I know a woman who once hated her ex with such fury that she soothed herself by imagining all the ways she might kill him. She and he did the acrimony dance through lawyers long after their finances were left in ruins. Somehow they both believed they spared their daughter, having agreed to remain cheerful in her presence. The girl surely saw the grimaces inside their smiles.
Their loathing simmered for years until their child, at nine, was diagnosed with cancer. Both parents went to her appointments and treatments. They cried and prayed and hoped together. Their daughter survived. She grew up smart and strong. She recently got engaged.
My friend is happily remarried and her ex lives with a much adored life partner. The two couples have been vacationing together for years. They laugh, they reminisce, they dance in ways that give each couple space. They talk about buying a big house or property with two homes so the four of them can move in together. They imagine a backyard roomy enough for their daughter’s wedding. Imagine it scattered with trees perfect for their someday grandchildren to climb. They message each other real estate listings all the time.
I think of countries around the world that were once at war, but are now on friendly terms. They read each other’s literature, savor each other’s cuisines, celebrate each other’s accomplishments. Tourists visit parks where war memorials stand under flowering trees. Suffering and loss can decompose over time into something nourishing, as nature so patiently shows us.
This isn’t a perfect analogy in a time of division, especially when so many refuse to look at longstanding structural inequities and ongoing injustices. And trauma needs time and acknowledgement to start healing. But there’s hope. My friend just texted me a picture of a listing the four of them are considering. “It isn’t perfect,” she writes, “but its got so many possibilities!”
The Greek word agape describes unconditional, universal love. This kind of love is at the core of nearly every religious tradition and deep wisdom path. We’re talking Big Love, made up of compassion for all of Earth’s inhabitants.
Be always humble, gentle, and patient. Show your love by being tolerant with one another. Do your best to preserve the unity which the Spirit gives by means of the peace that binds you together. (Ephesians 4:2-3)
Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings; radiating kindness over the entire world: spreading upwards to the skies, and downwards to the depths; outwards and unbounded, freed from hatred and ill-will. (excerpt from Karaniya Metta Sutta: The Buddha’s Words on Loving-Kindness)
He who sees all beings in his Self and his Self in all beings, he never suffers; because when he sees all creatures within his true Self, then jealousy, grief and hatred vanish. (Paramananda, The Upanishads)
Benevolence towards all living beings, joy at the sight of the virtuous, compassion and sympathy for the afflicted, and tolerance towards the insolent and ill-behaved. (Jain text, Tattvartha Sutra, chapter 7, sutra 11)
There are many forces trying to tear us away from such a compassionate approach, forces that foster divisions to gain profit and political power.
But we can quietly amplify love in our daily lives, even while waiting in line at the market or sitting on the bus by practicing lovingkindness. This is one of the most ancient forms of Buddhist practice, known for over 2,500 years. Consider the following studies showing how effective even a secular and simplified lovingkindness practice can be.
Intentionally take a lovingkindness walk. In a study out of Iowa State University, students were asked to think genuine kind and loving thoughts about each person they saw on one 12 minute walk. They were also told to recite this affirmation to themselves each time they saw a stranger: “I wish for this person to be happy.” The study compared them with other students who were told to walk and consider what they had in common with passersby, students who were told to walk and compare themselves with others, and students who simply walked while observing others. The students who practiced lovingkindness toward others benefited from “…lower anxiety, greater happiness, greater empathy, and higher feelings of caring and connectedness…”
Intentionally cultivate feelings of compassion. A University of Wisconsin–Madison study put people through a mindfulness program. They were required to follow guided audio instruction for 30 minutes each day for two weeks. Half participated in compassion training in which they worked at cultivating feelings of compassion for different people (a loved one, the self, a stranger, and a difficult person). The other half received reappraisal training in which they “practiced reinterpreting personally stressful events” with the goal of lessening their negative emotional reaction.
