You Are What You … or The Disaster of Partial Truth

Bridge to nowhere
Picture from Life of Pix at pexels.com

We recently bought a bottle of Bragg’s Organic Coconut Liquid Aminos. It’s listed ingredients include organic coconut blossom nectar, distilled water, organic apple cider vinegar, and sea salt. Some nutrition writers report that coconut blossom nectar is said to have a low glycemic index, compared to regular sugar. As usual, there is some disagreement among writers about this. 

Of course, Bragg’s Coconut Liquid Aminos also give you amino acids. Amino acids combine to form proteins, and proteins play an essential role in most biological processes. In other words, they keep you alive. However, the total protein count for a serving of Bragg’s Coconut Aminos is 0. So don’t count on it to add to your muscle mass.

Nevertheless, there are two things we love about these liquid aminos. The first is that they make any vegetable or grain taste delicious. When added to a soup made from various combinations of vegetables, the soup goes from okay to fantastic. It’s one of the best ways to eat your vegetables. 

The label suggests various foods to season with their coconut liquid aminos:

  • Salads and Dressings
  • Soups
  • Veggies
  • Potatoes
  • Casseroles
  • Poultry
  • Fish
  • Tofu
  • Tempeh
  • Rice and beans
  • Wok & stir-frys
  • Macrobiotics
  • Meats
  • Gravies and sauces
  • Even Popcorn
  • Also makes a delicious broth

Below this list, they include the Bragg Health Motto: 

You are what you Eat, Drink, Breathe, Think, Say, and Do! 

This is what we love most about Bragg’s Organic Coconut Liquid Aminos. 

When promoting a particular product, most companies focus only on what serves their campaign. Most people, including politicians, store staff, professionals, friends, families, and neighbors also tend to only include whatever serves their particular point of view. 

Examples: 

  • Dietitians tell us, You are what you eat.
  • Cognitive psychologists say, You are what you think and believe.
  • Strict behaviorists say, Your are what you do.
  • Some motivational speakers and parents say, You become who you associate with.
  • Other motivational speakers say, You are who you think you are.
  • An inspirational speaker says, You become who you dream you are.
  • Yet another motivational speaker might say, You are what you settle for.
  • Overly controlling parents might say, You are who I say you are.
  • A music promoter or preacher might say, You are what or who you listen to.
  • A librarian might say, You are what you read.
  • People who say, It is what it is, might also say, You are who you are.
  • Lovers say, The moonlight becomes you.

As exemplified by the above, much of what we have been taught (through formal education, reading, and talking with others) contains partial truths. Partial truth isn’t bad, and it can be quite practical. You can’t cover everything in one textbook or lecture. We humans are often most effective when taking things apart and analyzing individual components or factors.

The problem is that many people who embrace a perfectly good partial truth, promote it as the full and only truth. Partial truths presented this way can have disastrous results.

But Bragg is not afraid to go beyond their niche, to be more inclusive of reality. One might argue they have left out some important factors that contribute to who we are. For instance, most would agree that our DNA is a huge factor in who we are. It’s one of the main things that distinguish us from turtles. 

However, instead of dwelling on other elements they might have included, We’d again like to commend them for their attempt to include more than what serves their product and financial bottom line.  

We will be exploring the dangers of partial truth presented as complete and absolute truth in future posts. Until then, try Bragg’s Organic Coconut Liquid Aminos and eat a lot of vegetables.*

*Disclosure: We do not have an affiliate association with Bragg. Maybe we should. 

 

Benefits of Mindfulness Practice: Our Experience

Woman practicing mindfulness by a pond

In this post, we will review the benefits of mindfulness that we (the authors) have experienced. Understand that these are our subjective, interior experiences, although some benefits we mention also refer to our outward, observable behavior—observable to both us and others.

Mindfulness practice has helped us see life events with more clarity and insight, which generally makes things a little easier. In his book, The Wise Heart, Jack Kornfield talks about the different layers of feeling and emotion. There is a primary layer that is either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, which is always there and is the very first thing that presents itself in a situation. Then it’s layered with the secondary emotions of fear, anger, happiness, joy, sadness, and so on. So one way to be mindful is first to be aware if you are, at this very moment, feeling pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Then drill down to a more specific emotion: are you feeling afraid, angry, happy, joyous, sad, blah, or …. After practicing this for a while, we have begun to feel a bit more like an observer of these emotions and less defined by them. So it becomes more like, “I am not angry; I feel anger flowing through me right now.”

In creating this space, mindfulness allows us to better separate our emotions from the actual aspects of whatever is going on now. Our feelings are undoubtedly important, and if we are not fully aware of how they tie into the situation, we can be consumed by them in a way that that is not beneficial and that can prolong and exacerbate an already challenging situation.

In this way, mindfulness allows us to see the bigger picture by pulling us out of our narrow little viewfinder and expanding our vision to include more of the actual elements happening in the situation. It can help us see those things for what they are rather than just our emotionally interpreted version. Of course, we still see that emotionally interpreted version, which is necessary to function with our full humanity. But mindfulness has helped us to (usually) see more than that. And we believe both versions are needed to be fully human. And as we said, it just makes things easier.

