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Texts of the final four essays from the 2014 Think-Off

Love motivates us more by Jennifer Nelson

I couldn’t believe. I didn’t even realize I was bleeding. Adrenaline is a surprisingly strong force. As I shakily stumbled away from my demolished vehicle, I had no idea I was even injured, let alone that my injuries would be permanent.

Given my firsthand experience with this powerful force, one might expect that I would easily argue in defense of the motivation of fear. However, as the years passed and I adjusted to my new normal, I came to learn that fear is not a motivating force, though it may masquerade itself as such in the short term. In its immediate context, fear can be protective, triggering a fight or flight response that ensures your survival. However, once danger has passed, the fear that remains is no longer protective, let alone motivational. Rather, it becomes paralyzing and destructive. This thing that helped assure your survival, when it lingers, cuts you off from the very joys of life that you survived for.

In August of 2004, a distracted driver set off a chain reaction crash that would change my life forever. It culminated with my vehicle being dragged and partially crushed underneath a propane tanker. Although I knew it would take some time, I assumed that afterwards everything would go back to normal. However, the human body cannot always fully heal and the imprint of trauma lingers in the brain. In the years following the accident, I would be diagnosed with chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder. Ten years later, I still carry pain and trauma with me as my uninvited traveling companions.

During this last decade, I’ve learned a lot about fear, because fear is the force that began to dictate the direction of my life. My body and my brain remained in a state where they assumed my surroundings continue to be as dangerous as they were that summer day on the highway long ago. I can honestly say that in all these years, fear has provided me with no motivation. To the contrary, it was fear that killed the motivation I previously had for the things I loved in life. It was fear that kept me from leaving my apartment. It was fear that kept me from picking up the phone and reaching out to loved ones. It was fear that told me I could no longer do the things I once loved. It was fear that clouded the hopes I had previously had for my future. Fear was suffocating me. It began to feel like a terminal affliction for which there was no antidote. Fear had constructed the prison in which I now found myself living.

Yet these prison walls were not indestructible, though they seemed to be at the time. In the years that I spent looking for the skeleton key that would unlock this cell, I overlooked the most unassuming solution. I had thought I needed to change my own thinking or find some new pain treatment before I would find freedom. However, no instant cure was to be found. The only thing that helped lead me out of this darkness was the gentle and patient love of my friends and family members

Being surrounded by those that could love me in spite of my fear, pain, and anxiety motivated me to rediscover the joys of life that I had left behind. They encouraged me to seek out chances to do the things I loved, even if they were difficult for me or I had to do them differently. They hiked with me even when we had to slow down and take breaks. They drove with me even when it made me anxious. They helped ensure my set backs never felt like failures. The world opened up for me anew.

Immediately following my accident, I had assumed that I would need to find a way to fix all these problems and be free of them before I would be able to experience love. During the decade that followed, instead I learned that it was love that provided me freedom in spite of these problems and pain. As Maya Angelou so eloquently put it,

 

Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.

 

 

Love motivates us more by Therese Helker

In his prime, my father was a terrifying presence. He commanded obedience. He let his seven children know that from the time they could think for themselves, with him as our father, there would be no need. Obedience was all that was required, and every act of disobedience was met with violence. His role in our lives was so omnipotent, that at age seven, when he gathered all of his children in one room and told us our mother had unexpectedly died, my first thought was, “Who will take care of us now?” It never occurred to me it would be him.

I was right. My father denied my mother’s dying request to keep us together and instead put his four youngest children, including me, in an orphanage. He let strangers drive us 300 miles north, where we were separated into residences, living with girls and boys our same age. We wouldn’t see him for a year and a half after our arrival. At age 51, having three grown children of my own, I can now admit that it was a good decision to be removed from his limitations as a parent, but those years were so painful for me that even typing “good decision” feels like a betrayal.

After surviving the orphanage, I chose a small college two states away. I was surrounded by young women who were homesick, an isolating experience since I had felt it four years earlier. My roommate let me know that she could help, that she had accepted Jesus as her Lord and Savior and I should too. I remember thinking sarcastically, “Jesus who?”

One by one I watched the girls in my dorm accept my roommate’s invitation, praying with her and our resident assistant, who had also accepted Jesus. They were all born again, but I knew it wasn’t for me. So they sent our resident assistant’s husband to convince me; he worked at a group home in town for emotionally disturbed kids. It worked. One night at dusk I sat on a hill and told God I wouldn’t believe in him just because I was afraid of going to hell, that I was done with blind obedience out of fear. And just to make sure, I didn’t say the magic words I was told to say: I didn’t confess my sins and I didn’t ask Jesus into my heart. Instead, I blasted God with all my anger, made sure I cursed, and dared God to make a f-ing difference in my life. The myriad responses God could have had makes my head spin. He chose the best one: I spent the next two hours crying, something I had stopped doing after the first night in the orphanage. And trust me, it wasn’t fear of hell that brought the flood of tears, it was the hope that love still existed, even for me.

