Name-Calling the Refuge of the Weak

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I like Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot. She is a tough and no nonsense leader, and I think she will be good for Chicago. So I was disappointed to read yesterday that she had called the head of the police union a “clown,” a “fraud,” and. a “liar.” Lightfoot was angry that FOP President John Catanzara supported having federal troops come into the city to help quell unrest. (“Lightfoot defends insulting text messages sent to FOP president: ‘I don’t take back one word that I said,'” Chicago Tribune, Friday, July 24, 2020) Instead of a reasoned and even impassioned disagreement, Lightfoot lashed out with an ad hominem attack.

Such discourse has become all too commonplace in society today. Our current president actually insulted his way right into the Oval Office by coining nasty nicknames for his opponents (Little Marco,” “Lyin’ Ted Cruz,” “Crooked Hillary”). He referred to Mexicans as “criminals and rapists” and protesters as “thugs” and “sons of bitches.” Once in office, Trump has continued to denigrate his political enemies, minorities, and women. For instance, he recently retweeted a post referring to Hillary Clinton as a “skank.” There seems to be no level too low for our Name-Caller-in-Chief.

In the Trump era, we have seen a true degeneration of discourse in the public sphere. This has been aided by social media, where vitriol and insult can explode across the internet universe. But while it may be upsetting to see ordinary Joes on Facebook or Twitter making nasty remarks, it is far more serious to see prominent elected officials resort to name-calling.

Yesterday Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made an eloquent speech in the House of Representatives after Republican Rep. Ted Yoho verbally assaulted her on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, calling her “disgusting, crazy and dangerous.” Worse, out of earshot from AOC but within hearing of reporters, Yoho called her “a fucking bitch.” The Democratic women who spoke pointed out that this kind of defamatory language is part of a larger culture of “‘violence and violent language against women.'” (“On House floor, Dems call out verbal assaults against women,” Chicago Tribune, Friday, July 24, 2020)

Name-calling is the refuge of the insecure. We wield it when our arguments are shaky or we don’t care to listen to an opposing point of view. It is also a form of bullying, a way to strike fear into our perceived enemies so as to silence them. And it is extremely detrimental to a civil society. As psychiatrist Ronald Pies points out, “When the most powerful man in the world provides an example of bullying by repeatedly deploying offensive nicknames, this ought to concern us all.” (“Trump’s Nicknames and the Psychology of Bullying,” psychcentral.com, July 8, 2018)

We need to demand more of our leaders at every level. They should be our role models. And when they fail to live up to that standard, we should let them know we are not pleased – at the ballot box.

 

Hurt People Hurt People

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What does Donald Trump have in common with a group of alleged gangbangers on the West Side of Chicago who shot and killed a seven-year-old girl?

Natalia Wallace was playing outside her grandmother’s house on the Fourth of July when shots rang out and killed her. Police believe the shooting was retaliation for an earlier killing. And so the cycle of violence that has persisted in poor neighborhoods on the South and West sides of Chicago continues.

There is no straight beeline from young boy to hardened killer. Ruthless gang members were once tiny children with the same needs as everyone else. Unfortunately, they were born victims of poverty and systemic racism that made life much harder for them and their parents. Gangs thrive because they give young men (and women) a sense of belonging, a way to make money, and protection in a harsh world. When a person grows up surrounded by violence and indifference, it is not hard to understand why that same person might come to accept such violence as the norm.

Donald Trump grew up a world away from the mean streets of Chicago. A son of privilege, he was given all kinds of material advantages, and he leveraged those advantages into building a business empire. But according to his niece Mary Trump, Donald Trump grew up in an incredibly abusive and dysfunctional family that wreaked havoc with his psychological development. In her new memoir, she details this dysfunction and shows how it has led to a president with no empathy or moral compass.

Our families are microcosms of our world. To the extent that they provide places of safety and love for us, we are able to function in that world with kindness, empathy and regard for others. Our goal as a society should be to strengthen and support families so that they can raise our future leaders and citizens to uplift rather than tear down.

