Archive for January, 2011

Our coffee cups were pretty close to this big.

Compassion and What Sue Remembers

Click here if you missed the last post on Post-Partisan America.

I knew I wanted to meet Sue Dunne after I met her son, CJ.

His Dad and I had an interview scheduled in his office on a Saturday morning in mid-town Manhattan.  Jimmy Dunne’s story is quite moving and inspiring.  He has gotten a lot of attention for his handling of the reconstruction and phenomenal growth of Sandler O’Neill & Partners after 9/11 and the firm’s loss of 66 people that day in the South Tower.   I told a small part of Jimmy’s story in a previous post.  But, it was meeting CJ that showed me that this was a family story.

Our coffee cups were pretty close to this big.

Sue and I met in the Dunne’s lovely home on the East River in Manhattan.  She greeted me at the door with an enormous cup of coffee in her hands.  A few seconds later, I had one in mine, too.   (She offered me some coconut milk to go with it.  Ordinarily, I would have said “no.”  But, I thought, “What the heck,” and accepted.  It was delicious.  Try it if you get a chance.  You’ll like it.)

The conversation naturally flowed while we settled into the living room.  We turned the exchange to CJ and his Dad and the reason for my coming to see her.   “Like his Dad, CJ has a lot of presence, especially for a 16 year old.   There was something else that was there, too.   He has an ease with adults that is refreshing and a sense of deep confidence.  I liked him.  He showed a genuine interest in the life of his Dad and a sense of grit and heart and desire for excellence that was striking for his age.  He’s still young, but these are great signs for the future.”

I finished plugging in and turning on my computer to record our conversation as I continued,

“These are the same qualities I saw in his Dad, but with a different flavor.  So, I figured the difference had to come from his Mom.   I know that most stories of success are really family stories.  So, seeing CJ and interviewing Jimmy, I knew I needed to speak to you to get a better picture of Jimmy and that time around 9/11.”

We jumped right into the deep end of our conversation talking about the days immediately after 9/11, when Jimmy, now the only surviving Principal of the three that directed the firm at Sandler O’Neill, had to come up with a way to support the families of those killed that day and, in parallel to this, rescue the firm from collapse.

Entire departments of the firm were depopulated.  All of the records of their business dealings were gone.  They had to reconstruct who their clients were and the contacts developed by now deceased colleagues, establish what the contractual arrangements were, rebuild their information technology support, find qualified replacements for those lost and a host of other crises, while also tending to the human calamity they faced and the unspeakable loss to the families of their loved ones.

Bereft families had to tend to immediate issues about insurance, house payments, what to do about kids in college and a thousand family issues couples struggle with together.  Many families turned to Jimmy to help them figure these matters out.  All the while, the steady cadence of memorial services and funerals continued for months along with the utterly exhausting shock of it all.

Sandler O’Neill decided to extend payment of salaries to the families of the deceased.  A foundation was established to provide for the families’ health insurance and kids’ educations.

Sandler was the first firm on Wall Street to do this.  The conventional wisdom at the time and the best advice of experts was that firms should not do this for the families.  That it would undermine the capitalization of the firms, thereby weakening their business positions and their reputations for financial stability in the market.  Jimmy, with absolutely no guarantee of success, did it anyway.  Sandler O’Neill and Jimmy Dunne became the role models for the rest of Wall Street and earned the well-deserved esteem they wear today.

“I was trying to support my husband any way I could.”  Sue began with a raw tenderness for old and dear friends who had passed away, some friends whom Jimmy had known since his teens.  ”Jimmy needed me.  I needed to go out to our friends.  My days were spent going to funerals.”

“It was a Wall of Black!  9/11 was just black.  It was just the darkest of the dark.”  Sue said of that time.

In that blackness, Sue described a surprising respite.  It was what she felt while at the memorial services and funerals.

“The feeling was so peaceful.  Going to those funerals with people feeling the same way.  We were able to share their lives.  You got to hear about their lives from people who really loved them.  You never wanted to leave.  It was safe in there.  You heard so many wonderful things about people you loved very much.”

We talked about the challenges of raising kids through all of this.  I recalled my experience in the Balkans during and after the war there.   When given the chance, kids would want to draw over and over their experience of what happened.  Of course, this is the effort of a child with limited language skills to try to understand what they had experienced.  The issue becomes one of helping the child find words to not only describe what happened, but to have a way to give meaning to the loss in a way that frees up their motivation to build their future in a positive way and not paralyze them with fear or rage.

“I spent the first 3 months going to funerals.  I wanted to get out there and let them know we were there for them.  Trying to do what we could…  We needed to get out and support them as much as we could.”

I thought, this was a real sign of who this woman is.  She didn’t have to “get out and support them,”  but she “needed to.”  This is the heart of a leader, the heart of a caring friend.

“I was delighted I could go.  It was a privilege.  It was hard for me to stop.   I loved being there supporting the families.”

I asked Sue about any lessons she picked up from those days.  Was there a way to summarize what she learned for CJ or another teenager?  What would she say?

“It sounds so simple, like such a cliche, but it’s important to live your life to the fullest all the time.  Be there.  Show up!”

“You don’t want to be in the position where you say to yourself  ’I really should have showed up more for this person.’  Or, sit there and blame others.  Or, sit there and blame Muslims.  It’s about helping other people.  Getting going with your life.”

This is the mystery and the beauty that’s so often found after such a terrible event.  Sue found a great comfort learning about and appreciating the humanity of those who were lost. These memorials were a straight path to the pure uncovered love that people felt for those lost.  Being present for this kind of sharing exposed the link that connects us all, a link that is often hidden by the turmoil of our day. In a time of crisis, some people help us see that link by their care, their presence. Sue showed up not only for Jimmy and her kids, but very personally for scores of families.  Sue remembers the love.

The next post explores getting clear on the Prize and the Price to, like Sue, make a choice from our Compassionate Identity.

Related Posts:

A wonderful story from the Balkans:  ”Compassion, Fantastic Coffee and My Shock

Sue’s husband, Jimmy, is talked about in this post:  ”Resilience and Leadership: Jimmy Dunne.”

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Post-Partisan America

Post-Partisan America

That's me around the time I knew Basil, in a spontaneous class with a group of kids at a picnic... a portent of things to come.

Basil was a good friend of mine when I was in college at Southern Illinois University (SIU) in the 70′s.  We did everything together.  We studied together.  Played racquetball together. Played saxophone together.  We talked about women together.  We were partners for a year in a human anatomy dissection lab as a way to prepare for med school.  We had all the same scores and grades.   We were like brothers.  We applied to the same med schools.  On the first round of applications, Basil got into med school and I didn’t.

For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why.  I was happy for him, because I knew how hard he worked and I knew he would be a great doctor.  But, I couldn’t figure out what he did that I didn’t.

