Monthly Archives: July 2016

Eating the Elephant

There is an old saying: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Elephants are synonymous with being big. We have elephant ears and there’s an elephant in the room. Similarly, I believe in having big, elephant dreams. But sometimes those dreams can be overwhelming, and our failure in trying to reach our big dreams leads to discouragement and despair, which can paralyze us.

The Mask of Zorro* is a fun movie depicting the legend of Zorro (and you thought I was going to write about Dumbo!). That legend has Zorro traveling through the southwest of the United States righting wrongs, fighting evil, and, of course, attracting women. He may have been the original superhero. But Zorro was not always a gallant swashbuckler. The movie portrays the young Zorro as foolhardy and ineffective at his quest to foil villains. He attempts great feats, but the higher he flies, the farther he falls. And the more he falls, the more he feels as if the world around him is out of control.

But an old mentor, Don Diego, is there to save the day. He takes the young Zorro (still known as Alejandro at this point) who is suffering from drinking and despair, and begins to mold him, promising him that with dedication and time, Alejandro can be the master of his own fate. In a hidden cave, Don Diego places Alejandro within a small circle and tells him, “This circle will be your world. Your whole life. Until I tell you otherwise, there is nothing outside of it.” Here is a clip of this important scene from the movie:

Once Alejandro is able to master his new world (the small circle), Don Diego slowly, but steadily, increases the size of Alejandro’s world, and allows him to tackle greater and greater feats until he has become the legend that is Zorro. But without mastering that first circle, Alejandro had no control over his world – no real skill, no faith in his abilities, and no chance of reaching his dreams. In short, before Zorro could eat his big elephant of dreams, he had to chew it up one bite at a time.

Shawn Achor, in one of my favorite books, The Happiness Advantage**, talks about the “Zorro Circle” or a person’s circle of control. Achor states, “One of the biggest drivers of success is the belief that our behavior matters; that we have control over our future…. By first limiting the scope of our efforts, then watching those efforts have the intended effect, we accumulate the resources, knowledge and confidence to expand the circle, gradually conquering a larger and larger area.”

Anchor describes two interesting studies about people who feel they are in control (whether or not they actually are). In one study of 7,400 employees, those who believed they had little or no control over deadlines imposed by their supervisors or others had a 50 percent higher risk of heart disease than those who believed they maintained some control. In fact, the researchers concluded that feeling a lack of control at work is as great a risk factor for heart disease as high blood pressure.

In the other study, researchers found that, when they gave a group of nursing home residents more control over their daily lives – even something as simple as being in charge of their own house plants – their mortality rate actually dropped in half (and their happiness levels increased).

So dream dreams as big as elephants, but achieve those dreams one bite at a time. Starting wherever you’re at, find something over which you can exercise control, whether it’s as complex as running a multinational corporation, or as simple as planning tonight’s dinner. And as the clip of Zorro shows, sometimes you need to start out slowly, and very small, even as small as what is really inside your heart. But taking control of our circles, large or small, will make our lives more fulfilling – and happier. Who knows, maybe each of us will be able to unleash the Zorro inside of us, and be legends, if only in our own minds. But in our own minds is really all that matters.


*The Mask of Zorro

Production: TriStar Pictures, Amblin Entertainment, David Foster Productions

Director: Martin Campbell

Screenwriter: Johnston McCulley and Ted Elliott

Starring: Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins and Catherine Zeta-Jones

Released: July 17, 1998

**Achor, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles, Crown Business, 2010

“I Hate White People”

            It has been a hard week for the Dallas – Fort Worth area, as Micah Johnson, a black, former military reservist, shot and killed five Dallas police officers, apparently in response to shootings involving police officers and African-Americans in Minnesota and Louisiana. In all, Johnson killed five officers and wounded seven others, along with two civilians. Johnson claimed he hated white people, especially police officers, and decided to do something about it. The carnage finally ended when Dallas police detonated a robot armed with explosives, killing Johnson.

