Saturday, August 29, 2020

Seligman’s Positive Psychology: Agency throughout History and Time

Martin Seligman
Through the magic of Zoom and other fortuitous circumstances, I was able to attend legendary psychologist Martin Seligman’s Keynote Lecture on Agency and Positive Psychology organized by The Shipley School and part their annual Positive Education Conference. This summer, I have had the fortune to follow more than thirty webinars and online lectures (apart from a number of personal interviews that I have had the privilege to conduct myself) but before this event, one of my highpoints had been seeing Don Cheadle speak live on Zoom. Now it is Martin Seligman who has managed to take over the top spot (sorry, Don).

What made this event even more amazing was that Seligman was talking about his upcoming book and it was his first open lecture. Put differently, I had the opportunity and privilege of assisting a world premiere of some sorts where this great psychologist was presenting new ideas and sharing his reflections with the world.

Two things immediately impressed me here before I even got to the content and details of his talk: One, that he is still a tireless researcher wishing not only to gift humanity more knowledge and insight by bringing about the potential for greater happiness, but also that he himself was surprisingly open and down-to-earth about it all. There was an unmistaken modesty and a sly sense of humor that you do not see that often with successful intellectuals. It speaks volumes for his endeavors since this is exactly how you would want and imagine the founder of positive psychology to be.

I must add here, and better now than later, that I am not a great fan of positive psychology and if it had not been Seligman, I most likely would not have followed the lecture. But I am so glad that I did because although it did not change my mind on the methodology, I learned a lot in the process and gained much more admiration and respect for, not to mention a better understanding of this field. Like any movement, it has undergone changes, adjustments, and modifications, yet its current approach is much closer to and much more aligned with what I believe in and practice.

The lecture was about the importance of agency, not merely in the sense of locus of control but also the influence and power one has in relation to oneself and with the outside world. Agency is composed of the triad of efficacy, optimism, and imagination. For agency to occur, all three aspects need to be involved and active, which then determines whether we are progressing or stagnating when it comes to issues in our lives and in the world.

What causes human progress was the question that Seligman asked, and he gave us a brief but fascinating overview of human history in about half an hour, not a simple or negligible feat at all. Yet the initial answer to the question of the perceived cause of progress was that it depends. It depends on what field or discipline we are talking about as each discipline has its own lens through which they define, observe as well as measure and evaluate progress.

Hence, there are some who see ecology as a potential cause. Nature would be considered as the determining cause of human agency. Proponents of this discipline would then see global warming in our past lending itself to the practice of agriculture. There are also studies claiming that climate could have been responsible for the decline of the Roman empire, and of course, ecology plays a very significant role in today’s reality, society as well as politics.

Then there are those who see economy as the driving force for human progress. It was the acquisition and distribution of money and wealth that eventually led to and caused the Industrial Revolution. We could pinpoint the move from barter trade to the profit-oriented economy that led and brought us to this precise point in our history, for better and for worse.

Others do not see the economy as a determinant cause but rather focus on society itself; the human organization and class warfare are the points of focus in fields like sociology. Accordingly, these social movements and forces shape our perspective, worldview, and politics at any given period, and we are seeing and witnessing many of these shifts and changes occurring in our current world.

Moreover, history often tends to focus on these social forces of the past that determine outcomes in the present and beyond. Unlike biographers who single out extraordinary decisions and actions taken by unique and great leaders, the historian does not focus on individual or single events but sees them as an expression and articulation of fighting for freedom. They often embody a struggle for recognition, equality, and justice, and they are happening and reproduced time and time again in human history.

Yet the approach that Seligman has taken is regarding the psychological state of agency. Although all these causes are valid and important, they are still remote causes. They all must have been propelled by the belief that one can change the world. Without that belief, we would have been stagnant and not been able to make progress in our history.

We must keep in mind that there are always two opposing forces at play here: we can either progress or stagnate. The choice is within the individual that becomes part of the whole and could lead towards social and political change on a global scale. Agency is essentially a mental state that is propelled and driven by the belief that one can make a positive difference in the world.

In other words, agency causes progress but a lack of it results in stagnation and that is the veritable source of these ups and downs in history. It might explain to an extent how the French Revolution, a liberating and idealistic movement, could possibly give way to the tyranny and bloodshed that followed afterward.

But let us re-examine the different stages of history with agency in mind, agency being a combination of the three factors of efficacy, optimism, and imagination. For progress to occur and to be effective, all three need to be at play and in motion.

We start with the hunters-gatherers-fishers. They had limited agency. They may have had specific but not general efficacy. They depended in many ways on nature and circumstance for their survival. But they did have imagination as is evidenced by astounding cave paintings. There was also a sense of optimism as they would bury the dead, denoting and demonstrating a kind of belief in an afterlife.

Then the age of agriculture entered the scene about 14,000 years ago. Here we can see more efficacy, particularly over plants and animals. There was also optimism at hand since they needed to plant seeds and wait around for them to grow and take shape. Yet their imagination was limited because of the gods and idols they depended on to have rich and fruitful harvests and to whom they would attribute their success or lack thereof. At the same time, they also showed the beginnings of architecture, and with it, the first signs of human initiative.

Then came the Bronze Age around 5000 years ago. Here we have the written word. As an exemplar, we can hold up and analyze Homer’s Illiad. Achilles did not have much efficacy, nor did he have belief as his actions were reflected and determined by what gods would tell him to do. He was neither future-minded nor imaginative, whereas we can see a clear difference here between the Illiad and the Odyssey, with the latter revealing, in Seligman’s words, a “huge blossoming of agency” in comparison.

The Greco-Roman period gave us Western civilization with the Socrates/Plato duo. Not only did they, alongside their distinguished cohort, set the basis and groundwork of philosophy, psychology, religion, politics, and various other disciplines, but they also demonstrated belief in mind and soul. This also gave humanity the means and manners of attaining harmony and justice and the keys to improving and expanding oneself and the understanding of oneself.

