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Book Review-Deaths of Despair and The Future of Capitalism

Suicide is, unfortunately, not the only death of despair.  In Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, the argument is made that we’re getting crushed by suicide, drug overdoses, and alcohol related deaths.  These are, the authors assert, the deaths of despair – and that they’re uniquely being amplified by the American system of capitalism.  In fact, they argue that there’s a class difference between those with bachelor’s degrees and those without them.

Education’s Protection

The basic argument – backed by a mountain of data – is that those who have at least a bachelor’s degree are protected from much of the despair.  They’re not immune to problems or even a death of despair, but the prevalence is lower.  Paul Tough in The Years that Matter Most explains that not only does going to college matter, but so does which college you go to.  He’s speaking about the high end of opportunities unlocked by both the education and the network that you develop.  What happens below the line – when you can’t get into any college?  That’s what concerns Anne Case and Angus Deaton.  Why is it that people who don’t get a degree do so poorly?

The answer may be a cascade of factors.  First, jobs have become increasingly more complex and have required greater technical skill.  While there’s an argument that too few people go into the field in which they earned their degree, there’s a belief that a bachelor’s degree proves a general acumen.  In any case, the unemployment numbers indicate that unemployment is higher without a bachelor’s degree than with them.  In short, there’s a greater likelihood of employment with a degree.

Second, the prospects of marriage are much better with a job than without.  There’s an expectation that especially men should be able to support their spouse and ultimately their families.  Without a job, that’s not possible.  So not only does a degree convey better job prospects, where many get their self-worth and socialization, but it conveys better opportunities for marriage.

Third, marriage means, on average, a better economic picture.  Two people working together – both of whom are likely to have a degree – is much better financially than two people working alone.  The result is that the person with a bachelor’s degree is likely to be even better financially than just the degree implies.

Thus, the degree allows for a set of conditions that lead to several protective factors: the belief in self-worth, the engagement of social connections, an intimate partner, and financial resources.  It’s a keystone marker that had a large impact on future outcomes.


What few people realize is that substance use disorder – a drug addiction – isn’t just a problem.  It’s a solution, too.  It’s the way that people have learned to cope with their life’s circumstances.  There is a lot of mythology with drugs that makes it difficult for people to accept that people with substance use disorder aren’t bad people – and it’s not that drugs are so addictive.  Even Bruce Alexander’s work about Rat Park is misrepresented as saying that even rats become addicted to morphine.  (See Chasing the Scream, and The Globalization of Addiction for more.)  We’ve been sold a bill of goods that people who use drugs are bad, and even one attempt at drugs will addict everyone.  It’s just wrong.

The painful truth about drug use is that people use drugs because of some other pain they’re facing that they don’t know how to handle.  There’s something that they don’t know how to resolve, and the drugs make it go away – at least for a while.  That’s why including drug use as a death of despair makes so much sense.

Another tricky aspect of drug use as it pertains to suicide is that it’s very difficult to distinguish a suicide death by drugs from an unintentional one.  Intent to die is the only thing that separates the suicide from the accidental overdose, and there’s no clear, bright line.  Ambivalence and not protecting oneself from overdose death is only a matter of degrees different than intentional overdose.  Even those who survive may not be certain themselves.

There was a real problem that was created by pharmaceutical companies, particularly Purdue Pharma, where powerful opioids were sold as non-addictive.  The result of continued overuse led to addiction.  Oxycontin was massively overprescribed for pain.  When controls started to be placed on opioid prescriptions, and they became both harder and more expensive to get, many people switched to heroin, because it was a similar but cheaper option.  (See the book Dreamland for this transition and the opioid crisis in general.)

The number of deaths due to drug overdose is estimated at 107,000 in 2021.  This is roughly double the number of deaths that are categorized as suicide in the United States.  More than that, these startling numbers are a key indication that many people are suffering.


