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Wow! We control 40% of our own happiness

 

Harvard's Dan Gilbert

Harvard’s Dan Gilbert

WARNING: THERE ARE TRICK QUESTIONS IN THIS POST!

So in preparing for a talk I was giving on “emotional well being,” also known as “happiness,” I watched some TED talks by important psychologists (the kind of people asked to give TED talks), and I heard Dan Gilbert of Harvard ask the following question of his audience of thousands:

In which of the following scenarios would you predict you’d be happier?

    1) You win the lottery

     or

    2) You become a paraplegic

It’s a trick question, of course.  Most people think the answer is obvious: You’d be much happier if you won the lottery. Who wants to be a paraplegic? No one, of course.  But according to Dr. Gilbert, the answer to the question is that one year out, the lottery winners and the paraplegics are about equally happy.

 Wow!

See, I told you it was a trick question. Its explanation can be partially found in the following formula, offered by Dr. Gilbert, Dr.Sonja Lyubomirsky at the University of California, Riverside (whom I once interviewed for an article I was doing for BottomLine), Dr. Martin Seligman at University of Pennsylvania, and many other researchers in the newer branch of psychology known as “positive psychology.”

Happiness = 50% “genetic” + 10% circumstantial + 40% “self-created.”

The 50% is also called the “happiness set point” and it’s the point to which people generally return, all things remaining equal. In other words, based on your genetics, and it seems to me this would include both biochemical factors and certain factors (such as trauma, neglect, abuse, and poverty) from your formative years, if you tend toward depression (or emotional volatility, or unhappiness, or whatever), you will basically always return to that same set point.

So this means that even if some event or circumstance in your life, such as the birth of a grandchild, winning the lottery, or making a fortune in your investments, causes happiness, and even if some other event in your life such as becoming a paraplegic or enduring the loss of a loved one causes you unhappiness, in the long run that will account for only 10% of your level of happiness because all things remaining equal you will eventually adjust to the new condition and basically return to your previous happiness set point.

But all things don’t have to remain equal. These researchers and others have shown scientifically that your own “intervention” can control as much as 40% of your own “happiness.”What are these magical interventions that can help you be happy?  They cover three areas: Pleasure, Engagement, and Meaning.  

Here too is another trick question.  Most people think “pleasure,” which comes with things like social interactions and sex, make you happy, but it turns out that pleasure-seeking activity accounts for the smallest part of that self-created 40% of happiness.  This becomes obvious when you think about people who collect superficial friends or keep looking for Mr. Goodbar.

“Engagement” is a bigger happiness factor.  This means finding work or a passion that engages you completely to the point that while doing it you have the sense that time has stopped.  I achieve this most fully when I write, but you can also find it in any creative activity or work.  It’s called:

Flow

And then there’s “meaning,” which has been found to be the biggest contributor. It means knowing your strengths and using them to achieve a purpose higher than yourself. This would include altruism, working for a “cause,” and/or religion or other spiritual pursuits.

In looking back over my life, which in a few months heads into its 60th year, I realized that all this completely accounts for the weird fact that despite having experienced an inordinate amount of loss and suffering, including the worst of the worst, the loss of my son, I am now “happier” than I’ve ever been, probably even 40% happier. This is because over the last 20 years, since the loss of my son, I have engaged in activities and a process that has helped me put things in perspective, be grateful for what I have, let go of much of my own ego-driven worry about “success” as a writer, and allowed myself to simply “engage” in the writing process. I’ve also realized that my writing (which also involves study) is what helps me make any sense at all of this complicated life, and so it doesn’t matter, really, what the writing outcome is, whether 50 or 20,000 people come to my blog, or my books have sold 1000 or 100,000 copies. I write–and engage in other creative pursuits, including most recently taking up playwriting– because it gives me “flow.”

As for “meaning,” I find it in part by helping people as a therapist, and in my philanthropic pursuits, such as the program my husband and I started in memory of our son to help toddlers with special needs. Now if you’d told me the happiness formula when I was in the thick of my grief, I would probably have walked away in a rage, but now I really do think the happiness formula above accounts why so many people who’ve suffered serious losses, such as the loss of a child, have eventually managed to survive and even thrive and self-actualize, and dare I say it, find “happiness” by developing or joining some cause that makes “meaning” out of that loss.  Consider the Newtown parents’ drive for gun reform, or Candy Lightner who lost her daughter to a drunk driver and in 1980 founded MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), or Gloria Horsley, who lost a son and who along with her daughter, Heidi, who lost her brother, started Open to Hope, a foundation to help people who’ve experienced great loss.

So then, happiness is to a great extent (40%, at last count) what you “make” when you don’t get what you want.  Which is very often in this life.

Next post: What can you do to actually raise your level of “happiness?”   

PS:  I took a course in grad school on “positive psychology” but all this never really clicked for me intellectually and I didn’t really understand how my own life happiness trajectory is proof of it, until I started really studying it in order to create a presentation about emotional wellbeing. Which proves something else I heard another psychologist say in a talk a few weeks ago.  Paul Bloom of Yale said: If you want to appreciate fine wine, STUDY wine or take a course in wine and learn all about it, don’t just go out and buy the most expensive bottle of wine you can find and expect an appreciation of fine wine to come upon you magically.  Which translates into: Writing a presentation about happiness made me happy!

 

Little Man

Fran-Dorf1-203x300

On October 22, 1990, I became the mother of two children. I will always be the mother of two children. Our daughter, Rachel, was already nine, but we’d been unable to conceive a second child after my husband’s shocking bout of cancer two years into our marriage, and so after several miscarriages and years on the artificial insemination rollercoaster, we’d arranged to adopt.  It was a boy. He was a month early.  We were thrilled.

