Category: The Unity Project

ReachUP! 2021 for the Tenth Anniversary of 9/11

ReachUP! 2021 for the Tenth Anniversary of 9/11

WHAT: In anticipation of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, young people across the country will demonstrate through service to others that they want  to live in a world of compassion and cooperation where the best of each person is brought out.  They are seizing the initiative to create the world they want to live in.  They want no part of the fear and extremism that have defined the last ten years.   Instead, they are acting to make real a vision of a united and compassionate world in 2021.

In the process, a new generation of leaders will be strengthened to learn self-reliance, personal responsibility and develop the resolve to make a positive impact in the global community.

Through the service they perform, and the Unity Project’s Transformation Exercises, they will be learning valuable lessons about their hidden strengths.  They will learn how to identify needs in their community.  Together, these will ignite a vision of what they are capable of and provide the motivation to finish school and pursue a career or trade.  They will forge friendships and working partnerships with their peers all over the world to knit a fabric of peace and stability out of the broken cords of despair and conflict they see around them.

They did not create the climate of fear and extremism they are growing up in.  They don’t want these negative themes to govern their lives.  They have a say in what they will do about it.   They want the next decade to be about compassion and cooperation, not fear and extremism.  Working together toward that vision of 2021, in thousands of places around the world, act by act, they are building that world.  This Unity Project initiative is called, “ReachUP! 2021.”

WHY: The 10th anniversary of 9/11 is an opportunity for this generation of young people to say that the lesson of 9/11 is not that we should fear each other or label each other as enemies.  We recognize that we have another choice.  We choose compassion and cooperation instead of fear and anger.  We want this choice to be demonstrated in countless acts of cooperative service throughout the country.

In this way, as media attention turns to the anniversary, we will be ready with dynamic positive examples of the future we are building now.   Young people will be role models for a positive future and set the tone for the national dialogue for the next decade.

HOW: The Unity Project will provide its service based resilience building training and programming to any community-based organization that wants to participate in ReachUP! USA.  These services will raise the caliber of skills of our partners so they can better help the kids they serve.

The Unity Project methods empower kids to identify and fix problems that affect their lives.   Since these problems are things the kids feel strongly about, they are committed to finding a solution and seeing it through.

At the same time, they elevate the culture of their schools and communities and learn problem solving and group cooperation skills guided by the highly innovative and effective Unity Project Transformation Process.  Kids develop a vision for their future, a sense of hope in a stronger community and the skills they need to have the confidence to move their lives forward in a positive way.  The more kids develop these core strengths, the less pull they feel to dysfunctional behaviors that cripple a young person’s growth.

We intend to highlight in the media specific youth projects across the country from now until the 10th anniversary of 9/11.  In this way, we intend to uplift the tone of the discussion in the country about the meaning of the anniversary and where we are going as a nation in the next decade.

WHEN: Trainings for participating community-based organizations in New York City began in November, 2010 and are continuing nationally since then.  Youth service activities were launched after January 1, 2011 and will continue through 9-11-2011.  There will be culminating events around the anniversary of 9/11.

After 9/11, the work will continue into the next phase of youth capacity building as project “2021” to raise the culture in schools and communities, improve high-school graduation rates and college matriculation as well as prepare graduates for the workforce.

WHO: The Unity Project (a 501(c)3 corporation) will host these activities.  Any community-based organization, school or after-school program across the country is eligible to participate.  The Department of Youth and Community Development of the City of New York and some of its contractees are among the first participants in this effort.

“Like” us on Facebook:  “Reach UP! 2021”

CONTACT: at (203) 241-5525.

DONATE: By PayPal at

Please make checks payable to: “The Unity Project” sent to:

4 Still Hill Rd.

Sandy Hook, CT  06470

Related Posts:

Service as the Beginning, Middle and End of Self-Discovery and Learning.

Mobilizing the Dignity of a 16 Year Old.

A Summary of the Unity Project

A Summary of the Unity Project

The Unity Project is a resilience building learning system.  We use service, the arts and sports to “mine the gems” of hidden potential in young people. Our unique Transformation Exercises then, “refine the gems” into practical resilient skills that are used to “share the gems” to build competence to work creatively and constructively in a diverse community. Just as the hidden and vast capacities of hydrogen and oxygen are released when they are united to create water, we believe strongly that our greatest potential is released in groups united in their diversity.

