Resisting Prejudice Begins with You

In a now famous study by psychologist Stanley Milgram at Yale University in 1963, he observed how far people would go in causing harm to others if they were pressured to do so by an authority figure.  It was post-WWII and the time of the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.  One of the questions to social scientists at the time is whether or not we were all the same as Eichmann, who said that he was simply obeying orders.  Would we, like him, commit horrendous acts and justify ourselves by saying that we were just being obedient, or in Eichmann’s words: “A good German.”?

In Milgram’s study, participants were told (falsely) that it was a learning experiment using punishments to see if they improved learning.  They were put in front of a set of switches, showing voltages from 15 volts (labeled “slight shock”) to 450 volts (labeled X X X, even further along than the “DANGER: SEVERE SHOCK” that accompanied the 375 volts switch).  The participant heard an actor shouting “Stop!  You can’t do this to me!” and screaming in pain.

How many people do you think would administer shocks to another person all the way past the DANGER: SEVERE SHOCK to the X X X just because a researcher is telling them prompts like “The experiment requires that you continue.”? Disturbingly enough, nearly two-thirds of the participants pressed the levers all the way up to the maximum 450 volts.  They were never threatened physically or verbally, simply told that they must go on.  Those that refused—that one-third of participants—simply stopped obeying.

When I teach my students the Milgram study, most of them assume that they would be in the one-third who refused to shock another human being so cruelly.  But this is not the lesson I think we should take from the study.  I think we should say: “What would make me act that way toward another human being?”  As you picture yourself in such a situation, imagine the enormous pressure you would feel to conform and obey.  And decide now that you would find a way to stand up to the person demanding that you harm another.

Because prejudice and judgment by outward appearance are part of human nature, resisting the impulses toward racism, weight-ism, religious prejudice, sexism, or elitism takes courage and strength of character.  Psychologists would tell you that it is our nature to make short-cut judgments about others, to be prone to prejudice.  But that does not make it inevitable.  We have the power and responsibility to resist.

We like to think ourselves as superior to those who fall prey to violent ideologies.  We like to look down on them, knowing that we would never do such things.  We like to think highly of ourselves, maybe as something like the “fine people” that Trump described as part of the crowd marching with the neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

Some years ago, I was talking with a colleague of mine about war, terrorism, and torture.  In our debate, he took the side that we are justified in pre-emptive war, that it is permissible to torture other human beings (if they were Muslim), and even said that we ought to “carpet-bomb the entire Middle East.”  I asked him this: “Did you ever wonder how you got here?  That you are advocating for the mass-murder of over 200 million people, the torture of other human beings, and pro-war?  Did you ever think you would be on that side of this argument?”

This friend of mine, I have no doubt, considered himself a “fine person.”  And to others I defended him, saying that I disagreed with his views but he was a “good person.”  But there is a problem here.  Either he is lying and doesn’t really believe what he is saying, or he is only a “good person” because he lacks the power to implement his campaign of mass-killing and torture.  We can think the best of others, and we should, but when do we need to stand and judge what is right?

What causes might lead you to march with such groups?  What beliefs do you have that might lead you to support violence, hatred, and bigotry?  Be honest with yourself about your own prejudices.  And for heaven’s sake, have the strength and guts to resist and defeat these ideas in yourself!

You cannot march with neo-Nazis and white supremacists and justify yourself by saying it was all about the removal of a Confederate statue.  You should not march with these people no matter how much you agree with the immediate cause.  If so, you must admit to yourself that a Confederate statue means so much to you that you are willing to march with those who espouse ideologies that are inhuman and un-American.  A little piece of advice: If the KKK wants to support your cause, refuse—and rethink your cause.  And if the Nazis show up at your rally, go home.

A slightly modified version of this post will be published as part of my weekly column, A Drop of Ink, in the Idaho Standard Journal and the Rexburg Standard Journal on Tuesday, August 22nd.

The (Actual) Textbook Narcissist

For some reason (I will leave that to you, dear reader), the term “narcissist” has been used a lot recently in the media and in personal conversations.  Sometimes people even use the term “textbook narcissist” to describe a well-known public figure.  Since I am both a psychologist and columnist, I thought I would share with you the actual textbook definition of narcissist—then you can see how it may or may not apply.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (I will use NPD for the sake of brevity in this article) is found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, most recently in its 5th Edition (DSM-V).  The DSM-V contains no particular mysteries, though the actual use of it to diagnose really ought to be left in the hands of those with experience and expertise.  What I will show you today is what the actual criteria are like to make a diagnosis of NPD.

For a personality disorder of any kind to be diagnosed, the impairments in personality must be significant both within the self and in interpersonal relationships.  Those traits must be relatively stable over time—in other words, they must represent a pattern of behavior that has stayed the same over time and across situations.  The traits or symptoms can also not be better understood as normal for that person’s stage of life.  For example, some narcissistic traits might be more normal if the person is a young child who hasn’t developed the ability to see the perspective of others.

Now to the criteria.  The impairments in self-functioning should be one of the following.  Either the person is egocentric or they set goals only in terms of self-benefit or personal gratification.  An egocentric person derives self-esteem from personal gain, pleasure, or power.  This kind of person would likely brag a great deal about how wealthy they are, or how many women they have “scored” with, or how much more intelligent or stronger they are than others.  They would also be motivated to succeed only for personal gratification.  They would struggle to perform duties for the “public good” because they only see the world in terms of what they get out of it.

