Tag: "Featured"

Ten Keys to Get Through a Difficult Time: Notes from Newtown

Ten Keys to Get Through a Difficult Time: Notes from Newtown

This article appeared in the Newtown Bee on December 4, 2013:

Have you ever been on a laughing jag? Once you get started, every little thing, no matter how inappropriate or stupid, is just hilarious. Once the hilarious emotion takes over, you perceive everything as funny and this keeps the laughter going. The same is true with any emotion. Each emotion is like its own colored lens. Whatever you see through that lens fuels that emotion. If you’re laughing, everything looks funny. If you are mad at someone, in your mind, everything they say is proof of how evil they are. If you are afraid, everything you perceive is more reason to feel afraid. If you are in love, everything that you see reminds you of your beloved. It’s the nature of emotions. They color how we think. There is neuroscience behind this. The emotional centers of the mid-brain act as neural filters of cognition deciding for us what we will think and the tone of how we experience our lives.

Rose colored glassesOnce a strong emotion dies down, it lets go of the cortical/thinking part of our brain and we can think again more freely and see the world more objectively. We might see that what we were laughing at was really stupid, that we were mad at someone for something they actually didn’t say, think or do, that we were afraid for no reason. In this way, our emotions are like music added to the score of our life. They add wonderful flavor and tone to our experience, but they can also hijack our thinking and cause us to misperceive the world for what it is. The same event in our life might be experienced completely differently with different music/emotion added to it.

Brain And here’s the problem; humans are neurologically wired for two opposite things: preservation and community. Our instincts for self-preservation are hard-wired into our brain stem, the reptilian brain. Chief among these instincts is our “fight-or-flight” response that causes us to become filled with anger to fight a threat or filled with fear to run from a threat. Thankfully, this much-needed preservation instinct does not require any thinking at all. It simply kicks in full-blown and automatically when we experience a threat.

The problem is that we also respond to many social situations as threats in the same way we might to an attacking lion or bear. The same anger or fear that protects us from physical threats can also destroy our social relationships. For instance, humans instinctually respond to uncertainty as a threat. We respond to overwhelming feelings as a threat. We respond to information that contradicts our world-view as a threat. Exhaustion also can launch our reptilian brain into instinctual threat responses.

Chased by LionsSo, all manner of social situations can kick in the same fight-or-flight survival responses of extreme anger or fear that being chased by a lion can. Left unchecked, these survival emotions of fear and anger grow and become entrenched to become the background of our entire lives, tragically limiting our ability to have a fulfilling life with others and causing needless conflict. Times like these in Newtown when fear and anger have been stirred by the tragedy require us to be extra vigilant about this and choose a better way.

It Takes Practice

Comfort comes in many forms.Unlike these survival instincts that are present in full force from birth, our instincts for community require training and reinforcement. The ability to quiet our angry and fearful survival instincts when we are with others requires the practice of a number of higher order cortical skills. The whole path of civilization across time is a record of how a culture helps its own quiet these “reptilian” brain instincts in favor of more socially refined cortical behaviors that must be practiced and learned. The key cortical function needed to quiet these instincts is our ability to choose. We can choose to work on quieting our instinctual responses of fear and anger that are geared toward our personal survival in favor of emotions and ways of viewing the world that bind us closer. Every culture, philosophy and religion in the world across the ages has guidance on how to do this.

images-1As we approach the anniversary, these instinctual reptilian responses of fear and anger will be showing themselves. It’s only natural and to be expected. Being tired emotionally, physically and mentally from a long and uncertain year will only make this more likely. There is a very inspiring group of 11–14-year-olds in town called the PeaceBuilders. One of their mottoes is “Don’t be a lizard!” By this, they mean that to be able to change the world, they have to be able to change themselves. That means they have to be able to control their instinctual reptilian brain responses of fear and anger and choose instead cortical compassion and kindness and a path toward cooperation when everything inside them is screaming to feel hurt, to blame, to withdraw or to retaliate. The road to resilience in our lives is about quieting these instinctual responses and practicing ways of being that may not feel natural or easy at first. But, with practice, become a part of our character.