One of the most important benefits we’ve gotten from mindfulness practice is cultivating and increasing a sense of self-trust. Trusting I have the ability not to just get through whatever the situation is but to discover and acknowledge what meanings and purposes might be behind it, even in the most excruciating and challenging of circumstances. The saying, “It’s not what happens to you but how you choose to respond to it” is applicable here. Challenges are inevitable, but suffering is in some ways optional. If you are not aware of what is really happening in the situation, your emotions, your automatic judgments and reactions; it is easy to get lost or stuck into already challenging circumstances. In that way, you are creating or at least contributing to your own suffering on top of what is actually already happening. Mindfulness plays a key part in helping us be more aware of the above aspects, which can significantly lessen the suffering we often pile on top of things.

Mindfulness practice has allowed us to create more space to respond in ways that will benefit everyone involved. Rather than being stuck into old loops or patterns of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, which might have been helpful or necessary at one point in our lives but no longer serve a useful purpose, it provides a space to consider novel responses. It gives us more control over our reactions to any situation that occurs. It transfers control from our automatic conditioned mind while giving back to us the gift of our capacity to make fully human choices.

Many of us often succumb to the idea and feeling that, “I can’t control what happens in my life, I just have to let it happen,”  Although that is true to an extent, we have a lot more say about what happens than we give ourselves credit for and permission to act on. Mindfulness practice helps us be more aware of both our own and others’ subjective (interior) and the objective (exterior) aspects of situations so that we more clearly and fully see what is going on. When we are not full of judgment and criticism and can clearly see many ways to view a situation, we are more effective problem solvers. Relationships with others become easier. You learn to trust yourself and your instincts. You become more aware of your limits and boundaries. You are better (but still not perfectly) able to discern your own role in difficulties, what you can change, and what you cannot.

A continued mindfulness practice makes it difficult not to acknowledge the impermanence of all things. To recognize the impermanence of all things is good news and bad news. Of course, most of us want good things to stick around forever and bad things to be extremely temporary. We become more aware that good things are going to happen and crappy things are going to happen. That’s just how it is. We learn not to fight it so much but allow these things to come and go. We learn to give them some space so we can observe them and not always get sucked into them. But we also know we will get sucked in sometimes. However, mindfulness has also helped us allow ourselves to be pushed out quickly after getting sucked in.

Mindfulness has aided us to be more of an observer in our own lives when appropriate. That doesn’t mean we participate less. It means we are more able to consciously, rather than automatically, choose if and how we engage. We believe that the more mindful we are while doing something, the more of our true self is present. We are less distracted and bombarded and believe we are able to present our fuller, more authentic self in any situation. And that feels good. Even in a crisis situation, you can bring your best to it. You can be more an observer of your own life. It makes life little more relaxed and more fulfilling. You can get some cool stuff done.

Forgiveness also seems easier after starting a mindfulness practice. It might take a while. You begin to realize the connectedness between and among all things. Of course, you can still see things as separate, but at the same time, you understand how things impact each other. This can increase your sense of gratitude as well as your empathy for others. This leads to an increased ability to forgive and just let stuff go.

It seems to us that so many people are hell-bent on acquiring and holding on to things and will do almost anything not to lose something. As emotional attachment deepens, fear of loss increases, along with the sorrow and pain that come from both our imagined and actual losses.  For us, a final benefit of mindfulness practice has been at least a partial antidote to this dis-ease of modern society.

Freedom, Goals, and Butterflies

During this time of year, there are many reminders on social media about setting goals and resolutions. After establishing a goal, specific action steps are needed to get from the start to the finish—reaching your goal.

As I sit in our open living room on the side of a mountain above the small town of El Valle, Panama, there are few signs of the Christmas spirit, although the occasional sounds of firecrackers anticipate the new year. When we walk into town, the Christmas decorations remind me it is December, despite the blooming jungle flora and balmy temperatures.

The Four Stages of the Butterfly’s Life Cycle

We have been raising Monarch butterflies for several months and today was a special day in our butterfly world. We were vigilant enough to witness the release of a newborn butterfly from its chrysalis.

As I photographed the various stages to chronicle the Monarch’s growth to freedom, I found myself thinking about the steps involved in achieving our own goals of freedom.

The butterfly’s phenomenally rapid growth and metamorphosis have distinct stages that progress in a specific sequence. First, a Monarch butterfly deposits an egg on the underside of the leaf of a milk thistle plant. Apparently, no other plant will do. In a few days, a tiny, almost invisible caterpillar emerges from the egg. The caterpillar begins voraciously eating the leaves of the milk thistle plant and nearly doubles in size every day. In a little over a week, the plump, one to two-inch caterpillar morphs into a chrysalis. The lime green chrysalis, with a narrow band of metallic gold near the top, starts to darken in about week. As it begins to darken, you can start to see the pattern of its wings through the wall of the chrysalis. As the outside wall begins to transform from an opaque black to transparent, you can clearly see colorful details of its wings. Without warning, the butterfly quickly drops down from its transparent casing. It takes several hours for the monarch’s body and wings to dry; it then begins to flap its wings. The Monarch is ready for its maiden flight.