The impairments in interpersonal functioning would be someone who shows either a lack of empathy or a lack of mutually intimate relationships, or both.  They show a lack of remorse after hurting others and a lack of concern for the needs and feelings of others.  They also lack the capacity to have mutually intimate relationships.  Instead, they see relationships in terms of dominance, control, and intimidation.  For both these reasons, people showing the symptoms of NPD tend to have difficulty staying married.

Another primary cluster of traits is that of antagonism.  A person with NPD is manipulative.  They lie frequently and use charm, seduction, or ingratiation (flattery) to get what they want from others.  They misrepresent themselves in ways that make them look richer, more powerful, or more intelligent than they actually are.  People with NPD show a callousness towards the feelings of others.  Because of this they often name-call or bully others to get what they want.  They exhibit persistent hostile and angry feelings toward others.  They respond in vengeful ways to even the minutest slights or insults.  Because the narcissist only sees the world through their own self-importance, they cannot bear mockery in any form and often respond with large-scale retaliation for the slightest of insults.

The final group of traits for NPD is disinhibition.  Disinhibition just means that they are not able to restrain their own desires or actions.  The first symptom of this is irresponsibility.  They do not honor their financial obligations and have a lack of respect for keeping promises.  For example, they might make big promises to show how great and powerful they are but care little about fulfilling those agreements.

The person with NPD is impulsive, acting on whatever they feel in the moment.  They are often unable to restrain urges and act on whatever they think or feel without considering outcomes or making plans.  They are also high risk-takers.  They engage in risky behaviors that can be potentially self-damaging, without regard for the consequences.  They are easily bored and have little concern for their own limitations.

So, there it is, the actual textbook definition of narcissism.  In my own work as a psychologist, I have worked with people like this before, though they rarely ever seek treatment because they don’t ever see themselves as having problems—it’s everyone else!  Beware of going into business with people with these kinds of traits and do not let them lead your organization.  They will lie, manipulate, bully, and act in impulsive ways that will be destructive to themselves and to the organizations they lead.  And for heaven’s sake, don’t get into a relationship with them!  Wrong!

Don’t Put Tribe Before Truth

Just when we thought the race for president couldn’t get more discouraging to watch, this week we were faced with the publishing of a tape where the Republican nominee was unspeakably crude, sexually aggressive, and lewd.  I wish that my teenage daughters didn’t have to see or hear Trump talk about women in the way that he did.  But more destructive has been the defense of such speech as mere “locker room talk.”  From conservative friends and relatives, they are hearing that this is the way that all men talk or that “boys will be boys.”

Let me say to my daughters and to the other girls and women who have had to encounter Trump’s trashy talk: I have never in my life heard someone speak that crudely and callously about acts that are clearly sexual assault.  I have been in sports all of my life and been in a lot of locker rooms.  Even now I am in a locker room multiple times every week.  I have never heard a man brag about grabbing a woman’s genitals.  I have never heard someone brag about pushing himself on a married woman.  This is not mere locker room talk and it is not typical of all men when they are left to express their real feelings.

Trump’s sexually explicit tirades for years on the Howard Stern show and on the tape revealed this week are to me a great offense to women and girls.  To defend those remarks as something all of us do is a great offense to men and boys.  Men and boys with dignity and respect for women are careful in our thoughts and speech whether or not we are around women or not.  For Trump to say “Nobody respects women more than I do” is patently false.  I have never cheated on my wife of 18 years.  I have never spoken about girls or women in the way that he has.  Ever.

Stop defending his speech as commonplace when the defense is really about tribalism and politics.  I get that both parties this election are having to reconcile themselves with nominees that violate some of their own ethical and political values.  But let’s be honest about it.  Admit that if a Democratic nominee was found saying the same things you would call for their resignation.  You would call their comments indefensible and tie it to the moral laxness of their political party—as you see it.  You wouldn’t accept it as mere locker room talk.  You could call it what it is because it came from the “other party.” And if you are a Democrat, you must admit that Clinton’s “mistakes” of judgment would look much more menacing if they came from a Republican candidate.

Whoever wins this election is not going to come into the presidency with a mandate from voters.  Both are historically and exceptionally weak candidates.  The one who wins will primarily win because of the more extreme liabilities of their opponent.

Loyalty to party over country is not patriotism.  Electing a candidate who has no respect for constitutional separation of powers is not worth keeping the power in your own tribe.  Perhaps the losing party in this election will be in a better place anyway.  The losing side will be forced to change and rethink why they nominated such a flawed and weak candidate.  The losing party will have to reckon with how they lost the trust and loyalty not just of the other side, but even large parts of their own tribe.

The winning party will be stained with a weak winning candidate.  In particular, if Clinton wins the Democratic Party may be headed for some serious problems.  They are a party with so few young people in leadership.  The two leading candidates were 68 and 75 years old.  The young progressives found themselves aligning behind a charismatic but aging candidate with little time left in politics.

But Republicans need to remember that the two top candidates for their nomination, Trump and Ted Cruz, were reviled by large groups within their own party let alone the country at large.  This week’s only bright spot for me was that large numbers of Republican leaders withdrew their support for Trump over another scandalous revelation about his character.  This willingness to risk their own political party’s power to stand up against such lewdness is refreshing and a good sign for the future of the party.

Don’t defend the indefensible because it is “your side.”  Speak up against the sexualizing of women regardless of who says it.  Stand up for goodness and virtue wherever you find it.  In the long run, losing a single election is preferable to selling the soul of your party.

Thank you to all those Republican leaders who set the example for my daughters this week by denouncing and disassociating yourselves from such nastiness.  It takes courage to stand against your own.

