Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Drop in an Ocean of People

Anyone who recognizes the acronym RAOK knows how futile it seems for one person to effect change among billions—and how positive some people are that such change can start with one act. To me, that one act seems to resemble the proverbial drop in the ocean, but to RAOK enthusiasts, it is the first step in getting the ball rolling.

RAOK believers do things like tell the toll booth attendant, “Here’s enough money for my toll—and keep the extra to pay for the driver behind me, too,” then drive off, serenely confident that they have made the world a better place. (Meanwhile, the driver behind zooms to catch up, swerving dangerously in front of oncoming traffic in a vain attempt to see who did such a crazy thing.)

I’m in Houston now. While my Houston-bred husband is properly impressed with the current size of the city he ditched 20 years ago, my New York Metro roots still balk at calling this “immensity.” The head count is diffused over a wide, non-descript plain of people. Even so, it is enough people to make me wonder whether any of them could be convinced to line up, just so, to replicate the domino effect.

Chris (said Texas-boy husband) has for many years made it his habit, when we travel, to initiate one of those drops in the ocean of people. He picked up this idea from a speaker at a homeschool conference: take a candy bar, add a simple message of gratitude, and pass it to anyone helping us on our trip. With a computer-printed label slapped on a Hershey bar, he is armed to distribute gratitude to bus drivers, skycaps, and airline flight crews.

His message, following a big, colorful “Thank You,” states: “When you are away from home, it is nice to know the people you trust for your comfort, safety and well-being are professionals who are dedicated to their jobs and the people they serve. God bless you for what you do every day!” Underneath, he inserts the name of each one of our family members.

Simple, huh?

What happens next gets completely complicated. It must have to do with the psychological underpinnings all we mortals carry around, invisible, underneath our pasty, face-masked exteriors. We’ve seen airline attendants, particularly, wax eloquent, brag about us incessantly over the intercom system, flock en masse to the row where we’re seated to personally express profuse gratitude.

It all had started getting overwhelming for me. I have a difficult time with my personal radar, determining sincerity from strangers, so my cynical self felt over-modulated at times in past encounters. When one attendant, a few years ago, came up to pass us a hand-written note—and evidently had tears in her eyes—I began to wonder. Some others confessed to us that they had just completed one leg of their journey which included a particularly intractable personality, and that they “really needed this.” It made me begin to wonder about the working conditions of these airline attendants—about the people these professionals are paid to encounter in their line of work every day.

But this trip took the prize. After completing what now is our customary travel ritual, we looked up at our seats to see three attendants beaming their thanks down at us. Nothing unusual here…until one attendant said, “In all my 16 years of flying, I have never had anyone thank me for what I do in this way.”



It got me to thinking about all the people we encounter in our everyday life: the toll-takers, the coffee-makers, the ticket punchers, the floor-sweepers. Anyone? Anyone thanking them?

More than that, anyone recognizing them as real people? I always have tried to make the bubble-break buffer zone in the midst of the time-squeeze routine of normal stuff like ordering coffee to say, “How are you?” and mean it. Mean it, because that person is a real person with a job that forces the rest of us to treat him or her like an extension of a machine rather than a real, flesh and blood copy of the same stuff that went into making us. How incredible that we can become so busy that we can’t take the time—by our actions—to remember that.

And so, RAOK—random acts of kindness—may indeed be the salve needed to bring people back from the brink of morphing into machines. Our business environment pays tribute to bosses who recognize their employees or professionals who affirm their clients—but what about customers who appreciate the service they receive in the countless ways we’ve come to expect in our typical work day? Yes, it’s their job, but isn’t it handled a bit nicer when it’s a person performing the duties?

I’d say 16 years is too long a time to let our free-market service professionals go unthanked. We could all use adding a couple words to our vocabulary and dispensing them liberally: “Thank you” for a job well done.

I’m looking forward to a glimpse of the domino effect resulting from the first barista keeling over in shock of some long-owed appreciation. This is a people-wave we could all look forward to surfing.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

...Next To...

Returning, last month, from a visit to a southern California university, we stopped along the way to visit family we hadn’t seen in a long time. Of course, the visit was wonderful, and yes, it shouldn’t have been so long since the last time, but the one haunting detail that got me pondering was not one of the items that stand out in typical family get-togethers. It was something much more intangible. It was the feeling I bumped into when I went on the perfunctory house tour.

Admittedly, the last time I had seen the house was pre-flood. Since then, there had been terrible rains, mud slides and devastation. Last time I was in the area, the house had been swarming with construction workers, eclipsing the possibility of dropping in for any visit at all. Other than the fact that there were changes and additions to the architecture, that all was now as magically swept away as if there had never been any such catastrophe.

That alone was not sufficient to induce the feeling.

Something, deep in those hidden recesses of my brain, was catching a whiff of a feeling that (laughably, you will admit) seemed so foreign. It was bumping up against a nether region of my mind that wasn’t accustomed to seeing things in this way. I felt the urge to take a bath in that feeling, to luxuriate in the strangeness of it. It was a validation of that near-heretical (well, at least non-Biblical) oft-quoted maxim: Cleanliness is Next To Godliness.

“Next to.” The contiguousness of that concept rubbed against something long dormant in my mind. With a lifestyle of running helter-skelter, pell-mell, from one project to another, leaving in the wake of each task a strewn pathway of litter doomed to wait “until I get around to it” for closure, sensing the positioning of being “next to” anything was too remote a possibility to comprehend. An analogy might be running a sports car, at top speed, down a highway that, at the other end, perpendicularly intersects a brick wall. Though the wall is across the continent, somehow you know it is there, but it isn’t there now. So you keep going. As fast as you can. “Next to” is still a long way off.

