# 63 Consider the Goodness of Humanity

pink-dottrees on the water

       Many years ago I chanced upon The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono.  It is a brief story, written in 1954 as a piece about an unforgettable character.

The story begins around 1913 when the author is taking a long trip on foot through the valleys of the Provence.  He comes upon a valley that is barren and devoid of trees, villages, crops.  The wind blows across the barren plain.  The spring is dry.  The few remaining homes are in disrepair.  The author meets there a farmer by the name of Elzeard Bouffier who is watching over his sheep.  Bouffier lives in a neat, well ordered cottage and offers the author a bed for the night.

The next morning Bouffier is up early with a sack of acorns and an iron rod a yard and a half long, pointed at one end.  He makes a hole in the earth, puts the acorn in, and covers the hole.  He tells the author that for three years, he has been planting acorns in the wilderness.  Though Bouffier was 55 years old, he had planted one hundred thousand trees.  Of those, twenty thousand had sprouted.  Of those, he expected to lose half, but that ten thousand would grow where there had been none before.  Bouffier goes on to explain that his wife and son had died, and that he had withdrawn into this solitude.  He felt that the land was dying for want of trees.

       The author goes into the French Army for five years and survives the War of 1914.  When the war is over, he decides to return to the valley.  The oaks of 1910 were now ten years old.  The author spends the day walking through Bouffier’s forest in silence.  “When you remembered that all this sprang from the hands and the soul of this one man, without technical resources, you understood that men could be as effectual as God in other realms than that of destruction.”

But Bouffier was not finished.  Though now 60 years old, he had been planting birch seedlings which had begun to sprout in 1910.  There were now clumps of birch trees as well.  Because of the trees, the water reappeared in the springs.  The wind scattered the seeds.  Then willows, rushes, and meadows appeared here and there.  But the transformation was so gradual that no one noticed.  Hunters in the forest who now hunted game assumed the forest just reappeared of its own accord.

In 1935 a whole delegation came from the Government to proclaim the “natural forest” that had grown up around the town.  The whole forest was put under the protection of the State and the trees were forbidden to be cut down.  During these years, Elzeard Bouffier continued his plantings of seedlings and acorns, day after day.  He became so solitary he lost the use of speech altogether.  Yet he is happy in his simple life.

The author goes back in 1945 and is amazed to see now a whole town has grown where there used to be but a few hovels.  There is a fountain in the center of the town, and a linden tree, planted as a symbol of hope.  There are fields of barley and rye.  The old streams, fed by the rains and snows that the forest conserves, are flowing again.  On each farm are maples and tall grasses.  More than ten thousand people live in comfort, owing their happiness to Elzeard Bouffier.

Giono closes, “When I reflect that one man, armed only with his own physical and moral resources, was able to cause this land of Canaan to spring from the wasteland, I am convinced that in spite of everything, humanity is admirable.”


Giono, J.  1985.  The Man Who Planted Trees. Chelsea, Vt.:  Chelsea Green Pubs.


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# 62 Pay It Forward

pay it forwardpink-dot

A few years ago a film came out about a boy who sets out to do a significant act of kindness toward three people.  When the people he helps try to pay back the favor, he refuses their offers, and asks only that they “pay it forward.”   In the movie by the same name, the boy’s efforts get off to a rocky start, but then set in motion a groundswell of altruism that comes to be called “the movement.”

We like to think that it could be possible that the beneficiary of the favor did, in fact, pass it on, and that the favor rippled through the world in an unbroken chain, bringing forth good will endlessly.  It’s a beautiful thought, but unrealistic.  However, people do favors every day and ask nothing in return.  The giver is uplifted.  The recipient is encouraged to believe that there are good people in the world.  For that moment, the world is a brighter place for at least those two people.  The giver may feel the act worth repeating and so do it again some time.  The recipient, encouraged by the charity, may extend his or her generosity to another.

  1. Just for today, try one of these: circling the parking lot, competing for a good space, wave someone in to the more desirable spot, and take one that is further from the store. The walk will do you good.
  2. Don’t need those scratch sheets, coupons, giveaways at the department store? Give them to the customer next to you in line.
  3. Going through the token machine in the subway? Offer a token to someone behind you who would appreciate it–a student, an elderly person, a young mother with babies.
  4. Try this one that was reported in the media recently. When purchasing your fast food and paying for it at the drive thru, give the cashier an extra five or six bucks and tell them you’re “paying it forward” for the guy in the car behind you, and that you suggest that he/she pass it on.
  5. On December 26, 2013 at a Starbucks in Connecticut, a customer “paid it forward” for a coffee for the customer behind him and the chain went unbroken for 780 coffees.  On Aug. 22, 2014 a Starbucks in Florida had a chain of 458 coffees paid forward for 10 hours.  Start your own chain of coffees paid forward.
  6. If you haven’t found an opportunity to pay it forward, go to the website of the pay it forward foundation and do some reading.

