Post originally published at The Changing Archives Sky on July 12, 2015
Are people wired to feel optimistic? Or to be misanthropic? To react with equanimity? To be resilient? Or to reach for self-pity and speak from a sense of grievance? Are they predisposed for shep naches (happiness at another’s good fortune) or schadenfreude (enjoyment of another’s misfortune)?
When we see how someone we have never met engages online, in professional forums, on Sociall Media, how much of the person are we seeing? Is the image representative or misleading?
Friday evening @swarthmoreburke (Timothy Burke) tweeted,
“–Hey, it’s Friday night, and Twitter is alive with people telling other people not to say things and telling us who is the very badness.
–Seriously, there’s a list of you smart people that I like who I think have never ever ever said “I like this thing” on Twitter.
–If I could name a project that I think intellectuals of the 21st century should chase it’s “the re-enchantment of the world”.
–The re-enchantment of the world means defeating some dark forces, but it also means trust and joy and passion on occasion.”
I replied that I hoped he would explore that at his blog. I later tweeted that I would share some of my thoughts here.
In the past, our family members, friends, colleagues, bosses or subordinates saw different sides of us. Now, on the web, some of our interactions are public. Acquaintances and strangers are in the mix, as well. That can have consequence for job seekers. Or those who aspire to be “thought leaders.” Or want to influence others.
Shortly before reading Burke’s tweets, I shared on Twitter a picture of flowers I passed during my Friday evening stroll. Sunshine glimpsed at twilight. Walking helps me relax after a work day in Fedland. I often tweet that I’m “walking towards the light.”
Sometimes I mean that physically, sometimes psychologically. And sometimes both. You see the latter in a photo I took last November of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), my former employer and cherished intellectual home in Washington. [Having retired since I wrote this post, I now am back at NARA, working as a Volunteer.]
Walking serves many purposes. AOTUS David S. Ferriero wrote about burnout in 1982 when he was a Supervisory Librarian. He explained the value of getting away from the office. Of walking, running, swimming. “The time spent in such exercise also serves as a period of thought organization. Many people use such time to think through difficult problems and develop various alternative approaches to them.” A year ago, I shared Ferriero’s burnout article with others. And talked to David (whom I know and admire) at NARA about what led him to write his essay.
A recent column in the Washington Post explains the neuroscience of insight and analysis. “Insight is like a cat. You can’t order it to appear. You can coax it. But you can’t command it. Creativity and insight flows from a particular brain state. And if you can put yourself in this brain state, you will be more likely to have these creative insights.”
I have feline (as well as canine) friends in my neighborhood. You see two of them in the photos below. Animal therapy is a part of some my walks. But I never know when a cat friend will come over and rub my ankles or not! My dog friends are easier to read. There’s a reason I’m taking a quick side trip into animal behavior before I return to the Post article. It relates to being other-centric, a quality many archivists and librarians share.
Last week, Kate Theimer and Caryn Radick started a contest to encourage support for a Society of American Archivists conference service project this August. It lifted my spirits to read that “Your Cats and Dogs from the Archives Can Help the Cleveland Animal Protective League!”
Just one of many ways Kate is giving back through her professional circle of archivists, librarians, and other information professionals. Such people stand out on Twitter. She is an inspirational person, a thought leader on Twitter, at her blog, and in her books.
The experts quoted in last week’s Post article say that a good mood “expands the scope” of your thoughts.
“When you’re in a positive mood, you’re more sensitive to picking up these weakly activated, unconscious ideas and, when it’s detected, your attention can switch to it, and it can pop into the head as an insight. If you’re in a bad mood, and the anterior cingulate is not activated, it just goes with what’s strongest, which is usually the most straightforward.”
Going outdoors, relaxing, encourages creativity. “If you can see far and wide, then you can think far and wide.” The colors you see and positive reactions you associate with them also affect your mood. Relaxing encourages free-form sorting of data points.
A senior executive at a high level of the Federal government told me 15 years ago that he wished he had more down time. That he yearned for time just to think about what he was hearing and seeing. To try to connect the dots. But he was so over scheduled–meeting after meeting–that he rarely had the time to do that. So he sometimes found himself making reactive rather than reflective decisions.
Sometimes, when you see me tweet, “Grabbing my pink iPod, heading out for a walk,” it’s simply that. Occasionally, I decide to walk to sort through my reactions to something I’ve seen online. Stepping away provides perspective.
We in Washington are especially vulnerable to seeing erroneous assertions made about us. I even see them in my arcane areas of expertise: history, archives, and records management. Since I’m Federal, I sometimes get frustrated by the corrosive impact of demagoguery.
When I tweet, there are topics where I use “discoverable language.” Some links from partisan sites purport to “analyze” events in Washington. But I don’t share my reactions to them. You learn not to swing at pitches in the dirt.
There are other issues about which I tweet freely and spontaneously, as when I express happiness at others’ accomplishments. Or share my enjoyment of events I attend in Washington. Including (all together now!) visits to the National Archives.