En route to “Next to,” I get a lot accomplished—and also leave a lot unaccomplished. In the midst of accomplishing each individual assignment, my work world becomes cluttered with stacks of books yet to be read, piles of papers too important to trash but not yet important enough to be properly filed. Each mile-marker checked off my to-do list is the discreet entity I focus on. The only entity I focus on. I know the brick wall is out there—some nebulous tipping point where all the disarray will one day collapse under its own weight and bury me in the process—but I keep speeding down my work freeway toward that brick-wall destiny, because it gets a lot of other stuff done.

There are a lot of flighty people in the world. A lot of those people in the US are labeled with catchy epithets like ADD or ADHD. The usual mode of treatment favors finding chemical means to slow such people down. It was so refreshing, therefore, to find a different prescription, a so-called “physical therapy for the brain.” Recognizing that “complex cognitive activities, such as reading, writing and mathematics, require the interaction of several areas of the brain,” the Arrowsmith School in Toronto, Canada, focuses not on the separate domain of each individual area of the brain, but on the relationships between those areas. What is “next to” becomes the key to resolving learning disabilities. The way two regions interact—the way the connections between the regions jive—makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

The study of the mind has uncovered a hidden realm of frontier regions, impacting the whole person through interactions between each area’s relative strengths or weaknesses, ever forging a new man through what psychiatrist Norman Doidge calls neuroplasticity: the ability of regions of the brain to adapt, to form new links with adjacent regions that supersede previous, defaulted connections.

In working on the documentary subsequent to his book, The Brain That Changes Itself, Dr. Doidge illustrates how science is learning to harness the neuroplasticity of the brain to solve difficulties in a number of personal applications. He concludes from his study: “We are not, it turns out, merely the galley slaves of our selfish-gene masters because conscious thought gives us a significant degree of control over their expression in our brains (and elsewhere), by moulding our microanatomy.”

In other words, the life our brain has handed us is not necessarily the final verdict in the matter: the brain, itself, can serve to assist us in changing. And, in changing aspects of our lives, we assist our brain to function differently, too.

Apologist and professor J. P. Moreland observed in Love Your God With All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul that, “Though we are unified selves, nevertheless, we are complicated beings in which the various faculties of the soul interact with each other and with the body in a number of different ways. The ancient Greeks and the Fathers of the church were right to believe that a virtuous, mature person is an individual with a well-ordered soul.”

How does one achieve a “well-ordered soul”? Somehow, I wonder if a process akin to Doidge’s neuroplasticity is involved. Moreland explains, “A life so ordered to facilitate intellectual growth is characterized by a certain set of virtues that makes such growth possible. A virtue is a skill, a habit, an ingrained disposition to act, think, or feel in certain ways. Virtues are those good parts of one’s character that make a person excellent at life in general…a virtue becomes ingrained in my personality, and thus a part of my very nature, through repetition, practice, and training.”

And so, I stand staring at the walls, the floors, the bookshelves, the tabletops, as I am escorted through the sparkling-clean, better-than-new rehabbed home. Something in a nether-region of my mind is connecting with another region it has yet to have met, and I wonder: can all the choices I’ve previously made—to rush to the conclusion, to orient my work to the goal, to tag the punch line, and, sadly, to see the utility in a person rather than the relationship—can all these choices have shaped me into a person with the kind of spirit I never meant to have had?

The “house” of my spirit is definitely in no condition to produce as serene a surrounding as was yielded by the owners of the home I was visiting. What was there about the inner disciplines of cleanliness and orderliness—those virtues not many hear in our culture’s discourse—that made them be able to be connected with such a serene environment? What, inside my mind—inside my spirit—wasn’t connecting? Was there, somewhere in the murky midst of my brain, a cleanliness connection? Did my “godliness” region need to meet my “cleanliness” zone?

Though not necessarily complying with the thesis of Robert Bellah, et al, in Habits of the Heart, the phrase outlines a new vision for me of how my miniscule day-to-day choices impact who I become in my future. I regret the choices I’ve made in the past. Oh, not the huge choices some bemoan, like not deciding to take on that big job offer or not making the move to be closer to a significant other, but the near-invisible choices I’ve laid down in the rubber cement of my past: the incessant chorus of habits—to pick up the trash I’ve inadvertently dropped in the midst of dashing after a compelling goal, to actually make the bed I’ve chosen to lie in, to really put in the hours of practice before lessons instead of on-the-fly reliance on natural endowments like superior sight-reading skills or quick on-my-feet thinking. Relying on those visible endowments didn’t craft any visible results. Had I attended to the invisible duties of a virtuous life, the visible results would have justified the existence of the invisible.

There is something so therapeutic about faithfully engaging in the little obligations of life. Saying, “how are you?” to a barista at an out-of-town roadside café seems meaningless (at the very least, clichéd) when I’ll never see her again. But is it to her that I speak that inquiry?

Something about enduring the drudgery of picking up life’s litter, attending to the tedium of housekeeping after life’s party, has a bigger picture than the bottom-lined task-oriented business model suggests. I am more than the sum of my parts. What each part is next to—how each part connects—is the key. Everything we do forges a connection somewhere in our mind. Those connections we reinforce demonstrate what is important to us, true; but those things we uphold as true will be better integrated into our larger self when we remember that they come, not solo, but as a connection.

If how we act (let alone act—how we talk, how we believe, how we ascribe to life’s more lofty ideals) impacts the shape of our brain, then every little choice I apply to my life makes me, ultimately, somehow different. I stand not at “two roads diverged” but on a morphing path in which every connecting step I choose to take—and even those I wish I hadn’t taken—embeds incremental adjustments to my destiny.
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