Category: The Resilient Nation

Resilience and Leadership: Bob Castrignano

Resilience and Leadership: Bob Castrignano

“If you’ve been given a fair amount, you owe something back.”

This was one of the first things Bob said to me over lunch as we discussed what motivated him to jump back into Wall Street after 9/11.

In the spring of 2001, Bob Castignano had retired from a very successful career at Goldman Sachs.  He was thinking he’d put out feelers to do some teaching.  “I thought I’d call Fr. Kelley at Fairfield (University) and use my battlefield MBA.  I thought I would teach international finance”

But, he said, “I never had the opportunity to have that conversation” with Fr. Kelley.  Shortly after 9/11, Bob got a call from a friend and colleague from his days at Goldman, Anthony Scaramucci.  Anthony told Bob about a firm called Sandler O’Neill and Partners (S.O.P.) that had been ravaged by the collapse of the South Tower.

Anthony knew Jimmy Dunne, Sandler ONeill’s only surviving Senior Managing Principal.  Anthony was feeling the sting of the loss of his close friend, Chris Quackenbush, who died on 9/11 and was also a Managing Principal at Sandler O’Neill.   He knew that Jimmy, who was also a close friend of Chris’, needed help re-populating the firm that had lost most of its staff that terrible day.  “He (Anthony) called me and asked if I’d like to volunteer.”  It was not what Bob had been planning for his life.

Hoping to be of help at a critical time, Bob had dinner with Jimmy.  It was the first time they had ever met.  Bob got the harrowing overview of the situation from Jimmy.  He decided then to come on board as a volunteer to reconstruct the devastated Equities Division for S.O.P.   I asked him how did he go from being retired, to a volunteer at Sandler O’Neill and Partners to a Managing Principal for Equities?

“I think leaders…look at a situation you’re presented with and then say, ‘OK, can I make an impact here.’  Not a contribution, an impact.  There’s a big difference.  Somebody knows what to do and they do it.  I started thinking.  For whatever reason, I’ve been presented with the following data set.”

He then went on to describe a firm that had lost 66 people, 24 of them were the entire Equities Division.

“We had no building, no technology, no records, no accounts…”  He asked himself, “Do you think you can make an impact?   I thought this is something I need to do.  I thought I could make an impact.  So, I said ‘yes.'”

What was striking in Bob’s speech was how clear thinking and resolute he was.  There was no dwelling on emotional distractions that would sway him from a course of having the greatest possible impact for the greatest number of people.

I’ve written about how survival emotions like fear and anger have debilitating effects on our judgment.  They can then either paralyze our will, as when we are in a Weakened Identity,  or misdirect it toward divisive and conflictual styles of relating to others, as when we are in a Rigid Identity.   Understanding how crisis affects our judgment, will and our ability to work with others is critical if we want our best resilient potential to flourish.  This understanding is especially critical for a leader.

Cultivating the skill to quiet our instinctual survival emotions of anger and fear and the bias they create is key to sound judgment and applying our will in a productive way.   We can then direct our judgment and will with resolution to focus on serving the greatest good.  At Sandler O’Neill and in our conversation, Bob perfectly demonstrated these abilities.

I asked him what was going on in his gut during that time.  There was no building, no records, no staff support, no technical infrastructure, not even a list of clients!  How did he deal with the emotion of it all?  Wasn’t it all overwhelming?

The Resolve of David in the Moment Before He Confronts Goliath

“I think the feeling was one of resolve that it wasn’t going to be a sprint.  It was going to be a marathon.  I knew what to do.  Where to look for friends on the street to recruit help…   The idea that I would be overwhelmed honestly never reached my conscious mind.  Never there.  I never doubted it would work.”

This capacity to keep one’s eye on the goal without being diverted by instinctual survival emotions sets leaders like Bob apart from the crowd. Some, like Bob, by  temperament as well as by disciplined practice, have a handle on the emotions that could overwhelm their thinking.  As a result, their will is more focused.  They have a sense of moral resolve to accomplish their goal.

