LIFE AS A PARENT: WHAT KIND OF FATHER WILL YOU BE?
Dedan K. Bruner
Growing up without a dad was my first lesson in parenting.
I was 35 years old when my mother gave me the box. It was during my first visit home to California from Washington, D.C., after sharing the news that my new girlfriend and I were expecting a child. The contents were sparse. Among them was a telegram that my mother sent to my father, who had been away in Botswana serving in the Peace Corps, announcing my birth. Also included was a letter my father wrote to my mother a few years later, stating that he was moving back to the United States and that my mother and I, along with my father, his new wife and their children, should all live together upon their return.
At the bottom of the box was a small stack of checks — these I remembered well. Right around New Year’s when I was 5 or 6, I received an envelope with almost a dozen $25 checks, each predated for a different month, plus a $50 birthday check for July.
Seeing the checks brought back a flood of memories. I’d hotly anticipated each one, and felt frustrated at how long it took for my mother, whom I called Bobby, to hand over my “birthday money.” I’d clung to those checks as evidence of my father’s ongoing support. So imagine my embarrassment as a teenager when Bobby confessed that the checks began bouncing a few months in, and she’d started paying me their value out of her own limited budget. Until that day, I’d naively believed my dad’s promise to fund my college education.
Bobby and I never talked about the box. We didn’t need to. My mother’s message was loud and clear: “What kind of father will you be?” The answer seemed simple. I had been thinking about the type of father I would be since I was a kid growing up without one.
Embraced by a circle of dads
When I found out I was going to be a father, I was working on Capitol Hill in a fast-paced congressional office. In the moments that weren’t consumed with congressional votes or meetings, one of our favorite pastimes was getting updates from the three office dads. There was Joe, our 30-something military liaison, who would tell stories about his twin daughters and his son who was born with cerebral palsy. Then Riley, our elder statesman, who along with his wife had decided in his 50s to adopt Ethiopian siblings. Finally, there was our boss, James, a father of three teenagers, the eldest of whom was diagnosed with autism.
These men loved being dads. While their journeys were different, their stories of breakthroughs, tiny victories and comic setbacks connected them and entertained us all. When I announced that I was going to be a father, they welcomed me to the club with the kind of love and support that I had never seen among men. They showered me with tips about car seats and college savings plans, and tons of little ideas to make each day special. Their energy was infectious and edifying. I knew I would be O.K.
Months later, when my daughter Ella was born, James showed up at the hospital with a copy of the local newspaper and the February 2011 issue of Essence magazine so my daughter would, as he put it, “always know exactly what was going on when she came into the world.”
Nine months after my daughter was born, her mother moved out. While difficult for both of us, it was for the best. At the time, she was a first-year law student with a rigorous schedule. There was no custody battle. We crafted a schedule that worked, splitting Ella’s time evenly between the two of us with built-in flexibility to absorb her mom’s studies and my busy seasons at work. Eight years later, while much has changed, the same plan is still in place.
Society does not expect a whole lot from dads, much less single dads. The bulk of the nurturing, and most of what we consider “raising” a child is said to be the work of mothers. Dads “provide,” give the occasional bit of “fatherly wisdom” and do all the “outside stuff,” like camping. As it turns out, toddlers need less fatherly advice and more clean diapers. Children do not require us to be “baby whisperers,” but they do require resilience. I discovered that running warm water through Ella’s hair was a sure-fire way to get her to fall asleep not because I’m good at being a father; on the contrary, I learned the hard way that changing a baby girl on an incline at 3 a.m. can cause pee to run down her back and into her hair — requiring an early morning bath.
Fatherhood means trial and error
Ask the average dad for advice on how to raise a son, and you’ll get tips on the proper age to start sports and how to deal with bullies. He might share his dreams for his son, strategies for discussing sex, and the proper way to grip a hand and lock eyes during an introduction. Ask the same guy for advice on raising a daughter and he’ll wince his silent condolences while recommending that you get a gun and forbid her from dating until she turns 30.
I adopted the philosophy that it didn’t matter if my kid was a boy or a girl — at least until puberty. There are no lessons that I would teach a son that I would not want my daughter privy to. Self-respect, consideration, compassion, kindness and good citizenship serve each gender well and can be modeled by either parent. While her mother is adamant that Ella not use “bad words,” I care more about making poor language choices — howshe uses her words. Every now and then, I offer my daughter amnesty — 10 seconds to get any curse words she really wants to say out of her system. The first time I offered, after I pinky swore that I wouldn’t tell Mommy, she said the “S-word.” Months later, when I offered again, she passed. While her mom and I may not always agree on strategies, our goals are the same.
No matter how hard I try, not everything I do will be right. My inability to style my daughter’s hair was frequently criticized by the women in our lives, and apparently nearly every kid on the playground. Several friends tried to teach me; I watched YouTube videos and bought expensive products, to no avail. One day after picking her up from school, my daughter hugged me and whispered in my ear, “I don’t think I want you to do my hair anymore.” The statement crushed me, not because of what she said but because I could imagine the ridicule she’d endured before reaching that conclusion.
A few days later, a neighbor called me over as we were returning home from school. Still sensitive from Ella’s rebuke, my guard was up. I was working through the best way to tell my neighbor to mind her own business when she said she appreciated seeing me as a father. She said she knew a lot of fathers but that she liked seeing me. Sometimes you don’t know how empty you have been until someone or something fills you up. Relieved, I thanked her. As we turned to walk away, she told me to bring Ella over Saturday morning so she could “figure out that head.” I laughed and dutifully agreed. To this day, she is still our go-to hair guru.
There is no secret (that I could find) to fatherhood. Being there and being engaged matter most. There are times when I cannot be there, but I remain engaged. When my daughter is with her mother, we chat before bed and again before school. While I enjoy my own pursuits, I also spend time planning activities and adventures to ensure that we get the most out of our limited time together.
On New Year’s Day this year, I launched On Fathering, an online destination that celebrates fatherhood the way the dads in my old office did. The goal is not to make money or hold myself out as an expert on being a dad, but rather to give fathers and fathers-to-be a safe space to explore the beauty of parenthood. With any luck, we’ll help banish the days when the best advice a new father of a daughter could receive is to “get a gun.”
THE SURPRISING BENEFITS OF RELENTLESSLY AUDITING YOUR LIFE
We tend to think that good marriages and happy families are born of love and care, not spreadsheets. But what if that’s wrong?
My husband had been trying to sell me on his method for years before I finally relented. An efficiency consultant who had once worked in the car industry in Japan, he wanted to “Toyota Way” our lives. I wanted him to keep his spreadsheets to himself.
But a house, a baby and some career changes later, as I was folding tiny T-shirts while doing an interview and rocking the baby’s chair with my foot, I gave in. I was overwhelmed. Maybe a spreadsheet could help after all.
The method, as my husband would be shouting right now, is of course more than just a spreadsheet. It’s based on the Japanese notion of “kaizen,”or continuous improvement, made famous in 2001 when Toyota singled it out as one of the pillars of the company’s success. You pick a goal, figure out the main components behind it, collect data on those components and work out what you can do to move closer to the goal.
In the case of Toyota, the goal was higher quality and increased profits. When we translated the idea to our home life, the goal was a little simpler but also a lot more complicated — happiness. We weren’t sure what drove it, so we decided to collect data on everything: how many hours we were sleeping a night, how long we spent on housework or child care, the amount of alone time, social time, commuting time, you name it. We assigned a score from one to 10 to each day, and then gave a primary reason for each score: not enough sleep, work sucked and, sometimes, “relationship bad feeling.”
Soon enough, we began to spot patterns: It turns out that the minimum number of hours I can sleep without wanting to run away from my family is five and a half. Less than an hour a week of personal time also sent me to a dark place. My husband found that his happiness rose and fell with hours spent hanging out with friends or sitting in traffic.
And so we started trying to improve our scores. We started small. I tried to shift around my workload to include more time to read and think. My husband began commuting by train so that he could bike from the station to work, incorporating exercise into his day and eliminating time spent in traffic altogether.
The project led to a major life change. Our spreadsheets hammered home that what contributed most to our happiness was time spent together or with friends — while, crucially, not working — and there was no way to get more of that if we continued to live in the Bay Area, one of the most expensive parts of the country. So I proposed an idea that would have seemed radical were there not so much data backing it: “I think you should quit your job, we should sell our house, and we should move somewhere cheaper,” I told my husband matter-of-factly one day. So we did.
Feeling uncomfortable right now? I get it. There’s a lot to feel anxious or eye-rolly about. I fully admit that in the first weeks of the project, I found it preposterous. I groaned about the time required to type in data, assign a score, all of it.