Stay with this assignment a couple of days until you complete it.  Record what you did.


Pay It Forward (2000).  Director:  Mimi Leder.  Written by  Catherine Ryan Hyde.  Screen play by  Leslie Dixon..  Starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, Haley Joel Osment.






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# 61 Observe the Mysterious in Nature with Awe and Wonder

green-dotstanding heron        

Years ago I was gardening in the back yard when I heard a distant and unfamiliar sound that caused me to pause and look skyward.  There, in perfect V formation, was a gathering of large birds of some kind winging their way south.  I was struck dumb by the sight of them so high above.  It may be a familiar sight for those who happen to live in the flight path of migratory birds, but it is rare to see such birds coursing over a major city sharing airspace with jumbo jets.

Recently I learned that they were most likely sandhill cranes.  One flock of about 450 birds winter in the Okeefenokee Swamp in south Georgia and return to the Great Lakes area of Michigan in the Spring.  Their coiled tracheas allow them to add harmonies to their calls and to project the notes louder and farther, resulting in a loud cry that can be heard from as far as two miles away.  Their unusual calls have been described as trumpeting, bugling, rattling or croaking.



Observing animals in nature often gives us an experience of transcendence, of deep joy.  It lifts us out of our everyday concerns and outside of ourselves.  It  gives us a window into some of the majesty of the diversity of life forms, of the deep mysteries of life.   Albert Einstein said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.  It is the source of all true art and science.”

Can you recall an experience you had of witnessing  an event in nature with deep awe and wonder?

If you can, watch a nature show on television.   Check out a documentary video on an animal you find fascinating, e.g., the life cycle of salmon or the Monarch butterfly, the communication patterns of dolphins and whales, the mating rituals of birds, the social behavior of the great apes, the migratory paths of loggerhead turtles, the playfulness of otters, the way dogs interact with humans, the intelligence of the octopus, the parenting behavior of penguins (i.e., March of the Penguins).


standing goose (1)




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# 60 Forgive Someone and Heal Your Heart


     We all know that our feelings interact with our bodies, particularly our immune systems, in ways that have a direct impact on our health.  In fact, extreme stress can result in a spasm of the coronary arteries.  Andrew Weil has written,

“… I advise you, as a spiritual exercise, to try to heal damaged relationships–for instance, by extending forgiveness to someone who has hurt you.  My experience is that the act of forgive-ness heals the forgiver, and along with many other components of the body, the coronary arteries might be beneficiaries of the healing energies released.”

Andrew Weil is a physician practicing holistic medicine and a widely known writer on health issues. He proposes that to heal the body, one must heal the spirit as well. Estrangement’ and bitterness cause fractures in the soul. Who have you been estranged from, unable to forgive? How could you begin the process of reconciliation? Perhaps you can write down your statement of forgiveness as a prelude to saying it in person. You do not have to lay blame or to accept responsibility for the estrangement. You can begin with a simple acknowledgment, such as, “I’m sorry that this feud has gone on so long.” or “I’m sorry we quarreled.” or “I feel badly that things took such a bad turn between us.”


Weil, A.  1997.  8 Weeks to Optimum Health.  (New York:  Knopf).

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# 59 Reflect on the Goodness of Others

yad vashem pink-dot

       What moves a person to risk his or her life to save another person, a stranger?  While the story of the Jewish holocaust in Germany during World War II is a story of genocide and of whole communities standing aside as the Jews were sent to their deaths, it is also a story of altruism.  According to researchers Samuel and Pearl Oliner, of Humboldt State University in California, those individuals who hid Jews in their houses and apartments, and on their farms, saved upwards of 500,000 people.  To better understand what motivates people to save others, photographer Gay Block and author Malka Drucker, went on a three year journey to photograph and interview 105 rescuers from countries.  The answers, which often challenge our assumptions, are chronicled in their book, Rescuers:  Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust.                                   Visitors at Yad Vashem

