“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there,” Rumi.
I once read a story about a man on a subway train who became angry at a father and his misbehaving sons. The two young boys were creating a commotion – jumping up and down, darting from seat to seat, making noise – while their seemingly hapless father looked on.
Eventually, the father turned toward the irritated man and apologized, explaining that he and the boys were returning from the hospital where his wife had just died. Wearily, the father said he didn’t have it in him to discipline his sons.
I can’t recall where I read that story. (My apologies to the author.) But it’s served as a long-standing reminder to soften my judgments and wrap them in a blanket of open-mindedness.
Who knows what trouble has befallen someone in a foul mood? Who knows what thorny path someone has taken to reach a firmly held belief?
It’s not easy to air out our assumptions and consider alternatives. Doing so seems all the more difficult in a culture of political polarization, and outrage porn where brash, tweeted, posted, or broadcasted opinions often compel us to cling more tightly to our own.
But open-mindedness is a bridge to a better understanding of ourselves, others, and the world around us. It also fosters dialog, collaboration, and tolerance.
Open-mindedness – or the willingness to consider differing ideas, opinions, and perspectives – is more than just an attitude. It’s both a skill and a mental allegiance. It’s also a hallmark of mindfulness.
Being open-minded doesn’t mean we abandon our principles. Instead, it means we’re willing to hold them up to the light, and like a piece of stained glass, see their colors more clearly.
Saffo advocates holding strong opinions, weakly, and then intentionally challenging yourself to find contradictory information and data to shape a better conclusion. He explains how to do so this way: “Allow your intuition to guide you to a conclusion, no matter how imperfect — this is the ‘strong opinion’ part. Then –and this is the ‘weakly held’ part– prove yourself wrong. Engage in creative doubt. Look for information that doesn’t fit or indicators that point in an entirely different direction…” https://medium.com/@ameet/strong-opinions-weakly-held-a-framework-for-thinking-6530d417e364
In other words, entertain – even if only for a moment – a contrasting perspective and let it guide you to a deeper conception of what’s valid. Think of open-mindedness like a key that unlocks a door to what you don’t yet know and what you might learn about another person, a scientific or political theory, a problem or a situation, or yourself.
Another story that relates is coming to mind: I recently met a woman who loved to travel to remote places. Her husband didn’t enjoy this, but at times he tagged along. When he went with his wife, though, he stayed in the hotel, tethered to the familiarity of having breakfast in his room, reading the paper, or watching television. I wondered about the experiences and discoveries he missed as he huddled in his hotel room while his wife explored a foreign country.
I like to think of open-mindedness as a form of intellectual travel to a remote village. Doing so takes a willingness to leave home and be uncomfortable. But it’s also an adventure. And who doesn’t like a bit of adventure now and then?
On My Mind
It’s always good to have a poem in your pocket to lift your spirits or entertain you while your waiting in line at Trader Joe’s. For the past few weeks, I’ve been carrying around one from Derek Mahon as a reminder that maybe, someday in the not too distant future, things will take a turn for the better.
Everything is Going to be All Right
How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the daybreak and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.
DerekMahon,from Selected Poems
Gratitude comes in many forms – in quiet prayers, we say before bed or in loudly shouted party cheers. For Elmarie Du Toit, it came in a long line of clapping from students who applauded her retirement after 50 years of heartfelt teaching. Watch the video below, and you might feel a bit of gratitude as well. http://twitter.com/FrankieFire/status/1290550516011892736
Years ago, New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz was running late to catch a flight at JFK airport. When he entered long-term parking, the ticket to the lot jammed in the machine, worsening his predicament.
As cars piled up behind him and the risk of missing his flight became pressing, Shortz went into problem-solving mode. He got out of the car and spied a paperclip on the ground. Thinking quickly, he twisted it into a hook, extracted his ticket, and dashed to the gate just in time to catch his flight.
When we’re cognitively flexible, we find novel solutions to challenges such as Shortz’s NYT crossword puzzles.
But mental flexibility goes well beyond puzzling. Mental flexibility allows us to see things from different perspectives and appreciate another person’s point of view. It’s what keeps us from getting emotionally stuck and helps us go with the flow of life. All of which not only supports problem-solving but enables us to get along better with others.
