I am always skeptical when ideologues start pontificating about American morality, but it is a subject that interests me, so I read and analyze anyway. David Brooks, with whom I do not agree politically, has written a book and some articles lately advising us to consider the quality of our eulogies above our resumes. Hmmm. He has a point, but …
Simultaneously, recent events that have grabbed our airwaves again are the riots and protests taking place in Baltimore and other US cities over yet another senseless death of a young man, simply for running while black. How many of these have we had in the past year? It is hard to fathom what is going on, other than, it has always been going on but now we have millions of photographers and cameras documenting actions around the clock and posting the results to social media for the world’s scrutiny.
Then I also heard Joe Biden invoking some famous American lawmaker from the past saying in essence that the purpose of our lives on earth is to try to make things better for everyone.
When I was choosing a future career, I didn’t have to think twice. From the time I was a very little girl, I knew I wanted to study people and to be a psychologist.
When I got to school, even though it was taught by really smart people, the field of psychology seemed a bit chaotic. There are many competing schools of thought and practice, so choosing among them was a bit daunting. I decided to focus on children, early childhood, and those who had emotional challenges (which used to be referred to as the emotionally disturbed). While I was at it, I got a degree in special education along with my psych credential, just in case I didn’t plan to go on to grad school. To do this, I had to take courses literally around the calendar year and ended up with a lot of credits.
Part of this work was practica, both student teaching and internship. I did both, somehow, in an inner city ghetto. This was, I now realize, along the lines of my mother’s career. Hers began as a kindergarten teacher of Down’s Syndrome children in Harlem. If you could imagine my red-haired, very young English mother facing down some formidable adolescents in the school where she was teaching, you would get the idea of what strength and conviction she must possess.
Not so her daughter. My assignments put me among some very sad, disadvantaged, and abused children, too. But, not having her non-plussed equanimity, I found myself totally absorbed into their lives. An inner city teacher or counselor must be a social worker as well, even though they are not really trained for this. When you are working with children who have been severely traumatized, even once, much less repeatedly, their lives outside of school become part of your world.
If politicians and voters want to understand the unrest and feelings of abandonment and hopelessness that plague the poor in our country, I suggest they become teachers in the disadvantaged communities of America. This is not to say that everyone should be a community activist — although I think some neighborhoods need exactly that kind of attention and assistance, but that those who think they know what people’s lives are like, should actually immerse themselves in the community first. The easiest way to do this, is to just sit in a classroom for one year. Just sit and observe. I assure you, they will understand when emerging from that environment. Perhaps with hardened hearts, unmoved, but at least with first-hand knowledge of what is really going on.
In a sense, anyone who has the power to influence the policies that affect an entire nation, needs to be a cultural anthropologist first. The current theory of trickle-down economics is severely flawed. But how would you know, if all you do is ‘think’ about the issues involved, manipulate algorithms and discuss among your peers the notions of what ‘should’ be, rather than what actually is.
I found that I had a hard time extracting myself from their world, while these children were my daily companions. I literally brought them with me to the sorority whenever I could, to get them decent meals and I will give my sisters credit, they welcomed these impoverished and traumatized kids without hesitation. Of course, the problem was, I returned to my life after college and the children returned to theirs. It almost broke my heart and was so dramatic a realization for me, that I decided I was not really ready at 21, maturationally, to be a special ed teacher, after all. My mother at 20 was far more emotionally intelligent than I was even years later.
So, after a soul searching summer taking classes and traveling around, I presented myself to the graduate psych department of my choice one week before the new fall semester was to begin. As I have mentioned previously in this blog, I am sure the impression I gave was of a bored socialite, looking for a place to land, dabbling in the field before finding a man and escaping into marriage. In fact, that may have been an unconscious motive on my part. But somehow, I talked the head of the department — famous, activist, brilliant psychologist, scientist, probably a socialist too, into taking a chance on me. I am eternally grateful that he, in a moment of pique, brought me on board, much to the consternation of every other male faculty member there.
When you are in a good doctoral program, your time is no longer your own. For that entire time period, I lived for the degree, around the clock. I stopped watching any television — in fact, I didn’t have a set in my apartment. My days were buried in work, classes, the library (where I had my own small room, so I could lock up my research materials and those from the library itself, many of which were not available in the stacks) until I had a viable and accepted research topic. That, as any doctoral candidate knows, is the hardest part of the entire process: having your topic approved. It was a turning point in my life, as some people labor for years in a “maintaining matriculation” limbo, waiting to achieve that make-it-or-break-it benchmark. While I was doing my work, I taught as an instructor in the US and as an Assistant Professor in Latin America, where I went to do some of the dissertation research itself. Along the way, I got an MS in social psychology, which enabled me to capitalize on my love of travel and foreign cultures. As in everything I do, I was 110% committed to the fields I was in, the people I hoped to understand and ultimately help, and the process of getting a doctorate itself.
