I’ve lived 60 years on this planet.
For over 30 of those years, I’ve been a husband and father of four, doing the best I could to raise our children with sound morals, critical thinking skills, and compassionate care for themselves and others.
A humbling experience. Never perfect. We serve as a secure base, a launching pad, a guide for a time. They become their own persons, they find their own ways.
Over the same 30 years I’ve had the equally humbling experience of being a clinical child psychologist. I’ve seen a lot in my career – seeking to heal the troubled hearts and minds of many different kinds of kids and families.
All. Different. Kinds.
Rich and poor and in-between. Conservative and liberal and in-between. Christians and Jews and Muslims and agnostics and atheists. Extremists and moderates. White, black, brown, and otherwise. Heterosexual, homosexual, and otherwise. Able-bodied and physically disabled and chronically ill. Those with intellectual disabilities and those identified as mentally gifted.
Urban, suburban, and rural. Living in million-dollar mansions, country ranch homes, suburban split-levels, trailer parks. Married, divorced, widowed. Single-parents, grand-parents, foster-parents. Parents with PhDs and MDs and JDs and no educational degrees whatsoever. Blue collar and white collar. Unemployed and homeless. Clergy men and women, military men and women. Police officers and convicted criminals. First, second, third, fourth, and fifth-generation immigrants. Avowed white supremacists and racial justice warriors.
Kids self-identified as or labeled by others as… Socially popular, accepted, neglected, rejected. Jocks, hicks, and geeks. 5-Star athletes and award-winning artists and intra-mural bench warmers and stay-at-home gamers. Introverts and Extroverts. Students with straight A’s and those with failing grades. Stressed-out valedictorians and juvenile delinquents and “average” kids just trying to get by.
Hyperactive and aggressive, anxious and depressive, homicidal and suicidal. Sleep problems, health problems, academic problems, peer problems, family problems. Mild problems and severe problems. Domestic violence and sexual abuse survivors and perpetrators.
The best and the worst of human beings. Or more accurately, human beings at their best and at their worst.
One thing they all have in common. They each, every single one of them, have value. They’re human beings. They care about being safe, being healthy, being happy. Just like you and me. That’s the point, really. They are you and me. We are they. This is us.
We are all inter-connected on this planet, like it or not. We are all part of humanity. We are all part of this country (focusing on American citizens, for the sake of this article). We are all part of our home states and communities and schools and churches and sports-fan bases (or not!). At the same time, we’re all unique individuals with unique strengths and struggles.
To quote from one of my favorite Sesame Street books (which I always carry in my briefcase), we’re all the same AND we’re all different.
We’re the same.
That’s what makes the world such fun.
Many kinds of people, not just one!
A rainbow would be boring
If it were ONLY red or blue.
What makes a rainbow beautiful
Is that it has every hue.
We’re the same.
Now the question becomes, how do we co-exist? How do we thrive – individually and collectively – with all of our shared and diverse interests? How do we resolve our differences constructively, for the greater good, rather than using destructive means that will hasten our demise? How do we harness and appreciate our differences, rather than deny or denigrate them?
At the heart of my work clinically, as well as my thoughts about healthy families and democracies, lies this fundamental question: How can we resolve our conflicts peacefully and productively?
In my clinical practice I don’t have the luxury of “taking sides” or “proving I’m right.” That’s not the point of my work. The point is to deeply listen and understand each person – as clearly and compassionately and objectively as possible (which, of course, is never completely possible). Then to respond with goodwill in co-constructing a pathway towards their mental health and well-being.
I assess what’s working and not working for them right now, regardless of my personal beliefs or preferences. Then I help them develop greater self-awareness, self-acceptance, and self-regulation. With these skills, they are better able to negotiate the stressful demands of their daily lives. They’re able to function in healthier, happier relationships at home, school, and work – even with very real differences between themselves and others. Even in the face of very real hardships.
My fervent wish is that we all can find a way to do that better.
Towards that end, I offer some words of hard-earned wisdom for how we might get through these challenging times more united and less divided.
My thoughts here are aspirational, really. They serve as a compass to steer us towards more sanity and away from the growing insanity of our times. They are based on what I’ve found to be most useful in guiding many thousands of youth from childhood to adulthood over these last 30 years.
Honesty is the best policy.
If we aren’t being honest, we cannot build or maintain trust in any relationship. If we aren’t authentic with our children, they’ll smell it from a mile away. I think the same is true for our adult relationships at home, work, or in the public sphere.
Being honest isn’t some childish, pie-in-the-sky idea. It’s being mature. It’s manning-up. It takes courage. It takes integrity. And integrity always wins out in the end.
Being straightforward and honest, to the best of your knowledge, lets your kids know they can count on you. They can believe you. They can feel secure in your presence, even if and when they disagree with you. This is true regardless of their age – or yours!
