Practicing Factfulness

Practicing Factfulness

"Stories about gradual improvements rarely make the front page even when they occur on a dramatic scale and affect millions of people. And thanks to increasing press freedom and improving technology, we hear about more disasters than ever before. This improved reporting is itself a sign of human progress, but it creates the impression of the exact opposite." 

~ Hans Rosling

Temporary Custodian of Beautiful Things

“I’ve been lucky all my life. Everything was handed to me. Looks, fame, wealth, honors, love. I rarely had to fight for anything. But I’ve paid for that luck with disasters. . .I’m like a living example of what people can go through and survive. I’m not like anyone. I’m me.”

~ Elizabeth Taylor, quoted in “A Lustrous Pinnacle of Hollywood Glamour,” New York Times, Mar. 23, 2011

And this from a recent interview for Harper’s Bazaar, “I never planned to acquire a lot of jewels or a lot of husbands. For me, life happened, just as it does for anyone else. I have been supremely lucky in my life in that I have known great love, and of course I am the temporary custodian of some incredible and beautiful things. But I have never felt more alive than when I watched my children delight in something, never more alive than when I have watched a great artist perform, and never richer than when I have scored a big check to fight AIDS. Follow your passion, follow your heart, and the things you need will come.”

Like a Brick in Your Pocket

Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire got the idea for Rabbit Hole after hearing stories about couples who had lost their children. He was the father of a young child himself and he remembered something Marsha Norman suggested when he was studying at Julliard. “She said, if you want to write a good play, write about the thing that frightens you the most.”

In this scene from the movie based on the play, Becca (Nicole Kidman) and her mother Nat (Dianne Wiest) have started packing up toys and clothes that belonged to Becca’s son, Danny, who was killed in a car accident about eight months earlier.

I really like this scene because it explores an insight into grief that applies broadly to a variety of losses that we all eventually face.


Mom? Does it go away?




This feeling. Does it ever go away?


No. I don’t think it does. Not for me it hasn’t. And that’s going on eleven years.

It changes though.




I don’t know. The weight of it, I guess. At some point it becomes bearable. It turns into something you can crawl out from under. And carry around—like a brick in your pocket. And you forget it every once in a while, but then you reach in for whatever reason and there it is: “Oh right. That.” Which can be awful . But not all the time. Sometimes it’s kinda . . . Not that you like it exactly, but it’s what you have instead of your son, so you don’t wanna let go of it either. So you carry it around. And it doesn’t go away, which is . . .




Fine . . . actually.

Missing the Boat

Edward Albee, 1991 "All my plays are about people missing the boat, closing down too young, coming to the end of their lives with regret at things not done, as opposed to things done. I find that most people spend too much time living as if they're never going to die. They skid through their lives. Sleep through them sometimes. Anyway, there are only two things to write about —life and death."

~ Edward Albee, from “Edward Albee and the Road Not Taken,” by David Richards, New York Times, June 16, 1991

The Stage is too Big

"This mosaic image of the Crab Nebula was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope."

“It doesn’t seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space, and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil—which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama.”

~ Richard Feynman, speaking in 1959, quoted by James Gleick in Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (1992)


The Natural Dramatic Urge

Excerpts from Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama by David Mamet:

It is our nature to dramatize. At least once a day wee reinterpret the weather—an essentially impersonal phenomenon—into an expression of our current view of the universe: “Great. It’s raining. Just when I’m blue. Isn’t that just like life?”

Or we say: “I can’t remember when it was this cold,” in order to forge a bond with our contemporaries. Or we say: “When I was a lad the winters were longer,” in order to avail ourselves of one of the delights of aging.

The weather is impersonal, and we both understand it and exploit it as dramatic, i.e., having a plot, in order to understand its meaning for the hero, which is to say for ourselves.

We dramatize the weather, the traffic, and other impersonal phenomena by employing exaggeration, ironic juxtaposition, inversion, projection, all the tools the dramatist uses to create, and the psychoanalyst uses to interpret, emotionally significant phenomena.

We dramatize an incident by taking events and reordering them, elongating them, compressing them, so that we understand their personal meaning to us—to us as the protagonist of the individual drama we understand our life to be.

If you said, “I waited at the bus today,” that probably wouldn’t be dramatic. If you said, “I waited at the bus stop for a long time today,” that might be a little more dramatic. If you said, “The bus came quickly today,” that wouldn’t be dramatic (and there would be no reason to say it). But you might say, “Do you know how quickly that bus came today?”—and all of a sudden, we’re taking the events of life and using dramatic tools.

“I waited half an hour for a bus today” is a dramatic statement. It means: “I waited that amount of time sufficient for me to be sure you will understand it was ‘too long.’”

(And this is a fine distinction, for the utterer cannot pick a time too short to be certain that understanding is communicated, or too long for the hearer to accept it as appropriate—at which point it becomes not drama but farce. So the ur-dramatist picks unconsciously, and perfectly, as it is our nature to do, the amount of time that allows the hearer to suspend his or her disbelief—to accept that the half-hour wait is not outside the real of probability, yet is within the parameters of the unusual. The hearer then accepts the assertion for the enjoyment it affords, and a small perfectly recognizable play has been staged and appreciated.")

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We can see the natural dramatic urge in newspaper quotes of a film’s grosses. The dramatic urge—our impulse to structure cause and effect in order to increase our store of practical knowledge about the universe—is absent in the film itself, but emerges spontaneously in our proclamation of a natural ocurring drama between films.

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jumping-on-a-bedChildren jump around at the end of the day, to expend the last of that day’s energy. The adult equivalent, when the sun goes down, is to create or witness drama—which is to say, to order the universe into a comprehensible form. Our sundown play/film/gossip is the day’s last exercise of that survival mechanism. In it we attempt to discharge any residual perceptive energies in order to sleep. We will have drama in that spot, and it it’s not forthcoming we will cobble it together out of nothing.

To Trust Uncertain Things

"What this play, [Hecuba], says that is so disturbing is that the condition of being good is that it should always be possible for you to be morally destroyed by something that you couldn't prevent. To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances. In circumstances for which you are not yourself to blame. And I think that says something very important about the condition of the ethical life, that it is based on a trust in the uncertain, a willingness to be exposed, that we're more and more like a plant than a jewel — something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from that fragility."

~ Martha Nussbaum, discussing the idea from her book, The Fragility of Goodness, with Bill Moyers back in 1988.

Everything We Need

tabloids"This is where we wait together, regardless of age, our carts stocked with brightly colored goods. A slowly moving line, satisfying, giving us time to glance at the tabloids in the racks. Everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks. The tales of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The cults of the famous and the dead."

~ Don DeLillo, from White Noise

Bringing Civility Back

Barack Obama, discussing health care reform with Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes (September 13, 2009):

I will also say that in the era of 24-hour cable news cycles, that the loudest, shrillest voices get the most attention. I mean, let's take these town halls. As I've said, I had four of them. And there were people in there who disagreed with me. But all of them were courteous. All of them listened to each other. I kept on looking for somebody to yell at me, so that I could sort of sort of engage in these folks that you were seeing on TV. That wasn't our experience.

And if you go to a lot of members of Congress, and you ask them, "What was going on at some of these town hall meetings?" They'd say, "Eighty percent of the folks who were there were there to listen, to try to figure out how we can solve this problem." But you never saw those folks on TV, because it was boring.

And so, one of the things I'm trying to figure out is, how can we make sure that civility is interesting. Hopefully, I will be a good model for the fact that, you know, you don't have to yell and holler to make your point, and to be passionate about your position.

It's still a work in progress. No doubt about it.