Thursday, January 26, 2012

Thank You Power

A few years ago, I saw a copy of Thank You Power: Making the Science of Gratitude Work For You in a clearance book bin. What intrigued me about the book was who its author was, Deborah Norville.

In 1987, University of Georgia suma cum laude graduate Norville was selected to replace Jane Pauley on NBC's The Today Show. Cries of ageism immediately sprang forth as people protested what they saw as the usurpation of the popular Pauley. Struggling to defend her credibility when Jane Pauley left the morning broadcast, the pressure became unbearable for Norville, who left the show during her maternity leave in 1991. For a while, to be replaced by a younger worker was even dubbed being "norville'd". Many people, including the Emmy-winning reporter herself, thought she would never return to television. A few years later, Ms. Norville would regroup and write a book about her experience, Back on Track: How to Straighten Out Your Life When It Throws You a Curve.

Thank You Power is a quick and simple refresher course on the importance of gratitude presented in the context of studies in "positive psychology" and its role in personal happiness and intrapersonal relationships. Norville discussed various studies done on this topic and what the researchers learned in an interview while promoting the book:
[Positive Psychology] is a fairly new field, this notion of counting your blessings and the quantifiable benefits of gratitude. But what gratitude does is it puts you in a positive affect. You feel good from counting your blessings, you're more optimistic, you're less pessimistic, you even exercise on average an hour and a half more per week...You feel good when you do all those things. If you feel good, your dopamine receptors are activated. You're a better thinker. You will do better on a test."
Ms. Norville made a profession of Christian faith at the age of 15 and this perspective permeates her writing. The last chapter covers Scripture's admonitions to give thanks in all things and hold fast to the promise of Romans 8:28: We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. She cites studies echoed in Arthur C. Brooks' Gross National Happiness.
Duke University's Center on Spirituality has done a great deal of research on [people of faith being happier]. Spiritual people and religious people live longer. Religious people are happier. There is even one study that encompasses many, many years called the Nun Study. It was published by researchers at the University of Kentucky...They took the writing of some sisters shortly after they took their vows and they looked at their explanatory style. They looked at their hopefulness. They evaluated the personality of these people based on their writings. Those who has a more hopeful explanatory style lived an average of ten years longer. So, simply being an optimistic person can add a full decade to your life. "
There's nothing new or profound in this little book. At times, the writing is cliched. However, I have enacted one of its recommendations. I now have a "Thank You" journal where every day I write down three things from the day for which I am thankful and who or what made these things possible. It is a wonderful way to be reminded to have an attitude of gratitude - regardless of whether it makes me live longer or not.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

It's All Greek To Me! A Review of "The Classics: All You Need to Know from Zeus's Throne to the Fall of Rome"

I know I should have resisted that title, but I honestly just couldn't! I blame the breezy, sassy style of Caroline Taggart's writing. This isn't the book for you if you are looking for a serious review of all the classical literature and mythology you have forgotten since college. Taggart's obvious love of all things Greek (and by extension Roman), doesn't stop her from pithy quips and irreverent commentary on the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece. This is a fun refresher of the Greek and Roman names, places and phrases that have become part of our everyday lexicon.

Taggart defends the study of the Greeks right off the bat: "So the Greeks didn't invent art, architecture or culture, either. Why all the fuss? . . . They invented our art, architecture, culture and philosophy. In the 21st century Western world, there are classical influences all around us." If you doubt Ms. Taggart, take a walk around Washington, DC past the ionic, Doric and Corinthian columns on temples devoted to our dead heroes. Our language tips its hat towards these Greeks. Throw in a funny ad lib while working on an ad hoc committee and you might have a Herculean task to get back to work. "We are just statistics, born to consume resources." A quote from the latest environmental book? Nope. That's Homer writing in the 1st century.

Taggart reminds many who have taken the SAT or ACT why they thanked God for their high school Latin classes: Biology: bio (life) and logia (study); monogamy: monos (one) and gamos (union); telephone: tele (far) and phone (voice) are just a few examples of Greek words adopted in the English language.

Taggart gives her reader a crash course in mythology and provides plenty of witty remarks disguised as footnotes. She discusses historical (and maybe not so historical) figures, gives her readers Homer's background and generally fleshes out those problematic crossword puzzle Greek names and phrases.

A parting shot, or more correctly a Parthian shot, trivia abounds and some of it was really nifty. I now know if we raise a glass to nunc est bibendum ("now is the time for drinking"), we have Horace to thank. Arachne challenged Athena to a weaving contest and ended up being turned into a spider. (Yep, that's how it became arachnophobia.) Nebuchadnezzar built the hanging gardens of Babylon (Yep, same Nebuchadnezzar.) The running of the Olympic torch wasn't part of the ancient games. The man responsible for the 1936 Olympics came up with the idea and the PR guy ran with it. Did I mention it was the Berlin Olympics and the PR guy was Joseph Goebbels?

