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.

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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?

 

The Personal Touch

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030620-N-7391W-007Continuing in the vein of my previous post about dropping out of the digital age, I have been thinking a lot about what gets lost when we automate everything. The example I gave of walking into a Panera Bread and ordering from a screen reminds me that in small ways every day, we have the opportunity to make a personal connection or keep ourselves isolated. Not only does my choice to order my lunch from a live human being make for a more enriching experience for me, but it helps someone keep a job.

Automation has been costing jobs in all manner of manufacturing concerns for decades now. Even businesses touted for building plants here in the U.S. use very little human labor. And it’s hard to argue with the efficiency of making things more quickly, more perfectly, and at a cheaper cost. But automation is also affecting the service industry in many ways: ATMs at banks, self-serve kiosks at grocery stores, automated phone systems – all serve to keep us from having to speak to other people.

The other day I was recalling the job my older sisters had during high school. They worked as Directory Assistance operators for Bell Telephone Company. Back before  dialing 411 led to an impersonal and sometimes frustrating exercise in using voice recognition software to find a phone number, my sisters had huge telephone directories that they would flip through and scan as quickly as possible to find the numbers for businesses and residences all across Chicagoland. The job was demanding, and their employer exacting. But there were benefits to this “old school” style of providing directory assistance. Sometimes callers weren’t quite sure of the name of a business or had only a vague idea of the address associated with the person they were trying to reach. My sisters, with their encyclopedic knowledge of Chicago and its environs, could find the requested number by asking a few good questions. The personal touch helped them help customers.

The personal touch is something I think we need to retain in a society that is increasingly alienating in so many ways. It can help a young woman find the perfect dress for an occasion. It can help me decide which entree to choose on a large restaurant menu. It can give a person who is lost and in distress not only direction, but also sympathy and solidarity. Most importantly, having personal interactions with strangers every day can bring us out of our isolation and make us happier.

With the alarming increase in suicides in our culture, the last thing we need is to be isolated from other human beings. We are social creatures in need of conversation, touch, and the so-called niceties of regular human interaction. Sure, I may get through the line more quickly if I use the automated service. But I’ll take the human contact, however flawed and imperfect, any time.

The Cruelest Month

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It has been a long, cold, depressing winter with no real end in sight. As I write this, a blizzard is burying Minnesota in snow while here in Chicagoland, we have been subjected to yet another gray, rainy and miserable day.

All this winter has caused a certain lethargy in me. My energy level is low, and the ideas that usually teem in my brain have slowed to a trickle. I realized today that the bad weather has kept me inside too much. Not being able to take my walks outside has seriously hampered my ability to think and dream.

It is known that physical activity enhances mental performance. So a brisk walk in nature has always been my prescription for writer’s block. Lately, I just feel physically and mentally lazy. It’s hard to get motivated when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind and rain pelt the windows. So I’ve been spending my free time doing crossword puzzles and watching TV, eating carbs and getting sleepy. I feel like a bear in its den surfacing briefly, only to find that it’s not time to come out of hibernation yet.

The daffodils in my front yard have just started to send green stems shooting up from the soil. They look too petrified to open and bloom. There are no leaves – or even buds – on the trees outside my window. I long for inspiration, but all I feel is a dreary heaviness of mind and body.

By now we Midwesterners should be able to expect some light and warmth, some signs of growth in our environment. Instead, April so far has been one very unfunny Fool’s joke.

 

Everybody Needs a Friend

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I recently found out that my best friend from childhood had passed away in her late teens or early 20s. Kathy and I were both shy little girls, and we gravitated toward each other because of that. When we were young, we were both obsessed with horses and pretended to have stables of them, each with a unique name. As we got older, we’d spend hours in her quiet room (unlike the bedlam in my family of 13) listening to 45 rpm records on her record player.

Although I got along fine with the other kids in my small Catholic school, it was Kathy I spent time with outside of school. Then in the summer before eighth grade, my family moved away. I quickly made a new best friend in the junior high I attended, one whose friendship I have maintained to this day. But I regret how easily I let my friendship with Kathy slip away.