SIU had an Affirmative Action program that accepted Basil’s scores for admission, but not mine. I eventually got in after another try.  I’m still glad Basil got in when he did.  I have no resentment about it.  My point is to illustrate the on-going struggle every democratic society is involved in: finding the balance between Equality and Liberty.

One of the main functions of democratic goverment is to make sure the conditions needed for self-improvement are equally distributed.  If we are going to race, we have to start from the same starting line and finish at the same finish line.  This post is not about Affirmative Action.  But, Affirmative Action is a good example of the country wrestling with the balance between Equality and Liberty.   It’s an example of an attempt to level the playing field of opportunity for those who have been historically denied access to resources to advance themselves.

Equality is about equal conditions for progress applying to everyone. We can discuss whether Affirmative Action is the best way to achieve Equality.  We can debate if there are ways to fine tune the system, but the basic premise of needing to establish a level playing field should not have to be defended. Equality is a necessary “self-evident” good in society, as Jefferson said in the Declaration of Independence.

Since government sets the rules that create the conditions we live under as we pursue our happiness, government is responsible to establish Equality in a democracy. Equality is a necessary good.  A healthy society requires it.  But, it is not an unlimited good.  At some point, a government’s intervention to create fair conditions in society will eventually infringe on the ability of some to rise on their own merit.  Equality, in the extreme, infringes on individual Liberty.

To say government is the problem in all circumstances is to fundamentally misunderstand the essential role government has in establishing equality.  So, on the one hand, we must have a social contract that provides for equal opportunity and access to resources.  But, on the other hand, we must be sensitive to government intrussion beyond what is healthy.

In my case with Basil, the government’s effort to establish social equality had a direct effect on my progress.  More exactly, it opened the door more easily for Basil.   (I’m fine with that.)  Some have argued that government  interventions like Affirmative Action are unfair “reverse discrimination” to “punish” those who are not from an historically disadvantaged group and withhold their entry into jobs, schools and social positions, due to factors they have no control over, like their race, religion, ethnic group, etc..

I’m not argung for or against Affirmative Action.  I’m simply raising the point that the discussion about Affirmative Action is a perfect example of a society trying to find the balance between the need for social Equality and the right to individual Liberty.

There is a famous court case, “The University of California v Bakke,” in which the Supreme Court decided in a situation, not unlike my own, that schools could have special preferences for accepting minority students as long it didn’t also infringe on the rights of majority students.  This is a great example of how a society should grant Equality to all, but in proportion to what is Just for all.  Equality is balanced by Liberty to create Justice.

But, excessive pursuit of Equality creates bizaree and tyrannical intrussions into private lives.  Here’s a great example from my former home-state.  A U.S. District Court judge slapped a 500 dollar fine on a  Massachusetts fisherman for untangling a whale from his fishing nets.  The whale would have died without his intervention.  His crime?  According to the court, he was supposed to call state authorities and wait for them to do it.

The point is made again with the British Petroleum/Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010.  Good friends of mine own a series of hotels along the Gulf Coast in Pensacola, FL (The beaches are pristine and gorgeous!  Check them out on your next vaction: here).  In this situation the Liberty of a corporation to pursue its goals went without adequate safeguards of the public interest.

Here, the idea of Liberty went amok.  Liberty is a necessary good.  It is your right to use your God-given talents and abilities in your pursuit of happiness. But, at some point, your pursuit of happiness is going to run up against someone else’s pursuit of their happiness.  So, while Liberty is a necessary good, it is not an unlimited good.  Liberty has to be moderated by the requirements of Equality: the need for protecting the “public commons” so everybody has the same shake in life.

BP was running its business in an under-regulated environment.  That led to hotels, like my friend’s in Pensacola, shrimping boats, restaurants and all manner of businesses having their Liberty to conduct business and pursue happiness infringed upon.  The excessive Liberty of BP led to the denial of Liberty to tens of thousands of others.

So, Liberty, while it is a necessary good, is not an unlimited good.  It requires moderation from Equality to stike the balance of Justice. The balance a country strikes between the pursuit of Liberty and the conditions of Equality is that nation’s position on Justice.  Justice is the balance between these two necessary but opposing natural goods: Equality and Liberty.

In America, the protectors of Equality are those on the Left politcally, in party terms, the Democrats. The protectors of Liberty are those on the political Right, the Republicans.  Democrats want to ensure that the government protects the common space we all share.  They want to ensure equal opportunity for all.  Republicans want to ensure that each individual can rise to the heights they aspire to.  They don’t want any encumberances on their Liberty.

Once a Rigid Identity takes hold of the notion of Liberty or Equality, it is turned to its extreme: Egalitarianism or Libertarianism.  The more political parties become entrenched in either Libertarian or Egalitarian goals, the less are our chances of being able to achieve a Just society. So, the psychology of the Rigid Identity has a a social-political effect.

What has happened in this country is that those on the far Left and far Right have taken a necessary good (Equality or Liberty) and turned it into an absolute good exclusive of its opposite.  The result is an out of balance public dialogue that is tragically and unnecesarily conflictual and pushes the goal of a Just society out of our reach.  We have especially seen Liberty become worshipped at the expense of Equality.  ”Drill-Baby, drill!” with little regard for public safety, for example.

In a kind of politcal fundamentalism, no consideration can be given by the far Right to any suggestion of government intervention to ensure the necessary balance provided by Equality.   So, we wind up with a privately “regulated” health care system that excludes over 40 million people.  That means a real human cost and risk to the nation as inadequate health care and poor health drags on other public services and limits productivity.  It is not, however,  in the interests of a private corporation that maximizes its Liberty to make a profit to provide care for all.  This is why government is needed to protect the public commons.  It is not in the interest of business to do so.

Historically, this is why the government has covered certain areas of our lives under the umbrella of “human services.”  These human services provide government support in critical areas of life to ensure that inequalities would not be created in society from excessive Liberty from the private sector that has no motive to protect the common welfare.  Education and health care are the two chief examples of areas of the public’s life under the umbrella of human services.

The current health care debate is an example of trying to get more people under that umbrella.  There has been a shift in government to curb the Liberty of health care corporations in order to expand the Equality of access to and quality of care.

When we have extremes from the Right or Left, the basic concerns of the other side become minimized or disregarded altogether.  For instance, from the Right we see little consideration being given to the possibility of government spending to stimulate the economy while we are in a calamitous  economic recession, or to the public obligations of banks and millionaire private citizens to pay taxes.

A nuanced conversation on how to responsibly stimulate the economy and then work to reduce the deficit is not even on the table as rigid partisan positions prevent a comprehensive examination of possibilities to fit our current situation.   One-size-fits-all answers are all that can be entertained due to partisan rigidity.

Life just doesn’t work that way.  Each situtation has it’s own demands.  Partisan politics fixes one’s problem solving approach to one prescribed answer to all illnesses.  You wouldn’t accept that from a doctor.  Why do we accept it from politcal parties?

