Category Archives: Good with the Bad

Man is born to trouble… but then what?

Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upwards, and that has ALWAYS been the case. But man can also be very ingenious about how to manage.

Let me illustrate with examples from my circle of friends. One 25-year-old man with cerebral palsy has no functional hands or legs, is fed through a stomach tube, and can’t talk – but laughs a lot. Another 21-year-old man died from Friedrich’s Ataxia after losing his ability to walk and the strength in his hands by inches from the time he was about 10. He was an accomplished graphic artist. I wrote earlier about the ripples from his short life. Another 23-year-old man has Muscular Dystrophy. He made his first unsupervised friends in his late teens when he became able to play games over the Internet. Up until then, his disability meant he was under constant adult supervision – not conducive to close relationships with peers.

So some ideas from these friends:

Companion dog

Companion dogs – The young man with cerebral palsy has a companion dog who is his bridge to contact with people outside the family, as well as giving him big sloppy kisses that make him laugh. People come up to pet the dog and then stop to talk. These same people would probably walk by with averted eyes otherwise. Companion dogs are thoroughly trained and require a real commitment from the person and often family, but they can be a source of great comfort and company.

Make virtual contacts with others. Human relationships matter and can be hard for some people, for example disabled veterans, to manage in person. My friend with Muscular Dystrophy uses virtual forms of human contact — in his case gaming. He very much appreciates the evolving technologies since things keep getting easier as the strength in his hands declines. For those who aren’t into games, there are Blogs, Facebook, and online discussions. Computer companies have invested a lot in “accessibility” enhancements for software. For example, if a person can’t type well, there are trainable voice readers that can ‘take dictation.’

Find a hero — in a story or reality — who has struggled with a similar disability and somehow won through to a strong life. My friend with Friedrich’s Ataxia used Steven Hawkings for his hero and received considerable comfort from remembering that someone so disabled could still contribute so splendidly. That appealed to him because he had a similar kind of brain, so could picture himself making contributions in the same vein. Physical exercise of whatever form if still possible can also be important. So how about a hero such as the man who joined a fund-raising bike ride from Seattle to Portland in his un-motorized wheel chair, pushing all the way — and kept up.

So I guess I’m suggesting that we search among people – many of them quietly getting through difficult lives – who can provide examples of ways to find meaning in very circumscribed lives. I thought about nominating my friend with Muscular Dystrophy for one of Robert Biswas-Diener’s Courage prizes. But he declined, not perhaps seeing the courage that is very apparent to me.


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Filed under Extraordinary people, Good with the Bad, Resilience, Stories

A Story Like the Wind

A Story Like the Wind
Fifteen years or so ago — I know this because of the receipt I used as a bookmark — I first read Laurens van der Post’s two novels, A Story Like the Wind and A Far Off Place. They were so powerful that I couldn’t read any other fiction for months. They also stuck to me, little images that have enriched my life.

A Far-Off Place
For example, I’ve thought often about the time that the main character, 13-year-old Francois, behaved sharply and turned away from the adults who were trying to console him for the loss of his father. One of them, ‘Bamuthi, the Matabele leader on their homestead in the African bush, looks at the rest and says, “I give you a little fountain choked with mud.” They all nod, because they know the answer to the riddle: “the heart of a fatherless child.”

I lost my father when I was two, and it took me many many years to clean the mud out of the fountain.

I recently picked them up again and found them just as engrossing, even though the author is an egregious side-tracker. In the middle of a storyline, he switches into an earlier storyline and from then into an earlier one, or perhaps a digression into the natural life of babboons or elephants or lions or perhaps a long philosophical exploration of relationships between people and between peoples … so that sometimes it is hard to keep track of where you are in the original story. But the digressions are so full of rich detail.

I found myself tearing off little bits of paper to mark passages to go back to. Here are some of them:

In A Story Like the Wind:
‘Bamuthi: “Then a man-child also had to learn how to sing and above all to dance; for dancing and singing were the best ways he had of showing gratitude for the good things of life. Song and, above all, dancing were the surest ways of helping a man to endure the great trials of his existence; they were needed at birth, marriage and before war to strengthen his heart. … at the moment when the final loss of his shadow was upon him and those he loved, to drive away the power of death and revive the desire to live.”