Happy Birthday to My Older Brother

Watch this first:

https://youtu.be/wEEsWEOqpGY

There is a devotion of a boy to his older brother that defies any kind of logic.  My brother Scott, three years older than I am, was always there.  And maybe that is part of the mystery.  A younger brother has never known a life without his brother there.  He was always bigger than me, faster than me, knew more about the world than I did.  Even my preferences somehow always started with him.  As a boy, when people asked me why I liked a particular sports team over another, I had no answer.  I mean, I knew why.  Because my brother liked them first.

Over the years my brother and I spent more time together than with any friends.  We could find numberless games to make up and play—all it required was a ball of some kind.  We wrestled, played football, baseball, some games on our trampoline, and dozens of games that involved throwing a racquetball against the house.  Sometimes I would get tired of always being outplayed by him, and he would bribe me with some coveted baseball card or Star Wars figure to keep me motivated.  And I always fell for it, even though I still always lost.

I think a younger brother just starts every question looking to what his older brother has done.  Scott seemed to be so effortlessly cool and liked by everyone.  I wanted to be like that.  He was an amazing student and scholar at university—I wanted to be like that, too.  His choice of profession showed his concern about the well-being of others, of his fellow human beings all over the world—though he would never claim that mantle of hero.

Then in the early 90’s I went off to England for a couple of years.  A few months before I came back home, he left for his years in the Peace Corps in South America.  And since then our lives have been a series of intersections at the infrequent moments that our orbits crossed each other.  Over the past 25 years, I think we have lived on the same continent for only maybe 3 years.  As I write this he lives about 10,000 miles from me in southern Africa.

Neither of us are very good about phone calls and other ways of staying in contact.  We see each other’s orbital patterns, but seem to always wait until our planets intersect.  And it is not that often.  We have families, jobs, joys, worries.  We are drawn into our work, pulled into the needs of our children, caught up in our separate universes.

But there is something about not being around my brother that seems off.  We are the only direct male relatives in our families.  No grandfathers, no father, no uncles in our bloodline.  And if I want to see what I will look like in three years, I can just see what he looks like now.  So though we are so often separated, we are still interconnected.  It’s not quite like having a distant twin, I suppose, but somehow the separation still feels strange, not right.

And in the end, this is all we’ve got.  What will be the tragedy that will make me realize that my brother is the only one I have?  If you watched the video, you see how the brothers are brought together by the impending loss of each other.  But isn’t that the reality for all of us?  Our time is so short, incredibly brief.  And if not now, when?  I am sorry, brother, for not working harder to keep our lives in contact with each other.  I don’t want some tragedy to make me realize how much I regret losing touch with my brother far sooner than I had to.  I want to tell you that I love you, my older brother.  I want to tell you that I am with you, always, from life until death.  But I have to keep the promise to be with you now, in life.  I miss you, brother.  Happy Birthday.

 

The Lies I Want To Hear

As I have watched the political dialogue in this presidential election cycle, my mind has gone back to a story from my childhood by the great Ray Bradbury. The short story, called The Toynbee Convector, told of a time traveler who traveled 100 years into the future.

The time traveler came back to the present, saying “We made it! We did it! The future is ours. We rebuilt the cities, freshened the small towns, cleaned the lakes and rivers, washed the air, saved the dolphins, increased the whales, stopped the wars, tossed solar stations across space to light the world, colonized the moon, moved on to Mars, then Alpha Centauri. We cured cancer and stopped death…Oh, future’s bright and beauteous spires, arise!”

At the end of the story you learn that the time traveler had lied. He had concocted an elaborate hoax. He created pictures, video recordings, and drawings to show everyone a future that he had never seen. When asked why he had lied to everyone, the supposed time traveler says, “Life has always been lying to ourselves!…to gently lie and prove the lie true. To weave dreams and put brains and flesh and the truly real beneath the dreams. Everything, finally, is a promise. What seems a lie is a ramshackle need, wishing to be born. Here. Thus and so.”

Because everyone had believed him, the fake time traveler created in the minds of all people on earth the hopes and dreams that he had invented. The end of wars, the healing of the environment, and travel into space were all accomplished because people believed it would happen. They fulfilled his vision because he led them to believe it was possible.

Contrast this vision with our current political environment. Politicians seem to have taken their cues from the dystopic visions of our cinema. Their speeches reflect more Hunger Games than Reagan’s vision of a “shining city on a hill.” The Republican candidates are clearly spreading a gloomy picture of America where one should have a fear of immigrants, Muslims, and Obama. However, the Democratic candidates also present themselves as the only solution to a dystopic future America. The difference between the parties is more about what to fear rather than whether to fear.

Either these politicians really stay up at night fearing the imminent destruction of America or they are stoking fear to garner support. I am not sure which is worse, politicians so paranoid about America and its citizens or politicians willing to spread fear and bigotry of the “Other.” For conservatives, the “Other” is liberals, Muslims, or immigrants. For the liberals, it is the devoutly religious, the gun-toting conservatives, or the top 1%.

Where did hope get lost along the way? This despair is not created by politicians, but is exploited by them for gain. Can you think of a single popular movie that is set in the future where things are better than they are now? Do we have any visions of a future where we solve the big problems of today? It seems to me that our media is populated with dystopic futures that are filled with environmental degradation, extreme violence, and tyranny. And zombies. Politicians of both parties regularly receive fact-checker ratings of “totally false” and “pants on fire.” They tell lies in order to spread these anti-ideals of fear and despair. And their ratings go up.

Bradbury’s short story was called the “Toynbee Convector” after Arnold Toynbee, a British historian and expert in international affairs. He famously said “Apathy can be overcome by enthusiasm, and enthusiasm can only be aroused by two things: first, an ideal, which takes the imagination by storm, and second, a definite intelligible plan for carrying that ideal into practice.”

