Posted by: MC | January 30, 2012

Better Than You Believe

Better than you believe; stronger than you seem.
Carol Ackerman

“What we know is that the more people affiliate with other people, the more their sources of positive experiences and possibilities for energizing and purposeful activity in the world.”

This is my best shot at something my mentor, Jane Conoley said to me yesterday morning.  We were sitting in her living room, the Sunday morning light breathing itself across the bamboo floors, onto the white walls with their quiet and happy art forms, and into our conversation.  Jane and her husband Collie (Voices 020 & 021) are active scholars in positive psychology – taking the ideas first articulated by humanist philosophers centuries ago and moving them into practice.  When they spoke with me three years ago, Collie said, “The wonderful thing about being a psychologist is that you know you’re onto a good theory when your own life is good. “

Jane and Collie have known me more than half my life.  Over that time, I have looked to them consistently as models for what it looks like to live an honest life.  Their integrity, like the integrity they show in living the tenants of a theory they support and teach, is what led me to this great appreciation for these two.  I hadn’t seen them since the first drive around the country.  This visit I learned again from these scholars I know as friends.

Last night, Jane and Collie had asked ten of their friends to hear about 100 Voices – Americans Talk about Change.  In the same living room people from professional backgrounds as diverse as special education, journalism, international business and higher education administration listened and spoke with each other about change.

The privilege in the room was substantial.  In the time we spent together, every single person was willing to be moved.  Each one has the capacity to make considerable differences in her or his community and work.  Each engaged in the conversation as a newcomer willing to place their privilege and access toward the listening for which the 100 Voices call. The questions were real, probing and seemed aimed at what we all want to know – how can peace and cooperation actually happen?  Even in their fresh insight and curiosity, most of these people have been thinking about this in one way or another as long as they’ve been working.

This morning, Jane’s comment made me think of the conversation last night, and it made me think of the 100 Voices again.  It reminded me of the essential pull toward affiliation, cooperation and community that was so evident in so many of their words.

Among the friends gathered in Jane and Collie’s living room last night was Marshall Ackerman (Voice 018).  Marshall has just turned 87.  He is recovering from a fall that broke his hip.  His life has seen great change since I interviewed Marshall and his wife, Carol (Voice 019) three years ago.  In addition to his fall, Carol has died.  The couple was married for well over 60 years.  Last night, Marshall brought photos with him.  One showed of him when he entered WWII as an infantryman – a young and optimistic face atop a military uniform.  Another photo showed Marshall with Carol decades ago, striking in their formal attire.  Carol was smiling beautifully in a white dress with an enormous photo of her face embossed on the dress from waist up.  In that image, she was smiling in exactly the same way.  Who does that except a woman of vast character – I’d say, goddess quality!  Even three years ago – in her mid-80s – this was so.

In Sunday evening’s gathering I read some of the Ackerman’s interview.

Marshall:  Carol is now listening to CNN all the time.  I find it not offensive, but not entertaining either.  It’s just a bunch of people talking and then they go back and say the same thing over and over again but they don’t tell me anything.

Carol:  It’s opinions.

Marshall:  Well, what do I care about Anderson Cooper’s opinion?  Does he care about my opinion?

Carol:  I don’t know.

Marshall:  I know.  I know.  He doesn’t care about my opinion.

Carol:  He has a job to do and he’s doing it. 

Marshall:  He’s an entertainer.

Carol:  People watch television because they want to communicate with people similar to them.  They want confirmation that they’re not unique or isolated.  They want to know that other people are doing the same things and having he same problems.  They want to have companionship.  They want sympathy.  That is why there are questions and answers and, partially, why Mary is doing this.  She’s going to write a book about people and what they think.  Someone’s going to buy it and say, “Gee, that’s what I think.” 

You and I maybe don’t care what other people think of us.  This is because we have a job and we’re comfortable.  We don’t have the worries other people do.  But most people want to see other people with the same worries.  They want to read about it, too, to know they’re not alone.

Marshall:  What benefit is that?

Carol:  It makes them feel better – makes them not want to kill themselves. 

Marshall:  But that doesn’t really do anything for society to give people some comfort.

Carol:  Yeah, but society is made up of individuals.  If there are enough people who feel better about something, they’ll become a group and maybe there’s action.  People want to be one of something.

Carol was a mom, a wife, a school psychologist, and an engaged citizen.  The banter between Carol and Marshall sang with the affection they had for one another.  It is no surprise that they both offer great support to people they believe in – and to actions in support of community.  And it is only fitting that, as one symbol of their affection and respect, Jane and Collie donated a beautiful wooden bench to sit in front of the Gewirtz School of Education at UC-Santa Barbara.  On that bench, Carol’s word’s read, “Better than you believe; stronger than you seem.”

The Ackermans are and have been CHANGE in ways that serve as models for people like Jane and Collie who serve as models for untold thousands (me among them) who in turn serve as models for countless lives beyond themselves.

Like my mentor Jane suggests, this is the way positive change works.


  1. You Rock the Air Waves Mary Clare! My heart soars outside time and space just to see your smile!

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