Twenty-two years later I was ordained as a Lutheran pastor and after many years in the parish, I now work as a full-time hospice chaplain. I spend my days with dying patients and their families. For them, the “valley of the shadow of death” is no longer pretty language in a familiar psalm; they are living there. Both fear and love are present in this valley, and I see them both in the universal question I asked myself as a young girl, looking at my family and afraid for myself, wondering, in the absence of the love I had previously known, “Who will care for us now?” It is a question prompted by fear, but one that is also a response to love that has been known.

“Love or fear: which motivates us more?” If motivation is the only criteria, I would say love and fear are both powerful motivators and can be equally effective in moving us to change our lives for both good or ill. Just as soon as we claim that love can motivate us to stop living in fear, we can also claim the opposite is equally true. Yet, I will always prefer the way love motivates. At the end of life, it is love and not fear that motivates us to say thank you for the life we have had the privilege to live, to offer forgiveness when holding on to past hurts that no longer matter, to hug and say I love you to those we have been blessed to know. I choose love.

 

Fear motivates more by Jason Steck

In 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried to reassure Americans plunging toward the Great Depression by telling them that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” We’ve been taught that fear is negative. That teaching is wrong.

I live my life in fear. I fear unemployment, failure, and ruin. I fear aging. I fear dying alone. Growing up, my generation heard President Carter diagnose the nation with a “malaise.”   New words like “stagflation” entered our national vocabulary, as manufacturing jobs disappeared by the millions and farms went into foreclosure.

We feared anew in 2008, when an economic collapse revitalized the terrifying word “depression.” I lost my job teaching at a small private university because the university president feared that the institution might be threatened by bankruptcy. Before I left, I saw the fear in students’ eyes after their parents told them that the mutual fund that paid for tuition had been decimated and their counselors reported a dissolving post-graduation job market. Fear helped power me—alongside some of my students that were now peers—through law school. It encouraged me to get the top grades, to hunger after a job as a necessity rather than an entitlement, and to always—always—plan for the possibility that today’s career can vanish and that new skills and old friends will be needed to help find the next.

Fear’s dark side is real, of course. I was a scrawny kid with what the guidance counselors like to call “poor social skills.” Asperger’s Syndrome—now called autism-spectrum disorder—would not be recognized until later, but I might have qualified. In short, I was weird. I also had thick glasses, and I was terrible at sports. This combination was red meat for bullies, and so terror was a daily experience for me at school. I especially feared the locker room after gym, where physical supremacy decided conflicts and teacher monitoring was weak.

But I learned. I learned how to escape from inside a gym locker. I learned situational awareness, keeping my back toward a wall and staying aware of what was going on around me. But I also learned how to use humor and self-deprecation to disarm, which taught me not to take myself too seriously. And I learned how to fight with words, developing the beginnings of the skills I would need later as a teacher, lawyer, and advocate. Facing daily fear also taught me to never give up, that tomorrow can be better than today, and that real friends are those who stick by you in spite (or perhaps because) of your weirdness.

I acknowledge the darker side of fear because I see it every day, as I review files from cases submitted to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. I’ve seen that fear causes crime, from the addict who steals to avoid the fear of drug withdrawal to the abuser who lashes out with violence in response to a fear of powerlessness. Fear of irrelevance, obscurity, and boring normalcy might also explain the desperate attention-grabbing antics of Miley Cyrus, as well as the lesser shenanigans of millions of average teenagers. Fear of aging and death drives a massive fitness industry, not to mention wrinkle-removal, cosmetic surgery, Viagra knockoffs, and hair-restoration.   This acknowledgement does not excuse bad behavior, but as explanation, it helps shape our responses.

Although I don’t want to delve into politics, I would also note that fear has caused some of our nation’s greatest achievements. The Founders’ love of liberty was most immediately a fear of an unaccountable king. Fear of destitution drove the creation of a social safety net. Fear of Nazi tyranny drove America out of isolationism into global leadership. Fear of Soviet tyranny provoked us to rebuild Europe, launched us to the moon, and incited the creation of the internet. Much of what we love was built out of fear.

