All posts by Laura Grey

Stop Beating Yourself Up

“The Last Judgment” by Michelangelo

Looking for effective ways to stop self-defeating behaviors, discover and acknowledge underlying fears and motivations, and build new thought patterns that will improve your confidence and lower stress levels?  I know, I know—this sounds like a snake-oil spiel. Actually, cognitive behavioral therapy can teach you to recognize patterns of negative self-talk, then respond to those nasty voices in your head with realistic, fact-based positive alternatives.

By acknowledging your challenges and history, and recognizing the positive elements in the steps you’ve already taken, you can discover hidden strengths and build on unacknowledged successes. You can recognize skills you didn’t realize you had, set realistic goals, and attain them more readily. You’ll learn to recognize negative, judgmental, or defeatist thought patterns, then adjust the way you respond to things that used to trigger you. Building these new skills allows you to be more accepting and kind to yourself and to others. This improves relationships, increases empathy, helps you create stronger bonds with others, and even boosts productivity.

Don’t feel you’re ready to see a therapist? I highly recommend reading the work of psychiatrist and cognitive therapist David D. Burns, MD. His behavioral modification methods have been at the heart of many cognitive behavior programs for over 30 years. His techniques involve recognizing and altering negative and self-defeating behavioral patterns, and you can learn them easily from his book Feeling Good

Burns, who has taught at Stanford’s School of Medicine, has written several excellent best-selling books on fighting negative self-talk with realistic, fact-based positive alternatives. Years ago, my own therapist recommended his book Feeling Good to me, and I have found his techniques hugely helpful in my own life.

Burns’s work is not about spewing mindless platitudes and bland I-can-do-it positivism. It requires looking directly at the negative things we say to ourselves (and others), then peeking underneath to see what fears and distorted thinking cause such situations. Burns shows us how to counter automatic negative thoughts with relevant, accurate, truthful alternatives; he teaches that we can train ourselves to limit our unconscious and automatic negative self-talk. He shows that there are nearly always alternative ways to see situations that can lead to more positive outcomes in the future.

This book doesn’t take the place of a strong relationship with an excellent therapist. That can go much farther in helping you to develop important insights into your history and your behavior patterns. But Feeling Good is a great place to start, and will give you a wealth of valuable information that you can put into immediate use. And it’s readily available online for under $10.

Feeling Good can help you to better understand the power of cognitive reframing, and discover methods that can help you permanently improve your relationship with yourself and others.

The Powerful Symbolism of Scotland’s Tartans

In 1746, Scottish Jacobites were determined to see Scotland freed from England’s domination. They fought the English forces at the Battle of Culloden in hopes that when they prevailed, they would place their leader, Charles Edward Stuart (“Bonnie Prince Charlie”), on the British throne. However, the battle was a bloodbath, and the Jacobite cause was thoroughly defeated. To prevent further uprisings by supporters of the Stuarts, Britain outlawed Scotland’s clan system and the wearing of the clans’ beloved tartans.

The wearing of clan tartans had been a source of great pride and an essential marker of cultural and ideological identity for the clans of the Scottish Highlands. Britain’s ban on tartans undermined a resurgence of clan efforts to gain Scotland’s independence. The ban on tartans continued for 26 years after Culloden. The English imposed severe penalties on anyone found wearing such identifying garb.

In 1782, the ban was lifted. Indeed, during the 19th century, Queen Victoria and her family took to decorating their beloved Scottish Castle, Balmoral, with tartans, and even wore tartans themselves when in Scotland.

By the way, for Scots and other Brits, the words “tartan” and “plaid” aren’t synonyms. In Scotland, a plaid is not a pattern—it’s a long piece of tartan cloth worn over the shoulder as part of traditional Scottish dress.

Avoid Bullies During (and After) the Holidays

[Originally published in November 2016.]

As the holidays approach, I’m reminded of multiple painful Thanksgiving dinners years ago during which I felt forced to spend time with a relative who repeatedly bullied me. She insulted me in my own house, picked fights with me in front of others and blamed me for actions I hadn’t taken, and for words I never said. Ultimately, I refused to be treated that way anymore, and stopped spending holidays with someone who insisted on telling lies about me and attacking me for things I didn’t do. Having to refuse to see her at holidays was very painful, but spending time with someone who claimed to love me yet also berated, insulted and lied to me and about me was worse.

