The Saving Grace of Tiny Things

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been phone-banking for the election. And as I’ve mentioned before, I still hate phone-banking just as much as when I started back in June.

My tally sheet, keeping track of calls. Closing in on 1,200 now.

But with less than a week till the election, the need to feel like part of the team is stronger than ever, and I don’t have any excuses. I only work part-time. My kids are grown. I’m a people person. And I know that good ol’ poly-sci research shows that Get Out the Vote phonecalls make the most difference right NOW.

Still, I found myself the other day staring longingly out the window as I waited for the “ThruTalk” dialer to connect me with some not-yet-voter in North Carolina. What a beautiful day! What am I doing indoors? And what…what in all the gods’ names is that?

Not pictured: “that.”

The sun was shining through the scruffy fir forest outside our house, and between each tree, strung among the branches like filaments of fire, were strands of…spider silk? Some other magical bug-excretion? The shining lines were all horizontal, as if the trees had decided to briefly represent their invisible communication through the most tender and celestial of metaphors.

I checked my watch: twelve minutes to go on my shift. Maybe eight more calls. Then I’d hurry out there with my camera to capture the magic.

But to my sorrow, when I hurried out thirteen minutes later, the filaments had all disappeared from my sight. Were they still there, dull without sunlight? Were they ever there at all?

Crestfallen, I looked around…and found some cheery wee mushrooms just dying to have their picture taken.

Hi guys!

That little episode reminded me of another photo I’d taken a couple of weeks ago, out for a walk between rainstorms. Some kind of tiny, bracketed stems of a bygone flower were making chandeliers among the lichens at my feet.

I’m sure the poet Mary Oliver would make way more of this than I, but how about this for an attempt: those filaments, those mushrooms, those droplets, those maybe-voters in North Carolina–aren’t they all really the same thing?

VoteVoteVote. Got it got it got it. But THEN…

Warning: if you’ve had a tough time living in Trumpmerica, this image might make you feel like bursting into tears.

Hope & Change, baby.

Yep–that was me twelve years ago, casting my vote for Joe Biden…as VP to Barack Obama’s President.

I’ll give you a moment. Might need to take one myself.

Fast forward to now, 2020. Two weeks or so before the election. My ballot and the Mate’s are already sealed and ready for dropping off. (We Washingtonians have been handling this vote-by-mail thing for over a decade now!)

Notice I didn’t bother taking a picture of the inside this time.

It’s obvious to me that, compared to 2008, I’m not nearly as excited about the candidates I’m helping to elect. This election feels more like grabbing the emergency brake before the country goes hurtling off a cliff. But I think that might actually be a good thing.

Because…what if my political dreams come true? What if everyone I vote for wins? What if the party I prefer takes over the White House and both houses of Congress? We still have so much on our plate. Poverty. Systemic Racism. Private prisons. A toxic political system, which has created a toxic social divide, and vice-versa.

So this post is just to remind myself: yes, I DID write HUNDREDS of letters to voters in battleground states, over the course of the last few months. Yes, I DID encourage many friends to do the same. Yes, I WILL celebrate on election day if the issues and candidates I voted for actually win.

Dear _______, let me tell you why I vote in every election!

But no, I will not do what I did in 2008 and 2012: celebrate and then relax. Because need never sleeps, and the next fight is always around the corner.

Lesson learned, 2016–thanks very much. And 2020? Let’s hope you’re just the first tiny step away from that cliff.

Finding Empathy in Smoky Air…and Children

You know that phrase, “Be careful what you wish for?”

Yeah.

Below is the chorus of a song I wrote several years ago, about the experience of living on a small, peaceful island while the rest of the country struggles:

No man is an island, let that be my prayer

No matter how alluring be the shore.

Keep battering my senses, O you ocean of despair

Till that landlocked pain is pounding too hard to ignore.

I wrote that song in response to the death of Philando Castile, or rather, to the jury’s response in refusing to convict the policeman who shot him in front of his family. But these days, as smoke from the terrible mainland wildfires keeps us indoors day after day, “that landlocked pain” takes on a whole new meaning.