Before and after the study, participants’ brains were scanned as they concentrated on their assigned strategy (compassion or reappraisal) while viewing a series of images. A majority of those images depicted people suffering. Brain scans of those who received compassion training revealed “a pattern of neural changes” related to empathy, executive and emotional control, and reward processing. In other words, they expanded their capacity to care.
Also, all participants took part in an online “redistribution game,” which imposed unfairness on others while giving participants a chance to rectify it. People who completed compassion training spent nearly twice as much of their own money to try to rectify unfairness as those who completed the more neutral training. Researchers wrote, “This demonstrates that purely mental training in compassion can result in observable altruistic changes toward a victim.”
Intentionally relate to a person unlike you. Back in the 1980’s, sociology professor Charles Flynn created The Love Project. Professor Flynn asked students in his Miami University of Ohio classes to make a semester-long, specific effort “to relate in a loving manner to someone they wouldn’t otherwise relate to.” Flynn also showed videos of Leo Buscaglia’s lectures and made Buscaglia’s book Love a requirement.
Over several years, more than 400 students kept journals and completed questionnaires about The Love Project. Evaluating these materials, Flynn found that 80 percent of students experienced an increased sense of compassionate concern for people in general. Sixty-five percent of the participants had an increased sense of their own self-worth. A follow-up survey showed these effects diminished somewhat but still persisted a year later.
Scrolling through our phones is almost automatic when we’re stuck in a waiting room, standing in line, or sitting at a coffee shop. But next time, lets try a few minutes of lovingkindness instead. Compassion can grow anywhere.
“Peace poems can lead to peace-filled conversations and guide our thoughts and efforts in the months ahead.” What a delight to open my email and find Carla Shafer’s message. Carla is a poet, founder of the Chuckanut Sandstone Writers Theater, and originating collaborator of Bellingham Repertory Dance Company of Phrasings: In Word and Dance, an annual event combining poetry and modern dance.
Last year she was inspired to launch Peace Postcard Project after participating in World Poetry Canada’s poetathon. A peace enthusiast and mail exchange fan, I signed up as soon as I heard about it.
The concept was simple. I was put into a group of 28 writers who pledged to send one another an original poem each day in February. The practice was a lovely way to slow down, focus on peace, and send out the result. I didn’t think much about writers doing the same until lovely, soul-stirring postcards starting arriving. I’ve saved every one. I want to share them all here but will try to restrain myself.
An array of postcards from all over.
And oh, these words!
If you’re interested in taking part, you’ve got only a few days to register.
Peace Poetry Postcard Month February 2017
JOIN poets from around the world (28 to a group) and send one of your original peace poems on a postcard for the 28 days of February. Sign-up by January 30!
To SIGN UP, send an email to email@example.com
Use the subject line: Peace Postcards
In the body of the e-mail provide:
Your Name, Street Address, City, State, Country and Postal Code.
For every 28 poets who sign up, a group is formed. You will receive an e-mail with your list as soon as your group reaches 28 names and addresses.
On the first day of February (or before) write an original poem on a post card of your choice and send it to the person whose name is listed below your name.
Proceed down the list sending a new post card every day.
Circle back to the top of the list until you come back to your own name.
It’s that easy!
From the U.S. International postage is 1.20 per card or 4 first class forever stamps.
Within the US, postcard stamps at 0.35 (cents)
Original poems about peace in these anxious times. You may also be inspired by a postcard you have received or by a prompt listed at World Peace Poets Facebook page. (Feel welcome to post your peace poem and comments on the World Peace Poets FB page if you wish.)
You might want to write poems with a child or a neighbor. You might want to post poems you’ve received on your fridge, on social media, on a community bulletin board. As Carla said in an interview with the Bellingham Herald, “Every time people speak their hopes, address their losses and fears and listen to each other, we are taking a step toward peace.”
We’re primed to practice the generative power of laughter from our earliest years. As babies interact with their mothers, their laughter quadruples from three months of age to their first birthday. Interestingly, mothers laugh nearly twice as often in these interactions. By a baby’s second year, they laugh nearly as long and often as their mothers do, meaning the more mom laughs the more her child laughs!