Good arguments can be made to limit government spending, corporate taxes and taxes on the wealthy.  But, we are in a climate where the need for spending to stimulate the economy and reform corporate and high end personal taxes are off the table for many simply for ideological partisan reasons.  Any time you see this absolutism one has to ask if one is following a dogma that prevents a comprehensive assessment of a problem.  The same, of course, can be said of the Left that refusals to consider unshackling entrepreneurs from unnecessary and harmful over-regulation.

In a growing segment of society, we have a dogmatic-like worship of Liberty to the exclusion of Equality.  Therefore, by extension, the country  has a fundamentalist-like worship of laissez-faire free-enterprise as this system is the social expression of pure Liberty.  (Just as Communsm is the pure expression of Equality)  So, many say health care, for instance, can only be managed by private businesses and not government, even though government is the only protector of the common playing field.

On the far Left, the opposite situation reigns.  Government is seen as the sole arbiter of the economy and social life.   The answer to problems is said to only be found in government regulation to ensure Equality of conditions for everyone.   But, if left unchecked, the evils of excessive centralization raises its ugly head.  In the extremes, an Egalitarian society eventually becomes entirely centralized and tyrannical, like the Soviet Union.

Of course, the US is nowehere near this extreme, although those on the far right paint any move to establish Equality as pure Communism and a violation of sacred Liberty.  This accusation is way out of proportion and balance.  In fact, the ideas of balance  and proportion are missing from our social and political discourse.

To be sure, an unchecked pursuit of Equality results in ludicrous examples of government intrussion into the private lives of individuals.

When Equality has run amok, answers to problems that can come from the flexibility, ingenuity and initiative of individuals are squelched by layers of bureaurocracy and regulation.  The goal of achieving a level playing field can cripple the climate for growth and civility, the very things Equality is designed to protect and nurture.  Equality and centralization of power need to be checked by Liberty and the rights of individuals.

In America, the functions of Liberty and Equality, the Right and Left, have been relegated to political parties: Republicans and Democrats, respectively.  Does this have to be the case?  Can the discussion of the needs of Liberty and Equality happen without political parties?  I think so.

In fact, I think we could have more effective political discussions without the rigid stances of the parties that set up a conflictual false dichotomy between Equality and Liberty when we should be looking for balance between them.

Partisanship reduces complex issues to two sides.  Problems with multiple parts are wrongly squeezed into a duality that misses the complexity of the whole problem.  The opposing side’s arguments are entirely discounted.   This is disasterous when trying to create laws. HALF of the issues involved in effectively solving a problem can be entirely neglected in would-be solutions arrived at by a partisan legislature.  This can only lead to more problems and fanning more extremism.

The quality of a discussion that assumes that a balance must be struck between the demands of Liberty and Equality is far superior to one in which, at the outset, partisan sides have drawn up rigid positions with the intention of doing battle.

Remember, the Weakened Identity and the Rigid Identity create mindsets that defend bias.  In the survival mode of thinking they create, the mind is not open to view the world as anything but a threat.  So, easily resolvable problems are turned into complex battles.  Complex problems are overly simplified into dual extremes with the expectation of a battle between the two.  We have assumed that this kind of conflict is necessary and even good.

It’s a good thing to allow differences of opinion to clash to find the spark of truth.  But, it is the narrow and biased thinking of Weakened and Rigid Identities that prevents the search for the sparks.

The solutions that come from an assumption of balance between Equality and Liberty are far more likely to actually solve problems.   We’ll talk about how the Compassionate Identity creates this balance in the following posts and in my upcoming book.

There are real limitations in the kind of solutions we can arrive at both in our private lives and politically when we argue from a Rigid or Weakened Identity, and by extension, the Left and the Right, as we see so clearly in the partisan clashes of the day.  To seek compromise between rigid partisan extremes is not the same as a solution that comes from a comprehensive balance of all factors involved in an issue.

Our partisan system creates solutions to problems that perpetuate the problems we want to solve.  What is needed is a new post-partisan approach that seeks to create a movement of balance toward a Just society and not seek the impossible and highly dangerous extremes of a Libertarian or Egalitarian society.

The extremes we see in partisan politics in the US are preventing the natural and necessary discussion about how to balance the requirements of Liberty and Equality.  By insisting that any government regulation or intervention will always be resisted, the far right of the Republican Party and especially the extreme elements of the Tea Party have adopted a fundamentalist theology more than a politcal doctrine.

By refusing to allow an assessment of how to relax unnecessary government regulation, the far Left of the Democrats in this country indulges the same fundamentalist excess. Egalitarians and Libertarians both miss the point that Equality and Liberty must be balanced by the other.   The balance of Justice is made of the two “pans” of Equality and Liberty.

Washington alluded to this in his farewell address when he said that the “Sprit of Party” was the “greatest enemy” of a government, especially an elected government.   ”It [partisanship] serves always to distract the Public Councils and enfeeble the Public Administration.”

We are grown up enough now as a country to have the discussion of the balance of Liberty and Equality without the shackles of political parties and rigid notions of Left and Right that lock us into extremes in our political discourse.  The false dichotomies political parties set up create in us the sense that there is no balanced whole in our national life.

We are forever feeling as if we must battle each other in our pursuit of happiness.  There is nothing inevitable and necessary about partisanship and the conflict it produces.  There is a better way.  Partisanship is a nineteenth century idea whose time has come and gone.  Political parties may have been helpful in the nation’s childhood to frame issues in the public’s mind.  But, to Washington, this benefit was outweighed by the negative costs of inefficiency, corruption and divisiveness.

I wonder if we might all benefit from a good look at Washington’s warning to us and find new ways to engage in the discussion of the dialectic between Equality and Liberty in the pursuit of the Just society.

Adolescence is about independence.  We have been through our adolescence as a nation.  Adulthood is about reciprocity and balance.  As a mature nation, perhaps we need a Declaration of Interdependence and a putting away of partisan ways to reach for a more whole and balanced approach to our national discourse.

We’ll start on the Compassionate Identity next with this post:  The Compassionate Identity: “What Sue Remembers.”

Related Posts:

George Washington:  Partisanship is the Country’s “Worst Enemy”

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All Rights Reserved, John Woodall, MD, Copyright, 2011

George Washington: Partisanship is the Country’s “Worst Enemy.”

George Washington: Partisanship is the Country’s “Worst Enemy.”

(Click here if you missed Part 5.)

I was going to take excerpts from President Washington’s farewell address to draft my next post on partisanship, extremism and civility.  But first,  the full text of Washington’s warning ought to stand alone.

“I have already intimated to you the danger of Parties in the State… Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human Mind. It exists under different shapes in all Governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the Public Councils and enfeeble the Public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the Administration of the Government and serve to keep alive the spirit of Liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in Governments of a Monarchical cast, Patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in Governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume….”

