Category Archives: Good with the Bad

The Ark and Rowan Farm

When I was growing up, I was attracted to books about children facing very difficult times and finding a way to thrive. There was a fair amount of change and insecurity in my growing up — my father died when I was two, my mother moved her three preschool children to New York City so that she could pursue a Library Science degree, remarried when I was 6, divorced when I was 13, and changed professions when I was 17 — each event causing a major move. I went to 8 different schools in 5 towns, 4 states and 2 countries before I graduated from high school. Looking back, things turned out reasonably well and I gained a lot of resilience by dealing with the many moves. I learned, for example, never to judge how I felt about a new town until I’d been there at least 3 months because I always felt disoriented and lonely in a new place. But along the way, when I didn’t know how things would turn out, it was comforting to read about children who came successfully through much greater insecurity.

Rowan Farm CoverThe Ark and its sequel, Rowan Farm, by Margot Benary-Isbert are about a German family facing the years right after the end of WWII. They are refugees, having moved several times from their original home in Silesia in east Germany. The father is missing, probably a prisoner of war in Russia. They hope they’ve left enough pointers along their way that he will be able to find them. One of the children was shot by soldiers during the war. The other 4 children range in age from 6 to 16. In the first chapter, they find themselves in a new city quartered with an unwilling landlady and starting to scrounge again for food, fuel, blankets, clothes and work. Everything is in short supply, rationed and involving long waits in line. The older children have put their own dreams on hold to help their mother manage. The younger ones have few memories of their settled home and comfortable life before the war, and so view the changes with more zest and adventurousness.

Over the course of the two books, the older children, Mathias and Margaret, find jobs working on a farm not far out in the country where the farm owner, Mrs. Almut, raises milk sheep, registered Great Danes, and various fruit and vegetable crops. Mrs. Almut had acquired a railroad car before the war that Margaret and Mathias turn into a small home and eventually bring the rest of the family out to join them.

Many small stories work out, people returning home, searching for missing family members, coming to terms with anger and grief, dealing with conflicts between the needs of city folk for food and the resentment of farmers when their animals and crops are requisitioned.

The Lechows face births and deaths. When their father finally finds them, they are grown up beyond his expectation, and he has a hard time re-entering the family. Each family member takes part in the first steps to rebuild Germany, all the red tape and shortages and conflicts. The youngest child and his school mates play a role in resolving the conflicts between original residents and the continuing stream of refugees.

Both of my children found these books engrossing. They loved to hear about life on the farm, baby animals being born. They were amazed by ingenuity the Lechows used to face the hardships of their lives.

The Ark and Rowan Farm are out of print now, but still available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Recently I’ve had discussions with people who are worried about whether today’s young people have the gumption to face hard times. At least partly based on these books, I believe that people can rise to meet the demands of their times. Before the war, the Lechows lived a comfortable middle class life. They had no idea what they could do when times got really hard. Neither do we.



Filed under Good with the Bad, Positive Children's Canon, Stories, Strengths

Dealing with a Death

I’ve been rather absent from my blog recently dealing with the death of someone close to me. It’s quite remarkable how much energy it takes to mourn. Everything seems to move in slow motion.

This was a person I’d known my entire life. So I have a whole gamut of feelings, some pleasant, some not.

I did learn something in the last few months that is worth sharing. I found that the best way to lay old unhappy feelings to rest is to create new memories that are pleasant. But to do that, I had to recognize that some of my emotional responses were echoes of the past, and I had to choose to put them aside to make room for new memories. When I was able to create openness to a new experience of this person, it was remarkable how quickly some feelings of tiredness and depression receded.

I am so glad I took the opportunity to learn this – while I still had time.


Filed under Good with the Bad, Relationships

Startling books

If somebody asked you whether you’d like to read a book about a collection of friends reshaping their lives after one dived into shallow water and permanently injured himself, would you jump at the chance? How about a book about a family and friend reshaping their lives after the daughter attempts suicide?

Dive from Clausen's Pier
These are not topics that I seek out, but I have found Ann Packer’s two books, Dive from Clausen’s Pier and Songs without Words surprisingly engaging, moving, and stimulating.

I just finished Songs without Words, and I was struck by the ending where a lifelong friendship strained by disappointment and let down is held together tenuously by the sheer weight of accumulated shared memory. I’ve been thinking about the power of shared memory lately.

I have twice searched the book for this sentence, describing the reaction of the one of the main characters when she receives a phone message from her estranged friend, “And standing in her kitchen, Sarabeth burst into a thousand pieces of bliss that rained lightly and colorfully onto the floor.” It’s at the end of chapter 26 — in case you want to find it — or I want to reread it again.

