It’s Thanksgiving and the 2020 Presidential Election is in full swing. For the next year, our newsfeeds and break rooms will be abuzz with everything from the usual semi-polite, semi-tense water cooler chatter to the full-on rantings and car-keyings that go with the territory. Welcome to Negativity Nation folks, where friends will temporarily turn to enemies, families will divide and the fate of the free world will hang in the balance. It’s been even worse in the past few years as the political polarization that seems to have pervaded our world like a virus has reached a fever pitch that would put the Protestant Reformation to shame. Blame the amplification on social media, the internet, and the fact that it seems to be impossible for political parties to find a candidate who behaves like a grown up. Every little detail of every candidates’ lives will be exposed and splashed on the nightly news as further proof of their messiah-ness or anti-Christness. And at some point, you will actually forget what the actual issues are.
The narratives are all the same. The sky is falling, everything is doomed and we’re all screwed unless you vote for me and not the Devil over there. How do I even choose between the ‘Marxist revolutionary psychopath’ or ‘Greedy, bloody-sucking capitalist pig?’ And does it even matter?
It’s even worse for me because I’m now living in the United Kingdom so I will be getting from both sides of the pond as Britain gears up for its own highly-charged general election.
I’ll admit it there was a time in my life where I would have been swept up in that same hysteria. My politics and outlooks have swung wildly over the 37 years I’ve been alive. I remember going door to door with such vigor during a summer internship with the Labour Party in London when I was 16. I also remember standing with Republicans in Santa Monica trying, albeit futilely, to convince West Coast liberals of the urgency of voting for George W. Bush. I ranted and raved at rallies and debated with anyone who disagreed with me and even ran for political office at one point. I only hung out with those who confirmed my views. It was us versus them. Until one day I did something that was a bit odd for me. I sat down, took a deep breath and I meditated.
And it took a little while but eventually I came to a very big, profound realization. All this frustration and anger that had been building up inside me had nothing to do with what President Fill-In-The-Blank was doing to ruin our country. That was just a scapegoat I used to deflect from something much deeper… an inherent powerlessness I felt within myself. I suddenly came to the conclusion that if I was waiting for some politician to give me the inner peace, love and abundance that I so desperately wanted I would be waiting a long time. And so I’ve spent every day since trying to separate myself from the noise. Because what if the truth doesn’t lie somewhere in the middle. What if it lies completely outside?
Economist Nicholas Nassim Taleb calls this newfound island-ness of mine, Antifragility. Antifragility is described as a ‘property of systems that increase in capability to thrive as a result of stressors, shocks, volatility, noise, mistakes, faults, attacks or failures.’ In other words, you remain a rock despite all the good or bad chaos that occurs around you. Take it even further, hardship makes you stronger and more resilient. Make it even more poetic, “No pressure, no diamonds.”
It hasn’t been an easy or comfortable journey, but this decision of mine to fortify myself with a Lao Tzu-like resilience amidst both calm and chaotic waters, has helped see me through a lot of life’s ups and downs over the past decade; a volatile relationship and subsequent breakup, financial hardships, several tragic deaths in the family, including that of my mother, the launch of a business, the meeting of my now-husband, and most profoundly the birth of my son a year ago.
And it was a good thing I started to hone this skill as I quickly learnt that raising a child is a constant exercise in learning to be zen. How can one little person cause so many highs and lows. It seems like the only articles that pop up on my newsfeeds are terrible and heartbreaking stories about babies and children, or maybe I’m just more aware of them now. Being a first time mom, it’s hard to hear these stories and not instantly try to make every aspect of my son’s life as safe, secure and SIDs free as possible. But basing my entire parenting style on fearmongering and 1% statistics is a model for stress and unhappiness, both for myself and him. Instead I remember that every year, millions of 17 year olds make it into adulthood just fine.
The universal ‘sky is falling’ attitude is so pervasive, it’s impossible to find anything positive in the mainstream media. The recent fires, floods, record smog, impeachment proceedings are just further proof of the appending apocalypse. And let’s face it, the doom and gloom stories sell papers, so that’s not going to change anytime soon.
Don’t forget that this narrative is nothing new. When was the world not ending? It seems like the history of mankind is a history of closing our eyes really tight and bracing ourselves for the end of days only to later open them and realize “wait a minute, we’re still here.” The gothic cathedrals were built as a rush to the sky after the turn of the last millennium as way of thanking God for not destroying the world. I’m sure the baby boomers remember doing bomb drills during the Cold War, and us, elder millennials, or Xennials, as we are now being called, will remember the dreaded Y2K bug and the devastation of 9/11.
We’ve got enough people with half empty glasses out there making their voices known. It’s one giant confirmation bias after another. What the world really needs is positivity, open-mindedness and a little bit of Burt Bacharach-style love, sweet love. Smart voices who want to find the right answers and are willing to accept two universal truths:
1) Whether it’s through a government social program or the free market system, we’re all just trying to make the world a better place, one in which we can all thrive and be happy and healthy
2) If this is not our motive, than feel empathy, because we’re most likely living in our own version of hell.