Bob and I flew to the birth mother’s southern city, made our way to the hospital, and stood at the nursery window. The 4-pound incubated baby looked tiny, sickly.  He had an odd, bulging forehead and his skin was dusky and mottled.  I started to cry and Bob put his arm around me.

Later, we made awkward conversation with the birth mother in her hospital room.  She was a fortress of a woman, not fat but about six feet tall and solid, wearing a blue bathrobe, and reeking of cigarette smoke.  She’d mentioned some early pregnancy drinking in her first letter to us, calling it “partying.” My God, I thought, what were we getting ourselves into?

Bob and I spent the next few days in the hospital getting to know the baby, and nights in our hotel room making phone calls.  Our daughter’s pediatrician said the baby would probably be okay, given his normal head size. Bob’s parents said they’d support us, no matter what. My mother, who died only a few years later, said, “Why take on someone else’s problems, Fran?”

We couldn’t reject the baby because he looked sickly.  He was ours.   We’d become attached over months of letter-writing and occasional phone calls with the birth mother, and although I was all over the place in that hotel room, I knew I had to take him on when I had a dream of him, left all alone in a dark, empty nursery.

By preemie standards he wasn’t that small, but the doctors said he needed to stay. Bob flew home and brought Rachel back. Our daughter was overjoyed that she now had the sibling she’d longed for, and we gathered him in and declared him ours. We named him Michael Max, in the Jewish way, after Bob’s favorite grandfather, though most often we called him Mikey, Magoo, or Little Man.

A few days later Bob took Rachel home, and I was alone. Didn’t matter. I was falling in love.  Each morning a nurse took Michael Max out of his warmer and handed him over.  I’d sit in a rocking chair most of the day, watching all the other human dramas unfold in front of me like parchment scrolls, feeding Mikey through a sliver of a nasal tube, unselfconsciously crying and whispering to him: It’s okay, it’s okay. You just have to be the baby, and I’ll be the mommy.

I’m not sure when I took Michael completely into my being as my son. Was it the first time he cried and I rocked him until he settled?  When I changed his diaper and saw how undernourished he was, his skin hanging off his bones?  When I found myself singing to him, though my singing voice isn’t fit to be heard by man or beast? When he looked up at me with deep blue eyes, and we both seemed to know we were meant for each other?

In the evenings for the next three weeks at the hospital, I’d find a restaurant along the local strip, eat dinner alone, and then return to the hospital for a last visit. The chicken in the Greek place gave me food poisoning—nausea and stomach cramps so bad I considered checking into the hospital myself—but by dawn I was ready to resume my vigil. That morning, a young, redheaded teenager sat in the rocker next to me, awkwardly holding her newborn, weeping and wavering in her decision for adoption. I decided I was lucky that Michael’s birth mother was older, steadier. We had agreed to her terms: we would send letters and pictures once a year, one way, through the lawyer.  I was grateful it was only that. I could do that.

***

Michael became a beautiful child with blue, slightly crossed eyes, a pile of blond curls, and a solid build. Like many parents of children with neurological difficulties we became experts on issues we’d never even heard of before, like sensory integration, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified.

Indeed, Mikey was often frustrated and refused to touch certain objects, but everything he would do, he did with uninhibited enthusiasm, especially when it involved water.  Bath time was always hilarious, though convincing him to get out of the tub not so much, and our little man just adored the pool.  We all had to be there to watch, too, including Cookie, our cocker spaniel, and Mikey’s favorite stuffed toy, a puffy bright pink and green turtle.  He’d stand at the pool’s edge, laughing, and jump into our arms, often before we could even get ready to catch him.  He’d put his arms around us, give us one of his squeezes, giggle more, and then scramble up the pool steps to do it again.  And again.  And again.

Perhaps we minimized our son’s problems in our letters to the birth mother, though we often felt overwhelmed by them. Mostly, we told her how much we loved him, how hard we were trying for him.  We described how he giggled and put his whole body and being into hugging us.  We told her that he loved Big Bird, buses, and balls. And we wrote about his sister, who had become very grown up, teaching him, hovering over him like a little mother.

In our third birthday letter, we told her that Michael had finally learned to point, had a vocabulary of about eight words, or maybe word-sounds, and one time shocked everyone by clearly putting together “peanut” and “ butter,” neither of which was one of his words.  We sent the gorgeous photograph Bob had taken that summer of Mikey and his sister in the pool. A photo we enlarged and hung in a frame on the living room wall.

***

And then came December 7, 1993, my personal Pearl Harbor Day. I put Mikey down for his nap and went to my office to work on a new novel to fulfill a two-book publishing contract. For reasons that remain mysterious and fascinating to me, I’d churned out over a hundred pages in the six weeks prior to that day, working faster than I ever had on a story about the kidnapping of a little boy named Elijah.  Oddly, I’d spent most of those pages not advancing a kidnapping plot but rather imagining his young parent’s grief and terror.  I still wonder if this was a kind of prescience, since I had no real idea at all what grief and terror for your child would be like.  It could also have been an expression of my fears for my troubled son.

Around 4:00 I went to check on Mikey and found him in the midst of a violent seizure. He wasn’t breathing.  My own screams told me that I had arrived in hell, and from that moment on it felt as if I were constantly screaming—screaming when we arrived at our local hospital, screaming when we got to the big medical center where they shipped him a few hours later, screaming at the next hospital, screaming at the next.  Even in my dreams I was screaming.