Here are some of these resilience-building practices that are a part of ancient wisdom and now being proven by modern neuroscience. The first set have to do with stopping risky behaviors that keep us in our survival mode and destroy our ability to bond with others in a healthy way. The second set has to do with adding strengths that protect us from our own reptilian self and increase happiness through stronger and deeper connections to others. In the days and months ahead, these key resilient strengths will go a long way to creating stability and happiness in our lives.

gas-on-the-fire1. Don’t Throw Gas on the Fire. That is, if you are engaged in an angry or fearful spiral with someone, stop. Don’t speak words or act in ways that make things worse by fueling more anger and fear. This is not how you “really think.” It’s only how you think when you’re angry or afraid. You’ll think differently when you are free from your reptilian survival emotions and can feel more human emotions like love and kindness again.

2. Don’t Kid Yourself About Alcohol, Drugs, Violent Behavior and Sex. These may feel like a break from the pain, but they carry all manner of destruction with them. You know this. Get help.

blame-game3. Avoid Blame and Accusation Like the Plague. These are the surest signs that our reptilian brain is controlling us. These will absolutely guarantee that the bonds that can give us strength and wisdom will be broken. They are poison. Find another way to state your needs. Get professional help to do so, if you need it.

polar-bear-on-ice-flow4. Watch the Isolated Drifting. Notice when you are spacey and preoccupied. Emotional confusion and exhaustion can show up as isolation. Watch for it and see it as a call to make a choice, as in the next item.

5. Invitation to Intimacy. See your struggle not as something that destines you to be isolated, but as an opportunity to create greater intimacy with those in your life. The person you are with probably feels a version of the same thing you do. Use that to bind you together, not break you apart.

6.) Make No Major Decision About Your Life When You Are Angry, Afraid or Depressed. You owe it to yourself and all you’ve built up to make important decisions when you are at your cortical best and not your reptilian worst. The same is true for judging others. See them for their best and not what they are when they break at their weakest.

I-need-you-I-miss-you-I-love-you-3-love-10112773-1024-7687. “I need you now.” Instead of drifting in isolation and the fear and anger that come with it, try something new and say this to the people closest to you. Everyone is feeling isolated, tired, confused and a little overwhelmed. We’re all human. Let’s unite around that fact instead of it being a source of alienation. Be quick to apologize and quicker to forgive.

8. Take Care of the Home Front. Your kids need to see an example of suffering successfully. They need to see that amidst confusion and hurt and not knowing all the answers, relationships can be a source of strength and comfort. You can be confused and hurt together.

9. “Nurture yourself.” We need to take the time to strengthen the higher cortical parts of our brain to calm down the reptilian brain and its fear and anger responses. We do this through prayer, meditation, rest, a loving circle of friends, the experience of beauty in nature and art, sports and exercise, laughter. Without taking time for these pleasures, the reptilian brain is too strong to calm down.

gratitude-110. Gratitude is the Attitude. There are countless wonderful examples of the best in human nature emerging all around us in personal transformations and community service since 12/14/12. Find something to appreciate in others, tell them about it, and these very strengths will grow in you. You can only see strengths in others that are present in some form in you.

These basic practices make possible an enormous variety of healthy and creative ways to be together that are simply not possible when we allow our reptilian survival instincts to govern our lives. No one is perfect at all of these. But, like riding a bicycle, we get better with practice. In the year ahead, as we help each other with these resilient strengths, new and cooperative forms of problem solving as a community can begin to take hold. This is necessarily a steady and organic process. We are off to a good start. No doubt, we will find added peace, strength and capacity in ourselves and each other in our united efforts to support the practice of these resilient skills. Our happier resilient lives and the improved community we will have built together will then gradually grow to be a living testimony to honor those who have been taken from us.

The Unity Project-Uganda

The Unity Project-Uganda

Be Known By Deeds

Be Known By Deeds

The Big Picture: Life, by now, will have shown you that we all possess deep pools of resilient strength. No one gives that capacity to us. Resilience arises from our own vast reservoir of potential talent and character, what we call our “dignity.” The Unity Project is about bringing out, uniting around and mobilizing that dignity so that we can transform our lives, our communities and our organizations. The Unity Project’s unique strength is our “Transformation Process” that has been developed over 30 years. We focus the dynamic power of this Transformation Process on raising up a generation of competent global leaders who can resist the extremism and despair of our troubled age. We know that the struggles of life do not have to make us victims or psychological casualties, but can be the fuel to help us become beacons of hope and role models of resilience. We are building a global network of young people who are anxious to make their mark and bring our hurting world together.

