Saturday, December 18, 2010

Suicide Doesn't Improve the World

It seems that I have a lot to say this weekend.

There has been a lot of great attention drawn to the problems with bullying. Dan Savage started the It Gets Better Project where people from across the world record their own messages to teens telling them that indeed, things can get better. Local and national news stations are beginning to air the normally silent stories of struggles that young people face. The attention is good--it's raising awareness, starting a dialogue, and building a platform for change.

This morning I watched a video on Towle Road. Sean Walsh was, a 13 year old who killed himself after being bullied, left behind a suicide note. His mother made the decision to read his suicide note and tell his story on YouTube. My heart aches for Wendy. I hope her video can make a difference in an adults life by teaching them to speak up about bullying. If you'd like to watch the video, I'm including it in this post. It's sad, raw, and powerful. If you are feeling a little vulnerable you might not want to watch it.

Sean wrote, "I will hopefully be in a better place than this shit hole... Make sure to make the school feel like shit for bring you this sorrow."

There is a problem here. We aren't teaching our children that things can be better now. We aren't showing children other children who have lives of joy, compassion, and excitement. We aren't teaching children how to be resilient, how to resist bullying, and how not be be bullies. We are failing our children.

The narrative of much of what I hear is something like this:  It can't be better now--you have to wait for it to get better. Youth are suffering and miserable and need adults to rescue them. 

I am filled with sadness for the loss of Sean and the grief his mother is experiencing.

Suicide doesn't change the world. Suicide isn't an effective way to punish a school or a bully. In the end, suicide means someone is dead, some people experience profound bone breaking grief, and the rest of the world moves on. 

There are so many more effective ways to resist a bully and change the world. We ought to be teaching our youth these skills. We ought to be teaching our youth about other youth who use these skills. It can save a life--and change the world.

The Decline of Empathy: How You Can Help

A study from the University of Michigan offered a disturbing glimpse into the pro-social behaviors of young adults in America. Sarah Konrath, along with students Edward O'Brian and Courtney Hsing conducted a meta-analysis of 72 different studies conducted between 1979 and 2009. The studies all looked at college students levels of empathy as measured by paper-and-pencil tests.

Here's the shocking part:
We found the biggest drop in empathy after the year 2000," said Sara Konrath, a researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research. "College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait."
What does this mean in the real world? If there is transfer between how people act and what they reported on the measures, it means that young adults are 40% less likely to be able to put themselves in someone else's shoes. 40% less likely to be willing to consider another's perspective. 40% less likely to be impacted by the suffering of another's suffering.
Compared to college students of the late 1970s, the study found, college students today are less likely to agree with statements such as "I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective" and "I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me."
Curious how you compare on empathy? the University of Michigan has a survey up online. It will give you a score that you can compare yourself to the 14,000 college students that make up this study. Before heading off to the study on the following link, keep in mind that no information is provided if the university is recording your input. There is no mention of an Institutional Review Board approving of research, nor is there mention if this is for research gathering purposes (do they save your data) or is it for your own information (is data not saved). They don't ask for any identifying information. At any rate, here is the link to the survey.

How did you do? I know I was surprised. Before I started the survey I thought I'd score off the charts on empathy. While I was well above average as compared to the sample, I was surprised to see that college students in the 70s were much more empathetic than me.

Not to be overly nerdy here, but as an adult who has been out of college (and graduate school now) for a long time I can't use a sample of college students to compare myself too. It may be possible that college students are more idealistic. It may also be possible that college students tend to be more prone to black and white thinking (here, it would be "I'm always considering someone else's perspective" vs. a more nuanced perspective that comes with life experience).

And of course, there is likely to be a gap between how people identify themselves on paper and how they actually behave in the real world. There could be all sorts of interesting things that happen there.

Still--commentary on research aside--this is a disturbing trend. Inside special education circles it is often common practice to teach children empathy and perspective taking. I wonder if that happens in mainstream classrooms and within the contexts of families? I sure hope it does.

Here are a few tips for teaching empathy taken from the website Parenting Science. They are evidenced based tools to help teach empathy in children. Try them out with your own kids--or adapt them and try them out with your husbands, wifes, partners, and friends. You could make the world a little more friendly.

  • Teaching empathy tip #1: Address your child’s own needs, and teach him how to “bounce back” from distress
  • Teaching empathy tip #2: Be a “mind-minded” parent. Treat your child as an individual with a mind of her own, and talk to her about the ways that our feelings influence our behavior
  • Teaching empathy tip #3: Seize everyday opportunities to model—and induce—sympathetic feelings for other people
  • Teaching empathy tip #4: Help kids discover what they have in common with other people
  • Teaching empathy tip #5: Teach kids about the hot-cold empathy gap
  • Teaching empathy tip #6: Help kids explore other roles and perspectives
  • Teaching empathy tip #7: Show kids how to “make a face” while they try to imagine how someone else feels. Experiments show that simply “going through the motions” of making a facial expression can make us experience the associated emotion.
  • Teaching empathy tip #8: Help kids develop a sense of morality that depends on internal self-control, not on rewards or punishments
  • Teaching empathy tip #9: Teach (older) kids about mechanisms of moral disengagement
  • Teaching empathy tip #10: Inspire good feelings (and boost oxytocin levels) through pleasant social interactions and physical affection

Ellis Island: Early Notions of a Multi-Cultural Society

This past spring my niece and I took a weekend to ourselves and went to New York City. Despite having lived in New York City, I never managed to take the boat out to Ellis Island to visit that important part of American history. I'm glad we visited. The boat ride out offered fantastic views of Manhattan, the Statute of Liberty, and Ellis Island. The museum was a fantastic experience filled with an unvarnished look at what it was like to be an immigrant entering the country.

