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Mike Matthews

As the level of civility and willingness to engage in respectful conversations with others who hold opposing viewpoints seems to decline, it is important to be mindful of the role we play in expanding or healing the increasing constellations of wounds that divide us. Being a retired counselor, a friend recently requested guidance on how to cope with his increasing anger, hostility, and even serious stomach problems he attributed to the constant stream of negative and "fake news" he is digesting nightly. In these turbulent times, it is more important than ever to take control of our thoughts, words and deeds for the sake of our personal and community well-being. By practicing a couple of strategies, we can start to transcend the mind states that keep us in a crucible of dysfunction.

The first simple strategy is to know that toxic mind states are not caused by forces outside our control. Believing this dooms you to a life of bondage and reaction instead of a life of freedom and insight that comes from taking responsibility (responding with ability) for your thinking and actions. Many people know this but fall prey to the Olympian levels of distractions and lose awareness. Some people have been conditioned by learned helplessness, and others will fight for their right to be miserable. Because the brain is designed by evolution to constantly look for problems (called fight or flight), it does take effort on your part to direct your mind, but it is well worth the effort.

One occasional contributor to the News and Tribune opinion page, Kim Poore, recently bravely admitted to falling victim to the "you're wrong or crazy and I'm right" egocentric state of belief. This type of thinking is common and is termed naive realism. And Ms. Poore provides an important example of how people can gain awareness of their erroneous thinking. She also unknowingly answers her own question at the end of her excellent letter, which was "How do we unite?" — by gaining awareness of your personal power, as she is obviously working toward. Maybe the old advice of counting to 10 before we react would work for you (called impulse control). Pledging to not blame circumstances or other people for negative mind states and committing to stay as positive as possible no matter what helps me.

The second strategy is to become aware how simple yet difficult it can be to maintain balance, considering powerful outside forces. I'll use examples from mass media since that was my friend's (and many people's) downfall. I will say from the outset that I'm a huge fan of the News and Tribune because I believe they deliver on their mission (especially their commitment to provide a community forum for exchange of opinions I get nowhere else). My challenges with trust in mass media in general is not directed at the News and Tribune and makes me value my local paper even more. The Oxford Dictionaries 2016 word of the year was "post truth," which they defined as relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. In addition, the latest Gallup poll I researched states Americans' trust in mass media has sunk to a new low of 32%, so I'm not alone in my concern over journalistic trust.

The world has and always had major problems. People start off in journalism with noble intentions, but much of the media is so economically driven and it tends to feed the public emotional candy and negative bias, which releases dopamine in the brain just like a dark narcotic. They do this because it works to essentially addict people to seek news and information that fits in their mental filter bubbles and weaponizes the dark side of world events. Again, awareness is the key to inoculating yourself from the constant repetition of negative and sometimes factually challenged news. Navigating the media in this "post truth" era is a must to keep from suffering negative consequences from a constant repetition of negative news. The trust that mass media in general has broken can never be put back together the same way again, but with sincere and genuine efforts from a fair media and commitment from the public to call out media when we sense disingenuous information, we can work as a team to work toward fulfilling the essential purpose and mission of a free press.

I'm an optimist, although my optimism is not always justified. I do know that our corner of freedom is our ability to think and act in productive ways no matter what the external forces — even if it rains on our parade or if we believe that we are being constantly throttled by "fake" and negative news. Thinking is a voluntary process and this gives us the capacity to expand positive in the world and we need this so badly. This is our responsibility and I encourage you to make directing your mind in these challenging times a priority. Chances are the next year will be the most challenging in our lifetime to maintain equanimity and positive mind states. You have the power to take control of your own mind and change the world for the better as a result. May it be so.

— Mike Matthews is a retired teacher, counselor, and mental health administrator with a mission of creating a healthy and cohesive community.

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