the way we do things in various contexts. It changes. All the time.

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Culture is certainly influenced by leadership, but it’s not entirely foisted on us. On the other hand, it’s not always optional. We adapt quickly — one of our best and sometimes worst features. (Do you ever find yourself reaching for your phone because everyone else is hunched over theirs?)

The fact that each of us may be complicit in perpetuating a culture that doesn’t always tell the truth actually gives me hope.

We are more powerful than we are taught to believe.

When you tell one person that, in fact, their happiness doesn’t depend on a high-paying career or you reassure them that they alone cannot make themselves happy, you help them hold a lie up to the light.

We don’t have to quit our jobs or start a revolution to improve our society. As its members, we have both the right and the responsibility to stop pretending. To no longer lie about lies not being lies.

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Intersectionality: It’s Going to Get Harder Before It Gets Better

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One muppet on the street taught us empathy; surely we can learn the crossroads

One of my first teachers of empathy was a young amphibian on Sesame Street, a vulnerable companion sharing his lonely greenness. Like millions of kids in 1969, I related to and felt my heart swell with love for a frog, especially after I heard him sing.

Kermit the Frog remains my spirit animal of empathy. Hard to believe he is now, like me, AARP-eligible. A lot has changed since 1969 thanks to Sesame Street, Julia, and The Mod Squad — among the first shows to cast women, African Americans and Latinx in leading, positive roles.

Although diverse representation seems slow to me (one step forward, several back) I’m heartened when I look at demographics in the House of Representatives. Identities have moved beyond a handful of races and binary genders. Identities now include multiple intersecting identities. A good thing, yet reaching agreement is only going to get harder.

Even within the social justice space — a space culturally suited to more listening and less hostility than Congress — it’s getting harder. We hear more voices (again, a good thing) but it can be harder to fully listen, to take the time to reflect and to reach agreement without giving in to the same divisions we are trying to bridge.

I’m not specifically talking about white women coopting feminism. Although that’s definitely part of it. In a larger frame, it has to do with legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw’s intersectionality: that individuals may experience multiple forms of prejudice simultaneously.

It’s the reason writers like Jennifer Kim advocate continual introspection, curiosity, and compassion to recognize troublesome statements and attitudes like these:

“I’m a woman so I show up to all the women’s events, but it’s not my place to be an ally to people of color.” Or, “As a member of a racial minority group, I’m extremely aware of the systemic oppression against my people in this country, but LGBTQ+ don’t deserve the same rights as I do because of [some faulty logic].”

Up Close and Personal

Twenty years ago, Sakina trained me to co-facilitate Ethnic and Race Study Circles in Raleigh, NC. After three years of working with Sakina in communities, schools, and local governments, she and I were offered contracts with the NC Episcopal Diocese and two corporations that wanted to move beyond Diversity 101 and build more inclusive cultures.

Sakina is now the top diversity officer at a large university system. She and I live 1000 miles apart instead of 10, but we try to catch up every few months. Two hour phone calls. Last month’s call happened around 2 p.m. on a weekday because Sakina had taken a mental health day.

She was dealing with a lot more than bureaucratic stalls and stops, power plays and politics. More than a refrain of our familiar convos about next career steps and “isn’t it time we make our podcast idea a thing?” This time it was a problem within her own department.

Specifically, push-back from the only white woman (let’s not call her Becky, but Brenna) who reports to Sakina. Brenna is director of the LGBTQ center. Several weeks ago, Sakina heard from several student and faculty allies who felt ‘scolded’ by Brenna.

“I’ve heard her (Brenna) jump on people about pronoun usage, especially after Toni (who is trans), was hired as her assistant. I mean, damn, I’m the first to want to know if I’m not being inclusive but there’s a way to do that. We can’t be turning people off who want to learn and support.”

After Sakina privately relayed her concerns to Brenna and offered coaching support, Brenna dismissed Sakina’s feedback. Brenna also went directly to Sakina’s boss, a VP, to file a complaint about receiving a 2%, instead of (the maximum) 2.5%, merit increase.

She Said, She Said

Of course my empathy lies with Sakina. She’s bright, collaborative and compassionate AF. Yes, I’m biased. And I’m aware (as I was that afternoon) that I can easily chalk up Brenna as another white female who can’t accept and back a Black female leader.

Maybe this is true; maybe it’s not. Perhaps Brenna is an entitled, neurotic mess — regardless of her boss’s race. Perhaps Brenna is only a warrior for non cis-gendered people and she can’t see the social justice forest for the trees.