This is what I am looking for in a presidential candidate: a positive ideal for which to strive and an intelligent plan for making that ideal a real possibility. We live in great times. We live in the country with the strongest and most stable economy. Most of the major communicable diseases have been eradicated. We have the freedom to worship as we choose. We have safe and plentiful food. In Rexburg we enjoy clean air, clean water, and safety from war and crime. These can be hopeful times.

I am still waiting for someone with a hopeful vision, with an ideal that excites me, and a plan to implement those ideals. The fearful and despairing visions offered by so many of today’s politicians may increase Americans’ desires for “strong” leaders or a more intrusive, security-minded government, but I am looking for something different. I’m still looking to vote for a fake time-traveler with a hopeful lie and a future of promise.  A politician who will “gently lie and prove the lie true.”

This article was originally published on Feb 2, 2016 in the Standard Journal (http://uvsj.com/opinion/columns/the-lies-i-want-to-hear/article_9aed9fbc-c933-11e5-8004-cf744d126ac4.html)

To My Non-Christian Friends: The Meaning of Easter

My daughters Asia and Eden at the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem--2007.

My daughters Asia and Eden at the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem–2007.

Today and this last week Christians around the world celebrate the holiday called Easter. Because it is less commercialized and less about buying things, it takes a back seat to Christmas.  That holiday just about everybody knows about even if they don’t know much about its Christian significance. But it is a shame, really, because Easter symbolizes so much more about what it means to be a Christian. So I decided today to attempt to explain to my non-Christian friends a bit about the meaning of Easter and what it is we are celebrating.

If you don’t know the story at all, I can give you just a brief primer. Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and is God incarnated (in body form) on the earth. We believe that Jesus was born and grew up in humble circumstances. In his young years (younger than I am now), he began to teach others about the nature of God and our obligations to each other. He taught people to love, to care for others, and to not return hatred for hatred, violence for violence. He taught that we should forgive all people their sins against us. He caught the anger of the established powers of his day and was eventually put to death, by crucifixion. Christians believe that Jesus was dead for three days and then resurrected (was alive again, risen from the dead) on the holiday we now call Easter. There is so much more to the story, but that isn’t the thing I am trying to explain.

So what does Easter mean to us? First, Easter is about hope. Because of God’s own self-sacrifice, we have hope. Hope of life (Christians believe we will all be resurrected), hope of forgiveness (Christians believe that we can be forgiven of our sins through the sacrifice of Jesus), and the hope of healing (from our own transgressions as well as the suffering caused by the actions of others). So the story of Easter is a reminder that there is hope in the world. No matter how bad it gets, and remember that the story of Easter is also the story of the suffering and cruelty of man, there is always hope. There is hope because God loves the world so much that He chose to suffer for us. Both God as Jesus who suffered death for us and God as Father who suffered, or allowed, His son to die so that we might be saved.  So Easter is about the hope that is available to all of us.*

Easter is also about the celebration of grace. The term grace for Christians describes how God gives us more than we deserve. Have you felt before that sense of inadequacy, not being “good enough”? Sometimes that runs very deep. Modern American culture tells us that the solution is to think of ourselves as amazing, but for most of us I think that falls flat because we still feel that sense of not being good enough. The idea of grace basically acknowledges that sense of not being adequate, but responds in a different way. The grace of God, or the grace of Christ, means that we get more than we deserve. It means that all of us get more than we deserve from God. It is true that we are not good enough, but the price to be paid for that inadequacy is already paid for by God through this sacrifice we celebrate at Easter. This does mean that as Christians we are given grace in order to offer grace to others. Jesus taught that we must love even our enemies, and forgive others without exception. The question of fairness is not longer our main concern. We receive forgiveness by showing forgiveness and grace in order to offer grace to others. In other words, Christians are obligated to sacrifice their own needs and even their own sense of fairness in order to give others more than they deserve. So Easter is the celebration of grace, the receiving of the gift as well as the opportunity to offer it.

Last of all, Easter represents what is sometimes referred to as the atonement. If you break the words down you get at-one-ment. This is the bringing back together what has been broken apart. So what has been divided that must be restored? First, our connection to God. Our shortcomings and outright sins make us imperfect and separate us from God. The atonement of Christ brings us back together, as one, with God. We are also separated in our relationships with each other. We know that estrangement that comes because we act stupidly or cruelly toward each other. We find ourselves separated from each other sometimes because of what we do and sometimes because of the actions of others toward us. This reconciliation of person-to-person is also accomplished because of the sacrifice of God we celebrate at Easter. We are restored to our relationships with each other through forgiveness and grace.*

So Easter, for Christians, is the most significant of the holidays (holy days). It represents the opportunity for hope, the gift of grace, and the bringing together what has been broken apart in our relationship with God and with each other. So even if you are not Christian, I hope you will celebrate with us the joy of hope, grace, and reconciliation. Happy Easter!

 

* P.S. I want to add a couple of things that I think are unique to my own particular sect in Christianity because they are a significant part of the meaning of Easter to me, though they may differ a bit from other Christians. I am a member of a church called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (though commonly referred to as Mormons).

One of the significant differences we believe is that the hope offered by the atonement of Christ is available to all people, regardless of where or when they were born. More typical of Christians is the idea that if you die without accepting Christ, you will go to hell. In the doctrine of my church, we believe that all people will get an opportunity, indeed more opportunities than any of us deserve, to accept God and be saved. We believe that some people will only get this opportunity after this life but that God’s grace extends to all people, not just those in our church or to Christians as a whole. In other words, God does not extend his hope just to those who accept Jesus or Christian church membership in this life.