As we work together in a family, a school, community or business. we have a notion of who our community is.  Our judgment is used for the service of a community.  Our will is directed to fulfill the needs of that community.

But, this is not enough to be an ethical leader. What community will we serve?  A community of one?  Will we be interested only in our own ethnic, racial or religious group?

After all, Hitler had a focused resolve.  He certainly did not have a handle on his anger, to put it mildly.  As a result and most importantly, the community he was resolved to serve was very rigid and exclusive.  Everyone outside of that group was expendable.  This is how the Rigid Identity warps our ethical reasoning.  It creates a highly emotionally charged “us” versus “them” mentality that leads to conflict.

Hitler’s actions are rightly regarded as evil as a result of the exclusive rigid community he chose to serve.  This is where we must be careful of the affects of trauma and loss on our lives.  If we do not manage our grief and the resultant fear and anger well, we are prone to falling into the ethical distortions of a Weakened or Rigid Identity and the conflictual relationships that follow.

Loss can lead to three kinds of identity structures that either dilute our sense of belonging (the Weakened Identity), make our identification rigid and exclusive (the Rigid Identity) or we can make a choice to see the humanity we all share and the suffering that is a part of the human condition.  This links us in compassion to others (the Compassionate Identity).

As it was with his clear judgment and focused resolve, Bob never questioned that he was doing this work for others.  It went without saying.  The goal was the welfare of others.  In his quiet way, Bob operates from a Compassionate Identity.  Clarity in these three areas: judgment, will and an inclusive transcendent goal are essential for an ethical leader.

There is an important lesson here about resilience, personal fulfillment and leadership that we will explore more in later posts and the upcoming book.

Bob Castrignano

Bob went on to focus on the qualities of the group at Sandler O’Neill,  “It was a really really resolute group.  There was no doubt!…  People were just coming in really intent on what was going to be done.  There was an incredible level of concentration and attention to detail.”

“You had to compartmentalize your feelings so that there was a task at hand…. Very mundane stuff.  Interview the right people, find the account list.  The people who would join had to have a sense from you that this was going to work.  They had to believe they are betting on the right team.  I wanted to be overly protective of the fact that if there is any doubt in your mind don’t do this because there is no doubt in my mind…  People will respond positively to you if you engender somebody that’s worth following.”

This same clarity of judgment, resolute focus and commitment to the larger community were also present in Jimmy Dunne and others at Sandler O’Neill.  Otherwise, it is hard to imagine how the crippled firm could have survived.

After such a devastating loss it is important to keep in mind that while natural grief is a healthy thing, one has to keep an eye on the extremes of certain emotions that can persist after a loss.  This is especially an important goal when unskillful emotional habits are distorting one’s judgment or crippling one’s will power.  Devastating losses like those sustained on 9/11 stir up just the survival emotions that can lead to these negative effects.

It is at those times when, instead of dwelling on strong survival feelings like fear and anger, it is important to find a larger goal that serves to energize healthier emotions  and focus our resolve.  Feelings like compassion, empathy and grief that link us to others need to be allowed a wide and open field of play.  Survival emotions that pit us against others like fear and anger constrain our judgment and distort our will when we need them most.

Bob got this instinctually.  So did Jimmy Dunne who talked in a previous post about “small” emotions like anger and vindictiveness that bring out the worst in people and stir conflict.  Yet, he grieved openly and honestly about the loss of his friends.  In times of crisis, certain emotions are helpful to bind us to others in a moral resolve to do great things.  Other emotions sap the strength of our resolve, distort our judgment and fan the flames of conflict.

For Bob, it was all about working toward a worthy goal and bringing his experience and talents to bear in order to have a wide impact.  It wasn’t about his personal needs.  He avoided all of the traps that unchecked instinctual emotions set.

“Look, it’s only one business but it is a paradigm.   An example of what people can do when you put a business goal or a focus on an end game than on what it specifically means to you. That’s the answer.”