I once wrote of a talk in Washington by John Lews:
‘Lewis’s presentation showed that one can be passionately engaged, and far from detached, yet eschew heated or exclusionary rhetoric. He spoke with deep emotion of his ancestors who had been slaves in America, of the right to vote, and the impact of segregation during his lifetime. In describing violence and his belief in non-violence, Lewis observed that rhetorical violence has an impact, too. I agree, which is why I am not a fan of “muzzle velocity” in advocacy. ‘Come, walk with me’ works much better as an appeal to someone like me.”
Yesterday, John Lewis “won Comic Con” when he wore a recreation of his raincoat and backpack from the 1965 March at Selma. To endure what he has, but to remain passionate about creating a better future for others, is inspiring. There’s a lot to be learned not just from his story, but how he has shared it, in person, through his memoirs, through his recent graphics book, March. And his vision for the future.
In 2014, Kate Theimer tweeted a quote that caught my eye. I followed the link @archivesnext shared to the essay she quoted. “Your life follows your attention. Wherever you look, you end up going.” I blogged about Kate’s tweet in “The gorgeous, the brutalist.” My post included a photo from a spur of the moment visit I made to John F. Kennedy’s grave after work last July. The late-day sun enhanced the view.
After my walk, I noted at my blog that when “we engage in public, we have opportunities to work on becoming architects of trust. There are thoughtful writers out there who act as architects of trust in writing about records, archives, and history. But there also is a lot of noise, some off-putting, some destructive.”
I’ve been reading Tim Burke’s blog posts for over a decade, since he was a member of a group blog, Cliopatria, at the History News Network. He stood out within the group. This post from 2004 about the use of historical analogy shows why his writing caught my eye there.
“The productive use of historical analogy takes a certain amount of humility, a belief in the open-ended and debatable applicability of the analogies that one is suggesting. Making analogies is like offering a historical counterfactual, a what-if: it is a hypothesis, and one that has to be presumptively open from the first instance to skepticism. I am always amazed when analogy-makers plant their feet and fight like alley cats for the singular, immoveable truth of the analogy they’ve offered.”
In 2005, Burke started an individual blog, Easily Distracted. I agree with some of his observations, disagree with others, but always find his essays worth reading. The best are beautifully introspective. “Some good thoughts come from solitude, from the unexpected recesses of the self, from not answering to the last reply or bouncing off of the last link.”
I’ve found some of Burke’s observations useful in considering executive actions, open leadership, engagement, and management in the Federal environment. For us, on the job, discernment plays a part in listening to others. Burke observed on January 22, 2009 that listening to “the other” enables you to “hear better the difference between a public voice that comes from somewhere real and a cynical attempt at framing that comes from some rag-and-bone shop think tank.”
In the 1980s, as an archivist employed by the National Archives, I worked for some time on a special project with the White House Office of Records Management. I spent hours in a storeroom on an upper floor of what then was called the Old Executive Office Building. I analyzed public correspondence to see if sampling could be used for retention of mail.
Organized letter writing campaigns were easy to spot. But as my work with records in my regular job reminded me, the origins of letter writing campaigns were not always immediately clear. The same can be true for some online interactions now. We don’t know all the external influences.
Listening to the voices of the other doesn’t mean you give up your own opinions, perspectives, values. But it does require really listening, not just waiting for a chance to fire back a verbal retort. Sanyin Siang discussed the value of learning about “the other” in her 2012 essay, “Go Get Offended: It’ll be Good for Us All.”
I like Burke’s attention to voices, communications, messages, interactions. And his willingness to look at himself as well as others. His 2010 post, “My Books, My Selves” is one of my favorites.
“One of the things I talked about with them is an issue I’ve occasionally reflected upon within the blog, which is how the voice that I’ve crafted here is both a treasured accomplishment and a frustrating confinement. I might have an inaccurate understanding of myself and the impression I leave in person, but I often feel like I’m looser, jazzier, more amusing, less pompous, in my daily work as a teacher and colleague than I am as a blogger. But when I try to write in that voice, it comes out snarky, barbed, and maybe altogether too typical in the hurly-burly Punch-and-Judy show of online discourse. So the Man of Reason is what I’ve made myself out to be, and so I’ll largely have to remain.”
We all struggle with what to share about ourselves. What others do affects that. Do they turn us into cartoons or give us space to be ourselves?
In its public programs (live-streamed and archived on You Tube) in the Washington area, at which David Ferriero often gives opening remarks, NARA provides opportunities for historians and other scholars to share knowledge. And speaking opportunities for present and former officials who are open to sharing insights.
People who often had to walk a difficult path in Washington have “safe space,” if they choose to take it, to expand understanding of their world. To let people be human is a great gift to give others. Especially in Washington.
The luckiest among us have places to step away from the noise. To feel the enchantment Tim Burke described in his Friday evening tweets. And to share or rediscover trust and joy and passion. To walk around. To look, listen, relax. And then to tweet, “I like this thing.”