As we move more deeply into a national and global climate fraught with complex and nuanced problems, young people need to become masters of working with this complexity and diversity in cooperative and constructive ways. Our democracy and the happiness of our lives depend upon it. Young people need to know how to recognize bias, see the big picture and problem solve cooperatively and to resist the human tendency to allow fear and anger to pull us to simplistic and extremist solutions that only create division and conflict and end up worsening the problems we face.

The Unity Project develops essential core skills for personal, community and organizational transformation in order to prepare young people for a well-rounded, happy and productive life as members of a global community. These core skills are necessary to create a virtuous cycle of growth to overcome the vicious cycle of negative reinforcements in many young people’s lives.

Mastery of these core skills not only acts as a preventive innoculation against dysfunctional behavior, but also helps propel the young person toward their own vision of how they can contribute to a global community.  Using this approach, Unity Project resilient skill building helps our partners better accomplish virtually any capacity building program they have.  If we possess these core resilient skills, then any number of dysfunctional behaviors can not take root in a young person’s life.

The core services we provide are:

  • Training for the staff of our partners on building core resilient strengths.
  • A framework for our partners to create student-led service, arts and sports activities that “mine the gems” of their resilience.
  • Our Transformation Exercises that can be used in any existing youth programming that “refine the gems” of resilience.
  • Organizational support to help our partners adopt a common language and approach to their mission.
  • A growing and dynamic international online learning community to share best practices and resource sharing.

Writing for practitioners rather than academics, this post is an overview of the theory and methods of the Unity Project. For background on our rich experience over decades, the sound theoretical underpinnings and world class vetting behind this work, please click on the links in this sentence.

So what does the Unity Project do?  In our language, we mobilize the dignity of individuals, groups and institutions.   By “dignity” we mean the sum total of the latent and expressed capacities and skills individuals, groups and institutions possess.   Using the best that world-class research and decades of field experience have shown, we bring out the latent potential of the youth we serve through assisting them to develop the ability to make pro-social choices.

The question becomes how to release the unsuspected potential of human nature and direct it toward positive social ends?  First, we have to create the conditions that will release this potential.  That condition is called, “dynamic unity.”

There is no way to predict the properties of water from the properties of hydrogen and oxygen.

There are some great examples from nature to illustrate this idea of “dynamic unity.”  This condition allows for the creative actualization of latent potential.  The example of water is helpful.  When the conditions are right and hydrogen and oxygen are arranged in an appropriate order, water results with emergent properties that are entirely unsuspected and unpredictable from the properties of hydrogen and oxygen separately.  These emergent properties occur as a result of the dynamic unity of diverse components to form an entity more complex with new capacities that are beyond the sum of the component parts.

Similarly, the untapped and unsuspected potential of human nature is released when the conditions of dynamic unity are present.  The work of the Unity Project is to apply the best of what is known of the conditions of dynamic unity in order to release that potential for the development of the well-being of individuals, the cooperation, reciprocal nurturance and innovation of groups and the creative growth and administration of institutions.

The “Bowl” of dynamic unity “holds” the creative work.

Think of this potential as “gems” in the “mine” of human nature.  The Unity Project uses action directed toward a pro-social goal, service, as the machinery that excavates those gems from the mine.  We then refine these gems, these latent capacities, through a series of fun, active and experiential Transformation Exercises that create the experience of discrete cognitive, emotional, volitional, problem solving, group dynamic and action oriented skill sets.  The experience of these skills is then given appropriate language and symbolization that can be used to assign value to these skills so that that motivation can be generated to use these skills toward pro-social goals.  With personal value assigned to these skills and goals, they can inform ethical decision making and pro-social action (See the “Five Stages of the Bowl” for a more in depth explanation) that lead to innovation and growth.

Education for economic development does not happen in a vacuum.  It occurs within the matrix of a social milieu that requires capacity for ethical reasoning, problem solving inclusively in groups and the just administration of organizations.

Creative and unsuspected emergent properties appear as a result of dynamic unity.