If you’re wondering why I’m not inserting a photo here of our apocalyptic skies, it’s because I don’t want to record them for posterity. Too depressing. So just picture mountains rising behind an ocean view, and then picture that lovely scene disappearing into grey nothingness.

It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in the effects of climate change before. I didn’t need convincing. But “believing” isn’t “feeling.” Real empathy, I think, requires some residue of that pain to lodge inside a person, like tiny particles in the lungs.

So I’ve been thinking about empathy–where it comes from, how we can better stimulate it in each other. And that’s when I ran across this article in a new publication on my island, “The Lopezian,” written by 29 year-old Lopezian Terrell Carter, pictured (literally) here:

(image courtesy Terrell Carter)

As you read Carter’s article, I’d like you to notice two things. One: how, indeed, “no man is an island,” and the deepening divide of mainland America is present even in our bucolic community. And Two: the natural-born empathy of young people this reporter evokes as they respond to the attack on the Say Their Names/Black Lives Matter memorial that occurred on August 12.

Meanwhile at the Skatepark…

Local youth react to vandalism across the street

By Terrell Carter

September 5, 2020

Transcript of audio:

[00:00] Intro music

Terrell Carter: This is The Lopezian: Phase Two News. I’m your host, Terrell Carter. In this issue, we turn now to the Sheriff’s Report.

Newscaster: On August 12th, the San Juan County Sheriff’s Log reports that a Lopez Island man was arrested and lodged in jail on several charges after reportedly vandalizing Black Lives Matter signs near the Village using an excavator.

Terrell Carter: Following now are reactions to this incident as recorded across the street at Lopez Skatepark.

Penelope (age 8): I know that one guy tried to lawn mow them down.

Reporter: How do you feel about that?

Penelope (age 8): I don’t know. Just like that wasn’t a right choice.

Clark (age 11): Knocking over signs is just rude.

Davis (age 11): People just, like, wanna show that they support something.

Clark (age 11): Yeah. They make too big of a deal of it. It’s just unfair, it’s mean, and rude.

[1:02] Connor (age 13): Is there any reason that they broke the sign?

Reporter: The first sign was a Trump sign that got defaced and then in response the person who owned the sign trampled over some of the Black Lives Matter signs.

Connor (age 13): Alright, uh, so I think you’d be pretty mad if someone destroyed your sign, and especially because it’s political, everyone has different opinions about it, so, it’s not right to break someone else’s property if you don’t agree with it, uh, but it is definitely wrong to uh, once you got your property destroyed, to go and break someone else’s property. Two wrongs don’t make a right and, uh, they shouldn’t have done it.

Liam (age 10): I don’t think it’s right. Because it’s kind of considered destruction of other people’s property and also if, like, somebody worked hard on it and you vandalized it, that would just be really mean.

[2:00] Reporter: Have you ever experienced uh someone destroying property or witnessed it before?

Liam (age 10): Um, well if you’re counting toys then yes. Sometimes my friends build really cool builds with Legos and other people destroy them. It’s kind of frustrating because like, when you’ve worked hard on something and then it gets destroyed.

Reporter: How about if you disagree with what’s on the sign, what then?

Liam (age 10): I won’t vandalize it. I’ll just think it in my head.

Jesse (age 14): Aren’t all those signs memorials?

Reporter: Yeah

Jesse: Aaagh. I mean, I guess, I’d say like one is like a memorial that is put up in respect of someone who lost their life. Another one is like a sign for a political party. I think that, yeah, vandalism’s bad but…they’re memorials! If there was a sign that was up for like, you know, part of my family, and, like we had a sign up, that would be, I would be devastated if someone out of spite knocked, knocked it over.

[3:16] Eloise: If they’re memorials, that’s for someone who’s dead. We should give them, we should give a lot of signs respect, but we should give them more respect because, like, they’ve lost their life. If we knock them down, that’s extremely rude.

Penny (age 7): It’s unfair that, like, white people and black people are treated different. And I think they should be treated equally. It’s just really unfair. And really sad at the same time, and like, a lot’s going on already and having the people kill other people, black people, is not helping it actually at all. It’s making it, Coronavirus, go worse. Cause then we’re losing people and it’s just unfair, unfair, unfair.