All I know is that it’s going to get harder. But that’s gotta be okay. Slow progress or status quo? I’ll take the slow road. And try to remember that conflict is the harbinger of change.

Math as Metaphor

I think of set theory as a metaphor for shared social identities. People as circles intersecting to various degrees depending on their common identities, traits, and experiences.

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Let’s take Sakina’s and Brenna’s imagined commonalities. Their shared identities, traits and experiences show up as light beige-colored, eclipse-shaped overlap (pictured on left).

Sakina and Brenna surely value social justice (in general); they grew up female, have two degrees, and share a common nationality and organizational membership, for starters.

What does this mean, if anything? Do Brenna’s “issues” with Sakina exist because they don’t share enough common identity, like race or sex?

I don’t think so. First, to assume that shared identities equal a conflict-free zone is about as likely as the absence of dysfunction in families. Second, intersected (overlapping) circles illustrate that we can have any number of common identities — AND within those identities is more diversity, nuance, and sometimes very different meanings.

Intersectionality is different from intersecting identities. It’s about how those with the same identity experience their diversity. We can only try to understand, to empathize with each another’s greenness or frogness. Crenshaw’s one-minute explanation is well worth watching:

It’s hard work. And easy to understand why managers (of all identities) wish to hire those with similar identities, traits, and experiences. But this runs counter to reality: the world is increasingly diverse, regardless of our place in it. Equally important, hiring for homogeneity is antithetical to any kind of diversity— especially if you want an inclusive, engaged culture.

Math Has Its Limits

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Let’s suppose that Sakina’s and Brenna’s circles are almost totally eclipsed. Their circles significantly overlap — almost like twins. Looking at identity and intersectionality through the lens of set theory doesn’t account for infinite ways in which Sakina or Brenna might “see” or have experienced their identities, traits, and life in general.

Even if Brenna were Black and born to two professors (Sakina’s experience), she may have still pushed back on Sakina’s feedback; she might have tread the same path to the VP, instead of having a conversation with her manager. Everything could have happened, just as it did, based on neurology, chemistry, personality, and other idiosyncrasies.

Regardless of shared identities, no two people will see the world and their place in it similarly.

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Being woke about intersectionality is not just a mindset. It requires disciplined responsibility to have richer, more thoughtful conversations and to create more nuanced possibilities. This usually translates into more time-consuming work. At least in the short-term. Over time, though, trust engenders more candor. Collaboration becomes an easier, more efficient way of working.

It’s Not Easy Being Human

I’d love to tell you that Sakina’s problems with Brenna are over. That through my friend’s continued efforts at trust-building and empathy, Brenna was able to accept Sakina’s coaching. That Brenna is trying to change her approach with allies. That Brenna is taking responsibility.

I don’t know. But I’m learning it’s a sign of progress to be challenged, to hear push-back from others, especially those who work with me in the social justice space. It’s not personal and yet it is. I’m part of the work; my role is important. But, I don’t need to take challenges or criticisms personally. Especially as a white cis-gendered woman it’s essential that I take time to listen. To learn the crossroads. To get better.

Special thanks to my friend and colleague Sakina. I am because you are.

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Is There a Problem If I Can’t Stay Put?

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After 25 moves and six states, it’s time to find out

My household moves are hardly Ripley’s worthy, but given the average American moves 11-12 times over their entire lifespan, should I be concerned? According to the Social Security Administration, I have 25 more years to move. Biologically. If the government is right (what are those odds?), I could easily triple the average American. Why do I care?

Friday, we returned home from seeing a new listing. My husband says, “Maybe we should look for a place where it’s always spring or summer.” I look up from my laptop — 17 open tabs, 10 of them houses. Surely he’s not trying to sneak Costa Rica or Belize back on our list of locations. (We decided last year: even paradise is too cold without family a few hours away.)

Then he adds, “I’ve noticed that you start looking toward the end of every winter.”

Swallow. Okay, fair. And fairly accurate. With one 14-month exception in Nebraska, I have sought progressively warmer climes. But I wasn’t convinced that escaping winter is the whole story. (Maybe it is. I am all for finding out.)

What is “Normal”?

Although recent stats are hard to find, the average American moves about 11 times over a lifetime. Average doesn’t define what’s “normal,” it’s just one big mean. Money, mobility, age, education, ethnicity, and the economy (among other things) influence frequency of household moves.

Mover by Choice

There’s no term, none I can find, for people like me who move every few years. For me it’s usually 2–3 years a stretch. But here’s a crucial point: unlike millions of Americans, I have almost always chosen to move.