Going to Scale: The Unity Project has crafted a model of development intended to mobilize the largest number of youth. We created a Transformation Process that can be adopted by any existing community network. So, instead of having to create brand new Unity Project centers, other organizations can simply use our Transformation Process to do their own work much better. In that way, we are like “software” that can be implemented in any other organization’s “hardware.” This model is being used in Uganda as we begin our launch in our Unity Assembly we created in Lira Uganda. This successful pilot is now ready to be extended through extensive networks of already existing youth organizations across the country and the region. Using a “train-the’trainer” model, we will prepare staff in our partners to begin a nationwide campaign to build resilience among a generation. This essential process of skill building at the local level forms the nexus within which community and economic development can then be launched.


Planting trees to prevent erosion was the need that students, parents and town officials identified as the most important need in Lira, Uganda. The Unity Project helped organize local and national Ugandan resources to plant 3,000 trees. A Ugandan solution for Ugandan problems.

Uganda: In the case of Uganda, there is a rich culture and deep pride in its people that will allow the country to arise from decades of rebel war and deprivation the people have suffered through. It is the perfect example of the spirit of resilience arising from great loss and tragedy. Experience has shown that there is nothing wrong with Uganda that can not be solved by what is right with Uganda and her people. Efforts to help, then, must be centered around bringing out the strengths of Ugandans, the dignity of Ugandans, and not importing “solutions” from somewhere else.

For 23 years, the so-called Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) led a macabre and vicious campaign of cruelty throughout northern Uganda in an effort to overthrow the government.  The primary methods of recruitment of these criminals was to kidnap children and turn them into soldiers and sexual slaves.  The children were typcally forced to commit atrocties against their own families to fracture family bonds and brainwash the children into submission.   The LRA bizarrely claimed that these methods would help institute the  rule of the 10 Commandments in Uganda.  Leaders of this psychopathic cult have been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity. In October, 2011, President Obama announced the dispatch of 100 US advisors and special forces to apprehend the criminal leaders of the LRA cult to bring them to justice.


The LRA killed all the story tellers in the region. 200 years from now, the elders will tell children the stories of these resilient girls and how they transformed Uganda and the world.

The Unity Project-Uganda: The Unity Project has launched a major initiative in war-torn northern Uganda.   A “Unity Assembly” composed of 9 schools, public health, micro-enterprise, community organizations and media outlets has been created as a vehicle to begin a process of sustainable development and community healing in Lira, Uganda.  The district Ministry of Education has asked that the Unity Project’s efforts be extended to all the schools in the district.  This pilot effort holds great promise as a model for reconstruction throughout northern Uganda, the region and any post-confict area.
The Unity Project has engaged youth in a series of service activities to launch a locally based sustainable spiral of growth for the Lira area of northern Uganda. Together, our partners reach many tens of thousands of young people. From our Unity Assembly of partners, we engage youth in service activities that build upon locally identified needs which also align with the Millennium Development Goals. This service activity “mines the gems” of potential strengths, talents and character in our youth. These “gems” are then refined through our experiential “Transformation Exercises” into practical personal skills that can be used to provide a vision for a life of useful service to the community. In the process, the community benefits from the service and strengthens its institutional and community capacity through the growth of the Unity Assembly.

Working with local, national and international experts and agencies, youth will be involved in designing an implementing a needs survey around key development issues. They will then work closely with these experts to analyze the data, craft and implement a community-wide intervention. Youth will be central to the design and execution of an important community building initiative. Not as passive recipients of aid, but as active participants in their own development, youth will step into roles of being agents of change building competence, hope and the foundations of a sustainable and prosperous community.


Members of the Unity Council decide on the community strengths that can be applied to problems in Lira, Uganda.