 

Writing for Your Life

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Writing has always been an important part of my life. As a child, it gave me an outlet for my imagination, and I also got favorable attention both at home and in school for  the stories, poems, and essays I would write. In college a creative writing teacher encouraged daily journal writing, and I developed the habit of exploring my life privately in dozens of black and white composition notebooks over the years.

So it has come as no surprise to me that studies have increasingly shown how writing can help people become happier and more productive. A Canadian psychology professor found that when college students wrote a series of personal pieces and goal-setting exercises, they were more likely to achieve and less likely to drop out of school. (Kamenetz, Anya, “The Writing Assignment That Changes Lives,” npr.org, July 10, 2015) Completing Jordan Peterson’s Map of Meaning course also dramatically narrowed achievement gaps based on gender and race. Similar results were found at Duke and Stanford Universities when students were asked to explore their image of themselves and to question the narratives they had always told themselves. (Parker-Pope, Tara, “Writing Your Way to Happiness,” The New York Times, Jan. 19, 2015)

Writing has been used for many years for its therapeutic effects. Patients who practice journaling regularly have been able to reduce depression and even physical symptoms of illness. The ability to reflect on our experiences sometimes gives us greater insight into why we feel anxious, sad, or fearful. Writing can also help us be honest with ourselves. One woman discovered when writing and then editing her thoughts about physical exercise that she was using her responsibilities as a mother as an excuse to avoid an activity she didn’t really enjoy. (NYT) With such awareness, it is easier to make changes and commit to goals in our lives.

Often when I begin writing a blog post, I have one idea in mind. Then by the time I have wound through my associated thoughts and ideas on the subject, I discover a new and illuminating point, one that brings me to a greater understanding of the issue than when I began.

When I was a high school English teacher, I began each class period with a few minutes of free writing. Students had journals, and I would check them periodically, reading and commenting, but mostly just making sure they were taking the time to get words on paper. I assigned the journaling primarily to encourage writing fluency.  But I noticed that many students enjoyed having the time to express themselves and write about their lives. It’s gratifying to know that this writing time may have helped them in more ways than I knew.

Writing has always been an important ingredient in my life. I highly recommend it as a way to create, explore, and process the emotions and thoughts in our complex human minds.

 

Measuring Happiness

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A recent Gallup Poll indicated that Americans are reporting less worry and more happiness than two months ago. The change has coincided with more states reopening, so it may be because more people are able to resume work and other normal activities. Social distancing has also helped prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed, so the dire situation we saw in Italy has not come to pass for the most part.

Yet there were some demographic disparities in the levels of happiness reported by Gallup that I find disturbing, if not surprising. The most significant one is that higher income individuals were more likely to report greater levels of happiness and less anxiety than lower income ones. Of course, this makes sense. Losing employment income is both more likely at the lower socioeconomic end of the scale and more devastating to one’s living situation. Wealthier people can weather the setback of the stay-at-home orders because they are more likely to have savings and other assets as a buffer. They are also more likely to work in office situations that can go to a work-from-home mode than can blue collar workers.

The sky high numbers of unemployment claims and the increased demand at food pantries across the country speak to the fact that many people are living one paycheck away from insolvency. Despite the historically high levels of employment and the financial markets preceding the pandemic, many Americans are stuck in low wage jobs that preclude them from saving for a rainy day. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the disparity between rich and poor. The virus has disproportionally hit low income Americans, especially blacks, because they have been forced to continue going to work while many of us are able to stay home and protect ourselves. Between the stress of working under these conditions and the loss of income many have faced due to businesses shutting down, it’s no wonder that the poor feel more worry and less happiness.

A prominent study a few years back showed that an income of $75,000 a year would make people happier. Beyond that level, there seems to be no significant increase in a person’s level of happiness.  The study formed the basis for an increasingly popular political idea: the universal basic income. With a fundamental sense of financial security, it is easier to practice that goal enshrined in the Declaration of Independence: the pursuit of happiness.