Some scientists believe laughter was a precursor to language itself. As neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp explains,
“Neural circuits for laughter exist in very ancient regions of the brain, and ancestral forms of play and laughter existed in other animals eons before we humans came along with our ‘ha-ha-has’ and verbal repartee.”
Throughout life, from childhood on, most of our laughter comes from social interactions. Studies tell us we laugh 30 times more often in the presence of others than we do when we’re alone. Since laughter does so many good things for us, body and soul, it motivates us to spend time with the very people who make us happy. What a lovely feedback loop — instigating, reacting to, and inspiring more laughter —- bonding us to each other through delight.
Laughter can even become an epidemic. In 1962, three girls started giggling in Kashasha, a small town in what’s now Tanzania. It spread to 95 students in their school, lasting for hours. Within two weeks, similar laugh attacks infected kids in the nearby towns of Nshamba and Bukoba. It continued to spread, closing 14 schools before quarantines were enacted. It took 18 months before the epidemic slowed.
I am serious about all sorts of issues and will discuss them with you to death (a worse death, I’m sure, than death by laughter). But I’m also an unrepentant guffaw-er. I’m pretty sure this is a genetic condition, my very polite mother was also prone to fits of hilarity. Like her, I am capable of laughing normally, but sometimes I end up shrieking and cackling. Controlling such laughter is just about impossible. Once, as a teenager, I was swimming across a small lake with my friend Kathy. As we swam, we started laughing about how funny the other person looked swimming. Weakened by glee, we got to the point where we could only dog paddle in place. Seeing the other person dog paddling, wide-mouthed with laughter, made us laugh all the more. Soon we were barely able to keep our heads above water. After gulping too many mouthfuls of water, we finally staunched our laughter until we somehow managed to get ourselves onto dry land. There we lay exhausted, aware we’d nearly drowned, laughing again.
I mostly laugh about my own awkwardness (plenty of material there) like falling , eating a mouthful of dirt, and accidentally snorting in a stranger’s face. Snorting, by the way, got me laughing crazily the other day. For some reason Olivia was snorting with joy as Sam tossed her on the couch and for some reason that snorting set me off. I was trying to video this, but you can barely hear her snorts over my ridiculous shrieks.
Laughter’s contagious nature is more evidence that we humans are connected across all so-called boundaries. I’m writing about laughter today because my family has had a tough time lately and so has our country and so has our world. So I’ll leave you with these timely words by dear soul and wise sage, Bernie DeKoven. who writes in a post titled “Play, Laughter, Health, and Happiness,”
Playing and laughing together, especially when we play and laugh in public, for no reason, is a profound, and, oddly enough, political act.
Political, because when we play or dance or just laugh in public, people think there’s something wrong with us. It’s rude, they think. Childish. A disturbance of the peace.
Normally, they’d be right. Except now. Now, the peace has been deeply disturbed – everywhere, globally. And what those grown-ups are doing, playing, dancing, laughing in public is not an act of childish discourtesy, but a political act – a declaration of freedom, a demonstration that we are not terrorized, that terror has not won.
A Frisbee, in the hands of people in business dress in a public park, is a weapon against fear. A basketball dribbled along a downtown sidewalk, is a guided missile aimed at the heart of war. Playing with a yo-yo, a top, a kite, a loop of yarn in a game of cats’ cradle, all and each a victory against intimidation. Playing openly, in places of business, in places where we gather to eat or travel or wait, is a gift of hope, an invitation to sanity in a time when we are on the brink of global madness.
Yes, I admit, I am a professional advocate of public frolic. I am a teacher in the art of fun. I hawk my playful wares every time I get a chance, with every audience I can gather, war or peace.
But this is a unique moment in our evolution. America is no longer bounded by its boundaries. We are tied into a network of terror that crosses national divisions…
And I believe that we have far more powerful weapons than any military solution can offer us. And I believe that those weapons can be found in any neighborhood playground or toy store.