It may have seemed that we were set on a clear path of steady progress, but it all came to a standstill and to a period of stagnation, if not regression thereafter. Judaism and Christianity take hold of humanity and take away, limit, or manipulate and control human agency. In fact, according to Augustine, there was no human endeavor to speak of as it all depended on God’s grace.

We see this reflected in the Old Testament, which is overall non-agentic. Abraham just follows God’s command. There is not a lot of choice, agency, or efficacy as he merely complies and follows orders, the same way, followers were ordered to blindly obey the Ten Commandments. It would be Kierkegaard who much later would add existential depth and dimensions to Abraham’s struggle, but in the end, Abraham’s actions were limited and not undertaken by his own volition. The New Testament had somewhat more agency, but that was quashed by Augustine.

This led us to the Renaissance in which we returned not only to the height of the Greco-Roman period again, but it was rapidly promoted, expanded, and elaborated through the invention of the printing press. There was even breakthrough in Christianity since humans had been endowed with agency and willpower, courtesy of free will.

It was in 1524 that Erasmus wrote about the freedom of the will and the power to move oneself as well as others in the process. Reformation, on the other hand, was not about human agency but rather the bondage of the will as exemplified by Luther and Calvin. Although they encouraged personal readings of the Bible, they were anti-agentic in nature because they believed that grace was laid down by God and was not and could not be swayed or influenced by human actions and endeavors.

Yet this was challenged by the Industrial Revolution and its subsequent period of the Age of Progress, which started in the beginning of the nineteenth century and continues to this very day and onward. Agency has been up and down, but it seems that people are taking control and power again and starting to become more conscious and aware of not only their power but also the potential possibilities inherent in it.

When we feel helpless at any period for that matter, we become passive and stagnant, but it is the belief in agency that causes and brings forth innovation and resilience. We have seen how important and vital agency is and has been throughout history, and we would want to continue to build on that positive momentum.

Whether a person has and shows efficacy is often reflected in the choice of words. This method of inquiry has been used by Seligman to evaluate the level of agency across time and history. This would come down to the choice of words that either reflect choice, such as choose and select or that demonstrate duty and obligation, such as must or have to. In comparison, Seligman notes that the Old Testament has many fewer efficacy words as compared to the New Testament, which gives and offers individuals more choice and freedom.

Optimism is determined by analyzing to what degree our outlook is influenced by the past or the future. If we keep looking back to the past or feel that we are constrained and limited by our past, then we tend to feel less optimistic about our future, and vice versa. This is also why people who are not satisfied with the status quo actively seek and ask for change as they want to uproot stagnant structures. In fact, they are often referred to as progressive as opposed to reactionary.

When it comes to imagination, we would be positing our thoughts of the possible versus the impossible. Whenever you think that something is out of reach, you are limiting and restraining your imagination. The Renaissance man par excellence Leonardo Da Vinci was not bound by the reality and conditions of his times as his imagination flew and soared past and beyond those constraints. What DaVinci believed in ended up becoming a tangible reality in later times.

Yet we are often bound by our own negative and limiting beliefs. Most of those beliefs are bound by false information and are fueled by doubt and fear. While Seligman was talking about how we have progressed and improved in most areas of our existence, I was reminded of the excellent book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World and Why Things are Better than You Think by Swedish statistician Hans Rosling. Evolutionary speaking, we are programmed and hard-wired to focus on the negative, but this view and perspective are often not based on facts and do not reflect them.

This pertains to various parts and aspects of our existence, and here are a few examples of the overall improvements we tend to either disregard or not be fully aware of: Literacy has increased from 10% in 1800 to 86% in 2016. Women can vote in 193 countries - with the exception of two countries where they are still not allowed to vote: the two countries are Saudi Arabia and the Vatican. There are many other examples, such as poverty, war, sickness, and disease that we tend to have false impressions and limited knowledge about, which, in turn, makes us feel less hopeful and less positive and powerful about the future.

The problem is that our belief in human progress is often undermined and sabotaged by media and politics. Yet we need to be aware that things are not as bad as they may seem at first sight. In Seligman’s words, what we need most - and most desperately - is a politics of optimism. This is something that we can practice and train ourselves for. Instead of engaging in deduction or induction, we should use abduction, which means to leap to the best possible explanation.

Especially in our current times and climate, be it of political and social nature or even weather-wise - we must overcome present barriers in terms of racial warfare, climate catastrophe, nuclear war or the current threat and restrictions posed by the existence and reality of Covid-19. Our helplessness in the face of adversity is the default reaction to bad events, but we must and certainly can override this.

For this, efficacy is required. We must act and try harder and be more persistent, resilient, and innovative. We should also ensure that we are healthier in body and mind. These negative events that we are facing and confronting, we ought to see them as temporary and not permanent, local, and not global or general, as well as controllable instead of outside of our locus of control. When it comes to COVID, we may feel that we are out of control, but that is when we need to be more responsive to and proactive in safety measures and protocols - until we have a vaccine that promises and guarantees us safety and security.

This is important and vital for our overall health and wellbeing. Those who are positive in their outlook, that is those who have efficiency, optimism, and imagination, are also much healthier than those who are not. They have stronger immune systems with fewer infections, their bodies heal faster, and they have less inflammation. In fact, they also live longer by an average of eight years!

In terms of productivity, they have not only better social relationships, tend to be more creative and resilient, they also get depressed less than those who do not believe or practice positive psychology. With all this in mind, it seems mindboggling why anyone would not embrace this philosophy.

And I very much support these ideas, but my disagreement is not in the goals, principles, and aspirations but in the method itself. For instance, it is difficult to overcome trauma that is deeply ingrained. For that, it is best to use depth psychology to get to the root of the problem, but that is beyond the scope here and needs to be discussed in another post altogether.