 What I found most interesting were some of the propaganda posters they had at the museum. In this first image, which had the date of 1919 on it, victory bonds were being sold. The advertisement was making a pitch toward making people feel like they were "real" American's if they bought bonds to support the government--and extended the idea of a "real" American to a variety of different ethnic backgrounds by making a mention of a variety of names. Reading through the names now, one might not be particularly moved. Thinking about what people thought about culture, ethnicity, and diversity in 1919 I was very moved. Here is a hodge-podge of names from countries all over Western and Eastern Europe. All seen as Americans. The last name on the list is what finally got me--a name usually associated with Spanish speaking countries. Might it be that I stumbled across early evidence of our society creaking toward a multi-cultural understanding?

Of course, even then we were trying to figure out the language issue. Here is a poster from my hometown advertising "Americanization" classes. From the picture, it appears that Little Red Riding Hood and a man with extremely large hands are learning the alphabet from a small child who dressed like a newspaper reporter. Modern day English only laws--and the merits or problems of a bilingual (or trilingual) society is a topic for another blog post. This poster made me wonder what images are we leaving behind today that someone will look at and wonder about in 90 years?

Part of what I really liked about the Ellis Island museum was that it wasn't all polished. Sure there were the well maintained and immaculate galleries. There were the shining display cases, detailed audio tours, and all the trappings of a modern museum. Other parts were a little more raw and uncensored. A few different places caught my eye. No better time to share them then now.

This first image is graffiti that a nameless immigrant left behind while waiting in line to be processed. As the building aged the plaster cracked away and revealed this drawing. We don't know anything about the artist (though we could have known more if my other image that I took wasn't blurred--the artist had words to go along with this face). A travel tip for all of you: don't leave home with a brand new digital camera that you've never used. You are bound to experience some disappointment. Anyway--I wonder who the face is? A self portrait? A relative left behind in their home country? Someone who died on the journey to America?

The main building on the island has been historically restored. It's in beautiful condition. I'm told that there are plans for some of the other buildings to be restored and turned into a conference center. I hope they leave some of the structures untouched. I like the reminder (both inside in the context of the museum and outside in the casual context of the grounds) that the immigrant experience was difficult, hard, and sometimes a failure. Many came with the hopes that sidewalks were paved with gold. Some found that gold. Others were turned away, treated harshly, or even died on Ellis Island.

This ominous looking sign is clearly going to require a blog post all on it's own. This little innocent looking (yet strangely ominous) sign spurred me to come back from this trip and create a folder on my computer that I've been slowly filling with images of what psychology  has been through the years--specifically images of how we have treated people considered "mad" or "ill". It's clearly going to require a whole blog post of it's own. Consider this sign a little teaser.

I've been told by people that I tend to dwell on small things. I'd be the one taking the picture of an interesting looking floor board on a boat while everyone else was rushing to take a picture of awhile breaching out of the water. This is a useful skill in therapy--often times when we notice the little things we can unravel the big things. This isn't always so useful when showing someone what a place looks like. I made an honest effort with the Statute of Liberty (see, I can improve). I assure you though I have plenty of pictures of her torch, or a fold in her dress, and taken from all sorts of strange angles. It's how I see things--and works for me.

With that in  mind, I leave you with two images that convey in a very personal way how I saw Ellis Island. Perhaps it will inspire you to think about how you see the world around you?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Shadow Self

Unfortunately, there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected. --Carl Jung
There has been a lot of press about Michael Vick making a public comment that he'd like a dog someday. For those of you who don't know, Vick was convicted for his rather gruesome activities related to dog fighting. 

I've been stirring up a little bit of controversy about this on Twitter and Facebook over the last couple of days. I knew this was going to happen--in fact it was my point. I like to think, I like when other people think, and I especially like when I get to think while in relationship to other's who are thinking. It makes for a richer experience. Don't you think?

The responses on Facebook and Twitter were complex, interesting, and thought provoking. I think as time permits, I'm going to make more provocative posts. It's a nice way to built a community built on dialogue--and to show that there is a way to talk about difficult things in a public forum in ways that are deep and meaningful.

One tweet, from @JosephLobdell, particularly caught my interest:
@jaypsyd Maybe splitting & fear are involved: if "evil" can be rehab'd, we who r "good" can poss become "evil." They hilight our shadow side.
Now Carl Jung isn't someone I think about every day. Maybe I should. For years I've been disturbed on one level or another when I see people responding to violence with violence. Vick's behavior is reprehensible. There isn't an excuse for it. Yet I become so sad when I hear how many express their anger in ways that make a call for retribution or more anger.
He's a useless piece of humanity who needs the same treatment he doled out
He needs to hang just like he did to his dogs.....and not anything less
Michael Vick should fall off the face of the earth
These are good people who made these comments. They care deeply about animals and their community. They are outraged about Vick's behaviors. I don't blame them. I am outraged too. I think these are also people who are willing to let us all see a little bit of the shadow side that in "polite" society we make every effort to keep hidden.

It's uncomfortable to come into contact with our shadow side. It's also important to make contact with it and know it's there. I deeply respect the folks who joined with me in a dialogue about Vick. It made me uncomfortable--and I'm sure it made others uncomfortable too.

In the end I am reminded that no one is all "good" or all "evil." We each have the capacity for an expansive compassion or crushing violence. The important challenge is to find windows so we can see both--and learn the tools we need to have so we can all make choices that move our lives toward compassion.