Archive for April, 2013

Can We Have a 21st Century Conversation?

Can We Have a 21st Century Conversation?

(This piece was in the Newtown Bee in the spring after the horrific shooting in Newtown.  The piece itself begins after the video below.  The piece and the video were part of a combined effort to help develop a community based resilient response in Newtown after the tragedy.  With the articles and videos setting the stage, the workshops mentioned in the piece were carried out in people’s homes and designed to embed these resilient skills into the community.

The video for this post: Compassion or Conflict, Take Your Pick: How does the overwhelming nature of grief affect the way we talk to others and problem solve in destructive ways in the community? Then, a call for the kind of skills we’ll be learning in the workshops with an inspiring example of transformation from this kind of work done in Bosnia.
http://youtu.be/1q4uNBrt5dM)

The bottom line is, it’s about how we honor the love.  First, the love of those we have lost, then, the love for those who remain.  Lincoln at Gettysburg said,

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground.’  Just as we cannot compensate for the lives of those who are gone to those who lost them.  The loss is too great.  Our work now is different.

“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work… to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion…—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”

644694_480753318658865_899854966_n It is equally true in our private lives and in the nation.  We grow when we are able to derive greater strength from the adversity we face.  To suffer successfully is to get the wisdom from it.   Suffering expands us, or contracts us.  Growth is not a guarantee.  It is a choice.  We can suffer unsuccessfully.   With crises the nation can rise to a new horizon of its promise, or it can sink into rancor and division.  We choose.  How we come to view each other as a result of our suffering is the key.

The anguish from such horrible loss as we have experienced since 12-14 grips us all with a sense of powerlessness over the workings of fate.  This powerlessness activates our most primitive survival responses of fear and anger.  Unless we treat this sense of powerlessness wisely, this fear and anger can dominate our thinking, feeling and behaving and undermine our character.   Their corrosive affects disrupt our relationships and corrupt our civil discourse.  These emotions have the power to set us against each other needlessly causing us to see enemies where there are potential allies.  These base emotions limit our options and make our world smaller when our diversity, if activated by a compassionate united vision, could unleash undreamed of human potential.

There is a choice to be made when these frightened and angry feelings well up.   When our sense of powerlessness grips us we can choose to see it as the very shared experience that unites us all as human beings.  Suffering and powerlessness should lead us to recognize our common humanity.   They are shared experiences not only between us and our spouses and loved ones, but also in our town and beyond to the country and all of humanity.  This recognition of our powerlessness is the beginning of compassion if we keep it free from the contamination of fear and anger and instead, blend it with our bottom line, with love.  This is what suffering successfully is about.

IMG_6670 If we don’t make this choice, our grief is distorted into anger and blame, to fear and despair.  Alienation then breaks the bonds of relationships.  The promise of a deeper intimacy and the hope of the possibility for a deeper nurturance from others and greater commitment to their welfare is lost.

If we loose site of the opportunity for growth in compassion and unity that suffering presents to us, we tragically focus instead on the futile attempt to have power over the uncontrollable.  We fight over symbols of control.  Our lack of control over money, policy, the opinions of others can fuel this sense of powerlessness and lead us into these understandable, but ultimately destructive patterns of angry social discourse.  This is the unnecessary, avoidable human-caused tragedy that is layered over the initial tragic loss over which we had no power.

As we move more deeply into the exhaustion of our response to 12-14, we will need to be vigilant to see the natural tendencies of fear and anger as they rise up in us as a result of our powerlessness over life.  The despair and blame they create are corrosive to us, our relationships and to the fabric of our community.  These very responses have poisoned the national dialogue and paralyzed our ability to govern ourselves.

307681_4602101649190_1206300442_n There is another way.  We can choose compassion when everything in us screams anguish and despair and anger.  For our own health, the health of our children, our relationships and community, we have no other choice.  This is the unique position we find ourselves in as citizens of Newtown.  Through our struggle to find a compassionate way, we can spark a new kind of dialogue here and in the wider circle of the country.

To do this, we must first take control of our own suffering: to choose compassion when we are triggered to anger.  To choose to see friends where our tendency is to see enemies.  To give the benefit of the doubt to others who are also struggling, sometimes failing or making human mistakes.  Then, we must choose a new way of speaking to each other.  We need to learn mature  21st Century methods of problem solving together that are respectful, cooperative and creative and abandon 19th Century partisan extremes.  As a result, we will benefit in our personal lives, our families, and our community and possibly set an example for others to follow in the nation we all love.

