(Your) Words Matter: If not now, when?

“How would you see yourself as being an architect of change in your own life? It might be at your dinner table, it might be out in the world, but that’s a core question to bring to the surface at this time in our country.” ~ Susan David

What follows is a bit of free-wheeling train of thought about reading, writing, and making sense of what to do when we don’t know where to start, with some links to posts and articles I’ve enjoyed in recent days.

Photo: Denise Krebs, 2012-259 A Writing Six-Word Story, (CC BY 2.0)

If not now, when?

“If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?” ~ Hillel the Elder

Until preparing this post, I never knew where the phrase “If not now, when?” came from, or even that it did have a specific origin. Were I better acquainted with Judaism, I would have known that it is part of a longer quotation by Hillel the Elder, a Jewish leader from Babylon who lived during the reign of King Herod.

The name sounded familiar: my first introduction to him was in a book I indexed titled Aphrodite and the Rabbis, in which the author, Burton L. Visotzky, refers to Hillel as “the rabbis’ George Washington,” a kind of founding father of modern Judaism (the Jewish campus organization Hillel International is named for him). He is known for his charity, humility, and compassion for the less fortunate.

The maxim “If I am not for myself…” is rich with notions of duality, identity, purpose, and meaning. Another of Hillel’s sayings is “Do not say ‘When I free myself of my concerns, I will study’ for perhaps you will never free yourself.”

If we change just one word, it becomes “Do not say ‘When I free myself of my concerns, I will study write‘ for perhaps you will never free yourself.” Take the time to chew on that. Not only do we often wait to have the time to study or write or be, a wait that can be indefinite. More important, we might be approaching the issue backward. Perhaps only through studying or writing or actively being, will we free ourselves. (See also Modern Lessons from Hillel at NPR.)

Tiny Tweaks and Everyday Heroes

In Maria Shriver’s interview with Susan David (author of Emotional Agility), titled “Embrace Authenticity: How to Break Free from the Tyranny of Positivity.” David encourages us “to hear the heartbeat of our own why”:

We live in a world where everyone is telling us what to think, how to look, how to feel. There’s fascinating research showing that we are subject to social contagion, where we start subtly picking up the behaviors of others. We go into an elevator, everyone’s looking at their phones, so we take out ours.

Especially for highly sensitive people, living in an atmosphere of high anxiety can mean we are continually picking up on and wrestling with others’ emotions. In turn, we are less connected, both to ourselves and others. More distracted. Tenser. Less responsive. Simply being aware of this dynamic is a good first step. Once we have a better sense of who we are and who we want to be and why, we can make choices that support those values, even if it is, as writer Pam Parker explains in her blog post, we choose just “One Damn Thing“:

Again, from Susan David:

[It’s] tiny tweaks: the tiny tweak of “I love this person—but every time they come home from work I hardly get up from my computer to even say hello to them,” or “I want to be a present parent and yet I’m on my phone at the dinner table.”

Make a small change. We can take a habit that we’ve already got and piggyback onto that habit in ways that are values-aligned. You put your keys into a particular drawer? Put your cell phone into the drawer, as well, so that you have a conversation with your child where you aren’t on the phone. Read more

Viktor Frankl wrote, “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me.” Or, to use the terminology of psychologist Philip Zimbardo, we can choose to respond by being an everyday hero in our own life in even the smallest of ways, including the heroic journey of a creative life.

(Your) Words Matter

On the “Who am I” page of her website, UK writer Aliya Mughal shares the following:

I’ve built my life around words. Why? Because words matter. Clarity of thought and the beauty of expression lend quality and vision to everything in life.

Her post “The power of words in an age of anxiety” is a powerful argument for the value of fiction and poetry—especially during times when we feel too anxious or depressed or frazzled to exchange this world for another—and “why reading is such an indispensable pastime in those moments when reality lets us down.”

