Saturday, March 5, 2011

Take a Deep Breath

Photograph taken on Pleasant Pond, Deerfield, NH: February 2011

This photograph and following essay was published in the Concord Monitor 2/27/11

Never have I seen the Concord Monitor editorial page so deadly serious. Gone is the usual back and forth of political debate, often spiced with a bit of humor and understanding for the other. Now it seems like high noon at the OK coral – complete with modern day cowboys carrying guns. Threats of retaliation and fear of Armageddon have sucked the oxygen from the air.

It’s hard for politicians, government workers, and even occasional columnists like me to stand up and be counted: As soon as you stick up your head, you become the target. The truth is we have all become prisoners locked inside the rigid cocoon of our respective ideological camps, desperately trying to pretend that our partisan political slogans are real solutions to our problems.

It’s time to take a break. And more than just a kindergarten timeout! What we really need to do, following the prescription of most religions, is to set aside a special day of rest and reflection to ponder our current political stalemate.

It seems clear our current belligerent behavior will not lead to positive solutions but only more acrimony, bitterness, and a deepening paralysis of the body politic. Neuroscience agrees, telling us that walling ourselves off in rigid camps and spouting programmed answers based on abstract theory does not promote new learning; in fact, it does just the opposite, poisoning the well-springs of our creativity.

In addition, behavioral scientists have found that learning is impossible in a pervasive atmosphere of fear such as we now generate with our overheated political rhetoric which is often nothing more than fear mongering: one side suggesting that if things don’t change, we will be killed in our bed by ax welding criminals while the other side says we will die in our beds from a lack of affordable healthcare.

If our government is to work, we need a radically different approach. Behavioral science has proven that people learn and work together best when we appeal to their strengths, not their fears.

Carl Rogers used that approach in the 1960s to heal people in psychotherapy He didn’t believe that the client was broken and needed to be fixed; Instead he believed that each person already has the capacity to heal herself if she was treated with total genuineness, empathy and unconditional positive regard.  It worked then and, I believe, it would uplift our political discourse now.

We also need to start nurturing our unique human ability to think outside the box through the power of sudden insight, or what neuroscientists call the ‘Aha!’ moment. Neuroscience has discovered that not only does our most profound learning takes place during these epiphanies of sudden insight but that this type of creative problem solving results in “the most intense pleasure the brain can experience.”

Epiphanies should be the natural birthright of every American but finding time to relax and daydream, a necessary prerequisite to promote these higher states of learning, is a difficult goal to achieve in our hyper-paced, 24/7 world.

Because the potential rewards are so great, not just to us as individuals, but to our state, this is an area where Governor Lynch could make a huge difference – while at the same time, continuing NH’s hallowed tradition of not spending any money.

Therefore, I hereby propose that Governor Lynch declare a special day of reflection, effective immediately, to henceforth be known as The Day of Epiphany.

I know this idea sounds crazy. But there is one sure fire way to find out if it works: try it for yourself. Take a day off. Go down to the lake, pull your deck chair out on the ice, sip on a mint julep…just relax and let your mind wander.

When you least expect it, out of the clear blue winter sky, a lightning bolt will strike, and in the flash of that ‘Aha!’ moment, the old political quagmire will start to fade away.

Take a deep breath.

You will find yourself leaving the old abstract world of fear and harsh judgment and entering into the particulars of the here-and-now, a living process evolving in real time along a constantly ebbing and flowing continuum.  Rather than the old either/or dichotomy, the new world is one of both/and where you discover that you can have your cake and eat it too.

You can revel in your liberty while, at the same time, taking responsibility for your loved ones and your community; you can honor your love of freedom while, at the same time, willingly curtailing it to help out your neighbors when they are in need, taking solace in knowing that if the tables were turned, they would do the same for you. You discover that a new day of possibility is dawning.

I know this sounds like pie-in-the-sky lunacy but such a vision could become the new reality for us all if we took our hopes and dreams seriously enough and followed Carl Rogers’ guidelines of treating everyone with unconditional positive regard.

And what Carl Rogers said about individuals also holds true of our community: There is nothing broken we need to fix if each one of us gets personally involved: stepping up to become an active participant in the conversation. If we all join in dialogue with each other – treating each person with total genuineness, empathy and unconditional positive regard – the problems we fear are unfixable will dissolve in front of our eyes by the magic of mutual caring and understanding.

The only way we can fail is if too many of us remain standing on the sidelines, waiting for someone else to solve our problems, allowing the shrillest among us to bring out the worst in all of us.
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