Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Stark contrast in reactions to killings related to race/ethnicity: "Burn this B---- Down," vs. this Israeli daughter

Louis Head yelling "Burn This B---- down!" with Lesley McSpadden
Louis Head, who identifies as deceased Ferguson, Missouri 18-year-old Michael Brown's stepfather, climbed up on a pedestal wearing an "I am Michael Brown" t-shirt to comfort his partner, Lesley McSpadden, Brown's mother. The Grand Jury declined to prosecute police officer Darren Wilson, and the town was in flames before him, "Season's Greetings" spelled in lights over the street.

He becomes agitated, shouting "Burn this mother------ down!" and repeating "Burn this b---- down!" before violence erupts.

Soon thereafter, family attorney Benjamin Crump shared a podium with Rev. Al Sharpton, currently the subject of exposes in the New York Times alleging tax irregularities (at the least). The press conference was in response to viral posting of videos showing the inciteful screams by Ms. McSpadden and especially those of Mr. Head. Mr. Crump explained that the "burn this b----down" exhortation was "born out of desperation and frustration after watching the decision that the killer of an unarmed child would not be brought to justice." 

I beg to differ: Officer Wilson was 'brought to justice" by the evaluation of the Grand Jury, which determined that he should not be charged.

The reaction in Ferguson to the Grand Jury's decision was characterized this way by CNN: "A row of businesses on West Florissant Avenue, a major thoroughfare in the St. Louis suburb, was engulfed in flames Monday night. Police cars and vehicles at a nearby dealership were
Lesley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown, reacts to Grand Jury
turned into fireballs. There were so many blazes that firefighters couldn't reach every one."

I live in Seattle, where protesters blocked the I-5 freeway, exploded a large firework in front of police, and threw cans and bottles. Roosevelt High School, ranked by US News as 351 among the nation's top high schools with a 9% black student body, experienced a student walk-out to a rally on the University of Washington campus.

In other cities, law enforcement had its hands full containing responses. The central, underlying issue is whether police target  blacks and treat them unfairly because of their race.

Halfway around the world, it is certain that Jews have been targeted and treated unfairly because of their "race." This week four worshipers in prayer at synagogue, and a policeman coming to their aid in the Har Nof suburb of Jerusalem were cruelly hacked and stabbed to death. Eight were wounded. The deceased left a total of 24 children fatherless. Thousands attended the funeral later that day of Rabbi Moshe Twersky; his eldest son said his only consolation was that his father died in prayer.

Posted by many of my friends on Facebook is a link to an ad-hoc video by Michal Levine, the daughter of slain Rabbi Kalman Zeev Levine, in which she reacts to losing her father just a few
Michal Levine, reflecting on the murder of her father
days ago. In calm, deliberate words, she explains that her father would want his death to bring greater unity, and inspire others to see the good in what they have. She concludes movingly:

“He died because he was a Jew, without harming anyone, and it’s painful, but yet, every person we still see as good. We leave his physical body with pain, but not with any anger with anyone. And that is the message we want to be known.”

I've heard some say the reaction to the Ferguson Grand Jury announcement is really not about that one case, but anger rooted in persecution since and including slavery. President Obama claims anger "is understandable" here, but shouldn't be cause for violence or destruction. To be fair, Michael Brown's father, quoted in Pres. Obama's remarks before the Grand Jury announcement last night, is measured: "“Hurting others or destroying property is not the answer. No matter what the grand jury decides, I do not want my son’s death to be in vain. I want it to lead to incredible change, positive change, change that makes the St. Louis region better for everyone.”

Excellent, but then we see the footage of Lesley McSpadden and Louis Head actually reacting after the decision is delivered. Ms. McSpadden visually contradicts her former partner's admonition by wearing a knit cap displaying "#JFMS," for "justice for my son." (The fashionably inclined can select from five t-shirt offerings on the craft-site Etsy alone, most with a "hands up, Don't Shoot" logo.)

By contrast, the footage shown after the massacre in the Jerusalem synagogue featured
Reuters photo of Palestinians celebrating Har Nof massacre with sweets
Arabs in Gaza celebrating by sharing sweets, as well as blood-spattered Jewish ritual items. We can't judge much based on what the press chooses to show us, and I consider the Ferguson announcement an epic fail by our own government, who should have summoned media to discuss and thereby diffuse feelings about the Michael Brown case in the three months since it occurred. Perhaps if instead of a huge drum-roll in the several days before the announcement, we'd heard more about the info that led to the dismissal--to prepare everyone--there would have been less expectation of violence to fulfill.

