Tuesday, October 25, 2016

After Election Day?

After Election Day?
In the last few weeks the outcome of the election has become more certain, but this has raised new worries.  It’s possible that some Trump followers might find this outcome further confirmation of the conspiracy belief that has been one of the driving dynamics of the election. I'm also concerned that the hostile, tribal and sports-style of the contest will leave a toxic residue. (Interesting that Mr. Trump was once involved in the professional wrestling world.)
         As a psychologist and hopeful American, I'm trying to think what approach will help the "losers" accept and find a positive way to address their lingering and legitimate concerns. I honestly feel compassion for people whose very real concerns have been hijacked into a personal campaign to prove self worth in an insecure mean-spirited man.
So now, what can be done? I want Clinton to acknowledge, in no uncertain terms, the problems of people who have felt powerless. It’s not surprising that some found a solution to the feeling by aligning themselves with the power of a man whose identity and desperate effort is to be powerful.
       There are some who support him due to party loyalty. There are some who do believe his recent connection with the conservative issues they hold. Some followers have been duped by the magical thinking, simple solutions and unrealistic promises. They appreciate that he “tells it like it is”, even when he so often tells it like it isn’t.
In addition to acknowledging the legitimate concerns, Mrs. Clinton must lay out and follow through on specific steps. Mrs. Clinton has talked about a big investment in infrastructure. More talk, more specifics and more action are all necessary.
Perhaps those principled Republicans who did put country above party by rejecting Mr. Trump will find a face-saving way to collaborate and create plans and projects that truly benefit their constituents --especially those who feel cheated and powerless. It would be wonderful to see what can be accomplished when neither side is seeking the credit, (nor trying to ascribe the blame.) What a gift it would be to the American people, after this divisive period, to feel that the people who represent us actually do.
Then, my next question is, “What can we as individuals do?” Maybe as Democrats we can shut up, not gloat and keep those in mind who have been left behind as Mr. Trump moves on to his next self-aggrandizing mission.
For our Republican brothers and sisters maybe it is time to contact their representatives and let them know that they will not blame them? They will not blame them for working with Democrats to create jobs and a better country for them!
There are probably better metaphors than “Don’t shoot yourself in the foot” or “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.” But the message is the same. Please don’t harm yourself (and us) in trying to harm the other.
My version of magical thinking is believing that there will be enough of us on both sides who agree on one thing -- we must demand that our representatives work together. For this to work, our job as citizens does not end when we leave the voting booth.

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Monday, October 24, 2016

Kids and Elections = A Teachable Moment

Elections: A Teachable Moment

It’s hard to protect our children from the barrage of political ads and news stories. In some homes the interest of the parent is so great that the ads and the political talk shows fill the air. On the other hand, this situation can be an important teachable moment for our children. While we might like our children to share our values, it is wise to also help them understand why we hold these values and to understand that even people who disagree with us are not necessarily evil.
Depending upon the age of the child we can start with the idea that people have different ideas about how to create a good community or solve problems. Even little ones can understand that people choose others to make decisions about what is good for our community. They can understand that by our vote we try to choose people we think will make good decision. It’s important, in child terms, to communicate why we are choosing a certain candidate.  
Children already tend to see things in black and white, so a little effort at moderation may help them be aware of some of the shades of meaning in the political arena. We can help them see that people sometimes get angry and agitated, so much so that they don’t think about reasons, but that reasons for our choices are really important.
Since one of our children may choose another path or marry into a family with different political inclinations, it is good that they know how to respect the viewpoints of others and, when appropriate, to express their own viewpoints in a thoughtful and reasoned way.
Many of us have taken part in family events where our main challenge was biting our tongues.  I believe this is one of those born in temperamental qualities – the ability to listen to what we consider utter nonsense and not call the speaker out. Even those not so predisposed can learn to hold their tongue when a pointless argument would ruin a family event. And if that can’t be achieved then our goal might  be the ability to state a point and back it up with reasons -- reasons other than, “Your idea is utter nonsense.”
It is equally important to help our children understand that many worthwhile goals can be accomplished outside the political arena. If our values lead us to care for those who are poor or disadvantaged, we can show our children by our actions that we as individuals can make a difference. We can donate or work at a food bank. We can gather books or clothing for children in need. We can visit senior centers with flowers, goodies and the time to listen.
      Years ago there was a song from the musical  “Hair” that was a good reminder. The line was,   “Do you only care about the bleeding crowd? How about a needing friend?” Groups and movements do have power, but so do individuals in the many small steps that improve the lives of others near them. Most of us have a needing friend, and if our children see us care for that friend, they might learn as much as they could from any political conversation. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

No Apology -- When the passive voice is active.

