The Lunatic Behind the Dictionary

By Sean Braswell

James Murray

The return address on the letters read simply: “Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire.” But what they contained was a treasure trove of illustrative quotations for Dr. James Murray, the first editor of what would eventually become The Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Compiling a comprehensive dictionary — a project Dr. Murray and his colleagues were engaged in during the late 19th century — requires, rather like Wikipedia today, an army of volunteer contributors, some more competent than others. Rare is the volunteer like Dr. W.C. Minor of Broadmoor who can provide tens of thousands of illustrative quotations for OED entries, and even deliver examples for certain desired words on demand.

Rarer still is the valued contributor who is also a certified lunatic and murderer. But that’s exactly what William Chester Minor was, though it would take Dr. Murray nearly a decade to learn the true identity of his angel wordsmith.

The full address of Minor’s residence was Cell Block Two at the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane. He may have been a guest of the English authorities, but Minor, born in 1834, was actually an American, descended from a distinguished family of Connecticut aristocrats. A clever young man with all the advantages life has to offer, Minor earned a medical degree from Yale in 1863, and the young surgeon enlisted in the Union Army just four days before the historic battle of Gettysburg. But, as Simon Winchester chronicles in the best-seller The Professor and The Madman, Minor was a sensitive, gentle man, not one cut out for soldiering and the horrific scenes he witnessed on the front lines of the U.S. Civil War, including at the bloody Battle of the Wilderness.

After the war and less than a decade before he would arrive at Broadmoor, Minor continued to rise in the Army ranks, becoming a captain and regarded by some as one of the best surgeons in the country. But his behavior became increasingly erratic and unpredictable; he grew paranoid of plots against his life and spent most evenings frequenting prostitutes in the Tenderloin districts of New York and other cities where he was stationed. Army doctors concluded he had been “incapacitated by causes arising in the line of duty” — what we would call post-traumatic stress disorder today. After being released from the Army, Minor left for London in 1871 with his books and watercolor paints in the hopes of starting a new and more peaceful life.

What he found instead were the same old fears and delusions. One night in February 1872, Minor, convinced that someone was trying to break into his room, wandered into the streets of London with a gun and shot and killed an innocent man in cold blood. Found not guilty by reason of insanity, Minor was committed as a “certified criminal lunatic” to Broadmoor, where he would spend most of the next 40 years.

The well-heeled former Army surgeon enjoyed some special treatment at Broadmoor, including a two-room suite in which one of the cells was lined floor to ceiling with books, Minor’s passion and solace. And when James Murray, a Scottish lexicographer, sent out a press release in the early 1880s asking for readers to assist with the painstaking work of finding example passages to accompany the great dictionary’s definitions, Minor quickly volunteered, though it would be years before they received his first submission.

With nothing but time on his hands, and buoyed by the chance to contribute once again to society, Minor pursued the enormous task — but from an unusual angle. His was “a working method,” writes Winchester, “that turned out to be different from that of all other volunteer readers, but that soon marked him as uniquely valuable in the making of the great dictionary.”

Meticulously combing over his private library, Minor wrote down every single word of interest as he came to it, making extensive annotated word lists that took years to compile. Minor’s system meant that rather than just sending in quotation slips for rather arbitrary words (as most volunteers did), the committed inmate could find out which words Murray and the OED editors needed examples for and then supply the relevant quotations — tens of thousands of them over the years.

For almost a decade, Murray assumed that his favorite volunteer was a somewhat reclusive doctor at the asylum who had spare time on his hands, even if it was a bit odd that he consistently declined invitations to attend events at Murray’s Oxford headquarters less than 40 miles from Broadmoor. When Murray finally learned the truth about his volunteer, from a passing remark made by a Harvard librarian who knew Minor’s backstory, he set out to visit Broadmoor in 1891. And for the next two decades, Murray continued to visit Minor, and the two men developed a longstanding friendship. “So enormous have been Dr. Minor’s contributions during the past 17 or 18 years,” Murray said of his lunatic friend’s accomplishments in 1899, “that we could easily illustrate the last four centuries from his quotations alone.”

In the end Minor’s illness did not appear to compromise the integrity, or enormous utility, of his lexicographic work for the OED project — demonstrating yet again how in certain human undertakings, there can be a fine line between madness and innovation.

Source: ozy.com

Choose to Be Grateful. It Will Make You Happier.

By Arthur C. Brooks

gratitude

TWENTY-FOUR years ago this month, my wife and I married in Barcelona, Spain. Two weeks after our wedding, flush with international idealism, I had the bright idea of sharing a bit of American culture with my Spanish in-laws by cooking a full Thanksgiving dinner.