Case in point: my local talk station yesterday at every commercial break used their most deep-voiced announcer (the one whose inflections imply gravity) to assure listeners that when the announcement comes, they'd suspend all programming to carry it live. The question arises: do news-sites cover or create a national climate?  Then again, do we expect news gatherers competing for ratings to hold back from exploiting an opportunity to enlarge a big story? Even in the interest of minimizing possible injury and destruction?

But you can't blame individuals' behavior choices on media. And you can't excuse Head and McSpadden's profanity-laced incitement by saying they were upset.

People can end up doing really destructive things when they're pumped up, like Becca Campbell, 26 of St. Louis, who brandished a pistol in the car while her boyfriend drove. "I'm ready for Ferguson," she said, waving the gun so wildly her boyfriend rear-ended another car. The gun went off, shooting her in the head and killing her.

Each person is responsible for his own actions, and the Grand Jury determined that was the case for Michael Brown, too. If he'd complied when Officer Wilson asked him to walk on the sidewalk instead of the middle of the street, he'd likely be alive, though probably prosecuted for the convenience store robbery.

Not so for the four slain worshipers in Jerusalem, whose behavior was not what caused their demise. And yet, the response from resident Jews surrounded by potential enemies is one of grief grounded in serenity, confidence in One grander and more just.

So here we have two stories of race-ethnicity with similar sad events but very different responses. "Burning the b---- down" solves nothing and salves little, while withholding anger in favor of communication and trust in God allows life to go on.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Near-Miss Accident on the Freeway; and a Coincidental Psalm

This is NOT the crashed car from my story (just found it online)
I just heard my husband speak on his radio show  to his millions of listeners about a near-miss accident we experienced last night that left us quaking from shock and immediately grateful to God.

We were traveling on the freeway to meet out daughter for dinner at our local kosher Chinese restaurant when out of nowhere, a sports car speeds up from behind in the lane on our right, inserts itself in the space between us and the car ahead of us, keeps on veering left into the next lane over--that was occupied by a car that threw on its brakes. He swerves back in front of us and through to the right, and starts spinning just in front of a large semi-trailer truck that slammed on its brakes. The sports car kept on spinning, out of control, crossing a further-right exit lane and then into the concrete wall. Miraculously, he did not strike a car, nor did a car strike him, and though he'd crashed into the wall, the sports car stopped upright and appeared damaged on only one side at the rear.

This was a near-miss on at least five counts; about four seconds that felt like slow-motion eternity, watching the sports car place itself dangerously close to three fast-moving vehicles (ourselves twice) and twirl around so many times to the squeal of tires and brakes.

The first thought is to thank God for sparing us--and the others who might have had impacts. It was dark and impossible to see, but if the offending driver wore a seat belt, it was likely even he was safe. Then again, would someone taking such reckless chances wear a seat belt? We were on the freeway and could not know the outcome.

The incident has entered my thoughts often today--and even more given a most peculiar coincidence. I happen to subscribe to a Psalm-a-day group of 200 women who hope to uplift ourselves and our families. Today in my email in-box was Psalm 107, "describing people rescued from a life-threatening situation." The commentary lays out the types of situations that require special thanks to God for His providence, and concludes with the following:
"The refrain that repeats itself numerous times throughout this chapter admonishes people who have experienced salvation, 'They shall give thanks to God for His kindness, and speak of His wonders to people.' ...One who has been rescued from trouble is thus obliged to not only express his gratitude, but to do so in a public fashion, thereby helping to glorify God throughout the world."
A meaningful coincidence after my husband's on-air story, the way I see it. By the way, the Psalm begins with a phrase common in Jewish liturgy. Phonetically in Hebrew, it's  "Hodu Adonoy, ki tov, ki l'olam chasdo," a sentiment appropriate as we approach Thanksgiving: "Give thanks to God who is good, for His kindness endures forever."

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Eeww--A bug bites while you sleep, and its poop gives you parasites

 You may know that recently I wrote about a debilitating mosquito-borne disease sweeping the Americas that leaves a fifth of its victims with ongoing joint dysfunction. Chikingunya has affected 500,000 Dominicans and thousands of others in the Caribbean, and made it to Florida this summer. The virus swept through my handy-man's family and friends in El Salvador, and seeing his distress has caused us all pain.

I got a response to my post from my new daughter-in-law who's in nursing school: "Did you hear about the other disease that's spreading around the US, caused by insects that bite your face while you sleep??"

Bite your face while you sleep? Get ready: "Chagas" is even worse than chikingunya (though easier to pronounce).

Blood-suckers called "kissing [or 'assassin'] bugs" (triatomine) take their snack and leave their parasite-infested poop as a souvenir. Unknowingly, you touch it and spread it into your own system by nudging a bit into the puncture, or touching your eye or mouth. 