I had the chance to speak with several people about Bob.  To a person they mentioned his always being there for others.  Unasked, they would talk about his generosity of spirit.  Many on Wall Street give lip service to providing service to customers when their real interest is in the advantage they can gain over intermediaries in leveraged deals.  Everyone said Bob was different.  He demonstrated time and again thoughout his career, and often times to his detriment, that he really was more concerned about serving others.

Anthony Scaramucci was emphatic on this point.  He wanted to be sure this aspect of Bob’s character and leadership did not go unnoticed and even scheduled a meeting in his office with me to be sure I got it.  Bob is called  “the Coach” by a generation on Wall Street whom he helped get started.  To them, he is nearly venerated.  Anthony mentions him at length in his courageous look at Wall Street, Goodbye Gordon Gekko.

In the long run, it’s about how big your circle of inclusion is.  Who is in, and who is out?  Our suffering and loss have a way of making that circle small and rigid.  It is our job in life to resist this pull.  Our happiness ultimately depends on living life for the greatest good, the Compassionate Identity.  This identity keeps our judgment sound, our will resolute and our relations healthy.

We can teach these skills to kids.  They can refine their judgment and not allow it to be distorted by fear and anger.  They can strengthen their will to aspire to noble ends that serve the widest possible circle.  In fact, we need to get busy helping the next generation acquire these skills.

The world is getting more complex and perilous.  The next generation has to know how to manage this peril without falling prey to fear and anger and the distortions of judgment, will and connection to humanity they engender.  This is what the Unity Project’s initiative ReachUP! USA is all about.  It is a way to develop these skills in a new generation of leaders using service to others through a national movement of youth empowerment.

Fountain Dedicated to St. Joseph in Vatican City

When I think about Bob Castignano, I think of  the metaphor of a fountain.   When the pipes are clean, the water can flow through them.  The perpetual giving allows the water to return, to recirculate.  If you are not thinking about yourself, if fear and anger are quelled and you focus your will on the larger goal, the best can flow from you.  Opportunity, connection to others and prosperity come back to you.  You can have the greatest possible impact.

In one of the greatest mysteries of life, we say most loudly who we are when we are most focused on something greater than ourselves.

In an interesting twist where the metaphorical and literal meet, I learned that Bob has recently  been quietly involved in providing the means to construct a fountain in Vatican City in honor of St. Joseph.   How fitting.

Related Posts:

ReachUP! USA for the 10th Anniversary of 9/11.

Resilience and Leadership: Jimmy Dunne.

Please leave your comments and subscribe to the blog through the RSS feed.

Fantastic Coffee and My Shocking Experience with Islam.

Fantastic Coffee and My Shocking Experience with Islam.

Opatija, Croatia.

This morning, I was treated to a good cup of coffee at Dunkin Donuts.   Good coffee always reminds me of my friend.  We called him “Effendi.” He and I used to drink endless cups of amazingly good coffee together, the best I have ever had, when I lived in Opatija, Croatia.

It makes sense.  Due to its location at the northern end of the Adriatic, at one time or another, Opatija (pronouced o-pot-i-ya) has been ruled by Italy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire.  Blend these with the local Slavic influence and you’ve got way more than your typical cup of joe.

While I lived there, it was less than an hour drive to Trieste, Italy (most of that going through 2 border crossings)  and right around two hours to Venice.  The architecture in Opatija shows the blend of these great cultures.  So does the food, and especially the fantastic coffee.  I have never had a macchiato (here’s a recipe) anything  like those I had in Opatija.

The Balkans is one of the world’s great melting pots of culture. Slavic culture’s western-most reach ends here in Serbia.  Austro-Hungarian culture dips into Croatia.  Ottoman influence is still alive in Bosnia.

Over the centuries, the human exchange between these three major cultures has led to both a flourishing social climate, and on occasion, tragically explosive and lethal politics.

Click on the map a few times to see Opatija is under the “j” in Rijeka on the right.