Michael’s end came on a particular date, of course, though it had already technically ended months before when we stood in front of a light box, looking at rows and rows of illuminated brain slices, after the last of so many MRIs I had lost count.  Each MRI was worse than the last, the blackness at the center of our son’s brain bigger.

The doctor gave us the news. “When tissue is damaged like this it shrinks and takes up less room, and fluid fills the void.  I’m very sorry, but there’s nothing there.  He will never get any better.” Sometimes I still can’t believe I’m a mother who survived hearing that.

After Michael died, I padlocked my office, retreated to the house, and declared I would never write another word.  Writing was what I had done before. This was after. My world sucked into itself like a black hole. I spent the next two years walking around wearing my bathrobe and my shroud of grief, crying or staring vacantly at the walls, only vaguely aware of my daughter and husband coming and going, floaters in my field of vision.

We had to send the birth mother one last, impossible letter, which I struggled and labored over for months.  We agreed to receive one letter from her. She thanked us graciously for the wonderful life we had given Michael, and said she was particularly sorry for our daughter, then thirteen.  She mentioned that she’d had another child.  She wanted to go to Michael’s grave. I was so fragile then, reeling in the early madness of grief; I veered from blaming her, to wishing she’d rescue me, to wanting to beg her forgiveness for failing him.  Yet that child, and his death, was ours, not hers, and we didn’t—couldn’t—allow her into our lives.  I do not have any of her letters now; sometime during those dark years I threw them away in a rage.

***

Our son would have turned twenty-three this October.  I’m still a writer, but I also work as a grief counselor now; it’s one of the ways I have found to move forward, writing is another.

I’m constantly amazed when I sit with bereaved parents that even though all grief journeys are unique, they’re also similar: the rage and often irrational guilt, the feeling of having slipped into another universe; the decision about whether to have (in our case adopt) another child; the struggle to figure out what to do with the child’s room, his things; the difficulty of dealing with people’s insensitive remarks.

My world is rich and full of laughter, humor, and wonder again.  Our beautiful, brilliant daughter is now thirty-two, a psychologist.  I’m a grandma. Our granddaughter is named after Michael.  We feel almost embarrassed at how much we adore that child.  She is three now, near our son’s last age, though I try not to think about that. A few weeks after giving birth, my daughter’s emotional generosity astounded me. “Now I understand, Mom,” she said. I wish you didn’t, my daughter.  As you raise your own child, I wish you didn’t know firsthand what could happen.

Yes, my life is sweet again, full of blessings. Still, I think I am like every bereaved parent.  No matter how long ago it happened, how compartmentalized the grief becomes, or how reinvested in life, this loss remains, forever imprinted on your soul. I can no sooner give up being Mikey’s mother than I can give up breathing, even though Mikey is no longer here.

Sometimes, even now, I have random after-the-fact realizations, for example, that some of the accouterments that accompanied the opening of my son’s life were replicated at the end: the long daily hospital visits, the vigil, the nasal-tube feeding.  And that all eight words Michael had mastered by the early summer of 1993 were gone by the time autumn came. And that in the large photograph in the pool that still hangs in the living room, our daughter is strangely bathed in sunlight and Michael is in shadow, as if doom were beginning to encroach.

Bob and I are growing old, but the boy who will always be our son has been frozen in time, in our memory and our home, forever a smiling, laughing toddler. We’ve moved several times since then, and we’ve always rehung our photos of him, and his red and blue finger painting that we’d framed like a work of art.  We always put his last pair of shoes in their proper place atop the bureau in our bedroom. Navy Stride Rite sneakers with green laces, well worn, with dirt-caked soles.

Fran Dorf is a psychotherapist and author of three novels, A Reasonable Madness (Birch Lane, 1990/Signet, 1992), Flight(Dutton, 1992/Signet, 1993), and Saving Elijah (Putnam, 2000).  Her writing has been published in anthologies, literary magazines, and online sites, such as McSweeney’s, Ars Medica, Forbes, Bottom Line, and Perigee. She’s currently working on a memoir, from which this essay is adapted. She writes an advice column and blogs as THE BRUISED MUSE atwww.frandorf.com, on a variety of topics including psychology, writing, and bereavement, her therapeutic specialty.

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

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22 thoughts on “Little Man”