Then, you've got it for life--and maybe death.

There are two phases of infection. In the first, "acute" phase, you might get symptoms that could be identified as something else: "fever, fatigue, body aches, headache, rash, loss of appetite, diarrhea, and vomiting," says RT news. Swelling around the eye near the infection site ("Romana's sign)  is another clue to chagas. The Centers for Disease Control adds, "Rarely, acute infection may result in severe inflammation of the heart muscle or the brain and lining around the brain." Or, this first phase could produce no symptoms at all.

"Megacolon" caused by Chagas
It's the second phase that can be especially deadly, and it can happen over a period of years or decades. According to Baylor College of Medicine researcher Melissa Nolan Garcia, 41% of Texas blood donors who tested positive for the parasite (and that was 1 per 6,500 blood donors) had "cardiomyopathy," which includes a host of heart problems that can lead to death. Also common are gastrointestinal problems (megadisease) that can make esophagus, stomach or colon--enormous.

 As if that's not bad enough, no treatments eliminate the parasites. A couple of drugs (benznidazole [Rochagan, Ragonil] and nifurtimox [Lampit]) are often used, but their effectiveness is hit-or-miss and the only place you can get them in the US is from the Centers for Disease Control. I've seen comments that baking soda on the bite, and consumed in water, is helpful, but anecdotal reports won't cut it. Unfortunately, a pregnant woman can pass the parasite to her baby. Most people living with T. cruzi don't even know it--or what it's doing to them. And yet world-wide, ten million people are living with it!

So far, the CDC says "kissing bugs" inhabit only the southern United States, and those suffering with chagas further north contracted it through travel from infected regions.

 Given its designation as a "silent killer" because victims can be asymptomatic until their conditions are dire, I certainly hope this scourge receives more attention. It's the opposite of Sleeping Beauty, whose princely kiss revives her from a deathly rest--a bug that brings ultimate death by its night-time kiss while you sleep. People are getting so scared that Snopes took it on and reported it's true--there's indeed something to fear. Sweet dreams!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Positive Thinking--a fraud or a solution?

I'm a psychologist who loves positive thinking. I was raised with Dr. Norman Vincent Peale's "The Power of Positive Thinking." I'm a fan of Martin Seligman's "learned optimism" approach, that uses cognitive therapy to turn around negative thinking that can inhibit performance and well-being. Dr. Seligman's "Positive Psychology" modality expanded the focus of psychology from pathology and pain, to the complete spectrum of emotions, from ecstatic to inconsolable.

So the article in the NY Times last week by psychologist Gabriele Oettingen headlined "The Problem with Positive Thinking," grabbed my interest. Over two decades, the writer conducted scads of studies showing that focusing on happy outcomes doesn't help them happen. She instead advocates "mental contrasting," by which individuals employ her "WOOP" technique to transform a Wish to a concrete Outcome, consider Obstacles in the way, and Plan means to overcome them.

Basically, she came up with a structure, a crutch, for deciding what to pursue, and to find the best way to achieve it. Very nice.

I haven't yet read Dr. Oettingen's new book, "Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation," so I'm really just going on what she wrote in her Times article and website, but it seems that she's confirmed the obvious: the more you do to make your desires practical and attainable, the more likely you are to actually attain them. (And the reverse--the more you realize what's unattainable, the more you'll eschew it.)

Does this negate the usefulness of Positive Thinking? Only if you define it as wishful dreaming, not as, well, confidence in a worked-out plan. Also, you've got to look at the goal--WOOP can help people reach tangible or measurable benchmarks. But it may be less helpful toward a goal of increasing well-being and becoming a happier person. Or enjoying life.

As an example, I'm going to present the case of someone I know; someone who was my close friend in high school. I was often frustrated when around her, and finally realized it was because of a personality trait I called "contrary-ness." Jen was not just a pessimist, but one who contradicted anyone else's optimism. If I said something upbeat, she'd tell me why I was wrong--subtly and cleverly. For Jen, in every silver lining, she'd see a cloud. It took me a long time to understand why, after a few hours with her, I always felt deflated, but with analysis that uncannily portended my future profession, I dissected our interchanges.

"What a gorgeous, sunshine-y day!" I'd exclaim upon emerging from class with Jen.
"The forecast is for rain tomorrow," she'd respond.

"You look great in that color," I'd chirp.
"Good, because when I weighed myself this morning, I'd gained five pounds."

"You got 98 on that test, and I only got 90," I'd remark.
"I should have gotten 100," she'd retort.