Milwaukee writer Jocelyn Lee adopts a similar approach using nonfiction. When she is “discombobulated” by news and opinions and life, she reads ten pages a day from self-chosen subject areas:

I noticed that by adopting this practice, I have better conversations, sleep relatively peaceful, I gain new found optimism, I am more mindful, a little smarter, and acquire the energy I need to concentrate on those things which matter. One of which is working on my own novelRead more

Now more than ever we can embrace words, whether reading or writing, in the service of freedom and purpose, and not just when we write to persuade. Sarah Kendzior, an expert on authoritarianism, wrote an important essay in November about being our own light when life grows dark (even if you don’t agree with her politically, her argument about personal freedom applies to everyone):

Authoritarianism is not merely a matter of state control, it is something that eats away at who you are. It makes you afraid, and fear can make you cruel. It compels you to conform and to comply and accept things that you would never accept, to do things you never thought you would do.

We need to listen for, hear, and heed our own unique voice. Kendzior reminds us that no one can “take away who you truly are”:

[Y]ou need to be your own light. Do not accept brutality and cruelty as normal even if it is sanctioned. Protect the vulnerable and encourage the afraid. If you are brave, stand up for others. If you cannot be brave – and it is often hard to be brave – be kind.

But most of all, never lose sight of who you are and what you value. Read more

What does this mean for ordinary people like you and me? We can embrace this moment, this time, however fractured and uncertain we feel, as an opportunity to figure out who we really are. If we are writers or artists of any kind who have never truly committed to a creative life, then we need to be that person. Now. Today. One or one hundred or one thousand words at a time. That’s how we not only persist but thrive.

  • Charles Johnson Quotation

Charles Johnson on creativity and self-liberation

Charles Johnson Quotation

“I think we liberate ourselves through creating.” ~ Charles Johnson

Last week my husband and I took Amtrak’s Hiawatha service from Milwaukee to Chicago to spend a day at the Newberry Library.

On the first part of the journey, I read an interview with author Charles Johnson, whose novel Middle Passage won the 1990 National Book Award for Fiction (“Charles Johnson Reflects on His National Book Award-Winning Novel and More,” by Robin Lindley, Writer’s Chronicle, February 2017). I had thrown the magazine in my tote bag and flipped to the first article, not knowing it would be just what I needed, when I needed it.

For the rest of the train ride, I looked out the window, occasionally taking video with my phone, and thought about creativity.

How some people seem born to be creative.

How creativity is in their bones, in their breath, in their soul.

How easily a creative calling gets confused with public acclaim and success.

How we hesitate to admit the creative vocation, even to ourselves, especially if we don’t have creative products deemed worthy of a life of creativity.

How Viktor Frankl wrote that creating a work is one way to discovery meaning.

How living a creative life is about, most of all, openness to all of life’s experience.

How by not accepting a creative life nor actively exposing ourselves to creativity in its many forms on a regular basis, even—and perhaps especially—when life feels upside down and sideways, we betray our very selves.

“If you love creativity, then your work naturally makes you learn about other creations and how other people have done it. So you want to expose yourself to as much art as possible: black, white; east, west; past, present. You expose yourself to all kinds of art and you learn—and grow constantly in your craft—because you’ve seen all of these creations that are our human inheritance.” ~ Charles Johnson

“Solving a problem by depicting it visually or in a story is how I live my entire life today. I can’t imagine living a life in which my mind is not engaged in creative problem solving.” ~ Charles Johnson

See also

Social Media, Politics, and Staying Sane

I have a new piece at Medium on whether to discuss politics on social media sites – On Social Media: Why I Choose to Discuss Politics (and how not to). The post also includes resources and ideas for how to use groups, lists, and other strategies to compartmentalize political discussion (or avoid it altogether!).

To Red State Family and Friends: Why I’m concerned for us all and not whining

See also Medium version

At his press conference with British prime minister Theresa May, the president said this:

“I happened to be in Scotland at Turnberry cutting a ribbon when Brexit happened and we had a vast amount of press there. And I said Brexit — this was the day before, you probably remember, I said Brexit is going to happen and I was scorned in the press for making that prediction. I was scorned.

And I said I believe it’s going to happen because people want to know who is coming into their country and they want to control their own trade and various other things, and low and behold, the following day it happened and the odds weren’t looking good for me when I made that statement because, as you know, everybody thought it was not going to happen.”

However, in June he had arrived in Scotland for the ribbon-cutting ceremony the day after the Brexit vote, and his comments to the Fox Business Network when asked about Brexit before the vote were, “I don’t think anybody should listen to me because I haven’t really focused on it very much.”