            Sociologist Nechama Tec, of the University of Connecticut, conducted a systematic study of rescuers for her book, When Light Pierced the Darkness:  Christian rescue of Jews in Nazi-occupied PolandWhat is most striking about the group is their ordinariness.  They included the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated, the believers and the atheists.  They viewed themselves as quite ordinary as well.  “We didn’t think about it,” said one woman who, with her husband, saved dozens of Jews in Laren, Holland.  “We did what any human being would have done.”  Yet what they did was not ordinary.  One trait that set them apart was that they were individualists.  They did not follow the group, but followed their conscience.  Secondly, they had a history of doing good before the war broke out–visiting people in the hospital, collecting books for poor students.  Doing good had become a habit, and this simply continued through the war years.  Third, the rescuers shared a sense of universalism.  They saw the Jews, not as Jews, but simply as persecuted human beings.

Perhaps most astounding, the rescuers felt the gift of goodness could be passed on.  “It is like flowers growing in a certain soil,” said one woman who sheltered Jews in her home in the Ukraine.  “It is natural in every human being, but it must be nourished and cultivated.”

If you can, go to your public library and do some reading in these marvelous books.  The pictures in Rescuers are fascinating.  If you don’t have the time, go to the website http://www.holocaustforgotten.com/yadvashem.htm.  This is the website for Yad Vashem, a museum established in 1953 that honors both “Holocaust martyrs and the Righteous Among the Nations, Gentile (non-Jewish) rescuers who have been recognized for their ‘compassion, courage, and morality’ because they ‘risked their lives to save the lives of Jews.’ ”  The names of Righteous are added as they become known.  As of Jan.1, 2011, there were 23,788 names from 40 nations.  Poland tops the list with 6,266 names.  This is ironic in that anti-Semitism was strongest and most institutionalized in Poland.   Only in Poland were rescuers immediately  put to death.

Spent a moment of quiet reflection.  Consider the goodness of the 23,788


Block, G. & Drucker, M.  1992.  Rescuers:  Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust.  New York:  Holmes & Meier.

Gorman, C. 1992, Mar. 16.   “A Conspiracy of Goodness.”  Time, p. 65.

Tec, N.  1986.  When Light  Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland. New York:  Oxford U. Press.


# 58 Look Forward to Growing Old, Live Longer


Old Romanian Couple Smiling


There are good ways to grow old and bad ways to age.  What makes the difference?  In the August 2002  issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Yale university researchers Becca Levy and Martin Slade and others reported on the results of their study of people’s attitudes toward aging and how important this is to aging gracefully.  These researchers re-examined the data that was gathered on 660 people in the town of Oxford, Ohio, who were interviewed in 1975 when they were 50 years old.  They looked at five questions which constituted the individual’s attitude toward aging.  These were as follows:

‘Things keep getting worse as I get older.”   (no)

‘I have as much pep as I did last year.”  (yes)

“As you get older, you are less useful.”   (no)

‘I am as happy now as I was when I was younger.”  (yes)

“As I get older, things are better than I thought they would be.”  (yes)

Participants received a score from 0 to 5, based on agreement with the responses above.  Then they looked at the death rates of those with positive and negative attitudes toward aging.  The results were significant.  Those with higher scores (a more positive attitude toward aging) lived on average 7.6 years longer than those with negative attitudes.  The authors considered the possibility that perhaps it was the individual’s good health or poor health, or other factors, that predicted survival rates.  However, even when these were examined  separately, people’s attitudes toward aging were stronger predictive factors than male-female gender, loneliness, physical health, or household income.

The researchers then considered whether still another factor, called will to live, is what actually shaped people’s attitudes toward aging.  They measured this by looking at people’s answers, when they were 50, to the questions of whether they felt their lives were empty or full, whether they were hopeless or hopeful, and whether they saw themselves as worthless or worthy.  As expected, those who endorsed the items full, hopeful, and worthwhile, to describe their lives, were the same ones who were happier and living longer.

Consider this for comparison.  Weighing less, not smoking, and exercising is likely to add only 1 to 3 years to your life, while having a positive outlook is likely to add 7.6 years.  If you’re having trouble losing weight and don’t go the gym as often as you should, do a kindness for someone today instead.  It may do you as much good or more insofar as extending your life.

Watch another movie about people aging.  What is their attitude about aging?  Are the characters’ lives empty or full?  worthless or worthy?  hopeless or hopeful?


Levy, B., Slade, M., Kunkel, S., & Kasl, S.  2002.  Longevity Increased by Positive Self-Perceptions of Aging.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83 (2), 261-270.

