The Contagion of Sadness


 

Sadness is not contagious.  In our valiant efforts to be constructive and positive in a world full of difficulty, we can mistake avoiding the distress of others for a way of maintaining our own positivity.

Thanks to our mirror neurons and our natural empathy with other living creatures, encountering sadness most definitely touches us and can even make us feel upset.

But while avoiding the pain of others may momentarily make us feel better, it doesn’t really contribute to our own well-being – or even our own happiness.

Engaging with others in their suffering has an important place in our development as individuals and as societies.

The Charter for Compassion, founder, Karen Armstrong, has some interesting points to make about this subject.

In Buddhism, compassion (karuna) is defined as a determination to liberate others from their grief, something that is impossible if we do not admit to our own unhappiness and misery…It is, of course, important to encourage the positive, but it is also crucial sometimes to allow ourselves to mourn…Today there is often a degree of heartlessness in our determined good cheer, because if we simply tell people to be ‘positive’ when they speak to us of their sorrow, we may leave them feeling misunderstood and isolated in their distress.  Somebody once told me that when she had cancer, the hardest thing of all was her friends’ relentless insistence that she adopt a positive attitude; they refused to let her discuss her fears – probably because they were frightened by her disease and found it an uncomfortable reminder of their own mortality… (1)

Life is hard and trying to maintain a constructive and positive outlook is both necessary and challenging.  The distress of others will seldom prove to be a cause of unbearable suffering within ourselves.  Occasionally, someone else’s story may resonate so strongly with our own that we do feel pain – but that pain is not caused by anyone else’s pain, it is our own pain. It is already there and might just need an occasional remembrance if we are to maintain a mostly positive and constructive outlook.

There are consequences for us collectively, and as individuals, when we intentionally turn away from the pain we encounter.  We might believe we are better off because we have avoided any collateral sadness involved, but we may well have paid a very high price for this momentary comfort.

Because when we do this we lose something so important it isn’t worth the tiny gain – we lose not only an opportunity to bring comfort to another human being but also the strongest thread that can bring us to our own happiness – a connection to our personal suffering.  Without this connection we can’t offer compassion to ourselves and so, we will struggle with our quest for happiness, no matter how often we look the other way.

As Karen Armstrong puts it so beautifully,

…make a conscious effort to look back on the events that have caused you distress in the past…Make a deliberate effort to inhabit those moments fully and send a message of encouragement and sympathy to your former self.  The object of this exercise is not to leave you wallowing in self-pity.  The vivid memory of painful times past is a reservoir on which you can draw when you try to live according to the Golden Rule.*  By remembering your own sorrow vividly, you will make it possible for yourself to feel empathy with others. (2)

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*There are many variants of the Golden Rule but they all boil down to the same message – Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.

(1) Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, pp 72-3

(2) ibid, p. 73

Two young children, one crying. 1922. Stanley Field Expedition to British Guiana

Participants: Bror E. Dahlgren and John R. Millar

Significant


Status. 

Money.

Power.

Position.

Beauty.

Talent.

Brains.

Strength.

We want to be significant.

When you think about it all that means is that we want to matter – we want to be needed.

We want it to make a difference if we are there or not – if we breathe air or not.

The thing is, it does matter.

We are needed.

Much as I personally resist it – don’t you think we all need each other?

What if You Are Needed?


This is an interesting campaign.  It is a specific fundraising campaign in the struggle to raise money to help combat famine in the Horn of Africa.  But in the pursuit of it’s stated aim it asks a very interesting question.

Thanks to Make Wealth History where I first learned about this campaign – here is the relevant post – have a look – it raises some other interesting questions –

http://makewealthhistory.org/2012/01/30/can-we-be-heroes-dc-in-the-horn-of-africa/

Little by Little One Walks Far*


UNFPA is the United Nations agency that deals with providing much needed family planning and reproductive health services in the developing world.  In 2002, the American government decided not to give a promised 34 million dollars to UNFPA.

In different parts of the country and without ever having met, two ordinary American women, Jane Roberts and Lois Abraham, asked the women of America to send $1 dollar each to UNFPA.

Nobody – not even UNFPA – thought it would work. But it did.  Soon a deluge of envelopes with single dollar bills began arriving at the UNFPA offices from women – and men – all over the United States.

From this an organisation called 34 Million Friends of UNFPA (www.34millionfriends.org) was formed and millions of dollars were raised to help families all over the world.

In 2009, the U.S. administration restored the funding to UNFPA but 34 Million Friends still continues to work to support this vital service.

And all from the efforts of two ordinary women – a social action butterfly effect if ever there was one.

(*Peruvian Proverb)

Learning to Live Together


Reciprocity – the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit – is widely recognised as an important feature of successful co-operation but how does reciprocity between ordinary people actually work?

Mary hits Joan.  Joan is angry so she hits Mary back – repaying her in kind.

An eye for an eye.

Tit for tat.

Revenge.

Justice.

Positive and negative, it’s a if there is a hidden balance that must constantly be maintained.  Impulses like revenge solve nothing of course but this striving for reciprocity appears to be deeply rooted within us. It’s naturally occurring and is neither good nor bad in itself – only in its application.

If we look at our instincts as tools to help us survive and develop, rather than tie ourselves up in knots either suppressing or exalting these naturally occurring impulses, then maybe it might be easier to use them properly.

Instincts are simultaneously wonderful and problematic – like any tool. Even a humble hammer is all about application – it is enormously useful and – literally – constructive, if you want to hang a picture or build a cabinet or a wall but in other circumstances it can also be used to destroy or kill.

The solution is not to get rid of hammers but make sure we use them properly.  Just like our instincts.