But a funny thing happened as I huffed through weeks of data collection. In addition to leading to a better understanding of what made us happy as a family, I also found the spreadsheet to be an incredibly useful tool for expressing things I might have otherwise avoided. It made the invisible visible. Instead of arguing about housework, for example, both feeling like we were doing more than our fair share, we could talk about it relatively objectively. On a day where I spent 14 hours taking care of the kids and doing house chores while my husband spent three, I was going to be unhappy, obviously. But we could just look at the numbers and then divvy up the chores evenly. Easy. No fight, no resentment. (Others have recently attempted more high-tech versions of a similar approach: One man, for instance, invented a chore-splitting app intended to keep track of who’s doing the bulk of the household work.)
It also enabled us to talk about what the transition to parenthood had meant for both of us — fewer work hours and loss of alone time for me; an intense commute and loss of social time for him — in a way that helped us stay away from competition or blame.
Before the spreadsheet, I had an idea I think many share: Marriage and family should more or less work. If you’re with the “right” person and you’ve made the “right” choices, your family life shouldn’t require a lot of discussion or effort. Your spouse should know that you need alone time and should give it to you. The appointments you keep in your head, the family social schedule you juggle — all of it should be noticed and appreciated. Good marriages and happy families are born of love and care, not spreadsheets and a daily happiness score.
But in the years since, I’ve reconsidered. Far from making our marriage seem cold and robotic, the spreadsheet sparked more honest conversations than we’d had in years. It also reminded us that we had more control over our lives than we had been exerting.
We stopped the project after a year or so, but started again last month. It’s five years since we first tried it, and we’re both feeling overwhelmed again. We’re in a much more precarious place financially now, after a few non-spreadsheet-related surprises, but we’re still determined to make whatever decisions we can to improve our lives.
In the course of researching a book on the history of motherhood in America, it occurred to me that this sort of exercise might be helpful for a lot of families, onerous as it may seem. Because the really intractable problems — like the social expectations placed on mothers, the gendered division of labor in homes, the invisibility of all sorts of care work — are not going to magically disappear. They’re not going to be erased simply by getting the right politicians elected or the right policies enacted (although those things will help).
People’s weird ideas about gender, about mothers and fathers and marriage and nuclear families, about who should do what and how much of it, about what really makes us happy, are deeply entrenched, often in ways we don’t even recognize. And so sometimes, when the baby is crying, when no one has thought about dinner, when bills need paying — when we’re caught, in other words, juggling some of the most fraught areas of our family lives, feeling emotional, ready to lash out — sometimes it really helps to have a set of calm, cool numbers on a spreadsheet.
“All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.'” – 1 Peter 5:5b
I’ll never forget the first time I discovered what a feeling was. It was in my early forties. “Surely not!” you may be thinking. Yes, it is true. Since then, I have discovered many men still live in this condition. It took an older mentor to help me understand the difference between information and a feeling.
Wives are frustrated because their husbands share information, but not their feelings. They want to know what is going on inside their man. The fact is, most men have not been taught to identify feelings, much less how to share them. It is something that men must learn to do because it is not a natural trait. If they do share their feelings, society often portrays them as weak. No man willingly wants to be portrayed as weak.
In order to become an effective friend and leader, one must learn to be vulnerable with others and develop an ability to share feelings. It is a vital step to becoming a real person with whom others can connect emotionally. This is not easy to do if your parents did not teach you to share your emotional life with others. Emotional vulnerability is especially hard for men. Author Dr. Larry Crabb states,
Men who as boys felt neglected by their dads often remain distant from their own children. The sins of fathers are passed on to children, often through the dynamic of self-protection. It hurts to be neglected, and it creates questions about our value to others. So to avoid feeling the sting of further rejection, we refuse to give that part of ourselves we fear might once again be received with indifference. When our approach to life revolves around discipline, commitment, and knowledge [which the Greek influence teaches us] but runs from feeling the hurt of unmet longings that come from a lack of deeper relationships, then our efforts to love will be marked more by required action than by liberating passion. We will be known as reliable, but not involved. Honest friends will report that they enjoy being with us, but have trouble feeling close. Even our best friends (including spouses) will feel guarded around us, a little tense and vaguely distant. It’s not uncommon for Christian leaders to have no real friends. [Larry Crabb, Inside Out (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Navpress, n.d.), 98-99.]
If this describes you, why not begin on a new journey of opening up your life to others in a way that others can see who you really are? It might be scary at first, but as you grow in this area, you will find new freedom in your life. Then, others will more readily connect with you.
THE MANY FACES OF FAMILY AND LOVE: THERE IS NO “BEST” ONE
A commonsense manifesto for valuing all families, relationships, and life paths.
Never before have people in the U.S. and other nations around the world organized their personal lives and their family lives in so many different ways. In the U.S., for example, nearly as many adults are not married as married. The most sentimentalized family type—mom and dad, married with children—now accounts for fewer than 20 percent of all households. There are more households comprised of one person living alone.
Children are living in many different kinds of families and households. A full 40 percent of them are not being raised by two married parents. Many are living with one parent, or with cohabiting parents, or with stepparents or grandparents, to name just a few of the most popular permutations.
“Family” is a many-splendored thing and it can take all sorts of shapes and sizes. Twitter embraced that notion when the writer Lucy Huber posted this tweet:
Stop saying “start a family” when you mean “have kids”. A couple is still a family. A single person and her cat is a family. A couple and their plants are still a family. Three weirdly close roommates could be a family. You don’t need kids to be a family.
Within a week, the tweet had been liked more than 185,000 times and shared more than 47,000 times.
Scholars have been writing about diversity in relationships and families and some of the most unlikely terms have been catching on. Take amatonormativity, for example. That one was coined by Elizabeth Brake. It refers to:
“the assumption that a central, exclusive, amorous relationship is normal for humans, in that it is a universally shared goal, and that such a relationship is normative, in the sense that it should be aimed at in preference to other relationship types.”
Professor Brake argues against that assumption. She thinks that other kinds of relationships and social circles, such as friendships and care networks, should not be valued less than romantic relationships.
Though growing in popularity, the valuing of many different kinds of relationships and families and life paths is still an idea that meets with considerable resistance. A new and important report recently released by the think tank, Family Story, documents the ways in which marriage has come to be privileged and promoted as the ideal family form, even as fewer and fewer people get married or have children.
“The Case Against Marriage Fundamentalism” argues that respect for all of our relationships, families, and life paths is built on four core values.
1. Equality “requires the reduction of social and economic inequality within relationships and between family types, as well as legal equality among different types of families and relationships.”
2. Autonomy “requires making it possible for people to freely choose their relationships and family types—including, but not limited to, marriage—by reducing structural and other barriers that stand in the way.”
3. Interdependence “means acknowledging we are all interconnected and dependent on countless other people (not just ones to whom we are biologically related or with whom we have a legally recognized relationship).”
4. Care “requires acknowledging all the ways that these different forms of relationships are supportive and meaningful, and the positive impact they can have on our lives and well-being.”
Principles of Family, Relationship, and Lifestyle Justice
The conclusion of the report spells out the principles of family justice. They include:
There is no hierarchy; stop saying that certain people, relationships, or families are better than others
“A person’s marital status, relationship status, and living arrangements say nothing about their character or value.”
“Unmarried people should not be treated as less mature, less valuable, or less accomplished than married people.”
“Families and relationships should not be ranked from best to worst based on their structure.”
“Marriage is neither more nor less important than other close adult relationships involving care and commitment.”
There are lots of ways to create a family
“Neither children nor marriage are necessary to create family.”
“Co-residence is not necessary to create relationships of commitment and care.”
People who live in ways that are not normative (or not perceived as normative) deserve respect
“There will always be people who prefer to live alone, to not have children, or otherwise opt to live their lives in ways that are not consistent with whatever the norm is at the time.”
“None of this is a reflection of their self-worth, and they all have a right to equal respect and concern.”
“An adult’s ability to freely choose a particular relationship status or living arrangement should not be restricted or blocked.”
For children, relationship quality matters more than the other factors that get so much attention
“Children do not need to live under the same roof as a same-gender parent (or same-gender role model) for proper development.”
“Children flourish in a variety of family types and living arrangements.”
“Relationship quality is more important than household structure.” (Examples of different household structures include single-parent families and nuclear families. This principle means that having a loving and secure relationship with a parent is more important to children’s well-being than whether they have one parent or two, whether their parents are married, or whether their parents live under the same roof.)
Family Story maintains that the marriage fundamentalists, who believe that “a family composed of a man and a woman in their first marriage is ‘the best’ or ‘ideal’ type of family, especially for children,” have promoted their ideas by distorting and weaponizing social science research. I have spent much of the past two decades critiquing that research and explaining what it really does show. It is good to have other prominent voices joining in.
