Glass Half- __________?

It was almost certainly a book. I’d squeezed it, hefted it, held it up to the light. Naught for it, but to unwrap it. Hmm. Authentic Happiness. Marty Seligman, the book’s psychologist author, is something of a household name — well at least in my circumscribed ‘household’. He appeared on the radar many years ago for his research around something called ‘learned helplessness’ — a concept that examined the level of ‘percieved control’ we have over our lives as a contributing factor to our general mental health. In particular, the less ‘felt’ control, the more risk of developing problems, not the least of which was depression.

Like a few such researchers, living on the ‘dark side’ of that psychological coin seemed to lose its appeal for Marty; and he began the shift to positive psychology. (Kristen Neff, another example, had morphed away from self esteem study, at best, the result of comparing self to others less fortunate, to the more uplifting concept of self compassion.) My early 2000’s Christmas gift was an overview of the benefits of focussing on potential over pathology, health over illness. (And, like any good psychological opus, a questionnaire is included to see where the reader lines up.)

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These past few weeks, living in the COVID zone, daily changes and challenges preoccupy our information sources. The need for truthful, accurate reporting, updating is critical to choices we must make. There is absolutely no benefit in deluded, pollyanna rhetoric, trotted out for purely political gain (feel free to read between the lines). Putting a smiley face at the end of a communication ain’t helpin’. Equally however, for the individual, mindset, perspective, attitude are figural parts of our psychological tool kit.

I’ve become increasingly aware of the tenor and tone of posts, emails, telephone conversations that now form a very large part of my communication with ‘outside world’. A choir friend sends out daily ‘alternative interpretations’: ‘stuck at home vs. safe at home’. A longtime physician acquaintance shared this animated post:

And our yoga instructor circulated a telling graphic:81ed6e45-1b5e-42eb-831d-05f3a998f1af

As a card-carrying cynic and extrovert, I’m not an easy sell. But the arguments for borrowing a piece of Marty’s happiness formula are compelling, crucial.

Another brick in this necessary seawall of defence against the current viral tidal wave (and its attendant pounding on our mental health — anxiety, fear, and depression in the forefront) came through a New Yorker piece this week. The article is built around the timing of Sir Isaac Newton’s incredible contributions coinciding with his two years of ‘self isolating’, as the bubonic plague resurfaced in London in the 1660’s and headed toward his then residence in Cambridge:

Newton’s home, a farm called Woolsthorpe, lay about sixty miles north of the university. Suitably distant from the nearest town, it was where, in near total solitude, he would invent calculus, create the science of motion, unravel gravity, and more. The plague created the conditions in which modern science could be created. . .

The author, unfortunately, goes on to argue that attributing his epiphanies to his retreat setting is over-simplifying, unscientific, and refutable — no shit, Sherlock. But you can bet your gravitational pull that it sure didn’t hurt! Personally, the article’s negative spin did little to undermine my growing awareness that embracing our sequestered seclusion is a ‘best’ mindset. Coincidentally a time of productive reflection and thought, isolated from, if not the worries and uncertainties, at least the (frequently self-imposed and artificial) deadlines and intrusions. This is not simply making lemonade (when we’re given lemons) or floating along in a Neverland of false hope and misinformation. This is a time to celebrate the answer to the too often asked question: ‘When will I find the time?’ Newsflash: the time is now!

The National Personality

Screen Shot 2020-04-04 at 8.57.49 PMSocial psychology being what it is, I’m sure there is compelling research around that points to a few, fully factor-analyzed descriptors that claim to describe the defining characteristics of any given group. The Brits are stoical and ‘stiff-upper lipped’. The Danes are ‘happy’. The French emotionally effusive. Republicans are right-winged. Socialists aren’t. And, if we skate much to close to the politically incorrect line drawn so vividly in the psychological sand by Arthur Jensen, and his infamous ‘heritability factor’ for IQ (whatever that means anymore), we start seeing unsupported racial differences. The stereotypes are endless. Also, facile, reductionist, and ‘convenient’.

Happily, I’m not a social psychologist. But I do fancy myself a keen observer of humans and human behavior. Working my way through this weekend’s Globe & Mail, two pieces caught my eye — with illustrative photographs attached. As has been the publication’s wont in the past several weeks, the current pandemic has served as the connecting theme. (How could it be otherwise?) The first article was driven by the fast-evolving guidelines (now bylaws) governing urban public behavior. Specifically, Toronto’s attempts to regulate how we use our green spaces in an era that demands physical separation. Mayor John is quoted:

We are not saying don’t go to the park. We’re just asking people to engage in common sense behaviour and to take account of the fact they need to separate themselves from other people that they don’t live with.

A bit later in the same piece, ‘pedestrian advocate’ Michale Black frets about enforcement and encroachment on the ‘basic freedom’ of moving around on foot. Hold that thought, all you Canadians.