The Unity Project has called for a new type of dialogue in the community.  As a result,  launched a series of helpful videos on resilience, Newtown Bee articles and home-based workshops to develop the resilient skills needed to move forward this phase of our growth together.  These workshops will then help participants learn the skills needed to have a new type of 21st Century conversation that nurtures our common growth.   The launch of this initiative will begin on April 11 at 7:00 p.m. with a public talk on Building Resilience by Dr. John Woodall at the Middle School auditorium.  Please come and bring friends and loved ones to begin to take up the great task before us.

Related videos on resilience:

Video 1: The Basics of Resilience: This is just what it says in the title.

Video 2: Your Kids Need You This Year: This kind of suffering affects our relationships and parenting. Some basic awareness and skills can turn this trauma into an opportunity for greater intimacy.

Video 3: Your Kids Need You This Year: Part II Expanding on the previous video, this one talks about turning specific negative qualities into strengths for your kids.

Video 5: From Newtown to a New America: creating a culture of peace: We find ourselves in this unusual position of being the focus of the attention of the nation. People want change. They want something better in the way we speak to each other as Americans. There is an opportunity in the horror we have experienced to raise the level of discourse in the country. This video introduces that idea.

 

The views expressed in these videos do not constitute endorsements by either Suzy DeYoung or John Woodall, MD of Sandy Hook Promise.
 

Your Kids Need You This Year: Part II

Your Kids Need You This Year: Part II

There’s a lot to say about the resilient choices to make after a horrible tragedy like that which visited us in Newtown on Dec. 14.

This video series on resilience and the accompanying articles in the Newtown Bee are provided to the Newtown community as a part of a series to provide information and to help build resilient skills in our families and the community in response to the tragedy of 12-14. You are invited to attend a public key-note on Building Resilience at the Newtown Middle School auditorium on April 11 at 7:00 p.m. by Dr. Woodall. A series of resilience building workshops will follow.

The following article appeared in the Newtown Bee:

 
Your Kids Need You This Year: Part II
 
Everything we know about resilience tells us that it grows best in our relationships with others. Resilience is that special ability to spring back from adversity. It’s a word also used to describe how we can become stronger as a result of the struggles in life. I was at the diner the other day with some friends. We were talking about our kids and how they were doing since 12/14 and how they can be more resilient. After several minutes of my friends talking, here is how the conversation went.

“My 15 year old? I think … is OK. He doesn’t say much. I have noticed he locks the front door now when he comes home,” one dad said.

“I got an e-mail from …’s teacher. She hasn’t handed in two homework assignments. She’s never done that,” said another.

A young mom commented, “My six-year-old started sleeping with us again. Otherwise, he seems OK.”

A mother of four said, “We asked … how she feels after 12/14. She told us she was sad. She cries from time to time. I don’t worry about that so much. But, she doesn’t want to go to gymnastics anymore. She’s in her room a lot.”

By now, all the parents at the table had heard that it was a normal part of grieving to see a lot of what we were seeing in our kids. Some kids were more afraid and cautious, some had become listless and were avoiding homework, younger kids sometimes take a few steps backwards developmentally and act younger than their age, some become more isolated while others become overly attached to their peers.644694_480753318658865_899854966_n

What they all have in common is that these reactions can be looked at for the half-developed strengths they point to. There are strengths hidden in these reactions that need to be coaxed out. In fact, the best ways to help a child through these challenges is to look for the strength in the grief reaction and bring it out.

When our kids are afraid, when they become aware that life can be scary and dangerous, the next step is to talk about how precious life is. We fear death or being hurt because we feel that life is precious. We can talk about how important it is, then, to value and protect not only our own life, but also the lives of everyone and everything around us. We can then talk about how, even though we’ve felt afraid, we can act with courage and be of service to others as a way to show how much we value life. Fear is then turned into a commitment for the value of life.

Then, find some positive action you can take together to make that commitment to life together. In this way, you help your child turn fear into compassion and to know they can work with you to change things. You help them turn passivity and powerlessness into action. The action helps them build competence and then confidence. You teach them courage.

Sunrise DSC_0430Don’t make these mistakes if you are grieving over the holidays.[/caption]The sadness of grief is another half expressed virtue. Grief is really a form of love. But, love in the form of heartbreak due to the absence of the loved one. So, the work of grief is really about finding a new form for love to take. We can talk to our kids about how to do this. We can acknowledge the anguish of the pain of grief. But then, we use the pain to focus on the value of the love for the one we lost in our life and how we can find a new way to express it: helping another, a memorial, contributing our time and effort for a cause for instance. These actions turn the passivity of the anguish of grief into commitment and movement on behalf of the love of the one we grieve for. The kids learn how to be more empowered, not less, from grief.