There are, of course, many other factors that relate to happiness. The Gallup Poll also exposed the fact that single people reported less happiness than did married people. (Megan Brenan, “U.S. Adults Report Less Worry, More Happiness,” news.gallup.com, May 18, 2020) Being alone during this ordeal must be lonely and stressful for many of us. I know I would find it difficult to pass my days without my family nearby. Yet there are so many Americans, particularly the elderly, that were living lonely and invisible lives before the pandemic.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of living through this ordeal is the perspective it can give us as individuals and as a society. Maybe if we can take the lessons we’ve learned here and try to find ways to help others, whether materially or emotionally, our nation can emerge from the pandemic stronger – and happier.

Who’s Zooming Who?

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Say what you will about the evils of technology, access to a computer or smartphone during this crisis has been a godsend. I have become particularly fond of all the teleconferencing options that are available to regular people: Google Meet, Zoom, House Party, to name a few. What I love about these formats is that you can see and speak with a large group of people all at once.

The widespread access of these virtual meeting platforms has made it possible for large numbers of people to continue working from home while sheltering in place during the coronavirus pandemic. My three older kids are all still busy and gainfully employed thanks to the wonders of technology.

But what I love most is that I can see my entire family all at once even though we cannot be together. We have started holding nightly Zoom meetings to catch up and get a glimpse of each other’s beloved faces. It’s reassuring to see face to face that they are doing okay. In fact, I have spent more time talking to my adult children since the crisis started than I had when things were “normal.”

On Easter, my sister-in-law hosted a Zoom meeting for the extended family. I thought it would be pure chaos, but it was a lot of fun. We got to see our nephew’s children enjoy their Easter baskets. The kids were underwhelmed by the fact that they could see a bunch of aunts and uncles, not to mention their grandparents, on their home computer. This is the generation that will truly take technology for granted. It was also good to connect with each other and be able to express some of our fears and anxieties about the road ahead. If there is strength in numbers, then Zoom and its counterparts allow us to draw strength from each other.

People have creatively taken off on the ubiquity of this new way of connecting. A friend of mine posted a shot of the grid of boxes in which family member’s faces appeared with the quip, “We’re like the Brady Bunch!,” referencing the opening credits of that popular Seventies show. And last night I watched the season finale of a new show called Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. During commercial breaks, some of the show’s stars appeared in a virtual meeting format to discuss the season ending and tout the Good Girls episode to follow.

Having technology may not completely combat the isolation and stress people are feeling as they remain at home alone. Still, it is nice to know that reaching out to those we love is only a couple of clicks away.

 

Groundhog Day

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854081161001_6129199837001_6129200267001-vsOne of the benefits of having a captive audience in our teenage daughter is forcing her to watch some of our favorite movies with us. The other night we introduced her to Groundhog Day, the Bill Murray classic in which curmudgeonly weatherman Phil Connors is doomed to repeat the titular day over and over again in Punxatawney, Pennsylvania.

The story of Groundhog Day seems a fitting metaphor for our existence at home these days. Each day I awaken to the same agenda: make coffee, sit at my kitchen table, cook breakfast for my family, do my exercises, rinse, repeat. When the reality of his situation hits him, Phil Connors’ initial reaction is to throw caution to the winds. He eats tons of junk food, smokes, plays chicken with an oncoming train, and manipulates women into bed. Many of us have had a similar reaction, if the memes I’m seeing on Facebook are any indication. We are eating and drinking as if there were no tomorrow.

What I love most about Groundhog Day is the evolution of Phil’s character as he continues waking up every morning to a horrible Sonny and Cher song and a gloomy February day. After the novelty of robbing the Brinks truck and punching his nauseating former classmate in the nose wears off, Phil sinks into a depression. I have had a similar experience with the shelter in place order that took effect a mere month ago. Some days I  struggle to be cheerful and have found myself crying for no reason at all. To be sure, the isolation created by this virus has been a challenge to the many people who suffer from mental illness. Unlike in the movie, their situation is no laughing matter.

Phil Connors is ultimately redeemed when he falls in love with TV producer Rita, a sweet-faced, kind, and generous woman played by Southerner Andie MacDowell. As he woos her, his lame attempts at romance invariably end up with a slap on the face. Ultimately, Rita’s character rubs off on Phil, and he finds himself wanting to be a better man. With his prescient knowledge of calamities that are about to befall the townspeople, he sets about working to save them: the boy falling from the tree, the choking mayor, and an elderly homeless man, whose death Phil can never prevent. Phil becomes Punxatawney’s favorite visitor and wins the heart of his lady love. And with his evolution into a better person, the spell is broken.

