Our Own Worst Enemy

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There has been a rash of car thefts in my neighborhood lately. I’d be a bit more concerned about the safety of my area if I didn’t know that in almost every case, the stolen car had been left outside unlocked and with the keys inside. These car owners are practically inviting a car thief to help himself to their vehicles!

In so many ways, human beings are their own worst enemies. We willfully do things we know to be unhealthy or dangerous – to the point that the state has to pass laws protecting us from ourselves. Seatbelt laws and newer ones banning cell phone use and texting are evidence that we just don’t know what is good for us.

Another thing I see a lot of is people pumping gas with a cell phone to their ear. Have they not heard of static sparks igniting a fire. And speaking of igniting things, how can anyone in this day and age take up the habit of smoking? I truly feel for older adults who became hooked on nicotine before we knew the dangers inherent in smoking. Nowadays, though, when I see a teenager smoking, I just shake my head in wonder. Are their heads in the sand? Did they not see the diseased lungs during their D.A.R.E. lessons?

To top it off, vaping has become a craze among teens. Flavored substances make vaping attractive to kids, despite the fact that they are still getting hits of nicotine (and sometimes other substances). Recent illnesses and deaths due to vaping have made using the product even more scary. But do you think a photo of a teenaged kid on a ventilator due to a vaping-related illness will stop anyone from picking up a Juul? Fat chance.

What is it about human nature that makes us our own worst enemies? Is it our pleasure-seeking id that seeks only its own gratification? Do we have a sense that we’re immortal until it’s proven to use dramatically that we’re not?

I myself am not immune from the tendency to act against my own interests. Despite mounting evidence that sugar is a cause of many modern health problems, I can’t seem to quit the stuff. The problem is that if I eat a sugary, fatty donut, I don’t immediately keel over with a heart attack. Those smokers and vapers and gas-pumping cell phone users have performed those actions numerous times without dropping dead or setting themselves aflame.

I guess we’re our own worst enemies because danger seems abstract when it is not right in our faces. The chances of a thief selecting my car out of all the other cars in town to steal seems remote. Still, I won’t take any chances. I’ll choose to learn from the mistakes of others and lock it up tight.

 

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Our Dangerous Attraction to Ourselves

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An Israeli teenager plunged to his death at Yosemite National Park recently while posing for a photo. He had been trying to recreate a popular pose taken at Telegraph Rock in Rio de Janeiro wherein the subject dangles off the side of the rock. The difference was that Telegraph Rock is much closer to the ground than the site at Nevada Fall where the young man lost his grip and fell. (“Israeli teen who fell to death in Yosemite was posing for photo,” Chicago Tribune, April 23, 2019)

The impulse to document our lives has never been more widespread than today. We carry little cameras around in our phones and snap anything and everything: our friends, ourselves, our food. It’s not enough just to experience that hike to the top of Nevada Fall. We have to prove we were there. More than that, we have to garner lots of likes by pulling a foolhardy stunt like dangling off of a rock.

Our narcissism is actually killing us. A recent Washington Post headline reads, “More than 250 people worldwide have died taking selfies, study finds.” As the lead author of the study, Agam Bansal, points out,

“Taking a toll on these many numbers just because you want a perfect selfie because you want a lot of likes, shares on Facebook, Twitter or other social media, I don’t think this is worth compromising a life for such a thing.” (WaPo, Oct. 3, 2018)

Indeed.

Recently I had occasion to go through old photo albums, and I enjoyed the memories conjured up by the pictures there. Documenting vacations, holidays, and rites of passage for my children has given me something special to hold onto and recall in the future. But often we overdo the photos and videos of an event and fail to experience it in the here and now. And certainly, no one needs to remember that delightful piece of avocado toast we just had to take a picture of at brunch the other day.

Our modern penchant for selfies may be a sign of insecurity. Look at me, these photos seem to say. Don’t I look fun/athletic/sexy/cool? Maybe it’s normal to want to be seen, and we finally have the technology to make it happen easily. But we need to take stock of this self-centered behavior. Not only is it obnoxious at times, but it just may be the death of us.

 

Decisions, Decisions

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1-56“I’m just saying that any decision made, big or small, has an impact around the world.” This statement by Marty Byrde, the main character in the Netflix series Ozark, encapsulates the main theme of the show. Marty is an ordinary accountant whose one decision has serious repercussions for his family and for just about everyone with whom he comes into contact. Like Lake Ozark, the moody locale of the series, a placid existence can experience the ripple effects of that first pebble dropped into it.