What is important to note and looks most promising to me is the multi-dimensional expansion of positive psychology to what Seligman refers to as PERMA, where positive emotion is only the tip of the iceberg followed by engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishments. As a whole, this new approach falls more in line with my interest in and shows similarities to Existential Analysis.

To say that Seligman’s ideas are inspiring would be the least. We can see here how important and relevant his ideas are and I am most excited to read his next book TomorrowMind whenever it comes out. I hope you are inspired as well.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

COVID-19, Working from Home and Employee Happiness: An Interview with Dr. Craig Knight

Dr. Craig Knight
Background and Context

Covid-19 has not only disrupted our lives; it has upended them and turned it all upside down and inside out. The novel Coronavirus has touched us on so many levels: socially, culturally, personally, politically, and of course, professionally. I am fascinated and mesmerized by how a virus has managed to change our lifestyles to such a profound degree.

In its initial stages, I remember reading an article in which a social psychologist was musing about potential lifestyle and behavioral changes that this virus could bring about. He claimed that for change to become steady and permanent, and hence long-lasting, it depended on how long the virus would remain with us and how long these specific behaviors would remain in place. As we are often told, for behavior to set in, it needs to be kept up and reinforced for at least a month. At this level, we are past and beyond that benchmark and with no visible or marked end in sight.

My work, like that of countless others, has also been impacted by this virus. As a language instructor, I had to quickly accept and deal with the fact that face-to-face classes were suddenly and abruptly off the table. I was aware of that, but it hit me hard since this switch from a traditional to a virtual classroom not only happened overnight but also at the tail end of an already busy and engrossing winter semester. 

Our institution was scrambling, and with it, both students and instructors alike. It was not easy to adjust to the changing circumstances, to say the least, but I counted myself as lucky and blessed to still count on a job while many others in different fields and careers had not been as fortunate as me.

Those who already had a certain level of access to technology - or at least the opportunity to use and embrace it - had a somewhat easier time to make the switch and adjustment. In fact, Covid-19 could be responsible for heralding and ushering in a new era: the digital age. It may have been a long time in the making, but this virus could indeed be the necessary catalyst or the final straw that broke the traditional nine-to-five office-work lifestyle. Suddenly and out of sheer necessity, we have shifted from having 3% working from home and online to a staggering 70% of the workforce switching to the online world or being forced to do so.   

A few saw it coming from a long time ago. Benjamin Pring from Cognizant advises us to “be friends with the new trend” instead of fighting or resisting technological change as he himself had been living and working remotely for almost a quarter-century now. He calls it a superior lifestyle, one that brings with it cultural and operational changes and challenges, but it is at the same time the new reality that employers and employees need to accept and embrace. In fact, those who manage to adjust to this new trend, which seems to be for the long haul and here to stay, will have a better chance of surviving, professionally speaking.


The Interview with Dr. Knight

The best way is to not only embrace it but to optimize it by supporting and investing in the technological and human aspects of this new reality and by accepting the necessary changes and paradigm shifts that this would entail for companies. This was one of the various topics of conversation I had with Dr. Knight, with the main focus on how autonomy and strong networking and social interactions can help employees become both happier and more productive, a win-win situation for both management and the workforce. But before I get into the content of our interview, let me take the opportunity to briefly introduce Dr. Craig Knight to you.

Dr. Knight is affiliated with a psychological organizational consultancy firm with the amazing and catchy name of Identity Realization. I am in favor of both aspects of life, namely, of finding one’s identity and of realizing it, so I told him that it was indeed a great choice for a name. Dr. Knight added that if you can realize your identity in your space, then it is a good space indeed.

In fact, Dr. Knight combines his knowledge and expertise of two different-seeming fields and creates an interesting and highly relevant hybrid. He has experience in office design, but it has been combined with the psychological effects of design upon the employee and their well-being and their connection with productivity. Having the freedom to develop and arrange one’s own workspace - and for some, this is a new experience and a kind of revelation thanks to Covid-19 – can make employees up to 32% more productive in their respective field.

It will not only benefit workers and employees to have the best possible and most comfortable space to work in and from, but, more importantly, employers can better understand and realize the importance and relevance of the workspace and its environment. Previously, by this, I mean the era before COVID, Dr. Knight has shown us that keeping plants in one’s office space could increase productivity by about 16%. This is a simple, rather inexpensive, and relatively unobtrusive manner of boosting employee satisfaction and productivity, something that is not taken advantage of enough.

But one of the new situations that many find themselves in or that they are unexpectedly thrust into is the home office. Now in my case, I am glad to report that not only do I have a Bonsai tree that has been my companion for the past year or so, but I have also recently acquired a mini-water fountain. None of this was purchased with the intention and purpose of boosting my creativity, but I do not regret that decision in the least.

Not only has it improved my mood and motivational levels, but my creative input as evidenced on this blog has increased dramatically. A case in point is that I had the fortune to have three back-to-back interviews last week, and I am trying to keep up with all the writing to share with you the amazing insight and conversation I gleaned from all those conversations.

Yet how one adjusts to this new reality of work-life may depend to some degree whether you are a segmentor or an integrator. This was information I came privy to thanks to the work and research by Nancy Rothbard from Wharton. Essentially, segmentors like to separate their work from their private lives. They tend to cherish and protect their privacy, and they talk very little about their family or loved ones or even their hobbies and interests. They have a clear separation of workspace and the private sphere. You will rarely find pictures of partners or family members in their respective office- space.

On the other hand, there are also those who like to integrate the two spheres. They do not see a separation between one and the other. You will find pictures of their loved ones and family members as well as personal items in their office. They talk freely with colleagues about their personal lives and feel most comfortable blending the one with the other.