[4:21] Newscaster: Following the incident, the man involved was charged with two counts of reckless endangerment and one count of malicious mischief in the third degree. He pleaded not guilty on September 2nd and stands trial at San Juan District Court at 9:30am on Wednesday, October 14.

Terrell Carter: But the story of the signs doesn’t end there.

Reporter: Over a hundred people came together to help repair the sign. They put it back together. Uh, I’m wondering how, how that makes you feel hearing that?

Jesse: Yeah, that’s, that’s kind of epic. It’s good to see communities working together to…to…

Eloise: …to improve mistakes.

Terrell Carter: A ceremony to transition the signs and to speak the names of those honored will take place at the Community Center lawn tomorrow, Sunday, September 6th, at 12 noon. Everyone is invited to attend in support of Black Lives Matter. [05:25]

Images of POC killed by police created by multiple Lopez artists; memorial created by a small group of Lopezians; image provided by Terrell Carter

No man is an island, indeed. Those kids in this article understand that better than most adults in our country. Now, what can we do to make fresher air for all of us to breathe!

Bank on This: Phone-Banking Isn’t Everything It’s Cracked Up To Be. It’s Better.

You know those things you swear you’ll never do because you’re bad at them and you think they’re annoying and don’t make any difference and oh, by the way, you hate doing them?

Could I be talking about anything but political phone-banking? And have I been doing it anyway? And am I going to quit with the stupid rhetorical questions? Yes, yes, and yes.

The whole enterprise started with my furlough. I had some extra time on my hands, which I mainly filled with some physical volunteer work: packing school meals to be delivered to children, and groceries to be delivered to families. That felt meaningful.

But then both those programs ended (because hey, everyone knows kids don’t need to eat in the summer, especially when their parents might also be furloughed or unemployed!). [Note: this is NOT a slam on my community, which is doing everything in its power to help everyone.It’s about funding from upstream.]

Anyway, there I am in early June with the world on fire with injustice and COVID, and my deep-seated urges to pitch in have nowhere else to turn but…the phone. Calling voters in states without mail-in ballot programs to try to help voters get mail-in ballots, and gosh, by the way, wanna help elect Mr/Ms/Dr ____ to the ______?

On my first go, in Wisconsin, I swore I was done with this.

Woo-hoo.

Me, phone-banking: This is such a waste of time.

Myself: Nuh-uh, all the political people say it’s been proven that phone calls make more difference than any form of voter contact!

Me: But I even hate getting these kind of calls!

Myself: Well, you won’t from now on, will you? Maybe this is your punishment for not being nicer to the last person who called you.

Me: Not true. I’m always nice. But you may have a point there: this job feels like penance. Can I just go ahead and like, bank it against future sins?

But then the nice campaign people in Wisconsin let me know how badly they needed my help, so next day, there I was again. I don’t know how many calls I made because I hadn’t thought to keep count. But then I took some phone-bank training and discovered the joy of tally marks.

So NOW when I’m calling, I’m really competing with myself. Last week I made 100 calls in 2 hours. How ’bout 110 this week? Do I hear 120?

And along the way, even though there are SO many things I’d rather be doing on a lovely summer afternoon, like

noticing wildflowers…

or

…noticing wildlife…

I’m learning other ways to “enjoy” my political “work.” Like:

Fun with numbers! “Hey, this guy’s number’s almost the same as my Social Security.” “Whoa, a triple 6–wish I had a cool Satanic phone number like that.”

Enjoying the different recordings people leave on their voicemail, like this one man: “Hello, this is Mister Wonderful.” Or this adorable couple: “You’ve reached Grandpa and Grandma Willis.”

[Note: these generally make up for those irritating ones where the person’s clearly trying to fool the caller into thinking they’ve reached a real person instead of a recording. You guys suck.]

Grooving on cool names. I like to do this: “Hi, I’m Gretchen with the ____ Campaign, and I’ve been calling folks all afternoon and you’ve just won the Coolest Name of the Day award.”

Playing the Find my Age game: I’m 58. Nothing so special about 58, right? Except that only about .000008 of the folks I’ve called seem to BE 58, and only half of those are women. So when I get a 58 year-old female on my list (all we get are name, age & gender, and sometimes not even gender), I let them know how excited I am to talk to them! [If they pick up, that is. Which they do only about 10% of the time. So I’ve really only bonded with two other 58 year-old women so far. Sisterhood is beautiful.]