This can be restated as capacity for fair-mindedness in individuals, equity within and between groups and just administration of institutions.   These three domains work in dynamic interplay supporting the expression of each other.

Ignoring any of these three domains undermines the sustainability of development initiatives.  The more these three domains are integrated into methodologies for capacity building the more likely they are to succeed and be sustainable.

A sustainable development process must address the skill sets in these three domains through capacity building processes that are in dynamic interaction with the individuals most affected by the environment requiring change.  Mere technical skill development alone is not enough.

For many reasons, not the least of which is the overcoming of the despair and the sapping of motivation that accompanies a catastrophe, creating the conditions of dynamic unity allows individuals to engage and express their best latent capacities and grow in motivation, vision and hope.  Dynamic unity allows groups to harness unsuspected emergent skills in order to address problems that would otherwise be unsolvable.  Dynamic unity is created, maintained and nurtured by just administration.

Dynamic unity with people produces emergent properties far more creative and powerful than the sum of the people.

The Unity Project, then, uses service projects identified by local participants as the starting point.  The issues these service projects address become the themes for the creation of Action Teams composed of participants who commit to addressing that issue.  Groups of Action Teams in a community constitute a Unity Council.  The Unity Council engages in the Unity Project’s skill building Transformation Exercises, it sets priorities and facilitates the process for action, it interacts with outside agencies and administers the flow of information and resources.

The Unity Council and the personal, group and institutional capacity it develops, acts as a “bowl” to receive aid from outside sources in times of response to a crisis.  The same “bowl” can be used to engender personal, community and economic development when crisis has passed or has not occurred.

In New York City, this model was developed to engage young people in order to encourage school retention, matriculation to college, or for preparation for the workforce.  The service was intended to not only help the young people learn skills, but to identify needs in the community that could become the focus for small business creation.

Now, with new skills from the service performed and first hand knowledge of a community need, there is an explicit personal reason to be motivated to complete an education or to acquire specialized skills.  This model becomes the means for young people to move toward completion of their education and job skill preparation.

Take a look at the explanations on the Unity Project website as well as other explanations on this blog.  Also, be sure to “Like” the Unity Project on Facebook and post your thoughts.

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All Rights Reserved, The Unity Project©, 2010

First Stage of the Bowl:  "Form the Bowl"

First Stage of the Bowl: “Form the Bowl”

"Form the Bowl"

Over the course of many years of work  developing trauma response programs, clinical work with refugees and veterans, running conflict resolution programs, designing workshops to deal with racism and ethnic reconciliation the theory and methods of the Unity Project evolved.  In 2000, I was asked by the Women Waging Peace Program of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University to facilitate a week long dialogue between women from different ethnic and religious groups from Bosnia.  The hope was to create some sort of momentum for these women, to help them find a way to build a bridge of understanding.

A wonderful transformation occurred within that group over the course of the week we shared.  It led to the creation by these brave women of an organization called, “Strength in Diversity” in Bosnia.  It’s purpose was to promote inter-religious/inter-ethnic understanding there.

The events of that week crystalized the nature of the stages of transformation that a group can go through when they are truly united.  Here was a group whose members had every reason to hate each other.  Instead, what they found in each other surprised all of us and led to a very important initiative none of us could have imagined when we started.   That story is the founding story of the methods of the Unity Project.  It encapsulates what has now become abbreviated in the “Five Stages of the Bowl” of the Unity Project.  It’s a very moving story.  You can read about it in this book:

These 5 stages embody what the best research and years of field experience demonstrate to be the key strengths needed to be able to make positive resilient decisions and to live harmoniously in the world. The stages involve both personal as well as group strengths that make it more likely that a resilient choice will be made. As an easy way to remember, the stages are related as steps in making a bowl.

First Stage of the Bowl:   “Form the Bowl”

We often pay little attention to the quality of the group’s interactions when we start to work with others. But, this puts great limits on the progress of the group. If the individuals in a group do not feel safe, that is, if they are not sure if they will be respected, their attention will be directed to do all they can to protect themselves instead of being open to learning.

