Looking for encouragement

Do you every now and then hear something on the radio, or read or hear a speech, or even just something in personal conversation, that says only pleasant things in a very convincing and encouraging way? Remarks which are simply pleasant, and which do not arise out of a rhetoric meant to recognize the ills of the world, but which point toward some feeble reed of hope? Even better, something that is just pleasant in itself, the proverbial “breath of fresh air,” which picks you up and sets you in a different place emotionally, attitudinally, or perhaps spiritually? Doesn’t happen often.

It has been rare to find, after the 1990s, literature, TV shows, or movies, which are not primarily stories of people who are evil, or mentally deranged, or who succumb to evil intentions or purposes, or who always seek the edge of malice. The 20th anniversary of “The Sopranos” is being celebrated – a story in which the lead character always makes hurtful choices and always damages people around him. It is taken as the template of the “golden era” of TV.

It seems our culture eschews positive, pleasant stories and characters. I am privileged to listen to the Canadian Broadcast Company’s weekday morning radio Toronto broadcast Metro Morning from 5:30 to 8:30 a.m. While the stories and news certainly cover the serious problems of the day locally, nationally, and internationally, they also feature the really good, encouraging, and even inspiring things that are happening in the city’s neighbourhoods, as a result of individuals’ efforts and efforts of organized groups. Hearing these give balance to the day and week. All these encouraging stories certainly don’t sweep away the dark clouds which seem to predominate, but they provide moist air to breathe in a room made dry by artificial heat in the winter; they are like a fan which wicks away sweat on a sultry day.

Whereas the world around me used to seem basically OK (notwithstanding potential nuclear war, on-going racism and white privilege, highly unethical psychological experiments and treatments, and a potentially very harmful alliance between the powers of the press and government {see Katherine Graham’s Personal History and the movie “Post”}) and the contrary were regarded as exceptions, our current time seems the reverse. There are a few counter-currents. Every time I hear or read someone describing good things, e.g., acting and speaking civilly, presuming innocence until guilt proven, respectful disagreement (see The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt), getting involved in the grass roots political processes, doing grunt work for a charity, I am lifted up however briefly. At the church I attend the sermon recently emphasized the optimism in an apocalyptic prophecy which speaks of things coming apart being birth pangs, rather than the end of things. Made my day and lasted through much of the week. I even texted the preacher to thank her.

A fictional story, The Newcomer by Japanese author Keigo Higashino, describes a detective who takes small gifts of sweets to people as he interviews them at home or in their small Tokyo shops; at the end of the story (spoiler alert) he reveals that his methods of enquiry were taken intentionally to demonstrating good and pleasant methods to his new superior in the police. His niceness is at the core of his work.

The Australian TV series “A Place to Call Home,” is replete with 1950s characters who have suffered terribly from WWII but nonetheless find ways to be good, nice, and helpful. Extraordinarily, there are also bad people who eventually discover the wrongness of their ways and change quite surprisingly for the better, along with others who recognize their wrongness but who decide again to continue that way. How refreshing to be thus encouraged without any saccharine.

In conversations, really good people will discuss the seriousness of today’s problems and express hope for better times. But they are unlikely to talk about what they themselves are doing to help others or improve matters. I learn about their efforts only accidentally, through casual comments or from others. But they seldom speak about what motivates them, what their passions for happiness are, their moral, ethical, or religious guidelines or guidelines provided by love. I think that to hear more about these would be so refreshing and encouraging, whether or not those guidelines are ones I would want to emulate. Just hearing people talk about them and describe how they are sustained by them, would be helpful. There is a cone of silence about our values and that, perhaps as much as the out-and-out malice so evident today, is killing us.

Where does informed consent enter this? When people refrain from speaking about their personal values, morals, and motivations, we are deprived of something we should know before we “gird our loins” to engage the day’s problems. We are denied the information, rather than just the hope, that others are well motivated and, as we are, working at bettering life. We consent to engage the difficulties of the times without that information. It is a terrible deprivation.

In my first two posts I discussed the research showing that each of us is influenced by the words of those around us, and by words of people around them. Silence about our values, morals, and motivations deprive people of something we need as much as food, water, and air. We are deprived of the moment to decide whether to give informed consent to the presumption that life must be the way it is.


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