So much darn fun, I can almost forget I’d rather be kayaking.

For those of us who enjoy Life Lessons, there’s the Note Your Prejudices game: see what mental image pops into your head when you see someone’s name, age & gender pop up, then–quick, before they answer the phone!–re-arrange that prejudice into something completely different. Then find out how right or wrong you were when they answer! (If they answer. 😦 ) And briefly ponder the internal biases that caused your initial guess, quick–before you dial the next number.

Then, of course, there’s always good ol’ Gazing Out the Window…trying not to think about hiking into the sunset

Not till you’ve finished your tally marks.

or making pie.

I think I’ve earned pie.

But really? It’s all about the tally marks. And yes, just in case you were wondering: I DID make 120 calls this afternoon, thanks!

Which means I need to shoot for 125 next time. 

Total # of calls (since I started keeping track, so it’s really about 100 more): 650. And when I get to 1,000, I WILL make a pie.

Anyone else engaged in some political work right now which requires a struggle to feel meaningful? How do you keep your positive energy up?

 

The Big Antiracism “Now What?”: Can There Be Angels in the Details?

Erin Aubry Kaplan, in her op-ed in the New York Times, “Everyone’s an Antiracist. Now What?” makes a rather devastating point: Congratulations, White People. You have arrived…at the beginning of something:

Recognizing that Black people matter as much as all other Americans is only acknowledging what’s always been true. Embracing Blackness as a something of value and dignity is a baseline for progress, not progress; it is moving into position at the starting line, but it is not the race.

I am finding my days heartened currently by the scope of racial education among people and groups who have, like me, always assumed themselves to be “good,” “non-racist” folks without doing any real work to back up that assumption. People who’ve coasted on privilege for generations (like me) are finally scrutinizing that fact and grappling with the implications. BUT, as Kaplan writes,

But this is all part of Step 1. Being truly antiracist will require white people to be inconvenienced by new policies and practices, legal and social, that affect everything in everyone’s daily lives, from jobs to arts and publishing.

It’s one thing to declare your support for Black Lives Matter with a lawn sign and quite another to give up segregated schools, or always seeing yourself and people like you as the center of the moral universe. The privilege to not engage is one that many may be loath to give up, even if they believe engagement is the right thing to do.

This is the part where people usually say, “Yeah, antiracism’s great, but the devil’s in the details.” As in: what do you mean by antiracist work? What if it’s not only inconvenient by messy, complicated, hard, threatening?

To that thought–my own thought!–I am trying to give this reply: What if those aren’t devils but angels in the details? What if we can find our own redemption as a dominant race by taking some nitty-gritty steps toward REAL equality, REAL justice? Doesn’t that sound like a blessing to you?

So, for my own work, my own “angels,” I am committing to the following:

  1. actively engage in the struggle to protect voting rights in “battleground” states, by phone-banking to promote mail-in balloting, along with promoting progressive candidates from the bottom to the top of the ballot; continue to mail letters to individual voters to urge their participation in November
  2. continue to advocate, through phone calls and email, for the closure of the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, WA, run by the private prison company Geo Group
  3. continue to educate myself about the American carceral state, to see what else needs advocating for (restoration of voting privileges for former felons? prison defunding? what else?)
  4. look for opportunities to support Black businesses, like WeBuyBlack.com (gorgeous dresses!)
  5. stay open to calls for action from organizations like Color of Change, using the privilege of my free time to advocate on specific cases of injustice whenever I have a moment

    Not gonna lie–it’s a tough read.

When I find myself foot-dragging on any of the above actions–which, face it, are not inherently fun–all I have to do is re-read Kaplan’s line: The privilege to not engage is one that many may be loath to give up, even if they believe engagement is the right thing to do.

Photo Courtesy of Color of Change.org

I admit, I’m writing this as much to keep myself motivated as anything. Privileged non-engagement is very, VERY comfortable. That’s why I’ve lived there for most of my life.