Szegedy-Maszak, M.  Aug. 5, 2002.  “Good Old Thoughts.”  U.S. News & World Report, p. 47.








Photo:  <a href=”http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-images-old-couple-portrait-image16398004#res6062508″>Photo Old couple portrait</a> – © Blanaru | Dreamstime.com


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# 57 Look Forward to Growing Old & Being Yourself

  Older Woman Smilingyellow-dot

      Let’s think about aging for a bit.  When I was younger I dreaded aging.  What is there possibly to look forward to about getting older?  Then I saw the movie, On Golden Pond.  This is the family classic with Henry Fonda, daughter Jane Fonda, and Kathryn Hepburn which came out in 1981.  In the movie Kathryn Hepburn makes the casual statement that now that she is older, she doesn’t worry about what other people think of her any more.

Wow, I thought.  Imagine not having to worry about what other people thought of you any more.  Now that was something to look forward to.  I began to notice that older people went about their lives with little thought to the judgments of others.  My youthful preoccupation in my high school and college years with my mother’s embarrassing behavior suddenly took on a whole new meaning.  Perhaps it wasn’t she who had the problem, but me.  Instead of being embarrassed by her, I should be trying to emulate her.  I began to pay close attention to the older women in my church, how comfortable they were with themselves.  They were long past caring and moved through their lives with grace and ease–whether they were bird watching, folk dancing, or demonstrating for world peace and clean rivers.  I began to look forward to old age as a time of complete security with myself and the emotional freedom to do as I like without anxiety.  I decided to move toward that goal as early as I could.  After all, why wait till I’m 70 if I can get there at 40 or 50?  Now that  I am in my 60’s I have arrived at that level of emotional freedom,  and my lack of concern with the judgments of others is the source of embarrassment to my own 20 something daughter.

Watch a movie today about older people.  Here are some suggestions.  Besides On Golden Pond, try these:

The Old Man and the Sea (1958) with Spencer Tracy

Wild Strawberries (1967) by Ingmar Bergman

The Sunshine Boys (1975) with George Burns and Walter Matthau

Love Among the Ruins (1975) with Katherine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier

Cocoon (1985) with Don Ameche

Trip to Bountiful (1985) with Geraldine Page

Whales of August (1987) with Bette Davis and Lillian Gish

Driving Miss Daisy (1989) with Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy

Grumpy Old Men  (1993) with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau

About Schmidt (2002) with Jack Nicholson

 Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood (2002) with Ellen Burstyn

Just for today, pretend that you are old and that you are long past caring what people think of you.

Say what you care to say and do what you feel free to do.  Be yourself.



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# 56 Savor the View

View 1lime-green-dot        In his book, The Social Animal, the author David Brooks uses the fictional lives of two characters, Harold and Erica, to explore many topics in the social sciences.  At the end of the book his characters are in their declining years and have moved to a cabin in Colorado.

“On summer afternoons they’d sit out on the porch in Adirondack chairs and look out over the Fork River and wave at the occasional raft trip going by.  He’d sit out on his porch and look at the elementals of nature—sky, water, trees, and sun.  … Harold found he could play a little game with himself.  He’s sit on the porch and look at a little flower in the grass down below.  He’d concentrate on the petals and their fragile beauty.  Then, by lifting his head, he’d gaze out at the icy mountain peaks miles and miles away.  Suddenly he was swept up in an entirely different set of sensations—feelings of awe, then of veneration, submission and greatness.  Just sitting there he could move from the beautiful to the sublime and back again.  He loved these grand views.  They gave him a feeling of elevation, of being connected to a sacred and all encompassing order, a part of some stupendous whole.”

What is it about landscape views that we find so uplifting?  Evolutionary psychologists suggest that people all over the world prefer paintings that are similar to what early humans would have seen as they gazed out over the African savannas where humans first emerged–open spaces, lots of light, thickets of trees and bushes, a water source, and an unimpeded view of the horizon.

The philosopher Charles Taylor suggests that people are moved by landscapes because of their ability to evoke emotion.  He writes,  “We return to nature because it brings out strong and noble feelings in us  feelings of awe before the greatness of creation, of peace before a pastoral scene, of sublimity before storms, and deserted fastnesses, of melancholy in some lowly woodland spot.  Nature draws us because it is in some way attuned to our feelings, so that it can reflect and intensify those we already feel or else awaken those which are dormant.  Nature is like a great keyboard on which our highest sentiments are played out.  We turn to it as we might turn to music, to evoke and strengthen the best in us.”

