Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Pollyanna Versus Chicken Little

One of the dualities of my life -- and one that I struggle to hold in equipoise -- is Pollyanna-like optimism versus Chicken Little-like pessimism. I give my parents credit for making me bi-polar in this regard. As I wrote in my mother's eulogy:
Her optimism and confidence that the glass was half full was never daunted by [my father] Frank’s worst-case certainty that it was half empty.
Growing up, my mother's blind optimism -- and what I perceived as an associated inability to empathize with our setbacks and heartbreaks -- drove me crazy. I was determined I would grow up to be neither an optimist nor a pessimist, but a realist.

Now I'm not so sure. I'm not sure that our very subjective emotion-governed brains actually permit us to be objective realists.

Beyond that, I've written before about the value and power of belief -- in anything, really -- as a sort of willing self-deception that can induce courage and confidence--even miracles. This positive thinking starts a self-reinforcing spiral that can elevate mood,  yield creativity and productivity, and thereby create a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, and gratitude. In a previous blog I talked about psychological techniques that counteract a human being's natural "negative cognitive bias" -- a propensity to focus on negative phenomena. For our caveman ancestors, heightened sensitivity to harm was critical for survival. It's possible that psychology might actually be in danger of falling overboard on the bright side, but that seems to be the way they are thinking these days.

At any rate, what brought me back to this subject today was contemplating the effect that a strong negative bias can have on others. For example, I understand the frustration of some of my friends as they try to stay supportive of one of our group who sees a dead-end to any and every suggested avenue for circumnavigating her numerous challenges in life. We listen to her woes and try to empathize. We invite her for tea. We listen some more. We make more suggestions of resources that could help with that. But there's always some reason this won't work and that won't help.

It's awful to be Job, but it's also not much fun to be one of his friends. Psychologists have found that good fortune tends to generate a penumbra of optimism and satisfaction with life in the neighborhood of people who are lucky. I wouldn't be surprised if they found that the Jobs and Chicken-Littles of this world create local pockets of depression.

Robert B. Cialdini, Noah J.Goldstein, and Steve J. Martin write in their book Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive that strongly negative, fear-inducing communications
usually stimulate the audience to take action to reduce the threat. However this general rule has one important exception: When the fear-producing message describes danger but the audience is not told of clear, specific, effective ways of reducing the danger, they may deal with the fear by 'blocking out' the message or denying that it applies to them As a consequence, they may indeed be paralyzed into taking no action at all.
I suspect that the same psychological forces could be at work in relationships and when we are called to choose people as our spouses, mates, leaders,  friends, team-members, or co-workers. Taking Chicken Little on board could portend endless hours fruitlessly trying to reassure him or her that the sky is not falling -- rather than enjoying life or solving immediate problems. So instead we block out the message, stop listening, stop wasting our time offering suggestions -- or just turn the gloomy one away.

Sadly, I think that's what happened to me in my village church. I see problems at all levels--from mindboggling challenges with basic aspects of contemporary Christianity to the way our local clergy fail in their interactions with our village congregation. Serving on the parochial church council, the only suggestion I've offered for reducing risk of the church dying is a survey to ask our village what people do and don't want in a church. It's not really a solution -- but I don't think it will be possible to keep the church alive without taking that basic step. The suggestion wasn't taken up. Perhaps if I'd just focused on tiny problems and immediate solutions, I would not be feeling like a Chicken Little- non grata.

Back to Pollyanna -- and the types of people who are instantly welcome in our corporate and individual lives -- I think it's the people who make us feel good about ourselves and the world. Not with platitudes and flattery, but through insight. Their very presence reassures us that everything's going to be fine. They call out special gifts that we might not have noticed. Their careful gaze and thoughtful consideration convinces us that they know and love us. They may also see urgent problems--but also see "clear, specific, effective steps...to reduce the danger," as Cialdini and his colleagues write.

And somewhere in there likes a happy point of equipoise -- a way to be a sympathetic and tuned in to the woes of a friend, a spouse, a child, an organization, the world--yet never lose hope or lose sight of the good and the possibilities for fresh, creative answers.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

God of Aller

The church--Home to God and John of Aller--viewed from Aller Hill, where the dragon's eggs were buried
Our friend Tina has a five-year-old grandson who is utterly enraptured with life... As you are, if you're a lucky five-year-old. This charming child visited our village some months ago with his Grannie, and I had the privilege of giving them the grand tour.
The Saxon Font

I took them "To the Ancient Church" -- as the somewhat obscure sign reads at the end of the drove. I showed them the Alfred (The Great) window, the Saxon font, and well-preserved architectural details from the old part of our church.

Because the boy was very interested in dragons that day, I showed him the effigy of John of Aller and John of Clevedon, which lie in repose in our church. The latter effigy is well-preserved and is of an armoured knight, as Clevedon died jousting.
John of Aller, what slayed the dragon
John of Clevedon
 Aller's effigy is weathered from having been outdoors for a few hundred years. But he was the one I really wanted to introduce to my young friend. According to legend, it was John of Aller who made our village safe from dragons.

Aller Hill, where dragon eggs be buried
One day, the dragon that had been terrorizing our village was flying back to its nest of eggs on Aller Hill, I told my young friend. Brave John of Aller saw the dragon and was ready. He hurled his spear at the dragon and killed her mid-air. Then the good citizens of Aller climbed the hill and buried the dragon eggs deep in the ground, preventing any further dragon attacks--to this day. 

John of Aller's spear was in another nearby church for many years -- so it must have been quite a long throw. I'm not sure if the spear is still at High Ham or if it's been relocated to a museum someplace. The dragon remains our village mascot--we have dragon mosaics and dragon tiles adorning various landmarks. We celebrated the Queen's Jubilee by commissioning a very fine dragon sculpture. I showed all these sights to my young friend, who clearly absorbed all these details and proudly wrote his name in our church visitors' registry.

Aller's Dragon-themed sculpture, left
and mosaic above 
Several months later the boy returned to our village, this time with his mother as well as Grannie. I was out-of-town when they visited, but Tina later related her grandson's breathless enthusiasm at showing his mother what he'd seen and heard here, albeit through the filter of a five-year-old's memory and understanding. What the boy was really keen to show his mom was "God of Aller" in our village church.
Matthew 21:16 (King James Bible:) Jesus saith unto them, Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?
I am not sure if it's pathetic or glorious, but I come as close to finding God in this boy's experience as anything else I've experienced myself in our village church. I see -- and am induced to recollect my own experience of -- the wonder and amazement of childhood: The excitement of stories; lore and evidence of ancient times; the sense of a world filled with adventure, mystery, and pure wordless delight.

And love. I find love in Tina's care and celebration of life with her grandson and daughter. I feel Tina's loving friendship in telling me about their return visit to "God of Aller." I find a completely open, no-strings-attached invitation to join this spirit, to be like a child again, tuned in to such a wondrous place and time: right here, right now.
Matthew 18:3 (King James Bible:) Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Or for a secular version of what I'm sayin', see YouTuber Jason Silva's take on childlike wonder here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kCCHn1cWhOg#t=119
or his take on awe here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8QyVZrV3d3o