Reading before the sermon
Our reading today is from a book by Susan Vaughn M.D., entitled, Half Empty, Half Full: Understanding the Psychological Roots of Optimism.
Once upon a time a scientist broke the rats in his laboratory into random groups. The rats in the first group were placed one by one in a big tank of water made opaque with milk. They had to swim for a set amount of time. These rats were the lucky ones, since their tank had a tiny island hidden under the water on which they could perch without having to swim. Their island was always in a fixed location in the tank, there for them to find without fail, a way of getting a tiny leg up and a respite from the swim.
The rats in the second group swam for exactly the same amount of time in the milky water as those in the first group. But their tank had no island, no oasis amid the vast vat. After their swims, the rats in both groups were plucked from the water, weary and bedraggled. Both groups then rested, ate, and otherwise recuperated before the real Rat Race.
When the big day came, both groups of rats were at it again. The researcher once again made them swim one by one. But this time all the rats swam in a tank without an island. Much as they swam, there was simply no oasis to be found, no respite from having to paddle like mad just to stay afloat. The researcher rescued them before their whiskered noses slipped beneath the water. Then he carefully recorded precisely where and for how long each rat swam before returning it to its cage, wet and waterlogged, probably surprised to be alive.
When the scientist tallied up the time each rat spent in the tank, imagine how surprised he was. He found that those lucky rodent racers whose island had been there for them the first time swam for over twice as long, looking for the island where it had previously been. In contrast, those who had never found a predictable foothold in their hour of need were reduced to wandering aimlessly around the tank, swimming in seemingly directionless circles, chasing their tails in vain as they looked for a means of escape.
Now, you may find it a stretch to say that the rats that had experienced a consistent island in their prior swims were optimistic. But given that they were broken randomly into two groups in the first place, how else can we understand what kept them looking for twice as long as their competitors rather than paddling haphazardly around the tank? Isn’t their belief that there is something definite to swim for a positive expectation rooted in the reality of their earlier experience? Since there was no island in the tank in which they took their second swim, isn’t it fair to say that what made the difference as to whether they sank or swam was the illusion of an island, their ability to conjure an inner image of an island to swim for when the going got rough, even if such an island existed only in their imagination?
It’s Olympics time again—and I love the Olympics. I see it as a sports version of our very own Unitarian Universalist values, of the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth; a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process; the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. All these good things, evident in the pageantry of Friday’s Opening Ceremonies. The people of Canada’s First Nations opening and blessing the event … then the 2500 athletes from around our troubled world, parading in … and I’m just realizing that one of the most fun parts of the Parade of nations is seeing what people from different lands actually wear … and then the stadium floor is cleared, transformed, and through magic of light and sound it becomes an ocean floor, whales swimming across, singing their song … then things change again, the stadium becomes a forest, Sarah McLaughlin performs her song “Ordinary Miracles”… then another change, another transformation: an immense screen coming down, taking the form of the Canadian Rockies, images of Olympic events projected on it, with skiers and snowboarders suspended from the ceiling … then later on, k. d. Lang singing Leonard Cohen’s amazing song, “Hallelujah” … and on and on. I’m just an Olympics nut. Friday night, snowing like crazy outside, snow in all our United States of America (except for the lone holdout, Hawaii), but I and the family are bundled up, watching the spectacle taking place far away in Vancouver….
And then came the lighting of the Cauldron. Four ice towers to rise and then fall into place, and at the center, a Cauldron to hold the Olympic flame. Four lighters of the Cauldron, too, which goes against the venerable tradition of just one final person to light the flame, together with its message about atomic individualism, lone rangerism. Four lighters, with a radical message about relationship, about how greatness is something we help each other get to, the power of team…. But the message got lost in the midst of a malfunction. There was a jarring pause in the profound seamless flow of the evening’s events. A problem with the hydraulic system, and in the end, only three of the four towers rose. Only three flames rushed up to light the Cauldron. One of the four lighters never got to put her torch to use. Perhaps an ironic echo of the Georgian luger who had died earlier that day, tragically, during a practice run.
The Opening Ceremonies were just not perfect. Not perfect. More than good enough, though, to get the 2010 Winter Games started. Something Canada should still feel extremely proud of.
But now let me ask you. How do you think the media treated the issue of the malfunction? What’s your best guess?
My working hypothesis is that the electronic media is essentially the human nervous system writ large. In the human body, bad news runs faster than good; neural pathways conveying threats are literally quicker—much quicker—than ones conveying positive things. It’s an evolution-based “negativity bias,” and it informs and is reinforced by a society that invariably features bad news on the front page and slips in the good news elsewhere, in easy-to-miss spots—and actually prides itself in doing this, sees this as responsibility. Sees this as realism and as virtue.
