Changeups – Orioles and Us

After 13 straight losing seasons, the O’s (Baltimore Orioles!) are actually winning more than losing! Their ad campaign and public presence has shifted, and Baltimore folk that are not only the hearty standbys who have been faithful – if frustrated – are noticing. What’s happened? Is it about skill, the new manager, new players? Though I have no clue about these specifics, I wonder about what the team members and manager are saying to themselves…  what can be referred to as their ‘explanatory style’. 

A few months ago I picked up again the revised edition of Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism.  His work has been pivotal in studying how human beings learn helplessness, and can also learn optimism.  Success and failure, he posits and proves in various arenas, is tightly connected with optimism/pessimism and one’s ‘explanatory style’.  It’s worth a read, and to place it against other sources that speak to you/us.  (I reread Beatrice Bruteau’s Radical Optimism simultaneously). 

So, just for a second, let’s look only at Seligman’s concept of explanatory style as it might relate to the O’s, and to us. 

Seligman looks at three markers – permanence, pervasivenss, and personalization.   Consider a MLB player.  After a game where things went wrong and there was a loss, what does he say to himself? 

PERMANENCE:  If he says, “the team is doomed” or “getting this team off the floor will never work”, his explanations are permanent.  There can be no change.  Instead, if he says, “we were beat after the travel and that impacted our play” or “games can’t turnaround when we take ‘x’ strategy and forget ‘x’ skill”, then his explanations are temporary.   With the second explanation, there is room for the possibility of change. 

PERVASIVENESS:  If the same player tells himself (and others) that “all umpires are unfair” or “I have no skill” or “practices will never help”, he is saying that the problem is broader than any ability to impact.  If instead the explanations include “the home plate umpire was unfair” or “I didn’t work enough on my swing on fastballs” or “we didn’t focus enough in practice”, there are concrete steps that may be taken.

As Seligman puts it, “Finding temporary and specific causes for misfortune is the art of hope: temporary causes limit helplessness in time, and specific causes limit helplessness to the original situation…  Permanent causes produce helplessness far into the future, and universal causes spread helplessness through all your endeavors.  Finding permanent and universal causes for misfortune is the practice of despair.”

PERSONALIZATION:  This element is easy to understand.  After a poor performance or bad day, the baseball player says “I have no business being in the big leagues – I have no talent” or “I’m a fake” or “I’m never going to be confident enough”.  These internal and ‘hit yourself over the head’ explanations [my technical term!  🙂 ] paralyze.  External explanations might be “I spook myself when I make one mistake” or “I grew up hearing how I can’t succeed” or “that sportswriter is cruel and sensationalizng my mistake for a buck today”. 

Why look at these areas?  Besides being generally interesting, they represent one man’s lifework to really understand hope and its connection to what happens in our self-explaining complex brains!  His work has been in dialogue with many others, and built very helpful resources for practical action and therapeutic interventions.  We could talk more about cognitive therapy or  fostering optimistic behavior here, but I’d rather go to scripture for a brief dialogue.

“Has anyone hoped in the Lord and been disappointed?”  Sirach 2:10 

“Hope does not disappoint.”  Romans 5:5

Hope is a theological virtue based on who God is and, thus, who we are.  Because of this hope we do not need to hold onto pervasive, permanent or imbalanced personalized thought/inner voices that speak doom.  We do not  have to somehow remake reality solely by pulling ourselves up by our cognitive/thought patterns bootstraps.  Greater optimism IS connected not only to what we experience, but how we think about reality.  And many of us can usefully pay more attention to the crowd of voices inside and which ones are at what volume (a post for another day!).  An approach to fostering an optimistic cognitive explanatory style can be learned as a skill, yet it is – in my mind – best rooted in the ‘radical optimism’ of a faith view that is constantly reinforced.  

What if the Changeups that we are invited to in our lives – and in our Lents – were rooted in seeing the world with the kind of permanence and pervasiveness that the Gospel proclaims?  Creation is good, human beings are God’s work of art, we are worth God’s time and healing presence, we have a mission in the world that is irreplaceable-exciting-an adventure, and we are never alone.  In the midst of real human suffering and tragedy, we are then not just telling ourselves an optimistic story, but we are re-membering what we believe to be most true.  God is with us, and all will be well.

Will the O’s pull out a really positive season?  I hope so!  It is a needed change for Baltimore fans! 

Can you and I effect some of the changeups in our lives that can lead to living more rooted and grounded, more positively reaching and impacting?  I hope so! 

Our explanatory style should be rooted in the truth we hear and proclaim.  Use the best of cognitive techniques to furrow out a well worn neural pathway that believes and stands and operates from this kind of hope.  A hope against hope.  A hope in spite of and, courageously, in the midst of suffering and pain.  A hope that recognizes how to feed itself when it sees seeds and blossoms and resurrections.

In baseball, the very best changeups bewilder the batter, utilizing both deception and movement.  At times the tapes we have running in our heads and hearts that are pessimistic or helpless or hopeless cannot be rooted out directly.  We have to bewilder the thought system by entirely moving in another direction, acting in accord with the new movement, and following through the new ‘grip’ or ‘hold’ on life even when it is at first uncomfortable.  Hope is a virtue, which means it needs practice too.  Replacing thoughts with new ones, finding images that remind us of what is most true and putting them in our physical spaces, choosing one liners from scripture to repeat to ourselves and to post around our home or work spaces…  these are the exercises that can create changeups.

Most of us can use support in this process from friends, family, spouses, spiritual directors, therapists, coaches.  Find your best accompaniment and alliances to support the Changeups you’re about (and I will continue to too!) and – if you are from Baltimore – let the journey of the O’s this season remind you of this invitation!

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