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Obama’s Non-believing Childhood

In his speech at the national prayer breakfast, President Obama said:

I was not raised in a particularly religious household. I had a father who was born a Muslim but became an atheist, grandparents who were non-practicing Methodists and Baptists, and a mother who was skeptical of organized religion, even as she was the kindest, most spiritual person I’ve ever known. She was the one who taught me as a child to love, and to understand, and to do unto others as I would want done.

I didn’t become a Christian until many years later, when I moved to the South Side of Chicago after college. It happened not because of indoctrination or a sudden revelation, but because I spent month after month working with church folks who simply wanted to help neighbors who were down on their luck—no matter what they looked like, or where they came from, or who they prayed to. It was on those streets, in those neighborhoods, that I first heard God’s spirit beckon me. It was there that I felt called to a higher purpose—His purpose.

Raised by non-religious parents, Mr. Obama came later in life to follow a God of compassionate service. I want to take this chance to point out that freethinking parents can do well by their children. I appreciate that Obama was able to separate religiosity and spirituality.

While I doubt that I will ever again follow any god, even as benevolent as Mr. Obama’s seems to be, I too want to work together to better the situation of all those who share this world with me.

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The Broadening Power of Positivity

Wray Herbert at We’re Only Human confirms something that I’m experiencing in my experiment with gratitude. In talking about the new book Positivity, he says:

Consider this deceptively simple experiment. Fredrickson used lab techniques to “prime” the emotions of a large group of volunteers. Some were primed for amusement, some for serenity, still others for anger or fear or nothing at all. Then she asked them simply to make a list of things they would like to do at that moment. Those who were amused or serene listed significantly more possibilities than the others, suggesting that their minds were more open to ideas, more exploratory. She ran a similar experiment with abstract shapes, and found that the positive thinkers were more apt to see hidden patterns, to make connections. Those who were angry or fearful were too narrowly focused on details to see the big picture.

This is what Fredrickson calls “broadening,” and she had shown this cognitive benefit time and again in a variety of studies. (Ode to Joy and Serenity and Curiosity and . . .)

As I’ve taken time each week to focus on gratitude, aside from feeling generally more positive, I have felt more open, more ready to take on new projects, looking forward to next semester, etc. Interesting.

It gets better.

But what is the value of such openness beyond the moment? This is where is gets really interesting. Fredrickson has shown that these moments of serenity or amusement have an accumulative effect over time. They break down the barriers between self and others, and build trust. In short, positivity creates open-mindedness, which sparks even more good feelings, creating an upward spiral of emotions. This is the “building” for the future: Over time, those with the most positive moments become more mindful and attentive, more accepting and purposeful, and more socially connected.

Time will tell.

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Her Stroke of Insight

Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor gave a wonderful talk called “My stroke of insight” at TED about her experiences having a stroke. What she has to say hits all the major points of what I’m about right now, which is somewhat reflected in my posts here. Her experience struck cords of naturalism, neuroscience, philosophy of mind, mystical awakening, and human compassion which is rooted in our commonality.


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