Tag Archives: story

Once upon a time there was a universe…

Stories matter.  The stories we tell over our lives affect our health and happiness (Tomasulo & Pawelski, 2012).   Stories can be about specific individuals, but likely the more powerful ones are those which apply to big groups or time periods (meta-narratives or “big stories”) which invite us to play a small part in world-size drama.

Major religions get this–successful churches make people feel like they are a part of God’s plan of redemption.  Great movements of philosophy have this–Descartes started the modernist project by saying that we can base everything on unquestionable truths and eventually create a perfect society.  Successful politicians get this–Marx wrote a story that inevitably ended in revolution and the rule of the working class.

Postmodernism itself is often defined by (Middleton and Walsh for example) as “incredulity towards meta-narratives.”  Postmoderns think that all ‘big stories’ are bullshit, so its stupid to be Democrat or Republican, Buddhist or Christian, or a part of any tradition at all.

Descartes wanted to establsih the modern project on the axiom, "I think, therefore, I am."

Descartes tried to establish the modern project on the axiom, “I think, therefore, I am.”

But there is some evidence that being story-less is not healthy.  Humans have reason to want the meta-narrative.  Positive psychologists define meaning as being a part of something bigger than yourself and have found that meaning defined in this way is a key pillar of deep and lasting happiness (Seligman, 2011).  We crave a deep sense that life has order and direction.  This passion often motivates the historian in each of us.  We want to know who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.

Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson

A skeptical moment from Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson

We know that endings matter.  Psychologists have found a phenomenon they call “peak-end theory” which maintains that the last few moments of an experience or human life (Rozin & Stellar, 2009) tend to define the entire experience (e.g. Kahneman & Wakker, 1997).  In other words, you never get a second chance to make a last impression.  One of the reasons why our meta-narratives are so important is because meta-narratives tell us the end of the story.  Then we create meaning “pro-retrospectively” (looking forward to look back).

But all this stuff about story, endings, and meta-narrative was not on my mind this summer.  For my masters thesis, I was just trying to figure out what judgements of the universe helped people live happier lives (full text here and non-academic summary here).  I called these judgements “universal assessments” (UAs) and found 13 of them that seemed particularly good for increasing people’s strengths and positive emotions.  Only after I finished the analysis did I realize that one of those 13, the following UA, is really all about the story people tell over existence:

The world is getting better vs. the world is getting worse.

Where are we headed?  Where are we going?  Will the world be renewed, or does it decay and die?  Unlike the other 13 UAs , this one has handy-dandy terms that are already in use.  A meliorist believes that the world is getting better (think bambi-eyed believer).  The pejorist believes the world is getting worse (think grumpy old man).  Together, these two positions represent the two major possible story-lines: is the universe a tragedy or comedy (as in Dante’s Divine Comedy rather than Comedy Central)?

Wether it be heaven, utopia, or just a kinder humanity, the meliorist believes that the world is getting better and the world will "...live happily ever after."

Wether it be heaven, utopia, or just a kinder humanity, the meliorist believes some variation of “…and they all lived happily ever after.”

Of course, many meta-narratives are too complex for these simple categories.  For example, many Christians believe that the world is presently declining, but God will come back and the universe will end well (e.g. Romans 8:20-21).  Other people might believe in human progress and look at how in the last decade 350 million people have been lifted out of extreme poverty (International Fund of Agricultural Development, 2011), but still believe that humans will eventually destroy themselves in nuclear holocaust.  However, for the time being, this UA is meant to encompass both ideas.  First, it is concerned with present trajectory.  Even if down the road the world is renewed, what is the trajectory now?  Second, it is asking if the story ends with “happily ever after” or “and then they all died.”

Pejorism, perhaps?

A pejorist vision, perhaps?

