Why Can't We Compromise?
By Charles Rush
January 31, 2010
Dr. Seuss and the Zax[i];
1 Corinthians 1
(mp3, 6.8Mb) ]
Sarah Bunting[ii], believes that the proliferation of reality shows- Survivor, Temptation Island, Flav Love/Rock Love, the Bachelor, the Housewives of Orange County (how can there be so many of these)- is because we love to feel smug and superior to these people. It is a bad habit, like biting your nails, that we just can't stop doing.
“Your living is
determined not so much by what life brings to you as by the attitude you bring
to life; not so much by what happens to you as by the way your mind looks at
From Jerry Springer, through Judge Judy, to the dozen
reality shows, we put strangers into a confrontational situation, having
previously screened hundreds of people so that we winnow out anyone remotely
skilled in reconciliation, add a couple of folks that have undiagnosed
personality disorders and aren't camera shy, stir in alcohol- and let's just
see what we get here?
Who knows about the effect that this has on our wider
culture but it does seem that dilemma of the North-bound Zax
and the South-bound Zax is growing in our ever
crowded world. Whether it is true or not, so many of our biggest issues are
presented to us as two opposing forces on a collision
course. The United States (and the West) vs. Al Qaeda; Sunni vs. Shia in Iraq; Jew vs. Arabs in Palestine; Indian vs.
Pakistan; this list can be produced for every corner of the earth.
And it is one of those phenomena that doesn't
seem to dissipate as you get more local either. Right now, we are going through
a substantive discussion on health care. The one thing that both sides would
probably agree on is that it doesn't seem possible for this discussion to
become more partisan than it already is. At the moment, neither side seems ready to
blink at the on-coming headlights.
Locally, it is worse still. I'm standing in the produce
section at Kings, asking one of our Town Council
members how they were doing after a year of public service. They lean over and
say, “Reverend, I was hoping my legacy contained more moral substance than
artificial turf fields.” Lord, the vitriol, the numbers of people, the email
and phone messages, and a town council meeting that ran til
Since I first heard the NIMBY argument ten years ago, I've
heard it on every significant issue since. The Unitarian church did restoration
on their education building and the neighbors were worried that new facilities
might bring more young families and increased traffic on their street. One
woman concluded by saying ‘does one of our kids have to die from this traffic
before something is done?'
The Chair of the zoning board asked,
“Ma'am how long have you lived in your house?”
“Three years” was the answer.
“And the church has been there for 100
“And you bought your house knowing that
there was a church across the street and that they educated children in that
“Ma'am would you please sit down”
I was a little incredulous then but I've heard the same
argument over and over and over, whether it is low income housing, or right now
with the proposal to have a helicopter pad at Overlook Hospital.
You would think we could transcend this confrontational
approach, like at the World Trade Center, since it became something of a
national monument, but the answer appears to be ‘no, we can't', as we are still
locked in legal battle a decade later.
Never budge, that's my rule
Never budge in the least;
Not an inch to the west; not an inch to
I'll stand here not budging
I'll stand here I will
Comes to ask If
Grrrr…. Put up your dukes… And if
you notice, one thing these Zax's
all have in common. They are an angry lot. Grrrr…
They've got righteous indignation. They are ready for a fight.
So, I was interested to overhear something this week, a
lecture on some new research that is being done on the broader subject of
interpersonal happiness, and part of the lecture dealt with this phenomenon of
people around us at work that are unfulfilled and angry and why that was the
case. And the speaker was saying that our sage understanding of happiness overfocuses on outcomes… We call to mind adages that if we
work hard, we achieve success, we have stuff that we like around us, we will be
But the research doesn't support this adage exactly. It
turns out that what actually makes people happy is not
just outcomes but it also has to do with the way that they view the process. It
has to do with resilience, developing the capacity to respond creatively in the
midst of set back, unexpected challenge, and
I was interested to read that there is an emerging
discipline within the Psychology department that is focusing on the positive
and asking the question, what is it that makes us genuinely, authentically
happy. How do we develop a meaningful life?
A couple of psych professors at Harvard offered a class to
undergraduates a few years ago, on the subject of happiness, they get to class
the first day, and lo, behold, there are 1000 students sitting in chairs to
find out. One out of every 7 students at Harvard wanted some clue, any clue on
how to be happy. You want to know why? Despite all of their incredible success
in life, often coming from very powerful and successful families, as a group,
it turns out they are mostly…. Miserable.
And it turns out that we have quite a lot of control over
this basic disposition. It turns out that our minds actually alter their
patterns of perceiving and thinking, so that we are constantly evolving in our
disposition- growing in some areas and atrophying in others. It turns out that
we have the ability to re-inforce the way that we
perceive the world, how we interpret it, and our disposition is subtle
evolution all the time like this.