WHY SOME CHILDREN ARE ORCHIDS AND OTHERS ARE DANDELIONS
W. Thomas Boyce
Many children are able to thrive in any environment, while others may flourish only under the most favorable conditions. New findings reveal the complex interplay of factors that creates “dandelion” and “orchid” kids.
One of the first skills taught to pediatricians and obstetricians is how to assess the physiological condition of a baby in the first few minutes after birth. As a novice physician, this was one of my favorite and most treasured duties—to be the first living soul to survey the condition of a never-before-seen human being, delivered red, squealing, and literally wet behind the ears at the end of a prolonged, critical, and one-way passage.
The formal assessment is done using the Apgar score, named for its inventor, Virginia Apgar, at one and five minutes following birth. Scores range from 0 to 10, the sum of a 0, 1, or 2 assessed in each of five areas of postnatal functioning, arranged into the acronym APGAR: Appearance (the pink or blue color of the body, hands, and feet); Pulse rate; Grimace (the crying or grimacing response to nasal or oral suction, or other stimulation); Activity (the degree and vigor of muscle flexion); and Respiration. Most babies receive scores ranging from 7 to 10. Those with scores below 7 may need more active and rapid stimulation or resuscitation, including a heated bassinet or a suctioning of the airway. For scores less than 4, we might insert a breathing tube to support respiration or even begin external heart compressions.
HOW DO KIDS COPE? To get a sense of how school-age children think about resilience, PT asked a few how they cheer up others or whether they have a go-to strategy for themselves. Their portraits follow.
Orchids and Dandelions
As a pediatrician for more than four decades, I have become vividly aware of the great unevenness—the disproportion—evident in the differences in health and development among individual children from the first moments of life. Even within single families, parents often tell me that all of their children were basically healthy, “except for Sarah,” or Julio, or Jamal. Pediatricians implicitly understand, from simple, day-to-day observation, that some children are inordinately affected by the forces that protect health and those that imperil it. And at the level of the community, we know that, within any given population of children, a small minority—about 20 percent of individuals—will suffer the majority of all illnesses and disorders.
Developmental science has convincingly shown that one of the origins of such differences is children’s early experiences of psychological trauma and adversity. Such experience can impede normal brain development, create obstacles to effective learning, and impair mental and physical health during childhood and over the remaining life course. This is why children growing up in poverty, children who are mistreated by their parents or others, and children exposed to violence within the family or community are all at risk for compromised development, educational achievement, and mental or physical health.
But all children are not equally susceptible to these effects. While some are powerfully affected by trauma, others are able to effectively weather adverse experiences, sustaining few, if any, developmental or health consequences. People tend to view these differences in susceptibility as attributable to an inherent vulnerability or resilience, imagining that some small number of resilient or “unbreakable” children have a special capacity to thrive, even in the face of severe adversity. Our research suggests instead that such variance is attributable not to innate traits but to differences in children’s relative biological susceptibility to the social contexts in which they live and grow, both the negative and the positive.
A majority of children show a kind of biological indifference to experiences of adversity, with stress response circuits in their brains that are minimally reactive to such events. Like dandelions that thrive in almost any environment, such children are mostly unperturbed by the stressors and traumas they confront. We think of them, metaphorically, as dandelion children. A minority of children—about one in five—show an exceptional susceptibility to both negative and positive social contexts, with stress response circuits highly sensitive to adverse events. Like orchids, which require very particular, supportive environments to thrive, these children show an exceptional capacity for succeeding in nurturant, supportive circumstances, but sustain disproportionate numbers of illnesses and problems when raised in stressful, adverse social conditions. We think of these as orchid children.
IVO, 10: “If someone is down, I try to promise them something complex, that takes some effort—and then I do it for them.”Photo by Karjean Levine
Developmental science is increasingly revealing that the relative indifference of dandelion children and the special sensitivity of orchid children to the character of their early environment are likely attributable to the joint effects of genes and social contexts. These epigenetic processes—in which environmental cues regulate the expression of genetic differences—are the likely regulators of children’s differential susceptibility to environmental influences. Recognizing this differential susceptibility is an essential key to understanding the experiences of individual children, to parenting children of differing sensitivities and temperaments effectively, and to fostering the healthy, adaptive capacity of all young people.
Origins of the Types
So, are orchids born that way, or do they become orchids by way of early life experience? Our first hint at an answer came from the very first moments of postnatal life.
What is especially interesting about the Apgar score is the degree to which the things it measures are controlled by the fight-or-flight autonomic nervous system involved in dealing with stress. Each subscore is an indicator of the body’s adaptation to the considerable physical (and possibly emotional) stressors of being born; low scores are a reflection of insufficiently adaptive responses. After all, birth is an extreme and unprecedented experience, and it is such experiences that tell us most about who we are as extensions of our individual biology.
Given that we all begin life by being plunged into an epic stress reactivity experiment, might we not wonder whether the Apgar score could tell us more than just whether we need to have our mouths suctioned or our bodies warmed? If lower scores were reflective of less adaptive, less compensatory fight-or-flight responses, might they also be telling us about a baby’s longer-term proclivity toward maladaptive responses to stress? Could our first extrauterine moments augur something important about our whole life yet to come?
That is exactly what we have found. Careful epidemiologic work by one of my doctoral students and a former postdoctoral fellow has found that in nearly 34,000 children from Manitoba, Canada, five-minute Apgar scores were predictive of teacher-reported developmental vulnerability at age 5 for a variety of developmental dimensions. For example, the teachers of children who had Apgar scores of 7 identified more areas of developmental vulnerability than they did for children with Apgar scores of 9 or 10, and kindergartners who had Apgar scores of 3 or 4 had more reported developmental vulnerabilities than did peers with scores of 6 or 7. (The teachers had no prior knowledge of their students’ Apgar scores.) The vulnerabilities that teachers reported might have included lower competence in following rules or instructions; an inability to sit still and focus; a relative lack of interest in books and reading; or an inability to properly grasp and use a pencil. At each lower step on the Apgar scale, such physical, social, emotional, language, and communication domains of development were all significantly more compromised five years later. Babies entering the world with greater fight-or-flight instability and less capacity for physiological recovery were more developmentally vulnerable.
EDDIE, 12: “To cheer up, I tell myself it’s going to get better; the problem won’t persist.”Photo by Karjean Levine
Nature vs. Nurture
One source of such variation in adaptive stability is surely genetic difference among infants, but genes alone do not make a child an orchid or a dandelion. As work by other researchers has shown, the genetic characteristics of children create their predispositions, but do not necessarily determine their outcomes.
For example, a consortium studying Romanian children raised in horribly negligent, sometimes cruel orphanages under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauşescu, before his fall in 1989, discovered that a shorter version of a gene related to the neurotransmitter serotonin produced orchid-like outcomes. Children with this shorter allele (an alternative form of a gene) who remained in the orphanages developed intellectual impairments and extreme maladjustment, while those with the same allele who were adopted into foster families recovered remarkably, in terms of both development and mental health.
Similarly, a team of Dutch researchers studying experimental patterns of children’s financial donations—in response to an emotionally evocative UNICEF video—found that participants with an orchid-like dopamineneurotransmitter gene gave either the most charitable contributions or the least, depending upon whether they were rated securely or insecurely attached to their parents—that is, depending on factors that were not genetic.
We used to think that any trait or feature present at birth was “congenital” and therefore determined by genes or, in ancient terms, fated in the stars. A somewhat more contemporary version of this vision is known as genetic determinism, according to which all of our differences are firmly situated at conception in the merged DNA we inherit from our parents. We can think of this view as the “nature” side of the classic debate of nature versus nurture.
SAHANA, 7: “To cheer myself up, I play with my toys, call over my friends, and tell them jokes.”Photo by Karjean Levine
The Human Genome Project—the ultimate “nature” approach—promised to uncover the “genes for” autism, schizophrenia, heart disease, and cancer. But no such unitary genes or even sets of genes have been elucidated. It is now clear that who we become is not determined by a straightforward, one-to-one route from genes to behavior, or DNA to phenotype—the set of observable characteristics, such as eye color, personality, and behavior, that describe an individual. Our most vaunted, prized, and carefully articulated hypotheses pale in the face of the exquisite complexities of the natural world.