Counting all my household moves as an adult, 90% of them were based on my decision to move. Urban, poor Americans also move — driven by poor housing conditions, unresponsive landlords and other subsidized housing issues. One study found that about 70 percent of many relocation “decisions” among the poor are not decisions at all, but rather reactions to outside forces.

Also, Not a Serial Mover

Besides choice, another distinction is that people who move more than average are not necessarily serial movers. Yep, it’s a thing.

New York Times is where I first saw the term serial movers: “Those who eagerly hop back on the open-house circuit even before the aroma of fresh paint and polyurethane begins to fade — that is, if they ever stopped looking in the first place.”

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Despite the obvious connotation of the word serial and my desire not to have a moving-related psychosis, I don’t believe I am a serial mover. For one thing, I don’t continue looking after the closing. I do like to paint, and unless ceiling height poses safety issues, I do my own interior painting (and lawn mowing).

Serial movers seem motivated by everything from a desire for exploration, to the perpetuation of habit born in childhood, to a hunger for drama and excitement, to a fondness for extreme housekeeping. And these days, such appetites are stoked by a smorgasbord of aggressively marketed new buildings engaging in a constant battle of one-upmanship.

Desire for exploration: Check. That’s it. No childhood habit, no desire for drama beyond that which my three (now grown) daughters have already gifted, and certainly, above all, zero fondness for extreme housekeeping. (What is extreme housekeeping? Isn’t housekeeping unpleasant enough?) As for the one-upmanship, I care to impress as much as I’m an extreme housekeeper.

So How Much More Crazier Am I ?

Between birth and before moving into a shared dorm room, I lived in two places (actually, three: an apartment until I was months old, but have no memory of it). So, I don’t fit the army brat profile. I’m not replaying my formative years.

Photo for reuse: Wikimedia Commons

My first choice was to go to college; I was assigned to live in the tallest dormitory in the world. Given freshmen and sophomores had to live in a dorm, I wanted to try every conceivable type of room: After the double with Mary, I sought a single — which I learned made me less happy — and then a triple with Mary and Chris.

My desire to move within constraints is probably not inconsequential. It tells me that regardless of where I have to be, I want to explore all the possibilities.

Openness to Change

I like change. I get antsy or bored with too much certainty. When I taught trait-based leadership I’d take the Big Five Personality assessment with my students and plot our scores so we could see ranges and means. I was usually the highest data point at 95% on openness to experience. When another student scored similarly, I was able to guess: they were the one that loved to color outside the lines, suggest new colors, redraw the lines.

I can’t find any research on propensity to move and personality traits, so I’m spit-balling an educated hunch. The main question remains: is there a point at which moving reflects more than one or two dimensions of a “normal” personality? When might moving become a compulsion or something worse?

Experts Say:

When it comes to a psychological profile of movers, clinical psychologist Nancy J. Crown says that cookie-cutter explanations don’t exist:

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It would always have to be understood within the context of the particular person and their unique history. So you really couldn’t say that moving a lot means the same thing for everyone.

(Whew.) Yet, as Crown warns against overpathologizing frequent moving behavior, she also says:

There are some people who — either because of a lack of sense of who they are, or some feeling of inadequacy — may want to redo themselves in one way or another again and again. Something new is like anything is possible — you can sort of imagine yourself to be the person that you’d like to be.

Do I feel inadequate? No. Do I really know who I am and what I want to be? No. I’ve wanted to be everything from a blue fairy princess to a union organizer, a social scientist to Joan Didion. This year it’s Didion.

And I’m totally on board with anything is possible.

Finally, Crown adds that excessive moving could signal a fear of commitment and a consequent fear of closing off opportunities. Or, like procrastination, it can be a way to avoid failure.

Aha. Am I on to something? A fear of commitment to an imperfect place that follows me wherever I go? Or a fear of missing out on a place that’s out there… waiting for me?

A place to write in a sunny, warm, simple but comfortable, secluded but accessible, inexpensive yet quality-built cottage where tiny goats, cats and dogs frolic with or without our grandchildren on a few acres. Something in between Thoreau’s rustic single-room at Walden Pond and the airy Spanish Colonial of the Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West. A place where I’ll never feel depressed or lacking, old or tired, worried or worn.

Or am I avoiding failure (or the chance of success)? Am I using my Zillow hour each day to inadvertently rob myself of writing time, to put off being as productive as possible in a perfectly imperfect house that is more than good enough for the next 25 years?