Also, with regards to this reconciliation my particular church has something to add to the story. We believe that part of what is reconciled is our family relationships. While most people refer to marriage as being only an earthy institution (“till death us do part”), we believe that family relationships are eternal. In other words, marriage and family and children are part of the long-term, eternal scheme of things. This is why you find so much emphasis among us about families, marriages, and children. Because we believe that one of the effects of this holiday we celebrate as Easter is the reconciliation of our family relationships. After all, how could heaven be heaven without my amazing wife and sweet little daughters?  

Sleep

It is the night of weeks like this that I long for sleep.  For the kind of sleep that is dark, warm, a kind of death from which I can awake in the morning having enjoyed the oblivion of not-being.  As I leave Samara to sleep she tells me “I am not happy being in here by myself.”  So I read Pessoa to her as she falls asleep:

Anyone wanting to make a catalogue of monsters would need only to photograph in words the things that night brings to somnolent souls who cannot sleep.

He is right, it is the tired man who wants to sleep, but either finds himself awake in the dark silence, or asleep consumed by the monsters of nightmares.  Sometimes I cannot decide which to choose—as if it were my choice.  Last night I dreamt, but I dreamt of a sculpture by Rodin.  The man in the sculpture has his head down and he is being mobbed by bodies, flowing robes and anguish.  He is being torn by the demons.  I imagine, in my dream, the sculpture come alive.  What is in waking life a beautiful if melancholy statue comes awake and becomes terrifying.  The wailing, the anger, the desire for relief.  The need for the darkness of sleep.  I awake and find myself consumed by the images, not sure whether to try to sleep or to get up and sit like I do some nights, in the kitchen looking up at the sky through the window. 

Samara’s breathing is slowing down and becoming rhythmical.  That delicious feeling of sinking into the dark, like into warm mud.  I keep reading Pessoa, now for me more than for her:

I would be happy if only I could sleep.  At least that’s what I think now when I can’t sleep.  The night is an immense weight pressing down on my dream of suffocating myself beneath the silent blanket.  I have indigestion of the soul.

She sleeps, the sleep of a child.  At least that what it seems to me now.  But I remember sleeping at her age and the terrors of sleep even then.  The dreams of being abandoned, of the monsters closing in with no one to save me.  I wake now with my dreams of monsters, wishing I had a bed to run to, with stronger and bigger people who love me and soothe me as I fall asleep under the warmth of their comfort.  But I am now the bed to run to, the giver of solace who himself begs for rest.

Image

 

Seeing a new world–with color

About two weeks ago I read an article on the New York Times website by David Pogue, the technology guy. He, like me, is colorblind and he described a new product, funded by the National Institute of Health, that created glasses for colorblind people. The company, Enchroma (http://enchroma.com), makes sunglasses that have to be used outside in bright sunlight to work. But they advertised that it helps colorblind people see colors that they had not before. I was really amazed to hear about the glasses and that Pogue said that they actually worked. He said poignantly that he actually felt some emotion when he saw a rainbow for the first time and saw all the colors.

Now the glasses are really expensive. I caught them on sale (about 15 mins before it ended) and they were still about $450! I know, crazy. But they do have a 30 day guarantee where you can return them if they are still in new condition. So it seemed to me like something to try. I mean, why not right? I will describe here what the experience has been like and it has been both wildly amazing and really hard to handle. Let me explain…

First, the sunglasses arrived yesterday while we were eating dinner. I immediately left the table and walked outside with them, only mumbling my purpose to everyone else. I walked first to the strawberry patch, expecting to see bright red berries glowing there. Actually, you all know this (if you are normal color visioned) but the berries sort of hide underneath leaves. They did look brighter than usual and stood out a bit more, but I did know that strawberries are red before. I went wandering around the neighborhood looking at people’s flowers and again found that the colors were more obvious, brighter, as long as they were in direct sun. The minute they were in shadow, back to colorblind. I thought, “Well, sort of cool” and went back in to eat my now-cold-soup. The most striking of all was my daughter Asia’s dress. It is bright purple with a bright green pattern on it. Now I didn’t know the pattern was green until last night but it was quite cool to see purplish-pink right next to green. Never seen that before.

Today I actually read the insert. They told me that I should put the glasses on and keep them on for a long time while outside in sunlight. And they said not to keep peeping over the top of the glasses to compare the normal with the sunglasses. So I decided to give it a try. I had to pick up Eden from school and decided to wear the glasses, ignoring the many warnings that the glasses could make “colors distracting” and to use caution while driving. It seemed like one of those silly warnings like “don’t touch a hot iron” or something.

So off I go in the car, noticing only at first the brighter colors–especially of green. When I came to my first STOP sign, I was stunned. Who made red so red? How could one ever think that stop signs blend in with trees. Actually, there is a story there. In brief, I failed my first driving test when I didn’t see the STOP sign because there was a tree behind it. I have gotten better, don’t worry. Anyway, most of the way to the school I just kept saying outloud “Red!” to myself. Red cars, red flowers, red signs. Who knew there was so much red in the world? Well, all of you reading this for one. The few of you that are colorblind will know what I mean. Well, actually you won’t because you still don’t SEE, if you know what I mean. It gets confusing.

