Trust: Do you trust … thyself?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Trust

Ralph Waldo EmersonMany Americans no longer trust the institutions that govern our lives. The failure of the Congress to reach an accord and the ensuing government shutdown is Exhibit #1. As one commentator said, America is starting to look like Italy—always in a state of crisis, always teetering on the edge of chaos.

So, who can we trust?

Are we left with just one source: ourselves?

Self-reliance is one of 10 core American values. According to my national surveys, more than 80% of Americans agree that “I would rather depend on myself than on others” and “I rely on myself most of the time.”

The value of self-reliance goes back to the founding of the nation. It was given eloquent form in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s classic essay, Self-Reliance, published in 1847. Consider the three main points from the Sage of Concord’s essay.

The self-contained genius: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius.”

Ignore the world: “There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance, that imitation is suicide…”

Trust yourself: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.”

Do you trust yourself?

Do Emerson’s words ring truer now than ever before?

Are we left with just one source to trust: ourselves?

Please, take a moment to add a Comment, below. And invite friends to read along. Use the blue-”f” Facebook icon or the small envelope-shaped email icon.

Second Acts: How World War II kick-started American literature

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Second Acts in American Life

Great Gatsby WWII cover of Armed Services Edition F Scott FitzgeraldFrom Dr. Baker: Today, Terry Gallagher concludes his series on “Second Acts in American Lives” …

Well, look who’s back on top of the best-seller list! Boosted by the release of the 3-D film version starring Leonardo DiCaprio, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby hit No. 1 on Amazon’s best sellers list for a week in May.

Hard to believe now, but the book wasn’t a best seller when it was published in 1925. As Fitzgerald’s editor at Scribner’s, the legendary Max Perkins, wired him: SALES SITUATION DOUBTFUL EXCELLENT REVIEWS.

It didn’t get much better. In 1929, Fitzgerald’s records showed royalties of $5.10 from the American edition of The Great Gatsby and $0.34 from the English edition. In 1940, the royalties were a very unlucky $13.13.

So what happened to make the book one of the most popular and enduring in all of American literature?

In large part, it was because of World War II. During the war, American publishers worked with the military to provide books to soldiers as a way to boost morale. The Great Gatsby was one of the 1,322 titles included in this global distribution campaign. As a result, 155,000 copies of Gatsby were distributed between 1942 and 1946, far surpassing the 25,000 copies Scribner’s printed from 1925 to 1942, thousands of which were never sold.

How successful was the program overall? The books were “as popular as pin-up girls,” one soldier told the Saturday Evening Post.

Many scholars believe that was the impetus that made the book a popular success.

Nowadays, Scribner’s sells about half-million copies every year, both in print and e-books, and the rights generate about $500,000 per year for Fitzgerald’s heirs.

How’s that for a second act?

And, share this column with friends! Please, start a conversation with your friends by clicking on the blue-”f” Facebook icons connected to this story. Or email this story to a friend using the small envelope-shaped icons.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering spirituality, religion, and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Second Acts: Was Fitzgerald decrying American shortcuts?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Second Acts in American Life

F Scott Fitzgerald photo from early 1920sFrom Dr. Baker: Welcome back columnist Terry Gallagher …

WE may be missing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s real message when he wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Maybe he wasn’t saying that we can never recover from early failures.

To get what Fitzgerald was driving at, you have to read “second acts” as a reference to the middle part of a play.

In a 2010 column in The Atlantic, writer Hampton Stevens pointed out that Fitzgerald wrote for the theater at Princeton and later Broadway (and Hollywood). “With ‘no second acts,’ he was almost certainly referring to a traditional, three-act drama, in which Act I establishes the major conflict, Act II introduces complications, and Act III is for the climax and resolution.”

Fitzgerald may have been saying that, as Americans, we grasp for premature resolutions, impatient with complications along the way. During the second act, the protagonist is unable to resolve the complications because they don’t have the right tools yet. Our lead character must grapple against the odds—often paying a big price along the way. But Americans? Usually, we just want a shortcut.