"Mistakes Were Made in Owning up to Mistakes."

An older piece from the Christian Science Monitor that rises again to relevance.  My original title was, "When the Passive Voice is Active."

"I acknowledge that mistakes were made here." With those words Tuesday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales became the latest public figure to rely on the nonapology apology's best friend: the passive voice.

"Mistakes were made" is the consummate case in point. It has become a contemporary mantra. Why won't those pesky mistakes quit making themselves!
Writers are cautioned – sorry, let me begin again: editors caution writers to eschew the passive voice. It's needed sometimes, but too much of it is considered bad form. And in public life, it almost always has the effect of avoiding accountability. But in government hearings and statements these days it seems to be the norm.
This trend and the common use of the generic "They" – as in "They just can't seem to get along in Washington" – lead us to mask the reality that actual individual human beings have power and accountability in creating positive or negative outcomes. Anyone who works in a large organization has also observed the trend to attribute most problems to management.
When I hear such vague blame, I have started asking, "What specific person?" and "What specific action?"
When I confront my own teenagers with their mistakes, they sometimes protest, "You're trying to make me feel guilty." Darn right I am! Sometimes that is the right response to a bad choice. Blame is not always a game; it can be an appropriate reaction.
Passive voice has so cheapened the concept of a mea culpa that various officials in government hearings and press conferences actually seem to be proud of themselves when they acknowledge that "mistakes were made."
And the really brave ones admit that the buck stops at their desk. With a grave tone they state: "I take responsibility. I was ultimately the one in charge."
What they usually mean is this: "Some jerk under me messed up, and I'm being gracious by pretending that I think it was my fault. But of course you realize I am blameless."
Wouldn't it be refreshing to hear an official say, "I made a big mistake by appointing a friend (or a relative or someone who contributed to my campaign). I should have hired someone with the knowledge and skills to do the job." After fainting from shock, most people would admire that candor and maybe trust that the same mistakes would not be made again.
I try to fight this pattern of accountability phobia in my own work by quickly acknowledging errors and getting on with solutions. I'm consistently surprised at how forgiving people are; they are generally equally ready to move on to solutions.
As a psychologist, I am often asked to work with children who have difficulty accepting responsibility. I try to help them see that when we give away blame, we give away power. If we don't recognize that we messed up, then we don't realize that from that same source of power we can generate solutions.
In counseling, I assign children homework: Each week, they have to share a mistake they've made so we can figure out a better course next time. It's amazing how quickly they learn to say, "I made a mistake when I ...." Remarkably, I never hear the children say, "Mistakes were made."
• Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016


The Orlando tragedy is an inkblot as each viewer makes his or her interpretation, but it is  ALL of the above. This gives us so many entry points in addressing the problem. So each viewer can choose a solution besides prayers and good thoughts.
The reasoning that laws didn't stop the last shooter ignores the reality that better laws can stop the NEXT shooter.

The story below is an example of just two of the sources.

Remembering Kenzo, and still trying to change gun law

The debate over gun laws will return to the news soon, as the Senate considers a bill that would, for the most part, immunize gunmakers and dealers from lawsuits for damages caused by users of their products. For many, only headlines bring the issue to mind, but for some it is a constant concern.
Recently, I was straightening the photos and bits of paper on my refrigerator when I came across a little card. It said, "Raymond, Susan, Lauren, Brian, Kenzo's tree is BLOOMING!" A fixture on my fridge for years, it blended in with the collage of family memories. The little card had been delivered by Kenzo's mother years earlierand was attached to a bag of cookies shaped like maple leaves. The tree that the note referred to was the one the neighborhood planted after Kenzo's death.
Kenzo Dix was killed at the age of 15 by a good friend. He was shot accidentally with a handgun that the youngster thought was unloaded. The boy removed the clip but didn't realize there was still a bullet in the chamber.
My own son is now 15, but when he was little, Kenzo patiently helped him shoot baskets in the portable hoop the big kids put up on our street. Kenzo was a gentle and cheerful boy who never excluded the little ones. As my son grew up, Kenzo was our model of how big boys should be to little kids.