If you find yourself in a situation in which you are dreading holidays because you fear that you will be insulted or attacked, or worry that you will feel trapped and helpless, remember: there is no rule that says you must be with other people at holiday time. We have all been told that spending a holiday alone is terrifying and awful, and that holiday solitude means we are bad or worthless, unloved or unloving. None of that is true.

If you dread the holidays because you fear you have no alternative but to walk into the lion’s den and be eaten, know that it is perfectly okay to stay home (or go away someplace) and celebrate the day in your own way. You can be thankful and be a good person even if you eat a bowl of soup by yourself or with only your partner or immediate family, then take yourself out to a movie. You can sleep in and catch up on your novel, or binge watch your favorite TV show, or listen to podcasts while you do puzzles, or take a long walk with your favorite dog. You can eat spaghetti instead of turkey. You always have options.

The biggest concern about opting out of powerfully painful social interactions is often about how others will view you afterwards: will they shun you, punish you, talk about you behind your back if you don’t attend? They might. Your refusing to attend an event could cause a family rift. Not attending Thanksgiving with your in-laws or sister or dad might mean getting angry phone calls about it later, so there is a trade-off and a risk of future pain. But if you are miserable being with other people because they treat you with contempt or disregard, is that a healthy dynamic to perpetuate? If they (or you) become abusive when provoked, especially in the current political climate when so many of us are fragile, thin-skinned and worried about the future, engaging with others in anger after one too many glasses of holiday wine could be not only emotionally but physically unsafe.

If being with a person, even one whom you love, makes you feel sick, sad, worthless, angry or frustrated and efforts to interact in a healthier way haven’t worked, clinging to that relationship even though it brings out the worst in you and others can be very damaging. Being unwilling to accept another’s bad behavior just because it comes from a family member does not make you monstrous. Avoiding abusive situations is just good self care.

Depression is often exacerbated over the holidays when we compare what we think we need to feel fulfilled with what seems to be available to us. We may be reminded of past hurts, losses, shame and regrets, and they may overwhelm our feelings of love, happiness or safety. If you fear that being with certain people is not safe for you and will bring on destructive feelings toward yourself (or them), remember: you don’t have to engage. You don’t have to attend events. You can have a quiet holiday on your own without falling apart. Others may respond with hurt feelings, and you may have to deal with your own feelings of guilt (often not deserved) if you prioritize your own mental health above placating those who cause you distress. But if you’re an adult, you do have a choice about where you spend your time and with whom. Please don’t put yourself or others in harm’s way.

Dionne Warwick’s Effortless Grace

The melding of Dionne Warwick’s voice with songs by Burt Bacharach and Hal David was one of the loveliest things to happen to music in the 1960s. Like her younger cousin Whitney Houston, Miss Warwick had a natural elegance and seeming effortlessness to her performances that belied the skill and preparation behind her work. This serene stylishness was played up in studio recordings and TV appearances. In an exciting video of a very young star performing the hit “Walk on By” live in 1964, that cool grace is mixed with a freshness and verve that really makes me wish I’d seen her perform in person.

But we can still enjoy her wit—her Twitter feed shows that the superstar now affectionately known by many as “Auntie Dionne,” still has plenty of humor and joie de vivre to go around.

The Founders’ Intent

Declaration of Independence, an 1819 painting by John Trumble, shows Jefferson at the center of a group of men presenting their draft on June 28, 1776

Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant but deeply flawed man who viewed only white men as being deserving of the rights of full citizenship. To further his expansionist plans, he began the process of Indian tribal removal from the newly acquired Northwest Territory, which began genocidal policies that ravaged native populations and stripped native people of their rights, homes, and lives. Knowing that slavery was evil, he forced his children born of Sally Hemings, whom he enslaved and impregnated, to live their lives as slaves instead of freeing them.