Mental flexibility is an essential life skill. And it’s one that appears all the more valuable in a climate of political polarization, outrage porn, and personal broadcasting where tolerant and reasonable exchanges about issues are as rare as shooting stars.
Fortunately, mental flexibility is a trainable skill. To get a sense of what it means to be mentally flexible, let’s try an experiment. Look at the picture below.
What do you see? Do you see a duck with its beak pointing to the left? Can you see a bunny with its nose pointing to the right?
If you can see both images, congratulations, you just exercised a bit of mental flexibility. This 100-year-old drawing has been used in studies to gauge creativity by how quickly people see one image and then the next. It might be relatively easy for us to toggle between a duck and a rabbit in a drawing. But it’s not so easy to be as mentally nimble in daily life.
Think back to the last time you argued with your spouse, a friend, or a co-worker? Was it easy to see their side of the story? Could you empathize with their point of view? Or was doing so as challenging as one of Shortz’s crossword puzzles?
When we become rigid in our thinking, we invariably get straight-jacketed in perceptions and behaviors that exacerbate our stress. Not only do we lose the capacity to see things broadly and create ingenious solutions we wind up locking horns with others. As a result, our efforts to solve problems or resolves disputes often devolve into anger and frustration.
Of course, this happens to all of us, particularly when we care deeply about situations, people, and issues. Training in mental flexibility, however, can allow you to enter problem-and-resolution mode more readily.
There are many ways to become mentally agile. You can do crossword puzzles, fix a broken paper shredder, or cook a recipe with alternative ingredients. You also can practice mindfulness.
A smattering of studies show mindfulness meditation improves cognitive flexibility. Research on how mindfulness affects the brain is still in its infancy and I’m hesitant to rely on it too heavily.
What I’ve experientially gained from practicing mindfulness meditation, though, is a widening tolerance for nuance, alternative perspectives, and the gray area of not knowing.
Mindfully observing the coming and going of thoughts, beliefs, and judgments lessens the investment in them, allowing you to hold them more loosely. It doesn’t mean that you don’t retain a point of view or that you don’t have strong opinions. But what once seemed like the only way to see something often gives way to an open field of other possibilities and outlooks.
In other words, you see both the duck and the rabbit.
Nobel Prize winner and legendary singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was interviewed in the New York Times recently before the release of his latest album “Rough and Ready Ways.”
Asked why more people didn’t pay attention to Little Richard’s gospel music Dylan responded in a way that made me want to blare gospel music throughout the house. Dylan said:
“Gospel music is the music of good news and in these days there just isn’t any. Good news in today’s world is like a fugitive, treated like a hoodlum, and put on the run. Castigated. All we see is good-for-nothing news…On the other hand, gospel news is exemplary. It can give you courage…” Bob Dylan, NYT, June 12, 2020
Buying or not buying goods and services based on whether a company has sound environmental, ethical, or diversity policies has been around long enough to lose steam.
Many of us want to be conscious consumers. But few of us are, and a lot of us are confused about how to make the right purchasing choices, according to an annual Conscious Consumer Spending Index conducted by Good.Must.Grow, a consultancy for socially responsible organizations.
One of the more disheartening findings of the 2019 index is that fewer people feel they can make a difference with their dollars.
That may change in light of increased awareness about racism.
Consumers and shareholders can play a significant role in requiring companies to do more to promote equality. They also can vote with their dollars by supporting companies that make substantial changes or by investing in and buying from Black-owned businesses.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, companies ranging from Adidas to Starbucks to Walt Disney have pledged support Black Lives Matter or donated millions to anti-racist causes. Some are changing product lines. For example, Johnson & Johnson launched Band-Aids that embrace diversity by offering bandages in different skin tones.
Time will tell if this is a just a marketing moment or a movement for corporate America. Critics point out that the representation of Blacks in boardrooms and upper management remains woefully low. And to be sure companies will take their lumps for appearing opportunistic.
Dr. Duana Fullwiley, a medical anthropologist and associate professor at Stanford University, called out Johnson & Johnson in recent Forbes magazine article, saying the company’s timing in offering its new Band-Aids was insincere.