            Now it is time for us to do something about it. According to The Washington Post, 509 people have been shot by police in the United States so far this year. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, the Dallas shootings brought the number of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty so far in 2016 to 56. So what can we do to stop this? There are no easy answers. No doubt there are police officers of every race and ethnicity who abuse the power of their badges. No doubt there are bad actors of every race and ethnicity who are a menace to society and who the police rightfully should be wary of. But the continued killing of African-Americans and police officers only breeds fear, which will lead to more shootings – and more deaths.

            “I hate white people,” reminds me of an experience I had in high school. I was talking with friends in the hall when my drama teacher walked by. She overheard me commenting that I “hated” a certain person. She stopped, turned to me, and pointed a finger at my nose and said, “There is no person in this world that you hate. If you think you feel that way, it is only because you don’t know that person well enough. If you would make the effort to get to know them, where they are coming from and why they do what they do, you might not end up being best friends, but you will at least end up respecting them for who they are.” Could improving race relations be as simple as that?

            Movies have taken on race relations for many years, and I have learned important lessons from them. Here are three of them:

            1.      Always try to see the circumstances from the other person’s viewpoint, or as Atticus Finch would say in To Kill a Mockingbird, don’t make judgments until you have walked around in another person’s shoes for a while. A Time to Kill* is the story of a young lawyer’s defense of a black man accused of murdering two men who raped his 10-year-old daughter. Here is a great scene from the movie that reminds us look at situations from a different perspective:

            2.      Never let peer pressure or social status influence how you really feel about someone. The Help** is set during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and through the eyes of an aspiring writer, focuses on African-American maids who work for white families. Incredibly, those white families allowed their African-American maids to essentially raise their children, but won’t allow them to use the same toilets as they do. Here is one of my favorite scenes from the movie:

            3.      A person should be judged on who they are, not the color of their skin. This lesson is taught well in a locker room scene near the end of Remember the Titans***, the true story of a newly-appointed African-American high school football coach dealing with the first year of racial integration of the school:

            None of us individually will be able to solve the issues of race facing this country. But each of us can make a contribution by better understanding those we come in contact with each day, regardless of their color, ethnicity, religious affiliations, or political beliefs. Graeme Edge of the Moody Blues (yes, I’m that old), said it better than I could in his poem, The Balance. Notice he starts by looking at what he might have done to others, not what others had done to him:

And he thought of those he’d angered                                                                                                 For he was not a violent man.                                                                                                                And he thought of those he’d hurt                                                                                                         For he was not a cruel man.                                                                                                                     And he thought of those he’d frightened                                                                                             For he was not an evil man.                                                                                                                    And he understood.                                                                                                                                      He understood himself.                                                                                                                         Upon this, he saw that when he was of anger                                                                                      Or knew hurt or felt fear,                                                                                                                               It was because he was not understanding.                                                                                          And he learned compassion                                                                                                                     And with his eye of compassion,                                                                                                             He saw his enemies like unto himself.                                                                                                 And he learned love.

            Let’s be compassionate about becoming part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Maybe an easy place to start is by watching – and thinking about – movies that deal candidly with race. Here, in no particular order, are a baker’s dozen of my favorites:

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird
  2. The Help
  3. Remember the Titans
  4. A Time to Kill
  5. 12 Years a Slave
  6. Glory
  7. Fruitvale Station
  8. Gran Torino
  9. Crash
  10. In the Heat of the Night
  11. Malcolm X
  12. 42
  13. The Long Walk Home

            The world needs less fear, and a lot more more understanding; less anger, and a lot more respect; less hate, and a lot more love. Let’s not let race divide us, for all lives matter.