You’ve no doubt seen kids be inattentive or distracted, joking excessively, resisting participation or undermining the progress of the group. Also, you have seen people, kids especially, form clichés or in-groups within which they feel safe and exclude and denigrate those outside the group. Or, they may find ways to isolate themselves for their own protection. In this kind of environment, learning is much more difficult as energy is being expended on protection and not on exploring new ways to be and new knowledge.

When we Form the Bowl” (check out the video) we are creating an atmosphere of respect for the dignity of the group’s participants. As the “Bowl” is formed, a sense of unity evolves that protects the dignity of each member. This allows for defenses to loosen up as members feel safe to explore new ways of being. We call building unity in the group the stage in which we “Form the Bowl.”

Years of experience have shown that if, from the start, the group can build a sense of unity based on the unique strengths of each member, then the natural creativity and productivity of the group cannot be stopped. It just pours out. People blossom as new and unsuspected personal and group strengths emerge. Without taking action to form the bowl of unity, the group spends its time repeating defensive ways of being. Little growth and learning happen. That is why special attention needs to be paid up front to building the sense of unity in the group. It is the “bowl” of unity that “holds” all the creative and productive activity. The stronger the “bowl,” the better it can hold this creativity and productivity and the better it can bring out individual and group strengths. The weaker the “bowl,” the weaker is the creativity and productivity. New strengths do not emerge. In fact, people act in stereotypic ways, enslaved by habits of thinking, habits of feeling and habits of behavior. Forming the Bowl is the first step to allow for a new kind of freedom to emerge in the group. Freedom from habitual ways of being that stem from a reluctance to be your true self for fear of ridicule or exclusion.

The essential first step to “Form the Bowl” is to build a safe and trusting environment. What needs to be safe? All of the things that make up the best qualities of a person. That means the best parts of every aspect of a person: their physical safety, their emotional safety, their intellectual, social, cultural, financial, political and spiritual safety, etc. all need to be safeguarded. The sum of all of the best parts of a person equals their dignity. So, we mean protecting each person’s dignity when we say conditions need to be safe. Then, we need to trust that things will stay safe in the group. That means each person’s actions add to or take away from the total pool of trust in the group. Therefore, our emphasis is on each person focusing on being worthy of trust, being trustworthy so the group can grow. In that way, the total pool of trust in the group gets bigger, defenses diminish and creative new ways of being can be explored.

We find that Forming the Bowl is best done by first eliciting and experiencing the unique strengths of each member of the group as they pursue a common purpose. Action through service and art is at the core of discovery of these new strengths. These newly discovered strengths are then refined in the Transformation Exercises.

Each person possesses their own unique form of dignity, their own unique strengths. There is surprising new capacity and power in the group when these diverse strengths are brought out and harmonized to a common goal. Our purpose in the Unity Project is to bring out these best qualities for the betterment of ourselves and others. Forming the Bowl is the essential first step to create the environment to do that. The next four Stages of the Bowl build on this essential foundation of unity based on dignity. The end results are to create rich capacity to make positive ethical decisions, reflect without bias on the world, deal with complexity without becoming overwhelmed or oversimplifying, problem solve with fairness and clarity, work cooperatively and creatively in a group in order to better the world.

When we form the bowl, we find that motivation, creativity and hope increase.

Did this post spark any ideas about good stories, quotes, music, poetry, novels, paintings, etc?  Have you created any art that depicts any of these ideas?  Please, by all means, share it here!

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All Rights Reserved, The Unity Project©, 2010

Here’s the link for the next Stage of the Bowl:  “Glaze the Bowl.” Let me know if you want the password to continue with the proprietary content.

Second Stage of the Bowl:  "Glaze the Bowl"

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Third Stage of the Bowl:  "In the Fire!"

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Fourth Stage of the Bowl: "Reach for the Bowl"

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Fifth Stage of the Bowl:  "Use the Bowl"

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Service as the beginning, middle and end of self-discovery and learning.

Service as the beginning, middle and end of self-discovery and learning.

“This is the most fun I’ve had in twelve years being a principal,” Mike said as we were watching the students in his high school go about their work in their Action Teams. “In four years, I have not even noticed this girl who is now completely transforming the menu in the cafeteria!  She was so quiet before!  Now, she turns out to be this amazing leader.”