Still, consumers have a choice. And economic opportunity is a great equalizer. Investing in or buying from Black-owned businesses now is all more significant since the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated Black-owned and minority companies.
The great re-opening of America and the rest of the world is well underway. So much so, that people are flouting social distancing routines – removing masks and gathering en masse – as if the pandemic was a thing of the past. Unfortunately, it isn’t. And not surprisingly, COVID-19 cases are on the rise. Maybe people in Germany have the right idea. Wearing a pool noodle on my head suddenly seems like a good idea.
Maybe like me, you’re finding it harder to get traction these days.
Since entering lockdown mode, my days are narrow and familiar, but at the same time, different and undependable.
The footholds I counted on to scale my day have given way. In place of a reliable routine are last-minute Zoom meetings, round-the-clock emails, willy-nilly walks, and family meals that resemble cows grazing in the field with all of us nibbling from the refrigerator at whim.
One day flows into the next, and entire days have changed personalities. Lazy Sundays look like hectic Wednesdays. The glee I usually feel on a Friday afternoon gets tempered by another quiet night at home.
Call this no man’s land of calendar time, Blursday.
It’s a pandemic phenomenon that’s not only the result of upended personal schedules but of an entire society turned topsy-turvy. Cultural cues that keep us on track—morning rush hour or a Saturday night out—have been replaced by a shelter-at-home timelessness that’s now morphing into a patchwork re-opening of cities, counties, and states.
In place of a reliable routine are last-minute Zoom meetings, round-the-clock emails, willy-nilly walks, and family meals that resemble cows grazing in the field with all of us nibbling from the refrigerator at whim.
Those going into work are entering workplaces that have become more structured and rule-based. But, there too, unfamiliar protocols combined with long hours create Blursday. Others have lost jobs, and along with the lost income goes the lost framework they provided. School has become an early, shapeless summer vacation for many kids and teens.
Blursday can leave us feeling unmoored and spacey. Mid-way through a rare grocery shop, we can realize we left our wallet at home. (True story.) Bills don’t get paid on time, and household chores lose their cadence. The other night, I cleaned the toilet 10:45 p.m. Who does that?
Alternatively, Blursday can make you feel dizzyingly productive and overwhelmed. With less structure, work has more capacity to ooze into every crevice of life. It’s like Gak—that slimy goo children love, but adults hate.
Either way, we can wind up blaming ourselves, lamenting a lack of motivation, or feeling guilty for working too hard and not spending quality time with family or taking care of ourselves.
There are practical ways to cope with Blursday (which, by the way, isn’t our fault).
How to Cope with Blursday
1.Getting dressed in something other than sweatpants and making your bed in the morning gives you a sense of accomplishment that propels productivity the rest of the day.
2. Setting boundaries around when you’ll stop working if you’re working from home—i.e., not checking email after 8 p.m.—helps you reclaim the sanctuary of home.
3. Looking at the calendar or your planner, even if it’s too full or too empty, reorients you and creates an impression of normalcy.
4. Being mindful and becoming more aware of what scaffolding you need to erect in your day, whether it’s starting work at a regular time each morning or routinely taking an evening stroll, is eminently helpful.
I’ll also suggest a mindful reframe of Blursday. No matter how disorienting, not being so tethered to date and time grants us more freedom to live in the moment. Clock time is just an externally imposed illusion anyway.
How many times have you eaten breakfast at 8 a.m. even though you weren’t the least bit hungry? And what’s wrong with scrubbing the toilet at 10:45 p.m.?
Maybe the best approach, at least for now and if we’re able, is to follow poet Mary Oliver’s advice and “let the soft animal of your body love what it loves”… whenever it loves it.
No matter how disorienting, not being so tethered to date and time grants us more freedom to live in the moment. Clock time is just an externally imposed illusion anyway.
Work-life balance has been out the window for years anyhow. In vogue is “work-life harmony” where work isn’t compartmentalized but, for better or for worse, flexibly integrated into the day. If going for a run at 11 a.m. recharges you, and you can make up lost time working after dinner, have at it. Scenarios like this will likely become common as more of us work from home.