Hiding courtesy kevinzim

Hiding courtesy kevinzim

Francois successfully shoots a huge, rogue elephant, Uprooter of Trees, that is drunk on fermented fruit and running amok across the homestead. Family friend and wild-life conservationist, Mopani: All he could get himself to do, therefore, was to talk at some length of the unfailing knack life seemed to have of confronting a man at the most unexpected moments with problems as large and dangerous as had been old Uprooter of Trees. Human beings, he stressed, always knew more than they allowed themselves to know. One of the things they never knew clearly enough was the power they possessed of overcoming problems even if they were thrice the size of Uprooter of Great Trees.

Mopani: “Have you ever known a more beautiful evening? I’ve heard it said somewhere that human beings should look on all things lovely as though for the last time. But this is the kind of evening which makes me want to look on it as if for the first time.”

Mopani: Remember always, Little Cousin, that no matter how awful or insignificant, how ugly or beautiful, it might look to you, everything in the bush has its own right to be there. No one can challenge this right unless compelled by some necessity of life itself. … Life in the bush is necessity, and it understands all forms of necessity. It will always forgive what is imposed upon it out of necessity, but it will never understand and accept anything less than necessity. And remember that, everywhere, it has its own watchers to see whether the law of necessity is being observed.”

In A Far Off Place:

Francois’ father, Ouwa: the real art of living was to keep alive the longing in human beings to become a greater version of themselves, to enlarge this awareness of life and then to be utterly obedient to the awareness. … Unlived awareness was another characteristic evil of our time, so full of thinkers who did not do and doers who did not think. … All this, Ouwa would ad, meant living in terms not of having but of being… For what, he often asked was the difference between the ‘Bamuthis of this world and the Europeans of Africa, if not that the Europeans specialized in having and the ‘Bamuthis in being.

And my favorite chapter in both books comes when Francois and his friend Nonnie, who have both lost everything and are traveling across the Kalahari with two bushman friends, sitting by a fire at night when Xhabbo asks a mime riddle than no one gets, and when he explains it, they all roll on the ground with laughter:

Nonnie: “Oh Coiske, do you know, until this moment, I thought we could never laugh like that again. I feel almost guilty that we could with Fa and your Lammie… “

Ligntning my first try courtesy of Kuzeytac

Ligntning my first try courtesy of Kuzeytac

Xhabbo’s reply: “[we] know that the sadness in you is no longer without a name and has found its voice. When sorrow finds a name and a voice, it is like the lightning you see calling and the thunder speaking after it to say that soon the rain will fall on you again.”

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Filed under Extraordinary people, Friendship, Good with the Bad, Relationships, Stories

A Fine Movie, Children of Heaven

My daughter recommended Children of Heaven to us — a movie about two children in Iran dealing with a big problem on their own. The film by Majid Majidi won numerous awards when it came out in 1997.

The movie starts with shots of the hands of a shoe repairman repairing a very worn set of rose-pink shoes.


It proceeds to the little grocery stand where 9-year-old Ali puts the sack holding the shoes down outside while he goes in to pick out some potatoes. A man comes by to collect garbage and picks up the sack of shoes at the same time. The shoes, the only ones owned by Ali’s little sister Zahra, are gone.

Children of Heaven DVD CoverChildren of Heaven

The movie is all about the way the two children deal with the loss of the shoes without telling any adult — not their parents who can’t afford new shoes, not their teachers when they show up late for school, not the athletic director at Ali’s school when Ali wins first prize in a long-distance race and has trouble holding back tears because he really wanted to win the third prize, a pair of tennis shoes.

For pictures of these two beautiful children, I refer you to the picture gallery at the official movie site.

I found myself in a funny spot while I watched this movie. I so wanted the adults to understand and take this trouble away from the children. Yet I could see that dealing with it on their own made both of them grow — in physical strength, in resourcefulness, and in love for each other.

That’s what trouble does — when people come through it well. But of course, they don’t always do so.

So there’s the perpetual tension for parents between protecting their children from trouble that might crush their spirits and leaving them open to grow strength by dealing with trouble on their own. That’s if we get asked, which these parents were not.

Note to parents:  Eleanor Chin is writing a 3-part series on ways parents can help their children develop authentic independence.  Start with Don’t Push the River: Autonomy and Healthy Development.

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Filed under Extraordinary people, Good with the Bad, Movies, Stories

My eternity list — another definition of happiness

Ghost Riders cover

Ghost Riders cover

I came across an intriguing way of thinking about happiness in Sharyn McCrumb’s novel, Ghost Riders. (pp. 205-206).