Young Caterpillar

Maturing Caterpillars

Chrysalis

Mature Chrysalis

Emerging Butterfly

Conditions Necessary for Butterfly Survival & Development

I have learned a great deal both from internet research and watching the development of our butterflies. Some conditions are necessary for the butterfly’s development while others impede it. For instance, before they emerge as a butterfly, they need a specific plant to eat, proper temperature, and humidity. Eating milk thistle leaves not only provides the energy necessary for growth and development but also helps them create an odor and taste which is repugnant to would-be predators. Since our temperature in Panama varies little from day-to-day and season-to-season, there is little to worry about on this front. However, during the dry season (December through March), I mist the chrysalis with water to keep them healthy and developing properly.

The primary problem our second batch of caterpillars experienced was their dwindling food supply. Doubling your size daily requires a lot of milk-thistle leaves, which we did not have. After numerous inquiries, I learned that a local pumpkin-like squash might serve as an alternate food source. It worked! All of these caterpillars survived and emerged into butterflies. However, they appeared less vigorous and colorful than the first group, which ate only milk-thistle leaves.

Since caterpillars are vulnerable to predators, I remove the caterpillars when I first see them on a milk thistle leaf and put them on a plant inside an enclosure. They stay in the enclosure until they emerge as adult butterflies. Although I believe that some butterflies would have made it without my intervention, I have had a 100 percent success rate in nurturing them from caterpillar to adult.

What do Butterflies have to do with Goal Setting and Achievement?

As I mentioned above, watching the process of the Monarch going from stationary egg to an adult butterfly in free flight, got me thinking about our own process toward freedom. The first step in our freedom process was to sell our house, pay off our debts, and give away over 90 percent or what we owned—like the butterfly leaving it’s Chrysalis behind, except we had more luggage. We went from full-time working and home repairing and selling to having no specified agenda for the day. I remember that after waking on our second day in Central America, we both realized that it was the first day since kindergarten that we had nothing in particular to do and no specific place to go. Although our transition seemed remarkable, it was child’s play compared to the Monarch’s metamorphosis.

Our shedding process only truly began after Rick and I had committed to the goal of putting ourselves in the position to travel and live wherever we wanted to in the world. We knew the only way we could do this was by selling our house and most of our belongings. Our two daughters had finished graduate school, obtained their masters in social work, and were employed social workers.

We had never before, in our thirty-year marriage, created a mutual goal that required such complex planning and execution. We started with a yellow legal pad and began writing the primary objectives and the numerous steps, as well as the timelines involved. We met weekly to go over our progress and our individual and mutual tasks for the next week. We met our deadline for selling and moving out of the farmhouse, as well as clearing out and clearing up all aspects of Rick’s solo psychology practice.

What We Did Not Realize

A recent article by James Clear discussed that in setting goals, we should, “Rather than considering what kind of success we want, we should ask, ‘What kind of pain do I want?’” After reading this, I realized that Rick and I had not nearly as thoroughly considered the pain we might feel during the process, as we did the feelings of success, satisfaction, and freedom we would feel when we reached our goals. In part, this may have a blessing. If we had realized how much work and anxiety the process would bring, we might not have started.

However, if we had better thought through the struggle and pain that might be involved, we would likely have planned the process differently and would have been better prepared for the emotional upheaval of actually reaching our goals. Instead, we found ourselves in an emotional whirlwind during the ten-days that we transitioned from Kansas to Central America. The climax of this experience found us in a large Atlanta mall on Black Friday. Rick was going through a panic attack, sitting in a corner of the AT&T store, while I burst out crying as the representative asked what she could do for me. The mall experience also contained an almost magical healing episode that we would not have wanted to miss and is a story for another day. Still, we could have better planned for pain.

Just for the record, we now believe that considering both the feelings of success and the pain necessary to get there, is a critical part of goal setting. We also would not frame it as how much pain we want, but how much we are willing to take on.

Getting Out of Our Own Way

As we watch the butterflies go from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult butterfly, the process seems effortless. The caterpillar spins a small sticky web so that, as a chrysalis, it can hang down from a leaf or the netted top of their enclosure. Gravity then plays a part in the butterfly’s emergence. Sometimes the leaf may dry up and fall off the plant after the Chrysalis has attached. One Chrysalis fell to the bottom of the enclosure. I was not successful in helping it connect again or even remain upright. Even after falling from the leaf and staying horizontal, the Chrysalis emerged right on time as a beautiful and healthy Monarch.

Every caterpillar I’ve collected and brought to the enclosure has morphed into a healthy butterfly, despite the obstacles mentioned above. We have released about 40 butterflies so far with another 15 caterpillars and chrysalises on their way.

Both Rick and I have become somewhat envious of the natural unfolding of the Monarch. Even when confronted by obstacles, the Monarch finds a way to continue its development without appreciable delay.

One of our goals for 2018, was to publish our book How To Bring Out The Best In Others: Finding Joy in Your Relationships With Others, Yourself, And The World. Although we are in the final stages of editing the book, at best we will actually publish it in early to mid-January 2019. Along the way, we have encountered many unexpected obstacles. We blame our rather primitive technological skills and all the things we have needed to learn about book publishing and marketing for slowing us down. We had never heard, before 2018, the terms keywords, opt-ins, landing page, etc.