I’m momentarily calmed and then, just the thought of things being close to perfect reminds me of Ricky Bobby’s daddy Reese in Talladega Nights:

Yep, I guess things are just about perfect… it’s making me feel kind of itchy.

And without thinking, I open another tab.

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Getting Ourselves Back to the Garden

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels

even if we missed it the first time

I’d love to tell you I was at Yasgur’s Farm in August 1969, but I was 10, surrounded by soybeans and corn in downstate Illinois. Ten years later, my future husband would introduce me to Woodstock’s creative tillers: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Hendrix, Joplin, Mountain, Cocker, Country Joe & The Fish.

Among the famous festival’s absentees were The Beatles, Zeppelin, The Doors, and Dylan. But the most notable of all was Joni Mitchell. Precisely because she wasn’t there, Mitchell composed Woodstock.

Mitchell’s manager thought it more prudent she keep her booking on The Dick Cavett Show. So Mitchell wrote Woodstock in a hotel room, based on what she’d heard from her boyfriend Graham Nash and what she could glean from televised reports. Decades later David Crosby said that Mitchell captured the feeling and importance of the festival better than anyone who had actually been there.

We are stardust, we are golden
We are billion year old carbon
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden

Photo by Pixabay

Realities of No Return

Ever have the feeling you were born too early or too late to fully soak in the zeitgeist of an era? I was born a little too late for the Sixties. A shoot popping up in a field of wildflowers just before the frost. A would-be Woodstock kid transplanted in the middle of the country.

Just as I began to grasp the music and message of Woodstock, the Seventies were winding down. Reaganomics would usher in a new dawn most unlike Grace Slick’s meaning. While I acquiesced to the cultural changes of the Eighties, I felt I had missed a golden age, one that celebrated peace, less conformity and consumerism, and a currency of kindness that made sense.

But every golden age is fraught with plating, at best. As a white girl, I acknowledged the tragedy of race and anti-war riots that left hundreds dead and tens of thousands injured and homeless. From 1964 to 1971 alone, more than 750 race-related riots were documented. As one historian put it, “there was so much racial tension in the air in the 1960’s that a riot could happen almost anywhere, anytime.” And, of course, the tarnish that was Vietnam.

I’d like to think that my idyllic garden wasn’t sullied by privilege. But of course it was. I could choose to keep Woodstock and peace and love somehow untainted by reality. But in 1979, inflation and interest rates had climbed well into double-digits. The white co-ed would soon have to make a living, pay back all those loans. A protracted recession and a zealous young Republican (played by Michael J. Fox) on Family Ties were on the way to remind us that every speck of stardust has its price.

It wasn’t until the early Nineties, when I first moved to Athens, Georgia, that I felt close to “the garden,” one that included more humility. Sure, the Classic City’s enchantment had something to do with the music scene (REM, B-52s, Widespread Panic), but I also got the sense that this place had decided to stop the clock somewhere between Nixon’s first and Carter’s only term.

I’d arrived to get a PhD, and the University of Georgia just happened to be geographically situated in this countercultural mecca. I joined a female empowerment group called Spiral Dynamics and became friends with poets, crafters, lesbians and vegans. We discussed Sister Outsider. It was my garden.

Photo by Sebastian Kanczok on Upsplash

A woman who reminded me of Joan Baez cut my hair at the Dream Catcher on Jackson Street. Ellen is now my therapist, but I suppose she was then, as well. I think it was she (or another stylist) who’d read something on ley lines: “Sort of like invisible chakras of the earth’s energy.” Athens was, ostensibly, where many of those energy lines intersected.

Leaving the Garden

Toward the end of 1995, I remarried and moved to a remote country called Nebraska. The idea was to write a stunning dissertation proposal and collect data that first ABD year. Instead I paid the price of leaving academia before my committee gave me their blessing. I’d underestimated politics and my naivete: my first proposal failed. I was also advised that doing “diversity research” was like shooting myself in the foot. I hobbled back to Nebraska.

I missed my garden. Over a landline, I exchanged laments with Sally, a close friend I’d made in Athens. Her salt-of-earth response, “Of course I miss it. But we can never go back.” Sally had remarried her ex-husband (after several years of divorce), so she knew something about the folly of nostalgia.

Sally was right. After a 20-year separation from the garden, I returned to love Athens. But, like me, it had changed. As Frost put it: Nothing gold can stay.