This, like Taggart's other books, is light reading. If you're looking for a fun way to pass the time (and discover how Hippocrates is associated with certain personality tests), pick up a copy.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Thoughts on Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl

As I read the back cover of Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl, I kept thinking of those TV chefs that reel off ingredients so quickly you can't remember them all, but you catch enough of them for your mouth to water in anticipation. Reading the book itself, my analogy shifts to that of being in a virtual ZORB and pushing it around our world as a way to see it from different perspectives.

The narrative is incredibly sensory. At times, I rolled my eyes at the abundance of metaphors, but then I realized this excess was purposeful. This book wasn't meant to be an intellectual exercise as much as a sensate experience. Being in the Reformed community, I'm used to using the ol' grey matter to analyze and discuss areas of Scripture and truths of God. However, the Lord also made us with a right side to our brain and if we are going to be fully developed, we must use it in these endeavors as well. He writes in the introduction, "A neutral observer would not find this world to be believable. Ergo, the cause of said unbelievable world must place similar stretch marks on the imagination.

Wilson begins by looking at the created world as art, especially the devalued artistry of snowflakes - each one unique and masterfully created and yet so plenteous as to be thrown around by shovels and plows! That says something about the God we serve. Without a microscope, we won't see all the intricacies of these snowflakes, but the Creator is an Artist who creates beauty for His own enjoyment. Wilson pushes us to see the wonder, the whimsy, and the magic in creation:
"What is the world? What is it for? It is art. It is the best of all possible art, a finite picture of the infinite. Assess it like prose, like poetry, like architecture, sculpture, painting, dance, delta blues, opera, tragedy, comedy, romance, epic. Assess it like you would a Faberge egg, like a gunfight, like a musical, like a snowflake, like a death, a triumph, a love story, a tornado, a smile, a heartbreak. . . This painting is by an infinite Artist. It is a reflection of Himself (could there be a better subject?), worked out in colors, lives, and constellations, in a universe that to us seems endless but is to Him a mere frame, a small space, a confining challenge for His artistry."
Wilson says instead of philosophers:
"Give me priests. Give me men with feathers in their hair or tall domed hats, female oracles in caves, servants of the python smoking weed and reading psalms. A gypsy fortune-teller with a foot peddle Ouija board and a gold fishbowl for a crystal ball knows more about the world than many of the great thinkers of the West. Mumbling priests swinging sink cans on their chains and even witch doctors conjuring up curses with a well-buried elephant tooth have a better sense of their places in the world. They know this universe is brimming with magic, with life and riddles and ironies. They know that the world might eat them, and no encyclopedia could stop it . . . Marx called religion an opiae, and all too often it is. But philosophy is an anesthetic, a shot to keep the wonder away."
If this world is God's art, His story, then what character are you? What role do you play? Would you like yourself if watching yourself portrayed on the silver screen? Do you respond the way you would want the character in the story to respond? More importantly, if we are characters in His story, then we have a story arc with all that implies - tragedy and comedy, good and evil, wins and losses.

Wilson address "The Problem with Kittens." Go into any Christian bookstore and you'll see cards or plaques with photos of adorable kittens in baskets with a comforting verse tacked on. The problem is: The same God who made kittens made the kittens grown up to be lions, cougars and tigers who kill Bambi and other adorable creatures to feed to their young. The same God who made bunnies made red-tailed hawks and eagles who rip the cottontails apart with their talons for food. We must have room for kittens and lions, bunnies and hawks in our concept of who God is. We struggle with evil in our lives, but we don't in our art. We understand the evil in a story moves the plot along. Wilson puts it this way:
"The Problem Part Two: The world is rate R, and no one is checking IDs. Do not try to make it Go by imagining the shadows away. Do not try to hide your children from the world forever, but do not pretend there is no danger. Train them. Give them sharp eyes and bellies full of laughter. Make them dangerous. Make them yeast, and when they've grown, they will pollute the shadows."
Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl is rich in beauty and instruction. I loved the poetic look at our earth: "The ocean can never forget the Flood. It has tasted mountains. Waking and sleeping, it chews," and the four seasons as analogous to our lives: "My grandfather is like his house. Once strong and young, now his beams and timbers sag beneath the weight of long use, heavier even than the piles of snow on his roof and the fanged ice stretching down from the gutters . . . Let the Winter come. It is the only path to Spring. The house is battered with cold, but inside there is a warmth that cannot and will not die."
"Do you resent this world, this art? Do you hate Him for cancer, for car wrecks, and for the sudden shocking sleep of the young? . . . Go to Him or go to Hell. Those are the only two choices because Hell will be wherever He is not."
Our world is God's painting, sculpture and play. When the curtain is drawn on our role, we will walk off this stage and on to a greater stage - with Him or without Him.