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Up! A Pragmatic Look at the Direction of Life365 Ways Today Is the Best Time to Be Alive
By David Niven
HAY HOUSE, INC.Copyright © 2010 David Niven
All right reserved.
Chapter One1. People Really Do Care
As the world gets bigger, faster, and more impersonal it's easy to feel that nobody cares. But the National Cultural Values Survey found that 96 percent of people surveyed said charitable acts were an essential part of their lives. Small acts of caring surround us every day, and truly heroic acts of caring are very much a part of modern life.
Standing on a New York City subway platform, Wesley Autrey saw a stranger convulsing in the midst of an apparent seizure. Wesley and a handful of others came to his aid.
The stranger, Cameron Hollopeter, regained his balance, and got back up to wait for the next train. But Cameron was disoriented, and before anyone could help steady him, he fell onto the tracks below.
There are few places in the world more dangerous than subway tracks, but Wesley didn't think of the danger to himself. He jumped down and tried to help the man back up to the platform. But Cameron was dazed and confused. He fought off Wesley's efforts to save him.
A 370-ton subway train was barreling toward them. Wesley could get himself up, but this man would surely be killed. Instead, Wesley held the mandown as low as he could. They lay motionless, just inches from the deadly electrified third rail that powers subway trains. Miraculously, the two men watched a subway train roll just over them, and they emerged unhurt.
Wesley's actions made him a hero to all who heard his story. He channeled the attention he received into a foundation he started to benefit inner-city children. "In a big city, people sometimes think they're all alone," Wesley said later. "But I've seen it. People have got your back, you know."
2. Love Is in the Air
Back in the old days, couples didn't get divorced, right? Things were simpler then. People stuck together because they believed in the sanctity of marriage and of family. Well, no. Actually, the divorce rate is lower today than it was 60 years ago.
Jack Woodruff and Florence McGill met on a double date just after high school. Jack was with another girl, and his buddy was with Florence. They knew from the moment they laid eyes on each other that they didn't get along. "He was really impressed with himself, you could tell that," Florence said.
And then Jack showed up on her doorstep two days later. They talked half the night away, and Florence came away with a different point of view. By the end of the month, they were married. Florence's parents worried that she didn't know anything about the boy. "He could be a thief," her father warned her. But with Jack heading overseas for the army, she hadn't wanted to wait.
"It's the kind of story you see in the movies, and they always live happily ever after," she said.
When Jack came home from the army, though, they began to disagree about every conceivable topic. The most important disagreement was over where and how they would live their lives. Although both grew up in the city, Jack was convinced he was meant for life on a farm. On that farm, their marriage came to an end.
"Farming is hard," Florence said, "especially if you don't know what you're doing."
3. There's More Time Than Ever Before
You are likely to live more than three full decades longer than a person born in 1900. Instead of time running short, the truth is that we've never had more of it.
"It's not who you are, it's what you do," said Dr. Elizabeth Barrett-Conner, an epidemiologist at the University of California- San Diego Medical Center and director of a multi-decade study of chronic disease. That means the genetic makeup we are born with is a relatively small part of our long-term health. What matters far more are our habits.
Although the components of healthy living-eating well, exercising, and avoiding excessive stress-are very familiar, Dr. Barrett-Conner thinks people still underestimate how valuable those habits are. And many think if they haven't had good habits in the past it's too late to start now.
"People have a feeling that they are doomed if their father died at age 60 or if there's a history of cancer in the family," Dr. Barrett-Conner said. "But that's just not true.
"Right now, today, even if you haven't so much as taken a long walk in 20 years, you have the capacity to lengthen your life," she said, "and we know how you can do it, and that lives are getting longer because of it."
4. Great Ideas Are Unstoppable
Gatekeepers in science and math and other academic fields have, for centuries, been in the position to stop or impede new ideas they disagreed with. By keeping a research finding out of a journal, they could, in practical terms, make it disappear. But modern communication means that a great breakthrough can be sent out into the world for consideration and contemplation regardless of how much it unsettles the keepers of conventional wisdom. The modern-day Copernicus will not be silenced.
Russian mathematician Grigory Perelman doesn't much care for the constraints of society. He's something of recluse, with a Rasputin-like long beard and fingernails that suggest he's too busy to worry about grooming.