However, looking back, it now seems that we have mostly gotten in our own way by feeling overwhelmed, distracted, regretful, unenthusiastic, directionless, scared, anxious, and under-zealous at times. Thoughts of “Who are we to be doing this?” and “We need to get this perfect,” among countless other thoughts have contributed. In short, our cognitive processes that drive both our thoughts and emotions, while necessary for all aspects of writing, publishing, and marketing the book, have also undermined our goals concerning the book.

On the other hand, you can get in your own way, only when you are going somewhere or at least headed in a particular direction. We have persisted, albeit rather slowly at times. Also, we recognize that our own growth and metamorphosis—both individually and as a couple–have come as we worked through frustration, doubt, and the variety of challenges listed above.

Our butterflies do not second guess themselves. They progress from one transformation to another, likely without self-consciousness. They surrender to the natural rhythms of their bodies. They adapt when things don’t go quite right. They don’t draw up a flight plan. They just fly.

A few days ago, Rick had taken a newly emerged butterfly out of the enclosure. It stayed on his hand and arm longer than usual. As it flew from his hand, it glided to the floor of our open-air living room. It tried to fly several times, would elevate a foot or two, and then plunge back to the floor. It was getting near the side of the living room and near a ten-foot drop to the driveway. We watched as it neared the edge and then went off it. We hurriedly looked over the edge to see it rise again and fly to a nearby orange tree.

Our New Plan of Planning and Goal Setting

After reflecting on our Central America plan, our ongoing butterfly experience, and reading Clear’s article, we are changing our planning and goal setting process. We had a clear and easily identifiable goal of leaving Kansas and living in Central America. We set specific timelines. We also understood the major objectives we needed to complete to manifest that goal. These objectives included selling our house, getting rid of most of our stuff, closing Rick’s practice, and tying up other loose ends such as getting passports. We wrote down and set up timelines for the specific tasks necessary to complete these primary objectives.

Our goal of writing a book was less thought out. At some point, we realized that the sole aim of writing a book was basically meaningless. We began to realize we wanted others to read it and this would involve marketing and selling it. These goals opened up territories we knew nothing about. We are now defining our book goals as objectively and precisely as we did our intention of leaving Kansas and our former lifestyle. We now have a better grasp of the significant objectives involved in reaching these goals, as well as the specific tasks necessary to achieve them. With the help of Connie Ragen Green, we have a much better idea of what we need to do in the next several months, and what we need to continue and refine from there. It’s back to the yellow pad and timelines.

Clear’s article has helped us see that as we define our goals explicitly, we need to consider how much pain (using the word loosely) we are willing to experience. More accurately, how much and for how long?

Lastly, we are incorporating lessons the butterflies are teaching us. Their primary teaching for us now is to be less impeded by our emotional, self-talk, and real-world obstacles. They have given us an excellent model for quickly doing what we can to move beyond these obstructions and flying off the deep end.

How To Enjoy Holiday Dinner Conversations

Holiday Dinner by Lilly Cantabile
Holiday Dinner by Lilly Cantabile

The holiday season is approaching, awakening a variety of emotions. During the holidays we tend to emphasize spending time with family and friends. This can be both joyful and draining, sometimes simultaneously. Holiday dinner conversations can bring out family warmth and/or conflict.  

You may be hosting get-togethers of family and friends or you may be attending these gatherings. Read on for ideas and suggestions, whether you plan to be in either or both roles during the holidays. For many of us, being with a group of friends often seems easier, with less potential for arguments and ruffled feathers. This makes sense because we get to choose our friends and it is usually easier to disconnect from them, compared to family. Although this post is primarily concerned with family gatherings, some of these suggestions could apply to any type of small to mid-sized get-togethers.

Consider Your Own Expectations and Intent 

Whether you are the host or an attendee to a family party, it is important to consider your own intent and expectations. You may be primarily wanting to celebrate, enjoy, and have a pleasantly memorable time with your family. On the other hand you may have a burning to desire to have spirited discussions about subjects you know to be controversial within your family, want to share news about yourself or views you have that may have a mixed reception, or see this as an opportunity to “help” a family member with a problem or issue you believe they have yet to handle in a satisfactory manner. Of course, you may have some of both types of expectations and intents.  

My view is that family holiday dinners and gatherings should be celebrations of our mutual connections, not forums for debating issues that are likely to be controversial. It is not the place to counsel your sister concerning the unwise and self-sabotaging choices you feel she has been making or to try to change your brother’s ridiculous and dangerous political views. It is a time to focus on what you enjoy and appreciate about each other and engage in mutually fun and satisfying activities. Since everybody likes to eat and many family dinners offer wide choices of food where everyone is likely to be satisfied, these type of family functions already have a built-in enjoyable communal centerpiece. It may also be helpful that it’s hard to talk with your mouth full. 

I am not saying that there is never a time and place to have the second type of interactions with family members. You may have significant concerns about a family member’s behavior and choices. Approaching them individually after you have reinforced your connection with them at a family gathering is likely to have greater impact. You might arrange one-to-one time with them, perhaps over dinner or during/after some activity like tennis, shopping, or a movie. If you live far apart, arranging for an extended phone call might be best. (As a side note, I strongly recommend not to air your concerns on social media.) However, realize that some changes take time and repeated discussions may be needed. I’d recommend that you first engage your relative by thoroughly listening as openly as possible and at length to their views about the situation before offering your own advice or viewpoint. Our forthcoming book, Bringing Out The Best In Others, provides in-depth information about this and other communication skills. Still, I’d like you to think carefully about taking this step. You may decide that continuing your loving and supportive relationship with that person outweighs the risk of seriously damaging the relationship by bringing up your concerns about her behaviors or airing potentially controversial views.  