Jefferson was also a inventor, scholar, writer, and, of course, one of the most prominent of our so-called Founding Fathers. He is considered all-wise and beyond reproach by many Second Amendment fetishists. The so-called originalists on the Supreme Court say we must follow “the founders’ intent,” and base their rulings on the explicitly expressed opinions of rich, white, largely slave-owning men like Jefferson. Justices Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh in particular express a determination to follow the intent of men dead for two centuries unwaveringly, as if they were infallible and holy. This backwards view assumes that no new understanding of humanity or science or the world around us, no historical or cultural shifts—in short, nothing has happened in the past 250 years might justly influence how we see the world.

For all his many grave faults, Jefferson was an educated and worldly man obsessed with expanding his understanding of statecraft, science, human nature, and the world around him. It takes no stretch of the imagination to recognize that the world view of the originalists is antithetical to his values. The idea that all human enlightenment that might influence jurisprudence and improve the new  nation he so cherished should end with his own life experience would have shocked and appalled him.

If we play devil’s advocate and assume for a moment that sticking to “the founders’ intent” is a valid way to mete out justice, what Jefferson actually said he believed is of great consequence. If we are to follow his guidance, shouldn’t we consider his intent as expressed in his own writings?

One prominent example of his intent can be found in the words carved into the Jefferson Memorial itself:

“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as a civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

An Extraordinary Evening with Jessica Williams

Jessica

[The vastly talented Jessica Williams died on March 12, 2022. I originally published the following essay about her in July 2005. Jessica became my friend the night I first heard her in concert back then, and I was honored that our friendship deepened, and we stayed in touch until just a few months before her passing. Jessica was a remarkable musician and a beautiful human being. Her website is sadly no longer online, but you can still find examples of her exquisite music.—LG ]

Two nights ago I was invited to share in a magical, memorable evening of of music. Jessica Williams, the extraordinary jazz pianist, played an intimate and elegant concert at the home of my friend Richard. He had spoken to her after her concerts in Seattle over the years, and had the good fortune to be seated next to her on a flight from San Jose to Seattle some months back, which gave them time to share a friendly conversation. Richard is a jazz pianist himself and the owner of a fine piano, and he and Jessica spoke about the idea of her performing at his home for a small group of local jazz aficionados after she finished her bigger Seattle gigs. Happily, the idea became a reality. Seattle is a great town for jazz; the jazz community is avid, active, and friendly, and small enough that everyone gets to know everyone else before too long. This little group knew Jessica’s music well, and the buzz of delight and amazement that we could all get so close to a jazz master had us all feeling a little tipsy before anyone had a drop to drink.

Jessica is well-known and loved among jazz fans and players; the frequently repeated question is, why isn’t she better known to the rest of the world? She’s noted for her improvisational brilliance, has played with jazz greats such as Dexter Gordon and Leroy Vinnegar, and has received lavish praise from the likes of Dave Brubeck, McCoy Tyner, and Marian McPartland, on whose NPR radio show, Piano Jazz, Jessica has performed. Her pieces have often been played between interviews on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross; Terry is a great fan of hers and Jessica was interviewed on Fresh Air and performed an in-studio concert for Terry’s listeners in 1997. I highly recommend listening to the 2002 rebroadcast, available free online, which includes pieces by Monk and Gershwin and some of Jessica’s own beautiful compositions.

What makes her playing unique and exciting is a combination of dazzling technical skill and warm, melodic, lyrical feeling. Her touch is sure, she plays with conviction, and she has the chops to knock any other player out of his socks if she wants to. Yet at the same time, she breathes warmth and life into pieces that can feel cold in other hands. She can take an atonal, dissonant piece that others might treat as an exercise to show off virtuosity and find the spirit at its core, the life force behind the string of impressive notes, the hush in the middle of the chord that a show-off performer would miss.

Jessica finds great inspiration and pleasure in playing compositions by Thelonious Monk, who’s notorious for being tricky to follow or hard to get. Despite having written the accessible but wonderful ballad “‘Round Midnight,” Monk can sometimes be rough, bouncy and dissonant. When Jessica plays him, however, she isn’t afraid to lighten him up, play up the humor behind the notes, to show the subtlety in his compositions so one can feel the thought behind the dissonances, and understand why they’re right and not random.

Jessica was classically trained, so early on she still believed that there were rules that couldn’t be broken and techniques that must be followed when playing piano. She told Terry Gross the first time she heard a record of Monk playing, she thought he sounded like he was wearing boxing gloves at the piano. But with continued listening, she grew to love his openness to new techniques. She incorporated some of them into her own playing and has developed other innovative techniques that amplify the feeling in her music without ever getting lost in tricks for the sake of tricks.