Drugs are at least illegal.  Deaths by overdose are necessarily criminal when the drugs themselves are outside the law.  However, what about the deaths that center around alcohol?  We tried prohibition in the United States, and it ended quite poorly with the rise of crime.  We won’t attempt eliminate consumption of alcohol again, but it does take a huge toll on us.  The CDC estimates over 140,000 people die through excessive alcohol consumption – that’s roughly three times as many people as die by suicide each year.  It’s appropriate to focus on the mortality associated with alcohol.  However, we can’t ignore that alcohol – like drugs – causes suffering in other ways as well.

Alcohol consumption differs between those with and without a bachelor’s degree.  People without a degree are more likely to drink heavily, less likely to drink in moderation, and less likely to abstain from drinking.  Alcohol is really a drug – a legal one – that people use to help them numb the pain of their daily lives.


The most addictive substance is nicotine.  Decades ago, the tobacco industry’s chokehold on information about the harmful effects of smoking was broken.  Despite this, we still find that 11.4% of adults with bachelor’s degrees smoked – as compared to 19.8% of people without a degree.  It would be practically impossible to smoke without awareness of the long-term health impacts.  If nothing else, the on-package warnings are a solid clue.

This is a powerful indicator that simply having knowledge of something doesn’t mean that we’ll change behavior.  Everett Rogers in Diffusion of Innovations explains that we must change knowledge, then attitudes, to get to a change in practice – or behavior.  (See Knowledge-Attitudes-Practices for more.)  An official strategy for combatting tobacco use is called the Transtheoretical Model – or Stages of Change.  It’s important to recognize that this model accepts that some people aren’t even open to changing their behavior, and engaging them in a discussion about the change may cause them to dig in their heels.

Deaths and the Economy

Though suicides are correlated with economic hardship, deaths generally fall during economic hardship.  The reason for this is that, though suicide deaths increase, other types of deaths fall.  Whether the core of that is because people don’t have the money to do riskier things or they’re not stressed by their jobs, the odd relationship means that there is often more than meets the eye when we’re looking at societal changes.

Unable to Work

One of the difficult parts of addressing deaths of despair is the degree and type of support to offer.  We see that countries that have better social support programs have fewer suicides when unemployment increases, but the concern is that we’re demotivating people from working.  In fact, we’ve seen a general decline in the percentage of men of working age that are in the workforce.  That’s a troubling statistic.

Part of the issue is that there’s a greater participation in higher education, but that’s not enough to explain the decrease.  Investigation of the numbers notes that there is a troubling trend that people exit the employment market during downturns – perhaps through no fault of their own – but they don’t always return to the work force.  This is irrespective of the social supports in place.  They’re just not coming back.

It’s also true that the decline in the rates of working people in the United States involves an increase in reported pain.  Pain makes work less tolerable, particularly for those whose jobs involve manual labor.

Sex and Marriage

Above, I shared that marriage prospects are decreased for those without a bachelor’s degree, but there’s more to this story.  As I mentioned in my review of America’s Generations, the advent of the contraceptive pill and the availability of abortion radically reorganized our views about sex, particularly sex outside of marriage.  No longer was there a real risk that one would face an unwanted pregnancy after sexual relations.  With appropriate precautions and with a failsafe, sex felt safer for casual fun.  It’s a startling revelation that, using the data from 2014 rates, one in four women will have an abortion by forty-five.  The recent Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade will certainly have an impact on this – but to what degree isn’t known.

This meant that women no longer needed to marry early to ensure support of a baby.  They were free to be choosier.  More than that, it changed the sense that women had for their careers.  They had more flexibility to decide when they wanted to take a break to have a baby.

Religion and Politics

Marx called religion “the opiate of the masses.”  However, as Churchless, The Great Evangelical Recession, Bowling Alone, and other books have noted, people are attending church less regularly.  We ended up using opioids as religion lost its hold on society.  But what happened to cause the gap is more challenging.  Ezra Klein in Why We’re Polarized explains that we’re more focused on our political identity than we have been in the past.  We’re seeing it in church attendance: instead of people first picking a church community and adapting their politics to suit their friends, they’ve switched it.  Now, it seems people pick their spirituality to fit their politics.

