Gray plastic

 ~a column by Colleen O’Brien

I’ve read that Americans are considered to be childlike in behavior and attitude compared to western Europeans. This is the opinion of people from those cultures older than ours as they watch us smile all the time, showing off our fluoridation and orthodontia, deceived from thinking we’re baring our teeth.

Even though we all come from older cultures, however long ago in our family history, we moved here into the playground of riches both material and intangible – so much to go around – and here we’ve prospered.

Well, some of us. Most of us suffered severely in getting here and settling down to any kind of prosperity; and some of us, long timers and newcomers, suffer still, both in goods and freedom.

Once here for a while, we no longer are privy to the prejudice of our grandparents; so many of them left behind and unavailable to remind us of our enemies. The Old World was full of people who were enemies – people over the next hill or in the next country – enemies now, enemies 100 years prior and enemies 100 years into the future.

One would think that once in the New World, we would have made no enemies. We could have assumed the tabla rasa mind – we could have written differently on our own blank slate.

I don’t believe it occurred to anyone, for all who came had been trained since birth. In the end, it hasn’t made much difference. We may as well have stayed home. We could have chosen let’s-get-along for all time, but we didn’t. We are as evil and ostentatious as anyone from anyplace on the planet. We may be Americans and proud of our generosity and our democracy, but we are humans, a fact from which we have thought never to escape the bad aspects of our nature.

Let’s hope we can recover. The solution must be that it’s not in where we live but in how we live that will improve humankind’s lot.

And I do believe we’re improving, in spite of the media’s devotion to reporting gloom and doom: the blowing up of ancient historical sites, ruining the water and the air and killing the last of the animals, not to mention the rapes and torture and turning folks out of their homes and countries.

Why, after this kind of litany, would I think things are improving? To salvage my hope, probably. To be able to go on without sliding into complete cynicism, one of the least likeable attitudes of us homo sapiens.

I think women are getting a better shake in some places. There is considerable talk about the health and safety of the world’s children with quite a bit of sincerely helpful action on their behalf. Lots of men change diapers and do dishes and in most instances don’t throw down the gauntlet for a duel when annoyed at some other male.

We consider it okay in many countries that women can live alone, or men and men, or women and women, can live together. We at least talk a lot about the environment and climate change and water depletion, many folks coming up with brilliant ideas to possibly help the situation created by us in the first place. We are at this moment saving some species that we’d almost sent to oblivion.

And there are the studies of the brain.

This might be the crux, the savior – our own three pounds of gray matter coming to the rescue after all the things we’ve used it for to engineer the demise of our planet and ourselves.

It has long been taught that as we aged, the connections in the brain became fixed – can’t teach an old dog new tricks. But the current research is thrilling – the brain never stops changing as long as we’re learning.

If we practice a new language, our brain is so pliable it works better the more we work it; it makes more connections to more words and perhaps even gets the grammar! If we become expert at a task or subject, a part of our brain expands and thus takes in even more information, becomes ever more curious. If we repeat a task or thought over and over – touring, computering, goodwill, playing the piano, planting trees, walking instead of driving, thinking hope rather than hope-less – our Spandex brains synapse like crazy to do more of it.

Armed with research so encouraging as these new studies of the plasticity of the brain, it stands to reason that the more we work at a few saving-grace ideas, the better the world will get. You may think this Pollyanna or a case of Positive Thinking; I am simply tired of the alternative – that anxious, scared, xenophobic outlook so prevalent in humans right now and over the millennia. Surely a new tactic is worth a try.

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