  1. Carole GeithnerAugust 12, 2013 at 10:25 am
    What a beautiful essay, so evocative of the intensity of emotions, the love and the pain, the depth of maternal bonds, and life-long experience of loss. Thank you for sharing your story with the world, Fran.
    Reply ↓
  2. Sally RothkopfAugust 12, 2013 at 10:27 am
    Beautifully written piece, remembrance, tribute to love and loss. Thank you for sharing it with me. Sally
    Reply ↓
  3. MytwicebakedpotatoAugust 14, 2013 at 11:43 am
    My heart ached as I read your words. I understand some of the risks and unknowns when you “take on someone else’s problems” since we did this too.I can’t imagine your grief and many blessings to you and yours ;)
    Reply ↓
  4. J.JacksonAugust 14, 2013 at 5:20 pm
    The reminder that no matter how much time has past to allow healing scars over grief the pain can still remain so fresh as if it was yesterday. The hell no parent would wish on their worst enemy. Keep writing Fran.
    Reply ↓
  5. GraceAugust 15, 2013 at 3:11 pm
    Mother to my five year old son, I call the idea of losing him “unthinkable”… Rather, it’s “unknowable”– I’m deeply touched by your very moving and vivid sharing of your love for your son and your deep, and lifelong, grief. Parent is for life.
    Reply ↓
  6. Powell BergerAugust 15, 2013 at 4:22 pm
    Simply beautiful. I smiled. I cried. And I walked outside and felt the sunlight and loved my three children just a little bit more. I’m so glad you eventually removed the padlock to the written word. As your readers, we are forever better because of it.
    Reply ↓
  7. Fran DorfAugust 15, 2013 at 5:04 pm
    Thanks for your comment, J. Jackson. Yes, I’m afraid we are members of the club no one would want to belong to. I wish I had my son back, of course, but life only goes one way and we must learn the lessons our lives present. Among other things, I have learned that writing is my way of making sense of the world. And I have learned compassion for those who are in pain. And I have learned gratitude. Thanks again.
    Reply ↓
  8. SaraJaneAugust 15, 2013 at 5:27 pm
    I cried when I read this as well. I lost a child too, although a different way. I fostered (originally as a likely adoption) a newborn until a bit after her first birthday. Her birth parents made such unexpectedly wonderful progress that reunification was decided to be best. It’s been over a year since I handed her back to her mother and I know she is happy and loved but I am utterly heartbroken. She will forever be my smiling, giggly one year old baby girl. The hole is always there but I am better. Now I struggle with whether to foster/adopt again, if the desire for another child is worth that risk. Thank you for that beautiful piece.
    Reply ↓
    1. Fran DorfAugust 21, 2013 at 9:05 am
      Hi SaraJane,
      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Yes, it’s a struggle to determine whether you want to make yourself vulnerable to loss again. I think with a child who’s died, it’s also a struggle to know whether you’re trying to create a “replacement” child, at least it was for me. Anyway, what you’ve described is very, very difficult. I think social service departments try to keep together the birth family if at all possible.
      Reply ↓
  9. Noelle CallahanAugust 15, 2013 at 8:36 pm
    Fran- You are a special woman. You are a special person. You are a special mom. Thank you for sharing such an intimate time in your life. I am glad to hear that you did make it and that you have helped others cope with the unimaginable. Thank you.
    Reply ↓
    1. Fran DorfAugust 21, 2013 at 9:19 am
      Thanks for that, Noelle. The “sharing” thing is an interesting one. I think all writers–memoirists, even fiction writers–struggle mightily with whether, and how much, and in what form to share. Research shows, and I teach that writing is a healing art. This goes for “expressive” writing about trauma, loss, illness, etc, as well as writing that you work and rework into literary form, like the wonderful BrainChild essays. Every time you rewrite something to put it into literary form, you distance yourself from it, and that has a healing effect too. I wrote a piece on this subject on my blog at https://frandorf.com/2013/01/22/the-healing-art-of-writing-memoir-or-fiction/
      Reply ↓
  10. SharonAugust 19, 2013 at 5:28 pm
    Thank you. My little boy would have been 16 in November. Even after all this time, I need to hear other parents’ experiences and how they got through it. After all this time, it can still feel fresh and sharp. I appreciate you sharing your heart with us.
    Reply ↓
    1. Fran DorfAugust 21, 2013 at 9:23 am
      Hi Sharon,
      I’m so sorry for your loss. Yes I think those of us who are members of the club that no one ever wants to belong to do need to hear and share. We find solidarity with each other. Honestly, it feels healing for me to sit with the bereaved and hear their stories and witness their struggle.
      My best to you,
      Fran
      Reply ↓
  11. Megan SternerAugust 19, 2013 at 8:48 pm
    I am crushed by this story, and yet it brings me joy that you pulled through, that there is hope for those who suffer the inconceivable loss of a child.
    Reply ↓

Shining a Light on Grief: Carole Geithner’s novel, “If Only”

Carole Geithner’s novel, “If Only”

I was honored last night to be part of a panel discussion, “Shining a Light on Grief,” with Carole Geithner, author of “If Only,” a young adult novel I thought was enchanting. I’d recommend Carole’s book to anyone, young or old. I’d especially recommend it to bereaved young people, and those who want to learn more in order to help a bereaved friend.  Some may find a novel like this more helpful than even a “how-to” book because it organically teaches what, and what not to do and say. “Showing” (as in a novel) is always more effective than “telling.” (as in a “how to”)

Carole’s a professor and social worker who works with the bereaved, and she said she wrote the book, at least in part, to help her deal with her own experience of grief.  As Bruised Muse readers know, I too wrote a novel inspired by my grief, “Saving Elijah.”  I inscribed a copy for Carole. She and I have a lot in common, it seems, both in our professional interests and in our understanding of the power of writing to heal.  (We may also have some personal things in common, since both of us are social work types married to successful businessmen. Okay, so maybe that’s a stretch, since Carole happens to be married to the US Treasury Secretary.)

Carole Geithner

Anyway, Carole is lovely and calm and knowledgeable and reassuring (all good things for a social worker), and her book is wise and accomplished and real.  It brings to life and gives voice to a believable thirteen-year-old named Corinna as she makes her way through the very difficult first year of aching loss and grief after the cancer death of her mother, Sophie.  In scene after scene, often with humor, Carole believably, enjoyably, and instructively depicts many of the situations and dilemmas you encounter after the death of someone you love. As a writer I particularly admired the scene in which Sophie is listening to a private conversation between her father and her aunt about her mother.  I was also struck by the range of experiences Carole managed to get into the book.  This includes everything from the feeling that nothing is normal and you’ve arrived on an unknown planet called Planet Grief, to the need to create new rituals, to the natural attraction to people who’ve experienced similar situations or just know how to “be with” you, to all the strange and hurtful things people say to you.