There’s an old pediatric adage that all parents-to-be are environmental determinists until they have a baby in hand, at which point they become genetic determinists. Here is what I mean: Before we have kids, we’re prone to seeing the misbehavior of a child as the product of flawed parenting. That kid throwing a tantrum at the table next to us in a restaurant? It’s obviously the parents’ fault for not controlling him—their nurture hasn’t accomplished what it needed to do. Once we’re responsible for our own felon-in-training, throwing the tantrum in the adjacent airplane seat, we hope that those around us understand that we’ve done our best, but the child came into the world with this temperament. It’s far more comforting to ascribe the behavior of our own noisy or troubling toddler to genes, for which we have only passive responsibility, than to our capacities as parents, for which we are more directly accountable.
In his book Either/Or, Søren Kierkegaard proposed that to fully understand the human condition, we need to dispense with the tendency to perceive the forces that form us as clear-cut dichotomies. Such binary views run counter to the complexities of our true character. Developmental science has in recent decades faced an “either/or” divide: The environmental view has demanded an allegiance to external causes, located within our social and physical contexts, and the genetic view has asserted that internal causes are preeminent, with genomes driving our phenotypes and lives. The positions have emerged as contradictory answers to the fundamental questions, “Why do some get sick and others do not?” and “Why are some so healthy and fulfilled while others are not?” We now know that it is almost never a matter of either/or, but rather both/and.
CALVIN, 9: “When I’m down, I think about things differently and try not to be nervous or stressed.”Photo by Karjean Levine
Unpuzzling Human Disposition
Every human disposition and disorder of mental or physical health depends on an intricate interaction between internal and external causes to take root and advance. The key to understanding human difference and to abating and preventing morbidity will involve a keener knowledge of how genetic difference and environmental variation work together to change biological processes. This approach to “unpuzzling” human nature and wellness brings us closer to understanding what makes orchids and dandelions bloom, wither, or move between these states over the course of a changing life. Both genes and social environments are almost certainly influential for both orchid and dandelion phenotypes, but it is likely the interaction of genes and environments that determine where the kids in my studies ended up on the graphs that we created to chart their behavior and health.
Human infants, even prior to birth, are remarkably and finely attuned to the dynamic features of their environment, first in the womb and later in the nest with which their parents surround them. The brain of the human fetus and newborn is a “black hole” of sensory capacity that can respond to its environment even before consciousness registers it. A newborn unconsciously adapts in the service of “early life programming,” as biological adjustments begin, without awareness, as soon as the brain begins to detect challenges. This early programming enhances the likelihood of short-term survival—at least until the capacity for reproducing comes online in puberty, but it may also have the downside of generating greater risks of chronic adult conditions, such as coronary heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and mental disorders. It is an evolutionary strategy of trading survival in the short run for diminished and less vigorous longevity.
We think that differential susceptibilities to the environment—and thus orchid and dandelion children—emerge in this way. In certain kinds of early social and physical contexts, important benefits to survival and thriving might accrue for children with special, enhanced sensitivities. Children reared in environments of continuous threat and predation, for example, might logically be protected by the vigilance and hawk-eyed attentiveness of orchid sensibilities. Millennia ago, having a few orchidish individuals within a hominid band might have been protective of the group, as attacks from animals and other groups arose. On the other hand, being an orchid might also be of great benefit to those living at the other extreme—in environments of exceptional safety, protection, and abundance. Here, the propensity of orchid children to be open and porous to environmental events and exposures would garner even greater advantages. Most children would thrive in such settings. Orchids would thrive spectacularly.
Outside of these most extreme conditions, however, being a dandelion must surely yield the greatest rewards at the smallest price. Dandelions seem impervious to all but the most virulent of threats and insults. Within the typical ups and downs of human societies, these are the individuals deemed resilient, hardy, and buoyant. Evolution should thus tend to favor a proliferation of orchid phenotypes at the extremes of environmental conditions, while dandelion phenotypes should predominate within the broad middle range of challenges. Sure enough, there is at least preliminary evidence that dandelions are disproportionately represented in settings where neither menaces nor great fortune predominate.
SIERRA, 9: “If I’m down, I think of my favorite things. My friend taught me this song [“My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music], and I sing it to myself.”Photo by Karjean Levine
Marking Our Genes
During a formative, seven-year sojourn in the frigid green wilds of Canada, at the University of British Columbia, I had the good fortune to meet Mike Kobor and Marla Sokolowski. Mike studies the molecular biology of the yeast genome, and Marla is a fly geneticist who discovered the foraging gene (known as for ) in fruit flies and is responsible for the work defining two major behavioral phenotypes in flies (and other species)—”rovers” and “sitters”— determined by DNA sequence differences in that gene.
Mike and Marla share a capacity for broadly envisioning the implications of discoveries in basic animal models for human societies: They discern our civilizations in our genes. We converged under the sponsorship of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), forming the Child and Brain Development Program, which Marla and I now co-lead. Our program quickly closed in on the captivating question of how genes and environments, especially environments of adversity and inequality, together produce known individual differences in susceptibility, behavior, health, and disease. The answer has proven key to a provisional understanding of where orchids and dandelions come from.
We have established that genetic variation—differences in the DNA code that makes up individual genes—plays a role in the genesis of orchid and dandelion children. Although many genes likely contribute to the phenotypes, those involved in brain development and function are almost certainly implicated. The expression of genes involved in emotion regulationand behavioral control, for example— features that are highly salient in orchids and dandelions—govern neurotransmitter communications among individual neurons.
But early environmental experiences undoubtedly play an additional role, especially exposure to adversity and threat and experiences of family or community support and nurture. Emerging science suggests that genes and environments contribute to the emergence of orchids and dandelions, additively and interactively, but until recently we had no real idea of how this interaction actually took place. The field that has now flooded this enigmatic landscape with new light is epigenetics, the science of how environmental exposures can modify gene expression without altering the DNA sequence of the gene itself. The Greek prefix epi—meaning “upon” or “above”—connotes how the epigenome, a lattice of chemical “marks” or tags, literally lies upon the genome and controls the expression or silencing of DNA.
KARSON, 6: “To cheer people up, I say to them, ‘Don’t worry, everything will be all right.'”Photo by Karjean Levine
Every type of cell we possess—blood, liver, lung, skin, brain—contains precisely the same genome, the same collection of genes with the same DNA sequences, half from our mothers and half from our fathers. The only way that the 200 or so different human cell types, each with a different structure and different functions, could be made from a single genome is if the functioning of our 25,000 genes could be independently controlled. That’s how the epigenome comes into play in embryonic development. Stem cells can become kidney cells or white blood cells only through the programmed, epigenetic regulation of those thousands of genes. Once a stem cell is differentiated—say, into a white blood cell—the functioning of that cell can also be adjusted (again, epigenetically) to accommodate or adapt to the conditions with which the cell or the whole organism is contending. For example, a child facing a seriously stressful environment might need to change white blood cells’ rate of division (increasing the number of available immune cells), the cells’ responsiveness to stress hormones (sensitizing them to the effects of cortisol), or their production of the molecules initiating and governing inflammation (such as the chemical messengers called cytokines).
So, the epigenome has two major functions: It regulates the differentiation of cells into their various types and tissues, and it facilitates an adjustment of cell function to respond to the conditions at hand. It does both of these by regulating the epigenetic chemical tags that attach to the genome, turning up or turning down the expression of the thousands of genes in each cell. It is a great and agile improviser.
Pianos and Equalizers
Think of the genome and epigenome like this: Your genes are the keys on a piano; each plays a distinctive note. But while a piano has just 88 white and black keys, your genome houses around 25,000 individual genes, making it thousands of times more complex. In the first kind of epigenetic regulation—cell differentiation—these keys can be played in different combinations, sequences, and timings to create a whole variety of different tunes—200 different ones, for each of the different types of cells in a human body. One corresponds to the production of neurons, another to white blood cells, yet another to skin cells, and so on.
Once cells are differentiated on this magnificent piano, the epigenome is then used for a second kind of process: the adjustment of cell function to the conditions the organism is encountering. Here, the epigenome serves as an “equalizer” that adjusts each cell’s functions, changing the way its tune sounds, like the levers on an audio equalizer adjusting the balance between sound frequency ranges to emphasize treble or bass notes. Although each type of cell always plays the same tune—a white blood cell will stay a white blood cell—the way that the cell functions can be adaptively adjusted to suit specific circumstances.
MILEVA, 7: “When I need cheering up, I snug with my stuffed animals.”Photo by Karjean Levine
For example, the body of a child encountering a major early life stressor, like maltreatment, might automatically adjust the functioning of many different cell types in order to adapt as well as possible to the experience. Adrenal gland cells might be called upon to produce more cortisol; nerve cells could activate the fight-or-flight system; white blood cells could respond to any physical injuries; and brain cells might dampen the child’s emotional response. And these would be only four adjustments among probably hundreds occurring at the same time.