There is this wonderful line in St. Paul's letter to the
Romans that makes the same point spiritually. He says, “do
not simply conform to the world (things as they are around us) but be
transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rms. 12:2). It turns out that if you are genuinely happy,
you will also see the world around you in benevolent terms. You can subtly, but
significantly, become a different person and the interaction between our
thoughts and the reality that we perceive is quite complex and deep. Yes, I've
ordered the books.
We do this all the time, in ways that we don't notice. I was
deep sea fishing with one of my godsons. He was about in 8th grade
at the time. We land a huge fish, well over a hundred pounds. I'm reeling it in,
and out, and in, and out. Half an hour goes by. My biceps are actually in pain
but the adrenalin is really pumping. We get the fish near the boat. My godson
is excited. His Uncle's are excited. I just want to see the photos of us
hauling the fish onto the back of the boat together. It is going to be great.
My godson is ready to reel. He gets in the seat. I hand him the pole. He has
hold of it. Everything is great. And boom, he hits the release button by
accident and line is flying out dozens of yards a second and before you can say
‘boo' the fish is over a hundred yards away.
My arms are aching. I'm watching this. My godson says, “Can
you reel it in again Uncle Chuck?” Oh man, my arms. Oh man, my godson the
bonehead. I could have gone on for quite a while- the pain, the misery, the
injustice of it all. And his father might have… But I'm not his father. I have
this image in my mind of reeling that fish in with this kid. I want to be this
guy that reels in the fish that my godson talks about, perhaps pull in steel
leader with my bare hands.
The pain of our suffering world vs. Neptune Man… And I
started reeling, slowly, yes… and forty minutes after that we eventually did
get a picture of the two of us with a fish that was bigger than my godson. It
was quite a day. And that day, the vision won out over the facts alone. We can
do this. And in the process, we can actually change ourselves.
And not only can we change, we can become better.[iii]
The initial research seems to indicate that happy people actually achieve more.
In one study, researchers asked the participants to take a test and they
recorded their scores. Then they asked the group to envision one of the
happiest moments in their lives. They held that image, described it, let it
settle over them. They not only increased the number of answers they got right,
they increased the speed with which they took the test.
And ditto for Physicians. Apparently, they had three groups
of physicians: a control group, a group that was asked to spend time reading a
medical journal, and the third group that were made
happy by giving them candy- yes, I kid you not. I thought 8th grade
was the last time that candy would work, but no- The happy group not only made
better diagnoses when they saw their patients, they also exhibited intellectual
flexibility and suppleness. I have to see the study to say more, but it is
Apparently, if you take an intellectual aptitude test, the
same thing is true. You score somewhat higher if you take them in a happy
disposition. So, if you were one of those people that stayed in all Friday
night before your SAT test, making yourself miserable with worry, trying to
memorize a few more words like ‘lachrymose', you put yourself at a disadvantage
to those of us who spent that evening trying to romance Katie Cochrane. We had
a much better time and we scored better- at least against ourselves, so there.
And this one comes as no surprise. If you would like to get
a more positive, rounded response out of the people you have to ask something
of, they are much more likely to be amenable if they are in a cheery
disposition. So, if you begin with a compliment that is true or if you thank
them for something that is genuine, they respond more graciously. It is a
lesson I first learned from both of my great grandfathers and I have
unconsciously emulated them. When I was a child, every time I would visit
either one of them, the very first thing that they would do is ask me if I'd go
over to a great big jar and reach inside to get some candy. Then we would talk
for a short moment.
Today, as all the children know at Christ Church, you go to
my office and have a piece of candy. I'm hoping the next generation has warm
feelings for the Minister…. I can hear them now, “Boring preacher… but good
candy.” Warm feelings- better outcomes.
Think about it. We have whole teams of people in Bangalore,
India that are trained to talk irate Americans off the roof. They are Technical
psychologists. “I can't get this damn computer to work. It's the
damnest, dam thing.”
“Oh, I am so sorry Mr. Rush, it
sounds like you've had a frustrating day.”
“Well, well…. I have.”
“Mr. Rush, let's see if we can get to the root of your
And then they ask you a bunch of easy questions to get you
back in positive space.
“Are you sitting in front of your computer now?”
“Is the computer turned on?”
“Yes”… got that going for me anyway. Feeling pretty good…
answered two in a row.
The next thing you know, you are off that ledge, rational,
able to learn, and most of the time you solve your problem. Next.
It turns out that there are a lot of benefits when you are
able to create a positive atmosphere, whether it is in your family, your
workplace, or the places that you volunteer your time and service. For example,
people that are contented deploy a fuller range of their creative imagination. And how important is that for almost everything we are actually
engaged in through our work or our committee life.