Easier said than done. Turkeys are not common in Barcelona. The local butcher shop had to order the bird from a specialty farm in France, and it came only partially plucked. Our tiny oven was too small for the turkey. No one had ever heard of cranberries.

Over dinner, my new family had many queries. Some were practical, such as, “What does this beast eat to be so filled with bread?” But others were philosophical: “Should you celebrate this holiday even if you don’t feel grateful?”

I stumbled over this last question. At the time, I believed one should feel grateful in order to give thanks. To do anything else seemed somehow dishonest or fake — a kind of bourgeois, saccharine insincerity that one should reject. It’s best to be emotionally authentic, right? Wrong. Building the best life does not require fealty to feelings in the name of authenticity, but rather rebelling against negative impulses and acting right even when we don’t feel like it. In a nutshell, acting grateful can actually make you grateful.

For many people, gratitude is difficult, because life is difficult. Even beyond deprivation and depression, there are many ordinary circumstances in which gratitude doesn’t come easily. This point will elicit a knowing, mirthless chuckle from readers whose Thanksgiving dinners are usually ruined by a drunk uncle who always needs to share his political views. Thanks for nothing.

Beyond rotten circumstances, some people are just naturally more grateful than others. A 2014 article in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience identified a variation in a gene (CD38) associated with gratitude. Some people simply have a heightened genetic tendency to experience, in the researchers’ words, “global relationship satisfaction, perceived partner responsiveness and positive emotions (particularly love).” That is, those relentlessly positive people you know who seem grateful all the time may simply be mutants.

But we are more than slaves to our feelings, circumstances and genes. Evidence suggests that we can actively choose to practice gratitude — and that doing so raises our happiness.

This is not just self-improvement hokum. For example, researchers in one 2003 study randomly assigned one group of study participants to keep a short weekly list of the things they were grateful for, while other groups listed hassles or neutral events. Ten weeks later, the first group enjoyed significantly greater life satisfaction than the others. Other studies have shown the same pattern and lead to the same conclusion. If you want a truly happy holiday, choose to keep the “thanks” in Thanksgiving, whether you feel like it or not.

How does all this work? One explanation is that acting happy, regardless of feelings, coaxes one’s brain into processing positive emotions. In one famous 1993 experiment, researchers asked human subjects to smile forcibly for 20 seconds while tensing facial muscles, notably the muscles around the eyes called the orbicularis oculi (which create “crow’s feet”). They found that this action stimulated brain activity associated with positive emotions.

If grinning for an uncomfortably long time like a scary lunatic isn’t your cup of tea, try expressing gratitude instead. According to research published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, gratitude stimulates the hypothalamus (a key part of the brain that regulates stress) and the ventral tegmental area (part of our “reward circuitry” that produces the sensation of pleasure).

It’s science, but also common sense: Choosing to focus on good things makes you feel better than focusing on bad things. As my teenage kids would say, “Thank you, Captain Obvious.” In the slightly more elegant language of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, “He is a man of sense who does not grieve for what he has not, but rejoices in what he has.”

In addition to building our own happiness, choosing gratitude can also bring out the best in those around us. Researchers at the University of Southern California showed this in a 2011 study of people with high power but low emotional security (think of the worst boss you’ve ever had). The research demonstrated that when their competence was questioned, the subjects tended to lash out with aggression and personal denigration. When shown gratitude, however, they reduced the bad behavior. That is, the best way to disarm an angry interlocutor is with a warm “thank you.”

I learned this lesson 10 years ago. At the time, I was an academic social scientist toiling in professorial obscurity, writing technical articles and books that would be read by a few dozen people at most. Soon after securing tenure, however, I published a book about charitable giving that, to my utter befuddlement, gained a popular audience. Overnight, I started receiving feedback from total strangers who had seen me on television or heard me on the radio.

One afternoon, I received an unsolicited email. “Dear Professor Brooks,” it began, “You are a fraud.” That seemed pretty unpromising, but I read on anyway. My correspondent made, in brutal detail, a case against every chapter of my book. As I made my way through the long email, however, my dominant thought wasn’t resentment. It was, “He read my book!” And so I wrote him back — rebutting a few of his points, but mostly just expressing gratitude for his time and attention. I felt good writing it, and his near-immediate response came with a warm and friendly tone.

DOES expressing gratitude have any downside? Actually, it might: There is some research suggesting it could make you fat. A new study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology finds evidence that people begin to crave sweets when they are asked to express gratitude. If this finding holds up, we might call it the Pumpkin Pie Paradox.

