The entertainment value of misfortune


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Dear friends,

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately: Reality television is, in many ways, the 21st century equivalent of the old-fashioned circus sideshow.  In bygone days, we’d put a “bearded lady” or “two-headed baby” on show for public ridicule and entertainment.  Nowadays, it’s hoarders, it’s people trying to navigate a 600-pound life.  And we watch, with a combination of revulsion and fascination and self-righteousness.

Let’s start with the hoarders.  It’s clear to most of us that these people have a mental and emotional glitch in their thought processes, a disconnect that causes them to find their security in “stuff,” and to be unable to recognize when that stuff has lost its value.  We watch in horror and disbelief as they struggle with cleaning up their lives (literally and figuratively), and we feel superior that our homes don’t look like *that* … while their family members ridicule and bully them into submission, and well-meaning mental health workers try to make them understand that they’re wrong.  We shake our heads.  And we keep watching.

Many of them will submit to the process of cleaning up their homes, but when the network visits them later, they’ve gone back to their old ways … because the trash was never the problem.  But we shake our heads again at their “weakness,” and feel superior.

Then there are the morbidly obese.  Once again, we watch in fascination and horror as we enter the lives of those who can’t stop eating, who have become bedridden, who are lonely and confused and broken.  Those around them either enable them, or bully them.  They’re frightened.  They feel misunderstood.  And we shake our heads and say “they did it to themselves.”  When they finally meet with the doctor who may (or may not) agree to perform weight-loss surgery, they discuss the person’s weight and eating habits as if that was the problem.  As if it was all simple math, calories in, calories out.

But if you struggle with your weight (as I have for most of my life), you know it’s both a matter of head and heart.  Intellectually, we know about calories and exercise.  Intellectually, we know that our habits are negatively affecting our health – but the weight struggle isn’t a logical exercise.  It’s fraught with emotion, and that emotion doesn’t get addressed on many of these shows.  So we watch, and we ridicule, and we blind ourselves to the pain.

Let’s check ourselves.  When we consume “entertainment” based on voyeurism of others’ pain, let’s stop for a second to reflect.  Yes, these people were paid for their stories, but their stories are only a commodity if we treat them that way.  We look at their trauma and pain, and feel superior.  We think we know better, that we do better.  We think it could never happen to us.

Let’s be a little kinder today, in every area of our lives.  I’m going to try.





The tyranny of encouragement



Dear friends,

We need to be careful, even when we mean well.

I recently read a personal story where the writer revealed that a boyfriend kept pushing her to be her “best self” because she was “capable of so much more” … but to her, this backhanded encouragement was really sending the message, “you’re inadequate as you are.”  As in, “you could be great, but you’re not there yet.”

I thought of all the times I’ve sent these messages to young people.  All our lives, we’ve been told anything’s possible if we work harder.  If you get a poor grade, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough, and if you just apply yourself, you’ll do better next time.  But what if that grade is the best you can do?  If it’s your best work?  Is it shameful to have done your best work, but not get the highest mark?

You’ve seen how gymnasts, dancers, and figure skaters can bend backward from the waist, bend themselves in half.  You can only do this as an adult if you’ve been doing it from a very young age.  I could never learn to do it, no matter how much I apply myself, because my bones and muscles aren’t capable of that movement.  Am I not trying hard enough?

“I’m so proud of you for X” can backfire.  If I tell a young person “I’m so proud of you for always getting such good grades,” how are they going to feel when they get a bad one?  If I tell you “I’m so proud of you for never losing your temper,” are you going to feel you can authentically express your anger in front of me?

We academics have to be especially careful about encouraging our best students to go to graduate school.  Grad school isn’t for everyone, and depending on your career aspirations, you could educate yourself right out of the job market.  Grad school is great if you aspire to be a college professor, or if your job requires it, but it’s not necessary for most people.  Yet, when a student balks at the idea, we often say, “take a couple of years off and then come back!”  We forget that it’s entirely possible they won’t *want* to come back, that they’ve had all the schooling they want/need, thank you very much.