*A Time to Kill

Production: Regency Enterprises and Warner Bros.                                                             Directed: Joel Schumacher                                                                                                         Screenplay: Akiva Goldsman (adapted from the novel by John Grisham)                       Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson                                Release date: July 26, 1996

**The Help

Production: Dreamworks SKG, Reliance Entertainment, Participant Media                 Directed: Tate Taylor                                                                                                                    Screenplay: Tate Taylor (adapted from the novel by Kathryn Stockett)                          Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer                                                         Release date: August 10, 2011

***Remember the Titans

Production: Jerry Bruckheimer Films, Run It Up Productions Inc., Technical Black, Walt Disney Pictures                                                                                                                                  Directed: Boaz Yakin                                                                                                                    Screenplay: Gregory Allen Howard                                                                                              Starring: Denzel Washington, Will Patton, Wood Harris                                                       Release date:  September 29, 2000

Politics, Religion and Sophie’s Choice

There are two topics you are never supposed to discuss because they usually lead to arguments: politics and religion. Although I graduated in political science on my way to law school, I became disillusioned with politics many years ago. I currently believe that, regardless of which party’s candidate is elected president, nothing will ever change much because both parties are hell-bent in defeating the agenda of the opposition by standing on “principle.” Religion is often the same. Regardless of your faith (or lack thereof), each of us is convinced that our way is the right way, and no amount of logic, reasoning or arguing the “truth” will convince us otherwise. And so we create litmus tests and draw lines in the sand regarding our truths, and warn others not to fail that test or cross that line if they want to be “one of us.”

The movie, Sophie’s Choice*, came out in 1982. I can’t remember much about the movie, other than Sophie, played by Meryl Streep, is a troubled woman. The one scene I will always remember, though, is near the end of the film when we learn why Sophie is so troubled. Sent to a Jewish concentration camp, she is required by a guard to pick which of her two children will be spared and which one must go to the gas chamber. If she refuses to pick one, the guard threatens to send both of her children to their deaths. So Sophie chooses her son over her daughter. Few scenes in any movie are more gut-wrenching than hearing Sophie’s little girl scream and call for her mother as the guards carry her away to her death. Here is the scene:

While not as dramatic as being held prisoner at gunpoint, do we sometimes put others in the position of having to make a Sophie’s choice? Sadly, many a family member or friend has been cast out because of religious or political beliefs, as we force them to sacrifice their principles or beliefs for inclusion in the group, or to sacrifice being part of the group to maintain their beliefs. I am all for principle, and standing up for what you believe. But that does not mean we cannot listen to, understand, and most importantly, respect the principles and positions of others. If we are going to fight for principle, let that principle be that everyone has the right to their own opinions and beliefs and should be respected for them, whether we agree with them or not.

Recently I have enjoyed listening to the music from the Broadway musical, Hamilton (since it is all but impossible to actually see it without taking out a mortgage to pay for overpriced tickets). One theme that has impressed me about Hamilton is how much our beloved Founding Fathers disagreed, argued, and yes, even fought with each other. But without giving up their principles and beliefs, they found a way to form a constitution and make a government work. The Founding Fathers developed the art of compromise: the process of giving and taking, changing and adjusting. They remained principled, yet practical. In fact, anyone who knows much about U.S. history acknowledges that the U.S. Constitution is largely the result of a series of compromises.

            Perhaps I am too idealistic to think that people today could effectively compromise when it comes to politics and religion (or just about any other topic). But we can avoid putting people in positions where they must make a Sophie’s choice. Let’s not lose a friend or a family member because he or she is Republican, Democrat, Socialist or Libertarian, or Catholic, born-again Christian, Mormon, Jew or atheist, or even because of one’s sexual preference.

            It all starts with tolerance. That word sometimes has a negative connotation, as it implies that we are right and the person we tolerate is wrong. But I think tolerance includes respect. Tolerance (and respect} leads to listening, which leads to understanding, which ultimately leads to love.

            I believe we can learn to truly love and respect the “sinner” without loving the “sin.” By doing so, there will be a lot less Sophie’s choices being made.


*Sophie’s Choice

            Production: Incorporated Television Company; Keith Barish Productions

            Directed: Alan J. Pakula

            Screenplay: William Styron and Alan J. Pakula

            Starring: Meryl Streep; Kevin Kline; and Peter McNichol