The costs to your weight notwithstanding, the prescription for all of us is clear: Make gratitude a routine, independent of how you feel — and not just once each November, but all year long.

There are concrete strategies that each of us can adopt. First, start with “interior gratitude,” the practice of giving thanks privately. Having a job that involves giving frequent speeches — not always to friendly audiences — I have tried to adopt the mantra in my own work of being grateful to the people who come to see me.

Next, move to “exterior gratitude,” which focuses on public expression. The psychologist Martin Seligman, father of the field known as “positive psychology,” gives some practical suggestions on how to do this. In his best seller “Authentic Happiness,” he recommends that readers systematically express gratitude in letters to loved ones and colleagues. A disciplined way to put this into practice is to make it as routine as morning coffee. Write two short emails each morning to friends, family or colleagues, thanking them for what they do.

Finally, be grateful for useless things. It is relatively easy to be thankful for the most important and obvious parts of life — a happy marriage, healthy kids or living in America. But truly happy people find ways to give thanks for the little, insignificant trifles. Ponder the impractical joy in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “Pied Beauty”:

Glory be to God for dappled things —
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

Be honest: When was the last time you were grateful for the spots on a trout? More seriously, think of the small, useless things you experience — the smell of fall in the air, the fragment of a song that reminds you of when you were a kid. Give thanks.

This Thanksgiving, don’t express gratitude only when you feel it. Give thanks especially when you don’t feel it. Rebel against the emotional “authenticity” that holds you back from your bliss. As for me, I am taking my own advice and updating my gratitude list. It includes my family, faith, friends and work. But also the dappled complexion of my bread-packed bird. And it includes you, for reading this column.

Source: NYTimes.com

Australian “Angel” Saves Lives at Suicide Spot

By Kristen Gelineau (Associated Press) / CBS News

In this photo taken May 25, 2010, Don Ritchie looks out his window at his home in Sydney, Australia. For almost 50 years Ritchie, widely regarded as a guardian angel, has used simple kindness to shepherd countless suicidal people away from the edge.

In this photo taken May 25, 2010, Don Ritchie looks out his window at his home in Sydney, Australia. For almost 50 years Ritchie, widely regarded as a guardian angel, has used simple kindness to shepherd countless suicidal people away from the edge.

In those bleak moments when the lost souls stood atop the cliff, wondering whether to jump, the sound of the wind and the waves was broken by a soft voice. “Why don’t you come and have a cup of tea?” the stranger would ask. And when they turned to him, his smile was often their salvation.

For almost 50 years, Don Ritchie has lived across the street from Australia’s most notorious suicide spot, a rocky cliff at the entrance to Sydney Harbour called The Gap. And in that time, the man widely regarded as a guardian angel has shepherded countless people away from the edge.

What some consider grim, Ritchie considers a gift. How wonderful, the former life insurance salesman says, to save so many. How wonderful to sell them life.

“You can’t just sit there and watch them,” says Ritchie, now 84, perched on his beloved green leather chair, from which he keeps a watchful eye on the cliff outside. “You gotta try and save them. It’s pretty simple.”

Since the 1800s, Australians have flocked to The Gap to end their lives, with little more than a 3-foot fence separating them from the edge. Local officials say around one person a week commits suicide there, and in January, the Woollahra Council applied for AUS$2.1 million ($1.7 million) in federal funding to build a higher fence and overhaul security.

In the meantime, Ritchie keeps up his voluntary watch. The council recently named Ritchie and Moya, his wife of 58 years, 2010’s Citizens of the Year.

He’s saved 160 people, according to the official tally, but that’s only an estimate. Ritchie doesn’t keep count. He just knows he’s watched far more walk away from the edge than go over it.

Dianne Gaddin likes to believe Ritchie was at her daughter’s side before she jumped in 2005. Though he can’t remember now, she is comforted by the idea that Tracy felt his warmth in her final moments.

“He’s an angel,” she says. “Most people would be too afraid to do anything and would probably sooner turn away and run away. But he had the courage and the charisma and the care and the magnetism to reach people who were coming to the end of their tether.”

Something about Ritchie exudes a feeling of calm. His voice has a soothing raspiness to it, and his pale blue eyes are gentle. Though he stands tall at just over 6’2″ (an inch shorter, he notes with a grin, than he used to be), he hardly seems imposing.

Each morning, he climbs out of bed, pads over to the bedroom window of his modest, two-story home, and scans the cliff. If he spots anyone standing alone too close to the precipice, he hurries to their side.

Visitors walk around a notorious suicide spot called The Gap in Sydney, Australia.

