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Gnawing down the bone

May 21, 2019

By the time the 22nd century comes around, might someone actually remember my net worth in dollars, how recent a model of truck or tractor I drove or how nattily I dressed?

Probably only if it’s a matter of public record. But the social, civic or environmental world might be a bit better, the universe might glow a little gleamier, if I’ve meant something to a child.

Take my uncle Fred. I spent a couple of weeks with him, aunt Betty and cousin Bobby for one or two summers as a child. During that time, my uncle didn’t just take me bowling. He taught me to bowl: where to place my right foot, the correct form, how to swing the ball while striding forward, the way all my actions taken together could result in something better.

I’ve bowled only rarely, not nearly often enough to light up a bowling alley, but I can hold my own if called upon. And I always think of my uncle when I do.

Uncle Fred also taught me to fish, but that particular skill didn’t take. And when it comes right down to it, his humor, the twinkle in his eye, his laugh as he told stories and exchanged childhood anecdotes with my dad, all of those together make up what I gleaned from him. Not, by any means, just the bowling.

We didn’t see my uncle all that often; maybe three times a year. And I wouldn’t say he gave me undue attention, but the exchanges we had made an impression. Another relative, aunt Lois, provided a serene presence, the feeling of which I can call up at will.

These thoughts were inspired by a quote I read around Mother’s Day. They work for the Memorial Day holiday, too.

I used to think, when I read a phrase like “the world will be a better place,” in terms of humanity moving forward, making progress inch by inch. And I still do, but I’ve re-interpreted the phrase.

Every child can light up the world in his or her own way; we all know this. And how that child shares the light as an adult multiplies the effect.

It’s not just in terms of what that child might contribute, whether professionally or selflessly, to the world. I’m thinking now in terms of how we move through our days and nights.

Who we are being, as opposed to merely what we are doing. How kindness, encouragement and a little spark of intellect, shared with someone, can matter. Such qualities are always creating and re-creating the universe as we know it.

Kindness, encouragement and using our brains don’t only affect the people that we interact with. Those qualities, being habits of mind, can make us, ourselves, happier when we practice them. It’s a win-win-win situation.

I’ve never been so despairing as when negative thoughts take hold on my brain, going round and round. Someone recently said, if that’s ever happened to you, you’re in good company. It’s part of our shared experience; such thoughts are part of what make us human. You don’t see so much of that sort of gnawing on a metaphorical bone in the animal kingdom.

And I’m not saying a solution is easy. It takes a lot of effort to talk oneself out of the dark night of the soul.

One suggestion is to state one’s negative thought in its fullest horror and its most complete (or even ridiculous) expression. Make it vivid. Then meticulously reverse the thoughts and words, and create a positive statement. This is more fun for some people than for others. For some, it’s really a game of the intellect. And it can work.

Another solution is something we’ve all heard from one source or another: help someone. The smallest act of aid or kindness creates a human connection, which we all need and crave (some more than others). It isn’t always easy to pull oneself out of the sludge, though. And there are times when the reverse is called for: we need to reach out to someone else for support, encouragement or empathy. Sometimes it’s hard to ask, too; it can be much harder to seek help than to give it.

There’s “progress” in the 19th-century sense, when inventions made our lives easier and more effective.

What some long for now, and what many hope for in the future, may well be a different, brand new sort of progress, community and connection. The light we shine here and now may matter, and it may scatter.

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