People that are happy tend to be healthier, they live longer
and they are more open to receiving critical feedback and the critical
self-reflection that leads to personal growth.[iv]
People that are part of a team that fosters encouragement and a
culture of encouragement of others on the whole earn higher profits and
generate better customer satisfaction than other work places.
People that have fulfilling personal relationships are much
happier than people who have insubstantial relationships, we know that. Guess
what the researchers discovered when they interviewed all of the students at
Harvard? Their romantic lives were beyond anemic. They had worked so hard to
get themselves in the most competitive environment that all they did was surround themselves with new challenges. Graduated from
Middle School in the top 1%, graduate from High School in the top 1%, get to
Harvard and guess what- they are no longer in the top 1%. Big identity crisis, not enough time spent actually developing significant
relationships with other people, and guess what, life starts losing its
Sounds familiar doesn't it? We create these competitive
cultures in which we actually sacrifice personal relationships in the pursuit
of some goal of excellence and we wonder why we are so empty in the midst of
great success. You get there and it is not what you had hoped and imagined that
it was going to be.
Here is the promising part of this early research. St. Paul
used to encourage us to ‘think again like the Christ'. He used to say, “have this mind which was in Christ Jesus' or in Romans
‘transform your mind by the renewing of your spirit'. If you come back to some
basics, you can change and find more contentment in your life.
Like being grateful. Tell people that you appreciate
what they are doing- only real stuff, only genuine praise. Become grateful as a
person. And you know what? You start seeing more things to be grateful for? The
gratitude part of your brain, your spirit, grows when you exercise it and it
starts to help you perceive the world in grateful ways.
How so? Write about it. I know men aren't too big on this
but perhaps we should change. Perhaps there is something about taking the time
and actually writing about something that you are grateful for that brings it
to mind front and center with focus that is important. And I suspect that there
would be other benefits as well. Let me tell you, if you write a short note to
your spouse about something that you are genuinely grateful for that they do,
and you mail it off to them, you likely get something more than two grateful
people. It can take on a life of its own.
And simplify. I have to read the research on this but
apparently all of our ‘multi-tasking' increases stress more significantly than
we realize. Apparently, we get doing more and more and it only produces more
and more- like a tread mill… Aggh!
And find your strengths. It turns out that people are
happier and more confident when they are in environments where they can
exercise what they are good at doing. What a great insight for parents. What a
great insight for spouses and friends. Help construct your world so that
members of your family get to do what they do well and you appreciate them for
And exercise. Exercise releases the chemicals that produce
emotional happiness, the foundational conditions for life. Build exercise into
And meditation. There is something
about breathing itself that is deep wired with contentment in human nature.
This is one of our oldest spiritual disciplines and it is so old because it
These practices can make a difference. More than that, they
create a spiritual and emotional disposition that open
the door for reflection on developing a more meaningful life. We all want to
engage in meaningful work. We want to be part of a meaningful community. We
want to invest our volunteer time and make a meaningful difference. These type
of people… they are emotionally and spiritually resilient people. They aren't
smashing into each other so often, in part, because they are tuned in to how
they can help those around them grow and realize their potential. They are
imaginative and are envisioning a world where we are in synchronicity with each
other. They want to mix it up precisely to develop resonance, new harmony, and once in a long while a ‘deeper symphonic
concord' that is rather magical. The
Christians used to call it ‘Koinonia' when love, peace, understanding,
forgiveness, and compassion are all manifest together for a short while and it
just all comes together. That is what we want. Or? We can keep walking straight
ahead. Your call.
[i] “The Zax”
in The Sneeches and
Other Stories by Dr Seuss. You can
read the text here: http://zaxbypass.com/about/the-zax/ or watch a video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfI9e4BX0lU
[ii] See www.televisionwithoutpity.com
[iii] First, I would like to
thank Sue Shellenbarger at the Wall Street Journal.
Her article “Thinking Happy Thoughts at Work” (Wednesday, January 27, 2010, p.
D2) opened up the thinking for the rest of this sermon. She draws upon the work
of Shawn Achor, a former researcher at Harvard, who
is involved in developing the positive basis of psychology. Unfortunately, I
was not able to obtain the books in time and the points which follow are
developed by Shawn in a video he has released on YouTube that gives just a
general introduction to the topic. I will have to rely on the relative accuracy
of his reporting on that video for the moment.
[iv] These are from Sue Shellenbarger's article. I have to presume that they are
[v] These are from Shawn Achor's YouTube Video. It is a three part video and I think
this is part 3.
All rights reserved.