What is helpful/What isn’t

Carole has put into the novel wonderful examples of what’s helpful, which fit with my own suggestions:  Be present.  Be humble.  Be patient.  Observe. Reflect.  Give witness. Allow silence.  Don’t judge. Don’t try to fix it.  Accept.  Listen.

As for what to say, “I’m sorry” is fine, or even, “I don’t know what to say.” Some people are instinctively gifted at compassion-giving, while others need instruction.  It takes commitment and stamina to sit with the truly bereaved.

Carole also put in quite a few examples that nicely fall into the categories I’ve described for all the people who mean well but say the wrong things, including: babblers (Let’s talk on and on—about anything else); advice givers (It’s time to clean out the room…start dating again…get over it…); platitude-offerers/pain-minimizers (God must have wanted him…he’s in a better place…you did everything you could); pseudo-empathizers (I know just how you feel); lesson-learners (Everything happens for a reason…life is short…) and last and worst, abandoners.

I experienced most of these myself and I see them echoed over and over in the experience of others, so much so that at one point I was thinking of writing a book called: The Ten Worst Things to Say.  The key is: Don’t say anything that de-legitimizes whatever the bereaved might be feeling.

The evening was jointly sponsored by the Jewish Family Service, Jewish Community Center, The Den for Grieving Children, Family Centers, and the Center for Hope.  I have associations, one way or another, with all of these wonderful institutions in the community.

The audience included many professionals who work with the bereaved, and quite of few bereaved too.  I was thankful for some wonderful questions, such as this one (I’m paraphrasing):  “I understand it’s really hard to know what to say when people ask you how many children you have.”  Yes, indeed, this is always a loaded question. It’s one of the many real dilemmas of grief, particularly at first.  If someone asks how many and you leave out the dead child, you might feel as if you’re betraying that child. But if you include that dead child you might then be forced to answer the follow up questions, which might lead you (and the asker) where you might not want to go.  It’s always awful to find yourself suddenly talking about your most profound pain to a stranger who was simply making conversation, or even actually breaking down in tears in the cheese aisle.  There’s also the concern that you might ruin someone’s day.  Anyway, eventually most bereaved people figure out and make peace with how they want to handle this dilemma, which is one that’s going to be with them for the rest of life.  It’s a case by case decision.  It gets easier with time.

I hope the newly bereaved who were brave enough to come felt supported and cared for.  I admit that while I wasn’t surprised I was a bit disappointed by the lack of attendance by more non-professionals perhaps looking for information on how to help a friend. I guess I’m so comfortable with this topic, and with offering compassion to the suffering that I forget how much most people really just want to avoid it.

Here’s the link to Carole Geithner’s website, which has some great resources about grief in addition to info about the book.

Promoting kindness, civility: The difference between an “opinion,” hate speech, and free speech

LETTER TO AN (UNNAMED) WEBSITE OWNER WHO THINKS HATE SPEECH IS THE SAME AS AN OPINION

Dear Ms. Website Owner:

Shame on you.  A few days ago I put a few words into the Google search tool about a subject I was interested in, and found my way to your story about it. I then had the misfortune of reading the third comment down, which was hateful and beyond appalling.  I wrote to you privately, asking you to take the comment down because it is clearly “hate speech” and specifically because of the terrible pain it would cause its intended target. I carefully explained my reasons for asking this, which I won’t identify because I don’t really want to call attention to the particulars, except to make a larger point about the prevalence of “hate speech” presuming to masquerade as “opinion” or “free speech” in our culture, and whose responsibility it is to take a stand.  Your response to my request to take it down?

As a fellow blogger I am disappointed that you would want me to censor my readers. I don’t know what kind of blog you run, but (my website) receives (x number) of unique visitors a year and we take our readers’ freedom of speech very, very seriously. Although I do not see eye to eye with many of the comments that are left by my readers, I do respect their right to have an opinion.

Now I admit that you’re not alone in misguidedly offering an unrelated principle to boost a specious argument, Ms. Shopping and Gossip Blog Owner.  And this kind of garbage seems to be everywhere–on television, in the unbelievable amount of name-calling in this culture, in the unkind way people talk to each other, even on big, influential, serious Internet sites like Salon and Slate, which are presumably run and edited by educated, responsible people.  Personally, I think it’s easy to distinguish between hate speech and an “opinion.” It’s like Justice Potter Stewart’s notion that hard-core pornography is hard to define, but he knew it when he saw it.  But obviously you need clarification, so here’s the Wikipedia definition: “Hate speech is communication that vilifies a person or a group on the basis of color, disability, ethnicity, gender, nationality, race, religion, sexual orientation, or other characteristic.”

So give me a break. I would vigorously defend your right to publish your blog, even if I don’t particularly like its voyeuristic and strange focus on the misfortunes of others, but do you REALLY think allowing hate speech on a shopping and gossip blog makes you a virtuous defender of “free speech?”

First of all, if that commenter were exercising free speech, he wouldn’t be hiding his identity, and behind a disgusting moniker yet.  Secondly, many websites do ban hate speech; Facebook, for example, bans (according to its own definition) violence and threats, bullying and harassment, hate speech, graphic content, nudity and pornography, and phishing and spam.  Some websites leave a placeholder, something like, “THIS COMMENT REMOVED.” Some may have policies on such things but don’t enforce them particularly well.  Shame on them too.