Of course, Fitzgerald left us with a puzzle when he died prematurely at age 44 in late 1940. He was only about half finished with his final novel, The Last Tycoon. His friend Edmund Wilson assembled enough of the book so that an edition could be published in 1941. To accomplish this, Wilson searched through hundreds of pages of notes and, in the final published pages, simply listed some one-liners from those notes. That’s where the famous line appears: “There are no second acts in American lives.” Then, right after that, Wilson placed this line from Fitzgerald’s notes: “Tragedy of these men was that nothing in their lives had really bitten deep at all.”

Maybe Fitzgerald was saying we’d be better off if we took a little time for character development, for figuring out who we are, before we race to the finish line. That explanation seems to make a lot more sense than the more common interpretation of the line.

But what do you think?

Please, add a comment below, and …

Share this story with friends! Please, start a conversation with your friends by clicking on the blue-”f” Facebook icons connected to this story. Or email this story to a friend using the small envelope-shaped icons.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering spirituality, religion, interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

 

 

Second Acts: Agree with F. Scott Fitzgerald? Inmates in The Wire?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Second Acts in American Life
At left, convicted drug dealer D'Angelo Barksdale talks with other prison inmates in a book-discussion group about Fitzgerald's claim about second chances. This scene in the second season of the highly praised series The Wire is bittersweet because it comes shortly before Barksdale's untimely death.

At left, convicted drug dealer D’Angelo Barksdale talks with other prison inmates in a book-discussion group about Fitzgerald’s novel. This scene comes mid-way through the second season of the highly praised HBO series The Wire. The discussion about Fitzgerald and second chances is bittersweet because it comes shortly before Barksdale’s past tragically catches up with him in prison.

From Dr. Wayne Baker: Welcome back guest columnist Terry Gallagher. Thanks to all the readers who read—and shared with friends—Terry’s series last week on “Losing My Religion”. Here is Terry’s first column in a new series on “Second Acts in American Life” …

“There aRE no second acts in American lives,” according to F. Scott Fitzgerald in one of the most quoted lines in the whole of American literature.

No matter what Fitzgerald might have actually meant by the line (we’ll get to that by Friday), it’s often recited to mean that America is unforgiving, dog eat dog, make one mistake and you’re off the rails for good.

We know that isn’t true—certainly not in our political life. Bill Clinton had more than one chance. Lincoln became president after failing to win a Senate seat from Illinois. And the unfortunately named Anthony Weiner was leading the polls in New York City mayor’s race until his second act ended as the first one did.

But it really is true in some other ways, isn’t it? In one sign of the sentence’s enduring power, the great HBO drama, The Wire, shows a group of inmates working their way through Fitzgerald in a prison book club.

“He’s saying that the past is always with us,” according to drug dealer D’Angelo Barksdale. “Where we come from, what we go through, how we go through it—all that . . . . matters. . . . You can say you’re somebody new. You can give yourself a whole new story. But what came first is who you really are, and what happened before is what really happened.”

So which is it?

Do we get a second act?

Or is what came first who you really are?

Please, add a comment below, and …

Share this story with friends! Please, start a conversation with your friends by clicking on the blue-”f” Facebook icons connected to this story. Or email this story to a friend using the small envelope-shaped icons.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering spirituality, religion, interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Death: Who knows what to say? Emily Post? Shakespeare?

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Death
Click the cover to visit the publisher's page for the book.

Click the cover to visit the publisher’s page for the book.

From Dr. Baker: Welcome back columnist Terry Gallagher.

Many people find themselves speechless on learning of the death of a friend or colleague, finding it very difficult to choose words that will comfort the grieving.

That’s one reason we have etiquette guides like Emily Post, offering pages of advice on how to write sensitive notes to survivors.

And our friend Stuart Matlins has helped thousands with his indispensable The Perfect Stranger’s Guide to Funerals and Grieving Practices: A Guide to Etiquette in Other People’s Religious Ceremonies.

But even on familiar turf, most of us have experienced the awkwardness and discomfort when a eulogist, overcome by emotion, loses composure and breaks down in tears.

Shakespeare got that experience right when he shows us how Macduff responds to news that his wife and children have been “savagely slaughtered” by Macbeth’s forces.

From the text, it’s clear that he’s been struck silent by the news.

“Give sorrow words,” his ally Malcolm eventually encourages him. “The grief that does not speak whispers the overwrought heart and bids it break.”

Even when our hearts would break, we need to find something to say, to “give sorrow words.”

How should we express grief?

What responses annoy you after a death?