One spends time in the head of each main character, emerging with compassion and acceptance. Yes, Sarabeth fails to come through for friend, but oh, it is so understandable why not. And then one gets to watch as her friend Liz slowly works through her justifiable outrage and starts to understand, especially the scene where her daughter passes her a mint without words in complete joint understanding, and she remembers a contrasting occasion of fear and not-understanding at the movies with Sarabeth and Sarabeth’s mother. “And yet thinking about that long-ago day, about her own tiny episode of fear, Lorelei sitting near her in the dark like some kind of not-mother, some kind of antimother, she thought it was wrong, it was almost criminal, that Sarabeth had been forced to do without.”

I checked both of these books out of the public library, but I think I’ll put them on my birthday list. I think someday I’ll read them again.

I notice in that Sophia Tolstoy’s diaries and photographs have been published in a volume called Song without Words. I wonder about the connection. Certainly the book Anna Karenina played a role in this story.

So why write about these books in a blog called Positive Psychology Reflections? I guess because these books took me willingly through a lot of vicarious suffering and I feel richer because of it. Positive psychology is not about the absence of suffering and trauma, but about how life can be lived well in their presence.

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Filed under Friendship, Good with the Bad, Stories

A discipline for finding the positive: Writers’ workshops

Writers’ Workshops book coverThinking about disciplines that help people see and express the positive made me think of Richard Gabriel’s book, Writers’ workshops & the work of making things: Patterns, poetry, and … . The book is out-of-print, so I’m delighted to find a pdf of the final typeset version online, along with information by the author about its status (follow the link and scroll down). I bought a copy of the book a few years ago when I was preparing to be a “shepherd” for a software patterns workshop – see chapter 10 for a discussion of the role of shepherds.

The process of conducting a writers’ workshop is described step-by-step: who is involved, how to prepare, how to help others prepare (shepherd), role of the moderator, having the author read a section and then become a fly on the wall, summarizing the work, positive feedback, suggestions for improvement, and chances to clarify comments.

Chapter 14 is called Positive Feedback. The author comments that even the arts have been affected by western culture’s focus on finding and fixing problems. After all the problems are pointed out with suggestions for improvement, what is the author to make of the rest of the piece? Is it OK? Or did the people at the workshop just not get to all the problems? What does the author experience? Letdown? Uncertainty? Self-doubt?

So the criticism part of a Writers’ workshop starts with people stating the positive. What really worked? What did the reviewers really like? What would the reviewers keep no matter what else changes in the piece? What parts do the reviewers remember best?

Positive comments are contagious. Here’s a comment from one seasoned technical workshopper (p. 128):

Many times I’ve reviewed a workshop paper where I really could not think of anything positive to say. I didn’t like the name. The solution didn’t work for me, etc. What always happens, however, is that when someone begins with a positive comment, I suddenly see lots of things I can add. This never fails and now I look forward to seeing this miracle happen. It says something about the power of good or the ability we all have to pull each other up.

Starting the criticism period with positive comments is an accepted discipline for these workshops. It means that people actually look for positive things, become mindful of them, and are stimulated by others during the workshop to see positive things they missed.

In my own experience having a paper reviewed at a workshop, hearing the positive comments made me open to hearing the suggestions for improvement that followed. They also helped me see what NOT to change when I made the next revision.

This book is a gift. I’m sorry it is not in-print, since I believe the author deserves royalties. It is very generous of him to make the book available online to any who go looking for it. Thank you, Richard Gabriel!

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Filed under Giving Feedback, Good with the Bad, Positive Interventions

There’s a place for ‘Appropriate Negativity’

I like the idea of virtue being the expert mean between deficit and excess (thanks, Aristotle). For example, courage is the expert mean between cowardice and rashness. Expert indicates that finding the right place in the middle requires judgment. A particular act may be courageous in some situations and foolishly rash in others.

The expert mean between too much and too little negativity is important when giving feedback. Too much negativity can cause the receiver to lose sight of what is good, to lose confidence, or even to give up. Too little negativity can make the feedback unbelievable and can also deprive receivers of the information they need to get better.

The expert mean between too much and too little negativity is supported by research by Barbara Fredrickson, Marcial Losada, John Gottman, and others on the effect of different positive-to-negative ratios in several contexts including marriage and team behavior.

Avoidance of excess: Fredrickson and Losada have determined that a positive-to-negative ratio of 2.9 is the dividing line between human flourishing and human languishing. That means at least 2.9 positive things are said or done for any one negative thing. It works within a person, between two people, and in larger groups. For example, teams identified as being highly productive tended to have 5 to 6 positive utterances to every negative utterance, while the least productive teams tended to have slightly more negative than positive utterances. I believe John Gottman talks about a 5-to-1 ratio for highly successful marriages.