Sometimes Jessica reaches into the piano to strum the strings while playing keys, incorporating a sound like an autoharp into her playing, as she did at the beginning and end of “Getting Sentimental Over You” when she played it during her Fresh Air concert. She’s careful not to overuse it, however; she doesn’t want to become gimmicky but likes to explore the variety of sounds that a piano can make and integrate these devices into the tunes to add color. During this week’s concert, she reached into the piano to strum it at several points, and she occasionally shuffled the soles of her shoes across the wood floor to create a sound like a drummer would with a brush, or like a softshoe dancer might. She also likes to quote other jazz compositions when she plays, a common tip of the hat from one jazz musician to another, throwing a few measures of a well-known jazz standard into a piece for humor and as an homage. She improvises these surprises and tosses them as little treats for the audience, each one a lagniappe to lighten the heart when listeners get too earnest and caught up in the piece.

On Monday night, she began with a piece by John Coltrane, “Wise One,” followed by “The Very Thought of You” by Ray Noble, “Paul’s Pal” by Sonny Rollins, and two pieces by Monk, “Ugly Beauty” and “Nutty.” I’ve never enjoyed Monk as much as I did that evening. She has said that record producers have often pushed her to show off more of her impressive technique, focusing on speed and flash, and playing Monk certainly allows her that, but she plays him with more subtlety and insight. There’s intelligence in her playing without cold intellectualism, an awareness of exactly what note, what chord, what sense of space is necessary to make a phrase work while still holding the meaning of the song, its essence, the point of it all, in her heart. For her, the most satisfying playing involves a spiritual element. As she told me, she can emphasize flash and technique when she’s playing in a wild or distracted venue or on a bad piano that can’t hold up to subtlety; she can adapt and please the audience when that’s what’s called for. But when she is in the right space with a good instrument and a receptive audience, this nuanced and spiritual essence of her playing emerges, and a thrilling pleasure in being right there, right then, with her, in the palm of her hand, fills the audience, or, in the case of someone lucky enough to own her CDs, fills the listener sitting alone at home if she or he gives her pieces the attention they deserve.

Jessica’s playing is so lovely and lyrical that it’s more accessible than many jazz pianists without ever crossing over into that scary “lite jazz” territory. She began her second set with Irving Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful” from the musical Annie Get Your Gun—songs don’t come much more accessible than that. And yet in her hands it was anything but trite; it was fresh again, and as pure as it was when Berlin wrote it. One of my favorite moments in the evening came when she played Dexter Gordon’s “Don’t Explain.” I’ve always loved Billie Holiday’s version, so it’s hard for me to give other artists due credit when they play it, it’s so associated with Lady Day in my mind. But I was right there with Jessica, note for note. Her love for Dexter Gordon the man, as well as for his music, was evident in her playing, and it was an emotionally rich piece.

She followed it with her own eloquent ode to her friend, “I Remember Dexter,” and two more of her elegant compositions, “Poem in G minor” and “Sheikh.” She ended with a gorgeous rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” that left me so touched I had to compose myself before I could shake her hand and tell her what a wonderful evening it had been. Ellington himself would have pronounced her performance “beyond category.” At the end of that second set, I realized I’d been staring rapt at her hands the whole time and hadn’t even looked up once to see the faces of the other people sitting around me. At the end of the concert I saw the same grateful wonder in their eyes that I felt, that we could be sitting 10 feet from greatness and share in this experience.

Before the concert, I had the pleasure of talking with Jessica in the kitchen. For all her skill and mastery, and despite all the swooning and kudos afforded her by fans and fellow artists, she is anything but a diva. She was humble and gracious, and she spoke of the pleasure she takes in her art and in sharing life with friends, of the places around the world in which she’s lived, of the kindnesses shown her by several jazz artists, like Dexter Gordon and his wife. She’d never met me before, but asked me about myself as well, and listened and cared about what I had to say. She was there, standing in a kitchen with a stranger, present in the moment and open to the experience. She showed a respectful, commonsense kindness with me and everyone present which I wish was shared by all people of such accomplishment and fame.