Just as biobehavioral phenotypes, like orchid and dandelion children, are likely influenced by DNA sequence variations in many genes, it is probably also true that the effects of early experience on these phenotypes involve many epigenetic changes within multiple genes. Just which genes are different in sequence and where the epigenetic marks occur is still being worked out, for orchid versus dandelion, introvert versus extrovert, predispositions to depression versus predilections for joy, and other human differences.
What we now know with some certainty, however, is that most variation in human character, nature, and health will eventually be attributable to an interactive combination of differences in the DNA sequences of multiple genes, along with experience-driven differences in the epigenetic marks that shape the expression, or decoding, of multiple genes. What is wickedly complex in the number of variations involved is elegantly simple in design: Genes and experience interactively affect human destiny, and the epigenome is the physical link between a gene and its environment. You can think of human life as the song that issues from the epigenetic piano and its equalizer, the result of a complex compositional process shaped by both genes and environments. Each person is predisposed to play certain types of scores, like those of the orchid or the dandelion, but there is abundant space for unique variation and improvisation.
I’m sitting by the fireplace watching the flames make patterns as if dancing to some silent music which only they can hear. l cannot help but replay the day’s events. Today l had an extraordinary chance to show love. It was a moment filled with sadness and joy at the same time.
l went in a certain restaurant for lunch because l just felt the need to have a complete meal. Seated in front of me was an elderly couple, perhaps in their late 70’s or early 80’s. Their food was already served but what caught my attention is the gentleman.
He seemed very hungry but couldn’t get his food into his mouth for some reason. It appeared as if his hand and brain were not coordinating. He tried hard but each time his folk missed his mouth. Aware of my gaze, his wife said to me, “He’s so hungry.” Her eyes filled with compassion and helplessness.
I kindly asked if l could join them and they accepted. I offered to help feed the man but he was too embarrassed to accept. l then introduced myself a little more which helped break the ice. Finally l started feeding him, he had a good appetite and ate to the last spoon.
They told me his medications do that to him on regular basis. l couldn’t help but wonder how safe we all are with the pharmaceutical giants legally distributing medications with such side effects. Anyway to cut the story short. l offered to pray for them which they gladly accepted.
We also exchanged phone numbers as they insisted right before they left. I honestly believe that in order to live a meaningful life, one must help enrich the lives of others. For the value of a life is measured by the lives it touches. Those who choose to be happy must help others find happiness.
For the welfare of each is bound up by the welfare of all. It is the power of collectivity, none of us truly wins until we all win. Learn this secret as you move forward with your life. When you do good, you achieve the best.
It is important to love one another, for that is how the soul of the universe is brought into our world. It is how the vast energy of all that is brought into the being of each one of us. It is how the soul’s infinity is focused here in our lives. To love is to experience the mystery of the soul with our being.
There is a greater image that would have us love one another thus. It is the image for which the soul reaches out, from which it had created us, and with which we are creating in our greater reality.
Perhaps when l am 80 years old someone will show me some kindness too. The love l felt and still feel for that precious couple is priceless. We all need to love and care for one another because we’re all sailing in the same ship. When all else fails, love will forever prevail.
l love you all, please pass some love and kindness whenever you can.
WHY DOES DATING GET HARDER WHEN YOU REACH YOUR 20’S?
You’re older and wiser. You know what you want from life. You
want a relationship, but there’s none in sight. Why is dating so hard in your
Dating through high school and college is one of the most
challenging experiences. These periods mark the beginnings of love, trust, sex
and heartbreak that shape the way your future-self deals with relationships for
years to come. You’re finally out of school with your new adult job, and things
are going great, but there are no romantic prospects in sight. What happened?
There are many emotional and situational difficulties in finding
a mate as you get older. Not only has the world changed since you took a break
from the dating world, but your priorities have changed, and now it seems like
you’re destined to be single forever.
Reasons why dating gets harder as you get older
We’re looking at 10 reasons dating gets harder from 20 onward,
and what you can do about it!
#1 You’ve become set in your ways. It’s true. The
older we get, the more stubborn we become about what we do and do not like.
Working through college-age relationships, while frustrating and sometimes
emotionally crippling, also taught you exactly what you’re looking for in a
mate, as well as all those little flaws you’re simply too old and too wise to put
up with now.
However, it also causes you to become slightly jaded and less
open to new types of people. Like it or not, you’ve become “old” and set in
your ways, and not even Mr. Right can seem to break your stance.
#2 You have more emotional baggage. When you’re a
teenager, you feel like your whole life is ahead of you. Love is blissful, life
is free, people are genuine, and you have all the naivety in the world. It’s
that same naivety that gives you the balls to trust in love and continue
putting yourself through relationship torture for years and years. It is also
during this time in our lives that we begin to develop emotional baggage.
Suddenly the way our first love hurt us sets the pattern for how
we handle future relationships. By the time we’ve hit our mid-20s, 30s and 40s,
our emotional and physical baggage only grows, and if you’re dating within your
age range, then that would mean your potential partner has some baggage of
their own, creating a sticky situation for your future relationship.
#3 It’s way harder to meet people. Ironically, once
you’ve matured and feel like you’re finally ready for a serious relationship,
there seems to be no avenue to find one! Once you’re outside of high school and
college, your dating pool seems to shrink drastically.
The simplicity of taking a chance with that cute girl in class
has now turned into you trolling the gym or your workplace for someone to date.
This only gets harder as you get older, as you’re not exactly keen to go
clubbing for potential partners when you have a 7AM meeting.
#4 You’ve gotten too used to casual dating. On the flip side,
perhaps you’ve spent a little *too* much time in the dating world, and not
enough time in the world of relationships to remember how to do it. As silly as
it sounds, sometimes jumping into a relationship isn’t as easy as riding a
bike, if you haven’t done it for a while.
After 3 years with my serious long term boyfriend, I suddenly
felt like I had no clue how “kids” these days were
pursuing each other. This can be incredibly discouraging to those trying to
jump back into the dating pool, but don’t give up! It may
be hard, but it sure isn’t impossible.
#5 It’s harder to meet someone with your goals. The fabulous thing
about getting older is that you only become surer of what you want out of life.
The only bad side? It becomes harder to meet someone who shares your life goals
after college, especially when life becomes tangled with demanding jobs,
children from a previous relationship, ex-wives and husbands, and other
#6 It’s awkward approaching someone new. While you realize
you’re not in elementary school any longer, the thought of approaching someone
new with the thoughts of dating can sometimes be overwhelming. This may be
easier when you are still in your 20s. However when you hit your 30s, 40s, and
50s, the thought of approaching a stranger for a date becomes as uncomfortable
a thought as approaching a child on your first day of school and asking: “Want
to be friends?”
#7 Someone else has had a chance to shape your potential
mate. Your potential new mate has already had a handful of
relationships, and may even be divorced or separated, meaning they’ve had
dozens of opportunities for someone else to shape their likes, dislikes, intuition,
trust, and everything else in between.
This doesn’t mean your potential mate has entered a “no-go”
zone. It is simply a fact of life. Still, you can’t deny how awesome it would
be to have someone at least a little impressionable to roll in the hay with.
#8 Social media and cell phones have ruined our social
capabilities. This is especially true of those in their 20s. The hard fact is
that while technology has created a fun, diverse, and explorative spin on the
current world we live in, it has also drowned our abilities to properly
Phone call, anyone? Instead, youths today would rather
communicate impersonally via text message than actually get to hear their new
crush’s voice. Ever seen a couple on a date at a restaurant, yet both of them are
glued to their cell phones? Point taken.
#9 Looks have faded. You’re not getting any younger. A
ridiculous thought for those in their 20s, but true for the rest. Don’t deny
checking yourself out in the mirror studying your face at the sleep line that
takes just *that* much longer to go away than it used to, or that one gray hair
that seemed to have five friends attend its funeral.
When you’re young, shallow as it is, you feel like you can skate
by on your looks to at least hook in your man and eventually make him see how
awesome your personality is, too. The same goes for younger guys who subsist on
beer and ramen noodles, and still look like they jumped out of a Chippendale’s
ad. Now you may be finding you’re working your magic the other way around.
#10 The good ones are taken. This applies to
most generations after 20. It seems all the good, cute guys who still have
hair, or the smart, attractive women without children are already committed to
Don’t sweat the small stuff when it comes to finding
relationships in your later years. You may be set in your ways, but you know
what you want, and when you do find that special someone, they’re going to be
of the highest quality, because you won’t accept any less.
Try not to dwell too much on the negatives when it comes to aging and meeting people. The process may be a little more difficult than when you were in your teens, but the result of a mature, loving relationship is totally worth the struggle.