It would come as little surprise that the latter often thrive under these new conditions, while the segmentors have a hard time adjusting to this new reality. In fact, segmentors would have to recreate an office space that is as separate and devoid as possible of personal items. In some cases, it is recommended that they put up partitions, somewhat similar to the cubicles so that they can ensure and secure a clear demarcation line between professional and private life. Others might opt for renting their own office space or to buy what is known as mini-homes, small dwelling spaces, out of which to operate one’s own business and/or do one’s work from.

Although we may stipulate that some of these differences could be gender-based, with women falling more into the second while men topping the first category, according to Nancy Rothbard, the research does not necessarily prove or demonstrate this. There is a slightly higher preference for segmenting among women, but this difference is not statistically significant.

I find myself somewhere in-between on that spectrum. When I asked Dr. Knight about how he feels about his office space, he graciously gave me a view of his surroundings. The view onto green pastures outside was inspiring; the office itself in Dr. Knight’s own words, was “scruffy and disorganized” and it made him happy because it allegedly reflected his own personality. To a certain degree that is true in my case as well. I tend to be most comfortable in a slightly messy environment. It may be my natural state and habitat. In that sense, I may align with my gender and species and concord with Dr. Knight on the matter.

Although some will feel happier with their new working environment, it still depends on various factors and it does come with certain drawbacks. A factor that influences the employee’s happiness level is to what degree they feel autonomous and in control of the environment. In the home space, they have a certain say about their work environment, which they may or may not lack in their office space depending on how much freedom their employers give or assign to them. 

But control and say go deeper than that. If an employee is involved to an extent in the decision-making process or the work that they are doing, then they will feel more engaged and more content, and less stressed. Yet in the traditional perception of a boss/employee relationship, the former gives the orders and the latter obeys them and follows through with them. This was based, among others, on Frederick Taylor’s idea of productivity where one would specialize in certain activities and the superiors would oversee the work and ensure that productivity is at its peak.

In this traditional view of management, knowledge and expertise are embodied by and lie within the managers who think or assume that it is their right to control other people’s lives, when in reality this is not and should not be the case. As a result of this view, managers believe that employees need and ought to be monitored and to be under surveillance at all times, but this has no scientific support or correlation with productivity, regardless of field or discipline.

In fact, it has the opposite and unwanted effect of undermining employee’s satisfaction. The new perception seems to be moving away from a hierarchy and towards what is sometimes referred to as a wirearchy. In this new form of work, it is best to avoid micro-management, but rather to work as a team. There could be immediate supervisors attached to smaller working units who would work as guides and facilitators, or even coaches, to ensure that the working conditions have been optimized for the employee.

Another way to ensure that there is employee satisfaction is to tap into the potentials and capacities of the individual worker. Simply put, ideally one should give the employee the tasks they are most interested in and most likely also best at. If you are good with statistics and numbers, then the spreadsheet should be all yours, while your colleague can work on other aspects and demands of the job. Figuring out the strengths and then investing in them and hence maximizing and utilizing them would lead not only to higher productivity but also lead to higher employee retention.

Dr. Knight states that managers should not tell their employees what to do but should provide resources by asking their employees how they can be of assistance to them and how they can help them. Managers ought to stop viewing and treating employees like children but rather give them what they need to get the job done. This kind of mind-shift and realization may come about due to the new working environment and conditions brought about by Covid-19.

However, there are still many who are reluctant to accept these new trends and prefer the one person at the top paradigm, that is, the traditional hierarchical structure we are accustomed to. Why is that so, I asked Dr. Knight, and he was himself somewhat baffled that many are still following a pattern that is counterproductive to the company and that will undermine and even harm and impede its success. He claimed that the situation might a bit better in the United States, but that Britain tends to be notoriously badly managed in that regard.

Yet all of this has been brought to the forefront thanks to COVID, while many employers will have to face these sets of challenges as well as opportunities. The status quo will be something of the past. The office may not be dead, but it will look very different now that we have had a taste of the inherent and previously latent potentials of technology. The office must and most likely will change as a result.

We often assume that the old ways of doing things were superior, but that may be true only in certain aspects. Dr. Knight underscores that it is most important for human beings to not only talk and socialize over Zoom but to have the opportunity of physical proximity and contact. For instance, Zoom is empowering in many ways and facilitates contact and communication between people across the world, and it is a good substitute for communication, but it is not and cannot be an alternative to face-to-face interaction and cannot possibly replace that.

Social and physical interaction are crucial and important for our health and emotional well-being. We need to have social networks with friends, relatives as well as co-workers and physical contact and proximity would continue to be necessary and of great importance.

Moreover, Dr. Knight finds the term “social distancing” to be dreadful; it should be called physical distancing, and it should only be a temporary means. As it took us quite a while to adjust to the new conditions, it would also take time for us to re-adjust to going back to the normal way of life once the pandemic is finally behind us. But social and physical face-to-face interaction should and must be part and parcel of our life again.

I do miss working closely with my colleagues and running into them as well as students in the hallway. I miss having a brief chat by the water fountain or over a cup of coffee. Zoom may work as a proxy to a certain degree, but it simply cannot replace the personal and human connection that we used to have and that we need. Nonetheless, there are other aspects of the old ways of working that I for one shall not miss.

One of them is the commute. Working from home has eliminated the burden and cost of time and money. I can be at my workplace within seconds, where it used to take me about an hour, and I am aware I should consider myself fortunate in that aspect since many people had to spend even more time in busy traffic and traffic jams.

However, for some, that commute represented an opportunity to clear one’s head and prepare for the day ahead. It signified a clear ritual transition from home to the workplace and back. That transition may be missing or lacking when your home is one with your office. For those who prefer the clear break (and they would for the most part be segregators), there are different ways to achieve this. For instance, one can create their own home office space and limit that location to work-related matters only.

Whenever that is not possible or feasible (my own amount of space in the apartment is quite limited), there is another option, namely creating your own cubicle. This may sound strange and crazy and even silly, but it can be easily done by creating cardboard walls around oneself to denote and copy the office space.