Last Sunday, I happened to be watching Fareed Zakaria interviewing Ray Dalio, who oversees the world’s largest hedge fund at 160 billion dollars. At one point Zakaria asked Dalio how he achieved the pinnacle of his field as a financial genius. His answer was interesting. He said, the secret was not in what he knew, but in how he deals with what he doesn’t know. Hearing that, I immediately recognized that the key to the ultimate reward of getting a PhD or a PsyD is the mental training and rigorous organizational demands upon your time that this system confers. To this day, I use every one of the skills I developed during that training period. They enable me to pick up and master almost anything I must learn and do. It gave me discipline of every kind, as it was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting.
While I was doing my research for the final dissertation, I lived among some of the poorest, most forgotten people on earth. When we merely visit a country as tourists, we rarely have a chance to truly step out of our American bubble, and know the people of that country or culture. I saw this over and over again. While I was living in S. America, my mother came down with a group of educators, including a school psychologist who was a good friend as well as employee/colleague. They drove me crazy. The friend had been all over the world, so my mother naturally deferred to her in all decisions. That meant that they did the typical tourist things, taking in the boilerplate, what I call American Express tour: canned restaurants, shops, sites, attractions that provide kickbacks to the tour guide. I could not convince them to come to the places I knew, from having actually lived there, instead.
No one can truly understand the reality of poverty until they have lived it, in my opinion. My ideas about it today are not born merely of library time, or sitting around imagining how the world ‘should’ work. I deliberately put myself in those places so I would know them viscerally as well as intellectually. If I want my purpose on earth to make the world a better place for as many people as I can, I can’t see any better way.
My so-called ‘soft’ (uh, compassionate?), progressive approach to life came from being steeped in the gritty reality of life at the bottom. I was also growing up in one of the most diverse, both economically and culturally, cities in the world, spending time in the slums along with the country clubs. Once I did my own work as the guest of these people, most of them people of color and from other countries, I had hands-on vivid experience of what life is like for them on a daily basis. I didn’t sit somewhere, observing from a safe perch, second-guessing their desperation, violence, misery, crushed hopes, and heart-wrenching aspirations. I was there in the thick of it, trying to justify the system that keeps them dependent, distracted just trying to survive, making them promises that are repeatedly broken, while they watch those more fortunate live the American dream, so hard for them to imagine, let alone achieve.
Graduate school redesigned my mental architecture. Not only was I learning a specific field and subject matter in depth, including my dissertation research topic and all the methods for carrying it out, I was learning how to study what I didn’t know. It is impossible to know everything, as I am sure we would all agree. There may have been a time when you went to school and learned whatever the basics were considered to be. But now those basics fill zettabytes of chip space. You don’t need to know any facts, per se, you don’t need to memorize (it wouldn’t hurt to know your times tables, just saying …). What is vital, is to understand how to approach that which you don’t know, and understand it. And in the case of all this injustice, it gave me the courage and tools to do something useful with my life, to unpack and deal with problems calmly, analytically, and productively.
I learned so many other tangential things, too numerous to list here, like thorough and neat, organized note-taking as fast as some people write short-hand (using speed writing); being even more orderly than I was previously; thorough; questioning; and dedicated to the ultra fine sieve of proven, hard, objective evidence. I learned what the true meaning of scientific inquiry was and how to apply the method and paradigms in an array of fields to every human question and problem, not just my field. Most importantly, it taught me to be fearless about change, the unknown, learning new skills, getting out of my wheelhouse and leaping into the new, different and difficult. I have also used the tests and verification systems I learned there, to evaluate the seemingly endless instream of information and conflicting messages that we are now bombarded with daily in what could otherwise seem to be a chaotic and undiscernible world, to winnow the wheat from the chaff in all things. It helps me identify solid parcels of truth when they cross my path, as well as the false and ephemeral.
That training stimulated my lifelong excitement about the vast array of human disciplines and lines of inquiry that change, emerge and proliferate every single day. That foundation has been my bedrock, giving me the courage and even patience to deal with the staggering number of problems and setbacks that we all face in life as individuals and as a species. It was a practical training that I have applied to every single thing I have done from that time to this. It was not an ‘elite’, ivory tower wasted experience.
Somehow too, it bolstered the moral maturity that eventually comes with age and experience, to work under almost any conditions and not shrink or become an emotional amoeba. I don’t know what I would have been without it.
Images: Beth Byrnes, UCLA