Perhaps when you’re not promoting gossip and shopping you’re a law scholar, and you really are one of those free speech absolutists who say all expression, no matter how despicable, should be allowed online. So then where are all the spam comments?  Ah. Your spam filter edits those out, right?  Well, that’s free speech too, so obviously you’re not a free speech absolutist, now are you? It is, after all, someone’s “opinion” that penises should be larger, and that they can be made so with a product called PENIS ERECTOR, and if free speech is what you care about, why not allow all that up there in addition to the Prada and hate speech?

Now people (and governments) may disagree on what governments should and shouldn’t protect, but you’re not a government. This has nothing to do with free speech; YOU OWN THE SITE. And you’re making a choice here, an unkind and hateful one, an uncivil one.

Ms. Website Owner, what’s the downside to editing out hate comments?  Would it hurt your cause of more shopping and gossip?  All it would do is deprive the hater of a forum to anonymously spew hate.  Yes, I believe that the answer to hate speech is more speech, and I see now that a few people are dressing that commenter down in follow up, some with name-calling almost as bad, which of course makes my point, that we’re so steeped in this junk that we can’t see our way out.  Nevertheless, if the comment’s intended target, who is already suffering from unspeakable pain, were ever to see that first comment, it might STILL bring even more unspeakable pain. Do you really want to do that?  Do you have no empathy?  Didn’t your mother teach you anything about morality, civility, kindness?

And while you’re leaving that placeholder, I suggest you do the same for all comments by this person, who seems to be trolling your site for ways he can say the most indecent, hateful things and do the most damage to his targets. He’s obviously very sick.  If you provide a forum for this individual, it doesn’t make you a defender of free speech.  I’m not sure what it makes you, but it isn’t anything good.

If no one takes responsibility for anything in this culture, if people hide behind meaningless and unrelated principles, where the hell are we?  The Dalai Lama said, “There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”

Sincerely,

Fran Dorf

Just Ask Me: Help! My Work Friend Got Promoted—and I’m Jealous

Dear Fran, 

I’m 31 years old and have been working in the engineering and project management industry for a little over 10 years, five at my current company. A good friend of mine started working at my company about two years ago but in the business development sector. It’s been great to have her here because we can grab lunch or a quick chat anytime.

Here’s the issue—I’ve had the same position for my entire time at this company and after only a couple of years, she recently got a huge promotion. Window office, director title, six-figure salary, the whole bit. I know I should be happy for her, but I can’t help but feel extremely jealous of her situation. She’s making more than I am by a good $30K and at her age, she is bound to keep on rising up the ranks.

I guess I also worry about our friendship. How are we going to keep up break time chats and water-cooler talk when she’s in a whole different hierarchy? How can I handle this whole thing more gracefully?

Thanks,

Don’t want to be envious

Dear Envious:

Ah, envy: that little green monster that often seems to cause so much pain. It can rear its ugly head at friends, colleagues, celebrities, bosses, family members, and perfect strangers (in no particular order). It can glom on to someone else’s courage, clarity of vision, emotional serenity, compassion, persistence, intelligence, quick wit, or success.

Let me give you a personal example. As a writer, my most powerful envy comes when I’m in the middle of a book and I suddenly find myself so profoundly moved or deeply amused by the words on the page that I have to stop and take a breath to contemplate (and envy) the author’s skill. Here are a couple of random examples that stopped me this way: Emma Donoghue’sRoomShira Nayman’s Awake in the DarkPatrick Suskind’s PerfumeJeffrey Eugenides’Middlesex; and Cynthia Kaplan’s book of personal essays, Why I’m Like This.

Now I want you to notice that, of the books that have stirred my green monster, some are bestsellers, some only sold a few thousand copies; some were recently published, some years ago; some were lauded by critics, some not so much. The truth is that while I might occasionally envy someone’s “success,” what I envy most powerfully is what I most value, certain qualities of character, and what I aspire to as a writer.

So first, I want you to be clear about what it is that you’re envying. Is it your friend’s success? The fact that she got chosen for a promotion and you didn’t? That she got a lucky break and you didn’t? The six-figure salary? Or does your envy stem from your fear she’s more skilled at her job than you are at yours?

I ask you these questions because I think it will help you to separate that which is mostly beyond your control and concentrate on that which is primarily in your control. Life is certainly not fair and your friend’s success may well be due to sheer good luck, which is painfully beyond your control.

What is in your control, and what you can concentrate on, is how to be the best you can be atyour job. Identify things that would make you promotable and work on those skills. Separate what is going on with your friend’s promotion from the realities of your position and the likelihood of moving up. If you truly feel that a promotion is due, pursue it with your manager.

Another worthwhile consideration is whether you actually enjoy and are stimulated by your current position. If you’re bored, or find yourself eyeing your friend’s (or another) field that seems more interesting or presents more opportunities for advancement, take some steps in that direction. Maybe her job change will prove to be a catalyst for you to make some changes for yourself. You don’t necessarily need to wait around for management to give you a bump up the ladder; maybe it’s time for you to pursue a new industry or a new company that will provide the opportunities that you are seeking.

Next, you call this woman a “good friend,” but I wonder if she’s a real friend. Is she someone you can actually talk to, or is your relationship merely centered around the water cooler chat? Are you worried about her throwing her new position in the hierarchy around because she already has? If so, then I’d stop thinking of her as your “good friend” and try to gracefully back away while continuing with the superficial water cooler chat.

My standards for a “good friendship,” however, are a little different. I root for my friends to reach their goals, I applaud their achievements, and I expect them to do the same for me. A quality friendship is based on whether I can talk to and confide in my friends, and whether they they can talk to and confide in me. I feel that friends are real friends because they share honest feelings with each other, and can allow themselves to be or appear vulnerable.