For The Host

Even if you agree with me that family holiday time should be filled with celebration and sharing, conflicts can come up. If you are part of a family where it is not uncommon for tense conversations to occur, you may want to set up some ground rules and let people know about them before the event. Consider the following:

  • If spirited political/religious discussions are likely to become uncomfortable for at least some family members, consider setting up a caucus room (with a door) as the only place that these types of discussions are allowed. People can come and go as they wish. Family members not interested in talking about politics can simply avoid the room.
  • As a host, you may want to talk with some or all family members before the celebration. If you feel the need, you may want to ask for suggestions and/or share your ground rules. My father loved to bring up politics and religion at family dinners, often dominating the conversation. When his older sister would host a family dinner, she directly told my father that she would not allow this. She also mentioned this to other family members that were coming. As a result, the conversations were pleasant and included everyone. 
  • The host can also explain the use of a talking implement, whether utilized in the caucus room or in other areas. For controversial conversations, a talking utensil, such as a turkey baster or Christmas ornament, might be used. The person holding the turkey baster is allowed to talk without interruption. When finished, the person passes the baster on to the next person desiring to talk. This procedure reminds others to listen to the speaker without interrupting. This only works when family members are willing to share the baster and not soliloquize until others start snoring or screaming. 
  • Strategic arrangement of seating placements at the dinner table can be helpful at times. If you know specific relatives tend to be argumentative, do not have them seated directly across from or next to each other.
  • What do you do about the relative that seems to love to stir things up with controversial and critical comments? If you have set up ground rules and they are being ignored and interaction becomes argumentative, you can request that they save the conversation for the caucus room. If you have not set up prior ground rules, use your authority as the host to request that this conversation be taken up after dinner. The host could also try to redirect the conversation, perhaps by telling a joke, asking people what they want for dessert, or any diversion you can think of.
  • Many families have structured activities such as sports, card games, board games, and charade-type games during family events. The more time people are engaged in these activities and enjoying each other, the less likelihood of conflict.
  • If excessive alcohol has been a contributing factor in past unpleasant family get-togethers, be mindful of the alcohol flow prior to and during dinner. The host may need to devise some way to control alcohol use, perhaps including this in the ground rules. Alcohol may have more dramatic effects with an empty stomach than a full stomach, so paying attention to the alcohol flow before dinner might be most important. 

For Those Attending

Some family members may become argumentative, make critical comments, or ask loaded questions despite everyone else’s attempt to keep the peace. Consider the following to help keep things from escalating to unpleasant exchanges. The first two points offer things you could do proactively, that might avoid conflict, while the remaining points cover ideas if the situation becomes challenging for you.

  

  • Use this family time to strengthen your connection with others. This often involves demonstrating you really care about them. Emphasizing areas of differences and disagreement seldom reinforces your bond with others.
  • Ask questions that reflect your interest in the person’s life and well-being. Elicit personal stories of what they and their immediate family have been up to since you last saw them. Talk about what you’ve been doing.
  • Ignore any “little digs” whenever possible. Responding will likely escalate things.
  • Arguing back and defending your position only adds fuel to the fire. Instead of focusing on the content, pay attention to the feelings and emotions being expressed. Acknowledging the feelings of the speaker can help them to feel understood and to calm down. You don’t need to agree with what the other person is saying but you can hear and identify what emotion they’re having. You might respond, “You sound angry to me. I understand that it must be infuriating to you.” or “I understand. It seems like you feel hurt.” Focusing on another’s feelings is not about facts or your opinions. When a person feels understood they are likely to calm down and lessen their argumentative or abrasive tone. 
  • If you feel you have to disagree with something, say it respectfully and move on. 
  • If some family members persist in talking about controversial social/political/religious issues, you might look for areas of mutual concern and distress and try to direct the focus of the conversation on these aspects. When people have significant differences about the causes and solutions to specific problems, they can often agree about their concern and worry about the issue in general. Remember, you can also excuse yourself to the bathroom when these types of conversations come up. 
  • Use your sense of humor. If things do get a bit over-the-top, think of the stories you can tell your friends.

Excellent additional suggestions concerning family conversations can be found at https://www.livingroomconversations.org/friends-and-family-guide/

We have just found a fun interactive bot that you can use to practice conversations with either your ultra liberal or conservative relatives. Try it out!

Productive Internet Conversations Across the Cultural Divide: Lessons from Sara Silverman’s Interview with a Former Hate Group Member

Recently Sheila and I watched the season premiere of Sarah Silverman’s Hulu show, I Love You America. Although there were several shocking moments, for us the most amazing segment was Sarah’s interview with Megan Phelps-Roper.

Flashback to Friday Evening, November 11, 2011

On a cool fall evening, Sheila and I parked across the street from the Bethel College campus in Newton, Kansas. We were walking toward Krehbiel Auditorium, located at the Luyken Fine Arts Center. Both of our daughters, Amy and Sara, were attending college at Bethel and we were going to meet them at the auditorium to watch the production, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.