Not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things one week post-inauguration, and that’s the point. Our newly elected president was rewriting his role in history extemporaneously on an international stage—emphasizing that he was scorned by the press for a prediction he had not made—and it is already business as usual. All politicians make campaign promises they don’t keep and have big egos and put spin on their policies, but this is something different.

We already know we can’t trust what our president says. Is this really okay?

I moved from my home state when I went to college, from a rural South Dakota county with a population of 6.9 people per square mile (and a poverty rate of 44 percent) to the fifth largest city in the midwest. I did not move back and will always feel a little guilty about that (a guilt shared by many who leave small towns and farms). My heart is in both worlds and always will be.

Road to family farm

The road to and from my family’s farm in Todd County, South Dakota


To my red state family and friends, you and I most probably voted for different candidates in November. We have some (okay, maybe many) different visions for the future, different priorities, different experiences.

I am not trying to convince you to change your political party or even to understand my point of view, but I do want to try to explain why my concerns about the next four years are neither partisan in basis nor sour grapes.

As much as I might disagree with many Republican policies, I accept that a change in political parties means a change in political power. I get that, I really do. This is not about rehashing the election or who voted for whom.

What concerns me are the authoritarian tendencies of this particular president, regardless of political party. That leaves me feeling helpless and at times terrified.

Running a business, even a global business, in which one is ultimately the only person in charge and accountable to no one is very different from heading one of three branches of government and being accountable to a broad public. That’s not to say that someone can’t make the transition from business leader to effective governance, but it is not necessarily going to happen and can’t be bought. It’s a different kind of leadership.

The president stated repeatedly throughout the campaign and after that he is smarter than experts on any given topic, and he is acting on that belief. For example, Fortune reports that the administration’s flurry of executive orders have been “drafted with little input from the relevant government agencies. Almost all of the headline-grabbing orders were seen by experts to have some clear or potential conflicts with existing laws.” One law professor said “the rush of orders without careful review makes errors likely.”

The chaos and confusion caused by the recent travel ban indicates lack of care (and caring). Is this really okay?

Early in the campaign, I began to read the work of Sarah Kendzior, an expert in authoritarianism. As I read, I kept my fingers crossed that she was wrong. In March of 2016, she published an article at The Diplomat about “what Central Asia’s spectacular states can tell us about authoritarianism in America”:

Spectacle is not all Trump’s proposed America and the Central Asian dictatorships have in common. Trump’s vision of America also supports a restricted press; persecution of devout Muslims and ethnic minorities; totalized control of government through a sequestered elite (Trump refuses to name potential partners and advisors); incredible wealth with little transparency concerning its accumulation (Trump refuses to release tax returns); and paranoid recitation of enemies both foreign and domestic, who are said to threaten the “greatness” of the state – and its leader. These are the standard characteristics of dictatorship, practiced in many countries around the world. But there are more distinct parallels to Trumpism to be found in Central Asia.

Kendzior, who stresses that we all deserve better than what she fears is coming, regardless of whom we voted for, has been unrelenting in her warnings, and many find her arguments alarmist, but what if she’s right? Remember that this was written even before the Republican nomination:

There are vast differences, of course, in the spectacle of Central Asian presidents and that of Trump as an elected leader. It is hard to envision him receiving the adulation to which he – and Central Asian leaders – are accustomed in the U.S. Congress, or managing to get his punitive and persecutory policies passed into law. But the motto of dictatorship is ‘It can’t happen here.’ Time and time again, it has happened – Trump’s likely GOP nomination being only but one recent example of the formerly unthinkable put into practice.

It is irresponsible to rule out his rule. The greatest and perhaps most depressing difference between the Central Asian and Trump models is the latter’s rise to power. When I asked an Uzbek friend to compare Trump to the Central Asian leaders, he replied: ‘Dictatorship is something that was done to us. But you – you’re doing this voluntarily?‘ Read more (emphases added)

Authoritarian leaders expect the press’s role is to make them look good. In just the last week, press secretary Sean Spicer said that negative press coverage is “demoralizing” to the president, and Steve Bannon told the New York Times that the media should “keep its mouth shut.”

In other words, prop up the president and silence the press. Is this really okay?