Although Grigory had been a well-regarded young mathematician, he had dropped from sight, and no one in the academic math community realized what he was working on or that he was on the verge of a great accomplishment. His project was a century-old mathematical puzzle, known as the Poincare conjecture, which is central to the understanding of three-dimensional space. It was once considered one of the most significant unsolved riddles in mathematics.
When Grigory was satisfied that he had fully proven the Poincare conjecture, he did not submit it to a journal for an editor's approval or waste a moment worrying about how he could let the world in on his breakthrough. Instead, he posted a five-page explanation of the work he had done on a Cornell University online archive. And from there, the work spread into the hands of mathematicians everywhere.
With that, he dropped back out of sight, as scores of academics worked to test and ultimately validate his work.
5. Happiness Is Not for Sale
We are finally beginning to accept that wealth does not equal happiness. Surveys show that money is becoming a less central goal for people. Meanwhile, the freedom to pursue more meaningful accomplishments rather than acquiring the next dollar has helped strengthen relationships and enjoyment of life.
You wouldn't really expect to hear life lessons from the members of a teenage boy band. But 20 years later, New Kids on the Block is still making music and actually making quite a bit of sense.
Band members were set for life from the revenues they generated when there were at the very center of the teenage music universe. But they continue to work because it's engaging.
"The alternative is to rot," said Jordan Knight, the band's lead singer. "When you make a lot of money at a very young age, you know firsthand that it's not money that brings you happiness. You still need to be creative, to test yourself."
Jordan learned the hard way that doing work he didn't believe in was the worst way to spend his time. He signed on to become a member of the cast of a reality show called The Surreal Life, in which famous and semi-famous men and women were brought together to live.
"I was appalled. It was really disgusting," Jordan said of taking a paycheck for being a part of a pointless spectacle. "From that moment, I realized that I have to really believe in whatever work I'm doing," he said. "Because in the end, you have to be able to respect yourself."
6. People Are Honest (It's True)
Big scams and terrible lies may draw headlines, but on a personal level, people are actually more likely to be honest with each other today than in the past. Surveys show that 95 percent of people see honesty as a core value in their lives. And one of the unintended consequences of our high-tech world is that it is far easier to check up on somebody, making it harder every day to get away with a lie.
"Telling the truth just becomes a habit if you let it," said banker Graham Raymer. While he watched banks around him peddle mortgages in ways he thought were scandalous, Graham's small west Georgia community bank stuck to what it had always done. "We don't have exotic products. We take deposits and pay fair interest. We provide loans and charge fair interest," Graham said. "We don't sell slices of our mortgages to overseas investors. We don't provide interest-only mortgages that are impossible to pay off."
Although other banks were tempted to find every way they could to make a profit, Graham fell back on the advice of his father. "'Always be honest,' he said. And when I was young I took that to mean, 'don't lie.' But over time I've seen that honesty requires more than just the truth," Graham said. "You can sometimes tell the truth and still mislead someone by leaving something out that a person needs to know."
Honesty as a policy has worked for Graham and his bank, because as area banks faltered when their exotic mortgages imploded, Graham's bank stayed profitable. "There's something here we offer that people want," he said. "I'm sure about that."
7. Never Get Lost Again
The storied explorers of history spent most of their lives lost: Columbus was trying to find a passage to Asia and wound up in North America; Cabral set sail for India and wound up in Brazil. Today, a GPS system can tell you within 50 feet where you are on the earth.
Karen Jacobsen is an Australian singer and voice actress. And if you have a GPS device, Karen may be the voice that guides you to your destination. She had provided the voice for voice-mail systems and numerous television ads in Australia, but she never felt like she was affecting people's daily lives like she does now.
She spent three weeks in a recording studio saying numbers and phrases like "turn right" and "you have reached your destination."
Karen took special care speaking one key word-"recalculating"-which is what the system says when the driver veers off the recommended route. "I didn't want to sound too reproachful," she said, "as if you've disappointed me by making that turn."
Karen imagines the arguments she has prevented between couples who would otherwise fight over who got them lost. "And my voice always stays calm, no matter what kind of trouble you've gotten yourself into," Karen said. "When I say 'recalculating' in that very matter-of-fact voice, you know it's all being taken care of. I will get you where you are going. I know all the back roads."