The Assault on Healthcare

The book ends with an assault on healthcare.  It asserts, “Sixteen percent of those in the top 1 percent of incomes in 2015 were physicians; 6 percent among the top tenth of 1 percent.”  The implication is that doctors are soaking up the work of the people through higher than appropriate fees.  However, if we look at Robert Pearl’s work, including Uncaring and Mistreated, we see that there is a problem, but the doctors probably aren’t the core issue.

There is lots of profiteering to be sure.  However, the truth is that our system doesn’t prioritize or reward preventative care.  We know that preventative medicine is good medicine.  Not only do people not suffer, but it’s more effective.  Yet most preventative care isn’t done, because it doesn’t make sense for an insurance plan that is likely to change in the next year.  We don’t fix problems, but instead subject patients to long-term pharmaceutical interventions.  We operate a medical system that is paid to perform services – and so that’s what we get whether those services are needed or not.

Scanners and Scammers

Making it even harder is that the new technologies that are supposed to improve care may not really do that.  For instance, I took Scott Warrick to task for supporting SPECT rather than the more broadly accepted fMRI.  (See Solve Employee Problems Before They Start.)  Both are expensive, but SPECT is less expensive and much less common.  SPECT has some uses, but fMRI provides more robust data.  The tricky part here is that SPECT can be useful – but in a narrower set of circumstances.  Figuring out whether a cheaper scanner will do what you need or whether you need a more expensive scanner with more robust data is a difficult decision that invariably will be wrong.

One of the reasons that our healthcare costs are spiraling upwards is because these expensive pieces of equipment sit idle too frequently.  In the service of faster access, we reduce utilization and therefore must amortize the cost of the unit across fewer procedures.

Sorting out the solution to The Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism isn’t easy – but it’s important.

Book Review-Healing Trauma: Attachment, Mind, Body and Brain

Edited volumes are quite literally a collection of semi-random chapters written by different authors.  The results can be good, bad, or both.  Healing Trauma: Attachment, Mind, Body, and Brain has both good and bad.  It’s an attempt from 2003 to pull together the best of what we knew; in some ways, what we knew then is just as relevant today.  In a few cases, the material and perspectives didn’t age well.  Overall, it’s a good place to get perspective on a vexing problem.

Differentiation and Integration

Navigating the world isn’t always easy.  We’ve got to learn how things are different from one another – and how they’re the same.  These twin processes of our brain are constantly helping us to see better.  Sometimes, as in the case of stigma, it has negative consequences (see Stigma), but much like we’ve learned about altruism, these functions have evolutionary value.  (See Supercooperators and Does Altruism Exist?)

The assertion of Healing Trauma’s editors is that trauma blocks the integration process.  Individuals can see how they’re different, but not how they’re the same as others.  They can see that the trauma was different from their ordinary world but are blocked from integrating that experience with the rest of their lives.  The result is the fragmented, implicit memories that are at the heart of problems with trauma and sometimes develop into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  (See Trauma and Memory for more.)

Brain Structure

Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of reviewing older materials is the balance between accepting the reality that different regions of the brain have differentiated functions and rejecting the broad, sweeping statements about the hemispheres of the brain and their function.  The historical perspective of neurobiology was that the left and right hemispheres of the brain had distinct and different purposes.  Our understanding today is more nuanced.

It’s true there are two hemispheres, and they’re connected.  The right hemisphere even develops before the left.  However, often, people overstate both the differences and what can be determined as left or right hemisphere.

As I’ve mentioned in my review of Transforming the Living Legacy of Trauma, we realize today that our thinking is much more distributed and integrated than previously thought.  In fact, therapies like EMDR are theorized to enhance integration between the two hemispheres, thereby relieving distress.

History Is Not Destiny

The power of processing trauma is that, by better processing it, you can change your future.  It’s possible to disable or render inert behavioral habits that lock people into repeating patterns.  While it seems obvious that your history doesn’t set your destiny, when it comes to trauma, many authors seem intent on believing that once you’ve experienced trauma, you are damaged goods.  They ignore the fact that all organisms need stress, challenge, and setbacks.  (See Antifragile and Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.)

More importantly, the estimates are that 80-90% of people will experience a traumatic event in their lifetime.  Effectively, we’ll all be injured by traumatic events – and we’ll all need to figure out how to process those events.

Rather than viewing trauma from the perspective of its unchangeability, we should recognize that the impacts of the trauma are inherently changeable.  The way that we view the traumatic event and how we choose to respond is under our control.


Attachment theory has a big impact on the way that we process trauma.  The more secure our attachment, the more likely we are to integrate the memories and develop adaptive styles of coping.  (See Attached.)  What are the factors that are most likely to influence our attachment style?  Obviously, given the roots of the study, they’re our parents’ ability to meet our needs and to not respond negatively to our needs.

What this really means is that the more integrated our parents’ narratives are, the more likely they’ll be to respond positively to our needs as a child.  Those parents who have a coherent autobiographical story integrate their “parent-ness” into who they are, and they choose parent-like behaviors.

The Difference Between Thoughts and Feelings

In How Emotions Are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett sought to expose the cognitive processes that underlie our emotions.  She explains how our thoughts fuse with our bodily sensations in ways that form emotions.  How we feel about someone or something has as much to do with indigestion or illness as attraction.

Neuroscientists have not been able to find some clear, defining line between what constitutes a thought and what is an emotion.  While they’re differentiated, it may be possible that thoughts are not all that different from emotions after all.

Storytelling and Press Secretaries

We’re constantly writing and rewriting our autobiographies in our heads.  We’re moving from a set of disjointed experiences and stringing a narrative between them.  Sometimes, we can articulate the narrative – and other times, we can’t.  Either way, we’re constantly writing our stories.  Once we passed our second birthday, we began speaking in stories, and the most important one is ours.

Some of what we see as our story is just a rationalization for what we decided without conscious intervention.  Jonathan Haidt explains that the rider in his elephant-rider-path model is a press secretary.  (See The Righteous Mind.)  The press secretary’s job is to make sense of what has already been decided.  Similarly, our conscious mind often just makes up stories to fill in the gaps in what we’ve already decided or done.  (See Incognito.)

Tolerating Trauma

The general strategy for helping to relieve the negative impacts of a traumatic event is to make processing the event easier, safer, and more tolerable.  It isn’t that the event can be made fear- or anxiety-free, but rather that it is possible to reduce the degree to which recalling an event induces fear or anxiety.  It’s important to realize that this isn’t unique to trauma.  In Find Your Courage, it was rightfully asserted that courage isn’t the absence of fear but a decision to move forward in the presence of fear.  The lower the fear or greater the conviction, the greater the chances we’ll see something we call courage.

Fear is at the heart of Richard Lazarus’ work, Emotion and Adaption.  In it, he explains that fear is an evaluation of the impacts and probabilities of an event – mitigated by our coping capacity.  We can encourage better evaluation of the factors of fear so that they can be reduced.

Rick Snyder in The Psychology of Hope explains that hope too is a cognitive process and that when you increase someone’s sense that they know how to solve a problem it gets bigger.  The other component of hope is willpower.  As explained in Willpower, we can increase our capacity for willpower.  Antifragile points to increasing capacity with appropriate challenging exposures.

In Why We Do What We Do, Edward Deci speaks of our intrinsic motivation and the need for us to feel autonomy.  In the language of Compelled to Control, we want to believe that we control ourselves.  The more we believe that we’re in control of our lives, the more intrinsic motivation we’ll have.  The ability to control one’s destiny is also a factor in preventing burnout.  (See our Extinguish Burnout site.)

In short, we can change the factors that make someone fearful or anxious about remembering a traumatic event.  Through this remembering we can continue to lower the fear and anxiety of the traumatic event until it can be successfully processed – and therefore no longer a traumatic event impacting now.

The Disorganization of Nomads

Most mammals return to a home base when frightened.  There’s a den or hutch somewhere that they return to for protection.  However, humans are different: we seek out protectors rather than places.  This may be a side effect of our initial nomadic life, where there wasn’t a singular place we could feel safety.  Instead, we had to adapt to seeking others for our protection.  This becomes problematic when the protector is the one who is making us feel threatened.  Our instinct to protect ourselves leads us away and towards the person at the same time.

Taking a step back, we find that anxiously attached adults have experienced what they believe to be abandonment.  Therefore, they seek to keep people they’re connected to closer.  Avoidantly attached individuals avoid close personal connections, because they believe they can only be harmed by a close relationship – in short, they’ve experienced some situations where they’ve sought protection, and the protector made them fearful.  For instance, they come crying to a mother or father, and the parent responds with, “That’s nothing – stop crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about.”

The disordered attachment person alternates between anxiety and avoidance seemingly without reason.  They can’t decide whether they need to be close to people – or whether close relationships only cause them pain.  So, when our nomadic parents don’t have the capacity to respond in consistently supportive ways, we’re at risk for some insecure attachment style (anxious, avoidant, or disordered).

Don’t Blame the Parents

It’s natural, particularly in today’s age, to blame the parents for the challenges that children face.  After all, if the parents were fully available to their child, wouldn’t they be securely attached?  As Judith Rich Harris points out in No Two Alike and The Nurture Assumption, it may not be that simple.  It can be that the parents did meet all the needs of the child – from their perspective.  The child may or may not agree, and that may not be the parent’s fault.

Additionally, a tendency to blame the parents ignores the problem of math.  Once parents have more than two children, it’s not literally possible to meet every child’s needs all the time.  Even with fewer children, the demands of life to make money, go grocery shopping, and generally “do life” can interfere with the ability to meet a child’s needs at every moment.  Parents who are struggling at the edge of poverty are particularly challenged, as they must strive to simply provide food and shelter.  The additional emotional needs of children may be beyond their capacity.

Holding Back the Trauma

“I’m still in love with the illusion of this life.”  Rarely is it articulated this well.  People recognize that they need to move forward to change their world and “bring things to a head” but refuse to do so.  They know their marriage isn’t what it should be, and they need to change it or, more likely, get a divorce; but they know that the divorce itself will be traumatic, and they’d like to avoid that, if possible.

It’s easy enough to claim that “it’s not that bad” or believe that magic will happen, and things will get better.  Rarely do people choose to walk into the possibility of trauma despite the awareness that the degree and severity will be lower if it’s confronted directly.  Or they believe they’re incapable of surviving the trauma if they trigger it.  They believe the divorce might break them.

Some of the traumas we need to deal with are the ones that we ourselves initiate – or at least initiate the timing of.  Continuing to believe the illusion that there’s a way to avoid the trauma generally makes things worse, not better.

Get Well or Stay Married

Sometimes, individuals are faced with a trauma-inducing and -reinforcing relationship that was that way from the start.  One of the parties wants to get better, but the other doesn’t want to change.  They believe that their drinking buddies are more important than a healthier lifestyle.  It’s in these situations that one of the partners is faced with the reality that they can either get well or stay married.  They can’t do both.

There’s no doubt that the first stop should be to try to convince your partner to try the change.  Attempts to create desire in the other person must be tried.  There should be ample – but not too much – time to shift thinking.  However, if the partner is unwilling or unable to make the change, then sometimes it will be necessary to get well and accept the trauma of the loss of marriage.  Once you’ve made this tragic decision, you can move forward towards Healing Trauma.

Book Review-Transforming the Living Legacy of Trauma: A Workbook for Survivors and Therapists

It’s a mixed bag.  Transforming the Living Legacy of Trauma: A Workbook for Survivors and Therapists has some profound insights – and also some frustrating perspectives that aren’t consistent with other works and without research cited.  It makes it difficult to know which things are true, and which are not.

Thirty Years Ago

“Thirty years ago, it was thought that traumatic experiences could be healed when the secrets were finally revealed and the story of what happened was told to a safe, validating witness.  However, contrary to what we believed then, that process often made the traumatic effects worse instead of better.”  It’s my first highlight from the book – and it’s wrong.  While I understand the intent – and there are aspects of truth to it – it’s not consistent with what we know about trauma today.

First, the truth is that forcing people to relive a trauma, particularly in ways that don’t feel safe (or safe enough), absolutely does do more harm than good.  It tends to reinforce the trauma and make it worse.  It’s one of the big reasons why, I believe, CISM doesn’t work.  (See Opening Up for more on CISD/CISM.)

However, the work of James Pennebaker and others shows that the process of organizing the trauma in our minds (through writing the story) has a healing effect.  (See Opening Up.)  Peter Levine in Trauma and Memory speaks of the processing that converts implicit to explicit memories and essentially how this is a storytelling process.

This is at the heart of my concerns with the book.  Some of the statements have a kernel of truth to them, but they don’t have the clarity necessary for someone to discern what is good and what is bad.

For instance, another challenging statement is, “Doctors, nurses, and EMTs all rely on adrenaline to do their jobs well, as do most peak performers.”  It directly contradicts the work of Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool in Peak and is inconsistent with the high-performance state of flow.  (See Flow and Finding Flow.)  Steven Kotler in The Rise of Superman acknowledges the desire for adrenaline but also is careful to explain that too much is a problem.

Similarly, comments like, “Restricting food intake puts the body into a neurochemical state called ketosis, creating a numbing effect but also a boost of increased energy,” show an ignorance of medical information.  Ketosis is the reduction of carbohydrates, not food.  It causes the body to derive energy by burning fat – which is why most people indicate a loss of energy as they transition into ketosis.  There’s no evidence of “numbing” in the sense it appears to be used here.  Numbness and tingling is a side effect of the transition, as there is lower blood sugar and lower blood pressure (generally).


Fisher acknowledges that MacLean’s triune brain model is mostly considered out of date by scientists but continues to use it for its utility.  I take no issue with that, because it’s a simple model that helps the reader conceptualize three parts of our brain.  It’s useful as a way of understanding our neocortex is often being used to dampen (or amplify) the responses from the more primitive structures of our brain.

However, a bit more concerning is the insistence on using a left-right hemisphere model of describing the brain beyond what is still supported by science – without identifying that it’s a simplification.  There’s hemispheric structure to the brain and the corpus callosum does connect the two sides; however, we’ve learned that various parts of the brain operate in concert to achieve what we believe is a single thing.

For instance, generally people believe that speech comes from Broca’s area.  Broca’s area seems to handle syntactic structure, but Wernicke’s area is more focused on meaning.  Damage to either area impairs the ability to speak.  Wernicke’s area occurs in both hemispheres of the brain with slightly different uses.  Many of the tasks that we take for granted happen in multiple areas of the brain.

Understanding the Process

Fisher explains that her mentor, Judith Herman (who wrote Trauma and Recovery), insisted that what trauma victims needed was education about trauma, including its ramifications and manifestations.  I’d expand this to say that they need to know what to expect.  By knowing what to expect in the processing of trauma, they don’t have to be afraid of it.  They don’t need to be concerned that their trauma will leave a lifelong limitation.  While Herman reportedly wanted patients to make intelligent choices, I believe it’s more than that.  It’s about being able to be calm and feel relatively safe through the process.  When you know what to expect, it’s safer.

Trauma as Being Forced

Fisher proposes a different definition for trauma, which is, “trauma is the experience of being forced to do what others want.”  Certainly, it can be traumatic to do what others want.  In the context of Herman’s work in domestic abuse, this can be true.  However, as a broader statement, it doesn’t define trauma.  At a broader level, the kind of trauma being discussed here impacts the person personally – causing physical injury or at least a constriction of freedom.  It also forces us to confront our belief that we’re in control of ourselves.  (See Who Am I? and The Righteous Mind for more.)