Jessica’s lived courageously and taken risks, turned corners when she was told what a mistake it was and been true to her heart, her music, and her passions. She’s been open to new techniques, to new styles, to resurrecting older ideas or creating new sounds that resonate with her heart. The result is a lovely, gracious, multifaceted woman who creates beauty and cares about the world around her and the people in it.

Andrew Gilbert wrote beautifully of Jessica and her art for the San Jose Mercury News: “A tremendously assured musician, Williams marks her style with ravishing lyricism and daring improvisational flights. But what really sets her solo performances apart is her gift for seamlessly weaving together various jazz keyboard styles, encompassing the highly syncopated stride school of the ’20s and ’30s, the light, effortlessly dancing approach of the swing era, the jagged single-note runs of bebop and the rhythmically diffuse sound perfected by Bill Evans in the ’60s, all integrated into an organic whole by her compelling sense of narrative flow.”

Postscript: When I first met Jessica, her website’s homepage quoted one of her favorite musicians and people, John Coltrane. It said: “I want to be a force for good. I know there are bad forces here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be the force which is truly good.” This quotation was so apt for Jessica; she lived her life in a way that brought pleasure to others, and she shared her remarkable talents and hopes with others through her musical gifts. She lived her values and spoke through her art. Jessica was an extraordinary person; she will always be my cherished friend. 

Magic and Menace: The Music of Värttinä

Icicles, those shimmering, elemental, diamond-like structures, may be nothing but water, but they can turn deadly in the right circumstances. Imagine a dark winter’s night in a Finnish forest, the sounds of icicles crashing down around you, the air filled with shattering noises and the wailing of the wind. You hear the cracking of tree limbs weighed down by their icy shrouds, the lowing of frightened animals in the barn, and your mind turns to the stories your grandmother told you about the spirits of the forest, the demons, the maleficent influence of the long dark nights, the wild animals, the errant hunters. This is the sound of Värttinä.

Nearly 40 years ago Finnish sisters Sari and Mari Kaasinen took their love of Finnish and Karelian (southeastern Finnish) folklore and decided to add music to their recitations of poetry and epic stories. They named their group Värttinä, which means “spindle,” as a way to honor women’s traditions and creations, and ever since the group has sung in the Karelian dialect of the Finnish language accompanied by various acoustic instruments.

Värttinä has long been known for singing “korkeelta ja kovvoo” (high and loud) in a style Americans may recognize as sharing some elements of singing made popular by Bulgarian women’s choirs in the 1980s and early 1990s. The group mixes wonderfully intricate and unexpected rhythms with high, vibrato-free, intense women’s voices singing in close but dissonant harmonies. Their nasal, diaphonic, tension-filled sound isn’t what most of us who grew up on Western musical traditions usually find beautiful. Yet there is an intense and dramatic quality to their music, and their precision and power bring joy to what could otherwise be a jarring, even disturbing sound.

Many of their songs are based on Finnish folk tales involving death, darkness and misery, but there’s an open-throated ardency and precision to their music that helps one understand how sitting before the fire on a stormy night sharing bloody tales of horror could be a fascinating way to while away the long, dark Finnish winters.

Finland had an ancient tradition of oral storytelling and poetry, but it was overshadowed by the rise of European-style rhymed written poetry around the 18th century. During the 19th century Elias Lönnrot compiled centuries’ worth of Finnish (and probably ancient Estonian) folk tales and combined them into the written epic poem known as the Kalevala. The poem, first published in 1835, is the national epic of Karelia and Finland. The region spent ages under the thumb of Swedish and later Russian domination, and the compilation of stories into the Kalevala made it easier for Finns to share and treasure their history. This led to the rise of a Finnish national identity and inflamed the desire of Finns to be self-governing and to use and delight in their own language instead of subsuming their identity to conquering nations’ desires. The movement inspired by the power and popularity of the Kalevala is said to have propelled the growth of national pride that resulted in Finland’s independence from Russia in 1917.