Out of the 24 strengths in the CSV, I found 18 that could potentially be encouraged by meliorist stories and eight by pejorist stories.  Also, out of 10 positive emotions identified by researchers, 9 might be encouraged by meliorism, and 3 by pejorism.  Here’s an example of one connection between meliorism and strength:

Hope is an important psychological strength.  It keeps people motivated and moving, even in dark times.  Empirical studies indicate that those with lots of hope tend to say certain things that sound similar to meliorism.  They include “I expect the best,” “I always look on the bright side,” “despite challenges, I always remain hopeful about the future,” and most strikingly, “I believe that good will always triumph over evil.”  Believing that the world is getting better might be tied to being a hopeful person.  Likewise, believing that the world is getting worse may make hopefulness elusive.

And here is an example of one connection to pejorism:

People who have strengths in humor can sometimes develop it as a coping skill.  Thinking that “the world is going to shit” might push some people to be light-hearted about tragedy and pursue novelty and fun in the moment.  This could be the thinking behind the popular paraphrase of Isaiah 22:13b: ‘Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.’

Future research is needed to know for sure, but I expect that, overall, a beleif that the universe is improving helps us live better lives.  In addition to developing strengths and increasing positive emotions,  those with positive meta-narratives may enjoy other benefits too, like more close friendships, less depression, greater coping skills, and even higher incomes.  But, first things first, I need to develop an assessment tool that captures what stories people have for existence and see if it correlates with life outcomes.  Where do you fall on this UA?  I’d love to know.  Is the world getting better or worse?

I recently got to visit my brother's family in Hong Kong and meet Daniel, my nephew, for the first time.  What brings this UA home for me is the very simple question: will Daniel inherit a world which is worse or better than my own?  Politicians

I recently got to visit my brother’s family in Hong Kong and meet Daniel, my nephew, for the first time. What brings this UA home for me is the very simple question: will Daniel inherit a world which is worse or better than my own? My own personal intuitive answer: probably slightly worse.  I’m not sure though.  I have to think about it more.

What is so fun about this is that I know I have a damn good hypothesis.  Hopefully, in a few years, I’ll be able to let you know for sure about wether I am right or wrong about meliorism having good effects on human life.  Either way, it will definitely be interesting!    It will be fascinating if I am wrong! : )

This post concerns one of  13 universal assessments that were identified in my masters thesis as being possibly critical for the ‘good life.’  An abstract and full download of the capstone project at the University of Pennsylvania is available here on scholarly commons.  A non-academic summary (with pictures and bad puns) can be seen here.  Also, this is the second UA I have elaborated on.  The first was “the world is bad vs. the world is good” that I talk about in the post “Is my WIFE good, and does it matter?”  

Advertisements

Pandas – Epic Fail

I recently read a short story about pandas, watched 2 documentaries on pandas, and enjoyed Kung Fu Panda 1 and 2 .  In my newfound expertise, have come to the conclusion that pandas are entirely pathetic creatures. First off, 99% of their diet is bamboo–delicious and not at all nutritious.  A true bear, they have carnivore specific genes, carnivore teeth, and a carnivore digestive system, so they derive even less energy and protein from their food.  They can’t hibernate for the winter because there is no way for them to store up enough fat.  They don’t like moving around much.  And they avoid mountains because it takes too much energy to climb.  Males weigh up to 350 lbs.  Females up to 280.  They eat 20-30 lbs of bamboo shoots a day and can poop, with all that good roughage, up to 40 times a day.  The rest of the Panda’s diet, the 1%, is other grasses, wild tubers, small birds, rodents, or carrion.

Pandas have very short life spans and sexually productive periods.  They lose interest in mating once captured.  Even in the wild they can’t raise more than one cub at a time–if more than one cub is born one is left to die–because their milk is so low in nutrition.  And the cubs need nutrition.  They start out pink, blind and furless, at a whopping 3.5-4.6 ounces.

In contrast, black bears weigh around 300 lbs and will eat nearly anything.  Polar bears eat almost nothing but meat and weigh up to 1500 lbs.  Grizzly bears also weigh up to 1500 lbs.

 

When my brother was in ninth grade he told me something that has stuck with me.  The best stories are those in which normal everyday people discover something about themselves, something special, some heritage, special skill, or destiny, that launches them into a life of adventure, excellence, and self-fulfillment.

I guess I am waiting for the Giant Panda to remember it’s a kickass bear.