George Washington, from the Farewell Address, Sept. 19, 1796 in: The Writings of George Washington, pp. 969-71 (Library of America ed. 1997)

For the next post, click: Part 7: Extremism to Civility: Post-Partisan America.

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"The Bearded Slave" by Michaelagelo

The Rigid Identity

The comforting unity immediately after 9/11 didn't last long.

Remember how closely knit the country felt in the days immediately after 9/11?  There was a palpable sense of unity.  The shock and horror of that day uncovered a deep sense of our connection to each other.

A friend of mine who worked in New York City told me how driving home that day, no-one drove past the speed limit.  No one passed anyone else.  People would look into each other’s cars  to acknowledge their fellow human being.  I recall getting e-mails from friends around the world stating that they, too, were Americans that day.

The common loss uncovered our common humanity.  In a world of pain, it was comforting.

And then it all changed.

It took about 2 weeks.  Comments in the news and on blogs started to appear that certain people were not patriots.  Simple differences of opinion led to accusations of others being “traitors.”  Our President told the world, “You are with us.  Or, you are against us.”  Engaging in basic discussions that need to occur within a democracy to analyze the nation’s options became grounds to be accused of treason.

Over time, people’s anger has taken a much more strident tone and found form in extreme partisanship.  This extremism has its roots in what I call a Rigid Identity.

We invest emotional "chips" in the various parts of our identity.

A “Rigid Identity” is a bit like the game of roulette.  Imagine a roulette table with the various numbers spread across the board.  Each number is a different part of our identity.  We might “invest” ten chips of emotional attachment on being a brother or sister;  twenty chips on being a mother or father or spouse;  three chips on the Republican or Democrat number,  several on  our ethnic group, some on our bowling team, several on our religion and on our friends.  Together this spread of “emotional chips” defines our overall emotional attachments in our identity.

When something bad happens, like 9/11, there is a tendency for some to take all of these emotional chips and place them on one number, say, the black 22.  All of our emotional investments get concentrated on that one identity.  It might be our religion, our political party, our ethnic group or a sports team.  We become a hyper-Christian, a hyper-Jew, a hyper-Muslim.  We become a hyper-Republican or a hyper-Democrat.

This becomes a problem when the various “uber-groups” start talking to each other.  Once we adopt a Rigid Identity, all of our judgments are filtered through this lens.  Everything with our group is the ideal good.  Other groups are seen as inherently wrong, evil, ignorant, untrustworthy, immoral.  Worse, they can be seen as sub-human and dangerous .  This sets the stage for conflictual styles of problem solving and ultimately, violence.

So, one Rigid Identity trys to dominate another Rigid Identity.  Or, they try to recruit or dominate those with a Weakened Identity.  Unlike those with a Weakened Identity, those with a Rigid Identity have no uncertainty.  They are convinced of the ultimate and absolute right of their group.  They have no doubt.  Unlike those with a Weakened Identity, those with a Rigid Identity are highly motivated to have their group succeed.  They define problems in terms of survival.  As  a result, they see there is no compromise in their group’s point of view, because to do so challenges survival itself.  All problems are cast in absolute terms.  This absolutism is confused with virtuous principle.  Since a person with a Rigid Identity feels as though survival itself is at stake, to entertain a doubt or alternative views risks death.  Stubborn closedmindeness is confused with courageous fidelity and commitment to principle. There is no nuance, only black and white.

It’s not only true in partisan politics.

The same basic neurological and psychological forces are at work when couples argue, political partisans argue or fans of different teams argue.   Remember in the last post, we talked about how the brain responds to threats?  Our survival instincts kick in and commandeer our brain.  When we think we are facing a threat, all of our brain functions are geared to either fleeing from the threat or fighting it: the Fight or Flight Response.  (see link for a great explanation)

When our emergency survival system is activated (i.e. the Fight or Flight Response)  adrenalin ( the English name) or norepinephrine (the American name) kicks in and commandeers our brain to control our thinking, feeling, our body and behavior in order to deal with the threat by fleeing or fighting.  When a person is more prone to fighting then fleeing, their system activtates the part of the brain called the “amygdala” and other centers to color all of their experiences with the strong survival emotion of anger.

When anger is activated in the brain, it acts as a filter for every activity of our thinking, feeling, body and behavior.  All of our perception and thinking is directed toward identifying threats.  When we are angry and argue with someone, everything they say we see as proof of their incompetence, their moral weakness, their evil intentions, their manipulations.  We are not thinking of anything else, other then our moral virtue, our humanity, our logic and good intentions. In fact, the dictatorial control of adrenaline and the amygdala over our brain will not allow us to think in any other way.  Our brain is not geared to cooperative and creative social exploration when we are angry.  It is wired for battle and the elimination of the perceived threat.

One of the worst things that can happen when we are being threatened is to be uncertain about what the threat is.  Ambiguity and uncertainty are not well-tolerated by the brain.  For many of us, ambiguity and uncertainty are experienced as a kind of threat that must be eliminated.  (In fact, a good definition of “paranoia” is the lack of information when the possibility of a threat exists.  A Rigid Identity is a little paranoid.)  The brain will work overtime to label a particular person or group “the enemy” in order to eliminate the anxiety caused by uncertainty and ambiguity.

This is not a good thing most of the time.  When we are surrounded by hungry tigers, striking out with a stick at everything that approaches us might be a good idea.  But, in a social situation, this same instinctual survival mechanism is disastrous for good relations, for creative and effective problem solving and even good health.

Unfortunately, unless we consciously choose to turn off our anger, it establishes enduring neural patterns in the brain. More and more, our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are modified to support the reasons for our initial anger.  A tone is established for all of our personal and social experience.  It stays this way until we make a conscious effort to tone the anger down.

When we do make this choice and take positive steps to quiet our anger, gradually the amygdala will relax its grip on the rest of the brain and allow the vast potential of the cortex to become engaged in creative thinking and comprehensive problem solving.

So long as adrenaline and the amygdala have control of our brain, we cannot learn or think of anythng that is not colored by a survival emotion, in this case, anger.  We are not so much thinking creatively when we are angry as we are rehearsing stories we tell ourselves about why we should be angry.  We are engaged in what psychologists call, “stereotypic” thinking.  We are rehearsing a bias, not investigating reality.

You see this when pundits argue on tv.  One will site some facts to make their case.  The other will entirely ignore the facts presented and state their own facts.  (As if “facts” were the property of one group.)  The conversation has nothing to do with finding the truth.  It is about dominating the other.  Actual facts are less important than finding arguments to prevail.  The more rigid the identity, the more immune to facts the person becomes.

Who is offering the information is more important than the veracity of the information.  If a third party confirms our bias, they are seen as correct.  If they contradict our bias, they are labelled as a threat and their information is entirely discounted.  What suffers most when interacting with a Rigid Identity is an impartial examination of the facts.  Consequently, problem solving is ineffective as positions that are presented deliberately exclude information needed for a comprehensive solution.  In this light, a Rigid Identity creates the very instability and uncertainty it hates most.