Peace on Earth – War Children


Emmanuel Jal was born in Southern Sudan c. 1980. By the time he was seven, his father had left to fight with the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and his mother had been murdered by government soldiers.

After that he was recruited by the SPLA and trained as a soldier.  For five years he fought with the army, but as the fighting became unbearable Jal and some of the other children ran away.

They wandered for three months, many of them dying on the journey until they reached the town of Waat.  Emma McCune, a British aid worker who was married to a senior SPLA commandant, insisted that at 11, Jal was too young to be a soldier and adopted him and smuggled him to Kenya. There Emmanuel went to school and even though McCune died in a road accident, her friends continued to help him.

Jal began singing to ease the pain of what he had experienced, he also began to work at raising money for street children in Kenya and his first single, “All We Need is Jesus” was a hit in Kenya and received airplay in the UK.

Jal tries to unite young people through his music – he believes that music can help overcome ethnic and religious divisions.  His first album – Gua – is a mix of Arabic, English, Swahili, Dinka and Nuer.  The title – Gua – is a symbol of the unity for which he is striving as it means ‘good’ in Nuer and ‘power’ in Sudanese Arabic.

His second album, Ceasefire, is a collaboration with the well known Sudanese Muslim musician Abd El Gadir Salim.  The collaboration between Jal and Salim demonstrates their vision of unity.  On the album they emphasize their musical differences as a symbol of co-existence.

Jal dedicates his life to the wellbeing of children, believing that music is a vehicle for uplifting the spirit and surviving tragedy.  The commonest theme of his songs is the campaign for peace – particularly in his native Sudan – and his condemnation of using children as soldiers.

A documentary about Emmanuel Jal called War Child was made in 2008 by C. Karim Chrobog. It made its international debut at the Berlin Film Festival and its North American debut at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it won the Cadillac Audience Award. An autobiography under the same name was released in 2009.

Jal’s charity, Gua Africa, builds schools and tries to help children and Sudanese war survivors.

Those of us who are lucky enough to live in relative peace should never underestimate the suffering caused by war or give up working to eliminate it.

Sometimes a Trail of Tears can lead to Kindness


The Trail of Tears is the name given to the forced relocation of Native Americans following the Indian Removal Act of 1830.  The relocation was mostly from the southeastern United States to present day Oklahoma.  The removal included the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations.

This forced movement not only dispossessed many Native American nations, it also resulted in thousands of deaths from exposure, disease and starvation. The name, Trail of Tears, originates from a description of the removal of the Choctaw Nation in 1831.

Sixteen years later, in 1847, the Choctaw survivors of the Trail of Tears heard of the Great Famine in Ireland. They heard about the dispossession and starvation that had been going on in Ireland since 1845. Though clearly not wealthy or advantaged themselves, they responded by collecting $710 and sending it to help starving Irish men, women and children.

According to a written account at the time, “Traders, missionaries, and (Indian) agency officials contributed, but the greater part of the money was supplied by the Indians themselves.“(1)

The Choctaw sent the money to Memphis – one of the cities in which the military had gathered them before they set out on the Trail of Tears.  From there it made its way to Irish famine victims.

The astounding actions of the Choctaw are an example of how suffering acquires meaning when it is transmuted into understanding and generosity.

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Photograph – Famine Memorial, Dublin, Ireland.

(1) https://pantherfile.uwm.edu/michael/www/choctaw/retrace.html

Beloved


The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved. Victor Hugo 

Syracuse University Professor Stephanie Ortigue has studied the effect of love on the brain.(1)  Her study shows that when a person falls in love, 12 areas of the brain work together to release chemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin, adrenaline and vasopression – combining to produce a feeling of euphoria.

The study also shows that love is a complex process and – as we might have guessed – different types of love engage different parts of the brain.  For example, unconditional love, such as that between a mother and a child causes activity in different parts of the brain to passionate love between two adults.

In spite of the differences though, the process of love always follows the same pattern – it works on the brain to enhance positive emotions (e.g.bonding/pleasure/reward ) and to suppress negative emotions, such as criticism and alienation.

So, love isn’t just the stuff of romantic fantasy.  Love is real and not only is it important to us as individuals but also to our progress as societies.

But you already knew that, didn’t you…

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(1) Citation: Stephanie Ortigue, Francesco Bianchi-Demicheli, Nisa Patel, Chris Frum and James W. Lewis, ‘Neuroimaging of Love: fMRI Meta-Analysis Evidence toward New Perspectives in Sexual Medicine’, The Journal of Sexual MedicineDOI: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2010.01999.x

* meta-analysis means that they used a statistical method which combined a number of studies for greater accuracy.

And now for something completely different…


In July 2009, Jill Petersen and Kevin Heinz posted a video of their wedding on YouTube so that their families could see it – within 48 hours 3.5 million people had watched it.  By August 2011 68 million people had watched it.

Fun?

Definitely.  But then they did something really constructive.  They used the attention to raise money for charity.  To quote Jill and Kevin –

We hope to direct this positivity to a good cause. Due to the circumstances surrounding the song in our wedding video, we have chosen the Sheila Wellstone Institute.

Sheila Wellstone was an advocate, organizer, and national champion in the effort to end domestic violence in our communities.

We are so grateful for all the love, kind words, and joy that have been shared with us from around the world. It has moved us deeply and filled our hearts.

By October 2010, they had raised almost $35,000 for the Sheila Wellstone Institute.

I wasn’t one of the 68 million people who saw this video until recently – I first saw it thanks to sufilight at Love is the Answer – http://dancewithtruth.wordpress.com/2011/10/22/a-wedding-entrance-that-will-guarantee-a-smile/

If you’ve seen it before you might like to watch it again.

If you haven’t seen it, watch and enjoy!