If this were me, and I thought she was my good friend, I’d find a time when she and I weren’t at work, and share some of my feelings surrounding her promotion. I might casually say that I’d been hoping for a promotion, too, or even confess how envious I am! I might ask her how or why she thinks she got the promotion, and maybe even ask her for some suggestions. And then I’d watch very carefully to see how she handled the situation. This is a tricky time for your friendship. If she’s really your friend, she’ll offer her support and hear out your disappointments in a loving way. If a candid conversation like that didn’t go smoothly, I’d seriously think about how close of a friend she really is.

I wish you the best of luck in your career and your friendship, and I’m glad you wrote in and asked.

Fran

Originally posted on The Daily Muse

Read More From Fran

How to Calm and Be Clear

Compassion Roundup, Part I: Who cares if your surgeon is a jerk?

Huckabee at the Republican National Convention

A few weeks ago, Mike Huckabee, making a medical analogy about the alarmingly jerky Mitt Romney, told Howard Kurtz of the Daily Beast: ““The sicker the patient, the less important is bedside manner.  If you’ve just been diagnosed with a brain tumor, you honestly don’t care if your neurosurgeon is a jerk.”  Now I admit that Mike Huckabee is a personable, often funny, natural, and authentic guy, sort of the un-Romney, even though I disagree with him on nearly every political idea he ever expressed including this one.  I disagree with this one so much that it’s been stuck in my head for the last three weeks. Reason? My own personal experience with jerky doctors

Most commentators, including Gail Collins of the New York Times, commented on the weird “damning with faint praise” aspect of that quote, since presumably Huckabee meant to praise (if faintly) our Presidential candiate, who has proven himself even more jerky this week by among other things commenting on an ongoing violent international crisis before knowing the facts, and by suggesting that a statement put out by the American Embassy in Cairo condemning a hate film undermined American values.  Coming from a man who would be President in a highly dangerous, complicated, and non-black-and-white world, this was so misguided and jerky in so many ways that I can’t possibly mention them all in a blog in which I want to comment on Huckabee’s medical analogy.  So for the moment, I’ll simply wonder why Romney, or anyone, thinks it’s not an American value to ALWAYS condemn hate speech, counsel calm, tolerance and compassion, and support the forces of tolerance, understanding, and compassion in every situation and society.  To me this is among the highest of human values.  More about that in my next blog.

So back to Huckabee’s analogy. After endlessly fussing I’ve finally shipped off my memoir, “How I Lost My Bellybutton and Other Naked Survival Stories, to my adorable new literary agent.  While I’ve met many amazing and wonderful doctors during all my medical woes, the memoir details my experiences with some incredibly jerky doctors, including my late son Michael’s neurologist and the surgeon I call only “Plastic Man” whom I encountered during my breast cancer experience.  I think their jerkiness made them less rather than more skilled, that’s for sure.  I won’t talk about the neurologist here, but Plastic Man was jerky mainly because he lacked compassion, and I suffered mightily at his hands, not because he isn’t or wasn’t a skilled cutter. I assume he is, he certainly has a good reputation on that score. But bedside manner? The man was rude, stiff, abrupt, aloof, childish, petulant, and defensive, and became even more so when I developed an infection and became quite sick.  As I detail in my memoir, his jerkiness may have increased because he was afraid of being sued.  This doesn’t excuse it, of course, and in any case research shows that doctors who tend to the doctor/patient relationship lessen their risk of being sued. This makes perfect sense, of course, since people tend to give back what they receive.  The most important thing is, he made my situation even worse than it probably had to be, thereby affecting his skill not just as a cutter but as a physician, who after all should be a healer.  I say this not just because I was terrified and needed reassurance when I was so weak and sick and vulnerable, but because if that surgeon had LISTENED to me, his patient, as a good compassionate, non-jerky physician would do, he might well have been able to spare me all or at least some of that suffering, both mental AND physical.

So I say yes, I guess I’d prefer a jerky surgeon who’s a skilled cutter to a compassionate, non-jerky surgeon who isn’t a skilled cutter, but like almost all things in life it isn’t (or shouldn’t be) an either-or, black-and-white choice.  Why wouldn’t we want physicians—and politicians, and filmmakers, and everyone else–to think of having compassion for the weak (ie non jerkiness), as an important part of their skill and to be BOTH compassionate AND skilled?  As Gandhi and others have said, “The measure of a civilization is in how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members.” Substitute the word “doctor” for “civilization” and “patient” for “member,” and I think you see how this applies to the medical situation on which Huckabee is commenting, in my view utterly incorrectly.

So here’s a survival tip I learned the hard way.  I put it in my (hopefully soon-to-be published) memoir, “How I Lost My Bellybutton, And Other Naked Survival Stories”:

Survival Tip #17:  Compassion and empathy aren’t luxuries for a doctor, they’re prerequisites. Especially if things go wrong or you’re really suffering and really need compassion and empathy. So if you have a choice, find one who has some.

Mr. Huckabee, I know your analogy was meant to suggest that Mr. Romney has the skill to fix the economy, thereby lifting all weak boats in the trickle-down sense, but I think that the weaker and more vulnerable the patient (or the citizen, for that matter), the more I need and want to be tended to with compassion rather than jerkiness.

Just Ask Me – She’s Pregnant, He Wants to Move–She Doesn’t

Originally published on The Daily Muse

Fran!