Please, add a comment below. And, please, share this column with friends. You can  help to spread news about Our Values by clicking on the blue-”f” Facebook icons and showing you “Like” this column.

Almosting It: A James Joyce New Year’s Resolution

https://readthespirit.com/ourvalues/wp-content/uploads/sites/17/2013/03/wpid-1230_James_Joyce_statue_in_Dublin_Ireland.jpgJAMES JOYCE (1882-1941) still strolls on a windy day in Dublin, Ireland, thanks to this Marjorie Fitzgibbon statue installed in 1990. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.Dear Readers (a note from Dr. Wayne Baker): I’m away with family, closing out 2012 and opening 2013. Our regular guest columnist Terry Gallagher is taking the helm for us. Thank you, Terry! And: Thank you, readers, for a marvelous year!
Here’s Terry …

IF YOU’RE MAKING UP your New Year’s resolutions today, let me throw you a lifeline.

One reason that so many resolutions fail is their absolutist quality: you either quit smoking or you don’t.

We might be happier if we think about “almosting it” instead.

“Almosting it” comes from a line in James Joyce’s Ulysses, and like a lot of that book, its meaning isn’t completely transparent. But most take it to mean something like “getting close enough.”

In his book The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Community, Prof. John Tropman uses the word “satisficing” for this same idea, meaning: good enough. “Satisficing” is the difference between finding the sharpest needle in the haystack and finding one sharp enough to sew with; and Tropman says it is one of the main distinctions between the Protestant ethic and a Catholic one. In the Catholic context, he says, “with respect to salvation, at least, degrees matter. An individual moves toward salvation and occasionally moves back.”

For me, “almosting it” means that I can set my sights on getting better at something without thinking that I’ll ever master that skill or craft. Maybe you don’t have to lose 30 pounds to be able to say you’ve kept your New Year’s resolution.

In this week’s columns, I’m going to write about some of my stabs at “almosting it,” and I hope you’ll share some of your resolutions, too, both successes and almost-ones.

TERRY GALLAGHER has worked for more than 30 years using media to build stronger institutions and communities. As regular guest columnist for Our Values, he has written about a wide range of topics including New Year’s resolutions and teaching old dogs new tricks.

What’s your approach to New Year’s Resolutions?

Do you make them? Do you reject the idea? Do you add your own twist?

Please, leave a Comment below.

Originally published at www.OurValues.org, an experiment in civil dialogue about American values.

 

Is verbal intelligence rising or falling in the United States?

https://readthespirit.com/ourvalues/wp-content/uploads/sites/17/2013/03/wpid-1130ov_literacy_letters.jpgHow good is your vocabulary?
The answer might depend on when you were born, according to findings in the newly published Social Trends in American Life. We’ve consulted this book all week, discussing trends such as American’s rising tolerance of all sorts of different people, changes in racial attitudes, and the liberalization of attitudes about gender roles. We’ve also discussed the enduring role of religion in American life, and how it elevates happiness. Today, we focus on verbal intelligence.

Over 30+ years, the General Social Survey (GSS) has measured American adults’ verbal knowledge. This is the ability to correctly define the meaning of words. Here’s an example given in the chapter by Duane Alwin and Julianna Pacheco. Consider the word BEAST. Which of the following words comes closest to its meaning? Afraid, words, large, animal, bird. The correct answer is animal. The number of correct answers to a list of such word definitions represents a person’s verbal intelligence.

Is verbal intelligence going up or down? Do younger cohorts of adults demonstrate better verbal knowledge than older cohorts? Or, is it the other way around?

The main finding shows a clear downward trend: “Overall,” the authors write, “the results point to the conclusion that despite their higher levels of schooling, post-World War II cohorts have scored systematically lower on cognitive tests compared to those born earlier.”

Declining vocabulary knowledge does not reflect “word obsolescence” (words going out of fashion). Age itself is not a factor. Aging doesn’t change vocabulary knowledge, the authors report. Word knowledge doesn’t vary much over a person’s lifespan. And, words on the GSS survey haven’t gotten more difficult over time. If anything, they have gotten easier.

Do your children have lower vocabulary knowledge than you do?

Are you surprised by the downward trend in American’s verbal knowledge?

Please, leave a Comment below.

Originally published at www.OurValues.org, an experiment in civil dialogue about American values.