• Worry Less, Do More

    • Posted on Apr 22, 2018

    Today's Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier column, for your delight and edification.  I lament the time most of us spend worrying rather than doing.  Whenever I do more and worry less, life goes better.             

                 A retired UNI colleague and I took lunch last week, and he chuckled when he reminisced about his long career. 

                “You know, I worried so much about bad things happening, and thought our department was always falling apart.  Some faculty colleagues never bothered recruiting majors, so our whole program was doomed.  Or so I thought.  Then they up and resigned, better faculty replaced them, new majors came in, and the program thrived.”  

                He went on, “That happened over and over. I always worried too much.”  

                Sometimes his worries were warranted. Then he had a problem to solve, which he usually did.  But draining energy by worrying never helped.  

                “How much time I wasted worrying!” He lamented.  

                So do we all, my friend, so do we all.  Look up the quote “I’m old and have had lots of troubles, most of which never happened.”  That idea has been around in various forms for literally centuries, and was cited by Seneca, Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill, and Mark Twain, among others. It’s ancient wisdom that gets wiser as I get older.  

                Worrying alone only creates higher stress levels, sleepless nights, and complaining to hapless listeners. Boorish and useless.    

                However, that’s the only bad news.  The good news is that worrying isn’t a disease or an addiction.  It’s merely a bad habit we can conquer.    


    • North Korea’s nuclear capabilities threaten our mainland.  Yes, it’s possible, but seems less and less likely, given current diplomatic efforts started during the Winter Olympics. 

    It’s a problem that’s receding, and worrying made no difference.   

    • We have a “morally unfit” President whose only life goal is self-promotion.  He seems unable to strategize about anything, leaving our country’s leadership in tatters. 

    Time for hand-wringing? If it helps, yes. But it doesn’t help. Lack of leadership is unsustainable, and it will unravel sooner or later, probably sooner, worry or no worry.   

    What helps? Less worrying and more organizing, speaking out, urging change, and voting.  Repeat that: voting.  

    • Opioid addiction and deaths plague the country.  It’s a problem that helps get solved by making the antidote, naloxone, widely available and cheap.  Also new legislation controlling the use, sale and distribution of such killer drugs Instead of getting worried, get busy making your voice heard.   
    • Gun deaths are a national scandal, and the easy availability of assault weapons makes no sense to anyone but NRA-brainwashed citizens, lost in paranoid fantasies or fascination for lethal toys.   Yes, worry, but only only enough to motivate yourself to get busy—march, write letters, and again, vote.  
    • Public education and the teaching profession continues to lose funding, undercutting our very democracy, which can’t survive without an educated citizenry.  Truly worrisome, but there’s a problem to solve here that takes real energy.  Write, call, contribute, organize, support, march, and vote.  

                It’s activist citizens, not worriers, who will help solve these and dozens of other pressing problems. It’s way beyond worrying and worriers.  

                To hand-wringers everywhere, remember Bobby McFerrin’s song, with a slight change:   

                Don’t worry, get busy, be happy.  



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  • Giving Optimism a Chance

    • Posted on Mar 11, 2018

    Here's today's (Sunday 3-11) Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier column.  It's about clear-eyed, evidence-based optimism based on Steven Pinker's new book ENLIGHTENMENT NOW. The book deserves a good look, and after a good pondering, a mind-change.  Hard-core pessimists will find reasons to dismiss it, but open-minded folks might find it helpful for rethinking the question of whether humankind is getting better at reaching long-held ideals.  



    So, is the glass half empty or half full?  I’m trying a new answer. 

    For most of my adult life, I’ve been a half-empty guy. Having grown up in those dark “duck and cover” 1950s, when the cold war seemed to threaten us all with nuclear annihilation, pessimism came naturally.  As a young boy I followed news of the Korean stalemate, followed by the Vietnam debacle—not exactly wars that rewarded optimists.

    I led a life of low-level fears that made my dark outlook fit reality. I was a catastrophist and pessimist, expecting the worst and usually finding it. I tried to solve problems, but there were too many. Despair struck often.     

    My wife of over two decades was blessed with a half-full outlook, and therefore challenged my bleakness, but never for long.  Humor and music probably saved me from sinking into a life of misery. 

    Comes now Steven Pinker with “Enlightenment Now,” a well-researched and data-driven book that’s impossible to dismiss. It’s a full-throated shout-out for optimism that has given me pause. 

    Not the cock-eyed optimism of dreamers, but a conditional and cautious optimism based on mountains of evidence that shows how everything has improved. 

    I might have to try the unthinkable and change my mind. Horrors. 

    At first, I roundly objected to Pinker’s idea that mankind is better off in every way than it was during my growing years.  Notwithstanding pessimism, I at least appreciated a time before military weapons were available to children, when white faces and voices ruled radio, television, and the movies.  It all felt familiar and safe.  

    This was back when a Presidential candidate like Donald Trump would have been unthinkable for his divorces alone, not to mention his endless and obvious character flaws.   

    Those were the days, my friends, we thought they’d never end.

    Pinker’s point, which he began developing in his 2011 book “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” is that those good old days were pretty terrible for almost everyone. Income was meager, women and minorities were ignored or oppressed, two world wars had killed millions, famine, torture, disease, and cruel and inhuman treatment was the norm.  Even IQs were lower, according to Pinker, and he marshals charts, graphs, and data for every point.     

    In 2016, President Obama asserted, “. . .if you had to choose blindly what moment to be born, you’d choose now.”  Probably true, since modern medicine saves millions, as does better nutrition, better education, less violence, and so on.         

    Pinker cautions that none of the worldwide improvements to human life happened automatically. They required science, critical thinking, mass movements, motivation to solve problems, and large-scale financing.  Good will and optimism alone won’t change anything.  No complacency allowed. 

    So carry on, research scientists, engineers, teachers, problem-solving entrepreneurs, optimistic thinkers. You’ve succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, Pinker insists, and I’m inclined now to agree. 

    Pessimists, is the glass half full after all?  Read Pinker and maybe give optimism a chance.  

    Go comment!
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“Even before the advent of the Internet, Cawelti’s columns went 'viral' in the Cedar Valley… the role of a columnist is to be thought provoking, to take tacks that shed a different light on an issue or possibly cause a reader to reevaluate a position. At the very least, it should bring clarity to a particular perspective, whether you buy into the commentator’s worldview or not.

Scott's work does just that.  Enjoy this collection of his writing.”

-Saul Shapiro, Former Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier Editor
Read Shapiro's entire introduction.


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