Roger Fisher

Roger Fisher, the Harvard Professor of Law who co-authored the famous book on negotiation Getting to Yes, has a saying: “Solutions are not the solution.”  By this he means that we can’t enter into an effective problem solving situation with a pre-conceived idea of what the ultimate solution is.  We have to engage in a process of inquiry.  This inquiry is not possible when someone is gripped in a Rigid Identity.

There is much to say about the Rigid Identity. Most of which I’ll have to save for my forthcoming book.  The final point for this post is an important one, however.  It has to do with how our identity determines our sense of what is fair.

A funny thing happened to me on a bus in Israel that makes the point.  I was at a conference in Israel many years ago sponsored by the International Society of Political Psychology.  I was getting on a tour bus with a colleague talking about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.  We climbed the stairs discussing preconditions needed to start a sustainable peace process.  I had been making the case that there needed to be effort to create a sense of a common identity before effective and sustainable negotiations could begin.  Moving toward two empty seats, I said, “Our sense of justice is determined by our identity.  Until there is a common sense of identity, they will disagree on what is fair.”

As we sat she said, “huh?”

Just at that moment, a man who was sitting across from us stood up and took his coat off the hook in front of him.  The coat had prevented him from seeing out his window.  He leaned across the aisle and reached in front of the two of us saying, “Excuse me,” as he hung up his coat on our hook, blocking our view!

“You see!  There is it!”  I said.  ”He doesn’t see us as a part of his identity.  So, to him, it is perfectly fair to hang up his coat in front of us.  He didn’t think about whether we could see or not.  We do not fit into his calculation of what is fair!  His identity restricts his sense of fairness to what is good for him only.”

Like Michaelangelo's "The Bearded Slave," we can become hardened and enslaved to a Rigid Identity.

And so it is with the Rigid Identity.  A person in this identity posture will not include the values, points of view or needs of others in their equation of justice.  Everyone wants to be on the side of justice.  But, justice is not a one sided proposition.  The person with a Rigid Identity will convince themselves they fight for justice when they make their heated political statements.  They will robe themselves with the mantle of virtue as defenders of justice, and they mean it.  But, it is not justice they defend.  It is entitlement for their identity that they confuse with justice.

Those who advocate from a position of a Rigid Identity add to the problems they say they are committed to fixing by not entertaining new information and insisting on domineering styles of interaction that exacerbate human relationships turning problems into outright conflict.

The preconditions of any real virtue are personal humility and dispassionate intellectual honesty.  These two traits are absent in the Rigid Identity.  Not necessarily out of vice.  But, they have not trained their amygdala to quiet down enough to entertain points of view that do not “prove” their a priori convictions.

The Rigid Identity and the Weakened Identity, we have seen, are natural social outcomes of the misapplication of instinctual responses to threat.  When we say they are instinctual, we mean that they are unthinking, automatic, stereotypic responses, not the result of open, unbiased and dispassionate inquiry.  They are geared to preserve our survival.  In that light, they impose severe constraints on the way we think, feel and act.  If we are not facing an imminent threat they can cause far more problems then they solve.

The next few posts will go into the dilemma posed by the Rigid Identity in balanced problem solving and extreme partisanship.  Then, we’ll explore how we can liberate ourselves from these instinctual responses and move into what makes us truly human, our “Compassionate Identity.”

Related Posts:

The “Weakened Identity” is the mirror image of the Rigid Identity.

The Three Identities: Weakened, Rigid and Compassionate

George Washington: Partisanship is the Country’s “Worst Enemy” is next.

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The “Weakened Identity”

The “Weakened Identity”

(Click here if you missed Part 3.)

Bob is a Vietnam Veteran.  I was his psychiatrist.  We met weekly for a few years at the trauma clinic at the VA Medical Center in Brockton, MA.  Bob is a good family man that anyone would be happy to know.  But, he suffers still with the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, (PTSD).

This post is not about PTSD.  Most of us will never face what Bob had to.  His case illustrates, however, in the extreme the features of a “Weakened Identity” that the rest of us may exprience to a much less intense degree.  The sharp relief of his exprience can inform our own much less intense one.  His growth is also an example of a pathway from unsuccessful to successful suffering and the “Compassionate Identity.”   We’ll use Bob’s case to go over some of the brain science and psychology that define a Weakened Identity and how these relate to the anatomy of both extremism and civility.

Bob had been very idealistic as a teen-ager.  He enlisted in the Marines at 18 to give himself to a cause he felt was worth fightng for: liberty and the defeat of oppression in the world.  He was stationed along the border with North Vietnam in Quang Tri in the  “I Corp” region of South Vietnam.

If your life depended on it, could you read what is in these eyes?

He recalled to me one of several terrible episodes in which, while on patrol, a woman approached his fireteam carrying a bundle that looked like it might be a baby.  But, the men had heard that other units had suffered serious casualties in similar situations when the bundles turned out to be AK-47s or plastic explosives.  Knowing this he and other men in his unit had been forced into an impossible dilemma.   After repeated calls to the woman to back away from the men, they felt they had no choice but to shoot her.  Whether she was carrying a weapon or not, the fact that he was in the position to even have to consider shooting a woman brought home to him that it was not so easy to tell himself he was fighting for liberty and to end oppression in the world.  The world was nowhere near as black and white as he had thought.  There were difficult decisions that had to be made in life.  In his case, a wrong decsion resulted in someone being dead.

Bob is not an evil man.  He is not a weak man.  Far from it.  He is a very decent man that you would be proud to know.  He has been through the most wrenching of human experiences: war.  No one told him that, in the 20th Century, 90% of casualties of war are civilians.  He did not expect to be in the position to have to kill civilians.  This devastated him.

After this horrific event, he wondered if there could be any good in the world.  Could there be a loving God who would allow such a thing to happen?  He wondered if he had been kidding himself all along believing that there could be good in the world.  Or, at the very least, if there was good in the world, he felt he certainly had nothing to do with it.   He felt that he had no right to strive for anything good in his life, if there actually was anything good to strive for.

This caused him to feel alone and uncomfortable around other people.  It was as if he was putting on aires pretending to be interested in what people’s lives were about.  Nothing held any real worth to him.  He felt that the things that he experienced most strongly in his life were overpowering feelings like despair and guilt, not to mention the horror he felt when memories of his experience haunted him at night.

How could he share what was most real to him with another?  He thought he was doomed to being alone in the world as no one would ever want to know of the internal world in which he lived.  How could he share with someone else feelings that were so overwhelming to him and so negative, feelings  for which he often couldn’t find words?

All of this left him emotionally exhausted.  Without anything good he could believe in, he couldn’t develop any meaningful goals for his life.  Without a valued goal, he had no reason to be motivated.  Without motivation, he could not develop new skills to create a sense of competence in life.  His sense of worth as a man was devastated as a result.