Like for play, laughter is also a political act, a declaration that fear and terrorism have not won. Incontrovertible evidence that there is hope.
I first heard of ANNA-RF when a friend shared “Jump,” a playful video with lyrics that resound in our fractured world.
For all of us love is the flame
The fire that burns the hate
Helps us dream and create.
I can’t see the different between
And I know that the answer’s within.
Humanity is one big tribe
So why can’t we live side by side?
The very next video of theirs I clicked on was a stirringly beautiful rendition of a folk song from Azerbaijan.
Intrigued, I found out all I could about the group.
Musicians Roy Smila and Ofir J.Rock met in the small desert village of Shaharut, Israel back in 2011. They quickly forged a musical connection that evolved into the band ANNA-RF, which they named after an Arabic-Hebrew expression that means both “I know” and “I don’t know.” They play what they call electro-ethnic-reggae, although that term doesn’t stretch as far as their music which is highly versatile, in part thanks to collaboration with musicians from all over the world. Their compositions are original and often spontaneous, mixing new sounds with ancient traditions. Instruments they use include the kamancha, lafta, sazbush, flute, guitar, and didgeridoo.
A little rummaging around YouTube makes it obvious that visual art is an integral part of what they do. They create videos for each song, filming in mountains, deserts, and busy markets. They can be found dancing in desert rain
and playing Celtic reggae with musicians in Switzerland.
Last year the band added a new member, Or Rave. I reached out to them for an interview and they kindly made time to email me back from a concert date in London.
Despite our complicated political times, your lyrics are mostly celebratory. What message does your music convey?
We find no truth in borders or other fictive ideas of separation. We enjoy the beauty of everyone and we find inspiration in every culture and every place. Our music is based on this point of view, therefore it is positive and open.
What’s your songwriting process like?
Our home and studio is in a tiny village in the desert. The emptiness of the desert is what inspires us to fill it with creation.
A song can start from anything. A line on the kamancha (the Persian violin), a riff on the guitar, a sentence someone throws to the air.
We also tour a lot and in our journeys we meet amazing people and artists who we collaborate with. In many cases that connection is an inspiration for a new song.
How does travel influence your music?
When you are traveling your life is highly dynamic and flexible. From that we get a variety of new points of view and inspiration. By traveling we meet a lot of amazing people and artists that influence us and broaden our horizons.
Tell us a little about collaborating with other musicians and who you’ve played with so far.
For us one of the most beautiful proofs of the similarity of mankind can be found in music. When you play with other musicians from around the globe you understand that all over this planet people get the same feeling from music and you can find similarity right in the musical scales.
We’ve played with:
Imamyar Hasanov, the great kamancha master from Azerbaijan
Yair Dalal, the well-known Oud master
The Turbans, the great Gypsy band from England
Farafi, beautiful African music from France and California
Daniel Waples, famous hang player from England
Davide Swarup, the hang and SPB pioneer from Italy
Tom Bertschy and Thom Freiburghaus, the medieval musicians from Switzerland
And many, many more amazing artists from all over this planet.
These videos are mostly filmed in evocative natural settings. What are some complications of filming in the sand, on a mountainside, or roadside?
In most of those beautiful locations there is no water or electricity there so we have to prepare in advance. We have to have food and water supply and to be very precise. We have to carry on our backs all the props and all the equipment.
Any interesting stories about mishaps in filming?
In the “Weeping Eyes” video we had to hike for nine hours to the location in the Himalayas. The energy that we spent there was way too much and we could not stay, so we had to climb down all the way back to our guesthouse. All of us were so worn out.
Can you tell us the story of how one song evolved?