This is what Chris Chase, writing for Yahoo’s sports blog, says in his article entitled “The Ten Best Moments From Vancouver’s Opening Ceremonies”: Number 1: “The gaffe heard round the world.” “Former hockey star Wayne Gretzky, two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash and Alpine skiing legend Nancy Green were able to light their cauldrons, but speedskater Catriona Lemay Doan was left with her flame when the fourth torch failed to emerge from underneath the stadium. It was an embarrassing end to an otherwise flawless Opening Ceremony. Instead of the indelible memory of four cauldron-lighters, this ceremony will be most remembered for the cauldron that wouldn’t rise.” And that’s his number 1 best moment. It all goes downhill from there.
The media as the human nervous system writ large. Bad news running faster than good. So easy to get stuck in malfunctions, such that nothing else beyond can be seen and appreciated, and a more balanced perspective is blocked. Balance becoming impossible, negativity becoming contagious, the downward spiral taking on a life of its own—and people call it virtue.
It can happen to the Olympics, and it can also happen to congregations like ours which aspire to live Olympic-sized values, from the inherent worth and dignity of every person to the interdependent web of all existence. So much that is good going on, and yet congregations can get stuck on what church consultant and Unitarian Universalist minister Larry Peers calls “problem-saturated stories.” “A problem-saturated story,” he says, “has a dynamic of its own. Often when we are telling a problem-saturated story about our congregational situation it has a trance-like effect. The story is reinforcing. We ‘see’ only those things that reinforce the story. Whatever is contradictory to this problem-saturated story goes un-storied and is not ‘seen.’” Larry Peers goes on to say, “You can recognize the problem-saturated story when you’re in a group where someone offers an example of how difficult or awful something is in the congregation and before you know it the rest of us can’t help but chime in with more evidence for how truly bad and impossible the situation is.” All eyes and minds riveted on some malfunction, and there’s no room left for other perspectives or possibilities.
It’s the downward spiral. Rumination on the problem making you extra-vigilant for more of the problem, or other problems; extra-vigilance helping to trigger even worse things. Can’t let the problem go. Can’t get bigger than the problem, see it from a different point of view, get loose. Happens in our relationships, happens in our solitude.
And it’s more than just sociological or psychological in importance. Our situation as spiritual beings having a human experience means that our most profound religious realizations—the actual having of them—depends on an attitude of prior interest and openness. Desire for a certain kind of truth helps to bring about that truth’s existence. Philosopher William James talks about this in his magnificent article entitled “The Will To Believe.” “Do you like me or not?” he asks. “Whether you do or not depends, in countless instances, on whether I meet you half-way, am willing to assume that you must like me, and show you trust and expectation. The previous faith on my part in your liking’s existence is in such cases what makes your liking come. But if I stand aloof, and refuse to budge an inch until I have objective evidence, until you shall have done something apt … ten to one your liking never comes. […] The desire for a certain kind of truth here brings about that special truth’s existence.” What William James is saying is far more than just good advice on Valentine’s Day. If we want to live in a world in which ordinary miracles happen, hallelujah happens, forgiveness happens, healing happens, peace happens, creativity happens, our Seven Principles happen—all these things and more happening even in the midst of all the strife and all the pain—then we have to meet these possibilities half way. Got to open the door, first, to experience realities that can transform us as we cannot transform ourselves, whatever we want to call them, Goddess, God, the Tao, Buddhamind. Got to believe that the island is out there, somewhere, despite all malfunctions to the contrary. Got to keep swimming.
That’s what planting the seed of positivity is all about. A growing ability to conjure up an inner image of the island to swim for, even as the going gets rough. That’s what we’re talking about today, in this fifth installment of the Planting Seeds of Soul series. Positivity, like a flame for which everything is food, and everything helps it grow.
A story comes to mind—a remarkable example of what the human spirit is capable of. It originally comes from American doctor George Ritchie, who was in Germany during World War II, attending to wounded soldiers and people who had been imprisoned in the Nazi labor and death camps. “It’s about one of these prisoners in particular: a Polish inmate at the Wuppertal prison camp. When the Americans came to liberate the prisoners at this camp, they were struck by the health and vitality of this one man, whom they assumed had only been in the camp for a short while. Called him Wild Bill Cody. As it turns out, he had been in the camp for nearly six years, since 1939, living on starvation rations and in the most oppressive atmosphere. Surrounded by degradation, humiliation, death. Scarcely a darker time could be imagined. Then the liberators learned that he had been imprisoned in the camp immediately after he had witnessed Nazi soldiers murder his wife and children as well as many members of his community. He had seen them lined up and shot. He had plenty of reasons to hate, to be bitter and to want to seek revenge. However, he described to them that at the moment of his greatest despair, at losing all he had held most dear, he knew that he must forgive his captors (and the murderers of his family). He must forgive them completely and learn to see the divine spark that also lives in the hearts of these Nazi soldiers. And so he lived for six years in the prison camp and soon became the respected mediator between different ethnic groups that had little more affinity for one another than they did for the Germans.” This is the story, which originally comes from Dr. George Ritchie and as relayed by Warren Lee Cohen in his book which we’ve been drawing from in our sermon series, entitled Raising the Soul. Warren Lee Cohen’s closing words: “Wild Bill Cody was a source of hope for all who knew him. He spoke many languages, but most importantly he spoke the language of humanity, of forgiveness and positivity. This unusual quality not only saved his life, but it was also a source of tremendous strength for all who met him.”