Some people don't even realize they're contrary. They're just raised to think that way. Or maybe it's their innate temperament, instilled genetically. I'll not forget the studies by Thomas, Chess and Birch on babies' innate temperaments, something researchers have now found are stable through childhood.

I'm not sure how Jen became contrary, but given who she was, how might she employ WOOT to overcome it?

Wish: "I wish I were happier."
Outcome desired: "For things to go my way." (Jen thought circumstances conspired against her.)
What are the obstacles to that? Given the examples above, Jen would say that the obstacles to what she preferred (rain, weighing less and perfect test score) were an unpredictable climate, a bad metabolism, and an overly-demanding teacher.
Jen's Plan: Stay inside, reading. Diet constantly. Complain to the teacher.

Do these three actions enhance Jen's goal of feeling happier?  YES. They increase her sense of control. Feeling in control improves her mood.

But is triumphing over the teacher, eschewing the outdoors and losing weight through dieting anything more than momentary success? Is a feeling of power in a situation happiness?

No, because there's a bigger obstacle to happiness for Jen and the many people I've observed who are generally negative: They want it that way. Remember, Jen is a contrarian.

Contrarians are most comfortable when they can be victims. Their underlying belief system dictates that they're NOT in control; that nefarious or just unfortunate circumstances are their lot in life, and that their lousy lot is what they deserve.

Now we come to the reason Dr. Spencer Johnson has earned millions of dollars and sold 26 million copies of "Who Moved My Cheese." This is a slim volume that tells the parable of two mice and two people in a maze, and the contrast between the Jen-types who remain stuck in the same place, and the natural WOOT-er, the "glass is half-full" personality who embraces what comes his way. The moral is to anticipate change and think about it positively. You've got to be the one who goes after new cheese, makes lemonade from lemons, or keeps digging to find the pony in the room full of poop.

Among personalities, there's a continuum of course, but with a bi-modal distribution. On the attitudinal graph of life, there are two bell curves, one hill for the positive thinkers, and another for the negatives. I hope you enjoy my hand-drawn representation, above.

When I was in graduate school at UCLA, a Public Health professor named Linda Beckman (who was on my doctoral dissertation committee) did a study comparing the happiness levels of older women who had no children with those who were mothers. I've been quoting this study for decades because it illustrates how crucial a positive attitude is in evaluating one's entire lifetime. The women surveyed all experienced adulthood before the women's movement, when motherhood largely defined women's identities. You'd think that parenthood or lack of children would determine those women's happiness with their lives, but another factor was much more important: attitude.

The women who had a positive attitude spoke glowingly about their children, or, if infertile, about the many opportunities they enjoyed and their fulfilling relationships with others' children. The contrarians blamed their children for their troubled lives, or, if infertile, blamed their lack of children for their unhappiness. Viewing the world through rose-colored glasses lets everything come up roses.

Positive thinking and Dr. Oettingen's WOOP process needn't be mutually exclusive, despite the title of her article. There's no "problem with positive thinking" unless the positive thinking has no basis. If seated in rationality and reality, positive thinking shapes your wishes, outcomes and plans to be bigger and better. With positive thinking, the obstacles may be there, but they become more surmountable.  Positive thinkers are the mice who move and adapt when the cheese moves, because they don't put their own obstacles in their paths and they're looking forward rather than backward.

Fantasizing on happy outcomes alone, as Dr. Oettingen asserts, won't motivate. As she notes, "positive thinking fools our minds into perceiving that we've already attained our goal, slackening our readiness to pursue it." But combined with WOOP-like analysis, positive thinking is motivating.

 I submit that two people with the same goals, same obstacles and same plans to overcome them are likely to have different outcomes if one's a contrarian or pessimist, and the other a confident optimist. Even if they seem to achieve the same thing on paper, one will end up happier about both the accomplishment and the process achieving it.

But there's another aspect to positive thinking that Dr. Oettingen seems to miss. And that is the moment. If you're an upbeat person, the moment is more often a pleasure, because you're seeing the good in it, the upside. Enjoying the present has its own worth. Maybe savoring the omelet you've made, talking on the phone to a loved one, or reminiscing over a photo album don't help you accomplish a specific goal or wish, but they can still enhance the quality of life, and weave positive feelings into the daily fabric. WOOP is helpful for accomplishing goals, I'm sure, but must every behavior advance a goal? Can an unplanned pleasure be productive?

Positive thinking as the overlay on life makes the classically productive parts--setting objectives, analyzing obstacles, making and executing a plan toward goals--as well as the less-defined parts pleasurable. Happiness, I maintain, is far broader than concrete achievements, and relates more to over-arching attitude than to the goal-driven motivational structure of "mental contrasting" that seems to fuel Dr. Oettingen's definition of success.