How Did I Get So Lucky? (Psst-you did too).

I'm thinking about my good fortune, and how I can help balance the scales.

I’m thinking about my good fortune, how others may not be so lucky, and what I can do to help balance the scales.

Let’s face it, life is pretty darn good.  Most days my biggest complaint is that my kids are bickering.  Not hunger.  Not lack of water.  And something deep inside me feels intensely guilty about that.  Having been raised with fundamental ideas about justice, this seems to fly in the face of everything I know.  Living with a 9 year old also who precisely recognizes fairness also makes me feel disproportionately well off.  Like when she asks, Why does that man have to live outside?  After quietly whispering *shit* to myself, I open my mouth and hope the right words come out.

My favorite journalist/writer is Nicholas Kristof.  He writes for the New York Times and co-wrote Half the Sky with his wife about how the mistreatment of women in the world is the central moral issue of our times  (I know, you already love him, too).  His contention is that when we see large amounts of sick, war-torn, disenfranchised, powerless and victimized people, we retreat into being overwhelmed and go into shut-down mode.  But if we see ONE person, one child maybe, we can access our compassion more readily.  And that’s what I’m trying to do.  What a lot of us are trying to do.  Feel compassion, act on it and quit feeling like shit that I live in a nice house and drive a nice car and live in a free country.  Damn it.

When I look around or talk to my friends, I can often see them doing the suburban dance.  Meaning, they are busy, busy, busy.  Me too.  Guilty as charged.  But I wonder sometimes if the reason I am doing it is to somehow make it alright that in comparison to many folks out there, I have won the fucking lottery.  If I slow down, if I say “no,” if I take a break and enjoy some down time…does that mean I’m not grateful?  Does it mean that I am somehow keeping myself insulated from suffering?  That people will think I don’t care?  That I am preventing the proverbial other shoe from dropping?  Of course not.  But that is sure as shit how it feels.

Still, it’s tough to reconcile the good fortune so frequently seen in the suburbs compared to those in other parts of our country and the world.  SNL hilariously put this into focus with White People Problems.  Sometimes, don’t you hear yourself saying shit and going…umm…really?  That’s what you are complaining about?  Some that I have heard recently are:  depressed dogs getting Prozac, lack of weekly recycling service, needing to clean out the refrigerator because there is too much food in there, being inconvenienced by red lights and where to build the new vacation home.  Now, I am certainly not immune to this kind of complaining.  After all, I did have to stop and get gas on my way to yoga while I was not working or taking care of children.  What a pain in the ass.

For me, the best way to balance the scales is just to give.  Not necessarily money, just giving.  Spending an afternoon at your kid’s school.  Volunteering at the Food Bank.  Walking around the neighborhood and picking up trash.  It’s not hard to find need.  But what is hard is knowing your limits and when you are done.  And frankly, this is where a little self compassion comes into play.  You know, take some oxygen before you give it to the kids.  If you aren’t sure how you rate on self compassion, there’s a great quick quiz here to try.  Most of the time, I can forgive myself for messing up.  For not being the best listener.  Or being impatient.  Or just plain being selfish.  But, with Martin Luther King Day coming up on Monday, I hear his words in my ear:  Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?” And then I remind myself.  He didn’t say “now” or even “weekly.”  He didn’t even say how.  That is up to you.

When my daughter asked me at age 6 why our souls were born here and not in a place that was at war (think the Congo or Afghanistan), I didn’t know the answer.  I still don’t.  But maybe I don’t have to know the answer ( I am much better at asking questions than giving answers anyway).  I don’t always feel this way.  But when I get that nagging sensation, I know that it’s time to go spend some time folding and sorting clothes at the outreach.  It’s time to share in some community writing.  It’s time to go to the zoo with the kids class.  Whatever the reason, I’m here in the suburbs.  Living, sharing and raising some young humans.  Bad things can happen.  But I can do some good.  It’s time.

Do you feel lucky?

Thanks to Barbara Paulsen for the sweet photograph.  I am lucky to know her.


Negative Nellie

Do you remember watching “Little House on the Prairie”?  How that bitch Nellie always used to screw over our hero, Laura?  Turns out your brain can turn against you in a similar way.  Somewhere in our evolutionary process, our monkey brains learned that a negative thought is a pretty darn good way to protect yourself against predators like tigers and bears.  But guess what?  In our culture, it’s no longer as useful as it used to be.  I had a teacher who used to say, “Don’t be a negative Nellie,”  whenever we would complain or say bad things about ourselves.  And she was right.

In my home of suburbia, we may actually be more primed for negativity than our city or rural dwelling counterparts.  Oliver Hapconf, a researcher at Notre Dame, has studied why we suburbanites are a little behind the eight ball when it comes to accessing social networks, a key ingredient to staving off negativity.  In the suburbs, contact between neighbors is often described as stressful.  Additionally, we suburbanites, especially those who live in wealthier areas, are more prone to isolation, low self-efficacy, loneliness and less psychological well-being.  Wow.  Why, you ask?  In terms of layout, it may be because we have less front porches and more gates, larger lots and less opportunities to congregate.  In general, those who live in the ‘burbs leave for work in the morning, come home at night and interact less and less with family and friends.   Those of us in the suburbs tend to visit friends less, are less civically active, report being less socially embedded, feel they live in a culture of mistrust, feel “seperateness” from others, are more private and feel socially dislocated.  All of which lead to, you guessed it, increased negativity.

So, what to do?  That monkey brain is really powerful, and the things it tells us can be completely judgemental, not just to ourselves, but to others.  Mostly, in our case, other women.  How many times have you heard the following comments?  She shouldn’t be wearing that.  I wish I could look more like her.  I am saving up for my boob job.  Have you seen so and so lately?  She looks …big, too thin, fill in the blank.  I am certainly not immune and am guilty of the same negativity.  And I really, really want to stop it already.

We can help to turn negativity on it’s ear by doing any number of things which will help you feel better about yourself and finally slow down that damn broken record once and for all.

Regard your negative thoughts as you would that annoying 2 year old tantrum.  Let it pass and try to ignore it.  Let it go to it’s quiet place and leave you alone.

Realize that negative thoughts may be true, but don’t regard them as “truths.”  Contradictory, maybe, but failure and acceptance of the bad are not the end.  Resolve to take a look in the mirror and see what your family and friends see.

It’s okay to substitute.  Not heroin for crack, more like companionship in place of solitude.  Or a walk with the dog instead of ruminating on your bad day in front of the tv.  A visit with your neighbor instead of a visit to Dairy Queen.

Okay, this one is weird.  Name your monkey brain.  I call mine Negative Nellie. You can call yours monkey brain or Fuckface for all I care.  It helps to call out the enemy, apparently.  I don’t know, ask Martha Beck.  It was her idea.

Treat others and yourself with compassion.  Hey, here’s a brilliant concept.  How about giving yourself a break?  Not being so hard on yourself and others?

Breathe deeply.  Yes I do yoga and can be a yoga-head.  But this is scientifically proven shit.  Breathing deeply reduces stress, anger and negativity.

Act.  Even if you are not used to taking a touchy-feely perspective, if it’s not really in your DNA, you can demonstrate a positive energy that will transmit to all of us.  Thank you in advance, by the way.

Here, I’ll start.

You are so awesome!

Your turn.