But some may not be satisfied with working at home because they see work either as an escape or refuge. It is a place that is away from the family, a kind of physical and psychological break from all that is going on at home. Being with the family can be stressful, but that again depends both on oneself and on one’s family. If you love and appreciate their presence and company, you would embrace and cherish these new opportunities of working from home.

If you see your family as a burden or do not enjoy being with them, then you cannot wait to go back to the pre-COVID lifestyle with its defined space and delineated timeframe. I for one do not miss the old lifestyle and to be physically, mentally, and emotionally confined and constricted to set schedules. I do not mind routine per se, but the obligation to have to do something at a specific hour creates and implies a certain amount of stress.

Nonetheless, it is the physical contact that I would miss, that is, being there in person with my students and my colleagues. Perhaps hybrids will become the new norm; otherwise, we would need to ensure regular social events and get-togethers to promote comradeship and to foster team spirit and a sense of and belonging to the community. But this can only occur once this virus has been completely tamed and defeated and no longer poses significant threats to our health and well-being.

For my full-length interview on YouTube with global thought leader and founder of Identity Realization Dr. Craig Knight, please click here

If you prefer to listen to the interview, here is the link to my podcast: Arash's World Podcast


Special thanks to Dr. Craig Knight for his insightful and delightful interview as well as Nancy Thompson from Vorticom, Inc. for arranging it and making it possible! 

I also want to thank the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation for their outstanding Path Forward series, especially its July 30, 2020 program entitled Covid-19 and The Future of Work in which the US Chamber’s President Suzanne Clark interviewed Benjamin Pring, Jim Harter, and Nancy Rothbard.


Friday, August 14, 2020

Schools and Parental Choices during Covid-19: Interview with Carew Papritz

Carew Papritz
This week, I had both the opportunity and pleasure to talk with award-winning author as well as educational thought leader Carew Papritz on various topics related to the pandemic but our main focus was on the opening of schools, the health of our children, the use of masks as well as parental obligations and responsibilities within the whole process. We covered a lot of ground and terrain in the interview, some of which I would like to highlight here.

Masks and the school environment

It has been proven that under the current conditions and circumstances, masks alongside physical distancing are of utmost importance to deal with this dangerous virus. It came as a surprise to Carew that here in British Columbia where I am residing, masks at the current moment have not been mandated in schools, but they have been considered optional. Carew agrees with me that masks should be indeed part and parcel of safety procedures and guidelines for all schools.

In a school setting, anything that is considered optional will often be viewed and translated as not being necessary and will most likely not be followed or acted upon. Both Carew and I are concerned that where freedom and choice are allowed and permitted on the matter, there would be a growing culture of peer pressure and discrimination against the mask-wearing children; those students who are conscious, aware of and concerned about their health and are closely following recommended safety guidelines and protocols could be facing bullying and discrimination from others.

Carew stated in the interview that since this is a respiratory disease, the simplest thing to do is to wear a mask to protect oneself from it, but by giving people a choice in the matter, there is the danger of having a “mask caste system” where some choose to follow the suggestions, while others do not. That being said, we ought to keep in mind that children often choose to disobey rules unless those regulations are strongly enforced and reinforced by the authorities, but good and effective modeling alongside a culture of hygiene that includes regular hand-washing and sanitization protocols can also go a long way.

Yet to my concern and alarm, teachers and principals at my son’s elementary school, are not wearing masks, and moreover, they are not physically distancing from their peers, something I have personally witnessed on different occasions. They would go out in groups to pick up meals and would generally continue life as if there was no threat of a pandemic around them. If the teachers, the supposed role models, are not following the rules, then how could our children possibly be safe with them.

This is an important point to consider because we are, under the current circumstances, not only entrusting staff and teachers with the education of our children; we are putting our children’s lives in their hands. I then ask myself how many of those teachers will indeed follow through with those guidelines set out by the authorities; how many of them are taking this virus seriously and also how many would be influenced and guided by dangerously ignorant, irrational and anti-scientific thoughts and ideas? If you think that this virus is overblown or exaggerated, or worse, a hoax, then you should not be in the public education system in the first place.

But the problem is also what Carew refers to as a “patchwork of non-leadership” since there is no clear national or state mandate, and each local school district is forced to deal with an exceedingly difficult situation, and they are not provided with much direction. 

Since both teachers and parents have such a strong desire and want for normalcy, many are trying to pretend or bluff their way out of this virus when all their decisions should be led and guided by the advice of health officials. Normalcy, whether it is about children going back to school or about parents going back to work, would have to wait for a while longer, or at the very least, it would need to be modified by new but stringent sets of rules, conditions, and circumstances to ensure and protect everyone’s health and well-being.


The role and obligations of parents

One of the best pieces of advice that Carew gave on the topic of parents was to get involved in the process. This whole situation affects us parents first-hand and whatever we do, we must keep in mind that the safety of our children is our responsibility, and it is indeed in our hands. It cannot be merely and blindly delegated to the government, school board, or medical authorities, but it is our commitment and obligation that count in this matter and should guide and lead the process.

Although governments, medical authorities, and school boards claim that they are acting in the best interest of our children, this is simply not true. They all have their own interests in mind, and they have their own agendas. This is not meant to blame them nor should we disregard them, but we must remember that their decisions are going to affect the health and well-being of our children in the midst of a pandemic that is unprecedented and the effects of which are still largely unknown. 

It is a comforting and pleasing thought that our children will not be touched or affected by this virus, but this is simply not true. The hospitalization or death rate may be much lower than the elderly or those afflicted with underlying conditions, but it still puts our children at risk. You do not wish to be the parent of the unfortunate child that got gravely ill or, God forbid, succumbed to this disease.

I understand that the authorities are trying their best, but we cannot let them decide for our children under these volatile and constantly changing circumstances. Our children are not guinea pigs and neither pawns nor experiments. They are our precious beings, and they are our lives, and we as their parents are responsible for and in charge of their health and safety.