He was Me (Dad’s Story)

After last week’s post, I commissioned my father to write this particular story.  It is one so real to me that I struggle to remember that I was not actually in it!  Also, those of you who know me well will be struck with how the last few paragraphs share identical sentiments you’ve heard me rant about dozens of times.  Indeed, I was startled to see the resemblance, and then ashamed of my surprise.  Of course!  I got my passion for connecting to history from my own connection with my dad (and most of my other good passions I got from him too).  I hope you enjoy it!   

I remember the day very well. As a boy, it was my task to clean and dust the basement. It was one of those finished basements with the brick fireplaces and wood paneling popular in the 70’s. We spent a lot of time in that basement (as opposed to the living room, which was reserved for “guests” and almost never used), so it got messier quicker.

There was delicious irony in my mother assigning this particular task. On the wall an old photo of a civil war soldier looked out from a very ornate frame that my mom had to clean when she was a kid. She hated cleaning that frame, because it was so ornate—it took forever. I grew up around this picture and its frame, and now it was my turn. But unlike my mother’s situation, my taskmaster was not as persnickety, and so all I had to do was to take a vacuum brush to it, and then wipe it down with a cloth dampened with “Endust”–some wonderful modern chemicals.

On this particular day, however, I was not appreciating the lucky break that history had given me, but rather thinking what a silly chore this was.  And so I began to wipe this stupid frame with the stupid old picture in it, thinking what a beautiful day I was wasting. But, as I did so, the light from the window reflected off the picture in a way that made me actually look at the picture. My half closed eyes slowly got wider and wider. And I stopped wiping and just stared. And gaped.

I knew I was looking at my great great grandfather, Rich McGee. He was a confederate soldier in the civil war.  And he was around 16 when he joined. I knew all this. But it began to dawn on me that the eyes that were looking at me were about the same age as eyes that had been joylessly cleaning with Endust.

A stocky, 16 year old. Brown hair. Round face. Light colored eyes.

And then I saw him.

He was me. I was not looking at a picture, I was looking in a mirror. I had grown up into this picture.

It was both an exhilarating and tremendously creepy sensation, all blended into one. There was at once a sense of bonding with the past, and at the same time a realization that his world was nothing like mine, and the issues that he faced were quite different. I had to eventually stop and go upstairs to tell Mom my epiphany. She just smiled.

This got me wondering what had happened to Rich McGee.  And so I asked my grandmother Dana what she remembered about Rich McGee in the civil war. This is the story that she told me, with probably some details gone awry:

There were three brothers who had signed up for the confederate army, I believe from Patrick County. The mother was understandably worried for his sons. She made the oldest promise that he would take care of the youngest.  I don’t know why the middle child was not a part of this family pact, maybe the mother felt that he could take care of himself (but not necessarily others).

I don’t remember what battle it was—it could have been the second battle of Manassas. But after a day of combat, the older brother could not find the youngest among the fires that the soldiers huddled around. Desperate, he made his way out in the darkness, away from the fires, and back unto the battlefield looking for his brother. While searching on that battlefield, he was shot by a Union sniper, and was killed instantly.

Eventually, they did find the younger brother out there in the battlefield.   He was alive, but seriously wounded. About a half a year later, he would die from those wounds.

Only the middle child, Rich, remained.  Again, I am not sure which battle, but he was eventually taken prisoner, and waited the rest of the war out in a union camp.

Rich McGee eventually lived into his 90’s and died in the 1930’s. He had a son, also named Rich, and that son also lived into his 90’s and died in the 1960’s. I have a picture of that son, then grown old, there with his little great grandson—me.

And when I think of this, it reminds me how young we are as a nation, how the things we read about in history books are not really that far away. It also reminds me that we are never born in a vacuum. That we stand on the shoulders of the decisions and choices of those before us. And we stand with similar equipment in mind and body. This doesn’t stop each new generation from taking history in another direction. But it does tell us at what point we start.

I have come to appreciate the Chinese value of honoring our ancestors. But I don’t have to burn incense or paper money to do so. I can honor them by remembering their stories.