Every day we make decisions: what to eat, what to wear, which roads to take to work. Will I exercise or sit around? Should I give a dollar to the homeless man on the corner? Sometime our decisions are momentous: Should I ask the woman I love to marry me? Should I take the job in California? Sometimes we don’t even realize we are making a life-changing choice: What will it hurt if we skip using the condom this once?

Most of us, though, go about our ordinary lives without considering that each little action  can have far-reaching consequences. Every smile, every kind word we speak to another person can influence someone’s mood and possibly affect the rest of their day. The accumulation of good habits and actions has an even greater effect on our lives, our health, and our relationships.

Of course, the reverse is also true. Small lies or cutting corners in our business dealings can add up. It’s a truism that someone who can be trusted in small things can also be trusted with the big things. The way we treat our loved ones and others in our lives also can become an accumulation of small hurts, small digs at another’s self-esteem. I think people underestimate the effects of their words on others, especially cruel or denigrating words.

The fascinating aspect of a series like Ozark is the depiction of someone not all that different from ourselves who digs himself deeper and deeper into a life he had never imagined or wanted for himself. And even though Marty Byrde acts a bit cold-blooded as he explains his philosophy about decision-making, he is descending into a moral and psychological abyss as his actions threaten to destroy the very thing he seeks to protect: his family.

 

 

Selling Luxury

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Recently, numerous style movers and shakers were invited to the opening of a boutique featuring the work of a new Italian shoe designer, Bruno Palessi. Shoppers were impressed by the unique designs and incredible workmanship, and many paid hundreds of dollars to snag a pair of the latest hot brand.

There was only one problem. There’s no shoe designer named Bruno Palessi. The opening was an advertising stunt devised for Payless Shoes, a discount retailer that has been seeing a decline in business over the past several years and is hoping shoppers will rediscover their shoes. The shoes those unwitting shoppers paid hundreds of dollars for – and rhapsodized so eloquently about – were the same ones that retail at Payless for about $30. (The suckers shoppers got their money back and were given the shoes for free.)

Such is the role of perception in our buying decisions. Who among us has not been impressed by a fancy-sounding name or upscale look? I know I often assume that the pricier item is the better one whether I’m purchasing a sweater or a set of headphones.

And branding is another powerful motivator of buying decisions. Designer labels and brands that become instantly popular carry a lot of weight with shoppers, who are willing to pay much more for the “real thing.” Take Uggs, those delightful sheepskin imports from Australia. All things Ugg are way more pricey than their no-name counterparts. But I would contend that my “Fuggs” (fake Uggs) are just as cozy, cute and durable as the expensive name brand ones.

It’s not just apparel either. I remember when my oldest was about 9 or 10, and the Razor scooter was de rigueur for any self-respecting preteen. With my inherent cheapness, I attempted to buy a different brand of scooter but was told in no uncertain terms that it had to be a Razor and none other. And, of course, we need look no further than Apple to realize that once a brand takes hold in the public mind, other makes and models are looked upon as second-rate.

Back in high school, I wrote a research paper on the perfume industry and was unsurprised to find out that the price of cologne reflects mostly the cost of marketing and packaging, not of the aromatic liquid in the bottle. I learned that there is seldom a recession in the cosmetic industry because people are always willing to buy a little bit of luxury to make themselves feel better even in the worst of times.

This holiday season, we might consider the power of marketing and presentation when we go to the malls or shop online. We might save a bit of money – or, as in the case of the gullible Palessi shoppers, our self-respect.

 

 

Road Not Taken

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A Facebook friend posted an interesting article about how most people misread Robert Frost’s famous poem “The Road Not Taken.” The poem has been taken as an ode to individuality, to striking out on one’s own less common path. The final lines of the poem seem to confirm this: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/ I took the one less traveled by,/ And that has made all the difference.”

In reality, the narrator of the poem acknowledges that the two roads are virtually the same: “Though as for that the passing there/ Had worn them really about the same,/ And both that morning equally lay/ In leaves no step had trodden black.” In other words, neither path was really an untrodden one, and the view that choosing one “made all the difference” is only seen in hindsight. It’s the story “I shall be telling … with a sigh/ Somewhere ages and ages hence.” In fact, there’s nothing in the poem that even indicates the choice was the better one – just that it was different.

We would all like to think that our decisions are momentous ones, and we give weight and significance to our choices because we desire more than anything that our life have meaning. The place we live, the jobs we take, the person we marry: all certainly force us to forgo other choices. Our biological children would not exist if we had not made certain choices in the past. While all of this is true, it’s not necessarily the case that we were meant for this path and this path only.