Anyway–thanks for reading about my commitments. I’d love to read about yours! Please share your current or next steps, wherever you are on this journey.

 

“Stand-up Tragedy”: When Coping Mechanisms Become Calls to Action

I’m not a particularly gifted comedian, but comedy plays a big role in the life I’ve made with my Mate. We like to say Jon Stewart pretty much raised our children. I know he got us through the Dubya Bush years, especially after the invasion of Iraq. When the Daily Show theme music came on, we’d yell, “Hey boys, Funny People!” and the boys would come running.

Since the election of 2016, I’ve leaned hard on Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah to remind myself that I’m not the only one who feels like my country’s turning back 100 years. But since the death of George Floyd, like the comedians themselves, I’m finding more solace in bitterness.

Isn’t that a contradiction? No–not when the bitterness is shared, and focused.

This morning’s New York Times article about Richard Pryor, by Jason Zinoman, put it best. After moving on to discuss Pryor’s legacy among Black comics, including SNL’s Michael Che and The Daily Show’s Roy Wood Jr., Zinoman focuses on Dave Chappelle, and coins the perfect phrase:

Over the past few decades, Chappelle has repeatedly made comedy from the pain of police brutality, but what stood out about his recent set was how his typically grave tone didn’t pivot to a joke, how often he let his unfiltered outrage sit there…Chappelle went long stretches without jokes, producing a kind of stand-up tragedy. When he asked what the police officer whose knee was on the neck of George Floyd could be thinking, he spoke with a righteous anger that comedy could not address. There are limits to what a joke can do.

Stand-up tragedy. YES. That is what feeds my soul these days: someone standing up, literally, and calling out what happened and what it means. Here is Trevor Noah, his first workday after the death of Rayshard Brooks:

Trevor isn’t telling me what to do. But when this professional funny person, this man whose impish dimple has brought me so much joy over the past five years, looks me in the eye and speaks his bitter truth, I feel called up. Which is how I want to feel right now.

It’s even more (bizarrely) comforting to hear comedians call other people out–people not like me, whom I wouldn’t have the right to criticize. Here’s Hasan Minhaj, from his show Patriot Act, calling out his fellow immigrants from Asia and the Middle East:

There are some speakers, like Killer Mike and Kimberly Jones, whose words are pure bitterness and zero comedy–no less brilliant and even more gripping–and I’ll probably focus on them another time.

Right now I want to give a huge shout-out to those “Funny People” whose wit and wisdom is fueling me these days–and hopefully you too. Please share others!

‘Nuff Said? We’ll See.

This book is suddenly a national best-seller. My copy’s back-ordered. It’s a start.

Of what? 

“Some people go out in glory

Yeah with the wind at their back

Some get to tell their own story

Write their own epitaph

Sometimes you see it coming

Sometimes you won’t know until

You’re out of breath

With a knee on your neck

For a $20 bill.”                          –Tom Prasado-Rao

 

Friends–let’s do the hard work, whatever’s ours to do.

White, Horrified and Helpless: Six Ways to Find Your Direction

Let’s say you’re White. Let’s say you’re not in close touch with many People of Color. Let’s say the reality of being Black in America is coming home to you in a deeper way than it ever has. Let’s say you are feeling ready to do more than just feel bad, attend a demonstration or write a check. Let’s say you are wondering where to start.

That was me, following the election of 2016. From what I’m hearing and seeing on social media, it’s a lot more people now. If it’s you, please keep reading.

Since struggling in the winter of 2016-17, I’ve begun to find some direction, some guidance. I would like to share it here.

  1. First, rip off your emotional blinders. Read Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

    This book is soul-changing.

  2. Learn the history you never knew you needed to know: Wherever you can fit it into your day, listen to episodes of the podcast “Seeing White” by John Boewin, with special guest Chenjeria Kumanyika.
  3. Get personal with that history. Read The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.

    Better yet, read it with a friend.

  4. Turn the lens on yourself. Read Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility or Debbie Irving’s Waking Up White. Or both.

    Start a book group.