I recently read an article in the Atlantic by Caitlin Flanagan on the abortion debate. It was the first article I think I have ever read that gives equal empathy and understanding to both sides of what is, I believe, one of the most difficult issues of the day. A subject that requires our conversation and learning, rather than our mudslinging. The fact that I found this article so refreshing speaks volumes about the kind of messaging we are bombarded with day in and day out.
The truth is that on a day to day basis, there is generally more good to experience than bad. More acts of kindness and civility than hostility. Just ask Waad-al-Lateab, who decided to have a baby whilst living in Aleppo, while Syria was at war. She told Imogen White for the Economist, “I would always make sure I had music on my phone. When the planes started swooping above, I’d play something and place it next to my tummy, and I’d try to think my way out of what was happening….We had such a strong community. Other mothers in particular gave me so much support.”
And maybe there is a shred of truth to the Whiggish View of the world, which is an ‘approach to historiography that presents the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and prosperity.’ After all, we are living in the best time in history to be alive, according to Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna, authors of Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our new Rennaissance. Life expectancy “has risen by more in the past 50 years than in the previous 1,000….For the first time in history, poverty is declining amid rapid population growth. When the Berlin Wall fell, two-fifths of humanity lived in extreme poverty. Now it’s one-eighth…In just over a generation, 3 billion more literate brains have joined the human race. And thanks largely to the rapid expansion of higher learning in China and India, the number of people alive now with an advanced degree exceeds the total number of degrees ever awarded prior to 1980.”
That’s a lot there to feel positive about.
And, in fact, scientists have begun to take the mind-body connection and the impact that our mindsets (both positive and negative) have on our lives very seriously. The Law of Attraction is no longer a New Age woo woo pie in the sky concept but something that is actually studied using brain scans and backed by data.
According to Neuroscientist and author of the Source, Tara Swart, "brain scans have shown how merely imagining yourself kicking a ball into the net can create and strengthen neural pathways, and even the muscles necessary to perform the action for real."
By being positive we attract everything we need to thrive. By being negative we attract more of the things we don’t want. Think of the ditzy 19 year old ‘town babe’ Penelope, in the critically acclaimed movie, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, when she says “all this anger man, it just begets greater anger.” Positive thinking made the 4 minute mile achievable. It turned a little idea about a boy Wizard into a multi-billion dollar franchise and it has the power to turn the tide on fatal stage 4 illness.
In fact, Harvard University and Tufts University have launched a pilot study to analyze the work of Medical Researcher and New York Times bestselling author, Kelly Turner PhD, of the Radical Remission Foundation, who found and became fascinated with 1,000 studies of radical cancer remissions (remissions without the intervention of modern medicine). The problem was that these were simply medical reports so she decided to ask these people and others ‘why they thought they healed.’ She found 9 factors they all had in common, including following intuition, releasing suppressed emotions, increasing positive emotions, deepening one’s spiritual connection and having a strong reason for living.
Positive thinking is something I’ve trained myself to become good at over the past 10 years. In fact, I even went to a ten day retreat in India, with no talking, no writing, no reading…just meditation, intense discomfort and the bat$^& crazy chatterings of my own mind, to master this skill. Some subjects are still easier for me than others. For example, I am a superhero when it comes to parking my car. I’ve really mastered the art of mindfulness in this area. Say I’m late for a meeting and there are no parking spaces. I don’t panic. Instead, I say “The Goddess Asphalta will get me a spot!” I take a deep breath and within a min or so, I kid you not, a space opens up for me. In other areas, however, I still struggle, not yet 100% convinced of my invincibility yet.
And if it’s too difficult in my current emotional state or with whatever my current circumstances are to be positive, I find my solace in stoicism, an ancient philosophy made popular by Greek scholar, Marcus Aurelius, and made even more popular by bestselling author, Ryan Holiday. The concept in a nutshell is basically to ask yourself what’s the worst that can happen? The world ends, we all die the end. So what? I accept that. I can deal with that. Now let me start enjoying my life.
I know, easier said than done. In fact, as I write this piece, I have to remind myself to look up from my computer at the trees outside my window with the sun shining on them; the most vibrant hues of orange and yellow. Autumn is in full swing. My son is standing and desperately trying to take his first step. Then I look back down to check out some of the headlines on Drudge. Deep breaths. Serenity Now.
So this Thanksgiving just remember that the election roller coaster is about to start. It will be hard not get swept up in the drama and hysteria of it all and, hey, I’ll admit it can even be fun. But before we tuck into those mashed potatoes, we would all be wise to close our eyes for a minute and meditate on this statement at the dinner table…“I am master of my own destiny and I am eternally grateful that things always seem to work themselves out regardless of the $%^show going on around me” Feel it, believe it, make it your reality. That way even if it is the end of the world as we know it, you’ll still feel fine.
Happy Turkey Day!