With perseverance, we too can find the redeeming qualities of our captivity in the world of coronavirus. We can work to keep our bodies healthy and our minds sane. We can try new recipes we’ve never had the time to try before. We can read the books we have piled up on our bedside table. We can tackle projects and maintain a schedule to keep the doldrums at bay. We can reach out in love to those around us – at least virtually.

Groundhog Day reminds us that our life is largely what we make of it. The pause many of us have been given is not a curse but a gift if we choose to see if that way.

Reaching Out

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While healthcare workers, grocery store employees, truckers, delivery personnel and other essential service providers do the important job of keeping us alive and well during the coronavirus outbreak, it can be discouraging to feel that we are stuck at home, unable to go out into the world and help others. One of the most fundamental human needs is to be useful. Luckily, there are many ways for people to make a real difference during this scary and difficult time.

One way to make a difference is with our money. Organizations that help the needy and marginalized of society are always in need, but these needs have become more acute as people lose some access to food and other essentials since schools are closed and both food pantries and shelters have had to curtail interactions with their clientele. For those of us who are not losing our income due to job loss, this can be a good time to be generous to social service agencies. After all, we are not going out spending money on entertainment, and most of us are saving cash on gas. Why not pass these savings on to help the needy?

Another way to help is to provide supplies to health care facilities. In my hometown, for instance, a friend has been collecting personal protection gear such as nitrile gloves and goggles to be donated to our local hospital. Others are spending hours making masks, which are in short supply during this pandemic. I’ve even read of businesses retrofitting themselves to help increase the supply of these direly needed items.

Teens can volunteer their services running errands for elderly and immune-compromised individuals in their neighborhood. Residents can organize takeout meals for local hospital workers who are working long hours on the front lines of this emergency. Children can write cards and letters to elderly residents in nursing homes.

As a Catholic, I have had a hard time with the loss of regular Mass attendance and have struggled to keep the meaning of Lent at the forefront of my thoughts and deeds. Finding ways to reach out can remind us of the call to be a light to others, to make a sacrifice in keeping with the spirit of this penitential season.

Giving of ourselves is a great cure for the doldrums that can take hold of us as one day blurs into another. Let’s all find ways to help – safely and effectively.

Talking to Myself

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Every so often I smile when I see a headline implying that talking to yourself is a sign of high intelligence. While I question the veracity of that theory, I at least feel as if my penchant for talking to myself is less crazy than you’d think.

Ever since I was a child, I have had a habit of speaking when there is no one else in the room. My mom used to tease me about talking to the television set when I was watching a favorite show. We are not talking about shouting out the answers to Jeopardy here. I would verbalize my feelings about the action in the show, going so far as to yell at the characters on the small screen.

I have always found it useful to think out loud. For instance, if I am planning a course of action, I will verbalize the steps I’m going to take. Or if I have a difficult conversation ahead of me, I will rehearse what I plan to say out loud. This has led to many instances of my husband saying, “What?” or, in a De Niro-esque way, “Are you talking to me?” So while others are nearby, I try to minimize my verbal mutterings, especially since in public, such behavior makes me look mentally unstable.

But I have concluded that verbalizing thoughts, even if just with my lips, helps me with processing. Years ago I had a friend who would, when listening to others speak, silently repeat the words they were saying. I found this to be a quirk of hers, but I’m guessing it was an aid to comprehension that she had been practicing most of her life. In fact, a New York Times article suggests that talking to ourselves can improve cognition and performance of tasks. (Kristin Wong, “The Benefits of Talking to Yourself,” The New York Times, June 8, 2017)

So if you see me speaking when no one else is within earshot, it is very likely that I am just trying to figure something out. Of course, I also like to sing in public. Not sure what that is a sign of, but it makes me happy.