By the time you hit your 20s, 30s, 40s and so on, finding that one guy or gal whom you can spend the rest of your life with may be tougher. But don’t lose hope! Someone out there may be thinking the exact same thing as they wait for your opportunity to meet to finally arise!
INSECURITY HURTS YOUR MARRIAGE. HERE’S WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
the end of my college career, I applied to an internship that I had been
dreaming about, working toward, and planning on for four years. I knew it was
competitive, but everything my professors, peers, and bosses said to me made it
clear that I would be getting that internship. “You’re a shoo-in for this job!”
they would say to me.
But the rejection email came, and it deflated me. I was depressed.
It was clear that I had placed my self-worth on my abilities as a writer and
editor. The rejection was a message from certified experts: You are not good
My depression didn’t get to dangerous proportions, but I did
struggle with motivation and energy. I would come home, sit on the couch, and
do nothing until bed. My husband was a champ through it all, but that summer
wasn’t great for our marriage. He did all the giving, and I did all the taking.
All because my self-esteem took a major hit.
Insecurity isn’t good for marriage.
Whether it’s personal insecurity or insecurity about the relationship,
individuals need confidence for their marriages to thrive.
To keep your insecurities from hurting your marriage, recognize
the ways insecurities can do damage, meet your spouse halfway, recognize when
insecurity is more than just a feeling, and try a couple of practical
Recognize how your insecurities may be hurting your
When you’re insecure, it can be tempting to think “This just
affects me.” But the truth is that how you feel about yourself affects your spouse
and your relationship. Here are some signs that your insecurities are hurting
You struggle to fully trust your
spouse. This keeps you from being totally open and honest in your
You believe and act on your negative
thoughts about yourself. Let’s say you tell yourself
you’re boring often enough that you start to believe it. Next thing you know,
you prove yourself right. “It’s not that you are not allowed to judge
yourself,” says Caleb Backe, health and
wellness expert at Maple Holistics. “Do it, but remember as you do it to be a
wise advisor, not a vicious tyrant.”
You compare yourself to your spouse’s
exes. Never a good idea, especially since none of those relationships
Your spouse constantly has to
reassure you. There’s nothing wrong with needing reassurance now and
then, but if you constantly need validation, that’s a sign your insecurities
are getting the best of you. There’s a feeling of distance in your
relationship. If you’re not communicating about your insecurities, your spouse
will pick up on that, whether consciously or not.
You read too much into what your
spouse says. “You begin to read into the words of your partner in a way
that reinforces the insecurities you are feeling,” says Dr. Kelsey M.
Latimer, PhD, CEDS-S, assistant director of operations
for Center for Discovery. “The focus of the relationship becomes about proving
the feelings the person has rather than enjoying the time.”
Meet your spouse in the middle
Sometimes insecurities come because you’re afraid your spouse
doesn’t appreciate the ways in which you differ. Maybe you’re fun-loving and
adventure-seeking, and you worry that your spouse doesn’t think you’re serious
enough. This discrepancy requires you to talk with your spouse and determine
how you can meet each other halfway.
halfway” means the two of you meet weekly to discuss your finances, and then
afterward you get to pick a zany restaurant to try out. But in the compromise,
realize that being carefree doesn’t make you less desirable—it just makes
Realize when insecurity is more than just a feeling
Let’s say you’ve noticed people aren’t laughing at your jokes as
much as they used to. It would be natural to feel a little insecure about your
sense of humor. You have the choice to use that feeling of insecurity to do a
little self-reflection. “Sometimes, those feelings
are guides,” says Gail Grace, LCSW.
Maybe you’re making it up, and your insecurity is telling you that
you need to be a little kinder to yourself. Maybe people aren’t laughing at
your jokes because your humor has crossed the line from witty to rude, which
just isn’t like you. In this case, your insecurity is telling you that you
might have some bitterness you need to work through.
The same goes for insecurity about your marriage. Maybe your
insecurity is a reflection of something you need to work on personally. Or
maybe you and your spouse have an obstacle that’s keeping you from trusting
each other. In either case, it’s a good idea to communicate your feelings to
your spouse and work through it together.
Try these exercises:
“It requires more attentional effort to disengage from a
negative thought process than a neutral one,”
says cognitive therapist Jennice Vilhauer, PhD. So it might take a formal
exercise to overcome your insecurities. Here’s the exercise Vilhauer suggests:
Each night right before you go to sleep, write down three things
you liked about yourself that day.
Read the list before you get out of bed the next morning.
Add three items to the list each night.
Repeat this sequence every day for 30 days.
“This simple-to-do but nonetheless effortful exercise essentially
helps you build the strength to disengage from any negative thought stream,”
she explains. “But remember: There is no benefit to your mental health in
just understanding how the exercise works, just as there is no
benefit to your physical health in knowing how to use a treadmill. The benefit
comes from the doing.”
How do you get to the point where you can feel happy for someone
else without comparing their successes to yours (or to your failures)? Charlie
Houpert, founder of the YouTube channel Charisma on Command, tells the story of
how after he and his girlfriend broke up, he couldn’t help but compare himself
to the guys he was sure she was hanging out with. He wasn’t happy she had moved
on so fast, and he sure wasn’t happy for the (imagined) guys that got to spend
time with her.
He went to see a therapist, and this is the three-step exercise
the therapist recommended for when you are feeling jealous or insecure:
Interrupt your thought pattern with an eye scramble. Hum a
simple tune like “Happy Birthday to You” and move your eyes back and forth to
the rhythm. This will get you to a neutral place.
Feed yourself whatever you need. Chances are that, whatever
you’re feeling—less-than, abandoned, disrespected—you need to feel loved. Look
at yourself in a mirror (or imagine looking at yourself in a mirror) and say,
“I love you exactly as you are.” You might feel goofy because you’re talking to
yourself, but it will get you in a better mood. And the more you say this to
yourself, the more you’ll believe it.
Extend that unconditional love to the person you least want to
extend it to. In Houpert’s story, he tried to imagine his girlfriend happy with
someone else and feel happy for her. Then he imagined the guy she was with and
was happy for him because the guy was with someone Houpert knew was so great.
After extending that love, come back to the present. Rather than comparing, now
you get to “look around you and see all the happiness in the world, and you get
to partake in it,” Houpert says.
Becoming secure in yourself and your relationship will heal and
strengthen your marriage. To overcome your insecurities, recognize the ways
insecurities can do damage, meet your spouse halfway, recognize when insecurity
is more than just a feeling, and try practical exercises for overcoming
insecurity. Next time you face a difficulty, you and your marriage will be
ready for it.
Most people mollify psychic pain by attacking back; we yearn for revenge. But achievement striving is better. It opens the mind to the possible, instead of hitching it to the horrible.
In 2015, Dee Carroll was billing $17 million a year in her Washington, D.C.-based organizational development firm, heading a team of 18 in two locations, including a recently added IT arm, when her board suggested bringing on a chief financial officer. She found a candidate, and the board approved of her hire. Carroll, with a Ph.D. in business administration and 28 years at the helm, turned her attention back to growing the company.
“We were doing well,” she recalls. Every once in a while, she checked the books. The numbers added up, but she couldn’t figure out why the borrowing wasn’t decreasing on her line of credit. “We’re self-financing,” the CFO assured her. Then a day came when some documents needed reviewing and she called the bank. Its numbers and her numbers didn’t align. Carroll summoned outside auditors to search for a discrepant half million. The day she confronted the CFO, he admitted to running two sets of books. It took forensic accountants months to figure out how the guy had walked off with more than $2 million.
Carroll cashed in her 401k and filed for reorganization to keep the company afloat—while she spent a year in and out of hospitals with stress-induced illnesses. Then the bank froze her assets, and it was all over. “I was so angry, all I wanted was to get my hands on that CFO and punch him out,” says Carroll. Miraculously, a few months later, the day came when she could. They found themselves side-by-side in the parking lot of a giant Walgreens—she in her old Land Cruiser, he in a new Audi. Ever the planner, she pulled out her phone and called her attorney: “Get down here—and prepare to get me out of jail.”
Carroll chased the CFO through the superstore. He outpaced her. So she shifted strategies: I’ll just ram his car. Behind the wheel, it hit her. “If he had me going like that, he was in control of my life. I drove off—and I felt good.”
The desire for revenge, she felt, “had stripped my courage, my convictions, my confidence. It had me beating myself up for my failures: ‘I should have known.’ ‘I should have checked more often.'” Crumbling was not an option. “I decided I’m not going to give him the pleasure. He’ll only see me flying high.”
