Googling Tradition

Instructions on mantillas can be found at wearyourmantilla.blogspot.com

Dear Google: Can you tell me how to put on a mantilla? My stifled laugh turned into a snort when the young woman standing behind me in front of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome desperately asked Google about an old-fashioned Catholic tradition. After Vatican II, lay women mostly stopped covering their heads before going into Catholic Churches. Even many religious sisters abandoned the habit. In the swarm of thousands of people waiting to get into St. Peter’s for Christmas Vigil Mass in 2012, women’s hair flowed abundantly.

The elegantly dressed Latin American woman behind me spent 30 minutes trying to cover her hair with a lace mantilla. Every time she thought she had succeeded, her mantilla slid down the side of her head or the front of her face. Clearly she was trying on a tradition she didn’t normally practice. Her last resort was to turn to Google for help. Her struggle with the mantilla reminded me of the book “Tradition in a Rootless World,” in which Lynn Davidman describes how Jewish women in New York embraced an orthodox Judaism. Free to choose whatever they want, young Jewish women chose traditions their elders spurned. Similarly, it is mostly younger Catholic women today who wear a mantilla to Mass.

I like to practice old traditions, too. One time I even wore a saree to the baptism of an Indian-American Catholic baby. Would you like the Gujarati wrap? my Indian hostesses asked me. Apparently it’s different from the Malayalee wrap. I had no idea that different ethncities in India wrapped sarees differently, but since I had a choice, I requested the Burrito Wrap.

What’s the Burrito Wrap? When I make burritos, I lay the tortilla flat and add the beef, cheese, and assorted condiments. Then I wrap, wrap, wrap, wrap and finally flip! You have a perfect burrito: nothing sticking out.

Not so with the Gujariti saree wrap. First I tried on the petticoat and walked into the living room to show everyone. As I twirled around showing off my Indian clothes, one Indian man gave me a puzzled look, took me by the arm, and led me upstairs. That’s an under-garment! You don’t go out in that! he explained. I thought petticoat was a fancy word for skirt. But upon closer look, I realized I was wearing a transparent, lace-covered slip meant to protect the exquisite saree, not my purity.

Already beet red, next I put on the “blouse.” That’s a funny name for basically a sports bra with short sleeves! Pull, pinch, pin those sleeves tight! Your torso can hang loose but not your arms!

On top of that sports bra with tight sleeves plus a slip, two Indian ladies wrapped me in six yards of sequined saree material. Flip, twirl, wrap; flip, twirl, wrap; flip, twirl, wrap. The saree was finally on me, but my mid-riff was still exposed! Sarees are carefully designed so that you can wear the same one your whole life, so all the extra material got crammed into my waist. I looked pregnant.

How can I go to a Catholic Church with my torso exposed and carrying four yards of material on my belly? Could you wrap me up like a burrito, I pleaded? You know, use all that material to support my flab rather than accentuate it?

You look great, they reassured me. You don’t need a Burrito Wrap! Wanting to please my hosts, I smiled and posed for some pictures. The wrapping ceremony took so long we were late for Mass and parked far away. Rushing across the parking lot and up a big hill, I didn’t want to get the bottom of the saree dirty or trip on it. So I bent over, picked up the saree, and carried the bottom of it by my waist.

What are you doing?!?!? Two Indian men chided me. Huh? I queried them. You can’t pick up your saree like that!!!! We can see your ankles! It made no sense that my torso could be bare but I could not show my ankles. I was terrified that if I tripped on the hill, the precarious wrap would come undone. I pictured myself rolling down the hill with all my juicy cheese sliding out of the wrap, just like when I mess up my burritos. I stared defiantly at those gentlemen who spent the morning confused about how to wear their own traditional garments. I kept the saree by my waist until I was safe on level ground.