Screen Shot 2020-04-04 at 8.57.06 PMI continue to thumb (actually, index and middle finger on my laptop) the edition. And before reading the next bit, have a quick peek at the second photo in this post. That’s truly what grabbed my attention. Citizens of Culver City, California, lined up waiting to access another basic freedom, the constitutional right to bear arms. Or as it is now interpreted, to own guns. In this case, in record numbers and for the most ‘defensible’ (no apologies for the double entendre) of reasons: “The cops won’t go after petty crimes when they’re dealing with the virus. If you don’t protect yourself, who’s going to do it for you?”, queries the thirty something as he bolsters his stash of shotgun shells. I was particularly struck by the representative ‘line-up’, including the dog in arms — I’d guess he’s favouring a ‘comfortable in the paw, light caliber model’.

And so there we have it. Two solitudes. To be sure, the polarities are simplistic, ignoring of the many individual differences within any population: the ‘reticent Italian’, the ‘unapologetic Canadian’. But defining enough to have gun stores declared essential services in the US and park access as a basic human right in its neighbor to the north. I can recall my disbelief on that November night four years ago as the returns shifted and POTUS turned red. The not so silent majority had spoken — and continues to do so. In a time of crisis, the struggle to defend, entrench, protect (in the most visceral of ways) defining one pole of a national personality; the challenge of pulling together, supporting, affiliating, uniting — when the ‘rules’ say otherwise — describing the other.

Virtual Reality

960x0We pushed the stuffed furniture back against the walls, positioned the iPad on a plant stand in front of us, instructed the dog to ‘just watch’, (well, OK, a downward dog is allowed) and settled ourselves for our first, virtual yoga class. A little hesitantly at first, our ‘classmates’, usually arrayed in a loose circle of chairs in the ‘Social Room’ — ain’t that a loaded term nowadays — appeared on screen. Each ‘popped in’ as the array of little squares containing one or perhaps two of us grew and was overlaid on the ‘main screen’ of our instructor. Her own shoulders visibly lowered in relief as her aging charges all navigated the technology of the changing landscape. A subtitle for our chair yoga class floated through my mind, unexpressed: Zooming with the Zoomers.

This has been a very virtual week — as I expect it has been for a great many of us. Community and governmental suggestions morphed and escalated through guidelines to mandated behaviour as the realities of, the necessity for social distancing sank in. Just short of ‘violations’ being tagged and fined — for now.

Even if one was committed to ‘going off grid’, the constant barrage of updates, notices, posters, emails, broadcasts, news from all platforms pretty much ensures that we stay ‘in the loop’. It’s been hard to find silver linings in the darkness and relentlessness of these spreading awarenesses. One candidate however, born of need in the present but quite possibly containing the seeds of future practice, is the astoundingly abrupt but near seamless shift to a virtual world.

Two of the musicians in the family, both with passions and careers revolving around their director’s rolls at their respective churches, in a matter of days have launched projects built around bringing music to the people — if the people can’t come to the music. Choristers are diligently rehearsing the parts, compliantly socially distanced at home. The aggregate will be blended and synched; ultimately ‘aired’ as a virtual choir, accessible to an audience, a ‘congregation’ numbering not in the 10’s or 100’s — but 1000’s, and more. (If you haven’t had the pleasure, have a look and listen at the potential that lies therein:

Having moved communities recently, my wife had ‘left behind’ two much valued music teachers, friends as much as pedagogues. One had embraced the digital lesson; the other had demurred. Now, yielding to the ‘mother’ (of invention), he’s not only relented, but welcomed the shift to a platform that has brought with it the unanticipated perks of attentionally-challenged students now staying focused, his piano bench no longer adorned with discarded gum on its underside, and a helicoptering parent unable to swoop low as wee Johnny’s lower lip starts to quiver.

Closer to home (oops, sounds like a double, no, triple entendre), with our change of cities, I too had moved away from my ‘client base’. NQRTR (not quite ready to retire), I had dabbled with on-line appointments. However, I remained unconvinced: without my physical presence, how could therapy be more than a faded watermark of the ‘real deal’. Again, mamma came a callin’ — with more invention.

The landscape was now one of on-line or take down the shingle. I opted to watch a preparatory webinar (supplanting the scheduled ‘in person’ workshop — go figure!). Amongst all the usual pointers around lighting, not being undone by the half-empty wine bottles on the table and the four-year old walking thru’ with his bowl of Cap’n Crunch, and technology failure, there were some stats: on-line not only is as effective as in-person, but offers benefits on both sides of the virtual desk: ease of access and increased comfort levels for the client, holding appointments in my button down Oxford cloth shirt, sport coat. . . and sweat shorts (what’s under the desk is my business!). I’m in!

Gradually the subtext was sinking in. If necessity is the mother of invention, then crisis is the sib of creative solution. Wherever this interlude (and we must hope that that’s what it is) may take us, COVID-19 has spawned some very sustainable directions and promising practices for the future. The virtual world is not just an amusing entertainment accessible by donning a weird pair of goggles, a poor sister to ‘the real deal’, a stopgap until things ‘get back to normal’. As I’m so fond of (and, I expect reviled for) saying to folks ‘adjusting’ to a situation that we both know will not resolve, this is the new normal. We can tolerate it, resist it, deny it, wait it out. Or we can manage it, engage it, and accept the (very real) teaching points it offers. Our choice — at a time when it feels like we have none. Oh yeah, and let’s keep washing our hands for two full verses of Happy Birthday!

And one more: