Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Right Books at the Right Time


Sometimes you come across exactly the right book at exactly the right time. A year ago, when I was in a funk and had lost my way, along with my sense of purpose, I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book “Big Magic.” In it, she poses the question: “What is it you love doing so much that you would do it even if you didn’t get paid for it?” I could answer that without hesitation: I would write. The thing is, I hadn’t been writing; I had been moping. But her words prompted me to set her book down and pick up my phone, and within ten minutes I had enrolled in a writers workshop. The workshop ended up being a bust, but it had served as a catalyst by reminding me not to look for a crutch. I just needed to sit my butt in the chair and write. 

Two days ago, I was in a state of despair over the world. The corrupt, greedy, misogynistic (white) men in power, the ones who lie, cheat, steal, and bend our American constitution to their will to stay in power . . . these bastards dominating the headlines were breaking my heart so badly I was questioning my emotional capacity to endure. I cried so hard I worried I might give myself a brain aneurysm. But that evening, I arrived at my friend Kathleen’s to dog sit for a week. As Kathleen tried to console me, I happened to see she had Glennon Doyle’s new bestselling book, “Untamed,” on her shelf.  

I hadn't read the book, in part because I am reluctant to pledge allegiance to any kind of guru (or clergy of any kind), including writers who have been placed on pedestals as spiritual leaders or healers. Even so, I was on Glennon Doyle’s mailing list and stayed on it only because her newsletters were short, mostly news announcements, and so infrequent they didn’t clog my inbox.   

Glennon’s latest email contained a sweet, well-designed, animated video. It told the story of a cheetah in a zoo kept in a cage: Tabitha. Glennon was disturbed to see how the zookeepers had tried to tame Tabitha, and was certain that, deep inside, Tabitha remembered her “wild,” remembered “she was a goddamn cheetah.”

The video, which I had seen the day before my episode of The Great Despair, was a story from “Untamed,” and when I got to Kathleen’s and saw the book, I wondered if there was some cosmic intervention going on, that my bat signal had been picked up by the universe and was sending help. I began reading it that night. And I didn’t put it down until I ran out of pages to turn. 

In “Untamed,” like in Liz Gilbert’s “Big Magic,” Glennon poses a question: “What breaks your heart?” She writes, “Heartbreak is not something to be avoided; it’s something to pursue. Heartbreak is one of the greatest clues of our lives. The thing that breaks your heart is the very thing you were born to help heal.”

Boom! 

But wait, how can I heal a whole world? How can I take on racism, sexism, environmentalism, and the infinite number of other “isms”? The list is way too long!

Ah, but Ms. Doyle knows this is what you’re thinking—what I’m thinking—and is right there with a response in the next paragraph.

“Despair says, ‘The heartbreak is too overwhelming. I am too sad and too small, and the world is too big. I cannot do it all, so I will do nothing.' Courage says, 'I will not let the fact that I cannot do everything keep me from doing what I can.’”

This was my despair described so accurately. My sense of powerlessness to change anything, to fix anything, to make the world better—and by better, I mean less racist, less violent, more equal, more just.

“Every world’s changers work begins with a broken heart,” she says.

As much as I was inspired by “Untamed,” I didn’t, like I did with “Big Magic,” grab my phone and sign up to volunteer for a cause. I was still feeling too overwhelmed, too sad, and too small. And there are so many things breaking my heart that it’s impossible to narrow it down. Yes, I use pie as a form of humanitarian aid and contribution to society—to build community, spread kindness, and promote healing—but there has to be more I can do. I want to do more. But it’s just so hard to know where to start.

Author and Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön (another spiritual leader/healer/author) answers this conundrum with a book title: “Start Where You Are.” 

Where am I? 

I am at my friend Kathleen’s, in Des Moines, Iowa, dog sitting. I have pen and paper here. I have a computer. I have a voice. And I have the ability to express my voice through my writing. This is a good place to start. 

And I have already started. I am writing my “World Piece” memoir, about my trip around the world during the summer of 2015, when I made pie in nine countries to promote goodwill and cultural acceptance. In the process of writing it, I am putting the pieces of my heart back together. And who knows? Maybe one day, when it’s published, someone will pick up my book and it will be exactly the right book at exactly the right time for them. 

