Joanna Tebbs Young
CIRCLES OF COMMUNITY
Wired for worry? Re-wire for compassion.
You’ve been given a pile of evaluations after teaching a class, they’re all great. Except one. Which one makes you lose sleep at night? You’re on vacation. Everything’s going swimmingly. Then you have a tire blow-out. What do you remember about that vacation five years later?
Why is this? Why do we remember and dwell on the least positive events and news in our lives? It turns out our brains are wired this way; we have a natural “negativity bias” and we can blame evolution for it.
“Our capacity to weigh negative input so heavily most likely evolved for a good reason — to keep us out of harm’s way,” reports Hara Estroff Marano in her article for Psychology Today, “Our Brain’s Negative Bias.” (www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200306/our-brains-negative-bias). “From the dawn of human history, our very survival depended on our skill at dodging danger. The brain developed systems that would make it unavoidable for us not to notice danger, and thus, hopefully, respond to it.”
At this volatile time in our city, I see this negativity bias — the noticing and responding to possible danger — manifesting across the ideological spectrum.
At the time of this writing, I have just learned that the majority (7 out of 10) of the Aldermen have voted to send a letter to the Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration at the U.S. Department of State informing her that they are not in support of the Syrian resettlement. Upon hearing this news, the weight of an already lingering sadness became heavier.
And my own negativity bias is to blame.
As the article in Psychology Today explains, “the brain reacts more strongly to stimuli it deems negative. There is a greater surge in electrical activity. Thus, our attitudes are more heavily influenced by downbeat news than good news.”
I’ll be the first to admit I tend towards what some would call naivete; I proudly call it positive thinking and a die-hard belief in the goodness of people. I surround myself with loving, positive, open-minded, and forward-thinking people. It is such people who are making things happen in Rutland, in Vermont, in the country, and around the world. These are the people who have a deep love for the planet and the people upon it, promoting positive action in human rights, environmental causes, farm-to-table initiatives, education and health care causes, creative economies… the list goes on and on. While still remaining realistic, these people believe everyone and everything is a precious strand in the connected web of life. They believe in loving each other no matter what. Simply put: Love will always overcome hate and fear.
Since my family moved back here almost ten years ago, the negativity bias towards Rutland I developed as a teenager has been replaced by a love for this town. Considering, among so many other examples, the incredible surge of action-packed love in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, the coming-togetherness for the Blood Drive, and the amazing growth of downtown, I have gained a deep respect and pride in the ability of the people who work to move it as a tight-knit community in a positive direction.
Even stories of our heroin crisis, the Northwest neighborhood’s “hot zone,” and the constant negativity towards Rutland from within and without the city have not lessened my joy at living here. Why? Because the positive, loving voices I hear (or choose to listen to) are louder, and frankly, better for my emotional health. I have consciously chosen a positivity bias. That doesn’t mean I ignore the not-so positive; as any long-time reader of this column knows, I choose to focus on what is working well.
However, this resettlement debate has proven a strain on my optimistic outlook. Suddenly, those who choose to live entrenched in their negativity-bias brains have become a bit too loud to ignore. And when it appears love just might not overcome in this situation, that maybe the loudest and most fear-filled will turn the tide in their desired direction, my so-called naivete takes a beating. My own negativity bias is yelling: Danger! Danger!
I catch myself wondering if the majority of this city isn’t as loving as I thought. Could displaying a “Rutland Welcomes” sign or wearing a heart pin make someone vulnerable to another’s fear-filled rhetoric? Will misinformed fears – of TB, of tax-dollars supporting dead-beats, of the practically zero-chance of terrorists coming here — bring this city to its knees, collapsed under the weight of dissension? Moreover, and far more frightening, will the refugees (and others who also look Middle Eastern) face discrimination and/or harm under our watch?
Along with these niggles of fear, I also experience surges of anger — anger at what seems to be the perpetuation of group-think negativity bias: that Rutland is, as one commenter wrote on a Facebook post, a “hell hole.” While some opponents are using the “excuse” that our city can’t handle 100 new citizens in light of our shaky economy and dwindling population, they are turning away a solution to this very problem. No one moves/flees to America with the goal of being a bum on a street corner, far from it. It has been shown that immigrants from blighted countries want to succeed, to be self-sufficient, to bring new business to their new home. And they do just that, despite immense obstacles stacked against them.
I’ve seen it myself. I have lived in Burlington and visit regularly on business. The North End is hopping with businesses and beautiful diversity. As a bankteller in Burlington in the 1990s when the first waves of refugees, including Bosnians and Vietnamese, were resettling there, I personally witnessed the pride and conscientiousness with which immigrant customers brought their paychecks, often from multiple jobs, into the bank. A friend of mine who lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania shares her own experience in this regard: “We have a large Syrian/Lebanese community in the Lehigh Valley, have for a few decades. Great families, so smart, hard-working, ethical, volunteer-oriented. Their kids are definitely the high-achievers in school, too.”
Using “the most meticulous research done to date about the effects of immigration on a cross section of American communities — urban, suburban and rural,” John M. MacDonald, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, and Robert J. Sampson, a professor of the social sciences at Harvard, corroborate these anecdotes. Writing in 2012 in the New York Times, they explain how immigration positively impacts communities. For example, in Hazleton, Pa., and St. James, Minn., migrants “have also bolstered dwindling populations and helped to reverse economic decline.”
“In the regions where immigrants have settled in the past two decades,” they continue, “crime has gone down, cities have grown, poor urban neighborhoods have been rebuilt, and small towns that were once on life support are springing back.”
By turning away highly motivated refugees, opponents of resettlement are denying Rutland — and themselves — the opportunity for economic growth, diversity growth, and personal growth. By opening their minds to different ways of being human and experiencing the world they might just discover that White-European-Christian is not the only right way to be — it is just ONE way to be.
And also “American” is not a “way;” it is a country made up of as many ways as there are people living here. And it’s a big, rich country with resources to spare, and (I choose to believe) a majority of people who do care for our fellow humans. Human beings who, just like us, deserve love and security, especially when their own countries have turned against them.
Negativity bias and its bigger cousin, fear, are powerful and addictive forces, so much so that even despite any evidence which should assuage anxiety, people can be blind to what is in front of their eyes, and in response, act foolishly, even aggressively. At its height, fear turns to hate, which builds walls, makes people wear identifying badges, and as history has shown, even murders The Other.
So, while my sadness has increased, as I know it has for many others, I am fighting it hard. I am looking for evidence that even though it may at first glance appear that the loving efforts of so many here in Rutland and Vermont are crumbling and falling into a pile of rubble at the hands of a frightened few, this isn’t over. I am looking for the good that could come from in this situation, because as J.K. Rowling said, rock bottom can become the solid foundation from which one rebuilds.
But this isn’t even rock bottom. Not even close. It’s a set-back, just a disheartening set-back. We can’t give up. We won’t. We will rally; we already are. The call to action has become louder, and we will continue to organize and plan while continuing to place our faith in love and acceptance. Because it is the right thing to do.
And, yes, that’s my positivity bias talking.
Joanna Tebbs Young is a Transformative Writing Facilitator and freelance writer living in Rutland. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, wisdomwithinink.com, facebook.com/TheWritersRoomatAllenHouse or on Twitter at @jtebbsyoung.