In subsequent phases, we will direct these newly developed strengths and the ability to identify community needs toward employment and business creation. Our work is intended to establish the first rung of the ladder to stimulate the personal capacity, community networks and institutional strengths to lead to security and prosperity. In doing so, our methds also strengthen the foundations of democratic and cooperative community problem solving, the foudnation of prosperity.

In parallel to this work in Uganda, the Unity Project is launching chapters in high schools, universities and community organizations throughout the US. Soon, these sites in the US will be linked online with the our partners in Uganda creating a dynamic learning community of peers all taking action to transform their own communities and join together in projects with a global reach.

Currently in Uganda, we are focusing on 4 “Legs” that support the over-all “table” of this project. These are:

1.) Education: This involves the training of teachers and the staff of partners in the Unity Project’s resilience building Transformation Process to be incorporated into school curricula and youth programs.


Members of Te Cwao point out that in unity, we can achieve anything. Watch for their beatiful hand made crafts.

2.) Economic Development: Once youth have gained some skill identifying community needs and built their own strengths to meet those needs, they are far along the path to envisioning a life’s work. They have reason to finish school and the basics to envision a business that can help their community. We are creating a teams to explore a number of prosperity generating initiatives in Lira, Uganda: a farmers’ cooperative, an online store of local women’s crafts, and entry level IT services. These can then finance the project making it grounded in the community and sustainable. In exchange for particiapting in these income generating activities we ask families to their keep their children in school and participate in Unity Project capacity building programs. In this way, the project can become self-sustaining while building capacity.

3.) Health: Working with our local partners as well as local, national and international agencies, we are developing service teams in each of the following themes: malaria eradication, HIV/AIDS, water purification, gender violence and maternal and child health. One of these themes will be chosen by the partners as the focus of the youth efforts to begin in the fall of 2012.  In partnership with both the Center for Global Health and the Center for Global Mental Health and Resilience at Danbury Hospital, we will also be assisiting in the development of local professional expertise in health care to compliment the resilience building efforts of local community leaders.

4.) Learning Community: A significant innovation of our methods involves mobilizing young people to help define the information that is needed to create meaningful service plans. Youth will be directly involved in defining the information needed, collecting and analyzing it as well designing and implementing relevant and manageable service activities based on information they collected. In this way, a learning culture can evolve that is built upon the feedback of accurate and relevant data, cooperative reflection and planning and the united action and assessment of results. This process will greatly increase the effectiveness of the community and build local capacity.

The Lira District Ministry of Education has requested that the Unity Project extend this initiative to all schools in the district. We have also been invited by the Council on Higher Education in Rwanda to provide this model as a best practice example for the development of security and economic development in the region.

We have been approached by many high school and college students in the US asking to do internships with the Unity Project. An application will be available soon when our website update is completed.  Through the Center for Global Health and the Center for Global Mental Health and Resilience, relationships  to train medical residents is underway.

We welcome inquiries into this work. Also, we are now launching Unity Project chapters in the US to implement this resilience building model to develop youth capacity. Feel free to ask how you can start a Unity Project chapter in your community. Also, we are very grateful to those offering to help raise funds to support this work. Thank you! If you would like to have a lunch or dinner to raise funds among friends and colleagues, we’ll be happy to help you do so.

We’ll be posting more as this rapidly growing movement takes shape!

Keynotes, Workshops, ReachUP! 2021

Keynotes, Workshops, ReachUP! 2021

 We have struck gold!”        “Pure Perfection!”        “Extremely well-presented”

“What a fabulous speaker!”      “Spellbinging speaker!”

Some comments from participants in workshops and keynotes given by John Woodall, MD, selected as one of “The 10 Most Fascinating People of 2013” by Newstime.

Keynote: “We’re Not Waiting: A New Vision for a Resilient America.”

John Woodall, MD

With moving and uplifting examples from work with young people after 9/11 in New York City and the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, this keynote is a wake up call  to actively promote resilient unifying strengths in families, schools, communities, businesses and institutions of higher learning when the crises of our time create a pull toward extremism and despair.  Powerful and transformative, this electrifying keynote presentation offers participants a life-vision and a guiding compass as we enter a challenging decade.


Decades of hard-knocks clinical and field experience give substance to “walk the talk.”