How many kids are we missing like this?  They don’t relate to what activities we offer them in and after school.  So, we assume they have nothing to offer or that they need to be “led” by popular kids elected to student councils.  I think we underestimate these kids and need to use another lens to view them.

Creating a way for kids to contribute to something they care about is a phenomenal means of building their confidence, their competence and motivation to learning in general.  This kind of service is like a shovel that excavates the “gems” latent in us all.  It pulls out what was hidden in us.

Joy, Motivation and Enthusiasm naturally follow when we discover strengths we didn't know we had.

When we discover a strength we didn’t know we had our natural enthusiasm and creativity come to life.  We become naturally more self-motivated, curious and happy. Service is is the best way to discover these hidden capacities.

What appear to be sullen and self-absorbed teenagers turn out to be independent thinkers with highly creative goals that were just waiting to be tapped.  This newly found sense of competence then generalizes into other areas giving reason to do better and finish school, to consider college or training for a career.

Without the opportunity to challenge themselves and discover this latent potential a young person’s motivation sours.  They can become resentful and withdrawn.   Creating appropriate challenges that stretch the young person is the name of the game.  (See the series  on the “Five Stages of the Bowl” to see how the Unity Project creates the means to do this.)

When I do workshops with teen-agers we spend a lot of time talking about how school is mind numbing, unchallenging and demeaning.  All too often, the experience of kids is that school is what turns them off to self-discovery and growth.  What a tragedy!

We want to create the experience of real self-discovery through action.   The kids see for themselves how action brings out their best “gems.”   There’s no need to lecture about it.  It’s obvious.  Their own excitement and motivation is proof enough.

Then, having the time to disengage and reflect on the new self-discovery allows for the learning to be internalized, a more personal motivation to be enkindled and new forms of group identity to emerge.  Moving back and forth between this kind of action and reflection is highly creative and growth inducing.

Let’s hear of your experiences with kids involved in service learning activities.  What have you learned from this method you’d like to share with others?  Let’s hear what questions and comments you have.  Better yet, let’s hear what you have learned from your own action/service learning.

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Mobilizing the Dignity of a 16 Year Old

Mobilizing the Dignity of a 16 Year Old

The tears of a sixteen year old girl at one of the youth workshops I gave last month still haunt me.   The small groups of 6 youth apiece were still in their circles.   We were talking now as a large group of about 60 of what we had just experienced.  In their small groups, I had asked them each to tell a story of one person they knew who gave them hope, someone who loved them.

The rest in the small group listened to how the person spoke of that role model.  As they listened, they looked for the good qualities of the person speaking and wrote them on a 3×5 card.  When the person finished speaking, each of the members of the group read what they had written about the speaker and then gave the card to them.

They repeated the process with each person in the small group.  Each person had heard 5 versions of their positive qualities by now.   As a large group, we were talking about that experience.  This is when the gently weeping 16 year old girl said that this was the first time in her life she had ever heard anything positive spoken about her.   I’ve heard versions of this before.

Now that this girl has had her strengths recognized and named, she can begin  to see the value of her strengths.  She is far more likely to choose to demonstrate  her strengths in action now.  If she were to go without the experience of her  strengths and had no words for them, how could she ever value them enough to  make the effort to choose to act on them?

Resilience is all about making a positive decision based on strengths that we might  not otherwise use.   This takes practice.  That’s why the Unity Project methods  help kids experience, name, value, choose and act on their inherent  strengths, their dignity.

Our strengths are like gems hidden in a mountain.  The Unity Project uses service  and the arts as a way to mine these gems, to elicit the experience of these  strengths.  Once they have been mined, they are shaped and refined through the  Unity Project’s Transformation Exercises. These help to appropriately name and value these strengths so that they might be more easily chosen and acted upon.

By practicing these stages, by mobilizing the young person’s dignity, the young people are building a personal sense of efficacy and a set of competencies to make and act on dignified resilient decisions.

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The Three Identities: Weakened, Rigid and Compassionate

The Three Identities: Weakened, Rigid and Compassionate


“What do we do for kids in the city?  Do we send them all to therapy?”  This was the question one of the Commissioners asked me as I sat with officials of the City of New York at City Hall shortly after 9/11.  They had asked me to help them think through how to respond to the tragedy.