Bob felt as if he had no center in his life.  Adrift, he wondered what would become of him.  His life was characterized by despair and isolation.  This is the part of the experience of many who have suffered a severe trauma and developed the symptoms of PTSD.  A lesser version of this is also common to many people without PTSD who feel confused about the suffering in their life.

Bob’s experience is an extreme.  It is something to keep in mind when an opportunity to be a friend to a veteran arises in your life.  But, what Bob experienced in capital letters, many of us experience in smaller measure.

This sense of feeling diminished as a person I call a “Weakened Identity.”  It is characterized by difficulty identifying with a goal in life.  The weight of a previous experience has shaken one’s sense of value in any goal.  Perhaps more importantly, there is a paralyzing doubt in whether you can achieve any worthy goal.  This paralysis of motivation is one of the key features of the Weakened Identity.

Control of our lives should come from our thinking cortex, not our lower brain structures.

An underlying fear and anxiety are two of the other key features of a Weakened Identity.  Fear is the arousal we experience from the survival emotion that is directed at a particular threat.  Anxiety is that same arousal but without a clear threat.

There are structures deep in our brain that are the engines of these unthinking survival emotions.  One of them is called the “amygdala.”  Among other things, the amygdala is like a switchboard relay station for survival emotions like fear and anger.  When the amygdala is activated, it completely takes over control of the the way the brain processes information.  It colors our experience with strong survival emotions like fear and anger.

Remember that song, “When you’re similing?” My Mom used to sing it to me.  The song tells us that when you smile, the whole world smiles with you.  When your laughing, the sun come shining through.  But, when you’re crying, you bring on the rain.  Neurologically, when you experience a strong emotion, that emotion becomes the filter for all of your thinking.  So, if you are sad, everything you experience is processed as proof of why you should be sad.  If you are angry, whatever the person you’re speaking to says is processed as proof of how evil they are.  Ever been on a laughing jag?  Every stupid thing is hilarious.  The more stupid, the funnier.  Every strong emotion becomes a filter for all of our experience.  So, we stop experiencing the world for what it is, and instead, see the world through the filter of our emotions, which reinforce themselves by making all of our thoughts justify them.

Louis Armstrong did a great version of "When you're smiling!"

Emotions also act like the topics in a file cabinet for our memory.  When you are sad, everything you experience is filed as a memory for “sad.” We remember something much more clearly if it is associated with an emotion.  It’s a positive feedback loop.  You feel an emotion.  The emotion colors all your experience to justify that emotion.  Your memories are then laid down in the brain with that emotion attached as a kind of memory jogger.  If you feel that emotion again, the memories associated with it return.  If you remember something, the emotion it is filed under comes back, too.  Again, emotions reinforce themselves.   Sadness will produce more sadness; fear, more fear; anger, more anger; love, more love, etc.

This neurological wiring of our brain makes sense if you are running from or trying to fight a lion that wants to eat you.  In order to stay alive, you need to remain very motivated and focused on how everything might be a potential threat.  Your strong emotions of fear or anger keep your motivation up and focused on the threat.  But, if you are trying to make a marriage work and raise kids, keep a job and have friends, this mechanism is destructive.  We need another mechanism.  If we are not aware that we need to turn off our survival mechanisms, we may be perpetually surprised as to why our life is not working.  It’s a matter of over-active and unchecked survival emotions getting in the way.

When we are able to make a choice to calm our emotions, the cortex begins to exert a braking influence on the amygdala.  We can choose to calm down, to quiet our fear and extinguish our anger.  This choice is the key.  The survival mechanisms of the brain, fear and anger, are in their full glory and ready to go right from birth.

A choice is like a push-up. The more you exercise a particular choice, the more the neural circuits that support that choice are strengthened.

But, our higher cortical reasoning requires exercise.  These higher cortical functions are not fully developed at birth. The pieces are there at birth, but they are not in working order at birth.  They require the exercise of choice to bring them into play.  The more we use them, the more they become our ‘default” way of operating.  Each choice reinforces the neural networks that support that choice.

If we choose one way of being, the neural networks associated with that choice are strengthened.  The neural networks of those choices we don’t make become weakened.  In the same way a muscle gets bigger and better coordinated with exercise, neural circuits that we choose to use become more robust with each choice.   So, our “natural” fear and anger come spontaneously.  If we let them reign, they only get stronger.  Our civilized feelings, on the other hand, like calm, reciprocity, compassion and empathy are there, but they require the exercise of choice.  If we don’t exercise them with choice, they do not develop.  In fact, they may feel unnatural and foreign.  These higher cortical functions, our civilized self, are like gems in a mine.  We may be sitting on the mine, but decide that making the effort to dig for these gems is unnatural and too much trouble.  We are poorer as a result.

You can think of bias as neural patterns in the brain for thinking, feeling and behaving that are reinforced by continual use.  These become our default neural patterns.  We think they are the “truth” because they seem so very natural and obvious to us.  But, they are really only our habitual ways to think, feel and act.  Anger and fear come naturally, for instance.  But, they persist in our character because we refuse to choose to change them.  The Compassionate Identity, which embodies the sum of all the gems we possess of higher cortical civilizing functions, is only possible with choice, repeated choice in spite of natural feelings of fear or anger.

If we make the choice to calm our survival emotions, the amygdala will let go of our thinking and allow us to think creatively without reverting to biases in our thinking, feeling and behavior.  The vast potential of our cortext is then opened through this exercise of will.   The neural networks we liberate, if exercised over and over by repeated choices to calm fear and anger, will result in a personality style like that of  Dr. Ruhe‘s mentioned in the previous post.  The discipline of his repeated choices led to a character that eventually found the pull of fear and anger virtually extinguished.  His mental capacities, as a result, flourished in a lifetime of productive creativity that was directed towards service to others.

If we neglect this choice, the neural circuits of our survival emotions only strengten their grip on our thinking and problem solving.  We become the prisoners of the grip of our own amygdala.  But now, instead of it enhancing our survival, it is the cause of our estrangement from others and the undermining of our integrity.

The confidence to exercise will is exactly what the person struggling with a Weakened Identity lacks.  A general tone of anxiety can predominate this person’s thoughts, feelings and actions.  Preoccupations with real and imagined threats grip the mind.  A general feeling of worry and fear of bad consequences plague the assessment of every situation and paralyize decision making.   Planning becomes difficult.   One’s actions might be ineffective as an over-aroused brain pushes us into poorly thought through desperate activity that misses the mark that was intended.   A form of some or all of these dilemmas are present in a Weakened Identity.

Rekindling the resolve to make different choices is the way out of this dilemma.  The final posts of this series deal with how that can be done.  The Unity Project is a methodology to do this with kids.

Spinning wheels.