With invaluable and effective tools in hand, participants become agents of resilience and hope.

“As the confusion of our time pulls more people to despair and extremism, we will need growing numbers of competent leaders who can speak to our common humanity and show the way to a practical and inclusive vision for the country.  This is the promise of hope for America and the lesson from 9/11 we need to carry forward into the next decade.”


“The crises of our times are pulling people to despair and extremism.”

In an increasingly complex world, how do we create dynamic unity between diverse people to release our undreamed of potential to solve the problems we face?

From expert consultation and partnership with the US State Department running trauma response programs in the Balkans, to work with the City of New York after 9/11 and state and local agencies after Hurricane Katrina to create resilience building programs for kids, to convening the “Resilient Responses to Social Crisis Working Group” at Harvard University,  launching the Unity Project in northern Uganda or plunging in to aid his home town of Newtown, CT after the horrific tragedy there, Dr. John Woodall has led a series of initiatives transforming crisis into opportunities for united growth in families, communities, businesses and entire cities, regions and countries.

Dr. Woodall’s unique experience informs his call for the nation to identify despair and extremism as dangers to our personal happiness and to the stability and health of our democracy.  His call is for all of us to participate to develop leaders who can unite us around the best of human nature and to fulfill the real promise of America as the hope of the world.

Go Green Peace Trees launch

Launching the Unity Project in Lira, Uganda at 3 schools with city officials and youth.

The crises of our time are increasingly pulling people to divisive extremism and despair.  The result has been a near paralysis of governance, rising social tension and difficulty getting our private lives to work.  Young people, in particular, want no part of a world plagued by division, despair and extremism.  In an increasingly complex world, how do we create dynamic unity to release the undreamed of potential we all have to solve the problems we face in our families, schools, universities, businesses, the country and our beleaguered world?

Drawing on extensive clinical know-how, field work in crisis areas around the world and the finest academic centers, Dr. Woodall weaves the best of his vast practical experience with cutting edge research in the neurosciences, psychology, human development and organizational systems to present a very human and richly informed path out of the troubles we face.

Click here to see the many organizations that have taken up this spirit of service in Newtown.

Providing a variety of services to the people of Newtown, CT.


Whether the focus is on individual transformation, couples and families,  community organizations, academic settings, business or professional organizations, his approach is refreshingly alive and intimate while offering a practical vision of hope and the tools to make that hope real.  His presentations are intelligent without sounding academic.  Passionate and hopeful without being preachy or naive.  He makes his subject matter come alive in a very accessible way so that anyone can feel like positive change is possible in their life.


People walk away admitting that they have been transformed. ”

* Keynote addresses are easily adaptable to the needs of particular audiences.


 What people are saying:

“John is a wonderful man.  He should be bottled and shipped.  There is not a corner of the “civilized” world that does not need to hear his message.”

“It was wonderful!  John seems to “walk the talk.”

“…he is able to reach those from 1 to 92.”

For more information on Dr. Woodall’s availability for Key-Note addresses,

e-mail:  infowoodall@gmail.com

Click here for a fascinating radio interview with Dr. Woodall on building resilience in families.



“The Resilient Power of Unity”

Inspiring, transformative and practical, Dr. Woodall shows how to move vision to action.

Working globally to create cooperation and unity. Here, Palestinian and Israeli youth.

Unleashing the power of unity is the brightest promise of America.  Undreamed of resilient potential is released when the key principles of dynamic unity are applied in a group.  What we need in America is far more than diversity training.  No student should leave college and no employee can be considered competent in the 21st Century without the experience of dynamic unity with others to serve as a vision for their life’s work and a guide as to how to bring out their best and the best of others.  This fun, inspiring and hands-on interactive workshop begins the transformation of the school, family, business and university culture toward a new level of competence using the resilient power of dynamic unity.


What people are saying:

“This was the most helpful class I have ever taken.”

I am hoping I can remember every little morsel of information from the day.  You have a great message to convey…”

“This workshop has so much to offer.  This is my second time to sit through it.  I’ve learned just as much or more this year!  GREAT!”

“I’m excited to take the knowledge I gained and put it into action.”

“I found the workshop to be very inspiring and was especially impressed by your genuine warmth towards everyone who attended.”