“Absolutely not!” I said.    “To label them mentally ill brings up all kinds of problems.  First, the mental health system is barely able to handle its current load, let alone imagining what would happen if we flooded it with hundreds of thousands of new cases.  Second, the kids don’t see themselves as mentally ill.  They are scared, confused, angry and grieving, but these aren’t illnesses.  There are better ways to deal with these real issues outside of a health care system.  There are cultural and educational means to address them.  Third, if we were to describe the kids of the City  as needing mental health services, we create a sense of dependence.  A patient is weak and in need of a professional.  Just when we need to be mobilizing the population in a positive way, we would be telling kids they are sick and need to be dependent on a handful of professionals in understaffed and underfunded mental health care centers.   To be certain, some percentage of the kids of the city will need mental health care, maybe 15%.  But, these can be dealt with within the existing mental health care system.  What is needed instead, is a rapid and large scale public movement that mobilizes the best in ordinary people toward a common and uplifting goal.”


As with all great tragedies like 9/11, Katrina, Haiti or Tucson we are presented with a choice.The multiple crises affecting the country present us with significant challenges to our sense of who we are as individuals and a nation.  There is a choice that links the plight of those who are living through the catastrophes of the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan, the challenges facing the residents of Mississippi, New Orleans and Vermont since Hurricanes Katrina and Irene and all of us since the horror of September 11, 2001.In fact, it is the choice we all face when we are confronted with any crisis in our lives. It will confront us again if, God forbid, another catastrophe strikes our shores. Knowing what is involved in this choice can guide us through any past or future crisis we face individually or as a nation.

If we did this correctly, we could help these kids become role models of resilience instead of psychological casualties.  They could come out personally stronger and become agents to help make the country stronger and our democracy healthier.

I told them the issue the city faced had to do with the affect 9/11 had on the identity of everyone in the city, and the country for that matter, including the children.   These affects on our identity had far reaching influences on the way we see and relate to ourselves and each other.   I went on, “Generally speaking, there are three identities that result from a horrific event like this.  The first, I call a ‘Weakened Identity.’”

I explained that for some after such a horrific event, there is a corrosive effect on their sense of hope that anything good can happen in the world.   This is one effect of our natural instincts in times of threat to our safety.  Our perfectly natural instinctual survival responses cause us to filter all of our experiences through the lens of our survival emotions: feelings like fear and anger.  This is a necessary and very helpful survival mechanism to help us focus on dangers when our safety is threatened.  But, in social situations over the long term, these unthinking responses are nothing but damaging to our relationships and our ability to effecively solve problems.  The survival emotions of fear and anger help us while a crisis is occuring.  When it is over, we need other emotions and cognitive skills to keep our social and community life healthy.

These latter skills, however, do not come automatically like fear and anger do.  They require deliberate conscious cultivation, modelling and practice.  The problem the city faced was allowing these instinctual survival responses governed by fear and anger to morph into social expressions that would poison the climate for healthy community and effective democratic governance.

In the case of the survival emotion of fear, our perceptions become distorted to see threats everywhere, even where they do not exist.  For instance, when chased by a tiger, the survival emotion of fear plays an important function to help us focus on the threat to our lives and run away.  But over time and when the tiger is gone, if this feeling persists, we will misinterpret harmless movements as being threatening.  Our thinking, feeling and behavior are distorted, as is our motivation to engage in new behaviors and explore new forms of growth.  We become motivated to avoid new thoughts and experiences in life for fear of harm, not to engage them for the growth they may contain.

Other parts of our capacity to perceive, feel, think, exercise our will and behave need to kick in after the threat is gone.  This is so we can reflect objectively on the world as it is now, take allowance for the past threat, but not be caught up in the cognitive distortions caused by fear.  In order to grow and enjoy life, we need to know how to consciously over-ride our fear.