A character is sitting with a friend on a mountain, the air is not too hot, the sky is cloudless, and the laurel is in bloom.  She says, “It’s so peaceful here.  I’d put this day on my eternity list.”

What’s an eternity list?  She explains it based on the theory from an [unidentified] English physicist who theorized that every moment in time lasts forever, that time may seem to flow, but it is actually separate nows, “each existing forever in its own dimension.”

So she speculates that maybe that’s what heaven is – “getting to live forever in one really wonderful moment.  So the more happy moments there are in your life, the better your chances of spending eternity in a good place.”

Resilience from Flickr

Resilience from Flickr

Of course there are many unhappy moments in anyone’s life.  As I wrote recently in my PPND article on resilience, adversity is part of the human condition.  But at any given moment, there are a range of possible responses, some with happier consequences than others.  Face the misery inherent in your life, yes, but don’t take on any more than necessary.  

I shall start thinking about saving up my own eternity list — moments of communion with family and friend(s), moments of deep engagement in writing or working out details or talking about things that fascinate me, moments of physical beauty or pleasure, moments of knowing that what I am doing matters.


Filed under Contentment, Good with the Bad, Gratitude, Resilience, Savoring

Reflections on Marriage Part 2 – One thing to know

A colleague asked me recently about positive psychology lessons that could help people strengthen marriages.  I’ve written about this before (Reflections on Marriage), but his question reminded me of something very germane that I read in Marcus Buckingham’s book, The One Thing You Need to Know (pp. 16-24), based on research by Sandra Murray and colleagues at SUNY Buffalo.

The One Thing you need to know about marriage is

“Find the most generous explanation for each other’s behavior and believe it.” (p. 22)

Let me give an example of putting this to work.

To-do listMy husband is a very organized person. He has a system for making to-do lists that includes consulting several master lists — one for annual events like eye doctor appointments, one for monthly events, one for weekly events, and one for ongoing projects. Once he has made a list, he doesn’t like to do something that is not on the list unless it is of overarching importance. When I first knew him, I sometimes found it very annoying if I had an idea for a project, and he said, “It’s not on the list.”

So I could think, “I love him, even if he is sometimes really rigid about his lists.”

Or I could find a generous way to think about his list-making that includes it among the things I love about him. Buckingham says, “When you notice a flaw, recast it in your mind as an aspect of a strength.” In this case, I can think about how we never fail to pay bills or get the filters changed or shop for holidays or …. When we have a big event coming up, like giving a party or preparing for a hurricane, I can count on him to plan for it and execute all the things that on his list. His list-making has made my life easier and more secure.

So when I think about his list-making, my feelings are fondness and amusement and acceptance — even awe for how much he accomplishes. I haven’t compartmentalized a piece of him away hoping not to think about it. Compartmentalizing doesn’t really work. Those cordoned-off aspects of the person continue to be there, ready to generate irritation and resentment whenever you can’t ignore them. Besides, ignoring them takes energy.

I view this as a form of realistic optimism where I’m choosing how I want to deal with fuzzy meaning (a lovely term that I got from Dr. Sandra Schneider). There is no right or wrong interpretation of his list-making behavior. So I can choose an interpretation that increases my appreciation of him every time it becomes evident. It took a while to make this interpretation habitual, but it becomes easier all the time.

Aside: This approach is not suitable for violence or abuse of any kind. But it is helpful for the personality differences that lead to ongoing friction between two people who love each other and want to make marriage work together.

Source of to-do list picture

Murray, S., Holmes, J., Dolderman, D., & Griffin, D. W. (2000). What the motivated mind sees: Comparing friends’ perspectives to married partners’ views of each other. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 36(6), 600-620. First sentence of abstract: This article argues that satisfaction in marriage is associated with motivated and benevolent biases in perception. Link to place to order

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Filed under Good with the Bad, Marriage, Optimism, Relationships

Butterflies and Hurricanes

The weather has been beautiful here, cool and sunny, remarkably so for the end of August and early September when it is often suffocatingly hot and humid.  My husband has gotten interested in butterflies and is frequently chasing them with the digital camera so that he can get enough information to identify them.  The smaller ones seldom stop fluttering, so it is harder to snap them.