Thinking Green, Instead

Just because we can’t go back to what was shouldn’t stop us from pursuing what could be. Maybe gold can’t stay. Maybe that’s a groovy thing and we’re just too fixated on what we believe we must have to be happy. But we don’t know what we haven’t experienced. So, here’s how I’m trying to look beyond the old gold:

The garden’s a big place; choose a place to tend

Four years ago, I moved back with a plan to equally cultivate my teaching and community outreach roles until I retired from the same college that awarded my PhD. After three years, I realized I’d been searching for a plot that didn’t exist.

Instead of looking at my return as a failed experiment — a search for gold gone bust — I realized the part I loved most about my faculty job was working with nonprofits to develop service-learning opportunities for my leadership students. I also took some time to birth 14 Words for Love, a social justice-focused writing initiative to reclaim a hate motto shared by white supremacists.

Photo by Jodi Barnes

For a city as small as Athens, we citizens are lucky on many counts. Music now includes a growing hip-hop scene that’s getting deserved buzz. We still have great local bars, restaurants, and coffee houses. Donation-based yoga. A regional startup hub. An eclectic business collective called Athensmade. Festivals like AthFest, Human Rights Festival, and Wild Rumpus bring people together from around the country and beyond.

But it’s tough to sustain yourself here. Over one-third of Athenians live in poverty (some figures are as high as 40 percent). That’s over 2.5 times the national poverty rate.

To put a finer point on it, plots aren’t equally allocated among us celestials. They never have been, from Eden to Woodstock.

I look for the intersection between what I love, where I have some skills, and what breaks my heart. And there’s so much to tend within that single intersection. Millions of acres in need of 21st century aerials, more equitable plats, seed monies and sustainable irrigation systems. Hundreds of nonprofits and incredibly talented and passionate people are here, many home-grown, to tend these needs.

Photo by Red and Black staff, used with permission

Start planting seeds to restore your best self

One of my plots this year includes non-violent communication and restorative practices within a big field called restorative justice (RJ). RJ is about restoring people to their best selves. A place many of us have never experienced. We’re used to retribution. Rules simply rule. A kid curses out a teacher: suspended. U.S. schools generally show zero tolerance for disruptive behavior. The results impact black students especially hard.

RJ focuses on relationships. How does someone who’s harmed another person repair what’s been done? How can we listen for underlying unmet needs and support each other for more accountability? Restorative practices are the ways we can help students, their parents, our teachers, and school staff to listen, learn and support one another’s humanity. (For a good read on restorative justice in schools, Jennifer Gonzalez rocks it as part of her Cult of Pedagogy.)

Find Master Gardeners to Keep Learning and Loving

Last week, I got the opportunity to take a workshop with Charles Curtis, psychologist and RJ coordinator at Ron Brown College Preparatory High in D.C. I remembered hearing about Ron Brown and its focus on restorative practices on NPR. Dr. Curtis introduced himself, unabashedly, as “a lover.”

Love grows in the Ron Brown College Preparatory garden. Love, in deed, is the garden. Simply, Curtis and the CARE team at Ron Brown actively love each student every single day, without giving up. Like this:

“We’re at your house, we’re in your face, we’re in your business, we’re caring about you, we’re at your mama’s funeral, in class when you’re struggling.” — Charles Curtis, PhD

and this from his colleague:

“I tell the guys all the time, ‘You’re going to get love, and there’s really nothing you can do about it.’ … They’re like, ‘Is this real? Why don’t y’all suspend me?’ And I think that blows their minds. ‘Why y’all won’t send me home?!’ ’Cause we can just talk about it, and y’all be fine.” — Dawaine Cosey, CARE Team member

Billion Year Old Carbon

One of my dearest friends owns a bunch of gardens and acres of living art at the Rensing Center, about 90 miles north of Athens. Orchestric waterfalls play behind brilliant yellow-orange chanterelles on lush 3-D canvases. Her artist residency program requires several houses for modern human habitation. And shit breaks at the least convenient or affordable times. She keeps going off something like remembering her identity. Family ties with the cosmos. A bone-deep belief that we are all stewards of the garden. We can restore both Eden lost and found. We can build new Edens.

All of this fits in my garden. Every once in awhile, I begin to research ley lines. And then I realize, I don’t need to know why I’m here.

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Digging My Way Out of Scarcity: A Writer’s Tunnel of Reads and Claps

Photo by Pat Graziosi on Unsplash

I started feeling competitive and it wasn’t helping.

Feeling that edge every now and then can be good motivational fuel. But the edge was becoming the whole cloth. The fibers didn’t feel right.