When authorities speak of the cost of implementing adequate safety rules or the social, emotional and mental costs and potential drawbacks of keeping them away from school, we must tell ourselves that the state of their health is always more important, and we should not lose even a single life to a preventable disease. 

To ensure our children’s safety and that they are not merely treated as businesses that can be opened and closed at will or as guinea pigs, we must get involved and become vocal in the process. We must stand up for our children’s rights by contacting school boards and by putting pressure on elected officials. We have a choice, a voice, and, more importantly, the power to make ourselves heard. Currently, in my province and unlike other provinces as well as states in the neighboring south, students are mandated and expected to attend school in person.

Unlike in Carew’s state of Arizona, we have not been given a choice of online/distance learning. We also have not been given a choice to apply for medical exemptions due to health and safety concerns of our children, of ourselves, or of both. The option of opting out of the public education system and instead applying for homeschooling is not fair nor warranted under these extreme conditions. I believe in and support the benefits of traditional schooling provided that our children shall find themselves in a safe learning environment, which is unfortunately not the case here and is currently not guaranteed under the circumstances.

What can we, the concerned and caring parents, do to alleviate or change that? In its simplest form, you can sign or add your name to petitions. As more and more people realize that their opinions and concerns matter, we will be able to shape the conversation and steer it in the direction that is not merely in the best interest of schools and businesses, but that of our children. 

In British Columbia, we have been able to change the mask policy regarding public transit. After petitions, the authorities are going to make the wearing of masks on public transit mandatory. So yes, we can make a difference and bring about change.

Testing at schools

One of the simplest forms to ensure safety from the very start and of starting with a clean slate is the use of tests. I am not talking about assessment and evaluation of our students, which I think should be adjusted, modified or even put on hold for the time being until everything goes back to normal, or in Carew’s words, we should cut the students some slack; I am referring to diagnostic health tests to find out if a person, a staff member, teacher, or a student is currently afflicted with this disease, and hence actively contagious and a threat to others.  

We hear that the costs would be high to implement testing across the board, but it is in the best interest of everyone, our children, teachers, and staff to ensure that everyone is free of the virus from the first day onwards. It does not presuppose or guarantee immunity, but it is an important and necessary first step to take alongside other rules and safety precautions, such as mask-wearing, physical distancing, and ventilation.

This virus does not follow the regular health and illness patterns that we are accustomed to when compared to other diseases. We cannot spot the novel Coronavirus easily as we have witnessed with many asymptomatic cases that remain highly contagious. It is not enough and, in fact, a misnomer to believe that if you have no symptoms, therefore you must be healthy. 

It is not enough to advise that one should stay home once one feels sick. It is only testing that will guarantee that the person in question is free of Covid-19. In the interest of everyone’s safety, and most importantly, your child’s security, please consider adding your name to this petition initiated by Carew himself:, which can put pressure on making tests part of regulated health and safety processes.

It is in numbers that our voice will gain momentum and weight. Let the government and school authorities know what your priorities are and that you will not let them decide for you or for your children. In this situation, testing on its own will not be enough, but it will be an important part of the process, especially at its initial phase.

The other problem and complication, apart from asymptomatic cases, is that one does not seem to build long-lasting immunity from this disease. Although you may have contracted the disease, you may in fact be able to get re-infected. This makes testing, that is knowing who at any moment of time has the current virus, so paramount, and with that information in hand, the school authorities can take positive action and prevent and save others from getting infected or re-infected.


Vaccines and the way back to normality

This situation is not going to go on forever. Both Carew and I firmly believe that it is only a matter of time that there will be not only one but various approved and effective vaccines available. If you choose to keep your children at home or school them from home, or if you enforce these stringent and at times uncomfortable or inconvenient health rules, such as wearing masks and staying away from others, tell and remind yourself that it is only a temporary issue and condition.

This is not going to be the new normal for the next years or decades to come. We must have patience and be compliant with these sets of precautions until we are finally safe and free of this horrible disease. And then, everything will go back to normal, the way it used to be and we will appreciate to be back in the good old days where our children can freely play with their friends, while we get together with friends and have a drink or two whilst cheering to each other’s health.

In the meantime, before things get worse with the looming and impending second wave, it is most important to get the flu shot, so complications as well as mutations of the virus can be reduced or kept at a bare minimum. As always, safety is key and what matters most here.


The Covid Legacy

Flash forward to the future, the moment when Covid is going to be a memory of the past as you will remember and look back to the crazy days of confinement, mask-wearing and physical distancing, and you will be asking yourself, what role did I play? What were my contributions? What was my legacy in all of this?

Did you merely wait it out, kill time and wait for it to be over? Did you suffer and complain endlessly? Did you pretend it never happened and carry on with your regular life and routine? Or worse, did you protest against the wearing of masks, against the supposed and merely temporary infractions and restriction of your liberties? Did you make a big deal out of trifles while trifling with the inherent threat and danger of this virus?

Or did you stand up for what you believe in, your health, the health and welfare of your fellow beings while protecting your loved ones and shielding your children from harm? Did you withstand the unjustified scorn of the ignorant by doing the right thing? Did you accept the temporary financial sacrifices and those of leisure and movement for the common good and for the health and benefit of your family and your loved ones? Did you act and do what was in the best interest of everyone?

What will your legacy be in all of this, Carew Papritz the acclaimed author of The Legacy Letters wants to know?

Friday, August 7, 2020

On Your Own Path of Healing: Book Review of From Burning Out to Burning Bright

From Burning Out to Burning Bright
The body and mind are more interconnected than we think or are fully aware of. This nagging suspicion and fervent belief of mine have found substantial support in the medical sciences as well as in the field of psychology. One of the eye-opening books for me in this regard has been neuroscientist Suzanne O’Sullivan’s book on psychosomatic disorders entitled It’s All in Your Head, which proposes that various health conditions and diseases are caused by and rooted in psychological factors.

