Friday, January 24, 2020

Talking to Strangers: A Review

This volume by the popular storyteller, Malcom Gladwell (2019) is not the stuff of his earlier books, such as Outliers or David and Goliath. They entertain and engage readers with fascinating, hidden and overlooked stories of extreme success (Outliers) and unlikely survival (David and Goliath).

Talking to Strangers is mostly an unsettling journey, exposing the human afflictions of deceit, gullibility, and hubris. We don't know how to interpret strangers very well, and much less than we think we do.

Why question the conventional wisdom and accepted institutional practices?? Because they often fail us to really know a stranger. One example: a computer can do a better job determining whether a perpetrator will repeat a crime than the judge, who relies on looking the offender square in the eye. 

Some "misunderstandings" lead to more tragic consequences than others. Many of the stories Gladwell tells have  terrible, hopeless endings. Even for the sake of his argument, the volume lacks appropriateness and discretion by combining brief discussions of:
  • Fraternities, alcohol and rape (Brock Turner) 
  • Years of sexual assault of young boys (Penn State), 
  • Trusting Hitler (Chamberlain)
  • The Sandra Bland tragedy
along with a dash of:
  • Friends, the sitcom
  • Real vs. fake facial expressions
What does the book offer? It gives the reader a sharp critique of the assumptions we have and the judgments we make about strangers. Gladwell substantiates his premise that much more humility and restraint is needed in truly knowing a person we do not know.

Pausing our flippant judgements of others we don’t know is reasonable and helpful on the personal level, whether they be positive or negative conclusions. But our culture is not a patient, wait-and-see culture. Gladwell  falls short in providing a way forward, a social antidote for the institutions discussed in the book. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Monkey Brain or Mindfulness?

It was a quiet and crisp November day in rural Pennsylvania. Our retreat leader, Tony D’Souza,S.J., invited the group to try a  mindfulness practice. We were asked to be fully present to wherever we walked on the grounds, to be aware of what is, without judgment, assessment, or evaluation. 

The Jesuit Retreat Center- Wernersville, PA.
I probably failed this exercise. I gazed at the autumnal sunset. My thoughts turned to other sunsets I had seen. No longer fully present to my immediate surroundings, I  began ranking the best sunsets I had seen across the years. Monkey brain: my mind was everywhere- except where I was standing.

A great lesson though. My default is to make evaluations and comparisons about others, myself, the world, and even what my life with God should be. Knowing this can equip me to wait out a bad day, knowing it will pass. Mindfulness can soften my quick and harsh judgments of myself and others. And practicing mindfulness can help me to experience God- without conditions or qualifications.  

Friday, January 3, 2020

Post-Truth: A Review

"Post-truth” -Oxford's 2016's Word of the Year
For its rigorous dissection, Post-Truth by Lee McIntyre, is the best book I’ve read in the last year. This volume offers so much in an economy of words.

Post- Truth is defined as the contention that "feelings are more accurate than facts" and this is used to subordinate reality for political end. p.174  "False equivalence" is the idea that there are always "two sides of an issue even when there are not two credible sides."

Included are discussions of the dangers and human costs of post-truth: the "yellow journalism" of the 1890's (The Spanish-American War), Big Tobacco's decades-long deceit, vaccines (2015), and the continuing climate crisis.

McIntyre's study is accompanied by meticulous footnotes, a bibliography, a glossary, and suggestions for further reading. I've long awaited a scholarly treatment of this subject. I recommend this book to those in search of mental clarity.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Softening the harsh realities

“If it be so, O listener, dear to him in all his visions, try to bear in mind the stern realities from which these shadows come; and in your own sphere- none is too wide, and none too limited for such an end- endeavor to correct, improve, and soften them. So may each year be happier than the last, and not the meanest of our brethren and sisterhood debarred their rightful share in what our Great Creator formed them to enjoy.” The Chimes: A Goblin Story, Dickens                                                                                
A Christmas Carol and The Chimes are Dickens' masterful Holiday works. The Chimes is lesser known and darker, set on the eve of a New Year. Like A Christmas Carol, The Chimes challenges the societal  neglect of the hard and shortened lives of the poor. In Dickens’ England, poor houses and debtors prisons were the social answers to hunger, sickness, poverty and injustice. 

The call to "soften" is a well chosen word because, while there is not much in our control,  the softening suggests small, incremental change, like a yeast that pops and snaps its way into the whole. 

Softening is not often the product of a consultant's analysis. Their observations are interesting, sometimes beneficial. Their prescriptions have a limit, even if deemed necessary. But once the boxes are checked off with a 5 year plan, it's time for another round, no matter how much buy-in there is initially.   

The century before Charles Dickens, Methodism's founder, John Wesley, failed in his plan to preach the Gospel to Native Americans in the New World. After a spiritual awakening, the Anglican priest wrote that he went to the Georgia colony to convert others, but needed himself to be converted. 

Letting the harsh realities of neglect and indifference in us soften would be a good first step. E. Scrooge would no doubt agree.  

*Wesley, 1703-1791, Dickens, 1812-1870

Oldies but Goodies