Avoidance of deficit: There is also an upper limit for effective positive-to-negative ratios: 11.6 to 1. Here’s part of the explanation from Fredrickson & Losada “appropriate negativity may play an important role within the complex dynamics of human flourishing. Without appropriate negativity, behavior patterns calcify.”

The key here is appropriate negativity, which they describe as specific to a situation, carrying ideas for solution, and not being personal.

Most teams that I advise need to work on raising their ratios – saying more positive things. There are a lot of people around who can always see why things won’t work or can point out things that are the matter. Then it helps to have a clear discipline for expressing positive views, such as starting all reviews with a statement of strengths and positive features and expressing all criticism in terms of ways to improve.

But I’ve also been in situations in the last year where I felt stifled by having everything be positive. I think of it as political correctness jail. I don’t enjoy getting criticism any more than the next person, yet I’ve learned that there is great value in having others point out ways to improve.


Filed under Giving Feedback, Good with the Bad

Lose-lose to win-win at the cellular level

Quite by accident, I watched Nova last week. The show was about epigenetics, the biological mechanisms that control gene expression. The rest of this post is based on my TV show’s worth of education, so please just take it as just my impression. Look in Wikipedia or other sources for more accurate descriptions.

These mechanisms cause cell differentiation within a complex organism. The way they work can also be affected by the environment. In a sense, they carry a memory from the environment and even in some cases from the environments of previous generations. They help explain why identical twins become less and less physically alike as they get older. The show used the analogy of the genome being the computer hardware, while the epigenome is the software. I think a better analogy might be that the genome is a piano and the epigenome is the pianist. A lot of the quality of the sound is built into the piano, but the specific music comes from which keys are struck when.

Aside: I’ve read a number of books on the human genetics, my favorite being James Watson’s book, DNA: The secret of life. It was so clear and well explained that I stopped resenting his arrogance in The Double Helix. I loved learning about searches for the genes associated with specific diseases, about isolating specific genes, about so-called junk DNA, about overlapping genes. The secret of life … well, maybe just the first touch of the secret of life. Other studies such as proteonomics and epigenetics make genetics seem simple by comparison. This all reminds me of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. Every time he thought he’d learned enough to be a river pilot, the master pilot would give him another mammoth task. When he learned to remember shapes seen all along the shore and how they related to river depth, then he had to learn them at night. Then he had to learn to remember river soundings called out by leadsmen from earlier trips — so he could remember enough to avoid the 500 shoals between St. Louis and New Orleans. Then …

During the Nova program, I was entranced to learn about a cancer treatment drug that manipulates epigenes associated with cell division. Instead of killing cancer cells outright, this drug works by turning off the oncogenes that make the cancer cells keep replicating past their normal rate. The scientist explained it fancifully as reminding the cell that it is part of a human and needs to play by the rules. Cancer normally plays a win-lose game that turns into a lose-lose game with the body. After all, cancer cells die with the body they kill. So in a way, they win when the body wins. The drug was in clinical trial so I have no idea how effective it will really turn out to be. TV shows tend to select people who are improving dramatically. But it’s a very interesting concept to watch.

I remember reading about cancer patients using visualization as part of the therapy. Right now,  visualization often involves picturing oneself killing the cancer cells. What an advance, if people can start visualizing their cancer cells humbly dropping back into their appointed roles.

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Filed under Good with the Bad, Meaning

Fig Season Draws to a Close

Last figs of the season The fig season has ended, at least down low in the area of the tree that we can reach. The tanagers and jays and robins and vireos and thrushes are still finding ripe figs up high, so the tree is still a huge bird feeder right outside my office window.

It makes me think of other fruit that we eat only in season. Cherries. Concord grapes. Scuppernongs. Memories of picking blackberries on vacant lots. The very shortness of time that they are available makes them sweeter and more special than the fruit that are always there, day in, day out. My generation never understood why an orange in a Christmas stocking was a gift indeed to earlier generations.

Cherry blossoms in CarolinaIt also makes me think of cherry blossom time. In Washington DC, there are thousands of cherry trees around the Tidal Basin, a gift from Japan, I believe. They bloom all at once for just a few days, and then they are gone again. The evanescence is part of the thrill.

Some of J.R.R. Tolkien’s stories in the Silmarrilion address the yearnings that people have for eternal life. Some people achieve it in these stories, but not without immense loss. It is so hard to remember that the shortness of life is part of the gift.

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Filed under Good with the Bad, Gratitude, Savoring