Calm Cool and Connected: The Dog Park on Capitol Hill

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22 Nov Calm Cool and Connected: The Dog Park on Capitol Hill

img_0280-2There are several dog parks in my neighborhood, one behind the grocery store on South Street and the other, on the east end of the neighborhood, which is named for Mario Lanza, an Italian opera singer who grew up in the area. I take Ryder there to run and play – and for me to do some research on nature and behavior. I’m curious as to why we are so disconnected and divisive these days.

There is so much to learn about human and other animal natures by taking a walk to the park. Hands down, people are weird.  Human beings are strange, strange animals. First off, people don’t greet each other. And if they do say hello, they say hello “from their dog” “to your dog”, removing the real connection between actual humans. “This is Benny, what’s your dog’s name?” “What kind of dog is he?” “How old?”

This is not just an at-the-park phenomenon. I find it super fascinating that we largely ignore each other while walking down the street, engaging with the grocery store clerk, or in the elevator at the office. (Actually, dog owners are probably most apt to acknowledge another human being and dog combo coming their way.)

Now I’m not saying all people I pass on the way to the dog park or in the grocery are zombie-like ignoramuses, but many are so cut off from real-life connection with other human beings and this concerns me.  As14925673_1306912319340318_4852473634890003134_n a researcher and teacher in positive psychology, my hypothesis is that those doing the ignoring are perceiving a potential threat in a moment where an opportunity could arise in its place, creating a different neurobiological response in the body and thus a different (dare I say more positive) experience for those two people, the dogs!, and everyone else in between.

I also see this tendency to perceive the other as a threat in my work as a change-agent in organizational and community development. I have the honor of working in all sorts of business organizations and I find, similarly, that people are having a hard time connecting with one another, thus creating an environment that is as awkward as being at Mario Lanza on a Sunday morning or as toxic as what we see on Capitol Hill.

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It seems everyone has an opinion about this current election. With Facebook and other social media outlets, it’s easy to make that opinion known. Last week, I posted my opinion:

Everyone needs to calm down. Not that long ago this guy was a democrat. He obvs loves to incite people and he does that so well. I choose to stay optimistic and hopeful that he will be quite utilitarian and pragmatic. He likes to win.

A flurry of responses ensued, including many who were offended that (a) I was telling them ‘what to do’ [calm down] and (b) that my optimism was unfounded and foolish, or worse. One of the responses pinned me as a “piece of human garbage” who is “as narcissistic as the president elect” and suggesting that my message of love in the world is flimsy and fake.

First, I apologize to anyone who read my post as dismissive or degrading. I almost always often have positive intent; this was one of those times. I do like to instigate, though, offering perspectives that may not be on the same bandwagon as the norm. Right now the norm, at least on my Facebook feed, is fear, anger, and even disgust.

What I’m observing in my (the) world is a level of divisiveness and disdain greater than I can remember in my lifetime. It concerns me to feel tensions run so high.  We certainly see this at the federal level; this presidential election certainly puts a microscope on what’s happening in DC.

What you may not realize, though, is that we also feel this tension and divide at the local level. I’m privileged that a good bulk of my work takes me in and out of public school districts where time and time again, I see a pattern: so many people feeling unvalued, not respected and unloved.

15037297_10154666770789785_4734745185573839624_nOne of our core human needs is belonging, just like food and shelter. We are tribal creatures and being outside of “the group” is psychologically troubling causing a loneliness that a snickers bar or a warm bed cannot ease. Research is showing loneliness to be epidemic in our world. More people are identifying with this subjective experience than ever before, even people who are surrounded by many other people; those you would least expect may be living a very lonely life.

At the dog park, there is a group of people who have at least one thing in common: owning a dog. At the office or grocery store, we may need to inquire about our commonalities, about what’s already good and working. This takes courage and maybe some vulnerability, a risk to be seen and heard. It also may require forgiveness, a conscious choice to give up our desire to make the past better and move forward differently. Despite whichever side you are on, there are biases in all of our thinking. With a heightened state of arousal underpinning our “opinions” we are not seeing clearly the possibilities and opportunities that may exist.

I say it all the time: no one is exempt from doing the work it takes to be mindful—to think about how one thinks. Learned optimism is a skill. Positive emotion has been shown to broaden our ability to see more opportunity and build resources for the resilience and creativity in solving some of our country’s and communities’ most complex problems.

This is why I am suggesting we calm, choose love, and proceed passionately and purposefully in helping all people be seen, valued, and heard. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Just say “Hello, my name is… What’s good with you today?” Even those we perceive as “the other,”—please find ways to listen for understanding and not just to respond or react. There’s no reason to call anyone human garbage, ever.

Yes, people are animals. Animals are easily triggered to perceive a threat. When we feel under threat, our biology causes us to react in a “fight or flight” mode. But that fight or flight mindset isn’t typically where we are at our most powerful and open to creating positive change. Let’s help ourselves and each other get to a place of greater mindfulness and calm strength, from this time of fear, anger, and turmoil.

I see it even in Ryder, now two years old, a little more “barky” with other dogs than he once was.  The good news is we can teach “old dogs” new tricks and I, for one, am grateful to be learning and leading at the dog park and beyond.

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