I picked up Eden from school and she was carrying this bright red shirt. Now I know what red is and can pick it out, but I have never really seen red like that before. Now that I had an audience, I kept saying to Eden “Look, a red sign! Look at the red car! Look at those flowers, they are pink!” She had a rough day at school and seemed quite unimpressed. But now I got the warning, I had to be careful to keep my eyes on the traffic because the world was suddenly turned up, like when you supersaturate on Photoshop. I decided to stop at the neighbor’s house to look at their raspberry bushes. There’s a story there too: when I was young one of our chores was to pick raspberries. I had the toughest time doing it and would often hear my sister complain “I hate picking with Matt, he doesn’t even look for them and I have to pick them all over again.” At the time I did not know I was colorblind and was amazed to see how other people could pick baskets of berries when I could only find 5 berries in 30 minutes. Anyway, sadly enough the berries were all gone or dried up so I didn’t get to have that victory.

When I got home I decided to try looking at photos to see if the colors in a photo album would be different if I looked at them with the Enchroma glasses on and in full sunlight. So I picked up the photo book I had made of our recent time in India. The minute I saw the front cover, I knew I was in for something. The picture was a family photo of us after the Holi celebration and we were covered in colored paint. It was stunning. As I looked through the book, I was just floored at all that I was missing. Eden was sitting there with me and I kept doing the same thing as in the car–Look, it’s red! Seeing colors made everything seem more separate. Large group photos looked different because everyone was wearing different colors and it made them stand out as separate people. One picture of the girls sitting on a painted elephant looked so much better with all the colors and I had a hard time believing that I had really missed so much. And that is the down side. And it is kind of a big downside. For Pogue, he was emotionally moved by seeing a full rainbow (I haven’t seen that yet) and that is one part of it–to see the vibrancy and separateness of colors after a lifetime of being colorblind is revelatory.

But to take the glasses off and know that you have missed that much your whole life is really painful. I felt like crying and only didn’t because I don’t really like doing that. But to have missed so much in my life! I would always tell people, “I don’t know what I am missing so it doesn’t bother me.” And now I cannot say that anymore.

There are more important things

This is an article I wrote for the journal here at Lady Shri Ram College for their annual academic journal, The Learning Curve. Theirs is the both the copyright and the inspiration.

Reference: Whoolery, M. (2013). There are more important things: Questioning American psychology’s commitment to personal happiness and self-esteem. The Learning Curve, 2 (1), 6-10.

There are More Important Things:

Questioning American Psychology’s Commitment to Personal Happiness and Self-Esteem

While I hope I am still too young to write a retrospective of my career, I find myself reflecting on reoccurring themes in both my professional career as a practicing and teaching psychologist and my personal life. I hope that the reader will indulge a certain personal focus and use of the personal “I” pronoun even though this is a voice not used much in academic psychology. My focus in this article is on the commitment in American psychology to the ideal of personal happiness and self-esteem. While for most Americans these aims seem self-evident, I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with and skeptical of these mostly unquestioned assumptions in my field. I hope that what I have to say can influence the reader both professionally and personally as you purse your academic goals and seek for living the right kind of life. I will focus on three primary assumptions made by modern American psychology: first, that human beings should or ought to be happy; second, that we should seek to be free of suffering; and third, that humans beings should (and deserve to) feel good about themselves.

Unhappiness is not a Disease

Whether we focus on research or psychotherapy, American’s psychology’s commitment to the ideal of personal happiness is overwhelming. This focus is not new and is based on a long history of European and British philosophies claiming this as the primary aim of human existence. Since this happiness focus is evident to any casual observer or experienced psychologist, I will not spend a great deal of time hammering out the history or details of this commitment (that is for another venue and paper) to personal happiness, but instead put my efforts into the questioning the familiar assumptions. This goes for the other assumptions as well: it is well established that American psychology seeks to end human suffering and to help others feel good about themselves. Indeed, these assumptions for most people are unquestionable and form the basis for an ethical and effective psychotherapeutic intervention. My argument is that these assumptions are not as self-evident or universally true as we usually accept them to be. And I genuinely believe that they lead us away from, rather than toward, the right kind of life. Stick with me.

As a freshman at university, I grew to enjoy the experience of watching international films in my university’s International Cinema program. It was refreshing and fascinating to see the stories and landscapes of other people and cultures. One particular Russian film had a profound impact on me. The film was directed by the critically acclaimed but largely obscure Andrei Tarkovsky. In his film Nostalghia, one character says to the other “You want to be happy. There are more important things.” I actually returned the next day to see the film again (this was before Google and YouTube) just to see if I had gotten this idea and quote right. It at once struck me as true and I found myself morally disturbed by its simplicity. Disturbed primarily because it seemed to be so true but in all my years as a student and an American I had never heard this truth before. When I have shared this quote over the years with my students, many of them have been similarly disturbed by it. Not all have agreed with it, but all have found it to provoke some questioning about what they have been striving for in their personal lives. I have even heard from students, years later, still mulling over this question: “Is personal happiness the right end goal to strive for in life?” Psychology, I believe, answers the question affirmatively. While there are notable exceptions (Frankl, 1992 for example), most psychologists and psychotherapists focus on the increasing of personal happiness as a primary goal. But is Tarkovsky right? Are there more important things?

I firmly believe that there are more important things, both personally and professionally. One of these is the search for meaning and purpose in life. By this I do not mean the search for personal meaning independent of others around us, but to find our purpose in what we can and should do in benefitting those around us. In a great story by Tolstoy, he tells of a king who is seeking to know the answer to three questions: Who is the most important person to know and consult? What is the most important thing to do? When is the most important time to act? In his parable, Tolstoy answers that the most important time is now. The most important person is the one in front of us. And the most important thing to do is to do good to that person. In working with clients and students struggling with depression, one of the questions I always ask them is what they are doing to benefit those around them. Some describe their feelings that they don’t feel like there is any reason for them to wake up in the morning. And the reality may be that in the way they are living their lives, there is not much reason for them to wake up and get out of bed. I encourage them to seek out ways to use their particular abilities or talents to benefit others. Even if it is just that they have an hour a day to spare to sit with elderly patients in an assisted living facility.