And maybe, just maybe—GOD WILLING—things will turn around after November 3 and we can fill the headlines with stories of honest, empathetic people who want to help others instead of only themselves.

Is Social Media to Blame for Our Anxiety?

This post originally aired as a commentary on Tri States Public Radio. To listen instead of reading, go here.

So many things are making me anxious these days. I have fears about getting COVID-19, about the November elections, about the rise of white supremacy, about our divisions growing so deep we could end up in a civil war. I worry about how plants, animals, and common decency are on the verge of extinction. From the collapse of our democracy to grocery shopping during a pandemic, I’m afraid of just about everything.

I’ve never been scared like this before. The question is why? What has changed in our world that has made everything so wildly out of balance?

Some blame capitalism, with money driving a wedge between the haves and have-nots. Others blame our current President. One thing I see contributing to the downward spiral of polite society is social media, which is the subject of a new film on Netflix called The Social Dilemma. I watched it last night and at first it seemed like a dystopian horror movie, but instead of stoking more fear, the documentary gave me some reassurance that I am not alone in my concerns, and that, thankfully, there are people dedicated to turning things around. Ironically, some of those people are the ones who created the problems in the first place, like Aza Raskin who invented infinite scrolling, one of the features that makes social media so addictive—an invention he now regrets. And Justin Rosenstein, who co-created Facebook’s “like” button as a tool for spreading “positivity and love.” That it is used as a measure of self-esteem, and has led to depression and even suicide, was nowhere on his radar. 

A central figure in the film, Tristan Harris, the co-founder of The Center for Humane Technology, says, “It feels like the world is going crazy.” He poses the question, “Is this normal or have we all fallen under some kind of spell?” His answer is yes, addiction- and manipulation-based technology is designed to work like a spell, employing artificial intelligence that “uses your own psychology against you.” 

We are being baited with images and stories to ensure we spend more time online. We are being fed altered videos, misleading memes, and posts so inflammatory they end friendships. Our newsfeeds fill up with false rumors about voter fraud and dangerous claims about COVID cures that proliferate faster than the California wildfires. But do tech companies care about the effect this has on our civil society? No, they don’t, because they’re making huge profits. 

The rise of fake news and conspiracy theories is happening not because we are bad human beings who want to turn against each other; it’s because algorithms designed for ad revenue are leading us over the cliff. Lies spread faster than truth, thus producing higher earnings. Cable news, another rabid source of political polarization, is designed this way too. The more outrage, the more people watch, the more advertising dollars they make. Meanwhile we spend less time engaging with people in real life, which only makes us more isolated, disenfranchised and divided. 

But how do we stop this vicious cycle? 

The consensus of those interviewed in the film is that social media companies need congressional oversight. I agree. On an individual basis, we can hit the pause button. We don’t need to delete our social media accounts all together, but we can stop ourselves from sharing posts or making comments that provoke outrage, and verify that news stories are from legitimate sources. We can limit screen time, and dial down temptation by turning off notifications. And by all means, we should keep our phones out of our bedrooms at night. 

We have the power to change our behavior; man can prevail over machine. I have stopped checking my phone when I first wake up. And I am several months into an extended break from Facebook. It started with taking a stand against Mark Zuckerberg’s refusal to stop the spread of disinformation and hate speech. But it made me realize how my anxiety was in direct proportion to the time I was spending on social media and news sites. If I wanted to feel better, it was up to me to take steps. I was still doomscrolling on Twitter and the New York Times, but after watching The Social Dilemma I deleted those and any other remaining apps that might elevate my blood pressure. The only ones left are DuoLingo and Solitaire.  

As for being disconnected from friends, when I want to know what’s going on with them I do something really outlandish; I pick up the phone and call. And then the most miraculous thing happens when having a real conversation—I feel a lot less anxious, and a lot more hopeful about the world.

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WHAT TO DO WITH ALL THAT TIME YOU SAVE BY NOT BEING ON SOCIAL MEDIA? How about making some pie?! Here are some free lessons. Yes, they're on another social media platform of YouTube, but they are helpful, sometimes funny, and you can bake along with me. Stay Calm & Bake Pie

Here are more of my blog posts addressing social media.