Even in the current medical setting, the power of the mind over matter is becoming more and more prevalent. I was pleased to hear that research by Elvira V. Lang, founder of Comfort Talk, has demonstrated that the use of self-hypnosis, often merely soothing words of comfort, can effectively affect pain management by reducing its occurrence and strength on acute-care patients. The influence of the mind over the body has been known for ages and it has been a thorn in the medical sciences, mostly via the effects of placebos, those innocuous sugar pills that in some patients can elicit the same response as certain medications or treatments.

In this age of self-awareness and self-consciousness, we know for a fact that words not only matter but that they can sting and hurt us as well as others. Seen from another perspective, if words of hatred can bring about pain, should we not utter words of love and kindness to each other since they can soothe, aid and potentially even heal and liberate us from pain and suffering?

Some months ago, I had the opportunity to discuss such a holistic view with registered nurse and gemstone and diamond therapy practitioner Jennifer Marcenelle. Our hour-long interview, which turned into a pleasant and informative conversation on health and wellbeing has been documented on my blog previously. Yet now I have had the pleasure to receive her recently published book From Burning Out to Burning Bright, which arrived with a personal and signed dedication by the author.

Although there are a few things we did not see eye to eye on in the interview – and some of them reverberate as well through her book – there are two things to consider. On one hand, there is a significant agreement between us when it comes to the importance of mental and emotional being and its correlation with health as well as the importance of leading a healthy life. I could not agree with her more on the fact that burnout is the outcome of a hectic and busy lifestyle that drives and feeds on chronic stress and negativity.

No amounts of pills, medication, alcohol, or drugs can possibly deal with the void, damage, and devastation that a life of chronic stress brings about. We need to find an approach that does not merely look at or treat the body in isolation but that takes into account the whole person and being - their thoughts, emotions, feelings, perception, and perspective. It is not just the job, the employer, the manager, the co-worker that causes one pain and heartache, but it goes much deeper than that as it has deeper underlying roots and causes.

The second point is that people are unique and different; as a result, they have different needs and requirements. What works for me may not exactly work for you. If diamonds and gemstones can have a therapeutic effect on you, whether it is based on science or it is simply a placebo effect, matters little here as long as it actually works for you. If your faith can strengthen you to deal with illness or stress, then it shall and so be it, and who are we to interfere with that.

One of the things that Jennifer often reiterates in her book is that everyone has their own belief system and that we should respect that. It is not a matter of converting or convincing the other of aligning themselves with our own viewpoints. There should be no hidden agenda nor manipulation when it comes to healing. We want to discover what works best, but the overall aim and purpose are always the same: health and wellness.

In the past, Jennifer was driven by ambition and a constant drive for success that took a substantial toll on her health and wellbeing. In the corporate world, which often uses greed, competition, and envy as a catalyst, there is no respite. She found herself, not unlike many of us, without support or comradeship. Everyone is striving and battling to get to the higher rungs of the ladder, while some may even lack scruples along the way.

In Jennifer’s case things got even more complicated because she was working within the health sector, which radiates and generates its own source of stress. Yet one of the most heartbreaking experiences for her involved a young mother who was awaiting a heart transplant.

The ailing mother received an experimental ventricular assist device, but Jennifer alongside all the other nurses knew in advance that it would not be of any help or assistance. Despite the health of this young woman gravely deteriorating, up to the point of her becoming comatose and her body mummifying, Jennifer’s superiors did not want to halt the use of the device; they wanted to keep the patient alive as long as possible so that the device could obtain FDA approval.

Using human beings and their suffering, let alone the continuous pain and the constant suffering that the patient’s husband and child had to go through, as a pawn for one’s own financial gain is beyond unethical. It is inexcusable and inhumane, and it served as a catalyst for Jennifer's decision to cut ties with the corporate world of greed and ambition. As Jennifer herself puts it, sometimes it takes something powerful and/or awful to bring out and about the best in us and put us on the path of healing.

One of the things, she realized is that the sacrifices she made and the stress that she endured for her work were just not worth its salt. Although it was important to help and serve others as a health practitioner, the business-minded and -oriented hospital system, the management, and administration did not have the best of their patients and employees in mind. In fact, the system was driven by political and economic incentives, for the most part, brought about by what is commonly referred to as Big Pharma.

The physical but more important emotional toll on her body showed and expressed itself in the form of burnout or a complete standstill and breakdown. The catalyst was not only her work nor her harmful outlook and attitude towards her employment, not only her envious and conniving colleagues and co-workers as well as her own flawed perception of what constitutes ambition and success, not only her own experiences of a noxious childhood promulgated by a toxic mother, sisters, and family environment, but rather a combination of all those elements involved.

Healing, as she puts it in her book, is a lifelong journey, and it needs to be approached in a holistic manner. She gives many examples of how this could be achieved, but as always, it depends on one’s own personal preferences and dispositions. Yet one thing is for sure: There is no magical pill or prescription to fix or set this wrong straight, but we must understand and realize what is causing and driving these issues, the root problem.

It is often tied with the concept of knowing oneself, knowing what makes one tick and to try and experiment with various methods to find out what works best. It is a trial-and-error process until we find the best method for ourselves, but most likely, it will be various modalities or a combination of tools that will help us advance on the path of healing. We can align ourselves with the Holy Spirit, or any spiritual force that you deem important in your personal life and/or culture, we can engage in and practice psychoanalysis, or any other means and methods you feel is appropriate to get you to understand and know yourself better.

The problems one has are often psychosomatic in nature. Many erroneously assume and believe that psychosomatic symptoms are not real. That is far from the truth. Psychosomatic disorders mean that there is no underlying organic and physical cause of one’s condition. It is caused by an underpinning emotional issue. This does not make it any less real, but it helps us focus on the cause in a much more concerted means and effort. In such situations, medication would have about the same effect as placebos, so it shows us that we could easily dispense with the harmful secondary effects, side effects and potential addiction that tend to be the unwanted outcome of certain types of medicine.