Isolation is a particularly troublesome problem if it goes on too long. To be sure, we need to be alone sometimes. But, if the isolation sours into alienation from others and the ties of relationships are weakened as a result, then its beneficial effect is lost. Often, the isolation comes from a sense of powerlessness over life. We can feel overwhelmed by emotions that there are no words for. Not knowing how to tell anyone what we are experiencing, we feel isolated. For a child who is still developing language skills, this can be especially overwhelming, even paralyzing leading to a loss of hope and motivation.

One of the most important lessons in life comes from what we do with that sense of powerlessness. If we can let our kids know that every person who has ever lived has had to face their powerlessness in one way or the other, then we can talk about how this powerlessness is one shared experience that binds us all together as one human family. We learn compassion come from this understanding that everyone suffers, everyone at some point is powerless. This truth either makes us feel alone and impotent in our lives, or it shows us that we need each other. Our kids need us to help them choose the latter.

If we miss that lesson, despair over our powerlessness and isolation can corrode our character. We can’t let that happen. These are important teaching moments.

There is no recipe for this kind of growth and everyone moves through this differently. But, what we do know is true for all: what we loosely call the “symptoms” of grief that we see in ourselves, our kids and each other are actually the first stages of a birth of sorts. If left to themselves, fear, anger, isolation and powerlessness will turn corrosive and lead to despair. If we allow them to give birth to the resilient strengths they contain, these same “symptoms” can give us a more meaningful view of life, added confidence, an enriched sense of compassion for the world, a firmer commitment to the welfare of others and confidence in our ability to give to and be nurtured by others in our lives. It’s important we not miss these opportunities for growth.

We’re all still adjusting. The bottom line is, if we’re going to suffer, we should suffer successfully. That means finding the strengths that lie in our pain and helping our loved ones, especially our kids, do the same.

Related Posts:
Video 1: The Basics of Resilience

Video 2: Your Kids Need You This Year

Video 4: Compassion of Conflict, Take Your Pick

Video 5: From Newtown to a New America: Creating a Culture of Peace.

(John Woodall, MD is a Board Certified psychiatrist who lives in Newtown. He is formerly of the faculty at Harvard Medical School and is the Founder and Director of the Unity Project, a resilience-building program helping thousands of children in New York after 9/11, New Orleans and Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, former child soldiers in Uganda and now at Newtown High School. His blog, The Resilient Life, is at www.johnwoodall.net.)

Your Kids Need You This Year

Your Kids Need You This Year

Here is the link to the video on building resilience in couples and their kids, prepared especially for my Newtown friends, but applies to anyone.

This video series on resilience and the accompanying articles in the Newtown Bee are provided to the Newtown community as a part of a series to provide information and to help build resilient skills in our families and the community in response to the tragedy of 12-14. You are invited to attend a public key-note on Building Resilience at the Newtown Middle School auditorium on April 11 at 7:00 p.m. by Dr. Woodall. A series of resilience building workshops will follow.

 

 

Your Kids Need You This Year.

John Woodall, MD

As a psychiatrist, my off-duty conversations with people can run the gamut from the mundane to the very personal. I was talking to a friend in town who described how he feels cut off from people he knows since the horrific tragedy in December.

“It hurts that some people I know really well, even family, haven’t reached out to me. I can’t believe it. Do they just not care?” We talked about how they may have no idea what to say that would be helpful and not sound empty. Not knowing what to say, they say nothing.

644694_480753318658865_899854966_n
Then, he said, “People ask me how I’m doing. What am I supposed to say? If they haven’t been through it, there’s no way they can ever know. It’s superficial for them to even ask and I don’t know how to begin to explain.” So, the understanding and connection he wants the most he feels he can’t get. Either people don’t know what to say to him, and he resents their silence. Or, they ask how he feels, and he resents them for asking what he feels is a superficial question. The whole thing is just bigger than words can contain. He feels powerless over emotions that are new, overwhelming, exhausting and frightening to him.

My friend is experiencing the isolation that is commonly felt after a terrible tragedy. The loss of the loved ones is the first circle of his searing pain. Around that is growing his sense of desperate isolation. Isolation that springs from not being able to explain his experience to anyone or to receive solace from those he loves. This sense of overwhelming powerlessness and the desperate isolation breed most of the problems we see after tragic loss.

It’s our Fight or Flight response that kicks in to ensure our survival when we feel this kind of overwhelming powerlessness and desperation. This response flips on two survival emotions, fear and anger, that focus our attention on any possible threats so we can defend ourselves. Now, besides grieving, my friend is overwhelmed, exhausted, isolated, at times fearful of an unfamiliar terrible loneliness and angry and defensive at the perception of mostly imagined threats. This is an unhealthy brew for relationships.