The play centers around the local reaction to the murder of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay freshman at the University of Wyoming. On the night of October 6, 1998, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson drove Matthew into the country, tied him to a wooden fence, and savagely pistol-whipped him. The next day he was found, still alive, by a cyclist. Matthew died at a Fort Collins hospital on October 12, 1998, from severe head injuries he had received from the two men.

Sheila and I had learned there was going to be a protest of the play by the Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka, Kansas. The church was led by Fred Phelps until his death in 2014. The church announced its protest in a November 7, 2011, news release, which began, “WBC to picket The Laramie Project, a fag propaganda play about Matt Shepard (in hell for 13 years now), in religious protest & warning: Friday, November 11, from 6:45 to 7:30 p.m. Krehbiel Auditorium, Bethel College.”

Included in the news release, the church promoted a number of websites, including www.GodHatesTheMedia.com, www.GodHatesIslam.com, www.BeastObama.com, www.JewsKilledJesus.com, www.GodHatesTheWorld.com, www.GodHatesFags.com, and www.PriestsRapeBoys.com. This alone should give you a pretty good idea of the variety of messages the Westboro Baptist Church chooses to convey. Although many of these websites appear to have vanished from the web, we found that www.GodHatesFags.com is still up and spewing, along with a sister blog site.

On the way to the play, we walked near the protesters, a group of four or five, holding up signs similar to the ones pictured below. The police prevented us from getting close enough to interact with them. We later learned that the Gay-Straight Alliance had planned to give out hot chocolate to the protestors but were prevented from doing so by the North Newton Police, who were keeping others separated from the protestors.

After the play, we attended a group discussion concerning the play and the protest, sponsored by the campus coffee shop.

Although we don’t know if Megan was one of the protestors at North Newton that evening, we do know she participated in a number of similar protests.

Sarah’s Interview with Megan Phelps-Roper

Sarah asked why Megan thought the Westboro Baptist Church was often considered a hate group. Megan replied, “We did a lot of things that seemed hateful to a lot of people. We believed that it was loving. We thought that loving our neighbor was going to warn them of the consequences of their sins. But we did things like we celebrated 911, Hurricane Katrina, and every sort of human tragedy. We protested at funerals. We did it because we thought that was the definition of love.”

After Megan was put in charge of social media for the church, she started interacting with others on Twitter. She explained that at first she put out a lot of hostile and provocative messages and got similar messages back. Then she started having extended conversations on Twitter with a small group of people. She noted that being on the picket line did not allow these types of prolonged interaction with others. Megan continued, “People got to know me and I got to know them and we got to see that neither of us—neither side was the monstrous image that we had had in our head.” These people responded to her in more understanding ways, trying to make sense of her point of view. Then they started to gently challenge her by saying they understood how she was trying to follow some things you read in the Bible, but wondering if she had considered how their picket lines and signs made others feel.

Megan commented during the interview that in the church they were taught from a young age not to care about or even consider the feelings and thoughts of others. The group actually carried a protest sign that read, “God hates your feelings”. This was sign was directed at the families attending the funerals of their children who had been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Substantiating Megan’s comments we found the following on the current Westboro Baptist Church’s (WBC) website in a sidebar labeled Numbers:

  • 6970 – soldiers that God has killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    0 – nanoseconds of sleep that WBC members lose over your opinions and feeeeellllliiiiiings.

Through these extended online conversations, Megan began to open to different perspectives. One particularly persistent conversant later became her husband.

Megan pointed out one important thing she believed others should know: “I think that extremists, generally are not psychopaths. They’re not—they’re psychologically normal people who have been persuaded by bad ideas. And we can’t just expect to isolate these people and hope that those ideas will just fade into oblivion.”

Discussion

Although many would agree the Westboro Baptist Church has taken their rhetoric and other actions to the extreme, the cultural divide that appears to be affecting a majority of Americans has been brewing for a number of years. This divide which has partially expressed itself as being either for or against the current and past two or three presidents seems to be gathering steam. However, we also see evidence of an increasing cultural divide in other nations.

When I look at discussions of opposing viewpoints on Facebook, I rarely see respectful discourse and any attempt to better understand the other person’s perspective. Instead, I often see terse and provocative one-sentence comments or questions which seem designed to disturb and inflame others.

I also have gotten into the somewhat crazy habit of reading internet comments to news articles and YouTube videos. Almost every reply to someone who disagrees consists of disrespectful jabs and inventive name-calling. I suspect the anonymity the reviewers feel, unlike the more public Facebook posts, leads to nastier behavior. Although I have not done a truly scientific statistical analysis, the name-calling and disrespectful attitudes seem to be about equal with readers on both sides of the issue.

I wonder if the people who post these comments are really trying to change anybody else ’s opinion/belief, or just enjoy blowing off steam. One person, who was posting short provocative statements, was sincerely asked by another poster why they were doing this. The person replied that they enjoyed throwing hand grenades in a crowded room, just to see what happens. Although I don’t personally agree this is a great motive for posting, I do think the person was honestly answering the question. They also showed some degree of self-awareness that is seldom shown with online comments and posts. Or maybe it was just a joke.