To calm our fear enough to reflect objectively on the current situation requires a conscious choice.  If this conscious choice is not made, the residue of lingering fear distorts our way of being.  This has an exhausting affect on our view of the world.  Over time, it becomes  harder to believe that what we have held to be true and good really amount to anything.   The resulting sense of powerlessness can feed a growing sense of despair in our personal effectivness.  So, with a diminished sense of a vision worth striving for, coupled with a weakening sense of personal capacity, a paralysis of the will sets in that is characterized by despair and disengegement with the big questions in our personal life and our role in the life of  society as a whole.  It is harder to be motivated to do anything positive since no goal seems particularly worthwhile.  As a result, we sabotage our growth by not striving for any worthy goal.

To deal with the pain of this erroneous conclusion that our lives are hopelessly fruitless, we can become caught up in the pursuit of anesthetizing distractions  and dysfunctional behaviors and relations.  When these forces play out in vast numbers of people, the citizenry is disengaged, distracted and disempowered. The tragedy is that this disengagement occurs just as the increasingly complex crises in the country continue to demand higher levels of focused, dispassionate and collaborative attention.

I warned that this fear of the future would show up in young people as truancy, poor school performance, a greater sense of nihilism and preoccupation with distracting and dysfunctional pursuits.  The lack of a believable vision they could adopt to direct their lives, coupled with a lost sense of capacity and competence to move their lives forward would lead to lost opportunity for personal growth and apathy for their personal advancement and the social responsibilities each generation must pick up to fulfill the social contract in a democracy.  I call this constellation of effects that result in a dimmed life’s vision, a diminished sense of personal capacity, the feeling of despair and withered motivation, a “Weakened Identity.”

Natural survival instincts can lead to despair or rigidity in times of crisis.

On the other extreme is a “Rigid Identity.”  Instead of being grounded in fear, however, the Rigid Identity arises from anger.   Fear has the cognitive and behavioral affect of directing us to avoidance of new ideas and others.  Anger, on the other hand, is mobilizing and directs us toward engagement, and unfortunately, engagement with perceived threats that may or may not be there.  Unlike a person with a Weakened Identity that has a dissipated will and difficulty holding a vision of any goal worth believing in, a Rigid Identity is very much the opposite.

A person with a Rigid Identity becomes intensely allied to a particular idea: a political party, a national, racial or ethnic identity, a religious belief, etc.  Unlike a person with a Weakened Identity who responds to the sense of powerlessness with diminished will, a person with a Rigid Identity has an intensifed sense of will.  They direct this will to the goals of an identity group that, to them, holds the ultimate answer to the experience of powerlessness over the real or imagined threats they perceive.  Everyone inside this group identity is considered good and principled and everyone outside is considered not just different, but evil, bad, stupid, or a potential threat.  Being more motivated by anger, these indviduals are far more outspoken and interested in organizing then their Weakened Identity counterparts, who  despite being a majority, have neither a well formulated social vision nor the motivation to be outspoken about one.

As an example, I pointed to how, since 9/11, the national discourse had become polarized with Americans calling other Americans “traitors” and “America haters” as examples of this rigidification of identity that occurs in parts of the population that predictably follows in some form after a frightening national event.

The danger, I explained, was that those with a nihilistic Weakened Identity would fall prey to those with a Rigid Identity either being blamed for the nations problems or becoming the objects of recruitment to their increasingly extremist views.   I further explained that the opposing Rigid Identities would battle each other.  This would increase social tension and polarize the social discourse exactly when unity of purpose and reasoned cooperation was most needed to deal with increasingly pressing, interrelated and complex problems.  Worse, the tendency of Rigid Identities to not tolerate the anxiety that comes with moral and social complexity would lead to simplistic, and therefore inadequate assessments of the real problems facing the country.  This would result in the forceful advocacy of inadequate solutions that were likely to make matters worse.

In neighborhoods, this Rigid Identity might appear in youth as increased racial, ethnic, religious or gang tension as groups demonize each other.  That would set the stage for community instability, the increasing inability to problem solve cooperatively and effectively, and create the social atmosphere for potential violence.

One of the city officials from the Department of Education looked at papers in her hands and noted that there had been an increase in incidents of gang violence in the months after 9/11. Everyone who watched the news had seen the name calling between increasingly strident Americans gripped by Rigid Identifications.