I first heard Värttinä on the PRI radio show “The World” in the late 1990s around the time that their album Vimha was released. The title cut, which means “The Ice Storm” in Finnish, captured my imagination instantly. I was captivated by the complexity of the rhythms, the unexpectedly bold and dissonant yet beautiful voices, and the joy of hearing rapid-fire Finnish, which was the first language of my beloved grandmother. She had sung to me in Finnish when I was a little girl, and I played and sang Finnish folk songs to her at the piano during my teens, though those songs were nothing like the wild, animalistic, galloping folksongs of Värttinä.

There is a tradition of darkness in Finnish culture which can also be found in Russian literature; it’s not surprising considering the bitterness and length of the dark winters and the dangers inherent in making a life in such inhospitable surroundings. But there is also an indomitable spirit to be witnessed and savored in their arts, and a powerful desire to face down death in order to reaffirm the life force. Värttinä adds a strong feminist element to this desire to acknowledge but laugh in the face of death. While this formerly all-female group has expanded to include men over time, and men have gone on to write much of their music, the power of women’s voices still underlies their modern take on roots music.

British Beauty Tips Circa 1960

In 1908, Pathé invented the newsreel, a short-subject film  shown in cinemas prior to feature films. The Pathé Brothers of France owned the world’s largest film equipment and production company, and they saw the benefit of bringing news to life for moving picture fans and thus padding out an afternoon or evening’s cinematic entertainment. In the years before television, people grew to rely on newsreels during their weekly cinema visits to keep up with royal visits, war news, sports, fashion and celebrity events and travelogues that took them to far-away places.

Over time, many short subject films took on a nationalistic bent, and they were used as propaganda tools during World Wars I and II. Some showed women on the home front how to make do with rationed food and fabrics during and after World War II. Others showed teens at play, making them seem like laughable aliens, underscoring the generation gap that caused such rifts between teens and their parents in the 1950s and 1960s and played out in major culture clashes in both cinematic and real life.

News reels often depicted the people of other nations as quaint and exotic, and made women look like vain, silly, laughable lightweights. But they were wittily narrated, well-edited and often visually sumptuous, so they make for fascinating views into 20th century cultural history today.

Pathé short-subject films reached the height of their appeal in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s in Britain. Many of these shorts involve women being made to look foolish while demonstrating outlandish fashion or beauty trends and inventions, all accompanied by an orchestra playing a peppy tune and a wry male narrator making snappy sexist comments.

It’s always interesting to see how much effort has been put into inventing odd machinery to distract women, perpetuate stereotypes and keep women “in their place.” It still goes on today, of course, but now women’s voices are used to make the narrated hype more palatable and to seem more “empowering” and less demeaning.

Charles Dickens: “Mankind Was My Business”

Christmas Carol Cover

“Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “not to know … that any … spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!”

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

—A Christmas Carol

In my family, A Christmas Carol is almost a sacred text. My grandmother quoted from it each Christmastime, and she, my mother (a teacher of English literature) and I watched each film and television version of it, cocoa and Kleenex in hand. We recited along with Marley’s Ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Present, Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim, weeping and hugging and loving every moment of the story.  Each viewing or reading of A Christmas Carol left us renewed in our commitments to each other and ourselves to hold Christmas in our hearts all through the coming year, and to remember Jacob Marley’s exhortation that looking after each other and lifting up those around us was our true reason for living. A Christmas Carol reminded us that humankind was our business, that “charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence” were our collective responsibility to each other, and the source of humanity’s greatest joys as well.

When my own daughter was old enough, I began reading Dickens stories aloud to her, and of course A Christmas Carol was among them. I read the whole of it to her in one evening, stopping occasionally to compose myself. She and I went to see a beautiful theatrical production of it in Seattle when she was a girl, just as my mother and I had seen multiple wonderful versions of it at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco during my childhood. Seeing A Christmas Carol has always meant far more to me than attending any production of The Nutcracker ever could.

This masterful work, so perfectly composed, so moving, so excitingly paced, was written in just six weeks when Charles Dickens’s fortunes were flagging, his coffers low and his popularity waning. But it was not worry about his purse or his reputation that inspired Dickens; it was his childhood spent in a debtor’s prison with his family that made him speak out so powerfully on behalf of the poor. While still a young boy, Dickens was forced to leave school to work in a boot blacking factory. There he spent his days pasting labels on bottles in hopes of making enough money to bail his father out of his debts. It was only through the efforts of children that Dickens’s father could pay off his debts and at last leave the Marshalsea Prison. Though Dickens later grew prosperous and world-renowned, he never forgot his time spent among the poor, the sick, the fearful and the abandoned.