This story can tell us so much about the nature of positivity. Perhaps the first thing is this: that it’s NOT a form of irresponsibility, or a way of avoiding reality—wishful thinking that prevents a person from seeing problems as they are and tackling them head on. “This,” says Susan Vaughn M.D. in her book, Half Empty Half Full: Understanding the Psychological Roots of Optimism, “has not generally proved to be the case.” There are important exceptions, she admits: “First, there are some gamblers whose belief in the illusion of control gets them into trouble and keeps them coming back for more, unable to admit that they are not really the rulers of the roulette wheel and all. There is also some evidence that teenage girls who have more illusions of control about getting pregnant may fail to use birth control with regularity.” However: “There’s more evidence going in the opposite direction: people who have an intact illusion of control are more likely to be proactive in addressing real problems.” Rats swimming furiously, looking for an island which is but an image in their brains. Wild Bill Cody, seeing into the severe reality of his situation, seeing what’s needed, and filling the need. Becoming a mediator between the different ethnic groups in the camp.
Positivity is NOT a form of irresponsibility, and neither is it a Saturday Night Live Stuart Smalley pep talk in front of a full-length mirror: “I’m going to do a terrific show today! And I’m gonna help people! Because I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggonit, people like me!” Yet if you’ve ever seen Stuart Smalley on TV, or been acquainted with a real-life version of Stuart Smalley, you know that their daily affirmations amount to no more than enforced cheer and a compulsive fending off of anxiety. To others they can appear to be upbeat, but underneath it all is the sense of potentially crashing at any moment. Utter vulnerability and unsafety. Do you know what I’m talking about? But the positivity I’m referring to is different from this. It’s not a reactive defense against feeling difficult feelings. You can be positive and optimistic and yet still feel sadness when you see suffering around you, you can still feel anger, you can still feel fear—yet you don’t get stuck in any of it. Feel the feelings, talk about them—but keep on swimming to the island. Keep on taking one step at a time, moving forward, eventually moving yourself and moving others into a better place. Wild Bill Cody faced down his despair and faced down his hate, his bitterness. Touched them, knew them. Yet he also trusted that this is not all there can be, that transformation is still possible, through forgiveness. Positivity is ultimately self-trust—trust that even our most beastly feelings won’t devour us up, that we have inner resources giving us strength to move forward.
The Wild Bill Cody story has a lot to teach us. Positivity as responsibility, positivity as self-trust, and also positivity as a commitment to healing. I love how writer Elizabeth Gilbert talks about this. She says, “I keep remembering a simple idea [a friend] told me once–that all the sorrow and all the trouble of this world is caused by unhappy people. Not only in the big global Hitler-’n’-Stalin picture, but also on the smallest personal level. Even in my own life, I can see exactly where my episodes of unhappiness have brought suffering or distress or (at the very least) inconvenience to those around me. The search for contentment is, therefore, nor merely a self-preserving and self-benefiting act, but also a generous gift to the world. Clearing out all your misery gets you out of the way. You cease being an obstacle, not only to yourself but to anyone else. Only then are you free to serve and enjoy other people.” That’s what Elizabeth Gilbert says. It applies as much to Wild Bill Cody as it does to you and me. Positivity helps us get out of the way of our Unitarian Universalist principles living and moving in the world. That’s what it does. In the midst of malfunctions of all types, swimming for the island.
There’s so much more that might be said. Wild Bill Cody’s amazing capacity to see the Divine Spark in his Nazi guards, which in essence was a refusal to capture them right back in the snare of his negative expectations, thus reinforcing the negative. His sheer perseverance, leading straight to being a blessing to so many people who needed it. Just his physical condition—his physical health—after six years in a horrible prison camp. All these Olympic-sized achievements, all connected to positivity. And if, after hearing all this, you are wondering how it all might apply to you, all I can say is, I feel you. I hear it. For there is a traditional view of positivity and optimism that needs to be acknowledged, countered, debunked: the view that a capacity for positivity is something a person is simply born with. A matter of fixed temperament. Wild Bill Cody was able to do what he did because of good genes, or a good upbringing. Maybe the story speaks to some people, but not to everyone. As Susan Vaughn puts it, “Asking a pessimistic person to be more optimistic is like asking a leopard to change his spots.”