I’m taking this to heart, and being more thoughtful about how I offer encouragement.  We need to find ways to say “I believe in you,” without saying, “I’ll believe in you later when you’ve done better.”  We need to find ways to acknowledge the gap between where we are and where we want to be, without making ourselves feel shame that the gap exists.

I believe in you.  Now.  Today.





Reading Roundup / Book reviews: February 10, 2020


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Dear friends,

Here are some books I’ve been reading lately:


Where the Crawdads Sing:

I had already purchased this book and intended to read it before my book club chose it as a monthly read. While many of my friends loved it, it was just okay for me. The setting is “atmospheric” and claustrophobic. We learn the story of Kya the “marsh girl,” a child who was abandoned in a shack near a swamp, and follow her through adolescence as she copes with loneliness while studying the flora and fauna of the marsh. Over the years, she makes a few friends, one of whom teaches her to read and write. When a local man is found dead at the foot of a fire tower near the marsh, Kya becomes a suspect. For me, the story moved slowly until the murder investigation began, when the book took on more of a mystery/thriller element. There’s a twist at the end that’s surprising and charming. 3/5 stars.


House of Salt and Sorrows:

This is a gothic thriller, based on the fairy tale of the “12 Dancing Princesses.” We learn of a family of sisters who live in an island kingdom that worships a god of the sea, and when someone dies, their body is sent “back to the salt.” The book opens with the funeral of one of the girls. Several of her sisters have already died under mysterious circumstances, and there are 8 of the 12 sisters remaining. One of the elder sisters, Annaleigh, is convinced that her sisters were murdered, and that a villain has been picking them off one by one. She finds herself in danger as she attempts to solve the mystery. While I enjoyed the story, I sometimes felt like the “12 Dancing Princesses” trope was being imposed on this narrative. There were so many sisters (both alive and deceased), that I found it hard to keep track of them all. And while they did sneak away at night to go dancing at balls, I didn’t feel this was strongly tied to the rest of the story. 3/5 stars.


Shadow and Bone:

I enjoyed every minute of reading this book, then went on to listen to the audiobook as well. The story takes place in a beautifully constructed fantasy world that is detailed enough to feel realistic. In a land reminiscent of old Russia, an orphaned boy and girl join the army, where each learns of their special talents. The people of this land are mostly peasants, but there is an elite group called “Grisha” who possess special powers. Children are tested to determine if they are Grisha, and if they are, they are sent to a special school to learn how to harness their powers for the good of the kingdom. If one of our protagonists turns out to be Grisha, will they be separated? Will they be placed at odds with one another? This is the first book in a trilogy (and the other books are equally amazing). These books are also being made into a series for Netflix, coming late 2020. 5/5 stars.

Happy reading, everyone!


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Books for review can be sent to:  Annette Hamel, P.O. Box 19252, Kalamazoo, MI  49019-0252


Commencement Day


Dear family, friends, and students,

It’s commencement day, my favorite day of the semester (and not just because I get to wear my cool robes).

It’s such an emotionally-charged day – the end of a chapter, and the beginning of a new adventure that is largely unknown.  It’s exciting, and scary.  There’s a sense of accomplishment, along with the knowledge that there’s still a lot to be done in this world.

I have the greatest faith in the young people I work with.  They’re smart, and ambitious in the best possible way.  They’re going to remake the world, and change it for the better.  Please support our graduates with your prayers, your hopes, and your confidence.  Lift them up.  They’re going to do amazing things.

I believe in you, always.