I’m a religious person, and I do think God has an overarching plan for my life. My faith provides an outlook that gives meaning and consequence to the twists and turns on the path I’m taking in life. But that does not mean there are no coincidences. It’s tempting to believe that God is literally putting joys and trials in our way as part of some divine plan for us. But that makes God more of a puppet master than a divine presence. Rather, our belief in God shapes the way we view our experiences. It imbues them with meaning instead of our concluding that, “All is vanity and grasping for the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 1:14)

“The Road Not Taken” was written by Frost to tease a fellow poet and friend who was notoriously bad at making decisions when they went out walking. (“Robert Frost: ‘The Road Not Taken’,” Katherine Robinson, poetryfoundation.org) But it’s also a meditation on the fact that we all have to make choices, large and small. The narrator in the poem wants to go both ways, but he must choose only one. Like him, we all second guess our choices at times and wonder what our lives would have been like had we chosen the other path.

It’s comforting to realize, though, that however our lives turn out, we have the power through our own beliefs to give them meaning. And that makes all the difference.

No Hurry

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It is a pleasure and a luxury not to be in a hurry.

So often in our frantic lives, we find ourselves hurtling from A to B on our To Do lists, scarcely stopping to take a breath. Our blood pressure rises as we wait in traffic or long lines, knowing that precious minutes are ticking by and the day will all too soon be in our rearview mirror.

Time to take a breath.

This past weekend I was on my own. I could sleep in and stay in pajamas as long as I wanted in the morning. I could while away the hours reading, doing crossword puzzles and binge-watching The Chi (That show deserves a blog post of its own!). I took long walks without the nagging sense that someone or something at home needed my attention soon. And even though I had made myself a fairly impressive To Do list, I was relaxed and in no hurry to complete it.

It’s nice to drop something off at the local dry cleaner and say, “No rush” when asked when I need the item back. It’s lovely to drive when a little bit of traffic or a road closure (We’ve been having many in my small town this summer.) needn’t faze me. It’s wonderful to give my attention to small chores and errands that have been nagging at the edge of my consciousness for weeks.

On Saturday morning, I went to an 8 am yoga class. The theme of the class that day was balance, and most of our poses were designed to help us achieve that balance of body and mind. On my way home from the class, in the spirit of calm it induced, I decided that all prisons should offer yoga classes to their inmates. I can’t help but believe that a regular yoga practice would help diminish anger and aggression in those incarcerated.

Tomorrow life will return to a busier pace for me. My family and household responsibilities will keep me on a more pressing schedule. But I hope to hold onto the peace and calm I am feeling right now when there is no hurry.

The Power of a Story

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3722407_070718-cc-thai-soccer-team-imgThe fate of 12 young boys trapped in a cave in Thailand for over two weeks has captivated the world. Daily news about the boys, the conditions inside the cave, and the perils faced by both the boys and their rescuers made for a riveting story. When all 12 boys and their coach made it safely out of the cave, there was widespread jubilation.

Even though these boys are from a country across the world, Americans were on tenterhooks praying for their safe escape. Yet here at home, as many critics have pointed out, young children continue to be separated from their families after being apprehended at our border trying to enter the U.S. illegally. Why the difference?

The Trump Administration has refused access to the media and most other Americans to see the facilities where children and babies wail disconsolately for their mothers. Photos are scarce, and there is no opportunity for us to learn the stories of these would-be asylum seekers. Without their stories touching us, it is easy for us to shrug or turn away.

The power of a story cannot be overestimated. As a literature lover, I have always preferred to learn about history and about real people through fiction – or through riveting memoirs and other non-fiction such as the works of Jon Krakauer. Where the starkness of bald facts can be numbing, a story helps draw us into the experiences of others.

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A good example is the 2014 story of Boko Haram and its kidnapping of almost 300 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria. The fate of the girls became an international news phenomenon when prominent people, such as First Lady Michelle Obama, took to social media with photos of individual girls who were missing and feared kidnapped by the extremist group. The pressure created by the girls’ story prompted the Nigerian government to go after Boko Haram more aggressively. Ironically, another kidnapping of 100 Nigerian girls by the terrorist group earlier this year has been barely a blip on people’s radar. Without a compelling story, the situation is unlikely to capture the world’s attention.

Since ancient times, human beings have been storytellers. Our oral traditions were our histories. Our imaginations help us to envision the plight of others and give us more empathy. Perhaps if Americans knew the stories of some of the asylum-seekers at our southern border, they would demand a more humane response and the immediate reunification of families. Like the scared and malnourished Thai soccer players in the cave, these children are just like our own. Shouldn’t we care for them as if they were?