Part of this push comes from my own experience. In my late adolescence I found myself in this “dark” time and couldn’t seem to find a way out. I had read the books on self-love and self-esteem and had found them ultimately lacking. No matter how much I examined myself or tried to convince myself that I was a “good person” I still was left with these feelings of gloom. Maybe it was Tarkovsky’s film, I don’t remember, but one day I decided to seek out ways to serve in my community. I didn’t have any specialized skill to offer, but I ended up spending some hours each week working with children with physical and mental challenges. It’s not that in doing this community service I thought “I am a good person because I am helping others.” The change that took place in me was that I started to lose the self-consciousness and concern for my own well-being. Being with these children who approached me with simple love and affection just left me to not be worried about whether I was happy, good, or experiencing meaning in my life. The self-forgetfulness that came from working with these children was exhilarating. I finally didn’t care anymore about my problems and as a result “found” others around me. The relief from myself was wonderful.

This is the meaning I am referring to: the meaning found in the engagement in doing good in the moment we are in and for the person we are with. This is more important than being happy. Happiness may come (sometimes but not always) from living this way, but need not be pursued as a goal. Indeed, happiness as a goal is unattainable—for as long as we seek personal happiness we find ourselves always falling short because suffering and sorrow are inevitable parts of the human condition.

Healthy People Suffer

Much of modern psychotherapy sets the goal for a healthy individual to be free of suffering. Measures of mental health are almost always organized as “symptom checklists” which add up negative symptoms (like feelings of unhappiness or anxiety) to give you a score reflecting the “amount” of suffering you are experiencing. In other words, each symptom of suffering is counted against your mental health. This is universal enough that it must seem to most psychologists to be self-evident that suffering is bad and a sign of poor mental health. I myself helped create one of these measures and also worked in a clinic that used such a checklist to track the progress of psychotherapy. I was certainly committed to ending the suffering of my clients and believed that problems needed to be fixed so that a person would be free of suffering and problems.

As an example of this in modern psychology and psychiatry, take the controversy over the so-called bereavement exclusion in the diagnosis of major depression. Until recently, the DSM-IV-TR (the diagnostic manual used by American psychiatrists and psychologists) gave an exclusion from the diagnosis of depression to those who were in bereavement for the death of a loved one. It was thought that it was normal to have sorrow, difficulties in eating and sleeping, and other symptoms when a loved one passed away (by the way, the exclusion was for only two months). Recently the controversy became more important as American psychiatrists and psychologists began the revision of the DSM for the fifth version. Members of the committee were psychiatrists and psychologists in good standing in the field, even if also in close relationships with pharmaceutical companies. The final decision was to remove the exclusion altogether! Now a person who is only two weeks away from the death of a loved one (since the diagnosis of depression requires 2 weeks of symptoms regardless of cause) can be diagnosed with a so-called mental disorder. The reasoning was that since people in bereavement are “suffering,” to not diagnose them with depression would unnecessarily leave them to suffer.

In the years since I began practicing and teaching psychology, I have continued in greater earnest to question the assumption that suffering is bad or avoidable. In other words, I have come to believe that suffering is an important part of being a human being. While most or all human beings prefer times of ease and happiness over times of stress and suffering, these latter states still play an important part in a normal human life. Existential philosophers like Soren Kierkegaard (1969) argue that anxiety is essential to the meaningful human life. A human being free of anxiety would have no motivation to do anything, be happy to sit still. Anxiety and suffering move us in ways that moments of satisfaction and happiness cannot. Suffering in the case of bereavement, rather than being seen as a symptom of disorder to be fixed, may be seen as a healthy and normal way to deal with significant loss. These are not symptoms to fix, but meanings waiting to be fulfilled. More and more frequently I find myself advising others to refrain from trying to “fix their problems” and instead find ways to have a meaningful life accepting these parts of themselves.

One example is of a friend who talked with me a few years ago about the sorrow he and his wife were experiencing as they struggled to have children without success. The reality that they would not be able to have children of their own was a great source of suffering to them and their families. Interestingly, they went to seek help from a psychologist and were told that they were both “suffering from depression” which led to a prescription for an anti-depressant. There seemed to be no room for the idea that this suffering was genuine and an outgrowth of their love for one another that they had hoped would be expressed in having children together. Instead, their genuine suffering was interpreted as a disease that needed to be cured. While I certainly did not hope for their continued suffering and sorrow, I believe that it was a necessary and healthy mourning of loss rather than a problem to be fixed. The fact of the matter is this: life has times of unavoidable suffering. It seems to me that learning to find meaning in these times of sorrow is far superior to a frantic avoidance of pain. Psychology has done great harm in presenting human suffering as simply a disease to cure.

Feeling Good about Oneself is to Encourage Illusory Thinking

Perhaps the most provocative of my professional disagreements has to do with the way that we should think of ourselves. American psychology has long had an obsession with positive self-esteem and working to help psychotherapy patients “feel good about themselves.” This kind of positive self-image is encouraged regardless of the kind of lifestyle or decisions the person is making in their lives. People are encouraged to think positively of themselves even if they are failing miserably in their relationships, career, and personal lives. One of my colleagues worked at a mental hospital where they treated youth who were convicted of violent sexual assault. Even these youth were taught to love themselves more, disregarding or separating themselves from their horrific behavior. I believe that this focus in psychology is counter-productive and I have a feeling that most of us know that it is ultimately wrong. I will explain.