Few of us are able to sit on a  porch that looks out on the mountains in the distance with a winding river below.  Can you recall a trip you took that gave you a view of the landscape that filled you with awe at the vastness of the earth and sky?  If you have a photograph of that place, look at it again and try to re-experience it–the sensation of wind on your skin, the perception of the light being brighter and clearer, an almost dizzying feeling of exhilaration.  Close your eyes and go back to that place.  Savor it.


view 3


Brooke, D.  2011.  The Social Animal.  Random House.  pp. 350,  364-366.

Taylor, C.  1992.  Sources of the Self:  The making of the modern identity.  Harvard U. Press.  p. 297.



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#55 Volunteer and Improve Your Health

pink-dotpeople volunteering

There is some link between our happiness and the health of our heart.  Scientists have known this since the 1970’s when it was discovered that those people who are chronically tense, angry, and demanding (Type A personalities) also tend to have higher cholesterol levels and are more prone to heart attacks.  Researchers theorize that chronic irritability releases chemicals which convert lipids in the blood into LDL.

But does engaging in the opposite behavior—altruism, gratitude, savoring, for example—alter our heart health?  Psychologist Hannah Schreier at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York, and her colleagues, sought to find out by asking 106 high school students to participate in a study on volunteering.  Half of the students spent about one hour per week helping younger children with an activity—either homework, sports, or a club activity.  They did so for eight consecutive weeks. The other half of the students, the control group, did not do any volunteering.

The student volunteers were tested at the end of the study and found to have lower cholesterol levels than when they began the study.  They also had lower levels of inflammation and lower levels of body fat than the students who were wait-listed.  It did not seem to matter what type of volunteering the student did.

How could such a simple activity, over a short period of time, alter one’s health? The researchers did a further analyses of which students in the intervention group had the biggest gains in health.  They found that those who reported the highest levels (on several personality scales) of empathy for others, altruistic behavior, and the lowest levels of negative mood had the most improvement to their health.  Researchers have established previously that volunteering seems to make the elderly healthier and longer lived.  This was the first study to establish the same effect for teen-agers.  Thus, the effects are likely beneficial for all ages.

If previous entries to this publication haven’t convinced you to start volunteering, you now have another reason—do it for your health.  What’s holding you back?


Schreier, H., Schonert-Reichie, K., & Chen, E.  Feb. 25, 2013.  Effect of volunteering  on risk factors for cardiovascular disease in adolescents.  JAMA Pediatrics, 167 (4), 327-332.  Link to the article:  http://archpedi.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1655500

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# 54 Make Small Talk With Someone You Barely Know



People in a coffee shop     We’ve known for years that social isolation, or loneliness, is bad for our health.  Isolated people have more health problems, and they don’t live as long as people who stay connected to others.  Psychologists have questioned whether it is the subjective feeling of loneliness, i.e., the lack of a close companion to talk to, or whether it is the lack of all types of social interaction with others, that is the important factor asso-ciated with poor health and decline as we  age.

Asked another way, how much connectedness does one need to maintain a sense of well being?  Do we need to be married?  To have a wide circle of close friends?  Someone to talk to about our problems?  Or is it enough to have a brief chat with the mailman and ask the woman at the drycleaners how her son is doing in college?

Researcher Andrew Steptoe of the University College of London led a team which explored this question by tracking lives of 6,500 people age 52 or older over a span of seven years.  As expected, those who were socially isolated were more likely to have died (22% passed away) than those who were more connected (12%).  The feeling of loneliness was associated with early death but not as strongly as was social isolation.  What surprised them, however, is that the amount of social contact with others, even  brief social contact, was associated with longer life spans.  The takeaway is this—even small talk with an acquaintance like the bus driver—could extend your  life.

*  For several days this week, make small talk with strangers, or people you barely know:  the cashier and the bagger at the grocery store, that person at church who doesn’t attend very often, the waitress, the neighbor you see raking leaves in his yard, the man walking his dog in the park, the barista at your favorite coffee shop, the letter carrier. .

*  Imagine for a moment that when you do this, you are adding a day to the length of your life.

*  Imagine this too, that you are adding a day to the length of that person’s life as well.



Steptoe, A.  March 19, 2013. Social isolation, loneliness, and all-cause mortality in older men and women. Proceedings of the NationalAcademy of Sciences.

(excerpted in:  Scientific American Mind, Sept./Oct. 2013).




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