“What do we do?” was the question on everyone’s lips. “There is a third response,” I said, “a third identity.  I call it, ‘The Compassionate Identity.’ Unlike the Weakened and Rigid Identities, which arise instinctually as a result of neurologically wired unreflective and automatic survival responses to threats, the Compassionate Identity requires a mature conscious choice.  We come to see the roots of our common humanity in our common suffering.  This allows us to see the potential for united growth with each other when we face a crisis and not only see each other as sources of threat that lead to fearful despair or angry extremism.

But this requires the capacity to calm the survival emotions of fear and anger and reflect on the larger picture.  In the face of the emotional pressures of the immediate trauma, it is hard to learn this skill.  It would be much better to have a core segment of a community that has practiced this kind of response, that understands its features and can speak to its value so that it can be modelled to others in the aftermath of a crisis and give a workable alternative to those who despair and a way to calm the anger of potential extremists.”

Compassion must be chosen after great loss and suffering.

“How do we make that choice?” was the logical next question. “It begins with knowing these responses are there.  Kids need to know what to avoid when the Weakened and Rigid Identities arise in them, as they surely will.  They also need role models of effective applications of a Compassionate Identity that are more than bromides, something that can realistically capture the hopes of suffering and seemingly powerless people.  Compassion has to be seen as the engine of personal and community growth and strength and not a hollow moralizing platitude.  It has to be seen as the foundation of civil discourse and effective problem solving.  It has to be seen as the ground from which healthy democracy springs, the best of the American promise, our generation’s version of the ‘better angels of our nature.'”

“Then, every leader in the city has to state this choice over and over.  They have to be outspoken role models of this choice.  From the Mayor on down they have to steer people away from reflexive despair and extremism and state clearly that the lesson to be learned from this horrible event is that we are all in this together. We all have a role to play and there is no ‘them.’  There is only, ‘us.’  Then, we need to teach the kids the skills they need to live creatively and productively in that kind of community.”**

My experience has shown time and again that no matter how horrific the events we go through, we retain the crucial element of our humanity: our ability to choose our response to what happens to us. In this lies our personal hope.  In choosing a Compassionate Identity, our hope is linked to the hopes of others.  We unleash latent capacities and abilities in ourselves that can be directed to the welfare of all.  We minimize the likelihood of our actions adding to the disunity that paralyzes the national discourse and robs us of our chance to solve the complex and trans-partisan issues we face.

Our personal and national resilience must draw from this choice.  Before the national discourse becomes irretrievably caught up in the despair and disengement of the Weakened Identity and the country is left to those extremists on the Left and the Right with Rigid Identities who will lead us into an abyss of disunity, short sighted and impractical solutions to complex problems and a deepening national paralysis, we must act to vindicate before an increasingly hopeless and agitated citizenry that the best promise of America lies in a practical and effective system that sets free, through the united exercise of a Compassionate Identity, the better angels in each of us.  The Unity Project is one effort along these lines.

This site is an exploration of that choice and the potential it holds for every aspect of life.  This is what I mean by resilience.

Related Posts:

A wonderful story of the choice of a Compassionate Identity from the Balkans:  “Compassion, Fantastic Coffee and My Shock

The classic example of this choice in recent American history is Dr. Martin Luther King.  In this post, Dr. King’s Morehouse College roommate, Dr. Charles Willie, who worked with me at Harvard on the Resilient Responses to Social Crisis Interfaculty Working group, explains:  “Compassion, the Prize and the Price.”

This video demonstrates this choice among survivors of the civil war in Uganda:  “As a Family”

Post-Partisan America explains the tension we feel in the country.

Click here for Suffering Successfully.

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

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*Leaders of The Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) and the Department of Education of the City of New York were present.

**Right there on the spot, we created The Healing Arts Project as the way for the city to do this. This program was carried out over the next few years across the City of New York. That work, and the way it was subsequently refined in pilot schools and in New Orleans and Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina became the theory and methods of the Unity Project. This work was then presented to my colleagues for comment at the Resilient Responses to Social Crisis Interfaculty Working Group I convened at Harvard’s Mind Brain Behavior Interfaculty Initiative from 2002-2004.