While I have known a few truly exceptional individuals in my life who I might think should esteem themselves quite highly (though I find they rarely do), most of us are quite aware that we are fundamentally flawed in one way or the other. And not just in ways that we can blame on our parents or society, but in ways that we know very well are due to our own poor choices. We are taught to repeat self-affirmative mantras when deep down we know that we really aren’t that wonderful. The problem isn’t that we find ourselves lacking in important ways, but that we are told by psychologists (and sometimes our mothers) that we should think that we are wonderful. Self-criticism is seen as a problematic behavior and something that should be avoided. We are taught by psychologists like Carl Rogers that our problems are fundamentally due to the inputs of others who teach us that we are only conditionally worthy. The goal of these kinds of therapies is to have us have unconditional positive regard for ourselves (Rogers, 1947). It was no surprise that a blockbuster hit in the 1980’s (and the song that became the theme song for the Atlanta Olympics) claimed that loving yourself was the “greatest love of all.”

When I say that I think most of us see through the illusion I mean that most of us feel the conflict in this. We are told by psychologists that we should feel good about ourselves in every way but we recognize, quite acutely at times, that we really aren’t that great. We see in ourselves character flaws and behaviors for which we feel embarrassment, shame, and guilt no matter how much our society says that these things are okay. We tend toward self-criticism not because we are experiencing emotional problems, but because we are being honest with ourselves. While most all of us have some traits that are admirable, we are all aware of the many ways in which we fail to meet up to standards of the right kind of life—even if we define that personally. When we find ourselves honestly evaluating our lives, we are frequently faced with ways in which we know we are failing. What are we to do with these feelings? Are we to avoid them and drown them out in self-affirmations or should we face up to them and accept ourselves fully as flawed people?

In my own life I have found great peace in accepting that I am simply not a great human being. I don’t feel self-pity about this, but feel that an honest look at myself leaves me with the truth that I am lacking in significant ways. This self-criticism does not have to lead to a kind of wallowing in our faults, but can be an important way to move ourselves closer to the life that we want to live. Self-criticism is an essential part of being an excellent scholar and scientist. A willingness to admit one’s own scientific and moral fallibility helps us to be more careful in what we believe and more able to see our own mistakes. The famous psychologist Alfred Binet spent a significant portion of his career staking his reputation on the idea that the volume of a person’s cranium is the determiner of his/her intelligence. He even said that this “truth” was scientifically proven and irrefutable. In an act of scientific and personal humility, he later admitted that he was wrong. Binet went on to make significant and long-lasting contributions to the field of psychology while many of his compatriots never recanted and have faded into history as examples of pseudo-scientists.

I believe honest self-criticism is also important for experiencing personal growth. If we are really so wonderful and amazing as the self-esteem psychologists attempt to convince us, there is not much more for us to do. But if we are what we often fear, flawed and bruised human beings, there is a work to be done. Realistic expectations are fostered when we recognize as well that being less than stellar is to be human. Following from the example I gave earlier, when I realized that my personal feelings of doom and gloom were largely of my own self-ish creation, I was able to find a way out. As long as I kept trying to tell myself that in reality I was a great person I could not find the solution. The fact of the matter is that many of my own problems come from short-sightedness, selfishness, and willful disregard of the things I know and believe to be true and right. This is not self-pity, this is simply the truth.

Permit me one last example. One of my daughters was talking with me on the sidelines of her football (soccer) game about how she felt like she wasn’t a good player. I simply agreed with her, not to be unkind but to be honest with her and encourage her ability to be self-critical. The fact is that she wasn’t really very good at that sport even though she excelled in other parts of her life. I told her that the teammates and opponents that were better at football than she was had worked very hard to get that way. They had spent hours every day playing and practicing in order to feel confident and succeed on the playing field. I asked her “Do you want to be good if it requires that kind of work? If so, I will help you to achieve it.” Her answer somewhat surprised me. She said “No.” I asked her how good she wanted to be and she replied “Good enough to have fun.” From that we decided to practice some more in order to help her feel more confident and to enjoy her games more. As you might imagine, when I recounted this conversation with some of my American friends, they were horrified that I would tell my daughter (or at least agree with her own conclusion) that she wasn’t good at playing football. They felt that I should have told her that she was “good” or “improving” even though neither of those were necessarily true at that time. This is the problem, we teach our children the same self-affirming and self-deceptive practices that lead us to the paradox of trying to feel all good about ourselves with the recognition that we realize it just is not true. Honest recognition of our faults is an important aspect of a healthy and mature human being.

While I believe that American psychology has good intentions and that most practitioners are acting in good faith to help others, I believe that our enterprise is fundamentally flawed. Indeed, I believe that psychology may be doing more to further unrealistic expectations of happiness that leads to feelings of shame about unavoidable unhappiness that is natural to the human condition. By perpetuating the idea that we can be free of suffering, people flock to their doctors and psychotherapists to help them fix what in reality are normal parts of the human condition. And by pushing the notion that we should feel good about ourselves we are leaving people unable to be self-critical in ways that will help them toward genuine self-improvement. Maybe accepting life as something more than self, sprinkled (sometimes heavily) with suffering, and ourselves as the incomplete creatures we are will lead to something like an improvement of individuals and society. Consider it, maybe there really are more important things.

References

Frankl, V.E. (1992). Man’s search for meaning. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Kierkegaard, S (1969). The sickness unto death (W. Lowrie, trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rogers, C.R. (1947). Some observations on the organization of personality. American Psychologist, 2, 358-368.