And maybe he does—literally. Carroll has not only successfully launched a new company, she spends much of her time traveling the globe, promoting “emotional emancipation.” She focuses on persuading women that no one controls what they can accomplish. “I needed to embrace the possible,” she explains. “Now I can grow.”
What Carroll apprehended, sitting in that parking lot, was that nothing she could do to punish the CFO could harm him as badly as her desire for revenge was harming her.
Rerouting the Amygdala
Revenge-seeking has deep, seemingly instinctual roots in the human behavioral repertoire. Since the dawn of civilization, the highest authorities have sanctioned harming someone in the same manner as he or she has harmed you. From the 1754 B.C. Code of Hammurabi, the sixth Babylonian king, to the Bible—Exodus chapter 21: “You shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth”—the ancients specified how the impulse for revenge was to be carried out.
From the time we are barely able to put together full sentences, we yearn for revenge, screaming, “That’s not fair” in response to a perceived injustice (a sibling getting dessert that we don’t, because we are being punished) and following that outcry with the vow, “I’ll get you!” targeted at Mom, Dad, or the babysitter for giving preferential treatment to the kid who shares our bath.
As adults we’re only slightly more sophisticated in response to abuses by others. A small insult—getting cut off by a driver—can launch a highway chase for miles, either to cut that motorist off in the same way or to deliver the hand gesture known as “flipping the bird.”
Most people seek to mollify psychic pain by attacking back. But there is a better, far more adaptive way—showing ’em, by achieving something personally and socially significant related to the offense. To first turn the other cheek and then build something meaningful, to oneself and to others, out of the abandoned anger requires a psychological shift—within just about anyone’s reach—that harnesses the brain’s amygdala, its processing center of danger, and redirects its impulses.
When you cope with psychic pain via achievement striving, your mindset is on the possible. Revenge-seeking hitches it to the horrible.
“A man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well,” wrote English philosopher, statesman, and scientist Francis Bacon. He captured the core problem with revenge: It demands ruminating about wrongs, which amplifies their significance, aggravates what sparked anger, and makes it impossible to let go.
Freud was the first to dissect the amplification of suffering brought on by anger born of distressing events. Paradoxically, despite the pain that such recollections cause, the events are “reviewed, repeated, or rehearsed”—through dreams or obsessional ruminations.
The continual mental replaying of an event, however humiliating, is a primordial propensity to revisit hurtful interactions in an attempt to master through imagery what could not be mastered behaviorally. As the initial injury is relived, negative alterations in cognition and mood grow progressively worse—negative thoughts and assumptions about oneself or the world, exaggerated blame of oneself or others for causing the trauma, feelings of isolation, and difficulty experiencing positive affect. The original insult remains a focus of cognitive imagery.
Failing to consummate revenge fantasies turns them into obsessions. American literature offers the definitive example of obsessional revenge seeking in Herman Melville’s Moby–Dick; or, TheWhale. After losing a leg to a white whale, Captain Ahab embarks on a hunt to destroy that whale, a quest that ends in his demise. To this day, “white whale” is another term for an obsessional pursuit.
My own clinical experience corroborates what decades of medical evidence demonstrates: People who harbor thoughts of exacting revenge exhibit systemic turmoil, courtesy of an activated amygdala preparing against the threat of attack. They experience sleeplessness, owing to nonstop rumination; irritability; hyperarousal; and distractibility that often impedes their ability to function. As Confucius said: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”
Orthopedist Richard “Rock” Barnes, 46,* walked into my office because I had written a book about burnout. Trained as a psychiatrist, he had worked at a prestigious mental hospital before feeling burned out. His remedy—changing medical specialties by retraining and moving across the country—wasn’t working.
In our initial session, Barnes didn’t seem burned out so much as burned up—consumed with rage from an incident early in his career. A patient under his care had been sexually exploited by a senior psychiatrist. Barnes had sought to avenge the wrong by exposing the abuser, but learned that filing a claim would harm the fragile patient and would be refuted by the VIP doctor as a tale told by a mentally ill woman.
In my office, Barnes raged at himself, but especially at the abuser. And he railed at the vestiges of a medical hierarchy that had made him feel so impotent as a young physician. How, I asked, could he “right the wrong in an ego-syntonic manner?”—that is, in a way congruent with his values, his personality, his self-concept, and his future. Certainly not by killing the doctor.
A decade and a half later, Barnes is still mending bones but he is also helping physicians everywhere to articulate perceived problems at their institutions without fear of rebuke or retaliation. Through an organization he started, first at his own hospital, he speaks at hospitals around the country, reducing the likelihood of abuse like that his patient suffered.
My work with Barnes led me to recognize that it’s possible to say “Screw you!” to harm-doers in indirect but active ways that are not only personally gratifying but also socially constructive. Revenge is so tightly bound to pain because the eye-for-an-eye mindset is backward-looking, focused on the original insult—but also because it is irreconcilable with most people’s goalsfor themselves.
“Showing ’em,” not “socking ’em,”—taking a behavioral step beyond the amygdala’s bidding—brings relief not least because it jump-starts growth. It renders people no longer vulnerable to the forces that originally harmed them. For that reason, it directly enhances feelings of self-efficacy and power.
For sure, psychotherapy has value. It is especially useful for exploring conflicted feelings. But dealing with revenge through psychotherapy may bring slow healing. En route to relief, the victim must relive the original injustice. Mind and body return to the scene of the crime, again and again. Achievement striving, on the other hand, need never recall the actual insult.
The Power of Striving
Some Turn Away from avenging a wrong as if they had an innate understanding of the Buddha’s observation: “Anger will never disappear so long as thoughts of resentment are cherished in the mind. Anger will disappear just as soon as thoughts of resentment are forgotten.” But for most, this is near impossible.
Revenge is rooted in a brain network involving the amygdala and temporal areas that are fired up very specifically by acts of perceived unfairness perpetrated by another human being, University of Geneva researchers recently found. The greater the neural activation, the greater the inner push for punishment. It’s common for people to yield to the urge.
But rage for revenge is thoroughly alterable. If the dorsolateral area of the prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), a key area for emotion regulation, is activated during the provocation stage, the amygdala is muted, inhibiting the desire for later punishment, neuroscientist Olga Klimecki and colleagues observe in ScientificReports. “The DLPFC is coordinated with the motor cortex that directs the hand that makes the choice of vengeful behavior or not. There is a direct correlation between brain activity in the DLPFC and behavioral choices.”
Striving toward positive goals, research has long shown, naturally subdues the amygdala. In my own clinical experience, the majority of patients experiencing profound trauma are able to flourish afterwards by channeling their anger into a meaningful endeavor, typically one that focuses on others. They do well by doing good. Revenge becomes an opportunity for exercising values mobilized by the insult.
Not all wrongs to be avenged are born of injury inflicted by individuals. Social injustice is a prime motivator, too, and the one that impelled lawyer Barry Scheck to create the Innocence Project, a consortium of attorneys that, since 1992, has been devoted to overturning wrongful convictions of (mostly) indigent people.
While in elementary school, a fire destroyed Scheck’s family home, injuring his parents and killing his beloved sister. At first debilitated, by high school he was academically motivated enough to gain entry to Yale, where he protested the Vietnam War on the grounds that the deferments granted to students discriminated against poor teenagers. He used his law degree to become a public defender in New York’s then-distressed South Bronx and a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society.
After co-founding a law firm specializing in civil rights litigation, he joined the “Dream Team” that got O.J. Simpson acquitted of double murder charges in 1994. By then, the Innocence Project was already deploying its legal skills to show the world that those who suffered injustice had an ally to undo what was done to them.
If ever a deed could conceivably justify the wish to exact lextalionis, the death of a child by murder might top the list. Yet that is not what happened in May 1980, when 13-year-old Cari Lightner was struck and killed by a drunk driver. The driver, who had been convicted of drunk driving offenses three times in four years, never even stopped his car. And when he struck the girl, he was out on bail for a hit-and-run arrest two days earlier.
Candy Lightner’s pain at her daughter’s death was amplified when the responding police officer told her, “Lady, you’ll be lucky if this guy gets any jail time, much less prison.” As she later told People magazine, “This was not an ‘unfortunate accident.’ Cari was the victim of a violent crime. Death caused by drunk drivers is the only socially acceptable form of homicide.”
The societal pass that drunk drivers received at the time served, Lightner recalled, to “double my anger.” And she immediately vowed to make people horrified by the consequences of drunk driving. Four days after Cari’s death, she quit her job and organized Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (later, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD).
Indefatigable in her quest to save others from a similar tragedy, Lightner was named to the National Commission on Drunk Driving in 1984 by President Ronald Reagan. MADD has sparked new penalties for drunk driving and changed the legal drinking age in many states.