This is the traditional view. Yet it’s wrong. “I believe,” says Susan Vaughn, “that optimism is the result of an internal process of illusion building. I believe we should fundamentally redefine optimism as the result of a particular series of mental machinations, psychological somersaults. These internal gymnastics are not generally something that optimists are just born knowing how to do. Optimism is not, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson on hope, ‘a thing with feathers that perches in the breast.’ Instead it is an active internal process, more akin to learning to fly. It is a verb, not a noun. And pessimism, by contrast, is not the absence of some elusive winged creature that our biological birdcage either contains or lacks. That’s good news, because if optimism is the result of inner psychological processes, then we can all become better illusion-builders with practice. So if you can’t imagine that illusive island now, don’t worry. You can learn to.”
And that’s what we turn to, right now. Planting the seed of positivity. A daily practice to add to the other four practices I’ve introduced in this sermon series. Self-knowledge, clear thinking, willpower, emotional intelligence, and now positivity.
A caveat, before I go any further. For some people, this psychological and spiritual exercise may be extremely tough to do because your emotional weather system is snow snowy and icy that it’s impossible for your ideas or efforts to get any traction. The downward depressive spiral is in full swing. All fifty states inside you are under blizzard conditions. All your highways and roads are iced over, and there are massive car pile-ups everywhere. In this case, medication is clearly merited, together with therapy. Susan Vaughn speaks to this wisely in her book. Take a look.
But if your inner emotional weather is not so severe, then jump right in. The positivity practice begins like this: with a clear resolution to encourage yourself to notice more of the positive and praiseworthy in your daily experience. To do this for at least a month, if not more, everyday. Building up this specific attention muscle over time, and seeing for yourself that optimism is, in fact, a verb and not a genetic mandate. A choice that we can make, in our human freedom. Start each day consciously making this choice, and then, at the end of the day, as part of your Review of the Day, reflecting on how things went, what patterns did you see, and so on.
Between the beginning and end of the day, there are at least two positivity things you can do: simultaneously, or you can decide to alternate between them, focusing on just one at a time.
The first is inner-focused. It’s simply to pay attention to your thoughts about yourself or the world, and when you catch yourself falling into a downward spiral of pessimism, say “thank you for that perspective” and then shift things up. For example, you encounter a “problem-saturated” story: a story with a trance-like effect, a story that hypnotizes you and makes it easy to think that it is equivalent with the truth. Say “thank you for that perspective”—and then spoil the pity party. Shift gears: ask: “What would someone else say?” If it’s a congregation-related story, the questions might be: “What would the newest or longest member of the congregation say about this situation?” “What would a child say?” or, better yet, “What would someone who disagrees with me say?”
Another opportunity to shift gears is when we catch ourselves playing the “I wish I was [fill-in-the-blank] game.” “I wish I was…” or “I wish he (or she) was …” or “I wish we were …” Doing this is not positivity, and it’s going to make you feel horrible, and you don’t have to make this choice. You don’t! So easy to do anyhow, though—the habit is firmly fixed in so many of us. So if you catch yourself doing this, shift gears. Move from “I wish I was…” to “I’m glad I’m not….” “I’m glad she’s not…” “I’m glad we’re not…” Apparently this is something even the Dalai Lama does, as he works vigilantly on his own positivity. Probably everyone here can honestly say, “I’m glad I’m not Wild Bill Cody”—glad I didn’t have to go through what he did. And the ironic thing is that not only does this NOT harden our hearts against people like Wild Bill Cody—research shows it does exactly the opposite. Our hearts open up. In affirming that we are, relatively speaking, better off, we are more likely to use our resources to help people in similar situations. Fascinating and true.
As for the second positivity action: it’s outer-focused. It involves choosing to be more aware of the efforts of others around you, appreciating them, feeling gratitude. Says writer Marcel Proust, “Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, for they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” Do this, and then then take things to the next level. Strive to find positive qualities in people or situations where appreciation and gratitude are not so easy. As a teacher, or a boss, or a co-worker, or a spouse or partner: feeding with your attention what is healthy and starving with a withdrawal of attention what is not. Looking for something good, no matter how challenging a person’s behavior might be. This in fact may allow you to help them work through their challenges. Not capturing them in the snare of your negative image, and thus only reinforcing the problem.
However we focus our effort—inside of ourselves, or outside—ultimately the practice is about building up the positivity muscle over time. Seeing for yourself the verb that optimism is. Choosing to learn how to sing a song entitled “Everything’s Possible” even though no one might have ever sung it to you. So much relies on this. The cessation of suffering. Getting out of our own way, as we strive to live out our seven Unitarian Universalist principles. This is an achievement that is nothing less than an Olympics of the spirit, and we set this for ourselves not every four years or two years but every day. Every day. Going to be lots of malfunctions along the way. Lots of them. But we carry on. The island is there. Keep on swimming.