When listening to others and trying to discern whether someone’s being honest with you, listen to your gut. It has an inherent wisdom. In fact, neurobiologically we’re wired with the vegus nerve bundle around our internal organs that alert us to danger – literally a visceral feeling tells you what’s safe and what’s not. Pay attention. Get out of your head, and listen to your heart, listen to your gut. Does what you hear pass the smell test?
When speaking, my motto is this: “Say what you mean, mean what you say, and don’t say it meanly.” I’ve found this maxim to be useful in fostering trust and integrity in our children as well as our communities. No BS. Say it straight up. Mean it. But don’t be mean.
That’s the type of village I think our children deserve. I think we all deserve.
Mindfulness and Compassion are essential.
If we aren’t paying attention to the present moment as clearly and open-mindedly as possible, we’re going to be distorting and clouding reality. If we aren’t opening our hearts to the suffering of others and seeking to relieve that suffering as well as our own, we’re going to be reduced to blind hatred and prejudice.
If we don’t combine the two – clear seeing and caring – we won’t be able to work together to solve our differences. We’ll continue to devolve into us-versus-them antagonism and polarization. Families break apart this way; so do nations.
Kindness is not weakness.
We teach our kindergartners to ask politely, share, take turns. To not hit, yell, or throw a tantrum to get your way. We encourage them to be patient and kind with one another. To not bully, ridicule, or call people names. Then we hold kids accountable when they break these norms of acceptable social behavior. We teach them how to be more pro-social, rather than anti-social.
I believe strongly that we need to continue to model and practice these virtues as adults. If we don’t act with more loving-kindness (which can be firm, not always soft), then by definition we’re creating more negativity, more hostility in its place. Is this really the gift we want to keep giving our children?
Human decency and dignity count.
What we say and do, matters. What we focus on, grows. What we think, we become. What we practice, grows stronger.
So, what attitudes are we cultivating? What values are we teaching and bequeathing to our children? What messages are we conveying in our adult discussions and debates?
We will have differences about priorities, no doubt – whether in families or schools or communities or government. We will come from different backgrounds and cultures and creeds. Still, we have choices to make.
What will we focus on? Will we see our differences as a reason for animosity and divide? Or can we re-find our way towards mutual toleration? Can we find ways to agree across our differences?
When we can’t agree on the issue, can we agree to disagree, respectfully? Civilly? Safely? Can we live with one another, not against one another?
All things in moderation.
I admit, I’m a radical moderate. Why? Because all my years of living and working to heal people’s emotional wounds and broken relationships tells me that when we go too far out in any one direction, we lose our center, our core selves. And we lose our ability to connect with others. We loose both our common ground and our common sense.
When we go too far down one rabbit hole, we become trapped literally in our own tunnel vision. We lose the bigger perspective. We lose sight of the forest for the trees. We literally become dis-integrated. And we suffer much more from dis-ease – physically, emotionally, socially, and yes, even politically.
If you’re too hard with a child, you break them. If you’re too soft, you weaken them. Not too hard, not too soft. Not wallowing in their sorrows or insecurities, yet not coldly dismissing them either. Children need attuned, responsive caregivers to establish their own sense of security. To reach their full potential, they need to be met with high expectations and high positive regard. As I’ve written about often, we need an optimal balance of warm and firm, empathy and accountability.
This is how we can raise resilient kids and launch them into being confident, compassionate, and competent adults. This is how we can create both caring and critically thinking citizens.
This, I believe, is how we can function best. By continually respecting differences and working towards common ground. By collaboratively problem-solving and yes, even compromising. Otherwise, we get torn apart by extremism on both ends of almost any continuum.
We reap what we sow.
Positive begets positive. Negative begets negative. Love begets love. Violence begets violence. Clear, calm and kind interactions – in our homes and our communities – begets more civil and perfect unions.
There is a time to be strong and firm, perhaps even forceful, to protect our loved ones or to advance justice. But I believe we’ll find it works better if we continue to teach our children to be assertive far more than aggressive.
Nonviolent communication has proven time and again to be better at resolving conflicts than violent or vitriolic communication. What are we practicing? What are we sowing?
Martin Luther King Jr., in his last address as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Council in 1967, summed up my thoughts perfectly and prophetically when he said:
Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites – polar opposites – so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love.
We’ve got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.
It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our time.
Today, on the eve of the 2020 national election, I have a heavy heart. And still, somehow, I have hope. I always will.
For when it comes down to it, Hobbes vs. Rousseau, I’m going to go with human nature being inherently good, loving, and capable of rising to “the better angels of our nature” in times of turmoil.
I’m not naive. We all have a healthy dose of anger-and-fear-driven brutishness within us. We all hunger to be in control of our own destinies. At the same time we all thirst to belong, to be part of something bigger, to live in harmony.
I believe we can continually return to a better balance between the two. I believe we must. For our children’s sake, if not our own.