Our thinking can turn this ineffective emotional and mental spinning of wheels into a false virtue and cause us to devalue anyone who acts with certainty.  We can consider them to be dangerous unthinking zealots.  The very idea of certainty itself becomes entirely suspect.  We see this on the Left politcally, when there is an accusation of extremism levied against anyone with a conviction.  There is an important distinction between a moral conviction and blind zealotry.  This distinction is sometimes lost to the person with a Weakened Identity.  Just as the desire to carefully consider options and question what appears to be certain can wrongly be seen as moral weakness by a person with a Rigid Identity.

There is real wisdom in the hesitation in the Weakened Identity.  Questioning certainty is fundamental to reciprocal relationships and innovation.  In the Weakened Identity, however, we see this questioning in its paralyzing extreme.  In excess, these important strengths lead to a paralysis of motivation and a lack of clarity about noble goals in life.  With nothing to hold as a worthy goal and no sense of capacity to reach for anything noble, nihilism and self indulgence become two extreme back-waters of the Weakened Identity.

These points became the themes of my work with Bob.  Helping him restore a capacity to choose.  They were small choices at first, exercising new neural circuits and dealing with the awkwardness of developing new habits.  We dealt with coping with the anxiety caused by the attempt to make new kinds of decisions; how to tolerate anxiety and ambuity without falling into fear and despair.  We explored new ways of seeing himself that did not stem from highly charged impressions taken on during the worst part of his life.  We worked toward a balance between assertion and tact, resolve and reflection.  He still deals with symptoms of PTSD.  But, he has a roadmap out of his paralysis, a map he uses daily to exercise his will to grow in humility and wisdom.  On balance, Bob is successfully meeting the challenges of his suffering.

I should say that the constructs of a Weakened Identity and a Rigid Identity are my own abbreviations for complex styles of personality with many features.  It is hard to find a person who is exclusively one or the other.  In fact, the two tend to reinforce each other.  More on that in my upcoming book.  I also must point out that a Weakened Identity is not a pathology.  It is an abbreviation for a style of approach to one’s struggles in life.  It is helpful also in that it provides a way to think about how fear influences our social life, especially in contrast to a Rigid Identity.

Next, we’ll take a look at the Rigid Identity, how it is constructed and operates.  It’s destructive elements and the seeds of strength it contains that can be helpful in a Compassionate Identity.

In Part 5: Extremism to Civility: “The Rigid Identity” we’ll get at the roots of extremism that come from a Rigid Identity.  Then, we can move into what liberates our greatest potential: our “Compassionate Identity.”  We’ll cover that in the 7 subsequent posts.

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All Rights Reserved, John Woodall, MD, Copyright, 2011.

Suffering Successfully

Suffering Successfully

This is Part 3 in an open series.  If you missed Part 2, it’s here.

It’s a question that is not going away any time soon:  what do we do about extremism?   How do we understand it?  How do we translate that understanding into ways to prevent its rise and influence?  What positive strengths can be put in place to offer a hopeful alternative?

Building on the previous post, in the next few posts on overcoming extremism, I want to lay out how fear and anger, if we leave them unattended, become themes in the way we identify ourselves.  If we master fear and anger, we develop a capacity for engaging the world in highly creative ways that allows for the expression of greater degrees of our potential than would otherwise be possible.  This becomes the basis, the “bones,” of the anatomy of civility.

Once we understand these points, we can lay out a framework in the final set of posts for building the strengths of resilience and civility that not only will act as an inoculation against extremism, but are the foundational skills needed to develop our own potential and strengthen the fabric of our democracy.

Mr. Ali Nakhjavani

David Ruhe, M.D.

Mr. Ali Nakhjavani is one of my heroes. I once heard him speak glowingly about another hero of mine, Dr. David Ruhe.  Mr. Nakhjavani gave Dr. Ruhe one of the most interesting compliments I have ever heard fall from anyone’s lips.  He said, “Ah, Dr. Ruhe!  There is a man who has suffered successfully!”

We all suffer.  There is no way around it.  Some seem to do so sucessfully quite on their own.   Most of us need help.

In general terms, we can say that fear and anger become the dominant themes of the two types of identity structures that arise when we have not yet succeeded in managing our suffering.  I call these the “Weakened Identity” and the “Rigid Identity.”

There is a third identity that distinguishes those who, like Dr. Ruhe, suffer successfully and find themselves equipped to deal with the slings and arrows of life with integrity and compassion.  I call this the “Compassionate Identity.”  To best understand this Compassionate Identity, it will be helpful to know a bit about what takes place in our lives if we neglect to develop it.  The next  posts deal with the Weakened Identity and its opposite, the source of extremism, the Rigid Identity.

Click here for the next post:  Part 4: Extremism to Civility: The “Weakened Identity.”

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All Rights Reserved, John Woodall, MD, copyright, 2011


Resilience and Leadership: Jimmy Dunne

Resilience and Leadership: Jimmy Dunne

With the 10th anniversary of 9/11, we have all had a chance to reflect on the meaning of that terrible day in our lives.  Many of these posts are about the choices we face as individuals as the challenges of these trying times weigh more and more heavily on us.   Ultimately, this choice either will lead us down a road of fear and anger, or we will find a higher way, a path of mature restraint, reflection and compassion.  For each of us as individuals and as a nation, this anniversary puts this choice into sharp relief.

I want to lay out in the next few posts how the psychology of fear and anger moves in society after a tragic loss and how these get expressed as extremism if we don’t use the skills needed to choose to work from the “better angels of our nature.”  We need to understand the mechanism of this choice so we have some tools at our disposal when the next tragic event touches our lives.  We’ll start with a quick discussion about grief.

Often times we hear people talk about “getting over” their grief.  It makes it sound like grief is a cold that we just need to recover from.  But, grief is much more than that.  It winds up defining us for good or bad, depending on the choices we make.  Grief is the rightful expression of the loss of something we love.  To say we are “getting over” our grief almost sounds like we are saying we are “getting over” our love.  It devalues what we love.  No, we don’t “get over” grief.  We allow grief to bring us to a more full understanding of what it is we love, what we value most in life and how we will live our life as a result.  In fact, it is not approaching grief in this way, avoiding or devaluing it, that causes problems.  More on that below.

Any terrible loss will evoke grief in us.   In healthy grief, for instance, we think of the person who has left us and are reminded of their good qualities.  As we grieve, there is a natural and necessary sadness that accompanies the grief.  Grief resolves itself when we find a way to give meaning to the loss, especially when we resolve to somehow keep alive in our own lives the good qualities of those who have passed on.  When we decide to make those qualities that were alive in our loved one alive in our own life, the energy of grief is transformed into moral commitment.   This is the gift of grief.

When my mother passed away, I was asked to give her eulogy.   I saw this as a difficult, but final precious gift I could give her.  Before the funeral, I bought every white rose I could find at all the florists in town and brought them to the church for the service.  I spoke of my mother’s fine qualities, her virtues of courage, her openness to see the delight in every situation, her deep strength and generosity.  We laughed and cried as I told stories we all knew that demonstrated these virtues.