Our last song is a collaboration with a great composer and musician called Eran Zamir. He came for a weekend of creation. A tradition we like to do on the first day—we played together and he played some of his own compositions and after a while we chose a line that all of us especially liked. With this line, Or the beat master added his own rhythm and we wrote the lyrics and created the structure of the song. Roy added a kamancha solo (that we connected to a guitar amp for the special sound of the over-drive) and Ofir recorded the vocals. On the next day we wrote the script and shot the video in the desert. The video is a result of our creative connection.
What are you listening to these days?
We listen to a lot of Azeric, Turkish, and Persian music as well reggae, pop and new electro and dubstep acts. We are inspired by many different styles and find beauty in all of them.
Your videos tend to include repeat props like a stuffed monkey and a variety of hats, and repeat themes like hitchhiking. What’s up with that?
The symbols are there for any person to see them as they will.
There may be no more powerful image in art, no more important message in scripture, than open arms. Welcoming the stranger is a basis of civilization, especially if that stranger is a refugee and always if that stranger is a child.
“You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” Christianity, Deuteronomy 10: 19
“Charity—to be moved at the sight of the thirsty, the hungry, and the miserable and to offer relief to them out of pity—is the spring of virtue.” Jainsim/Kundakunda, Pancastikaya 137
“When the Holy One loves a man, He sends him a present in the shape of a poor man, so that he should perform some good deed to him, through the merit of which he may draw a cord of grace.” Judaism. Zohar, Genesis 104a
“One should give even from a scanty store to him who asks.” Buddhism. Dhammapada 224
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Christianity. Hebrews 13.1
“Serve Allah, and join not any partners with Him; and do good – to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer (ye meet) and what your right hands possess: For Allah loveth not the arrogant, the vainglorious.” Islam. Quran 4:36
“A traveler through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu.” Nelson Mandela, discussing the southern Africa tradition of Ubuntu
“See to it that whoever enters your house obtains something to eat, however little you may have. Such food will be a source of death to you if you withhold it.” Native American religions. A Winnebago Father’s Precepts
“`0 Ke aloha Ke Kuleana o kahi malihini. Love is the host in strange lands.” Hawaiian saying
Relieve people in distress as speedily as you must release a fish from a dry rill [lest he die]. Deliver people from danger as quickly as you must free a sparrow from a tight noose. Be compassionate to orphans and relieve widows. Respect the old and help the poor. Taoism. Tract of the Quiet Way
“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Whether scripture or statue inscription, we all know it’s easier to state our principles than adhere to them. I’m as weak as the next person in actually living up to what I believe.
I’ve vowed to keep politics out of this site, so I won’t be talking about lies fostered by divisive media or shockingly cruel attitudes toward refugees of any age. I’ll only say that it takes an extraordinary act of love to scrape together the coyote fees to send one’s child away in hopes of a safe haven. It takes inestimable courage for that child to walk through deserts, ride the tops of trains, and face down thieves along the way in hopes of real freedom.
My husband and I did some soul-searching. We talked to our kids. And we decided we cannot stand by while refugee children turn themselves in at the border only to be treated like criminals. We have room to host refugee children.
We applied to the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. We were told placements might be for a few months or they might be permanent. So we re-imagined our lives. Now that our kids are college students and young adults we thought we were done raising children, but we can go back to homemade popsicles and toys on the floor and books read aloud. We have our own problems with unemployment and a not-remotely-profitable small farm, but what we have can always stretch. There’s a place in our home and our hearts.
That doesn’t mean we have a greeting card view of this. These children will be traumatized, experience culture shock, and face learning a new language. We’ll have plenty of adapting to do as well.
Lately before falling asleep, I look ahead to rows of family pictures stretching into the future. Those pictures seem to hold two dark-haired faces newly dear to me, and eventually, more of their relatives joining them and becoming part of our extended family, on for generations, with babies in arms growing to stand tall, my husband and me fading into old age and beyond. It’s a good vision.
Right now it looks like that vision won’t come true. I just got an email from Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. It said, in part,
After exploring the nationwide LIRS foster care program network, I am sorry to share with you that LIRS does not have a foster care program in the geographic area that you are located. If at a future time an opportunity arises, we will reach out to you at that time.