For the year I lived there, I ran a refugee relief program funded by USAID.  The war in the Balkans had just ended after the worst part of the Rigid Identities of the politicians of the area played up fear and extremism between these rich cultures instead of building on the amazing strengths they offer each other.  If you’re old enough, you surely remember the genocidal results that followed in the horrific war that raged in the former Yugoslavia during the early 1990s near the heart of central Europe.

My main work was to develop trauma response programs to help Croatians who had been forced from their homes to find a way back home.  I had the even more difficult task of helping the far larger number of Bosnians return to their homes across the border.  (Here’s a map of the region.)

Work for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, pictured here at the Hague, and USAID led to my doing this refugee work.

These were people forced from their homes at gun-point.  Women, children and men alike were all raped and brutalized, the men often killed  in the process to try to break the spirits of the population so that they would never want to return.  These cruel methods went along with a brutal military offensive to drive Bosnian Muslims and Croatians from their homes so that ethnic Serbs could claim land they felt was theirs.  The result was a horrific genocide.

In our meetings, Effendi and I would drink endless cups of coffee together.  It only dawned on me months after I arrived that the reason I never seemed to get any sleep was because business in the region is conducted over  coffee.  When I went to someone’s office, coffee was served, many cups.  Or, as is the custom, we would meet in cafes to do business and drink more.  By the end of the typical day, I would have had 12-15 cups of coffee.  I usually can’t sleep after 2.

So, Effendi, who was the recognized leader of the Bosnian Muslim refugee community, and I would meet often to try to figure out how to help the tens of thousands of people forced from their homes  to return to Bosnia.  We usually met over coffee and chivapchichi (here’s the recipe).

“Chivap” or chivapchichi is the Balkan version of hamburger.

I loved this man, but the endless, (and delicious) coffee and “chivap” were killing me.

Effendi and I puzzled over how to send people back to homes they had been forced from at gun-point.  One day, while we met at the refugee community center, a ramshackle building the refugees rented, I put the question to Effendi.  “How do we send people home without rekindling conflict all over again?  Some will want to seek revenge.  How do we prevent the people in the houses from getting violent?  What can we do to make a difference?”

“Are you free Saturday morning?”  Effendi asked.


“Then, come here at 7:00 for the children’s class.  I want to show you something.”

A few days later, I arrived bright and early with Neli, my translator, to see what Effendi had in store for me.  We climbed the stairs of the old building to the large public room that held about 200 kids.  They were all threadbare having lost everything in the war, but immaculate and well pressed.  They were sitting on the floor in neat rows facing Effendi who was already well into that week’s lesson to help prepare the children to return to their homes in Bosnia.

I was greeted with great respect and formality by the kids.  Neli and I took our places.  Effendi continued,

“Children, what is the first obligation of a Muslim when we return to our homes in Bosnia?”

In unison 200 strong, the children replied, “The first obligation of a Muslim, when we return to our homes in Bosnia, is to forgive the people living in our houses.”

“Children, what is the second obligation of a Muslim when we return to our homes in Bosnia?”

“The second obligation of a Muslim, when we return to our homes in Bosnia, is to ask the people living in our houses if we can help them.”

Shocked, and knowing full well what these kids had been through, I asked Neli to confirm what we had just heard.  “Yes, that’s what he said.”

So, it was possible to return to Bosnia without violence.  Effendi knew it could work.  It wouldn’t be accomplished by a top-down administrative plan.  This was the way.  It would be done by many people making a very personal choice.

In fact, there has been no violence to speak of in Bosnia since the war ended.

Here is an example of the best of Islam and the power it can exert for peace. We need to reinforce these examples in a time of religious extremism of every sort. We are all prey to the worst in human nature. The best in every religion is capable of protecting us from the worst in us.

I think of Effendi, those kids and my choices every time I think I am entitled to be angry or hurt.   Or, when I have a good cup of coffee.

Related Posts:

The Compassionate Identity: The Prize and the Price.