 

Crazy About Fads

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818NrF3oGyL._AC_SL1500_Yesterday I gave my 18-year-old daughter and her friend an early Valentine’s Day gift that made them squeal with delight. They each got two Mini Brands balls. Mini Brands are tiny toy versions of commercial products such as ice cream, ketchup, and mouthwash. They come in a mystery ball, and part of the thrill is in not knowing what you will get.

Mini Brands are the latest fad to take hold of the buying public. Ever since the advent of the Hula Hoop in the 1950s, there have been crazes that have delighted kids and confounded parents. I still remember the fads of my own childhood: troll dolls, rabbits’ feet, and mood rings (Groovy, man!) My sister and I collected Liddle Kiddles, small dolls that came in their own special lockets. Nowadays, little girls have LOL, which are just a modern version of the Kiddles.

In the Eighties, Cabbage Patch Kids created such a frenzy that their popularity was immortalized in the movie Jingle All the Way. The image of parents jostling and fighting to procure a toy for their child was not a far stretch from reality. Power Rangers took hold in the Nineties. And, of course, who can forget the insanity of the Beanie Babies craze?

As a parent, I did my fair share of tearing my hair out and running around town to find the latest fad my kids just had to have: Teeny Beanies from McDonalds, Pokemon cards, Webkins, Crazy Bones. The Tamagotchi virtual pet and the infamous Furby were higher tech fads. My oldest wanted a Furby so badly that she saved up her allowance money and forked over the $35 for one. A week or so later she had buyers’ remorse, and ever since then, my husband reminds our kids of “the lesson of the Furby” whenever they want to make an ill-considered purchase.

My youngest has been just as crazed about the latest fads, even collecting such items as lip balms and pocket hand sanitizers. But her interest in the latest silly trend of Mini Brands is the fault of the app Tik Tok. I believe the company that owns Tik Tok should be paid for all the free advertising given to Mini Brands by Tik Tok users. Who am I kidding? I’m sure they are totally in cahoots with each other.

As ridiculous and annoying as these fads can be to those of us forking over our hard-earned money, I have to admit it was fun to see the pure, unadulterated pleasure on the faces of my daughter and her friend as they opened their surprise gifts. And even though our tendency towards fads indicates a certain sheeplike quality in us, it’s mostly harmless fun.

What will the next big thing be in the world of crazes? How about bringing back the pet rock?

 

Just Say “I’m Sorry”

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Just yesterday I attended the funeral of a neighbor and friend. Jeff was always to be seen outside in his front yard working on tree trimming or gutter cleaning or some other horticultural pursuit. Yet he was never too busy to pause with the pruning shears and have a chat with any of us who might happen to pass by. His death at age 61 has hit many of us hard.

It is always difficult to know what to say to a family on the loss of a loved one. People grasp at sayings like “He’s in a better place.” While that may be true, it is small comfort to wives, husbands, and children who having a gaping hole in their lives where their loved one’s presence had been. It is best just to utter two simple words: “I’m sorry.”

The power of saying “I’m sorry” cannot be underestimated. It conveys our feelings in a direct and simple way. Accompanied by a hug, it can give great comfort to those we care about.

Saying “I’m sorry” is especially  difficult when we hurt someone we love. Our pride bristles at extending that olive leaf even when we know we are in the wrong. So much bitterness and damage has been done in relationships by parties failing to utter those simple words: “I’m sorry.”  And so much healing can take place when we swallow our pride, even in those times when we feel justified by what we said or did.

Many years ago, my young family met up with my husband’s sister and her family at Disneyland. I was so excited about the fun the cousins would have together, but my sister-in-law and her family kept going off on their own to enjoy rides and attractions. Finally, as dusk began to descend at the park, we met up with their family in Toon Town, the supposed home of Mickey and Minnie Mouse. I was exhausted and annoyed, and when my sister-in-law showed up crowing about the rides they’d been on, I let her have it with both barrels. How could she be so selfish? I wanted to know. We were supposed to be visiting Disneyland together, not like ships passing in the night! She immediately and in a heartfelt way uttered those magic words: “I’m sorry.” It completely disarmed me. I forgave her instantly, and we were able to salvage our family time together.

“I’m sorry.” Such powerful words in so many situations. Let’s be more willing to use them and help people heal – including ourselves.