So thanks, Jer, for letting me do some remembering and some reminiscing–some honoring.

By Cary Clifton


Captain Abraham Lincoln: An Invitation to Story

While reading a biography of Abraham Lincoln recently, I saw this little tidbit that seemed worth sharing.  It reminds me of a similar story from my own family’s history.  

Thomas Lincoln named his son “Abraham” after the boy’s grandfather, Captain Abraham Lincoln, who fought in the Revolutionary War.  Once little Abe was old enough, Thomas told the story of how his namesake died.

After the War for Independence, Captain Lincoln moved his family to Kentucky, where they lived on disputed Indian lands.  One warm day in May, 1786, Thomas recounts, when he was just six, he went out with his brothers Josiah, age 8, and Mordecai, age 14, and their father to work the fields.  Suddenly a shot rang out from the woods nearby and Father collapsed.

Thomas stood transfixed in the crackling calm of shock–staring at his father.  Josiah took off sprinting to Hughes Station, where settlers gathered in the event of Indian attack, calling for help as he ran.  Mordecai hustled to the cabin where the family kept a loaded musket.  A figure emerged from the forest and moved towards Captain Lincoln’s body, towards Thomas.

Mordecai, quick to the cabin, grabbed the musket next to the door, turned, and saw the figure for the first time, an Indian, standing above his Father.  Gasping, Mordecai yelled and stumbled towards his Father and Thomas, the heavy rifle causing him to lose his balance and fall.  Thomas, still in shock, turned to the Indian, who was now reaching towards Thomas, who Mordecai thought was about to be killed or carried off.

In that second, 14 year old Mordecai rose to his feet, took aim, and fired, hitting the Indian in the chest and killing him instantly.  Bathsheba Lincoln, Abraham’s grandmother, was left a widow with five underage children.

Thomas Lincoln’s story had a powerful affect on young Abraham.  “The story of his death by the Indians,” President Lincoln later wrote, “and of Uncle Mordecai, then fourteen years old, killing one of the Indians, is the legend more strongly than all others imprinted on my mind and memory.”

I started loving history when I realized that the figures of history are just as real as you or I.  I started feeling socially responsible when I realized the future, though unknown, is still infinitely more real than the best fiction.  Connecting the past, the present, and the future, are stories–stories that formed us before we were born, and, through the telling, continue to form us today.  For Lincoln, his Father’s account of his grandfather’s death was such a story.  For me, my Father has told me a family story with similar effect.  I have invited him to re-tell it on my blog.  I also invite any of my readers, if you have a family legend, a connection to the past, which strongly imprinted itself on “mind and memory,” please share it on my blog.  The door is open.


Why I Was Late for Work Today

Later the police told me that about once a year somebody falls from the platform onto the train tracks of Atlanta’s public transit system.  This year, I guess, it happened about 20 feet from where I was standing.

I am on my way to band practice.  It’s about 3:45, and I am staring down to my left where the train will approach, even though the sign says that it won’t be here for another 11 minutes.  I’m running late again.

I hear a crashing noise to my right and screams from the platform on the other side of the tracks.  I peer over the edge of my platform, and, sure enough, 20 or so feet down there is a white male crumpled between the tracks and the third rail.

I run down towards him, throwing off my sunglasses, backpack, ipod, and flip flops.  I am thinking, “This is kinda like a House episode I just watched.”  I’m also happy that I have just looked at the screen, and I know we should have 10 minutes to get the guy out before the train hits him.  “This will be so easy,” I think to myself, “I can totally get this guy out.”  I am about to jump down when someone next to me screams,

“Don’t touch him!  Don’t touch him!  You’ll fucking die!  The electricity!  Don’t fucking touch him!”

I never turned.  I never saw his face.  So I have no idea who that guy was.  But the screaming guy to my left, through sheer vocal intensity, stopped me from jumping in.  I had not even thought about electricity.

I crouch down on the platform directly above the guy who had fallen and for a second or two I don’t know what to do.  I keep glancing down the tracks where the oncoming train will appear and looking at the guy.

