My ratio is off. And I’m not talking about the 34-26-34 measurements that rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot made so famous (though I could very well be but that’s another blog post for another time) . I’m talking about my positivity ratio.
Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, a woman who has spent twenty years researching the effect of thinking positively. She says that a 3:1 ratio is what we all should strive for in order to tap into our creative, resilient selves. Fredrickson isn’t talking about adding an orphan Annie -the-sun-will-come-out-tomorrow varnish to our day to day. She means that our emotions are powerful barometers in how we think about ourselves and others. “People who are languishing in life can move to flourishing,” she says, if we would tip our emotions over from negative to positive.
I love Ramadan, have from the first time I experienced it in Qatar. The fact many places are closed in the middle of the day removes the temptation to run around the city in an exhaust induced daze, wilting from heat and hating humanity. Instead it’s sort of like desert hibernation: I withdrawn into myself for entertainment until friends are free in the evening.
This is the end of the second week, exactly halfway through. Muslims (and those wishing to share the experience) have not eaten food or drank water from sun up to sun down for the last fifteen days. The contrast between day and night is often dizzying. At work everyone is somber, quiet, waiting to go home and wile away the hours until sunset. At night the city comes alive as cars careen the streets taking passengers to visit one another, manage errands that have been delayed, and in general stay up until the wee hours in the morning for the last prayer before sunrise.
This particular year is my first time as a full time freelance writer. Instead of spending the better part of the day promoting the work of others, create as much as I can; the words keep forming on the page, sentence by sentence, until my next social obligation. Rather than decline into stasis, Ramadan allows me to make use of all the hours I have to myself, uninterrupted by lunches or afternoon meetings. But already, as others, I’m thinking about the time when fasting will end and we return to “normal.”
In the past few weeks, as others have strained not to swear, fight, lie, or any of the other things that would invalidate their fast, I’ve started to withdrawn from that great sustainer I’ve depended on for most of my life: friends. Perhaps it’s because I’m getting older, have started a family, am married to an introvert, or some combination of all three, but I’m starting to wonder about life as it was before.
What I’m not missing during Ramadan are the negative interactions that tend to be a part of life in a very small community. When people “are people” as the saying goes, how do you deal with the disappointment? The questions all boil down to a central theme with an elusive answer: why don’t more people treat others the way they want to be treated? Said another way: why aren’t people the same kind of friend to you, you are to them? My only solution seems to be to avoid the cause of the problem.
I wanted to say hi, a friend said, because I don’t want to be one of those people you’re talking about who only call when they need something.
I used to not mind, the person who called after a long time, suddenly popping up, ten minutes into the conversation asking, (you already saw this coming) for a favor. The call was also a chance to renew a shared relationship – no dancing around the word friendship – and so a connection would be revived.
In Doha this context shifted slightly: there was suddenly less room to avoid those who in a larger pond would likely only be acquaintances. Seen at the same events, with the same likely suspects, you’re forced to have conversations about summer, Eid, winter holidays; or the plans for whatever vacation was around the corner.
It was hard to tell in the first few years who was genuinely interested in you as a person and who just wanted a night out on the town (especially if you are a generous person who often reaches for the check). In a high school like atmosphere where you live, work, and befriend those in your proximity, these aren’t friendships but rather alliances of a sort, of the feudal kind, made to beat back the threat of boredom and loneliness.
The extrovert in me didn’t mind having repetitive conversations. After all, extroverts just love to hear themselves talk, about anything. Then a funny thing happened. The predictability of the conversations started to fray at my other defining characteristic: a love of variety.
Where are you from, where do you work, how long you been here became a litany that even me, hyper extrovert, began to dread.
Because if people liked your answers, then they hold on to your contact details. Most people call this networking. Surely that term applies mostly to reciprocal exchanges of information, referrals, favors?
For an extrovert personality with a serious helping handicap, this situation became parasitic. I was like an injured athlete at the competition. I couldn’t look away, but I knew it would only do me further injury to get involved.
The list of people who called once or twice a year began to grow. One year blended into two, then three, most of the out of the blue calls were around getting g someone a job or passing along a resume. And now they all have invariably the same theme: can I help them get their book published; give them advice on getting started in writing, recommend an agent?
The fact is I really like people. They were my favorite hobby in fact: meeting new people, learning about them, keeping up, and collecting them as part of a human menagerie. Malcolm Gladwell in his best seller The Tipping Pointeven coined a term for the type of person I am: connector.But the obvious evidence that people were counting on my weakness, in fact playing on the fact I rarely let an email go unanswered (even if on maternity leave) or couldn’t not reply to a cry for help grew apace with the sinking suspicion of being used was mounting. And the end result was that my usefulness to people, that very thing I used to love to give away freely, was now the thing I hated about myself.