Then, I asked my 8 brothers and sisters to come up and receive the white roses.  I asked them to give these roses to their kids.  I asked my nephews and nieces to accept a rose as a symbol of their grandmother’s best qualities.  It was now their task to keep these virtues alive in their own lives and to add to them with their own “flowers,” their own unique strengths, talents and virtues.  Together, these “flowers” make up our family garden of character.  I invited them to be attentive to that garden.  To be responsible for its health and to not settle for only taking from it, but also to give to it, freely, consciously and generously.

This movement from grief to moral commitment has been a formula for working through grief since at least the times of the Funeral Oration of Pericles in 431 BC up to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  But, this grieving process can go awry.  In the uncertainty and powerlessness we feel after the horror of a deliberately cruel mass-murder like after 9/11 or the senseless killings in Tucson, we become vulnerable to our own worst nature.  It is the role of leaders of point out the higher road to us and lead the way up it.

We are wired, by genetics and neurology, to instinctually react to threats with certain survival mechanisms.  These instinctual survival responses arise from the part of our brain, the brain stem, that doesn’t think, but instead, reacts quickly to get us out of trouble.  This is a good thing, too.  If we had to think about what it means when a car is barreling down on us, we would likely get run over.  Instead, our brain stem reacts and has us jump out of the way reflexively, without a thought.  The thinking comes later.  So, when we face a threat, we are wired to react and not think, in such a way as to get us out of danger.

The sense of powerlessness we feel after a terrible loss acts like a threat to us.  It can stir up the same unthinking survival responses just as surely as a lion chasing us can.  This sense of powerlessness jump starts our survival responses.  To amplify and focus our attention, this survival response is attached to two emotions: fear or anger (or both).  When fear and anger are turned on, our normal grief stops.  We are no longer concerned with completing the work of grief.  We are no longer viewing the world objectively.  We become fixated on survival by fleeing the threat or attacking it.

Fear and Anger stop the process of higher thought: acquiring wisdom and higher moral conviction.  Fear and anger are excellent lenses to focus our attention and resolve in times of threat.  But, they are disaterous in social settings if we want to create community, foster relationships and raise healthy children.  If fear becomes an unexamined habitual pattern of response in our life, it ultimately leads us to alienation and a paralysis of our motivation.  Anger leads us to conflict and the focus of our will on divisiveness.  These two feed extremism, which we will discuss in the next posts.

Fear and anger become filters that color all of our mental processes.  We no longer look at the world objectively.  Everything we perceive is processed through the filter of this strong emotion.  So, if we are afraid, everything we perceive tells us we should stay afraid.  If we are angry, everything we take in is “proof” of why we are justified in being angry.  Objective thinking stops.   This is fine if we are trying to stave off a threat and need to be entirely focused on our survival.   But, if the situation doesn’t call for fear or anger, our mental abilities remain constrained by these emotions nonetheless.  We are less able to deal with the situation we face on its own terms.

In a sense, we become enslaved to our survival emotions if they are operating without being restrained by our higher cortical brain centers.  These cortical brain centers only come into play as a result of the practice of choice: the choice to calm our fear and anger.  We are controlled by our instincts until we choose to be guided by our moral intentions.

Neurologically, we could say that when fear and anger are turned on, the cortex of the brain, where we engage creative thinking, where choice is exercised across a broad spectrum of options, becomes subservient to the brain stem.  The moral reasoning part of the brain is dominated by the survival reflexes driven by the brain-stem.  With anger and fear, control of the brain is coming from the bottom/unthinking structures of the brainstem instead of the most human part that is on top, the cortex.

It was my pleasure and privilege recently to meet and interview a very interesting man for the book I am writing about this topic of our ability to make the best choice in a terrible situation.  His name is Jimmy Dunne.   Jimmy is one of the senior partners of Sandler O’Neill & Partners, a financial firm that suffered the heartbreaking loss of 66 people to the cowardly and cruel attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  The remarkable story of the recovery and growth of Sandler O’Neill has been told many times since 9/11. Jimmy Dunne is the driving force behind that truly great American story of resilience.

One of the things that struck me about Jimmy as we spoke was how freely he showed emotions about his personal and professional loses of that day.  He grieved openly for the loss of dear friends and colleagues.  He called his grief a “genuine emotion.”  It was a proof of his love and care for those he lost.  For him, this was the only manly and honest thing to do, weep for their loss.   He had the courage and heart to not let the weight of his significant grief turn his heart toward hatred or fear.  In fact, in a very moving eulogy he gave at his best friend’s funeral, he emphatically called out, “You do not give in to hate!  You do not let fear run your life!”

It takes tremendous discipline, clarity of vision and moral courage to say this and mean it.  I asked Jimmy about why he said this about fear and hatred. They could have easily been justified as his response to that terrible day.   The talk at that time in the country was very much about anger.  A pervasive fear seemed to grip everyone.  He said these were feelings based on “the smallness of a person.”   There is nothing small about Jimmy Dunne.  With this kind of clarity about the value of what these individuals meant to him and without the distortions of anger or fear, his resolve became galvanized to make his firm successful and to become more than what he was, to become more like those whom he loved and lost.

This kind of response is the best of what it means to be a human being.  Jimmy Dunne has made an important point.  Emotions like anger and hatred are reactive emotions.  They are unthinking reflexes.  In that sense, they do not come from reasoned choice.  Anatomically, the unthinking reflexive brain stem region from which they come is often referred to as the “reptilian brain,”  not the creative and reflective cortex that is unique to humans.

What a man like Jimmy Dunne was able to do in his rejection of hatred and fear, despite heart-wrenching loss, we must all do to one degree or another as we face the uncertainties and dangers of life.  That means being able to grieve honestly, understanding that this is really nothing more than continuing to honor those we love when they are gone.  Being able to do this successfully leads to what I call a “Compassionate Identity” that deals with integrity and honesty with the world around us.  No doubt, Mr. Dunne’s phenomenal financial success, as well as his many deep and longstanding friendships, are a result of his ability to reject the “smallness” we all carry, and exercise instead an habitual choice toward something higher.

If we are unable to make this choice, significant consequences haunt us and ultimately undermine our personal integrity, our happiness and our relationships.  The next posts examine two major expressions of these consequences, the “Weakened Identity” and the “Rigid Identity.”  Both of these identities are at the center of the national discussion going on now in the aftermath of the shooting in Tucson.

We can disagree.  We can compete in the world of ideas.  But, hatred and fear not only tear us apart personally, they undermine the fabric  of civilization and weaken democracy.

Click here for “Suffering Sucessfully”

Related posts:

Read about Jimmy’s wife, Susan Dunne here: “What Sue Remembers

A wonderful story from the Balkans:  ”Compassion, Fantastic Coffee and My Shock

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All Rights Reserved, John Woodall,MD, Copyright,2011