“I nearly bit the head off of, … at work today. Did the same to my wife last night. I shocked myself. That’s not me. I’m exhausted ‘cause I can’t sleep. My wife cries and is offended by everything. Me too, I guess. We’re fighting over small things. We argue over old wounds that I thought we buried. Maybe the marriage is just a big mistake and I should just stop the pretense.”

1969His kids seem ok. They are in their rooms texting their friends most of the time, he thinks. He wonders if maybe they’d be better off if he just called his marriage a sham and moved out. There’s a woman he knows who called him last week. He complains that his wife has a drink or two when she gets home and is on Facebook the rest of the day.

“You and your wife are better than this. You’re both amazing people who are just ground down. It sounds like you’re breaking at your weakest points. But, you’re not your weakest parts. You are a whole person with weaknesses and strengths. When you guys are strong, you’re great together. Now you need to learn how to be great together at your weakest times. First, no messing around and she has to watch the drink and get away from the computer.”

“There’s actually an opportunity here. This whole situation is asking you to become more intimate, to trust each other in more intimate ways you never had to explore before. You’re being asked to turn to each other in your vulnerability. Stop the hurtful stuff, of course. But, you need to make the choice to reach out to her and she needs to reach to you, especially when you feel overwhelmed and alone. Forgive quickly and reconnect. This won’t go away by itself. It needs your active engagement.”

“And what are your kids going through? Don’t you think they feel the same overwhelming emotions? They also have times when they have no words and need to reach out, but don’t know how. You’re the adult with the language skills. You’re better at this then they are. They’re going to learn how to navigate this kind of problem by what they see you do next. They need to see an example of their parents struggling successfully together with difficult emotions and becoming closer as a result, not letting this cause a rift between you. Give that gift of a lifetime to them. Otherwise, they are learning how to be isolated and hopeless with shallow expectations of relationships when they need them most.

“Get them into some healthy activity where they are making the world a better place. Show them how to take the energy behind all this grief and turn it into care for others, starting in the family. This will break the isolation and sense of powerlessness.”

I wish them well. The consequences of prolonged powerlessness and isolation will result in poor coping strategies like substance abuse, extramarital affairs, violence, gambling, divorce and, god forbid, suicide, if we do not choose to start to learn how to become more intimate with those closest to us as a result of what has happened here. All of this pain can’t be for nothing. We must come out of this with stronger families, friendships and community bonds.

So, I’m calling for a moratorium on divorces this year. Some marriages are toxic and need to end. But, herculean efforts should be made this year to reach for that breakthrough in intimacy everyone wants. It’s not the time to quit. If we struggle together in our marriages through the uncertainty and confusion, we can find ourselves in a new place in the relationships we care the deepest for and need the most, an intimacy that is more fulfilling in surprising and richly nurturing ways. Our kids will be transformed as a result and have a shot at becoming role models of compassion and resilience and show others in our troubled world how it’s done.

Related Videos in This Series on Resilience:

Video 1: The Basics of Resilience.

Video 2: “Your Kids Need You This Year: Part II

Video 4: Compassion or Conflict: Take Your Pick

Video 5: From Newtown to a New America: Creating a Culture of Peace

John Woodall, MD is a Board Certified psychiatrist who lives in Newtown. He is formerly of the faculty at Harvard Medical School and is the Founder and Director of the Unity Project, a resilience-building program helping thousands of children in New York after 9/11, New Orleans and Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, former child soldiers in Uganda and now at Newtown High School. His blog, The Resilient Life, is at www.johnwoodall.net.

The Basics of Resilience

The Basics of Resilience

The Basics of Resilience

We all want the best for our kids, especially after 12-14. These videos are introductions into the basics of building resilience presented in easy to understand language without clinical or academic jargon.

This first video is on “The Basics of Resilience.” It was put together with the help of Sandy Hook Promise as part of a larger effort to get important information out to the community after the tragic shooting that shook our town. These videos will be followed up by a public talk on building resilience that I’ll be giving in the auditorium at the Newtown Middle School on April 11 at 7:00 p.m..

644694_480753318658865_899854966_n More than information, we want to develop essential resilient skills to apply in our lives. To do this, the Unity Project has sponsored resilient skill building workshops that began in the spring of 2013. These workshops are held in homes with up to 20 participants. We want to have a new and better kind of conversation to get through the terrible difficulties we all face in our families and community as a result of 12-14 and as a nation. These workshops will help build the skills we need to have that kind of conversation and bring about a transformation that can help to create the culture of peace we all want for our kids.

Related Videos in This Series:

Your Kids Need You This Year

Your Kids Need You This Year: Part II

 

Compassion or Conflict: Take Your Pick

From Newtown to a New America: Creating a Culture of Peace