Sunday, January 26, 2014

What We Choose to Emphasize

This came across my Facebook page yesterday, shared by several friends.

I thought it worth posting here.
"To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. 
What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. 
If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places--and there are so many--where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand utopian future.  
The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory."
-- Howard Zinn

Friday, January 03, 2014

The Limits of Labels

"She's a narcissist."
"He's totally ADD."
"I'm depressed."
"You're OCD."

We all do it, but when it comes to armchair diagnosing, proceed with caution. This is a helpful article explaining why.

As a parent, I have to consciously fight the urge to "explain" my kids as shy, outgoing, hyper, or whatever, when trying to analyze the cause of some action or mood. Labels limit and inhibit, because we tend to seek evidence that fits, ignore evidence that doesn't (confirmation bias) and act in ways that make the labels self-fulfilling. I know that labels can reduce them, in my mind and more dangerously in theirs.

When our kids diagnose themselves, e.g., "I'm no good at math," instead of simply commiserating, I try to remind them how well they learn when they apply themselves. This doesn't come naturally, but after reading the book Mindset by Carol Dweck, I am persuaded that kids who are told the truth, that their brains are constantly evolving and capable of growth, do better and feel better.
"In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits . . . In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment."
If only this was common knowledge when I was young! As a Laestadian in a public school, I was labeled as a loner and a snob (and no doubt much worse); after all, I didn't hang out, or go to football games or parties. My teachers, grateful to have a compliant student who turned in her work, a pleaser, pegged me as smart. The bar was very low. Because I could win friends by drawing sketches, I got a reputation as an artist. My mother, adapted to a life of cooking, cleaning, and sewing (not disappearing with a book or drawing pad) warned me that I was lazy and not good marriage material. When I questioned the teachings of the church, my father called me disobedient, proud, and self-righteous. Each of these labels I absorbed, as children do, and also questioned, but they all bit me on the butt in different ways, limiting my perceptions of who I was and what I could do, and whether I was lovable.



But the most insidious label was the one I gave myself, without quite realizing it: victim. That one is a soul killer, and I'm glad that it has been replaced in recovery literature by survivor, but the truth is that whatever we say to ourselves about our past, if our self-perception stays rooted there, in circumstances that were out of our control, we are stuck. We are passive, reactive, the audience rather than the creators of our lives.

Infinitely better than surviving is thriving. This chart describes the difference, and while simplified, I think the comparisons may resonate for you as it did for me (you may even recognize voices from this blog over the years). But -- as with everything -- eat the chicken and leave the bones. Take what helps, toss the rest.

Walt Whitman, that wonderful courage-giver, wrote: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes."

That is where I am now, accepting myself as a infinitely complex and always evolving. I am sometimes a loner, snobbish, smart, artistic, lazy, not good marriage material, disobedient, proud, self-righteous, and a victim. I am also gregarious, unassuming, dumb, unoriginal, productive, a decent spouse, servile, humble, and an instigator. There is truth in all of these labels, but the larger truth is that they don't define me. I want to offer that same grace to others, especially those in my past, who are so easy to label and so difficult to understand. I'm trying.

What labels have helped or hindered you?