I wrote back, asking if there was some way I could help set up a program in our area. Apparently the only option is applying for a grant through the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement, which I admit is probably past me. So now I’m applying to other agencies.
I only mention our quest in hopes that someone out there may qualify even if we don’t. Here are resources to investigate.
Years ago I waited in a convenience store line in complete desperation. I was still bleeding after giving birth to my daughter and needed pads. The customer ahead of me was working her way into a snit because the store was out of an item she wanted. She refused to buy similar products the clerk offered. I stood behind this customer trying to keep from judging her (and failing). She was middle-aged or older, wearing expensive clothes and fussily styled hair, but what really defined her was the kind of self-absorption that turns a minor inconvenience into a personal offense. She demanded someone check the back room where she was sure the product languished due to employee laziness. She demanded to see the manager, who wasn’t there. She. Wouldn’t. Leave.
I was so exhausted that I simply wanted to curl up on the floor. It was the first time I’d left my baby’s hospital bed for more than a few minutes. My newborn suffered from a serious malady that hadn’t yet been diagnosed. She was increasingly losing weight and vigor. All the while I missed my three-year-old fiercely. I hadn’t seen him for days aside from brief hugs in the parking lot. I spent all my time by my baby’s side. It was a triumph when I could get her to nurse for a few moments. Sleep deprived and terrified for my baby girl, I clung onto hope like a parasite.
The customer ahead of me was now yelling. I assumed she’d had no greater trouble in her life than being deprived of a convenience store product. I realized that she may have been older than my own mother, but she had less maturity than my firstborn who knew enough to respect other people and more importantly, to care about them.
I’d been in the hospital environment for so many days that simply driving to the store was a sensory overload. Bright sunlight, traffic, people engaged in daily activities were all so overwhelming that I felt like a tourist visiting for the first time. Maybe that’s why I felt a sudden tenderness for the customer ahead of me. It was as if some surface reality melted away to expose this woman’s beautiful soul. I didn’t know if she was going through a difficulty that left her frantic to have her needs, any needs, recognized. Or if she had experienced so few difficulties that she hadn’t developed any tolerance for disappointment. It didn’t matter. I saw her as utterly perfect. In that moment I felt nothing less than love.
Just then she whirled around and left. I exchanged a look of solidarity with the clerk, made my purchase, and drove back to the hospital. That encounter not only gave me a powerful surge of energy, it also boosted my spirits in a way I can’t explain. It was a boost that lasted. All these years later I remain grateful.
“Whenever one person stands up and says, “Wait a minute, this is wrong,” it helps other people do the same.” Gloria Steinem
A high school soccer referee barred Samah Aidah from her March 12th game because she wore a hijab, even though the association that governs soccer internationally had already lifted rules preventing players from wearing head covers.
Samah’s teammates responded. At their next game, every single girl wore a hijab in playful solidarity with her.
Samah Aidah and her teammates smiling together at Overland High School in Denver, Colorado (aquila-style.com)
These girls took action rather than letting oppression go without comment. Whether they knew it or not, they followed a basic principle of nonviolence— that problems are most easily reversed at the early stages. If ignored, issues can become progressively more difficult to stop as they spiral to ever more intense levels. That’s the case whether we’re talking about so-called non-physical forms of violence such as humiliation, harassment, and prejudice. It’s also the case with physical forms of violence, from domestic abuse to war.
When people don’t intervene, assuming others will step in, they become bystanders who “permit” violence to happen. Studies show if an emergency unfolds before a group of people they’re less likely to take action, basing their decisions on the behavior of those around them. This is called “diffusion of responsibility.” If that same emergency presents itself in front of one person, that person is more likely to take action. We’ve all heard of these situations precisely because they’re so heinous.
