Bacon on the Bookshelf

Savory picks for the free range reader

Guest Post: Daphne Butler on Meaning, Happiness, and the Greater Good

| 21 Comments

photo 2

Daphne Butler’s big, warm laugh is sweeter than a summertime peach.  It’s warmer than a steaming mug of hot chocolate on a snowy day.  It’s more colorful than the changing leaves in fall, and more cheerful than the first daffodils of spring.  That laugh!  Sometimes it’s a Texas-sized tornado, sometimes it’s just the wind in the leaves; you know when Daphne’s in the room – and that’s the only place you’ll want to be.

All that being said, Daphne’s fellow seniors at Hotchkiss gave her the honor of “Most Obnoxious Laugh” at the end of their four years together.  What?!  It’s the best laugh ever, and they knew it.

Would you be surprised that she enjoys games?  Scrabble with the kids (she and Rawls have four) is her favorite, as she likes to show off her vocabulary.  Well, maybe it’s Words with Friends, on second thought.  “But Backgammon is first place if I’m honest. And only because I’m so good,” she says with a smile.  She acknowledges a small amount of “very benevolent competitiveness.”

Daphne is passionate about opportunity in education and believes with all her heart in excellent teachers. She serves on the Nashville board of Teach for America with dear friend Julie Frist, and she and good friend Elizabeth Dennis have co-chaired KIPP’s major Nashville fundraiser for two years running.

Daphne is also passionate about shelled pistachios, Gingerade kombucha, her hometown – Houston, her two dogs, reading, and exercise.  If she had an entire day with no obligations, she’d run the red trail at Percy Warner Park then read one of the twelve books on her “to read” list.

Daphne admits to reading books she wasn’t supposed to as a youth, though she won’t tell me which ones.  Her favorite books from childhood are The Giving Tree and James and the Giant Peach.  Her favorite book of all time, depending on when you ask, is Anna Karenina or Gone with the Wind.  Today she takes a detour into nonfiction, and I’m so glad she did.

From Daphne:9781442341135

Last weekend I was in California with some college girlfriends, and, quite predictably, our conversations cycled through the topics of marriage, career, parenting, aging, health – each story revealing a glimpse of one another’s successes and struggles.  As I flew home on Sunday, it occurred to me that what we lifelong friends want for each other, above all, is happiness.  With this thought in mind, I decided to review two of my favorite nonfiction reads addressing human happiness from different perspectives.

For now, much of my time and energy is spent on parenting and community work.  Although I have never been a fan of the self-help category (particularly that Seven Habits horror), Learned Optimism and Toxic Charity are excellent books that in very different ways address the role a community plays in ensuring the health of the individual.  Their common tenet: commitment to a greater good fosters happiness and success in the individual – something I think worthwhile to remember as a parent or volunteer.

Learned Optimism is written by renowned Penn psychologist Martin Seligman, considered the father of the science of “Positive Psychology.”  Uniquely compelling in this book is the manner in which Seligman approaches depression, an emotion that unfortunately eludes very few, if any, of us.  He exposes the “epidemic” of depression (and suicide) in this country and provides a compendium of causes, of which chronic “individualism” and the impact of one’s “explanatory style” spoke loudest to me.  (His earlier book, The Optimistic Child, delves into over-parenting/scheduling and the resulting mental ailments – also a great read.)

Seligman’s guiding principle (based on decades of his own and numerous others’ research) is that we have the power to positively change the course of our children’s and our own mental health through “learned optimism.”  This approach aims to break the cycle of the “I-give-up” habit so prevalent in our collective internal dialogue.  Additionally, in our roles as parents and teachers, we are called to continuously redirect and correct behavior.  As we do so, he argues that our explanatory style, or the way in which we deliver our messages, should be optimistic.  Unfortunately, the predilection in this country is toward a more pessimistic and therefore damaging delivery.

Throughout the book, Seligman underscores the notion that “meaningfulness” is essential for happiness and that this state cannot be achieved until the individual is attached to a greater good.  He rails against individualism, calling its rise and the resulting decline in the commitment to the common good “the stem of the epidemic of depression in our country.”  He continues, “a society that exalts the individual to the extent ours now does will be riddled with depression.”  He goes further, calling the self “a very poor site for meaning.”  The greater good – e.g. God, country, community – is where the self derives its meaningfulness.  For Seligman, self-esteem (identified as a measure of mental health; not the objective) will increase when the “maximal self” coalesces as part of the greater good.

Here – at the point of common good – Seligman and Robert Lupton, author of Toxic Charity intersect.  Like Seligman, Lupton believes that the process of being part of a larger entity and contributing to that entity enrich the life of the individual.

However, Lupton’s interest lies not in the mental health of the do-gooder, but in the health of charity’s beneficiary.

screen-capture-121I, like so many of my fellow Nashvillians, have contemplated a charitable mission trip for my family.  As I considered such a once in a lifetime opportunity, I envisioned my family rising to the challenge of working hard in foreign, uncomfortable conditions for the benefit of others less fortunate.  I could only imagine the life lessons we would glean, not to mention the actual benefits of this work – a true win-win for everyone involved.

I began to rethink this win-win scenario after reading Toxic Charity.  Far from condemning the act of giving, Lupton implores the reader to engage in careful analysis of the outcomes of charitable acts before taking part in them.  He cites mission trips, holiday giving programs, and food banks as wonderful opportunities for altruism, but asks the giver to contemplate the long term effects of the acts upon the recipients.

Among scores of real life examples, Lupton asks us to consider: a Nicaraguan village that depends upon the technological expertise of American missionaries to manage its water supply; the continued decline in the economic health of Haiti, despite $8.3 billion in international relief; a dad who leaves the room when a well meaning church family arrives with Christmas gifts for his family; a humbled child who rides the school bus home with a bag of food donated by fellow student families.  In each case, the giver most certainly had the beneficiary’s best interest in mind, but Lupton argues the long term effects of “mercy” or “one-way” giving increase dependency, decrease self-esteem, erode the work ethic, and affirm the authority of the giver over the receiver.

The best form of charitable giving, he contends, is more time consuming, but less expensive.  It requires more of an attitude of doing “with” than doing “for,” and it always involves an exchange (which he links to the notion of justice).  Training the villagers on well construction and management; micro loans to Haitian entrepreneurs; bargain basement prices for new toys at a church bazaar; $5 annual membership for a school food co-op – these, Lupton argues, are the better options.  I recommend Toxic Charity as a must-read for the thousands of volunteers and hundreds of corporations, non-profits and schools aimed at helping those in need in Nashville and beyond.

The writings of Seligman and Lupton summon the wisdom of almost all world religions – consider Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity – each espousing the tenet that to give is better than to receive.  After reading these books, one feels that indeed a greater being may have divined this to be true, but modern critical analysis and science have also proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that giving breeds happiness.  The (now famous) Hindu greeting and farewell embodies this spirit beautifully, as a celebration and acknowledgement of the life, connection and light in all of us:  Namaste.

21 Comments

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.