Darker fears still compel us in the post-9/11 age, as our military roams the planet with drones and the NSA vacuums up trillions of phone calls, emails, and internet searches. But fear will also yet motivate us to great things. Fear of climate change can propel our search for new power sources. And fear of a new economic malaise is mobilizing both conservative enthusiasm for entrepreneurship and progressive protests for social justice.

Recognizing the power of fear need not be a pessimistic vision. In our lives and our society, we will always fear the darkness, but we respond by building a light.

 

Fear motivates us more by Paul Terry

A power outage darkened our part of the city of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, but my family felt safe enough to walk to a restaurant near our temporary flat.   Returning home, I led us down a familiar but narrow dim path. Two men, shirtless and sweaty with tattered pants and bare feet, suddenly appeared trotting toward us with Machetes raised. They ran around me, past my son and descended on my wife, patting her body looking for money or jewelry. I still wonder at the noise that erupted from me.   Between a fierce lion and a raging lunatic, if not for my rapid-fire expletives I doubt you would identify the appalling sound as coming from a human. I charged at the men and they disappeared into the night even faster than they had appeared.

I so wish I could be arguing for love as my driving motivation. My heart wants me to believe that love conquers all but my gut and my head vividly convinced me otherwise. Instincts I hope never to experience again showed me how fear mobilized me to fight. I’m pretty sure it was also fear that compelled the tattered pants men to decide on flight.

Those arguing for the power of love can get resounding endorsements from me if they like. Love for my family and my love of humanitarian work have been powerful motivators that explain many of my life’s decisions. But, let’s be clear, this Think-Off question asks what motivates us more. My experience that dark night affirms my view that Abraham Maslow was right to put our safety needs at the base of his famous pyramid of motivations.

Allow me to explain how fear is a gift that influences nearly every aspect of our lives. Love is the goal to be sure, but we get to that narrow peak of self-actualization by shoring up that broad base of our safety and security needs. Let me start with an example from New York Mills, Minnesota. What is a fate worse than being sliced apart by sharp Machetes? Well, surveys show many of us fear public speaking more than death. I’d defy any rational person to suggest that they love more than fear this podium. We fear embarrassment, rotten tomatoes and, most of all, your disapproval. But that’s o.k. Overcoming our fear is precisely why; win or lose, we’ll feel we stretched our personal boundaries to learn and grow as meaning seeking humans.

High performing athletes know about pushing boundaries. They love their sport and love to win but it is their fear that drives them to excel. My speed record windsurfing is an exhilarating, but scary, 26.2 miles per hour. It was fear of a painful wipe out that drove me to lock in precisely enough to push my physical limits. And, paradoxically, it is also fear that explains why I haven’t gone faster. If you are a golfer, pay attention to this interesting study. When controlling for the length of a putt, golfers sink more pars than birdies. That is, we fear missing par more than we love making a birdie.

Fear is such a powerful motivator that it delimits action and serves as a catalyst for action at the same time. We see this daily in the American workforce. Gallup polls show we have hit new lows in employee engagement. Why do countless people stay in jobs they don’t love? It’s because we fear unemployment and destitution more than we love the idea of risking a new venture. This ‘bird in the hand’ attitude is common. In my field of wellness and preventive medicine, we see how motivated people are to change their lifestyle after they’ve had a heart attack. The fear of losing everything is now viscerally real.

The capricious God of the Old Testament and most other deities play to fear and retribution in this life, and worse, for eternity.

The morning after my family was attacked I saw the tattered pants man using his Machete to rummage through garbage. It was in broad daylight with people around so I confronted him. I told him how much I feared for my family, and others. Then, I offered him a pair of my son’s shoes if he would surrender this Machete. I brought the Machete here today as exhibit A. I loved this poor man and offered him shoes. But it was my fear of him that motivated me much more.

 

Jennifer Nelson wins 2014 Great American Think-Off

Enthusiastic audience chooses “America’s Greatest Thinker”

2014 Think-Off finalists

L to R, Don Niles, board member; Alice Martin, chair of Think-Off committee; Jamie Robertson, executive director; Jason Steck, Therese Helker, Paul Terry, Jennifer Nelson, Think-Off final four.

Jennifer Nelson of Morris, Minnesota won the annual Great American Think-Off philosophy contest on Saturday, June 14 before an enthusiastic crowd of 375 persons in New York Mills, Minnesota. Jennifer won the contest with her effective argument that love motivates us to act more than fear. She based her essay and her case in her personal experience recovering from an automobile crash in 2004.