The vulnerability left me exposed to others, who had called for a reference, or asked for a piece of advice, the same people who never answered when in the same town, or who were too busy to invite you along to a party you’d already sent a gift for, these people who gladly took the first fruit of your time.
Yet, when it came time to return the favor, when you need a referral, follow through, a sign of caring, the idea of reciprocity vanishes. The lights are on, yet no one comes to the door to answer your knock.
Make no mistake, all the people I’ve helped over the years, they were thankful. Some even had the grace to be slightly abashed. I know we haven’t spoken all summer, I’m sorry for that…. one recent text began. I replied. Of course I did. To delete would be to become someone I don’t know. But the more of these I get, the more I realize this is the kind of reputation I want to consider reforming.
They know they can behave badly and yet rely on inert goodness.
But is the definition of grace. Unmerited kindness.
Joy is spelled Jesus Others You, the pastor said last week in the service. I listened, thin lipped, as a knife twisted in my heart, where all of these unrequited actions stemmed. I have practiced the JOY philosophy since first hearing it’s rationale as a teenager, the message singing straight to my core like a hot arrow.
But joy is the last word that would describe how I feel about people.
Here I am, torn between a religious ideal and giving up on humanity all together. Shall I continue in my endless well of assistance because in eternity I may have the reward – please let it be the type of friendships I give – for my trials?
Or perhaps I will become one of those hermit writers; living at the keyboard and speaking only when spoken to. The question then is equally murky: How long would it be before someone did, just for the sake of company?
It’s going to be Easter in a few days; that celebrate not only of egg shaped candy and furry rabbits, but the new life and resurrection.
I confess I’m feeling in dire need of all the symbols of Easter this year to lift my spirits: the candy, the bright pastels, the soft plush toys. And the slim spiritual hope of regeneration.
For many Christians, the season of Lent, the forty days leading up to Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, are akin to fasting during the Muslim month of Ramadan. Except that for Protestants, we don’t stop eating everything, only those things very near and dear to us. Or in the “spirit of the law” practice which infuses much of the modern church, we chose something of value other than food that we want to give up for a period as a sacrifice.
It’s supposed to be hard, as all discipline is, to surrender and think of the sufferings of Christ or of the poor, or others, during this season. I’ve used it (rightly or wrongly) to give up a character trait I wanted to work on. Because it’s Lent, there’s no more procrastinating once I’ve made a vow before God to stop.
For many it’s abstaining from chocolate or television watching or secular (as in non-religious) music. For me in the past it’s been giving up rage and a spate of food related loves like Coke Classic, among others.
This year I honed on the one thing that was my life line as a new mother and over-committed modern woman: the afternoon nap. It’s not unknown for me to make up sleep missed overnight with a two hour stint before evening activities.
When I decided to give it up for Lent, I don’t think I knew how hard it would be or how much I relied on sleep to reset whatever negative things had happened during the day. Waking up from the nap was like resetting my entire brain; defragging the hard drive and rebooting if you will.
For the past six weeks, a couple of new trends have replaced the medicated power of sleep. One is that I am more productive. It’s slightly shocking how much you can get done in two hours. Exercise and shower, writing (like this blog), catching up with friends, spending time with baby; there is no shortage of filler for this “empty” time.
The second thing is not as easy to talk about. It’s the utter, earthshaking presence of boiling, black, fury at rudeness. Perhaps without my system reset, the anger is just there on the surface, constantly getting piled on. Whatever the reason, I can’t shake the annoying things of the day.
Like the insistently rude student, who I can’t tell if she’s speaking to me this way because of my age or my race – because in a society where people are very class and manner conscious, I know she wouldn’t dare speak this way to certain other people in the same situation.
Or the dull, glazed look in people’s eyes when you ask them where something is. Who knew “I don’t know” could be a corrosive, all purpose, excuse for checking out of life?
The women having tea in their office when you come to do something good for their school, who can’t be interrupted to show you where you’re supposed to go.
I rain down cruses on all of them including the incompetent, the inconsiderate, the indifferent.
It’s hard work being so agitated all the time. And I realize the person I’m hurting the most: myself. Being negative is not who I am in my core. Somehow all the grace that I’ve been given in life – and even recently there have been many, including a fender bender where the man agreed not to pursue damages – don’t seem to be sticking to the ribs. Rather it’s the bruises.
I hope for Easter that I can replace these flashes of pain, the sense that I’m so weary of the world and its harshness, the impulse to strike back with a sense of joy, hope, and purpose at the new life that we’re promised.