Grandma's Kung Fu fighting

Tuesday October 2, 2012

My mom was not always a Kung Fu black belt. Like many women of her generation, she worked extremely hard raising children and managing our home. She lived oversees twice -- in Germany and in Switzerland -- for my father's job. When we were out of elementary school, my mom fixed timepieces in a watch factory and then slogged away at an insurance company call-center. She discovered her true calling -- after we all left for college -- when she took up tai chi to help her aching back. My mom did not know then that these first tentative steps were the beginning of a career. Now my parents' home is full of medals and trophies won, certificates earned, and weapons my mom wields. Dad's adjusted to carrying her cache of swords, staffs, fighting fans and other assorted bludgeons, but she's not quite accustomed to the accolades she receives as a well-respected martial arts instructor. From house frau to crouching tiger -- she reinvented herself.

We constantly allow -- encourage, even -- politicians, celebrities, and all too many televangelists to reinvent themselves, but we rarely give ourselves the same permission. We imagine our own identities as fixed and unchangeable.

In this light, I recently reconsidered a conversation I had with a friend last year. While discussing her house renovations, I asked if she had taken any "before and after" pictures of the work they'd done. She replied quickly and decisively, "Oh, no. We're not those kinds of people." I was struck dumb: What does snapping a few home remodeling pictures say about a person? And why is she so adamant that they are not "those kinds" of people? We regularly and unconsciously define ourselves against an imagined Other and then use this comparison to create a sense of ourselves. Based on our memories and stories we tell about ourselves, these notions are just that -- ideas. We make these stories The Story of our lives. And The Story -- if we let it define us -- limits us, reducing the choices we imagine for ourselves.

Ulric Neisser -- the highly influential psychological researcher -- challenged our long-held beliefs about the accuracy of our remembered stories. Neisser died in February, and Douglas Martin of the New York Times remembered him as a scientist who "helped lead a postwar revolution in the study of the human mind" through his research on perception and memory. He resisted the dominant post-WW II psychology discipline, behaviorism, and in the process created a new field -- Cognitive Psychology. As Martin explains, Neisser's research showed that "memory is a reconstruction of the past, not an accurate snapshot of it." People think they remember actual events in near-perfect detail when they actually remember memories -- and in some instances they remember memories of memories. Not great stuff upon which to build a static identity.

Years ago an acquaintance of mine wanted to quit smoking, but -- in addition to the addiction itself -- she simply couldn't get beyond her self-concept. When she saw joggers zip past her house, she mocked the runners, inwardly or with her friends. She never imagined that she could be that runner she was so busy ridiculing; she defined herself as A Smoker. Then it occurred to her that this was simply a story she told about herself, and she could actually tell a different story. Over time she altered her ideas about herself and tried out another identity: Runner.

It is difficult to change the story if your friends discourage it. Nicholas Christakis, a social scientist and internist at Harvard, and James Fowler, a political scientist at UC San Diego, document this difficulty in their groundbreaking social network mapping of the famous Framingham Heart Study. This research -- originally started in Framingham, Mass., in 1948 with more than 5,000 subjects -- is a cardiovascular study that now spans three generations. Christakis and Fowler mapped the social networks of the original FHS participants and discovered that obesity, smoking, and even happiness appear to be passed among friends and families just like viruses. There is strong evidence that the 12,630 individuals in the FHS social network spread obesity person-to-person. If your friends or family members became obese, you were much more likely to become obese yourself. They theorize that obesity becomes normalized among cohorts, and this shifting view of obesity makes it much more permissible to gain weight. Similar patterns emerged when they tracked smoking rates among the FHS social network. Says Fowler, "People quit together, or they didn't quit at all." They even observed that happy people tend to hang out with happy people and spread happiness within their social networks.

Napoleon Hill -- writer and advisor to presidents FDR and Wilson -- asserted, "What the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve." His book, "Think and Grow Rich," is one of the bestselling books of all-time and still -- 75 years later -- makes "Top 10" lists of business books. Hill identified something that many of us know but find difficult to put into practice: Our ideas absolutely help shape who we become, and we can change these ideas to become who we want to be. So, don't dump your friends or cut yourself off from that cousin who constantly berates you about your weight or your housekeeping. But do surround yourself with people who believe that transformation is possible.

My mom's facing major surgery this year; she may have to stop Kung Fu fighting. As painful as this will be, we in her network will encourage her to transform once again. I can't wait to see what comes next.

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at Read her blog at


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