As we emerge from shelter-in-place orders, whatever new routine we adopt won’t be like the one we had. There’s no going back. Given that, relying on intuition to craft a just-right rhythm to our day is a kinder, gentler way to go—even if we don’t know what day it is.
Poet Maggie Smith has been offering words of pandemic wisdom via Twitter https://twitter.com/maggiesmithpoet?lang=en to inspire and shine a light on our shared experience. Maybe you feel a bit like she does when she writes:
“I feel like I live on a small, remote island and there are no more fairies running. Sometimes, I wonder if I dreamed the mainland.”
Every event has intended and unintended consequences. More often, it’s a mixture of both.
Some consequences are decidedly bad, and others are surprisingly good. Many remain unknown for years to come.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, the bad is painfully apparent. The unknown is portentous. And the good is worth noting to boost our morale, if only briefly, and to add an uplifting contrast to what otherwise has been weeks of unrelenting gloom.
I offer the following observations of the unintended “good” with compassion for all of those who are suffering now. Many among us have lost loved ones as well as their jobs. Others are ill or anxious about getting sick. Still, more are working overtime on the front lines.
Let’s think of them as we turn our attention to the good that’s emerged during the pandemic.
Caring, Connection, and Collaboration: These three “C’s” of human interaction have rarely been higher – save for World War II or national tragedies such as 9/11. The Wall Street Journal ran a stunning article recently about Scientists to Stop COVID-19, a behind-the-scenes consortium of billionaires and top-notch scientists, including a Nobel Prize winner who said he was the least qualified of the group. The group has been working feverishly to try to save the world from the pandemic, bringing tremendous financial and intellectual resources to the gargantuan task. They reportedly have made progress on sorting out the most promising treatments and strategies for defeating COVID-19. They’re now researching the best ways to re-open the economy. Reading about the shared goodwill of the group raised my spirits for hours. People working together with compassion (another C) for others can accomplish amazing things.
Mother Nature: Planet earth is thriving during our global lockdown. Dolphins swim in the clear waters of the Venice canals in Italy. The skies above New York are an unpolluted blue. Black bears freely frolic in Yosemite National Park, where 400 bears have been hit by cars since 1995, according to Beth Pratt, National Wildlife Federation’s regional executive director for California. Surely, flora, and fauna soil and water are thanking us for our collective retreat. Maybe, they’ll continue to thrive a bit longer at our expense. And perhaps when we get back to business, we’ll tread a little more lightly on the earth.
Illicit Drug Supply Chains Get Disrupted: While Wuhan, China, is now famous for COVID-19, BC (before COVID-19), it was known as an industrial hub and a primary supplier of the chemicals needed to make fentanyl and other opioids, according to the Los Angeles Times. Lockdowns in Wuhan disrupted the chemical supply back in January. The flow of drugs into the U.S. from Mexico also has been hampered thanks to the pandemic. Supply and demand is a complicated relationship. Drug users are likely paying more for their high while supplies stall or, worse, going through life-endangering withdrawals without access to their usual drugs. We can still hope, though, that the hiccup in the supply chain shifts the drug trade downward.
A lovely but cynical friend of mine believes that when COVID-19 subsides, we’ll return to our selfish, polluting, mercenary ways.
I’m not so sure. People change. Cultures adapt, and some trends, for better and for worse, are long-lasting. We still go through security checkpoints at airports because of 9/11, and it’s likely wearing masks will be fashionable for a while.
Why not dream that the “better angels of our nature” will lift humanity to higher heights long after the pandemic recedes
On My Mind
British World War II Veteran Captain Thomas Moore decided to do his part during the pandemic. His quest? To raise money for the country’s National Health Service charities by attempting to walk 100 laps around his garden in Eastern England with the aid of a walker before he turned 100 years old. An inspired British nation contributed nearly $38 million to his cause. Moore successfully completed his quest and when he turned 100 years old on April 30th he received more than 100,000 birthday cards, including one from the Queen. Keep Calm and Carry On. http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-beds-bucks-herts-52472132
The stories we tell ourselves about the future and the past affect how we live in the present. Watch the following video from poet Tomos Roberts and consider what story you want to tell yourself about post-pandemic life.