Becca Balint: A sense of wonder to balance out the anger

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While trail running several weeks ago, I wondered if I'd see a turtle on that dawn romp. Not long after, I rounded a curve in the trail, and there was a lovely painted turtle on the path. I stood and just beamed. Then I saw another turtle. And another. Then another.

I was elated and also very confused. Then I realized that these splendid turtles were all laying eggs; I'd basically wandered into a turtle delivery ward. I gasped and felt utterly gleeful; I carried that delight with me all week. It was a much needed balm.

I hope I never lose that sense of wonder. There's so much darkness right now, so many horrible events to make me despair about this world; I need these moments of release. It's not because I'm embracing denial. Nor do I want to partake in the collective amnesia the country seems to have within 24 hours after the president's most recent offensive tweet. It's not about turning away from the fight; it's about gearing up for the long haul.

A young man recently asked me how I stay positive when the news is so very dark. He sees the nasty culture wars raging around him and wants to be politically engaged, but he asked, "How do you sustain your energy and not get depressed?" It was an excellent question. I don't want to flame out. And I don't want this thoughtful young man to become embittered and disillusioned either.

When we're perpetually angry, it's not just unpleasant for us and the people around us, it takes a real toll on our physical and emotional health. An extensive body of scientific research has shown that sustained negative emotions harm the body, and ongoing stress can damage biological systems. Over time this can lead to heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Chronic anger can also lead to cardiac dysfunction by altering the heart's electrical stability.

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"But negative emotions are only one-half of the equation," says Laura Kubzansky, Harvard School of Public Health associate professor of society, human development, and health. She explains, "It looks like there is a benefit of positive mental health that goes beyond the fact that you're not depressed. What that is is still a mystery. But when we understand the set of processes involved, we will have much more insight into how health works."

A 2007 study by Kubzansky and colleagues followed more than 6,000 men and women over two decades, and she found that emotional vitality — defined as having a sense of enthusiasm, hopefulness, engagement in life, and the ability to face life's stresses with emotional perspective and balance — appears to significantly reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. Her group's 2001 study also showed that more optimistic people had about half the risk of getting cardiovascular disease as did those who were more pessimistic. Kubzansky and other researchers have been able to replicate these findings several times with different subjects.

What is at the core of her research is her strong belief that "[e]veryone needs to find a way to be in the moment, to find a restorative state that allows them to put down their burdens." Our anger about racism is real. Our despair over sexism and white supremacism is legitimate. The planet is in crisis, too. Yes, yes, yes.

But we all need quiet moments to heal ourselves. Whether it's turtles on a trail, our dogs in our laps, or laughing uproariously with friends — we need these moments to sustain us emotionally and physically and give us the energy and grit we need to keep fighting the darkness.

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as Senate Majority Leader in the Vermont Legislature. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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