In any case, Megan makes a good point that either ignoring or responding in kind to provocative and down-right mean behavior solves nothing. I believe this behavior just ups the intensity and animosity among people on both sides of the cultural divide.

We need to figure out how to initiate or respond differently. I believe that many do write off the authors of differing viewpoints as psychopaths, uninformed, having low IQs, or just evil/sinful people. As Megan pointed out, even viewing the extreme of the extreme this way is not helpful and may be inaccurate.

As we have written in our forthcoming book, How To Bring Out The Best In Others: Finding Joy In Your Relationships With Others, Yourself, And The World, given the seemingly increasing cultural divide, some are predicting a civil war; We are calling for a new level of civil discourse. We believe that following the practices in our book can promote civil discourse and mutual understanding.  However, we realize this can be extremely hard to do with extremists. Yet, Megan’s story shows that it can be done.

The model implied in Sarah’s interview with Megan (and somewhat tilted by my own viewpoint) suggests responding respectfully and non-defensively with an intent to better understand the other person’s perspective. After some human connection is made, explaining one’s own viewpoint and perhaps gently challenging the other person has a better chance of healing the divide, compared to most of what we are now seeing.

I know that for many people tolerance of intolerance is intolerable. I know a number of wonderful people who can accept all sorts of differences of opinions and beliefs. They can fully accept others who have beliefs that they consider childish, ridiculous, or really far-out-there. “To each his/her own.” But it becomes nearly impossible when it comes to people who exercise those beliefs in ways that appear to exclude and hurt others. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

So what can you do? One thing is to realize that the people with polar opposite beliefs and actions are as truly distressed about some of the same things as you are. I believe that Megan actually felt her prior actions with the church were the most loving thing to do. Although I’m not sure how her Twitter conversations helped her see a vastly different perspective, it is clear that intense intolerance of what others saw as her intolerance, was not the answer. The model given above is hopefully a starting point with a lot left to discover.

We will be exploring possible answers for as long as it takes. We invite your perceptions on this journey toward healing what divides us.  Let us hear from you about your ideas towards increasing greater openness to others with differing ideas.

Amazon’s Jack Ryan and Evidence of The Cultural Divide

by Rick Volweider

Introduction

Last Monday night I finished semi-binge watching Amazon’s new production of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. Following a recently formed habit, I then began reading some of the over 5,000 reviews of the eight-part series. As I read I began seeing manifestations of the cultural divide in the United States and other countries.  

Confirmation bias, which we discuss in our forthcoming book, Bring Out The Best In Others, is the tendency to only see what you already believe and to discount any evidence that doesn’t conform to what you believe. I believe the cultural divide is an increasing problem but I try to be vigilant about overestimating its frequency and intensity or seeing it where it does not exist. I sometimes find that I have been misled by my own confirmation bias.

For example, When I first read a sampling of the reviews it seemed to me that whether a person really liked the show (gave it a five-star review) or detested it (gave it a one-star review) was mostly determined by their position on pressing political, cultural and social issues. When I carefully reread these reviews I realized I had overestimated the impact these issues had on the ratings. In reality, there were a number of other reasons the reviewers gave for either liking or disliking the show. 

As of noon, Monday, September Third, 5006 reviews of the series, which premiered only three days earlier, had been posted on Amazon. 65 percent were five-star reviews, while 14 percent were one-star. I examined 34 five-star reviews and 76 one-star reviews. A majority of the reviewers who most disliked the series and gave it a one-star review commented that the series was not faithful to the books in portraying the main characters’ current qualities and circumstances as well as their backstories. Some of the one-star reviews did not like the profanity and scenes of sex and nudity. 

After careful analysis, about 30 percent of the five-star reviews and 20 percent of the one-star reviews were primarily based on apparent differences in social/cultural worldviews. 

A Sample of Five-Star Reviews That Appeared to be Based on Social/Cultural Perspectives 

Ten of the 34 five-star reviews that I read generally appreciated the complexity of the story and the characters. One said that the characters were not “black and white” and often walked in the “grey region”.  Another noted that “life is complicated” and they felt the story, while not trying to justify the actions of the characters, did ”give fair play to both sides of Jihadi versus the West conflict.”

A third reviewer noted that the series portrayed the bad guys as humans who sometimes questioned their own judgment. Another reviewer appreciated that the portrayal of the main terrorist was “a real extremist born of circumstances and desperation, not some 2-dimensional bad guy…” Another reviewer noted that the depth of terrorist character made his actions even more terrifying. 

A sixth, five-star commenter spoke about a subplot where a US drone pilot had killed an innocent man based on incorrect intelligence. The reviewer added, “It is a glimpse into the mental distress of military soldiers trying to do the right thing and accepting the consequences.” They also noted that this subplot showed how these actions affect families. 

A seventh reviewer acknowledged that others’ complaints about the show blurring who is good and who is bad were “spot on”.  They added, “The world is a nuanced place. One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.”  Another reviewer commented that others were complaining the series put a negative light on the consequences of US policies and actions. They agreed with this and added that US actions, along with those of other countries, against Muslim countries have led to bad side effects. They went on to say that there likely is no perfect policy that would not have unwanted side effects. 