Everybody needs a friend. A friend is a buffer against the harsh realities of life – the pressures of school, the meanness of children, the dysfunction in families. A friend can make us laugh, share our secrets, and have our backs in tough situations. Family is important, sure. But a friend is someone who chooses to be in your life.

Lately I’ve been wondering whether Donald Trump has any friends. He seems like a lonely figure in the White House. I can’t know for sure, but his relationship with his wife seems frosty and with his son, distant. He always seems to have so much to prove, tweeting away at all hours of the night, viciously attacking allies and enemies alike, needing to have the upper hand.

The Parkland shooter didn’t seem to have any friends. There is some indication that his odd behavior made him an outcast. So when he lost his mother, he must have felt overwhelmingly alone. Without a friend to be that buffer against life’s vicissitudes, he turned into an angry and vindictive young man.

Society needs to recognize the danger of looking the other way while kids are bullied, people suffer from depression, and others are raised by harsh, demanding tyrants who leave them feeling unloved. Not having a friend not only affects the lonely person, but can have devastating repercussions for those around him. It’s important to reach out to those on the margins, to those who spend their time building up paranoid fantasies in their minds – before they do something harmful to themselves or others.

I truly hope President Trump has a trusted friend, someone with whom he can laugh and let off steam, someone who can listen and try to understand.

Everybody needs a friend.

 

 

 

The Bystander Effect

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Recently a friend told me about an incident that happened at a gas station in our small town. She was at the gas pump finishing filling her tank when she saw an elderly man fall. There were several other customers also pumping gas, but no one made a move except my friend. She ran over, helped the man up, and made sure he got safely home – all this despite the fact that she was in a rush, needing to get her young son to school and husband to the station to catch a train.

My friend and I discussed the fact that she was the only person who sprang into action to help a stranger in distress. Her experience reminded me of the Bystander Effect, a well known psychological phenomenon wherein the likelihood that a person will act in an emergency goes down the more bystanders there are witnessing the event.

The Bystander Effect was studied and explained after the horrifying murder of Kitty Genovese on a street in New York in 1964. Genovese was repeatedly stabbed in a prolonged attack that was witnessed by numerous residents from the windows of their apartments. No one acted, and Genovese died.

Scientists explain that the reason people fail to act in such situations is two-fold:

First, individuals in a crowd reason that someone else will probably step forward to help. This was perhaps the reason my friend was the only one to help the elderly man at the gas station.

The second reason people stand by without assisting the victim is that human behavior is strongly influenced by what others around us do. In studies, for example, two people in a room hear a loud crash and cries of distress coming from another room. If one of the people suggests that it’s nothing, the test subject usually does nothing. If, however, the person says he is going to get help and tells the test subject to go see what happened in the other room, the subject usually complies. (Ervin Staub, “Our Power As Active Bystanders,” Psychology Today, Jan. 27, 2012)

I have to wonder whether it was the Bystander Effect that caused deputies at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to refrain from entering the building when they arrived at the scene of the latest horrific mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. Sheriff’s deputies are currently under investigation for failing to act in the immediate aftermath of the shootings. Perhaps these officers reasoned that other police officers or authorities would go in. Of course, the Bystander Effect does not explain the school deputy officer’s failure to act, as he was the only law enforcement official on the scene when the shooting began.

The Bystander Effect has contributed not just to isolated failures of people to act in emergencies. It also explains why acts of genocide have been allowed to take place throughout history. It’s a disturbing trait of group dynamics that whole societies, and even the international community, can look the other way while atrocities are being committed.

Psychologist Ervin Staub believes, however, that people can be trained to act during a crisis and lead others to overcome the Bystander Effect. If even one individual steps forward and starts directing people to help, that action tends to mobilize other individuals, shaking them from their shock, fear and inertia. (Psychology Today, Jan. 27, 2012)

Fighting the Bystander Effect could have a huge impact in our society. School bullying would become a thing of the past if schoolmates consistently came to the aid of their classmates being bullied. Violent actors, if met with determined resistance, might stop harming others with impunity. And the world would be a much more humane place if everyone stepped forward readily to provide aid to a person in need.