Life Saving Philosophy

How mental vigor and newfound clarity can change how we view the world and our place in it

Celebrate Strengths: Yours, Mine, Everyone's

Acknowledge Talents, Relay Compliments, and Spread Good Will

We can be unnecessarily hard on ourselves. Self-criticism becomes second-nature if we are not careful. This well-honed critical eye then pivots naturally outward, aimed at anyone. Negativity comes first...and last. But it does not need to be this way. Owning a positive, life-affirming viewfinder is not only possible; it is available for free.

Why not take pleasure in acknowledging our talents and sharing our joys? Why deny the interests and passions that contribute to who we are? "Yes! I love to paint and to see my work hung in a local gallery." "You bet! I am thrilled every time I throw the ball from right field to home plate." "Oh baby! I take such pleasure in preparing a fine meal." And as we lighten up on ourselves, we soon become more willing to pass on compliments to others, both our own appreciation of their talents as well as the high regard of others: "My friend told me about your compassionate care for her mother." "No one else can explain calculus using such clever analogies." "Your ability to repair things amazes me.  "People spoke enthusiastically about your slide presentation."


In thinking about writing this piece, I kept returning to my friend Kevin's love affair with the harmonica. He truly makes music in partnership with this many-named instrument: blues harp, mouth organ, Mississippi sax and trombone, and pocket piano. His passion and utter delight when he plays fill the room and heart. My appreciation of this tiniest of harps comes straight from him. Of course he doesn't brush off compliments, first or tenth-hand, as if they are undeserved. He can play! Does he revel in other's enjoyment of his music? Why ever not?! He exudes joy with no trace of arrogance - there's neither time nor breath for boasting.

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Kevin and his harmonica serve as symbol for embracing life's gifts, both our own abilities and other's as well. "You are not kind enough with yourself," Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki told countless students upon his arrival in the US. This Japanese Zen Buddhist monk recognized pervasive, self-directed negativity as a problem worth overcoming. What's the point? Aren't we supposed to enjoy our lives? Are we meant to be at odds with ourselves? How odd!  So....  Can you or can't you play the piano? Do you or don't you have a talent for languages? Have you run a marathon or not? Are you a good teacher or just a bad teacher whose classes somehow fill with grateful students? How many neighbors relish vegetables from your garden? Were you going to tell me you could tango?


For years I have asked students as they appeared at my office door to "tell me something good." When they are struggling with Aristotle or financial problems, we balance the difficulty by recalling things they do well: quilting, playing soccer, rearing kind children, hiking, baking from scratch, solving mysteries in chemistry lab....  Frequently when I enter an elementary school classroom for some philosophizing, I begin our time together in a similar way, asking the children for some good news. Hands shoot up: nursing home visited, tests passed, trash picked up, a good book finished. Meeting a grown-up group forming their first philosophy circle, I often use "introductions" as an opening for everyone to share something they love doing, an activity that fulfills and excites them. Such a quick way to get to know someone! As it turns out, people of all ages and almost all circumstances welcome a chance for a positive turn. Sometimes this acknowledgment of their skills and passions feels new and a bit awkward. As an experiment, I frequently suggest that each person spend a day (and hopefully night!) training themselves to look for and to seize any uptempo opportunity. Think it. Say it. Write it. Remember it. We can orient ourselves to the world, steeped in ready appreciation: My vocabulary grows with every crossword puzzle. Our mindsets can be constructive as a rule: Your passion for opera has rubbed off on me.


Every day presents us with an abundance of self-improvement projects. But not just now. Do you think we would be more enthused about making needed changes if we spent more time celebrating our strengths? Okay! Yes, my drop shot usually wins the point. No, I don't lose my temper in traffic. Would we enjoy our lives more if we eagerly passed along kudos to others?  Let me tell you: Your coworkers tell me how much they appreciate your humor. Your suggestions improved my writing. Now. Here's my plan: Cultivate a spirit of generosity that extends and expands....  Be more gentle with me and with you. Easy does it. Say 'yes" more than "no." Twist away from negation and denial. Now.

Kevin elbowed me after a recent performance, confiding that he "learned this note for note when I was 17." He imitated every lick of Whammer Jammer's harmonica in the J. Geil's Band's "Aint't Nothin' but a House Party" and the memory thrills him still. Listen to the house party gathering momentum. Just as the song says, "Baby, don't control it." Share what you love.

Marietta McCarty is the author of Little Big Minds: Sharing Philosophy With Kids and How Philosophy Can Save Your Life: 10 Ideas That Matter Most.

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