Visitors walk around a notorious suicide spot called The Gap in Sydney, Australia.

In his younger years, he would occasionally climb the fence to hold people back while Moya called the police. He would help rescue crews haul up the bodies of those who couldn’t be saved. And he would invite the rescuers back to his house afterward for a comforting drink.

It all nearly cost him his life once. A chilling picture captured decades ago by a local news photographer shows Ritchie struggling with a woman, inches from the edge. The woman is seen trying to launch herself over the side – with Ritchie the only thing between her and the abyss. Had she been successful, he would have gone over, too.

These days, he keeps a safer distance. The council installed security cameras this year and the invention of mobile phones means someone often calls for help before he crosses the street.

But he remains available to lend an ear, though he never tries to counsel, advise or pry. He just gives them a warm smile, asks if they’d like to talk and invites them back to his house for tea. Sometimes, they join him.

“I’m offering them an alternative, really,” Ritchie says. “I always act in a friendly manner. I smile.”

A smile cannot, of course, save everyone; the motivations behind suicide are too varied. But simple kindness can be surprisingly effective. Mental health professionals tell the story of a note left behind by a man who jumped off San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way to the bridge, the man wrote, I will not jump.

By offering compassion, Ritchie helps those who are suicidal think beyond the terrible present moment, says psychiatrist Gordon Parker, executive director of the Black Dog Institute, a mood disorder research center that has supported the council’s efforts to improve safety at The Gap.

“They often don’t want to die, it’s more that they want the pain to go away,” Parker says. “So anyone that offers kindness or hope has the capacity to help a number of people.”

Kevin Hines wishes someone like Ritchie was there the day he jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge in 2000. For 40 agonizing minutes, the then-19-year-old paced the bridge, weeping, and hoping someone would ask him what was wrong. One tourist finally approached – but simply asked him to take her picture. Moments later, he jumped.

Hines, who suffers from bipolar disorder, was severely injured, but eventually recovered. Today he says if one person had shown they were not blind to his pain, he probably would never have jumped.

“A smile can go a long way – caring can go even further. And the fact that he offers them tea and he just listens, he’s really all they wanted,” Hines says. “He’s all a lot of suicidal people want.”

Don Ritchie

Don Ritchie

In 2006, the government recognized Ritchie’s efforts with a Medal of the Order of Australia, among the nation’s highest civilian honors. It hangs on his living room wall above a painting of a sunshine someone left in his mailbox. On it is a message calling Ritchie “an angel that walks amongst us.”

He smiles bashfully. “It makes you – oh, I don’t know,” he says, looking away. “I feel happy about it.”

But he speaks readily and fondly of one woman he saved, who came back to thank him. He spotted her sitting alone one day, her purse already beyond the fence. He invited her to his house to meet Moya and have tea. The couple listened to her problems and shared breakfast with her. Eventually, her mood improved and she drove home.

A couple of months later, she returned with a bottle of champagne. And about once a year, she visits or writes, assuring them she is happy and well.

There have been a few, though, that he could not save. One teenager ignored his coaxings and suddenly jumped. A wind blew the boy’s hat into Ritchie’s outstretched hand.

He later found out the teen had lived next door, years earlier. His mother brought Ritchie flowers and thanked him for trying. If you couldn’t have talked him out of it, she told him, no one could.

Despite all he has seen, he says he is not haunted by the ones who were lost. He cannot remember the first suicide he witnessed, and none have plagued his nightmares. He says he does his best with each person, and if he loses one, he accepts that there was nothing more he could have done.

Nor have he and Moya ever felt burdened by the location of their home.

“I think, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that we live here and we can help people?'” Moya says, her husband nodding in agreement.

Their life has been a good one, they say. They raised three beautiful daughters and now have three grandchildren to adore. They have traveled the world, and their home is decorated with statues and masks from their journeys. Ritchie proudly points out a dried, shellacked piranha – a souvenir from their vacation to the Amazon, where he insisted on swimming with the creatures (to Moya’s dismay).

Until about a year ago, the former Navy seaman enjoyed a busy social life, regularly lunching with friends. But battles with cancer and his advancing years have taken their toll, and now he spends most days at home with Moya, buried in a good book. His current read: the Dalai Lama’s “The Art of Happiness.”

Every now and then, he looks up from his books to scan the horizon for anyone who might need him. He’ll keep doing so, he says, for as long as he’s here.

And when he’s not?

He chuckles softly.

“I imagine somebody else will come along and do what I’ve been doing.”

He gazes through the glass door to the cliff outside. And his face is lit with a smile.

For more info:
suicidepreventionlifeline.org

Source: cbsnews.com