Today is Winston Churchill’s birthday, which got me thinking about my “area of refuge.”
We all suffer from negativity bias, that is, we react to the bad more strongly and persistently than to the comparable good.
Research shows one consequence of negativity bias is that when people’s thoughts wander, they tend to begin to brood. Anxious or angry thoughts capture our attention more effectively than happier thoughts.
Also, indulging in overthinking—dwelling on trifling slights, unpleasant encounters, and sadness—leads to bad feelings. I can enrage myself by obsessing on some petty annoyance.
Once, when I was back visiting Yale Law School, I noticed a sign by an elevator, declaring—to my surprise—that the area was an “area of refuge.” I’m guessing it’s where a person in a wheelchair or with some other difficulty should go in case of fire.
The phrase stuck in my mind. Now, if I feel myself dwelling on bad feelings, I seek a mental “area of refuge,” a subject for my thoughts that calms or cheers me.
I often I think about Winston Churchill, and his great speeches, and the tremendous arc of his life. Having written his biography, Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, means that I have an inexhaustible supply of Churchill material to contemplate.
For example. Before the war, Churchill strenuously opposed Neville Chamberlain and his appeasement policy. It was Chamberlain who, after meeting Hitler, decided “here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.” But once Churchill joined his government, he became Chamberlain’s loyal servant, and he continued to treat Chamberlain with courtesy after he’d replaced him as Prime Minister. When Chamberlain died in 1940, Churchill gave a tribute to Chamberlain that honored his life while acknowledging his mistakes.
I practically have this passage memorized.
The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honor.
It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man. But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed? What were these wishes in which he was frustrated? What was that faith that was abused? They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart – the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril, and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity or clamour. Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with most perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful devastating struggle in which we are now engaged….
Herr Hitler protests with frantic words and gestures that he has only desired peace. What do these ravings and outpouring count before the silence of Neville Chamberlain’s tomb?
Gosh, no matter how many times I’ve read that, it still puts tears in my eyes.
Or sometimes I think about some funny things the Big Man has done. Years ago, he came into our bedroom in his boxers and announced, “I am LORD of the DANCE!” and hopped around, with his arms straight at his sides. I still laugh every time I think about it.
So what could be an area of refuge for YOU? A friend told me that she always thinks about her children. Another friend—not a writer—makes up short stories in her head.
When Arthur Llewelyn Davies, the father of the boys who inspired Peter Pan, was recovering from an operation that removed his cheek bone and part of the roof of his mouth, he wrote a note to J. M. Barrie:
Among the things I think about
Michael going to school
Porthgwarra and S’s blue dress
Burpham garden . . .
Peter answering chaff
Nicholas in the garden
These phrases mean nothing to an outsider, but for him, they were areas of refuge.
So come up with a few phrases or memories or scenes that fill you with peace, or exaltation, or good humor. The next time you feel yourself spiraling down into anger or despair, find an area of refuge in your mind.
From 2006 through 2014, as she wrote The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, Gretchen chronicled her thoughts, observations, and discoveries on The Happiness Project Blog.