Once inside the church, I kept twirling around, trying to use all that flowy material to create my own Burrito Wrap. I never succeeded, and was quite relieved to take the saree off that evening. Comfortably back in their own Western clothes, my Indian friends confessed that they had only worn sarees three times in their whole lives—and mostly since they left India.

Why does a woman outside St. Peter’s ask Google to instruct her on a Catholic tradition she was never taught? Why do migrants in the diaspora adopt traditions they barely observed back home? Traditions are an important part of our collective identity. Special events like a trip to Rome or a baby’s baptism are occasions where we want to symbolize our religious or ethnic group belonging.

We mostly take our traditions for granted; so much so that many youth today feel rootless and search for traditions. One freshman I taught could not relate to Victor Frankl’s inspiring book Man’s Search for Meaning because he felt like he belonged to no meaningful tradition. The survivors of the Holocaust camp Frankl described found meaning in their families and Jewish faith. But this student had been told his whole life to define meaning for himself. I was stunned to hear an 18-year old complain that he is tired of being told to define the purpose of his life. How can his life have meaning if he doesn’t belong to a group that teaches him about meaning? he asked.  He didn’t have a religious identity, an ethnic identity, or any group identity. Consequently, his life lacked one core element of meaning. The next year, he joined a fraternity. He reassured me that his desire to join a fraternity was not to have drinking buddies but to belong to a group that gave his life meaning.

In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre argues that personal narratives need to be embedded in traditions and institutions that give our lives collective meaning. Religions, nationalities, ethnicities and universities with their many fraternities, sororities and sports teams all remind us that our lives have meaning as part of a narrative that is bigger than ourselves. Wearing a mantilla, a saree, a fraternity shirt or a college baseball cap links us to a group.

Embracing someone else’s tradition is a symbol of respect for their group. So despite my nervous debut wearing a saree, when I was invited to an Indian-American wedding, I bravely asked my Indian-American friend to help wrap me in my saree. Google didn’t have instructions for a saree Burrito Wrap, but we found a pretty cool You Tube video where an Indian woman teaches an Indian-American woman to be a “good Indian girl” by putting on a saree.  We laughed and acted out the scene. When I walked outside, my neighbors stopped to take pictures of me in my gorgeous saree. You too can turn to YouTube to learn how to be a good Indian girl. Check it out right here.

Previous generations rejected traditions in favor of individuality. But for many young people raised in today’s society that exalts individual autonomy, where our personal identity is malleable, and where our closest relationships change frequently, there is something very appealing about traditions. Even when you have to Google a particular tradition, even when a tradition is not from your own ethnicity, and even when others hardly practice those traditions anymore, traditions link us to other people. Traditions link us to a past and to a future. Traditions look good in Facebook pictures.

Can an individual life be meaningful without any tradition? Perhaps no more than a baby can survive on his own. Traditions help fulfill man’s search for meaning, a quest that is essential to being a person, and a quest that must be fulfilled in relation to others. What are the traditions that give your life meaning? What social practices tie you to others?

Surviving and Thriving in the Northeast Winter

Cute-as-can-be Canadian Polar Bear!

Canadian polar bears taught me an important lesson: layers keep you warm when it’s freezing out. Temperatures today in New Haven went to 0 Fahrenheit, so when I finally ventured out to try to dig my car out of more than a foot of snow, I also dug out the clothes I bought in Canada during the winter of 2002. The pink fluffy gloves and hat I bought recently at Talbot’s just would not do.

As I slid my legs into my Canadian snow pants, my fear turned to jubilation. Yes! Twelve-year old snow pants still fit!!! I dug past all the faux scarves and gloves I wore just to look fashionable when I lived in North Carolina. I needed the real stuff: ear muffs, a tight hat, and very well insulated muffins. Here’s another thing I learned in Canada: being cold doesn’t mean you can’t be fashionable. Just put the fashionable clothes on top of the warm ones. To top off my polar bear outfit, I put on a fashionable Indian pashmina.

I live in a faculty apartment on campus at Yale. Lately, I’ve been lonely, as my dorm built for 400 people is currently inhabited by about two people. Inside my spacious and gracious apartment, I’ve been feeling like a princess locked in a castle. Daring to break out into the freezing temperatures to clean my car was also partially a strategy to avoid cabin fever. I promised myself that my reward for cleaning my car would be to eat dinner out at a restaurant—largely because I’m dying to see other human beings.

Furthermore, I really, really needed my car to be ready so I could hit the road to Boston early tomorrow morning.  I can’t miss the birthday party of my 2-year old friend and adopted nephew Carston Friedman! Especially not after he sent me the most gorgeous Christmas gift ever: adorable pajama pants and a t-shirt that says, “I love Tia Margarita.” I loved his gift so much that I wore it all day today. I wouldn’t dare wear it outside, however, as the big red heart and the words “Tia Margarita” stretch out over the most curvaceous part of my body. If I wore that t-shirt out, I’d have to charge money for all the stares I would get.

Walking to the lot where I park my car, which is about 15 minutes from my castle at Yale’s Calhoun College, I congratulated myself for how warm I felt inside all my layers. I also psyched myself up as I marched through the snow: no matter what I found, I was going to dig that car out and I would not die of frostbite in the process! But when I entered the parking lot, my eyes bulged and my heart leapt: my car was totally clean.

I texted the owner of the parking lot:

Hey Mike. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Do you know who is the elf that cleaned my car? I’m driving to a 2-year old’s birthday party in Boston tomorrow and he would be sad if I missed it. I came over today to clean the car and move it overnight closer to Calhoun. But it’s totally clean. Please find the elf on your video camera that monitors this parking lot and thank him for me!!!!

A Wintry Day by the Christmas Tree on the New Haven Green

Since my car was clean, I decided to frolic in the snow by the New Haven Green. I even paused for a picture with the Christmas tree decorating the Green. Then I marched over to my favorite pizza place in New Haven, where I had pizza, drank a beer and wrote this blog.

To my chagrin, a rather perfect day ended with me losing my 2nd pair of glasses in as many weeks. The first pair disappeared somewhere at at NJ Turnpike rest stop on the way to my mom’s for Christmas. Tonight, I took my spare pair of glasses off for the picture by the Christmas tree, and I thought I stuffed them in my pocket. But when I looked for them, all that was left were the two rubbery bands that sat snugly around my ears to make the glasses more comfortable.

Sigh :( I may need new glasses, but at least I don’t have to buy new winter clothes to survive in New Haven.

 

The Happy Society Inspires Kentucky

Positive sociology has been inspiring Kentucky residents through the efforts of Beau Weston, the Van Winkle Professor of Sociology and Chair of Anthropology and Sociology of Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, and a blogger at The Gruntled Center: Exploring the Happy Society. Weston first developed a class he calls “The Happy Society”, using a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities to develop his syllabus and run a theory camp with students to test it out.

After a successful first run of “The Happy Society” at Centre College, Weston found out about my class on positive sociology when I was at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He became my “Happy Society Teaching Buddy”, which basically means he was my reading partner and pedagogical coach as I taught this class for the first time. I learned from his lessons having taught the class, and innovated the syllabus and assignments to my own class.

This year, Weston’s class took on a new twist. Inspired by the classic Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, Weston organized the group into little platoons that had to carry out projects in the community. Small groups, we know from Burke’s insights and much recent research, can inspire ideas and generative creative energy far beyond our own minds.

As reported in the Centre College online newsletter this December 5, 2013:

“Using the idea of ‘little platoons,’ Weston modified the previous year’s happiness project, changing it from one the entire class completed to a group of small partner projects. ‘One of the main findings of happiness research is that working with others—especially friends—on a meaningful project is one of the most reliably happy-making of actions,’ he explains. ‘Thus the ‘little platoons’ project was born.’ Students worked with another classmate and created a platoon that would do something worthwhile. Michaela Manley ’15 and Clark Weber ’14 paired up to bring happiness to a local retirement home, McDowell Place. ‘Michaela and I both enjoy talking to our grandparents,’ says Weber, ‘and we realized that it would be a good idea to write down their happiest memories. We thought we would record memories of other elderly individuals in the community.’ “

Weston’s project resembles what I’ve done in the Calhoun Happiness Project, in which everyone had to choose a happiness buddy. This coming spring, I would like repeat in the Calhoun Happiness Project an assignment I devised at UNC: asking students to pick a student group they belong to (a sports team, publication, student government, etc.) and try to apply the principles of positive psychology and positive sociology to improve that group. To guide students next spring, I plan to have them read Ryan W. Quinn’s Lift: Becoming a Positive Force in Any Organization. (The Lift blog has all kinds of great ideas…)

It’s only fitting that since my collaboration with Weston t started in part because I blogged right here on Black, White and Gray about my positive sociology class at UNC, that now I should blog about his successful class. It’s also striking that in teaching this material, we both independently reached a similar conclusion: happiness is not just an idea, it should be a practice, and we all benefit from having happiness buddies or little platoons to keep us focused on our resolutions and projects to improve our lives and that of those around us. Our students have obviously inspired our respective schools’ publications to write about our course, and the Calhoun Happiness Project has now been in the Yale Herald, the Yale Daily News and the Yale Alumni Magazine. Isn’t it great to see good news in the media, the classroom and the community?

Happiness at Yale

Calhoun College shield

How can Yalies get more flow? Last night at the fourth meeting of the Calhoun Happiness Project I started at Yale, we discussed the meaning of flow—being so engrossed in an activity that time feels like it has stopped– and how busy, high-achieving students can get more flow in their daily lives. Of the 5 elements of Martin Seligman’s PERMA theory of authentic well-being that we discussed last night, flow was the hardest one to grasp conceptually and figure out how to improve on. But Seligman is adamant that we can all get more elements of all 5 parts of his well-being theory he calls PERMA: Positive emotions, Engagement (flow), Relationships, Meaning and Achievement. In his book called Flow, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi gives numerous tips on how to increase flow in everyday life.

One obstacle to flow is just how busy students are. Who has time to stop and really get engrossed in one thing when all day is spent rushing to and from classes and extra-curricular activities? When I asked students to name when they experience flow, some said that like me, they experience it while engrossed in their studies. Another student practices meditation. A third student said she gets into flow when she works for nine hours straight at a restaurant students run once a week in Davenport College at Yale. She likes being so busy cooking and serving that she can’t think about her upcoming midterm.

My makeshift standing desk

Before our meeting yesterday, I definitely experienced flow as I wrote about my new project on young adults and resilience. On the advice of a friend who says that doing work while standing up increases energy throughout the day, I put together a makeshift standing desk at home, using a plastic box on top of my dining room table. In just 2 days of writing from that standing position, I wrote 14 single-spaced pages about my new project. Yesterday alone I stood in the same spot for three and half hours writing. That’s flow for sure.

Then I went on with the rest of my busy day, hustling back and forth from meetings and re-reading Martin Seligman’s book Flourish over lunch. I also listened to a video lecture on productivity “hot spots” which prompted me to reflect on my goals and whether how I use my time actually lines up with those goals. Then I rushed off to eat dinner in Calhoun College, carrying Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project with me.

In preparation for the evening meeting of the Calhoun Happiness Project, I re-read Chapters 5-8 of The Happiness Project while eating. I laughed out loud several times…Rubin is just hilarious. When I stood up after finishing dinner, I rushed out of the dining hall and was planning on running back up to my suite to prepare some more for the Calhoun Happiness Project meeting.

Suddenly I was aware of beautiful piano music in the Calhoun Common Room. I stopped dead in my tracks. Didn’t I just read Rubin’s advice in Chapter 5 to “Be Serious about Play”? Didn’t she also say in Chapter 8 to take time to “contemplate the heavens’? Hadn’t I been frantically trying to fit into my busy schedule time to go to all the amazing music and theater Yale offers? Was I really about to rush past this heavenly piano music? Isn’t the first step in contemplating simply slowing down, something Yalies (including me) have a hard time doing?

I plopped onto a big leather chair in the Calhoun Common Room, said hello to another Calhoun Happiness Project group member sitting there, and closed my eyes. I relaxed and breathed deeply for the first time all day, marveling at the beautiful sounds I was hearing. When the student stopped playing, I remembered Rubin’s advice in Chapter 6, “Make time for friends.” Show gratitude to people, I recalled, is one piece of advice to make and keep friends.

So as the student walked away from the piano, I stopped him and said, “I really enjoyed listening to you play the piano.” His face lit up and he said, “Thank you!” Then he explained that he had started learning piano when he was 4, and used to play very seriously. Now he just plays because it makes him happy. Hello, I thought, is that flow or what?

“Do you think I could l learn piano even though I’m not starting at age 4?” I asked. “You see, I’m reading this book called The Happiness Project, and she recommends taking play seriously. And I know that to increase my happiness, I have to find more ways to flow than just working. I worked so hard today and my mind was racing to and fro. So when I heard your beautiful music, I realized I need to slow down and enjoy something beautiful today.”

The student, named Kevin, was fascinated by all my talk about happiness and flow, and totally encouraged me to learn the piano. “It’s the master instrument,” he said. “It’s like a spiritual experience when I play.” Kevin also was fascinated to hear about my research, especially the idea that there are certain parts of happiness we can’t get without suffering. “Oh…I had never thought of that. Can you say more?” he said. I briefly told him how I’ve been interviewing young adults who have had stressful life events, and how some of them have developed incredible compassion and generosity as a result of their hardships. Kevin and I only talked for about 7 minutes, but I felt like I had made a new friend, in part because we talked about things we are passionate about: happiness and music.

Friendship, I told the students later on that evening, is not only about spending time together, it’s also about sharing passions, and pursuing excellence in some activity. No, it’s not about being perfect in everything or winning everything. But friendships are based on shared activities that are conducive to flow. Try it out. This weekend, instead of going to a night club with your friends, go to a live classical music concert. Try to learn about the artists and the music before you go.

As I’m learning through my students, happiness resources and happiness groups are growing in number at Yale. I expect to learn more this weekend after a meeting hosted by the Yale College Council to discuss mental health at Yale. How can the happiness resources at Yale unite? What more can be done?

My sense is that the Calhoun Happiness Project is unique because it is integrated with one of Yale’s strengths: the residential college system. Students in the Calhoun Happiness Project see each other in the courtyard and dining hall, and continue talking about the book and their own happiness resolutions. I provide the intellectual content through monthly meetings, and since I live in Calhoun College, I’m available to talk with students one-on-one. The informal mentoring, coupled with a light responsibility to read about happiness and make resolutions, seems to be the right dose students need to make changes. It’s a light commitment with fellowship, mentoring, learning, and a quick payoff.

The first lesson to learn about happiness is that is starts right now, right where you are. So think about your own living situation, your own work situation. Flow is not only about playing or listening to beautiful music, if we practice flow, we can have it all day long even doing menial tasks. Try listening to what is going on around you, showing charity to everyone you meet. That’s step one to getting more flow: fighting the hustle and bustle and living inner contemplation even in the midst of outward activity.

Thanks to you Yalies who keep me in the flow, encouraging me to re-read my favorite books from positive psychology and make new resolutions. Yesterday I flowed first in my intense solitary writing, and then in my deep interactions with Yale students. I went off to bed tired but contemplating the heavens and giving thanks for my friends, and woke up this morning to find my flow writing this blog from my standing desk.


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