8. One Person's Junk Is Another's Treasure
There's an old axiom that one man's trash is another man's treasure. With Freecycle, though, the man with trash has a better chance of finding the man who thinks it's treasure. With Websites meant just for this purpose and with free online classified ads, people who have stuff they don't want can let people know what they have. And people who want stuff can check out the listings and find new things. The exchange is free, but the value is great. The stuff is diverted from landfills and goes on to continue serving a useful purpose.
If it's free, legal, and appropriate for all ages, it's welcome on Freecycle. Now in more than 75 countries, Freecycle groups organized regionally are popping up across the world.
In rural central Illinois, Erin Englin is a group moderator who highlights the giveaways and helps those searching for stuff. "Whatever it is, my motto is always, 'someone might need that,'" Erin said.
Her regional Freecycle has found new homes for furniture, kitchen items, games, books, toys, and even the raw materials for building a house.
"It's so much better to give things away than to send them to the dump," she said. "And it's a nice way to bring people together, too. Two folks who might not otherwise have ever met are united because the ping-pong table that spent ten years in your home is now going to spend ten years in someone else's.
"It's a great help for people who might otherwise be struggling right now. But really, it's about the fact that most of us have things we don't really want or need right now, and somebody else could put that stuff to good use."
9. Real Life Keeps Getting Better
Many people could list a hundred ways that life in the past was better than life today. Life was easier. Pressures didn't build 24 hours a day. And on and on. By romanticizing a tiny part of what life was like-and blocking everything else out-they can make it seem like life used to be almost perfect. But the simpler life that once existed was also stifling and harsh.
"If you want to go backward in time," Harvey Levinson says, "you have to be willing to go backward."
Harvey is a Connecticut rabbi whose social conscience brought him to the Deep South several times during the Civil Rights Movement. He remembers exactly what it felt like when he stepped up to the counter of a restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama, and the waitress told him they were out of food.
To his left and right were plates of food. On the shelf between the kitchen and the dining room were plates of food. And he could see the cook in the back with yet more food.
This was a minor disgrace compared to what others were facing at the time. But Harvey was still stunned by the reflexive hate.
Four decades later, Harvey was traveling in the area and stopped in Birmingham. Out of curiosity, he looked up the restaurant and found it was still there.
"I ordered dinner, and do you know what the waitress said to me? She said, 'Would you like anything else, sweetie.' Can you imagine that?" Harvey said.
"Don't ever let someone tell you the world isn't a little bit better place today, when we treat each other with more dignity and humanity."
10. The Cure for Boredom
As a practical matter, boredom has ended. We have near constant access to anything we want to think about, look at, or read. Boredom exists now only as a choice made by those who wish to be bored.
Not surprisingly, Steven Van Zandt has no room for boredom. He has been making music all his life, most prominently as Bruce Springsteen's guitarist in the E Street Band. Television fans know him for his work on The Sopranos, where he played Tony Soprano's right-hand man. And while doing both those things, he started his own nationally syndicated radio program to showcase the music that he loves.
For "Little Steven," as he is known to his fans, the premise of the show is to connect listeners with rock music. Some of the music is 40 years old and has long since been removed from radio play lists, while some is brand new and unlikely to ever be heard on the radio.
"You used to have a relationship with a DJ. You trusted them to turn you on to things," he said. "That's what I do-turn people on to the greatest music ever made ... at least, as far as I'm concerned. "At the same time, you're connecting the dots, which doesn't happen often enough," he said. "We talk about the songwriters, we talk about the producers, we talk about which band influenced who."
For Little Steven, working on the radio show has been much like his life, "It never gets old. It never gets boring."
11. Freedom of the Press
Citizens across the globe view a free press as an essential part of a free society and a functioning government. Democracy and freedom are spreading hand-in-hand with the free spread of information. And where there are still limits, the Internet is helping to shoot holes in government's ability to control expression.
"Where is the press freedom?" asks Mahathir Mohamad-and this is a painfully ironic question coming from the former prime minister of Malaysia, especially given that one of his priorities in office was imposing strict limits on the media. But now that he's out of power and disenchanted with his political party, Mahathir has things to say. And he has discovered the Internet. On his blog, he rails against incompetence in government and takes on the "masters of spin" who are selling the country "nothing but lies."
Excerpted from Up! A Pragmatic Look at the Direction of Life by David Niven Copyright © 2010 by David Niven. Excerpted by permission.
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