Post-Partisan America: First Things First: The Choice We Make”

“Lessons from 9/11 for Tucson”

“A Compassionate Identity:  “What Sue Remembers”

Please share this with your friends on Facebook or your own blog.  I’d love to hear your comments below.

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

Compassion, the Prize and the Price

Compassion, the Prize and the Price

With Martin Luther King Day upon us, this piece on his college room-mate’s study of his non-violent methods of social change will be something to uplift your spirits. Enjoy.

I really like Chuck Willie.  You would too.

Chuck and Martin before they became “Dr. Willie” and “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Chuck was Martin Luther King’s classmate at Morehouse College.  You know what became of Dr. King.  Dr. Willie has his own  illustrious record.

I met Chuck when he was the Chair of the Board of the Judge Baker Children’s Center at Harvard University.  I was on the faculty at Judge Baker at the time.  A more approachable man than Chuck is hard to imagine.  With his many remarkable achievements, his combination of humble affability and excellence in achievement make him a gem of a man whom I highly value and simply love to talk to.

Chuck participated in the interfaculty working group I put together at Harvard after 9/11 on “Resilient Responses to Social Crisis.”  We were looking at what the absolute best responses might be to that horrible event and ones like it.  We were particularly interested in how to do this on a large scale.  That’s where Chuck has special insights.

One of his many areas of expertise is how to create effective grassroots social action.   Like Dr. King, this was the burning question before all Morehouse students of his generation and even now.  Chuck came to study the methods of his former classmate, Dr. King, and offered our group his insights.

It was after one of our working group meetings that Chuck came up to me to give me a synopsis of Dr. King’s methods.  He told me how the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 was a perfect example of how to mobilize a group of people to be their best. (Check out this tune by the Neville Brothers in honor of Rosa Parks.)

“Every Monday night, people from every part of Montgomery would come together at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Dr. King was pastor.”  Chuck said.  “They would basically be involved in two actitivites.  On the one hand, they would listen to sermons and speeches about the “Beloved Community.”  They would talk among themselves, read the Bible, study from other sources, all of this to get a clear idea of what “The Prize” was they were after.”

“You see, they needed to have a crystal clear vision of what it was they were being asked to do.  In this case, it wasn’t only their own liberation from the oppression of Segregation and Jim Crow.  They wanted much more than that.  They were going to liberate their oppressors from the shackles of their prejudice and hatred.  In that way everyone could be free.  Their goal was the ‘Beloved Community.'”

“So, on the one hand, they needed to have this goal, this Prize, clearly fixed in their minds with all of its benefits and moral value.”

“On the other hand, in order to make a mature ethical choice, they had to understand in the depths of their souls what the cost would be, what “The Price” was to pay for that “Prize.”

Their families could be harrassed or harmed, crosses burned on their property, fire hoses turned on them, attack dogs set loose on them.  They could be beaten with clubs.  They could be killed.”

“They had to look these costs straight in the face and decide for themselves if that Prize was worth paying that Price.”

Rosa Parks

“Over the course of time, by going over the Prize and the Price in every possible way, turning their options over and over in their minds and weighing in their hearts what this all meant, every one of those people was able to make a deep personal commitment to that Prize and accept the Price they would pay to get it.  This allowed them to make a deeply personal ethical choice that rested at the core of their being.

After nearly 13 months of this, it was as though there were thousands of Dr. Kings.  If he had been killed then, that boycott still would have gone on and succeeded due to the deep clear-eyed personal commitment of all involved.”

Rosa Parks after her arrest.

To make the important decisions in our life, we need to get clear on the Prize we are after and the Price we pay for it. A lot of parenting, especially of a teenager, is all about this.  Of course, the Price is not only what we might have to sacrifice for our Prize, but also the price we pay for failing to choose.  Difficult times give us the motivation to look for the best of what we can be.

A Rigid or Weakened Identity prevent us from seeing the best of that Prize.  They dim our vision of the Prize and rob us of the confidence to choose.  Or worse, they tragically energize us to make mean spirited or “small” choices as Jimmy Dunne described in another post.