Dr. Hamel



Strength comes (Joseph Campbell)



“Whatever your fate is, whatever the hell happens, you say, “This is what I need.” It may look like a wreck, but go at it as though it were an opportunity, a challenge. If you bring love to that moment-not discouragement-you will find the strength there. Any disaster you can survive is an improvement in your character, your stature, and your life. What a privilege!! This is when the spontaneity of your own nature will have a chance to flow. Then, when looking back at your life, you will see that the moments which seemed to be great failures, followed by wreckage, were the incidents that shaped the life you have now. You’ll see this is really true. Nothing can happen to you that is not positive. Even though it looks and feels at the moment like a negative crisis, it is not. The crisis throws you back, and when you are required to exhibit strength, it comes.“

– Joseph Campbell

Self-serving bias


Dear friends, colleagues, and students,

Being “woke” requires a certain amount of self-reflection, and that isn’t always pleasant.  It can be uncomfortable to take a hard look at your own behaviors.  Case in point: this thing we communication scholars call “self-serving bias.”

Self-serving bias works like this:  If I do well at something, it’s because I’m so worthy.  If I do badly, it’s because of some external factor beyond my control.

I feel a certain wry amusement with my students because we study this phenomenon in class, yet they never seem to be able to recognize it in themselves.  If they do well on the exam, it’s because they’re smart and they studied hard.  If they do poorly, it’s because the professor is unfair, the exam is too hard, the room was too warm, the guy who sits beside them breathes oddly, or their shoes were too tight.

I’m guilty of it too, but I only notice when I check in with myself.

Think about it.  If you’re late for work, is it truly because traffic was heavy, you hit every red light along the way, and got stuck behind a slow driver?  Or could you have left the house a bit earlier?  If you forgot to bring materials to a meeting, is it truly because you’re so swamped with other work, you had to take a phone call just now, and the copier was broken?  Or did you forget to write it down and plan ahead?

We all do it.  It’s self-preservation when we feel threatened.  It’s face-saving.  But hardly anyone recognizes it in themselves.

I try to.  Do you?

Be well,





Dear friends,

Today, I am pondering this quote:

“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

– Maya Angelou

I find it interesting how Ms. Angelou distinguishes between “encountering defeats” and “being defeated.”

We encounter defeats every day: Things don’t work out as planned, another person disagrees with us, we fall short of a goal.  But encountering defeat is something different from BEING DEFEATED.  Being defeated is something that takes place in the mind and spirit.  It’s a state of despair, of giving up, of abandoning goals and aspirations.  We stop caring, we stop trying.

In the early 2000s, I became seriously ill, and was hospitalized for five weeks in the spring.  Some of that time was spent in intensive care on a ventilator.  I was scheduled to begin my Ph.D. program in the fall.  By the time I was discharged in the summer, I was as weak as a newborn baby, in a lot of physical pain, and could hardly do anything but sleep.  A walk to the mailbox at the end of the road exhausted me.  Still, I was determined.

I moved to a new city that August and started my doc program.  There were times I was teaching a class and was half doubled-over with pain.  There were times when my medications left my mind too foggy to study, read, or write.  These were defeats, to be sure – but I kept plugging ahead.

It took ten years to finish my Ph.D., but I did it.  I didn’t allow myself to be defeated.

Dear ones, whatever challenges you are facing today, please think about this difference between experiencing defeat and becoming defeated.  Get up, get dressed, and enter the world, even when you don’t feel like it.  Reaching a goal … it happens in it’s own time, and it takes the time it takes.

With love,


Journal prompt / thought prompt: set your intention


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Dear friends,

Take a moment, right now, to set your intention for the rest of the day.  And when your focus wavers, consciously bring it back.

Do this over and over again, as many times as it takes.

And it’s ok to change your intention.




Reading is a collaborative act



“Reading is a collaborative act between text and reader, so no text is read ‘objectively,’ and none gives up pure meaning.  We bring ourselves to everything we read – including the people around us, the most complicated texts of all.  We perceive patterns and connections; we foreground some things and subordinate others; some details we fail to see altogether.  The best we can do is to try diligently, continually to expand our vision.  This is where imagination collaborates with fact, taking us toward some kind of truth.”

– Gail Griffin