The guy who fell in looks epileptic.  He is convulsing and seems unconscious.  At that point another guy jumps into the middle of the track.  He is about to help when that same screaming voice from my left subdues him as well.  He stands there, looking at the convulsing man crumpled in the train tracks, up at me, then back down at the man.  I didn’t know what to do either.

He stops convulsing and is hardly moving.  Then I hear somebody else from the far platform start to encourage the man to get up, and I think, at the moment, that is the best thing I can do.  For the next 15 or so seconds, I feel like I am just being a FitWit personal trainer, my day job.  I start out by saying,

“My name is Jer.  I am standing above you because you have fallen down in the tracks.  You need to know where you are.  You are in danger of getting shocked and we can’t touch you.  It’s up to you.  So dig deep and stand up.”

To be honest, I don’t know if I said all those things exactly, but I remember telling him my name and where he was in a loud, surprisingly calm voice.  I get louder and louder and eventually scream at him “Man the fuck up and stand up!”  As I explain the situation to him, he stirs a bit more, but he is still extremely slow and lethargic.

“Get the fuck up!” I scream.

He moves some more and this time touches something.  Electric shocks flash up and down his body.  He’s now filthy, but I worry that the black marks are not just grease and dirt but scorch marks.

I scream something like, “You need to ignore it and stand up!”  Getting shocked seems to make him realize what a dangerous situation he’s in.  He’s finally ready to shake himself awake and get up.  His eyes are blinking as he struggles to prop himself up on his elbow.  He looks up at me and reaches out his hand.

I realized in retrospect that there was definitely a moment of decision.  Nobody had touched him yet, and he was clearly getting constantly shocked by who knows how many volts.  But I remember thinking, “I can’t leave him hanging.”

I grab his hand and pull.  I realize I am getting shocked through his hand.  It’s repetitive and jabbing pain, like sticking my finger repetitively in an electrical outlet.  My adrenaline is pumping like mad.

I pull him up to his feet and drag him roughly over the edge of the platform, fully clear of ledge. He collapses on the ground as people clap and holler.  After looking at him for a second, I tell someone to call 911.  The guy is clearly in shock and showering me with thanks saying, “It was you man.  You did it.”  I tell him it was him, that he did it, and then I collapse too.

Epilogue:

We sat there panting for a bit.  He seemed ok, but delirious, and I still didn’t know if all the black marks on him were burns or grease.  But I think he was just happy to be alive, and I was too.

We sat there grinning at each other.  Talk about an instant bonding experience.  That’s when I asked him his name, and I think he said Wes.  I’m not sure.  Wes, I hope you read this.  We should meet up and you can buy me a beer!

But cops came and took him away  I sat for a bit longer before gathering my flip flops, ipod, etc., scattered over the platform.  As I stood there, waiting for the next train I guess, I realized just how many people had been watching.  There were probably about 300 people, but who knows.  I was in shock too.

That’s when somebody on the other platform pointed me out and said that I was the one who pulled Wes out.  The cop thought it was someone next to me at first, but then the guy said, “No, that guy,” pointing at me.

“Holy shit.  I guess that really happened,” I thought to myself.

The cop asked in a loud voice across the train tracks, “We need a statement from you.  Can you come to the station?”

“Can I just do it here?” I asked, “I’m late for work.”

The officer nodded his head and sent another officer to run through the maze that is Five Points MARTA station to my platform.  He had me jot down my contact info.  As I was doing so, I told him that I was being shocked as I pulled Wes out.  The officer immediately insisted that I get checked out.

At the station, after I sat in a room by myself and tried to write legibly, I got to talk to the officers.

Apparently, the third rail has 750 volts running through it.  If Wes would have touched it directly he would have been killed instantly.  If his foot would have just nicked it as I was pulling him out, we both would have been killed.  I was dumbfounded.  I had almost left Alicia a widow at age 26.

I’ll talk a bit more later about what I learned from this whole ordeal and other thoughts about it.  But I just wanted to get the story down first.

I just found this video on Youtube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZlgtHymISdA