A remark made at President Barack Obama’s inauguration has given me much food for thought.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, co-chairman of the presidential inauguration committee, started his introductory remarks with, “Ladies and gentlemen, the late Alex Haley, the author of ‘Roots,’ lived his life by these six words: find the good and praise it.”
Alexander, a Republican, went on to praise our process of electing leaders peacefully by exercising our right to vote.
Acknowledging this essential goodness of our democratic system affords us a better perspective, even as we reflect on the billions spent on negative messages and the evasive talking points of last year’s election season.
Find the good and praise it — six revolutionary words that Haley reportedly first spotted on a bumper sticker, then adopted as his life’s motto.
This concept of praising the good was alien to me during the first three decades of my life.
My training as an engineer taught me to look for problems and to offer solutions. I seldom focused on stating what was already working, as I identified problems in a quest for improvement.
The idea of change captures all our imaginations. Certainly every ecosystem, every community, every family and every individual can change themselves and things around them for the better.
Yet the idea of first finding the good and praising it could anchor us firmly to a feeling of gratitude, which can make us more effective in changing what needs to be changed.
Imagine people of two cultures meeting, with the idea of finding the good and praising it. Such meetings are commonplace today as more Americans work abroad and many from abroad work here. A bridge would be created, across which mutual learning could occur, benefiting both cultures even as changes that both cultures could make are registered.
Imagine Democrats acknowledging the good in Republicans and vice versa — and both openly praising it. There obviously is an inherent good in having at least two political parties, because robust opposition is essential and vital to democracy. Without it, there would be no hearings on Capitol Hill and no one to hold the party in power accountable.
Voicing the praise of what is good, of what we are grateful for, is preferable to taking it for granted. The British writer G.K. Chesterton once said, “Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.”
Our modern education system teaches us to be more critical than appreciative. At school, we are encouraged to be curious, to challenge, to change things for the better.
Whether we are in teaching, medicine, engineering or law, or doing any kind of blue- or white-collar work or in our role as parents, we are expected to be problem solvers. Yet our training often leaves us not knowing how to be content, how to seek the good in what already is.
Consciously listing and verbalizing the good in any existing situation can actually improve the solutions that we arrive at. It provides a lens of gratitude, makes sure we do not fix things that are not broken and helps us retain and learn from what already works.
There are websites devoted to highlighting good news and achievements. Recently, at www.dailygood.org, stories describing research on the positive health effects of gratitude existed side by side with a story describing an innovative prison program at Rikers Island in New York, where 300 inmates were going through a Greenhouse Program, transforming the land and themselves.
Studies in positive psychology emphasize gratitude and its role in increased contentment, decreased stress and increased service to others. It is apparently one of the best ways to spread more good, be healthier and possibly even create lasting change.
So every night before going to bed, I have begun to reflect on five positive things that happened that day. I find myself extremely thankful for the six words that have serendipitously traveled across the ages from a bumper sticker to Alex Haley and then through Lamar Alexander to a national audience of millions of people, including me.