I do try to go outside of my bubbles, to listen to podcasts and read articles not only by people with whom I agree but from a variety of perspectives, and I urge everyone to do the same. While I don’t expect Fox News fans to tune into MSNBC, there are many Republican and conservative voices who are willing to be thoughtfully critical of the new administration.

A good example is Charlie Sykes, who for years had a radio talk show in Milwaukee, where I live. Sykes does not stoop to ad hominem attacks, describes himself as a “contrarian conservative,” and is not afraid to question his own party or speak up. He has just begun co-hosting a new national public radio show, and his first episode, with guest George Will, is online at Indivisible. You might not change your mind after listening, but you will have heard from two people with deep ties to conservatism and who have the interests of the Republican Party at heart.

Even as I write this, I despair over the gulf that divides us. Several months ago, I opened Facebook for the first time in a while to look for photos from a marriage celebration, and saw in my newsfeed a copied-and-pasted post asking readers if they had ever, among other things, “shaken hands with a Muslim Girl Scout” or “seen a Muslim do anything that contributes positively to the American way of life???? The answer is no, you did not. Just ask yourself WHY???”

My heart sank as I felt the chasm of the political and cultural divide that so many people have tried to describe. By one of those strange coincidences in life, the wedding celebration I had attended the day before was for a Muslim woman who was not only a Girl Scout but who volunteers and makes the world and, yes, our country a better place by her very presence, whose family exemplifies good citizenship as well as any family I know, whose siblings I am honored to have taught and call my friends. (It is also important to note that Muslims, immigrants, refugees, and other populations do not have to be exemplary citizens—how many of us are?—to be valued.) Yet, even though words are my bailiwick, I lacked the verbal skill to describe how different my own experience has been from that status message, how wide and deep the chasm felt.

Likewise, I’m not confident I have explained myself well here. But I have to try, even if only for myself.

I am not telling anyone what to think or believe. I only hope that we hold the president accountable. That we don’t trust that he or his spokespeople or one cable news network is giving us the full picture. If members of Congress ever get to the point of seeing that our president is a political liability (that is, it will lose them votes in the future), they do have the authority to step in or at least exercise their own powers to push back. But they have to know that we the people are not happy, especially those who voted for him.

To everyone who has read this to the end, thank you (truly), and whatever your voice, big or small, please use it—with compassion and kindness, yes, but use it. The person next to you may be hungry for your words, and you could provide the courage he or she needs to speak up, as well. It’s a right we cannot take for granted.

So many passions, so little time!

“[E]mbrace your many passions. Follow your curiosity down those rabbit holes. Explore your intersections. Embracing our inner wiring leads to a happier, more authentic life.” ~ Emilie Wapnick

A Facebook reader messaged me recently about interests and personal growth: “I had many different interests and talents in my childhood so that was always a challenge to choose one among others. What solution do you suggest?”

If you are someone who—rather than searching to find a passion—is struggling to choose one interest or passion of many to pursue, know that you are not alone. You may be what Barbara Sher calls a scanner: someone who naturally has many interests and thrives when following many of them rather specializing narrowly.

Emilie Wapnick uses the term multipotentialite in her TEDx Talk, “Why some of us don’t have one true calling“:

When multipotentialites become interested in something, we go hard. We observe everything we can get our hands on. We’re also used to being beginners, because we’ve been beginners so many times in the past, and this means that we’re less afraid of trying new things and stepping out of our comfort zones. What’s more, many skills are transferable across disciplines, and we bring everything we’ve learned to every new area we pursue, so we’re rarely starting from scratch. ~ Emilie Wapnick

But how does one choose which interests or passions to pursue, especially as we get older and have less time ahead of us than in our rearview mirror? It’s easy to suffer from what psychologist Barry Schwartz terms the paradox of choice: we think that having more choices would make us happier, but it can instead lead to paralysis as we focus on missed opportunities of whatever we do not choose. The result is that we choose nothing.

The point is that the engagement and process are what aid our personal growth and satisfaction, not levels of achievement or outward measures of success or tangible products.

In other words, what is important is to choose something to start, and to remind ourselves that not being an expert or narrowly focused is normal for us. Learn more by watching Emilie Wapnick’s TEDx talk, below (the Facebook reader I’d mentioned wrote recently that “this video and the community of multipods is changing my life!”) and check out her website for multipotentialites, Puttylike.

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