In early 1843, Britain’s Parliament published a report on the damaging effects of the Industrial Revolution on poor children. The Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission moved Dickens deeply, and he planned to write and publish an inexpensive political pamphlet to encourage commissioners and other lawmakers to do more on behalf of the poor.

Dickens gave a fundraising speech in October of that year at the Manchester Athenæum, urging workers and employers to come together to combat ignorance with educational reform. It was during that visit to Manchester that he realized his greatest ability to influence and inform was not through political tracts and speeches but through his works of fiction. In those early days of October 1843, he devised the plot of A Christmas Carol. When he returned to his home in London, he worked in a fury to complete the story in time for Christmas publication, and just made it: it was published 177 years ago today.

The Decline of Kindness, and the Social Costs of Selfishness

This is the saddest thing I’ve read today: “If you survey American parents about what they want for their kids, more than 90 percent say one of their top priorities is that their children be caring. This makes sense: Kindness and concern for others are held as moral virtues in nearly every society and every major religion. But when you ask children what their parents want for them, 81 percent say their parents value achievement and happiness over caring.” So write Adam Grant and Allison Sweet Grant write in “Stop Trying to Raise Successful Kids,” an article in the December 2019 issue of The Atlantic.

If your kids don’t know that kindness is the most important quality of a human being, then you’ve failed as a parent. Prizing the attainment of admiration from others and believing in the innate primacy of your own happiness above the well-being of others leads to a deadening of empathy for and lack of awareness of the situations and needs of others. Devaluing kindness and decency and elevating selfishness and disconnection from others has brought the United States and the United Kingdom to their current damaged and dangerous states.

The Grants continue, “Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, then, that kindness appears to be in decline. A rigorous analysis of annual surveys of American college students showed a substantial drop from 1979 to 2009 in empathy and in imagining the perspectives of others. Over this period, students grew less likely to feel concern for people less fortunate than themselves—and less bothered by seeing others treated unfairly.”

Self-absorption and lack of ability to imagine the challenges that others face are what have led to a growing unwillingness to honor and support the social contract. Greed and a growing disdain for “outsiders” has led to the driving down of rates of taxation and an unwillingness to support the maintenance of national infrastructure. After decades of prosperity and expansion made possible by higher tax rates for corporations and for the wealthiest citizens of the U.S., we are now seeing enormous income disparities not experienced by previous generations. We face major infrastructure failures in U.S. cities, as well as increasing annual costs to save people from death and destruction from climate-change-fueled natural disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires. The increase in me-first (and me-only) thinking has put all of us at greater economic, emotional and physical risk.

A lack of desire to put oneself in others’ shoes leads to wariness and a willingness to justify not only lack of concern but outright cruelty toward those who find themselves in different circumstances. That’s why we now have public schools actively shaming poor children whose parents can’t afford to pay school lunch bills, immigration authorities kidnapping babies and confining them in cages with no record of who or where their parents are, and thousands of other well-publicized examples of people being marginalized, demonized, even left to die with widespread social approval.

Interestingly, in studies of the countries rated as the happiest in the world, researchers find that the countries that rate highest in such metrics also have the world’s happiest immigrants. The positive and welcoming treatment of outsiders who enter into a society is strongly correlated not only with the immigrants’ happiness, but with the satisfaction, health, safety and economic prosperity of the society as a whole. Such societies view others not as outsiders with values deserving of disdain, but as valued new compatriots from whom they can learn and with whom they can find common ground.

The point of strength and influence is to extend one’s power to do good for the benefit of others as well as ourselves. The noblest goal is the use of one’s power (whether individual, corporate or national) to help others and lift them up, to give them reason for hope, to help them see that they and their needs are reflected in our eyes. Happily, following through on that lofty goal actually brings greater happiness, prosperity, and longevity over all on both a personal and society level. Such socially oriented thinking has been proven to increase happiness and satisfaction, and to raise the safety and prosperity of others within society. And that’s what life is about. The rest is just glitter and dust.

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash