Tag: "Resilience"

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.
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Can We Have a 21st Century Conversation?

Can We Have a 21st Century Conversation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related videos on resilience:

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

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

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

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

 

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

Your Kids Need You This Year: Part II

Your Kids Need You This Year: Part II

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

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

The following article appeared in the Newtown Bee:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Posts:
Video 1: The Basics of Resilience

Video 2: Your Kids Need You This Year

Video 4: Compassion of Conflict, Take Your Pick

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

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

Your Kids Need You This Year

Your Kids Need You This Year

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

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

 

 

Your Kids Need You This Year.

John Woodall, MD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Videos in This Series on Resilience:

Video 1: The Basics of Resilience.

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

Video 4: Compassion or Conflict: Take Your Pick

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

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

The Basics of Resilience

The Basics of Resilience

The Basics of Resilience

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

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

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

Related Videos in This Series:

Your Kids Need You This Year

Your Kids Need You This Year: Part II

 

Compassion or Conflict: Take Your Pick

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

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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“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.

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 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.

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Workshops:

“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.

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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

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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.

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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:

margodeselin@unityproject.org

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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.

Enjoy!

Resilience and Leadership: Bob Castrignano

Resilience and Leadership: Bob Castrignano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Resolve of David in the Moment Before He Confronts Goliath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Castrignano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fountain Dedicated to St. Joseph in Vatican City

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

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

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

Related Posts:

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

Resilience and Leadership: Jimmy Dunne.

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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

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