Social scientists who study intervention in violent situations know that when others object or actively get involved their efforts tend to slow or stop the violence. Dr. Ervin Staub, who survived under Nazi rule, reports in The Roots of Evil that genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Nazis in Germany started with prejudicial statement and small acts of repression. Oppressors test the response, only escalating to greater atrocities once they determine that bystanders will allow to them continue. It requires the willingness of uninvolved people to step in, advocating for the victim or victims, in order to halt the escalation of violence and to uphold the common good. Such actions empower the victim and reduce the power of the aggressor.
We tend to believe that we’ll have the moral courage to speak up and help when someone is suffering. But when something happens we usually have only an instant to respond, either we listen to our doubts and turn away or step outside our comfort zone to intervene. What makes it more likely that we will help?
1. A sense of commonality with people who are unlike us is important, letting us see beyond “us versus them” and prompting us to act with empathy.
2. Past experience reacting positively in a crisis leads people to do so in the future. In that case, the girls wearing the hijab to support their teammate not only made the current situation better but also primed themselves to act compassionately next time it’s necessary.
3. People who feel freer to defy the norms and who are able to think for themselves are more likely to help. Pluralistic ignorance (going along with the crowd) dampens a person’s compassionate response.
That’s why learning about nonviolence is so important, because it gives us a background on which to base our actions. For examples of individual bystanders who stepped up to make a difference, check out the heartening real-life examples in this piece:
And let’s enjoy another example of young people choosing to go beyond being bystanders.
A few years ago a new freshman arrived at a Nova Scotia high school on the first day back to class. He was wearing a pink shirt. Several students mocked him and threatened to beat him up. No one intervened. But two senior boys heard about it and decided to respond. They bought dozens of pink shirts at a discount store, emailing their friends to let them know they’d be handing them out the next day. The news spread and hundreds of students showed up the next morning already wearing pink shirts. The bullying stopped and now Pink Shirt Days are held yearly in many schools to spread awareness about bullying.
There I go again, sighing. Most of the time I don’t know I’m doing it but thanks to my family I’m aware that I emit plenty of audible exhales.
My grandmother was a chronic sigher. Each time she sat down, air rushed out of her mouth. It just seemed like an intrinsic part of her mechanism. A decade or two later my mother became a sigher as well. I should have realized the same fate would eventually strike me. I persist in thinking it’s a phase. Surely the women in my line sighed for the same reasons everyone else does—blowing off stress, expressing relief, giving in to exhaustion. Maybe they just had more than their fair share of sigh-worthy burdens.
There are good body-based reasons to sigh. When we’re stressed or fatigued our breathing is less variable. That’s not healthy. Our lungs, like the rest of our bodies, operate best dynamically. Our respiratory function becomes less efficient if we breathe in one state too long. A deep sigh resets breathing, loosening the lung’s air sacs and providing a feeling of relief.
More importantly, a deep sigh also stimulates the vagus nerve. We know all about the flight-or-flight response, which is controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system. In that state our stress hormones are turned way up. We’re jittery, impulsive, and cued to react to stress. When we are relaxed, the opposite system, the parasympathetic nervous system is active. The vagus nerve is a primary stimulator of this feel-good nervous system, operating via the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. This neurotransmitter promotes relaxation and a feeling of well-being. That’s why good deep breaths are linked to the stress-quelling results found with the Relaxation Response as well as more traditional meditation. Acetylcholine also has to do with learning, memory, even reduced inflammation. So stimulating your vagus nerve is great for brain AND body.
…resides in the chest and, when activated, produces a feeling of spreading, liquid warmth in the chest and a lump in the throat. The vagus nerve…originates in the top of the spinal cord and then winds its way through the body…, connecting up to facial muscle tissue, muscles that are involved in vocalization, the heart, the lungs, the kidneys and liver, and the digestive organs. In a series of controversial papers, physiological psychologist Steve Porges has made the case that the vagus nerve is the nerve of compassion, the body’s caretaking organ.