I’ve written before about butterflies being particularly beautiful because they are so transient. We’re battening down for hurricanes that may go close by — hard-hearted Hanna, Ike, and Josephine in quick succession.  At the very least, they will bring heavy rains that will probably strip many of the flowers from the butterfly plants.  They may also bring wind damage and power outages.  So today is a lull, time to bring in all the wind-movable objects from the yard, charge the phones and computers, stock up on bread, water, and toilet paper (my sister has observed that people in Baltimore always shop for toilet paper when they are stocking up for a storm), and enjoy what is here that may not be in a few days.

So in the interest of savoring by sharing before the storms hit, here are some of the pictures he has taken in the garden this summer.

First, here’s a corner of the butterfly garden planted with butterfly bush and Brazilian sage and Monarda and several other plants beloved by bees, butterflies and even hummingbirds. Notice the stone on the ground on the left. It has a hollow to capture water and ridges where butterflies can sun themselves before flying away.

Butterfly Garden

Butterfly Garden

The pictures and captions tell the story.

Pipevine Swallowtail on Monarda

Pipevine Swallowtail on Monarda

Black Swallowtail on Butterfly Bush

Black Swallowtail on Butterfly Bush

Large Lace Border

Large Lace Border Moth

Red Spotted Purple

Red Spotted Purple

Summer Azure on a Fig Leaf

Summer Azure on a Fig Leaf

We were right under the storm track of Hurricane Fran in 1996. There’s still a hollow in the woods behind us where a circle of trees were knocked down. We lost power for more than a week. Hurricane Fran hit the month after my mother-in-law died. She had always stocked our freezer with containers of home-made chili whenever she visited. So after Fran, we invited friends who couldn’t cook because of power outages, pulled out all the chili from the not-working freezer, heated it on the gas stove in our basement apartment, and ate dinner by candle light.


Filed under Friendship, Good with the Bad, Savoring

Reflections on Voting

We just got back from voting in the North Carolina primary. Voting is an activity that brings back lots of memories…

  • About my paternal grandfather who claimed that he never missed an election, not even a local school board race, in his long adult life. As we face the difficult questions about how to end the war in Iraq, I think about his experience as an officer on the Western Front and the letter that he wrote my grandmother about jubilation as World War I ended..
  • Frank Church pictureAbout my maternal grandparents, one a Democrat, the other a Republican, who went to the polls every election to cancel each other’s votes out. Then the year my grandfather, the Republican, posted a sign in his yard for the Democrat, Frank Church, running for the senate in Idaho. Read about Frank Church who said in 1970, “Our long ordeal in this mistaken war must end. The gathering crisis in our own land, the deepening divisions among our people, the festering, unattended problems here at home, bear far more importantly on the future of our Republic than anything we ever had at stake in Indochina.”
  • About my mother cutting up a Nixon bumper sticker in 1960 to form the sentence “Nix on Nixon.” My earliest political memory is her disdain for Nixon’s Checkers speech.
  • About the passion I felt working for McGovern — I see the same passion in young people working for Obama today.
  • About the horrible ambiguity of the outcome of the presidential election in 2000, and yet the pride I felt that we could still have a peaceable transfer of power.
  • About the excitement of this election, that we have both a serious female candidate and a serious African American candidate for president. Much has changed in the United States since the 15th and 19th amendments extended the right to vote to African Americans and women. After 2008, when children are told they can be anything, even president, it will mean much more to little girls and children of color.

A few weeks ago, I met with my Positive Psychology Discussion Group to talk about negative campaigning – why it occurs, whether it serves a purpose. Evolutionarily, the negative is more salient than the positive to people. So for a given budget of ink and robocalls, negative messages may have 3+ times the power of positive messages. Of course there is always the possibility that they may boomerang, like the game we played as children: “I’m rubber and you’re glue. Everything you say bounces off me and sticks to you.”

I personally think it is better to get the possible negatives out of the way so they don’t dog the elected officials, distracting them from the work of forming the necessary compromises that go into governing. That’s one thing about Clinton – we’ve had Clinton dirty linen in front of us for so long that it is hard to believe there is any more. Reverend Wright is a test for Obama. How well does he define his own position rather than letting himself be forced into a “Have you stopped beating your wife?” position.

Benjamin Franklin portraitI’d like to close with Ben Franklin’s words at the end of the Constitutional Convention. He starts, “I confess that there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them. For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right but found to be otherwise.” He ends with this plea, “On the whole, Sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and, to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.”

I never expect unanimity in our country, but I do hope that however the election turns out, we may all doubt our infallibility, open our ears to other points of view, and find ways to act in common cause.

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Filed under Good with the Bad, Meaning, Optimism