I knew too much about my own traits, motivations, and the science behind them. Twenty-plus years of reliable data that I’m highly agreeable, tend toward collaboration, and have little need for power. Collaboration is intentionally baked into the other work I do. I’m not unselfish. Choosing to work in spaces of shared ideas, recognition and rewards yields the most meaning for me.

So to confess my competitive jealousy here is both a relief and a self-reprimand. To admit imagined rivalries between myself and other Medium writers feels immature. Even ridiculous.

I’ve been a writer here since January. My husband, an avid reader of all things non-fiction, occasionally sends me links on writing by Medium writers. A recent piece by Shaunta Grimes included staggeringly high stats and payouts over three months. Even seeing her first month’s earnings of over $100 evoked a green monster within me. I felt anxious, almost panicky.

Points of comparison poked into me like those plastic T fasteners that hide in the label of your shirt after you’ve cut away the tags. I chafed as I read to find something I was either doing right (confirmation bias) or to reveal holes in the writer’s logic (to reduce cognitive dissonance).

My biggest bias, though, was my illusion of superiority: a tendency to overestimate our positive attributes and underestimate our negative attributes when we compare ourselves with others. Although I didn’t feel superior to Ms. Grimes, I convinced myself that I didn’t have much to learn from her.

Of course I did. My tunnel vision of stats and earnings had trapped me in a fixed mindset, a world of scarcity and competition.

The Thief of Joy

Teddy Roosevelt left us with some killer quotes like “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Comparison is also the foundation of all competition. Especially the disabling kind of competition that makes you doubt the what, why, when, where, and how of your work.

Of course, comparisons are beneficial. Without a system of measuring, how do we know we’re getting closer to what we need or where we’re headed? A good answer is not to stop comparing, but to compare your progress against your former self — yesterday, last week or last year. Benchmark on personal bests. Don’t worry about anyone else’s.

The ancient thief that Roosevelt referenced, the one that can rob us of our serenity and gratitude, is based on anyone else, not ourselves. Comparing to others robs us of honoring what we have achieved and aspects of success that society doesn’t recognize as valuable: self-care, good relationships, and understanding what’s enough.

Photo by Henry & Co. on Unsplash

Enough Versus Scarcity

So as I’m driving back to Athens from an overdue self-care-with-a-friend weekend in Asheville, that Medium article — the reminder of how much money I’m not making, how much time each article has taken me to write and edit, and (as a self-flagellating bonus) fifth-guessing my decision to quit academia — is poking into me. I turn on NPR to distract myself with Shankar Vedantam’s Hidden Brain.

The Scarcity Trap: Why We Keep Digging When We’re Stuck in a Hole could not have been more salient for me.


When you’re desperate for something, you focus on it to the detriment of everything else.

People who lack money to meet basic needs worry constantly about feeding their families today; they can’t worry about rent. The loneliest people who hunger for companionship appear awkward when talking to strangers. If they seem desperate, that’s how they feel. The time-starved (e.g., physicians who work 80 hours a week) overspend their mental energy on juggling time. Scarcity affects more than our bodies: it affects our brains. Detrimentally.

You can become so obsessive about what you lack, you can’t focus on anything else.

We all tunnel in on what’s missing. Inside our own tunnels we are consumed by this lack, leaving us no bandwidth to focus on anything else. Inside the tunnel, there’s no outside, no bigger picture to attend to. Scarcity captures the mind. One out-of-reach goal is all we think about. Not because we don’t want to. But because we can’t think about anything else.

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

Scarcity as a Mindset

An important point: Lacking money for food and housing is not the same as a doctor being over-worked. Fascinating, though, that a mother who had spent her last $500 on food and diapers while forgetting to save some for gas had made the same decision-making error that a new doctor made after working consistent 18-hour days. They were both making decisions without the ability to think past their immediate lack.

Scarcity tunnels are equal opportunity offenders. Here are some simple strategies based on what I gleaned from The Scarcity Trap. In case you find yourself in a hole:

Stop digging deeper.

Turn around to see that sliver of sunlight above you. Take a break and come to the surface. We’re not built to see much, let alone gain insights, in the same underground dwelling. Scarcity is its own trap.

Balance being in the present and doing for the future.

While out of the tunnel — even momentarily — breathe. Would life crumble if you took 10 minutes to meditate or mindfully breathe? Without fixating on the past, what would it look like to regularly emerge from the hole, to be more present with those you love?

Don’t be fooled (anymore) that more = more.

Shankar’s epilogue revealed how the working mother and doctor had escaped their respective tunnels. The doctor, who’d ignored her own health and had almost forgotten to order insulin for a Type 1 diabetic patient, now makes room for a hobby and a social life. She is able to hold more patient care ideas and data in her head. She’s a better doctor. And she’s happier.