…Porges notes that the vagus nerve innervates the muscle groups of communicative systems involved in caretaking – the facial musculature and vocal apparatus. In our research, for example, we have found that people systematically sigh – little quarter-second, breathy expressions of concern and understanding – when listening to another person describe an experience of suffering. The sigh is a primordial exhalation, calming the sigher’s flight/flight physiology, and a trigger of comfort and trust, our study found, in the speaker. When we sigh in soothing fashion, or reassure others in distress with our concerned gaze or oblique eyebrows, the vagus nerve is doing its work, stimulating the muscles of the throat, mouth, face, and tongue to emit soothing displays of concern and reassurance.
Second, the vagus nerve is the primary brake on our heart rate. Without activation of the vagus nerve, your heart would fire on average at about 115 beats per minute, instead of the more typical 72 beats per minute. The vagus nerve helps slow the heart rate down. When we are angry or fearful, our heart races, literally jumping five to ten beats per minute, distributing blood to various muscle groups, preparing the body for fight or flight. The vagus nerve does the opposite, reducing our heart rate to a more peaceful pace, enhancing the likelihood of gentle contact in close proximity with others.
Third, the vagus nerve is directly connected to rich networks of oxytocin receptors, those neuropeptides intimately involved in the experience of trust and love. As the vagus nerve fires, stimulating affiliative vocalizations and calmer cardiovascular physiology, presumably it triggers the release of oxytocin, sending signals of warmth, trust, and devotion throughout the brain and body, and ultimately, to other people.
Finally, the vagus nerve is unique to mammals…as caretaking began to define a new class of species – mammals – a region of the nervous system, the vagus nerve, emerged evolutionarily to help support this new category of behavior.
I’m sticking with what the body knows. I’ll be activating my vagus nerve, feeling calm and relaxed. Vagus Overusers Anonymous here I come. sigh
*Portions quoted from pages 228-230 of Keltner’s wonderful book. Read the whole thing!
To press 5,000 bricks from the dirt beneath your feet in one day.
To build an affordable tractor in six days.
It’s possible thanks to the members of Open Source Ecology (OSE). They aren’t armchair visionaries. These engineers, farmers, and developers are dedicated to making communities sustainable and self-reliant. They’re taking on scarcity and inequality with open source enthusiasm
OSE got its start when Marcin Jakubowski’s tractor broke. Well, lets back up a little. After Jakubowski earned a PhD in the physics of fusion energy, he bought a farm in Missouri where he grew fruit trees and raised goats. One day his tractor broke. He didn’t have the hands-on experience to fix it himself. But he hauled out some can-do attitude along with his welder and torch. He realized a tractor is simply a box with wheels, each powered by hydraulic motors. So he bolted together square steel tubing to make one from scratch. It worked.
This inspired him to look beyond pricey, commercially made machines. He began to come up with versions that were hardy, low-cost, and constructed out of locally sourced or repurposed materials. His posted designs generated lots of enthusiasm and input. Participants began showing up to help build prototypes on project days, becoming OSE collaborators.
The idea evolved. They considered what it takes to build independent, sustainable communities that support farming, construction, small manufacturing, and power generation. They came up with a list of the 50 machines most important for modern life including a hay baler, bakery oven, laser cutter, drill press, solar concentrator, and truck. Low cost, industrial strength, DIY versions of these machines became known as the Global Village Construction Set. The motors, parts, and other fittings of these machines are designed to be interchangeable. All the 3D designs, schematics, and instructional videos are posted on the OSE Wiki.
On average, constructing these machines costs about eight times less than comparable machines made by industrial manufacturers. As Jakubowski explained in his recent TED talk, “Our goal is a repository of published design so clear, so complete, that a single burned DVD is effectively a civilization starter kit. ..The implications are significant: a greater distribution of the means of production, environmentally sound supply chains, and a newly relevant DIY Maker culture can hope to transcend artificial scarcity.”
So often hope seems abstract. This is tangible hope, made of steel. It puts independence and equality in reach for people in both the developed and developing world. Welding never seemed so inspiring.