I really need some advice. I met my fiancé about two years ago and we got engaged on New Year’s Eve. I’m also eight months pregnant. Even though everything has been going so fast in our relationship and my life, I’m happy as can be.

We live in western Maryland, close to my family, and his family lives in southern Maryland, but he wants to move to Florida when our lease is up in December. He feels we would have a good life and more opportunities for our growing family. We have talked about moving, and I really want to, but I didn’t expect to move away so soon. I’d prefer to stay around here a little longer with my family, especially with my newborn.

I’m only 22 and he’s 24, and I’m just scared. I’ve tried explaining it and he doesn’t see what the big deal is. He said we will visit all the time, but I don’t see that happening. I don’t know what to say or do and I don’t want to fight about it. I just don’t think I’m ready to move! 

From,

Stressed and Scared

Dear Stressed and Scared,

Congratulations! This is a very exciting time for you, but, I’d also say it’s appropriate to be a little scared and stressed.

I’m not sure what to assume about the job situation if you’re giving birth next month, and your fiancé wants to pack you and the baby up and move to Florida because there are “more opportunities there.” Does that mean that neither of you have a job right now, and he thinks he—or both of you—will be able to get jobs there, rather than where you are?

This is a key issue, because when the baby comes—wherever you live—someone is going to have to take care of him or her. So first, you have to decide mutually who’s going to do that. If you both have jobs now, are you planning to quit? Is he? Have you discussed this? One benefit to staying where you are is that your families might be able to help with the care of the baby.

Next, it worries me that you say you don’t want to “fight” about this. Does that mean that you don’t think you have the right to express your opinion or concerns? Or that you’ve tried in the past to express yourself, about this or other matters, and found that it always turns into a fight? Does he always dismiss your concerns as “no big deal?” Have you gotten into a pattern of swallowing your feelings about important matters like this just because you don’t want to “fight?”

The truth is, conflict in a marriage is going to occur. A mature, healthy, lasting relationship requires negotiation, mutual respect, and compromise, and there is no need to fear fighting if you learn, practice, and implement fighting “fair.”

I think it’s important that you and your fiancé sit down and really sort this out. Here are some basic “fighting fairly” rules to review before you begin:

1. Be Honest With Yourself

It is essential that you understand your own feelings before you can begin to resolve any conflict. Many women are stressed and scared when they’re pregnant, and adding a move (particularly one away from family) to that is understandably overwhelming. Be honest with your fiancé when you confess your struggles, pain, and insecurities. Let him know what you’re going through so he can have the opportunity to support you.

2. Speak Quietly

No yelling. When you yell, your partner only hears you yelling, not the content of what you’re saying. This doesn’t mean that you can’t express your opinion passionately, but remember that the louder your words, the less you’ll be heard.

3. Discuss the Issue, Not Each Other

Name-calling, character assassination, cursing, insults, threats, or accusations—even as a so-called “joke”—are strictly forbidden. Stay on-topic and remember that your goal is to reach a solution to the issue at hand.

4. Use “I” Statements

Rather than saying “You always…” or “You never…” stick with something like, “I fear that if we move to Florida, such-and-such will happen,” instead. Remember that you are the expert on how you feel and he is the expert on how he feels. Neither of you should be dismissive of the other.

5. Listen Carefully

When one of you speaks, the other should focus on really listening, not just planning a rebuttal. Remind yourself not to interrupt while the other person is speaking. You might even try the “mirroring” technique and each of you try to repeat what the other says verbatim to be certain that you are hearing each other.

6. Keep it Private

Don’t bring up your parents’ or friend’s opinions, or ask for his friend’s and family’s thoughts. The two of you are the ones who are in this relationship and parents to this child. It’s important that the two of you bind together and unite. Auntie Em’s dislike of Florida is irrelevant when it comes to what’s best for your new, and growing, family.

7. Take Timeouts, if Necessary

If either of you finds you’re raising your voice or getting angry, walk away, take some deep breaths and calm things down. This is a serious discussion, and it’s going to get passionate. But you need to take steps to ensure that you’re not getting overly amped up and losing sight of the matter, or impeding your own ability to discuss it civilly.

8. Look at Each Other

Keep the setting for this conversation casual and comfortable. Make it so you can really engage each other. Look your fiancé in the eyes when you talk, and do the same when you’re listening. Hold hands and stay physically connected.

9. Fight for a Solution, Not to Win 

This is important. In the end, you don’t need to win the argument or be right. You need to come up with an answer that’s going to be the best thing for you, your soon-to-be husband, and your baby. If the word “fight” comes to mind, think about it as fighting for your family.

As you start to hash things out this way, you may find some sort of a compromise beginning to take shape. Perhaps your fiancé will agree to put off the move for a while and you can revisit the discussion after the baby comes. Maybe he will agree to have a job lined up before you move. Truth be told, after your fiancé sees how stressful and exhausting it is to take care of a newborn—the sleepless nights, the constant attention, the strain it puts on a relationship—he may be more amenable to staying put for a while, rather than adding more stress with a move into the unknown right away.

And, I do think you’re right that it’s unrealistic to think that you’ll be making a lot of visits to your families in Maryland after you move to Florida. And so as a final note, I would add to my list of things a mature relationship requires are realistic solutions to problems, not wishful thinking or denial of reality. I’m not sure what to tell you to do if your fiancé continues to refuse to hear your point of view and insist it’s no big deal.

Whatever solution you come up with to the current disagreement, I wish you the best of luck. And for the moment, congratulations. Cherish that wonderful bundle of joy!

Fran