Significant as the achievements are, they pale in comparison to what Lightner got from harnessing her anger and taking up a cause instead of seeking revenge. She not only gained kudos from around the world, she also gave meaning to her daughter’s life.
Getting out of oneself and giving back constitute a sure antidote to the emotional cancer of rumination. An added advantage of working for a cause is that you don’t act in a vacuum. On the contrary, such endeavors demand contact with like-minded people. Social support is the best-documented balm for almost every ill of mind and body.
Photo by Reinhard Hunger
Beating ‘Em at Their Own Game
Doing well by doing good could have been the epitaph for Benjamin Franklin, drafter of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and one of the richest men in American history, certainly its ultimate Renaissance man. Writer, philosopher, scientist, diplomat, musician, and oenophile, he spoke five languages—exclusively self-taught; he also invented bifocals, the urinary catheter, and swim fins! You probably recall schoolbook illustrations of Franklin flying a kite in a thunderstorm to study electricity—a daredevil venture that led to his invention of the lightning rod (which has saved countless lives and millions of dollars).
What’s missing from textbook accounts of Franklin is the truth about his early life. Because his father could not afford to send Benjamin to school, he arranged for his older son James (then in the process of establishing a printing business) to employ Benjamin, at age 11, as an indentured apprentice. Almost immediately, James became so jealous of Ben’s precocity that he demeaned and beat his younger brother regularly.
Things only got worse as Benjamin mastered the basics of printing and learned to read and write better than most adults in Colonial New England. He asked his brother if he could write for his newspaper and was denied. But instead of getting angry, he turned to writing articles under the pen name Silence Dogood. Slipped under the door of James’s shop, they quickly became the most popular part of the paper. When James learned who wrote them, all hell broke loose. Benjamin fled to Philadelphia, arriving with three shillings in his pocket and rags on his back.
Although wronged, Franklin never once sought to exact revenge directly or engage in displays of dominance. Instead, he found a psychologically satisfying way to “show” his brother—and thrive: by behaving better than him. He was driven to become the best printer in the 13 colonies. Starting as a journeyman in Philadelphia, Franklin soon established his own shop, leapfrogging from printing mundane legal forms to culturally significant pamphlets, newspapers, and books, including his own. As the leading printer in Colonial America, he ultimately printed its currency.
In 1748, after amassing the equivalent of more than $10 billion in today’s money, Franklin retired at age 42. It was time, he said, “to do something useful.” His next 42 years (40 beyond the life expectancy of males at the time) were a case study in generativity—not simply a Founding Father of the country and its first foreign diplomat, he also founded the American Philosophical Society, America’s first scientific society, its first science library and museum, and the nation’s first modern liberal arts college, later renamed the University of Pennsylvania.
Franklin stands as the quintessential example of coping with the pain of trauma in an entrepreneurial, ego-enhancing way—by building something that not only helps the world but brings authentic personal rewards, from praise and respect to a host of new and exciting experiences.
STRESS: WHEN YOUR TEEN SWEATS THE SMALL STUFF, THE BIG STUFF, AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN
“I just need everything to go perfect tonight.”
That was the concern of my son’s chemistry
partner as she hurried through the lab, clearly distracted by the night’s
upcoming orchestra performance. Knowing that her parents had invited close
friends and extended family to the concert, she was adamant that her
performance needed to be flawless. Not just good—but flawless. One simple
mistake would mean total failure in her mind.
What’s wrong with wanting things to
be perfect? And why should we apologize for desiring nice things and impeccable
performances? Ilene Strauss Cohen, PhD, understands
that feeling. “It’s that feeling you get when you expect
things of yourself that you’d never expect from others,” she says in an article
for Psychology Today. “It’s working yourself to exhaustion in hopes that you’ll
feel whole, complete, worthy. It’s basing your self-worth on external
accomplishments, feeling like you have something to prove all the time.”
Welcome, my friends, to the world of
the modern teenager! This constant exposure to
pressure, combined with a desire for perfection, is pervasive and contagious,
and our kids are picking up on it at an alarming rate.
“Perfectionism lives and breathes in
your fear of making a mistake. When you’re afraid of what might happen, you
don’t always make the best possible choices,” says Cohen. At this time of life,
when choices affect the course of young people’s future opportunities, a desire
to perform their best and adapt to changes when necessary is a normal part of
growing up. But, in some cases, this internal need to achieve perfection often
has a paralyzing, anxiety-ridden effect.
The Anxiety and Depression
Association of America (ADAA) found
that anxiety disorder affects 30 percent of children and adolescents, but 80
percent of those affected never get help. With the exception of teenagers—who
transform into these emotionally-charged, high-maintenance, snack-devouring,
earbud-fashioned mounds of walking drama—you know your children better than
anyone. So, it’s important to recognize any changes in appearance, social
interactions, and habits. These could be signs of anxiety disorder.
is normal, but it sure doesn’t feel normal most days.
“Anxiety is a natural human reaction
that involves mind and body. It serves an important basic survival function,”
explain the experts at kidshealth.com. “Although
these situations don’t actually threaten a person’s safety, they can cause
someone to feel ‘threatened’ by potential embarrassment, worry about making a
mistake, fitting in, stumbling over words, being accepted or rejected, or
losing pride.” People also experience sweating, a nervous stomach, and a fast
pulse. These are all normal physical signs.
But when a young person is
constantly feeling anxious, she’ll become physically ill, preoccupied, distracted,
and tense; she knows something isn’t right. “Symptoms of an anxiety disorder
can come on suddenly, or they can build gradually and linger until a person
begins to realize that something is wrong,” say experts. “Sometimes anxiety
creates a sense of doom and foreboding that seems to come out of nowhere.”
Often, we know how we feel, but we don’t know why we feel this way.
If you see signs of anxiety, what
should you do?
punish the symptoms.
As frustrating as it feels to watch
your teen snap at siblings or isolate him or herself from friends or social
activities, don’t focus on the symptoms of anxiety. Instead, use those
situations as an opportunity to talk about what’s going on. “Hey Johnny, you
haven’t been yourself lately, and I know the ACT test is coming up soon. Can we
talk about what’s going on?”
If your teen responds and decides to open up about his
feelings, do a little mental happy dance in celebration of this rare event.
Then, listen. Really listen with your full attention as he talks about what’s
confront anxious feelings with logic.
At this stage, you’re not here to
provide an immediate solution. Rather, you are merely a sounding board for him
to express what has been building up in his head. Intense
anxiety isn’t based on rational thinking. So telling a teen to just “get over
it” or dismissing these feelings as a temporary phase doesn’t help.
“Anxiety is not a choice, and asking
an anxiety sufferer to just calm down is like asking someone with a broken
ankle to just stop having a broken bone,” says Donna Chambers. “Most
people wouldn’t dream of encouraging someone with diabetes to just stop having
high blood sugar, yet many people view mental health differently than physical
ailments.” Instead, simply lend a listening ear and assure your child that you
are here with your full support.
the worst that can happen?
Sometimes, putting stressful things
into perspective helps take away the power of those feelings. “I
like to list all the things that I can still do today, tomorrow and this week—which,
of course, is a lot of things—almost everything,” says Robert L. Leahy, PhD. “You
will quickly learn that your life is unchanged even if this apparently
upsetting event has occurred. It’s more a preference than a necessity.”
When we face situations where the
outcome is beyond our control—which is often the case for teens who try out for
a lead role in a play or apply to their top choice for college, for instance—we
feel helpless. But author Amy Morin, LCSW, says
that often the worst-case scenario isn’t as bad as we feared. “There’s a good
chance you’re stronger than you think,” says Morin. “Acknowledging that you can
handle the worst-case scenario can help you put your energy into more
coping tools early.
One of the best gifts we can share
with our kids is the ability to cope with pressure and steer clear of the need
for perfection. That means, as parents, we need to adjust our priorities as
well. For example, “Teens need to learn that the process of
learning is far more valuable than the grade on the top of the page,” says Katie
Hurley, LCSW. “Talk
to your teen about his/her preferred learning styles, what can be gained from
mistakes and failures, and how to apply new knowledge to future situations.”
Although parents are quick to share stories about past successes, it’s
important your teenagers hear about your struggles too.
“Teens hear a lot about what they
should do and what expectations they need to meet. It helps them to hear that
their stress and anxiety is understandable, and that you remember that need to
perform,” says Hurley. “Open and honest communication about the pitfalls of
adolescence helps normalize the process and relieves teens of the pressure to
succeed.” Sounds like good advice for Instagram-saturated parents as well.
By helping your teen recognize the
signs of anxiety, they will develop important coping skills that can support
them during the small stuff, the big stuff, and everything in between.