Tag: "9/11"

"Everyday Heroes" by John Woodall, MD on PBS

“Everyday Heroes” by John Woodall, MD on PBS

Here’s an interview aired on PBS station WSRE in Pensacola, Florida, on a show called, “Conversations with Jeff Weeks.”

It offers some of the key features of the resilience principles used in my workshops and in 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: margodeselin@unityproject.org at (203) 241-5525.

DONATE: By PayPal at www.unityproject.org.

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.

The Rigid Identity

The Rigid Identity

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

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

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

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

And then it all changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not only true in partisan politics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger Fisher

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

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

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

As we sat she said, “huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Posts:

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

The Three Identities: Weakened, Rigid and Compassionate

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

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Resilience and Leadership: Jimmy Dunne

Resilience and Leadership: Jimmy Dunne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here for “Suffering Sucessfully”

Related posts:

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

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

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