Photo by Nqobile Vundla on Unsplash

This resonated. Spring semester, sophomore year, I finally got my single dorm room. I cut my credit hours to 14 and worked a lighter work study load. I was determined to pour everything I had into academics. My grades that May constituted my lowest GPA of eight semesters. I was also depressed. All I was doing was doing — and mostly alone.

Let other people help you see the light.

Get out of your head and onto a more work-life-balance path. Schedule down time for yourself and with those you care about. I’d “taken” two full days to meet friend in Asheville, hoping I could catch up to all my real and imagined work (and worries) when I returned.

Instead, I received relaxation, the loving company of a good friend, and a bigger idea of what success looks like. I met Monday with softer edges of a lighter texture. It’s much more me.

I’d love your feedback. As a writer, how you respond to your scarcity traps?

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How Reporting 101 Could Teach The World To Sing in Closer Harmony

Photo by Amy Ross on flickr

I majored in journalism because it was the Seventies. My mother had a radio show at WSOY in Decatur, IL. I thought AM radio was corny, but I was secretly proud of her. To fill an hour of empty air with nothing but a microphone seemed insanely brave.

Print journalism was safer. As a newspaper reporter, I’d have more control over what I “said” and an editor’s net could catch me if I was wrong. Plus, I liked to write.

Bernstein and Woodward had already become celebrities by exposing the rot under the Nixon administration’s veneer of innocence. A new magazine called Ms.was stirring things up by serving news to a feminist audience. As I packed my bags for Normal, IL, I imagined that a first-generation college co-ed could be successful at something outside teaching or nursing. Gratefully, and with many supporters, I graduated.

Although I didn’t stick with the newsroom but for a few short years, my journalism education benefitted me far beyond the job of reporter and editor. After many years and several different careers, I’ve learned that our ability and willingness to interact with one another as human beings is the most important life skill. We must learn to communicate with less suspicion, prejudice, rudeness, and rancor.

Civility now sounds rather antiquated. But society’s need for it is not. Our ability to interact with others as co-inhabitants of our world is at stake. In fact, about 70% of Americans think a lack of civility in public spaces is a major problem.

Instead of blaming our growing incivility on politics or lack of role modeling (both of which certainly play a part), I believe that our use of technology — especially in social media spaces — is the main driver.

Social media platforms invite and reward us to make assumptions about people we don’t know. And if we knew them, we might like or even love them.

No one in my journalism cohort could have imagined the extent to which media would expand beyond TV, newspapers and magazines. Advertisements were of course necessary to keep the publications I wrote for and ones I dreamed of writing for afloat. But the blurring of entertainment, advertising, news, features, and public relations? What are you smoking? Alternative facts? A mad dystopian nightmare.

Yet, marketing “pop” as a pop song that exploited our ethos had begun before the Watergate break in. The most famous and (up to then) innovative commercial — one that pushed us into the brave new world of soda equals social consciousness and world peace — actually happened in 1971.

The Washington Post, Second-Wave Feminism and my mother’s role modeling influenced my actions. But the Coke commercial is the ear worm that wriggled its way into my emotional brain. Whenever I think about making the world a better, saner, kinder, more enlightened place, it’s the song I hear.

I’d like to Teach the World a Reporting 101 Mindset

Reporting instructor Steve Pasternack was not one for feel-good jingles or pithy aphorisms. He was a serious, seasoned reporter both respected and moderately feared (after some of us cancelled his wake up call for an early conference event as a prank). He was from New Jersey, Jewish, direct and passionate about what constituted accurate and accessible reporting. I remember fragments of memories while sitting in his class, mostly behind a Royal or Remington at Illinois State University in 1978.

Photo by Ed Uthman on flickr

Fragment 1: Your writing is an artifact. It will be scrutinized and your assignments will bleed with corrections and critiques. Toughen up. It’s not personal.

Fragment 2: Inverted pyramid: State most important facts up front. Details come later. Don’t embellish to sound smart.

Fragment 3: Don’t assume anything. Ask. (Image of a cloudy blackboard, six letters divided by two vertical chalk lines)

ass | u | me

This word summed up the source of a journalist’s most common error. Taking steps to mitigate assumptions cleared the path to a more accurate, objective truth. Simple steps like asking sources to spell their names, double-checking “facts,” listening without interruption, probing without pushing, restating what they said, asking permission to contact them if you have more questions. And, of course, offering no opinion. A reporter does not judge.