Jennifer completed a master’s degree in public policy from the Humphrey Institute of the University of Minnesota this spring and she won the audience’s support Saturday night with her compelling personal story about overcoming fear and recognizing that love empowered her to live fully once again: “Immediately following my accident, I had assumed that I would need to find a way to fix all [my] problems and be free of them before I would be able to experience love. During the decade that followed, instead I learned that it was love that provided me freedom in spite of these problems and pain.

Jason Steck won the silver medal Saturday night for his assertion that fear motivates us more than love. Jason argued very effectively that fear need not be “a pessimistic vision. In our lives and our society, we will always fear the darkness, but we respond by building a light.” Jason lives in Minneapolis and works as a judicial law clerk for Judge John P. Smith of the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

Last year’s winner, Paul Terry, argued that fear “delimits action and serves as a catalyst for action at the same time.” As chief science officer of StayWell Health Management, Paul sees first hand that everyone’s motivation to lead a healthier life style is increased by the fear of the possibility of bad news from their doctor. And Therese Helker of Pine River, Minnesota offered a compelling account of a difficult childhood governed by fear. That fear led to inaction, Therese argued, and was overcome by her choosing love over fear in her life. She practices that belief in her career as a hospice chaplain for Alina Health.

The Great American Think-Off is a program of the Cultural Center in New York Mills, Minnesota. The debate this year was among the most memorable in recent years and will be featured in a podcast being produced by independent journalist Evan Johnson, an instructor at Normandale Community College. The podcast will be available through the Cultural Center website in late November, 2014.

Final four for this year’s debate hail from Minnesota

Final four debaters for 2014 Great American Think-Off will debate on June 14th

Tickets on sale at the Center (call 218-385-3339) 

or online at Brown Paper Tickets (click here)

 

“Love or fear: which motivates us more?” will be debated at the 22nd annual Great American Think-Off at the Cultural Center in New York Mills on Saturday, June 14th at 7:00 pm. Essays have been received from around the country, and this year’s final four hail from Minnesota. All essays are read by a committee and all are unidentified by author, location, and any other identifying information.  Call 218-385-3339 to reserve your tickets and join us in deciding who will be America’s greatest thinker in 2014.

JasonSteckWebArguing that fear motivates us more, Jason Steck is an attorney, currently serving as a judicial law clerk for Judge John P. Smith and previously serving as a judicial law clerk to Judge Kevin G. Ross at the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Before attending law school, Jason was a resident instructor of political science and international relations at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. He also served 15 years in the United States Air Force, with assignments in Tokyo, Japan, Denver, Colorado, and Omaha, Nebraska.

Also arguing for fear is chief science officer of StayWell, Paul Terry.  Paul leads client support, program evaluation, research and industry leadership PaulTerryWeband ensures high-quality program development and delivery. Terry is one of the original StayWell team members, having worked at StayWell in the 1980s when the company was a subsidiary of the Control Data Corporation.

Terry earned the title “America’s Greatest Thinker” in 2013 from The Great American Think-Off. He is a Senior Fulbright Scholar and recently received his second scholarship to study AIDS prevention in Tanzania. He conducted his first scholarship in Zimbabwe, where he co-founded Shape Zimbabwe, an organization committed to HIV prevention in Africa.

ThereseHelkerFocused on love as the most important motivater, Therese Helker lives in Pine City, Minnesota in a small house on the Snake River with her husband, Bill Helker and two dogs, Basil and Lily.  Therese has raised three grown daughters:  Olivia, Natalie and Kirsten.  She and her husband are ordained ministers in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.

Therese has served three congregations since being ordained and now works as a full-time hospice chaplain for Allina Health.  She enjoys reading and belongs to a small group called “The Rainy Day Book Club.”  Therese can be found most evenings and weekends sitting with a cup of tea, facing the river, and reading a good book.

Therese also spends time crocheting blankets and throws, mostly as gifts for friends and family, and she collects pottery.  Writing is her passion as well and something that she has missed since becoming a chaplain and no longer having to prepare weekly sermons.  For the past few years, Therese has been working on writing short stories.  She does this mostly just for fun but dreams of one day submitting them for publication.

Also arguing for love is Jennifer Nelson.  Jennifer Nelson is a native of  Morris, Minnesota who currently resides in the Twin Cities where she JenniferNelsonwebreceived her Masters of Public Policy from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs in May of 2014.

Her work has largely focused on social policy and community engagement. During the course of her studies she worked with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and the Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State. In 2012 she was the recipient of Islamic Resource Group of Minnesota’s Building Bridges Interfaith Award in recognition of her work organizing an interfaith dialogue event in response to rising community tensions over the denial of a permit for a local Islamic Center.

In her spare time she enjoys painting, exploring the great outdoors, and going for walks with her one-eyed rescue dog, Jaxon.