  5. Reach out. Investigate groups you may have never heard of, like Color of Change. What work are they doing? Do you want to support it, and if so, how? Watch Netflix shows like “Dear White People” or “BlackAF”–they’ll make you laugh while your mind is expanding. Read People of Color. Listen to People of Color. Think about what you’ve never thought about. Think about where this country has an opportunity to go.
  6. Get involved with a group like VoteForward or Common Purpose to defeat Donald Trump. While we find a way to move forward, we have to keep our country from sliding further backward. How can you help?

    Racism is like COVID, or cancer. If you can’t study it and talk about it, you can’t cure it.

You know and I know, it is no longer possible just to dislike racism. We are either doing anti-racist work–starting with ourselves–or we are permitting racism to hold its grip. Please add your own suggestions here for what people like you, like me, or ANY people can do.

My New Furlough “Job”: Fun With Elected Officials

Even though, like many Americans, I’m furloughed from my job at the moment, I recognize that I’m in the 1% of ridiculously lucky people who has no one in my home demanding care nor worry; ample resources; and lovely outdoor space close to hand.

I’m sorry, New York–I wish I could send you some!

What I also have? A sense of helplessness. When we finished quarantining after our road trip, I signed up to deliver food around our island. But then I had to go off-island again. Twice. I understand the reason for the quarantine rule, but still I chafed. What can I DO to HELP?

Enter University of Washington professor David Domke and Common Purpose. I’d already attended an Orientation with this impressive group dedicated to promoting voting, and signed up for national get-out-the-vote work next fall. But next fall is so, so far away, and the daily COVID news weighs heavily. So I was thrilled when the email call came to ADVOCATE FOR EXPANDED VOTING OPTIONS FOR NEXT NOVEMBER,* from my own living room.

*Notice I’m not saying voting for whom? That’s not what this push is about. You don’t have to dig too deep to find which party supports more voting and which party wants to limit it…but that ain’t my affair. I just happen to think America has had about enough disenfranchisement for our past couple-plus centuries.

Plus, Professor Domke said it would be fun!

27 of our 50 states don’t allow for any way to vote except in-person on one single day. Which, in a pandemic, sounds pretty CRAZY, right? Right. Just ask Wisconsin. So I signed up to contact elected officials in those 27 states. Two senators. One governor. And one person in charge of elections.

Oh dear. That’s 4 x 27…128 people. Fun, huh?

I decided to treat this task like a job. You have the option to call, email, or tweet, and since the only thing I loathe more than making political calls is receiving them, I chose email as my medium. I tweaked the form letter Common Purpose sent to make it sound more like me. Okay. Ready for fun.

For the past 2 days, I’ve emailed for approximately an hour. Because there’s a Senate bill coming up now (Thank you, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden!) I started with Senators. 

Copy email letter. Open provided link to given Senator. Autofill all my details. Pick topic. Paste letter. Make sure I’m not subscribing to any newsletters! Prove I’m human. Click Submit. Next…

Y’know what, Professor Domke? This is NOT fun. This is boring as all get-out. I hate this.

So I started embroidering a little.

I let the two senators from North Carolina know I’m a Tarheel born & bred, and finished my letter with “Go Heels!” (Too bad for me if they’re Duke fans.)

I congratulated some of the senators who recently (or less recently) dropped out of the race for being so stalwart.

I started noticing stuff. Like: Some senators make you choose a prefix for your name; others let you opt out. Some senators have “Abortion/Right to Life” on their Issues list; others, just one or the other. Some senators don’t have anything on their Issues list that covers the topic at hand–Elections? COVID? Civil Rights?–forcing me to choose “Other.” Hmph.

And Cory Booker has the most adorable website, which asks for your first name right off the bat, then goes to “Hi, Gretchen!” Awww…Miss you, Cory.

After thirty minutes or so, I noticed something else: I was actually having a kind of nerdy fun. Go figure.

Hey, time’s up. I contacted 40 senators. Only 14 to go. And then all those Governors and Secretaries of State…

Wonder if any of their websites will tell me “Hi!”?

If you’d like to join this fun enterprise–no, really, in all seriousness, if you’d like to participate in the push to keep voters safely at home without being deprived of their right to help elect our next President, click here.

Woohoooo! Democracy! At least until I get to back to work at the bakery.