If gemstone and diamond therapy will work for you despite the advents and caution of science, then so be it. It is important to remember that neither I nor Jennifer recommends such methods for underlying organic causes although you can at any time combine them with scientific and medical treatments, be they in addition or in complement to medicine or surgery. In fact, research in Positive Psychology by Martin Seligman has shown that people with a positive outlook are not only healthier and live longer (by about eight years!) but they also have stronger immune systems, less inflammation, and fewer infections, and that they generally recover more quickly from wounds and/or diseases, whenever that is indeed possible.

As I expressed in my conversation with Jennifer in our phone interview, I am not too familiar with but also somewhat skeptical about gemstone and diamond therapy. I also do not have any first-hand experience or knowledge of Reiki, acupuncture, energy healing, or the use of spiritual guides. For those methods, I can only say, if it works for you, then that is great; if it does not, feel free to discard them and find other methods that could help you more.

Yet my stance on cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and its offshoots are a bit clearer as I have more knowledge as well as personal experience about this field. In fact, there are limitations to cognitive-behavioral methods, which neural linguistic programming (NLP) is part of and which is discussed, to some extent, in Jennifer’s book. She claims that it is important to ‘update our mental software’ to help us move in the right direction.

Although thoughts are certainly of importance, and one can reframe and train one’s brain in significant ways due to certain inherent flexibility, often referred to as neuroplasticity, it should not and could not come at the expense or neglect of emotions. The underlying problem here is that most of our harmful thoughts are stored in the unconscious and are not at our disposal or retrieval at the hands of consciousness.

In Jennifer’s case, her burnout was facilitated by feelings of anger and resentment that she herself felt but also absorbed from others, and this caused significant damage to her health and body.  It was also driven by the need to live a life in service of others, of being subservient to the wishes and expectations of others. This was only exacerbated by a toxic work environment, which she compares to an IV drip of poison.

These traumas often have their beginning in childhood trauma. In Jennifer’s case, it was because of her toxic mother, who herself was projecting her own childhood traumas of being a daughter of an abusive alcoholic, Jennifer’s maternal grandfather. Jennifer’s sisters coped with the same stress in different and more harmful manners; they used drugs and alcohol as an escape from their pain and suffering.

Childhood trauma, in Jennifer’s words, creates a disruption to our subtle bodies, the energetic aspects such as meridians, chakras, and the aura, and becomes stored in the body. Our body is, in essence, a “multi-dimensional system of subtle energies” that can have its chi/ki or vital energy flow become congested and blocked. This would reverberate and be felt in each of the distinct seven chakras, which are essentially designated wheels of energy that can stop flowing and lead to potential health problems.

There are two observations that I found of great interest here. The first one is that the most profound part of a person, our highest self, is deep within our core, which is why mystics keep telling and keep reminding us that to find yourself, you must go deep within. The second observation is about the crown chakra. When children are born, their fontanel is soft because it is conceived as the “door in which Soul enters the newborn’s body at first breath.” As a result, in baptism, the water symbolizes a way of keeping open - or rather cleansing - this chakra of the newly born.

The other point, I would like to mention is karma. We usually think of karma as either positive and negative and that basically, our actions would result in reactions charged in either direction. But I was surprised, yet pleased, to learn of a third and even higher distinction, namely the neutral side of karma. Essentially, karma itself has a neutral position. It is not meant to be personal, but it is a kind of scoring system that objectively rewards and punishes us, each according to our own.

But neutral as opposed to positive and negative karma means letting the universe take its course without influencing it too much with our wishes and desires. It does not mean that we should not do good or become indifferent or insensitive to human pain and suffering but rather to do everything in moderation. Neutral karma is indeed the middle path where our actions are undertaken for no other purpose than the greater good of all. It is not about telling the universe what we want or asking for things from the universe, but it is about being receptive and grateful for what the universe gives and provides us.

This is often harder said than done. For instance, Jennifer’s oath as a nurse to help and serve her patients might lead her to try too hard for a patient to recover, but that would be an infraction of the law of non-interference, a kind of mental pushing or wanting things that are not always possible. That would in its turn create more karma. Although the intention is good, it is not the highest form of neutral karma, of letting things, as well as our lives, are and run their course. We must keep in mind that death is the eventual destination of everyone’s life.

While karma tends to balance things out and, in Jennifer’s words, always pays its debts, it can also serve as a powerful tool to help us grow spiritually. In fact, we have the power to choose – even when at times it does not feel like it – and we can always act and break karmic patterns, no matter how harmful or entrenched they may be.

To do so, we must change our mindset and lifestyle in significant ways. We need to first off accept the fact that we are not perfect and that we are here to learn. Healing in a holistic way will help us become whole and that means we would need to find a way of releasing and unlodging unwanted negative energy, thoughts, and feelings alongside our chronic subconscious negativity, the triple feeling of being controlled, deprived, and rejected.

We must also forgive ourselves and follow our hearts, which is not the same as merely following one’s emotions. This takes continuous and persistent work and effort. Jennifer says it may include months of work with various modalities; I think it might be a matter of years to fully recover, but it is more than worth it.

In fact, in modern society, this situation becomes more pronounced because of a general lack of self-care. When people talk about me-time, it should not be only about going to the bar, the spa or getting a mani-pedi or facial, but taking time out to reconnect with oneself, the person one truly is deep inside.

You cannot love others if you do not love yourself first. You cannot forgive others if you do not first forgive yourself. You cannot love God, or anyone else if you do not love and accept yourself first. Whatever path you choose to take, if it takes you to yourself, your higher self, essence, or soul, then you are on the right path to healing and to becoming whole.