For more information on Dr. Woodall’s availability for workshops for your organization,

e-mail:  infowoodall@gmail.com


Transformational programs for youth:

Reach UP! 2021


Partnership with the City of New York to build resilience in kids after 9/11.

Dr. Woodall founded the Unity Project to launch a global movement of competent young leaders experienced in creating united and resilient communities.

In response to the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and to sustain the transformation process of an institution over time, Reach UP! 2021 offers the unique service learning methods of the Unity Project that give the ongoing means to help young people develop the resilient skills that promote the experience of dynamic unity.  Young people take charge of their lives to build toward a vision of a compassionate world in 2021.   Linked to youth worldwide through an online learning community, dynamic unity is modeled and reinforced through service to others.


What people are saying:

“What a feast to the imagination!  I found myself totally absorbed….  It is a very comprehensive guide to enlightened decision-making based on solid principles.  It is practical and just sufficiently conceptual, coherent with the use of the bowl metaphor, simple to understand … without the compromise of depth or quality.  With the design you have successfully modeled Out-of-the Box thinking for the students and the Advisors here.  Wow!”


“People are always willing to give me a ‘map’ ‘here’s what to tell students about the dangers’ — now, with the Unity Project there is a resource for HOW to get there!  What I needed was a CAR.  From now on the journey will be easier with some reliable transportation.”


“The two fingered table exercise WOWed the SADD chapter at BFHS at about 7:25 this morning.  Can you say emPOWERED!?!?!?”


“I am very excited about John Woodall’s Unity Project. It’s a realistic and appealing approach to strengthening and increasing “resiliency” in children. It is realistic and appealing because it meets the needs of a wide diversity of children, hooks them in, and engages them in interpersonal exercises that demonstrate the power of group support. I highly recommend the Unity Project for any middle and secondary school organization that is interested in increasing student involvement and the “resiliency” of all its students. Many young people who lack the ability to endure tragedies and crises now have a means to adapt and move on.

Thanks Dr. Woodall!”


“I have been pursuing a much needed classroom initiative like The Unity Project during my thirty years in the teaching profession.  I am eager and energized to begin this new initiative in my high school this year. It is a new vision on the horizon which is exciting.

It is thorough, well-thought-out and easy to follow.  John is a pleasure to work with and explains everything so well with a professional attitude and respect for all.”

For more information on bringing the Unity Project to your youth organization, contact:



More Comments from Participants in Dr. Woodall’s programs:

“Dr. Woodall speaks to the business of challenge, challenge in life and the resiliency with which we can discover the hero inside to meet and resolve those challenges.”


Dr. Woodall is gifted to see inside people’s turmoil and pain, and not only see it, but understand the root,”

“When you can understand the root, there’s usually a solution. He seems to be able to speak several languages. He’s able to transcend boundaries and reach many different groups. He’s not just focused on one group, one age, one religion or one gender – his field and perception is so broad, he’s able to hit a lot of different areas.”


“As a physician and a psychiatrist, a “diplomat” and a founder of social programs toward unity and self-discovery, he manages in a very unique way to combine the medical with the neuro-scientific with sociological and spiritual well-being. We don’t often come across this authoritative combination. He gives you concrete solutions – ways to change behavioral patterns – not just fluff. This is not about a revival, it’s not about a lecture or subject matter – it’s about a process. People walk away admitting that they have been transformed. ”


“I think Dr. Woodall has an innate ability to cut to the heart of the matter, across gender, religion, socio-economic barriers, to allow the person to see that there is a choice to empower them in their lives.”


“For me, I think he offers the opportunity to take ownership of our lives. In this world today, there are a lot of helpless feelings that the government is too big, the world is out of control, and when you walk away from being in a workshop with Dr. Woodall, you feel that you can make a difference in your life and in the lives of those you love.”

Related posts:

  • On ReachUP! 2021, the Unity Project’s initiative to build a national vision of compassion and cooperation and reject extremism, click here.
  • To discover the Compassionate Identity in response to the challenges of life, click here.
  • To learn more about the Unity Project, click here.

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

John Woodall, MD(copyright), 2011

"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.


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”

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

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