Equal Time For the Better Angels of Our Nature

My readers probably know that I’m not much of a podcast listener, but that if I AM listening to a podcast, it’s probably On Being with Krista Tippett. I started this habit after the 2016 election and, three and a half years later, I need her show more than ever.

Today I want to provide a peek into an especially uplifting interview about…ready? The evolutionary aspects of human goodness. Evolutionary? Human Goodness? Yes please!

(What follows are shameless excerpts from the transcript of Krista Tippett’s show, which I’m assuming she won’t mind because I’m encouraging everyone to listen to her.)

Human goodness? Does that mean sunflower seeds?

Nicholas Christakis is Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale. More specifically, he works at something called the Human Nature Lab—which sounds spooky until you hear what they’re studying. They’re studying goodness. (Oh my goodness. Literally.)

Says Dr. Christakis,

I’m interested in the qualities that make a collective good. How is it that a group of humans come together to form a good society? And in what way, and to what extent, has evolution equipped us with these capacities?

Please, oh please, tell me more about our good capacities. Do you really mean to say we have them built in, evolutionarily, and if so, why do never hear about this? Dr. C?

…scientists and citizens on the street have focused on the dark side of human nature, on our propensity for selfishness and tribalism and mendacity and cruelty and violence, as if this were a natural or normal or primary state of affairs. And yet, I think the bright side has been denied the attention it deserves, because, equally, we are capable of love and friendship and teaching and cooperation and all these other wonderful things. And, in fact, I would argue…those qualities are more powerful than the bad qualities; and therefore, in some ways, much more important.

More important? Really? Tell me why!

I think, if every time I came near you, you were mean to me, or you filled me with fake news — you told me falsehoods about the environment in a way that was detrimental to my capacity to survive in the environment, or you killed me, I would be better off living apart from you.

But we don’t do that. We live together. And so, therefore, the benefits of a connected life must have outweighed the costs. And they did outweigh the costs. And the question is, how did that state of affairs come to be?

Whoa. He’s right. We DO, for the most part, live in societies. Have done for millennia. And yes. Dr. Christakis is talking about EVOLUTIONARY time here, not human history.

…In fact, every argument that I make…I could make about human beings who were alive 10,000 years ago, before the action of a lot of the technological and historical forces that we take as so relevant and ascendant today. So we were capable of love and friendship and living together 10,000 years ago. And we were also capable of violence, of course, then, too. But all of these things were a part of our nature well before we then had this overlay of cultural and technological and historical forces acting. And in some ways I would argue that those forces are a thin veneer overlaid on a much more fundamental edifice.

A not particularly relevant but definitely uplifting photo I took the other day.

In other words, the prof is arguing that certain basic positive traits are the driving force of ALL human societies EVERYWHERE. These traits include our ability to…

love the people we’re having sex with; we form sentimental attachments to them. We are, technically, monogamous. We befriend each other; we form long-term, non-reproductive unions with other members of our species. This is exceedingly rare in the animal kingdom.We do it; certain other primates do it; elephants do it; certain cetacean species do it — we form friendships with unrelated people. It’s universal in human groups.

 

cooperate with each other, altruistically.We’re kind to strangers — again, to unrelated individuals;

 

...teach each other things. People take this for granted, but it’s actually unbelievable.

Yeah, the purple highlights are mine. They represent my DELIGHT in hearing an eminent, sober scientist tell the world that we humans are as good as we KNOW we can be–not simply as bad as our TV and movies tell us, over and over, that we must be.

THIS is relevant: Seattleites being altruistic by staying home, off the freeway. (OK, yeah, also being a little scared.)

If you, like me, need some inspiration right now, I encourage you to read this last paragraph aloud, as if it were a sermon, or a speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

Deeper, more powerful, more ancient forces are at work, propelling a good society, endowing us with these wonderful capacities, which were always there, are still there, are unavoidable; and that, if anything, these moves that we’ve made as a species in the last few hundred years are…the thin veneer over this more fundamental reality of the better angels of our nature.

Preach on!

Which do you want to focus on: the dark, tangled foreground, or the shining tree?

Please know: like Dr. Christakis, I’m no Pollyanna about human nature. All I’m asking for is equal time for our better angels.