His parents had done a great job with him and his brother. They were vigilant and conscientious parents, but not smothering. Their love and kindness was evident in their boys.
The funeral was the most profound event I've ever attended. The church was filled with teenagers, including the boy who shot Kenzo. A Buddhist priest delivered the eulogy. The priest spoke about the three poisons or evils according to Buddhism: greed, anger, and ignorance. The priest gently and clearly explained the impact that mindlessness or ignorance can have. Kenzo did not die because of someone's greed or anger, but because of someone's ignorance.
In my work as a psychologist, I present workshops to adolescents. Since that day, I have often told Kenzo's story. It provides such powerful insight: Youngsters need to understand that bad intentions aren't necessary to cause enormous harm. A few mindless seconds with a gun, or behind a wheel, can be equally damaging. Every time I've told Kenzo's story, there has been pin-drop silence in the room. It somehow helps youngsters see how fragile life can be and how we need to protect it with both goodwill and mindfulness.
When a young person dies, people struggle to make sure the death is not in vain. And in my work with teenagers I try to see that Kenzo's life was not in vain. I believe those who loved him find a bit of comfort in knowing that the goodness of Kenzo continues to grow and bring goodness into the world.
Hardly a day passes when I don't think about him. I drive by the maple tree on my way to work. I see his mother and wonder at her ability to cope. I hear a basketball bouncing in the street. I think of him when I see my son extend a kind gesture to a little child, as Kenzo had done to him.
I read about gun issues in the paper and wonder how peoples' hearts might be changed had they known, and then lost, Kenzo. I wonder if the "freedom" of some might create a prison of loss and sadness for others.
The gun lobbyists argue that they fear "frivolous lawsuits." In this case, it is an oxymoron. No person who has lost a loved one when a gun was not carefully made or carefully sold feels the least bit of frivolity. They are, unfortunately, very serious. Kenzo's loss is still sad beyond explanation - but Kenzo's tree is still blooming.
• Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist

Wednesday, June 1, 2016


Would be great if this oped of 12 years ago was no longer so relevant. Now the sports metaphor seems to be a morphing of politics with professional wrestling.

American political polarization amounts to fear of being left out

I'm starting to wonder if entertainment television, talk radio, and sports have all had a negative influence on political discourse in this country. I watch a lot of political discussion on TV and a fair amount of sports, and in a disturbing way these two contexts seem to be morphing into each other.
It now feels as if someone is keeping score in the political arena. And unfortunately, in my own mind, when I hear of a gaffe or embarrassment for the party I don't prefer, I think, "Oh good, a point for my side."
When "my side" is called for a foul, I think that the officiating might be biased.
So many recent events highlight the polarized context we are now operating in. Whether it is reaction to the Michael Moore film or to an interview with a candidate, there seem to be so few people willing or able to see anything positive in an opposing side or any negative in their own. Perhaps it requires a level of effort and analysis that doesn't fit with the sports metaphor.

I wonder if there was a time in political discourse when people listened to each other and occasionally said, "Hmm, that's a good point, how can we incorporate that into the solution?"
"Solution?" Now there's a novel concept.
But it may also be one that doesn't make for entertaining television talk shows.
One morning I read the regular oped columnists known for their political perspectives. I was in agreement with the one on "my side" and opposed to the other.
Then I had this wild idea: What if, on April Fool's day, the paper switched bylines on columnists who are well known for their political perspective? Would content we normally oppose all of a sudden make some sense if it appeared to have been written by a commentator we usually agree with? Would the tendency to accept input from "our own team" trump our normal belief structure?
The columnists seem to be participating in this sports metaphor and their contributions are often "scoring a point" in style. Or perhaps readers have come to be more entertained by a contentious, bombastic style. So that is what "sells."
I wish we could find a moral or even a common-sense compass that hasn't been distorted by the sports metaphor for politics. In the sports context, saying "I see your point" would be like stepping aside for the other team to score a goal or handing them the ball at their 10-yard line.
I believe that Americans are looking for the truth, for common sense, and for solutions. But there is something seductive about the bond that comes from cheering for the same team. Sadly, it requires that there be an opposing team.
Trying to understand what in our human nature as well as our environment has brought us to this point, I recalled conflict resolution interventions I'd conducted in various organizations. At one large high school the situation was classic. Faculty factions had come together based on what other faculty factions they disliked. They shared almost nothing except their opposition to the "other team." The need to belong was so powerful that members of one "team" disregarded significant issues among themselves and simply focused on the common enemy, the other team.
Once when I was interviewed after a violent incident at a school, I was asked what was the greatest fear of children. The journalist was thinking in terms of weapons.
But, after listening for years to the concerns of youngsters, I answered without hesitation, "Being left out."
Looking at what is taking place in the polarized nature of politics these days, I think that maybe we never outgrow that fear. Perhaps this polarization is less about ideology than about belonging. By backing "our team" we share a bond with others - we are not left out.
• Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.