My Coke-flavored-teach-the-world-to-sing wish is that everyone learn Reporting 101 life skills from someone like Dr. Pasternack. To sit at a metal desk with a manual typewriter at your fingertips, eyes squinting to decipher handwritten facts from opinions on a blackboard. To type a coherent and accurate story in 40 minutes. To shake off that red-stained artifact that you were sure deserved an 83 but is returned to you with a 57. A number that compels you to double-check your own name in the top-left corner.

Illusions of Knowledge, Comfort, and Being on the Right Side

USAF 1st Airman Devin Boyer

Today, supercomputers do our investigative work. We consume more than we research, think about, or discuss current events and their implications. Social media algorithms point us to folks like us who like what we like, have similar interests, and further fuel our dislike of “other” — those whose ideologies and lifestyles are dangerous, weird, even wrong.

Those models, created to make money, eerily predict our spending, what we will read, share, like and love more accurately than could our closest loved one. But an equally troubling phenomenon is our increasing tendency to stick to the stories that get shared and praised within our tribes. We report and repost narratives that reinforce the tribe’s ideology, thereby proving our allegiance and upping our likes and status.

Being drawn to folks who validate our ideas, experiences and opinions is understandably comforting and comfortable. Yet, if we only listen to those who agree with us, if we keep sharing the same memes, cover the same narratives over and over again with no passersby from other perspectives, what do we gain?

Not Assuming Anything

I’ve been doing work in the area of conflict for a few years. Whether it’s helping others have difficult conversations at work or facilitating opposing perspectives on community issues, not everyone wants to learn a more complex, nuanced story from different perspectives.

Those who resist more complete stories are not stupid or wrong. Like it or not, though, we are all constantly learning and adapting. Whether we want to or not.

One thing seems clear, yet frustrating: Often it’s the people who are least willing to have conversations outside their tribe who could benefit most. At a minimum, we need to be curious in order to talk about uncomfortable topics or to engage with someone who belongs to an “opposing” tribe. Some people are so certain they’re right, there’s no more room for curiosity.

If you remain curious and want to better understand political perspectives, Better Angels is devoted to reds and blues discussing beliefs without agenda. Better Angels began in December 2016, when 10 Trump supporters and 11 Clinton supporters gathered in South Lebanon, Ohio, to listen to one another, respectfully disagree and find common ground. Becoming a member is a good way to engage with others who are looking to learn, listen, develop curiosity and grow.

Here are five of my own tips, derived from Pasternack’s class and other skills acquired in later careers. The first three address communicating with others. The last two are reminders to be mindful of what we consume.

  1. Ask someone who differs in some way from your identities (age, gender expression, ethnicity, race, nationality, ability) to coffee or tea. Ask them about their experiences. Listen. Share something about yourself. That’s it.

A conversation is not a debate. You can’t listen and judge at the same time.

2. Remember that we all have different identities but we aren’t solely defined by them. Because I was born female, white and within the baby boomer generation doesn’t mean I dress, vote, or eat like other 55+ white women. I like this paradox:

Group identity matters but it never defines any individual.

3. When you talk with someone who is different from you, what do you expect?

We tend to find what we set out to judge.

4. Reduce your social media use. Avoid or block content created to produce fear and polarize us based on group identities.

You are not what you consume, but you can become consumed by it.

5. Read books, newspapers and magazines that give longer treatment to issues and people who are trying to make the world a more positive place. Listen to podcasts featuring people who have done work to add knowledge, not simply their opinions, to issues you care about.

Although politics is important, reacting to sound bites and memes does little but rile us.

We put stories together in our heads to make sense of a very complex world. Our right and left brains work in tandem to create the story — where the pieces seem to fit best based on our experiences, beliefs, biases, hopes and fears.

We assume the pieces fit because we only have our own lens of experience through which to see. As Anais Nin said,

We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.

In Memoriam

Dr. Steve Pasternack died in 2004. He was full professor at New Mexico State University from 1983 until his death in 2004, and he served as journalism department head there for eight years. Dr. Pasternack also taught and conducted workshops for many U.S. government agencies, including the Fulbright program, Voice of America and the U.S. State Department in 17 countries, including Latvia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Albania, Mali and Ethiopia.

His goal was to increase the level of professionalism in journalism in countries emerging from authoritarian rule or which had suffered from violence in the past, according to friend and colleague Dr. Nathan Brooks. In 2000 in the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda that claimed nearly a million lives, Pasternack helped establish a journalism program at the National University of Rwanda during his first extended stay.

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