A Compassionate Identity opens up the horizon of possibilities for us.  We can begin to see the best of what we can be.  Our choice can then be better informed.  If from a Compasionate Identity, we lay out that Prize to someone who is in a difficult situation, we offer them a way to hope, a way to the best in themselves.  If we also lay out the Price that will have to be paid to reach that Prize, we give them the chance to make the best choice to make that hope real.  We fire their determination to achieve something higher.

This is the goal of the Unity Project, the ReachUP! USA initiative and this blog.

Related posts:

If you missed the first post on the Compassionate Identity, click here.

Susan Dunne and “What Sue Remembers

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

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

Please feel free to post this to your Facebook or blog. Subscribe through e-mail.  Most importantly, let’s hear your thoughts.  Comment below.

Compassion and What Sue Remembers

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 a picture over and over of 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.”

Dont’ forget to share your comments below and subscribe to the site through the e-mail subscription.

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 intrusion 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..  Others might argue that the sum of the advantages and privileges of the majority are such that to allow for easier access of the historically oppressed is an act of historic correction, and therefore, justifiable.

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.

It is when the pursuit of Equality is excessive that we see bizarre and tyrannical intrussions into our 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 right of the state to regulate the equal access of the public to wildlife, however good that goal might be, was carried to excess by an irrational egalitarian law.

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 the moderating effects of 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 we endurea real human cost and risk to the nation as inadequate health care and poor health drags on other public services and limits productivity and increases, innecessarily, human misery.  It is not, in the interests of a private corporation to provide care for all as its goals are to maximizes its Liberty to make a profit.  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 limits our problem solving approach to one prescribed answer to all illnesses.  In medicine, if a doctor prescribed the same thing for all patients no matter their disease, we would consider this malpractice.  You wouldn’t accept that from a doctor.  Yet, extreme partisans offer the same solution to every nuanced problem.  If we wouldn’t accept that from a doctor, why do we accept it from a politician?  If a doctor is guilty of medical malpractice if they diagnosis every person that comes to them with appendicitis and prescribes surgery as the treatment to everyone, no matter what the problem, why do we accept from politicians a rigidly simple diagnosis to every social ill and the same prescription to every complex problem?  Why is this not political malpractice?

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 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 and the wanton expansion of entitlements.

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 the system that is the social expression of pure Liberty.  (Just as Communsm is the expression of pure 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 (and manages MediCare at far less cost and greater efficiency than insurance companies do, contrary to rhetoric to the contrary.)

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 and the expansion of entitlements 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 a slippery slope toward Communism and a violation of sacred Liberty.  There is a naive assertion commonly heard that any effort at promoting Equality will inevitaby lead to Communism, as if people had no capacity to for balance and proportion.   In fact, the ideas of balance  and proportion are missing from our social and political discourse.  What is important is to assess the balance between Liberty and Equality, not to outright condemn any movement to expand Liberty as purely selfish and any movement toward Equality as purely communistic.  With an eye toward Justice, we can assess the value of both positions as each situation dictates.

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 can 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 opposite extremes with the expectation of a battle between the two.  We have assumed that this kind of conflict is necessary and even good.  We assume we are principled when w say we will only stand for pure Liberty (as a Republican) or pure Equality (as  Democrat), when in fact we have defined ourselves as rigid extremists.  Our goal should be Justice through the balance of Liberty and Equality as either of them exclusively lead to an unjust society.

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 when viewed through the lens of partisanship 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 or the Right, as we see so clearly in the governmental paralysis caused by 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 must 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”

Please share this with your friends.  Click the RSS feed above or below to subscribe.   Please share your thoughts below.

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.

Please post this to your own blog or Facebook page.  Follow my posts by clicking the RSS Feed above.  Let me know what you think!  Comment below!

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

Please post this to your own blog or Facebook page!  Follow my posts by clicking the RSS Feed above.  Let me know what you think, comment below!

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