A Sample of One-Star Reviews That Appeared to be Based on Social/Cultural Perspectives

I examined 76 one-star reviews and found 14 that appeared to base their disatisfaction on issues we might broadly refer to as the cultural divide. The other reasons for viewer dissatisfaction are given above. Below is a summary of the reviews that seemed to be related to the cultural divide. 

The first reviewer noted the show was “disgusting” and made America look like the main cause of the problems presented in the series. Another reviewer was “nauseated” by the guilty conscience of the drone pilot who was “ridding the world of murderous terrorists”. This reviewer did not mention that the drone pilot was mostly upset about killing a presumed innocent person due to the incorrect intelligence he had received. 

A third reviewer expressed that the series involved, “Liberal politics shoved down your throat at every turn.” Another reviewer seconded this thought by announcing the series was “leftist propaganda.” A third reviewer commented, “…Makes America out to be the bad guy once again, the creator of all evil.” They added that they were “weary” of media that made America the scapegoat for the evil done by people in the Middle East.  

A fourth reviewer called the series “AWFUL” and said,“The only relatable, human characters in the whole show” were the terrorists and their families.”  This reviewer also was upset by the depiction of the US drone pilot being “deeply wracked by guilt over killing Jihadists.”  Another viewer called the series, “Just leftist propaganda.” Another echoed, “PC propaganda disguised as a movie”. They added that there are sadly many who will watch the series and not see what was really going on.

A seventh, 1-star reviewer said that humanizing the terrorist was “garbage”. Another mockingly said that Muslims were “warm, family loving victims” of Western aggression; while US Intelligence and military were “riddled with self-doubt and guilt”. 

An ninth reviewer also called the show “political garbage” and “disgusting”. They added it was full of racism of white people and hatred for anything Western. The reviewer went on that the show portrayed white men as evil and stupid, Islamic men as heroes, all women as smarter and better than all men, and “other degenerate things.” 

A tenth reviewer wondered why Amazon would think a straight white man would want to spend money on a prime membership. Another reviewer was sick of the “uber-balanced” handling of the “Terrorist Threat”. They continued by expressing their dismay by the “excessive” time the series spent on “justifying” the “poor terrorist’s motivations”. The balance of these selected reviews basically expressed the same issues given above. 

Discussion

The Main Points

I have three main points I’d like you to consider. 

The first point is that we can find evidence of the current political/cultural/social divide all over the place if we are looking for it. As illustrated above, you can find strong evidence for it, even in reviews people write concerning a fictionalized TV series. I also clearly see them in the comments of readers and viewers of internet news stories. We will explore this further in subsequent posts. I challenge you to start looking and listening around for evidence of our cultural divide.

The second point is perhaps a caution concerning the first point. Once we begin looking for something in particular, we may start seeing it everywhere. Sometimes we might interpret it being there, when in reality, it is not there at all. More frequently we might exaggerate the number of occurrences of what we are looking for. As discussed at the beginning of this post, I initially did this concerning the cultural divide references in reviews of the Jack Ryan series.

The third point is that the viewer’s enjoyment and assessment of the series was partly determined by their political/social/cultural worldviews, as evidenced by their ratings.

A Short (but Important) Side Trip

During the 2012 election cycle, I became a bit obsessed watching political coverage on TV. I would switch back and forth from FOX to MSNBC. I often saw the same video clip, along with the host’s commentary, on both networks. I became fascinated how the various hosts’ descriptions and interpretations of the same video clip were significantly dissimilar. It often  seemed that they must have been talking about two completely different clips. I was both intrigued and disgusted by how easily I was drawn into one and then the other interpretation, which often expressed diametrically opposite viewpoints. These commentators were pros at their jobs.

In a similar way, while reading the various comments of Amazon’s Jack Ryan series, I often felt that the reviewers must have watched different shows. And in a sense, they had. 

Our preconceptions influence every experience we have. It is like we have formed circuits in our brains that filter raw sensations before we consciously perceive them. These filters magnify some data while completely ignoring other data. Instead of conforming to the popular phrase: I’ll believe it when I see it; our brains function more like: I’ll see it when I believe it. It’s not only that different people interpret the same events differently, they consciously perceive them differently. 

Operating with beginners mind—without preconceptionsis impossible for us mere mortals because we simply can’t remain a beginner for long. So what can we do to better see things as they are? The first step is to accept that these filters are operating in us all the time. A second step is to get more familiar with our own filters. We discussed this in our soon-to-be-published book, Bring Out The Best In Others and will address this in future blogs. We also hope you will join the conversation.

One Last Point

If you strongly react to how others “seethe same things so differently than you do, consider that you both are actually “seeing” or experiencing things differently because your preconceptions and filters are radically dissimilar. You might think you should be able to get the other person to see things your way by merely presenting them with the “true evidence”. But you soon find yourself perplexed, discouraged, and maybe even angry that they just don’t get it.

We think that the divergent ways that our conscious thoughts and life experiences have programmed our filters goes a long way in explaining the current political/cultural/social divide that many believe is increasing in the States as well as many other places in the world.   

Again, we hope you will join the conversation by commenting on this post. We plan on opening a more formal forum soon to facilitate discussions of these issues.