Shame and Self-Blame

“But remember that shame and self-blame shut down the prefrontal cortex and diminish the capacity to learn.”  Yes, but that’s not the primary mechanism.  The primary mechanism is fear.  The spinning neurochemicals cause memory to encode differently – and generally in ways that’s harder to recall consciously.  (See The End of Memory and Trauma and Memory for more about memory encoding and recall.)  Of course, Brene Brown has made a career of studying shame, and it’s certainly a noxious self-concept.  (See Daring Greatly.)  Self-blame, which Brown might call “guilt,” can be instructive when we move from the blame to the behavior change that will prevent the outcomes in the future.

Two Darts

Buddhists speak of the story of two darts.  The first dart is the pain.  The second dart is our, often maladaptive, reactions.  That’s one of the reasons that Buddhists and other contemplative (meditative) practices encourage acknowledging thoughts and then letting them go or getting curious about them.  Rather than being self-punitive for failing to meditate “properly,” we can either release the thought or follow it – if it doesn’t lead to rumination.

Sometimes, the experience we find ourselves in is binding – and sometimes less so.  A person can make belittling comments to their spouse, but unless the spouse accepts these comments (at any level), they’ll have no effect.  It is as if the first dart missed its intended target.  (See my review of Rising Strong (Part 2) for more about catching the darts in mid-air.)

Conversely, someone who is concerned about their ability to support themselves financially may accept abuse from their spouse, because they feel as if they have no other options.  Not only does the first dart hit, but they launch the second dart at themselves by amplifying the impact.  They take it to heart that no one else would love them and they’d be nothing without their spouse.  (See Terror, Love, and Brainwashing for more.)

More than the Trauma

Ultimately, recovery comes in the form of reestablishing ownership of our mind and body – that is, the belief that we’re in control of ourselves.  Fisher incorrectly quotes van der Kolk from The Body Keeps the Score but with a similar meaning.  Van der Kolk’s words are, “The challenge of recovery is to reestablish ownership of your body and your mind—of yourself.”

Practically, this recovery means accepting that you’re more than the trauma and even the outcomes of the trauma, including loneliness and suicidality.  (For loneliness, see the book Loneliness.  For suicidality, see Loving Someone with Suicidal Thoughts.)

In the end, I can’t recommend reading Transforming the Living Legacy of Trauma – unless you’re willing to carefully challenge what you’re reading with the hope of sharpening your understanding.

Book Review-Trauma Treatment: Healing the Whole Person: Meaning-Centered Therapy & Trauma Treatment Foundational Phase-Work Manual

I picked up Trauma Treatment: Healing the Whole Person: Meaning-Centered Therapy & Trauma Treatment Foundational Phase-Work Manual after seeing it as a reference at an anxiety workshop.  I was looking for more perspectives on trauma treatment.  What I didn’t know then is that it’s based on Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy.  You may know that Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning and that he was a concentration camp prisoner.  I deeply respect Frankl’s work and his insights.  Not surprisingly, his work focuses on finding meaning.

Alternate Perspectives

While I favor a definition of trauma that speaks to its temporarily overwhelming nature, other perspectives of what trauma is are interesting.  Trauma Treatment focuses on how it impacts us, saying, “Trauma deconstructs the carefully constructed understanding of life. Trauma disorganizes the prior harmony of our assumptions. Trauma is a loss of pattern.”  When explaining trauma to others, I often speak to both the personal impact and the way that trauma reorganizes our perspectives of the world.  Our consciousness is, at its core, a prediction engine.  (See Mindreading.)  We have consciousness to support our ability to predict, because it confers an evolutionary advantage.  To predict allows us to prepare and thus survive.

As I’ve implied in the preceding, I think the definition provided by Trauma Treatment is incomplete.  It fails to account for how we’re connected to the event in a way that triggers the reevaluation of our beliefs.  It also neglects the dimension of personal impact on future possibilities.

Meaning in the Moment

In addition to the ultimate meaning of one’s life, Frankl believed in the meaning of the moment.  Our consciousness is constantly scanning our environment and trying to make meaning of our perceptions.  We’re constantly trying to find the meaning of the moment – but generally only in a threat management sort of way.  Frankl encourages us to look more deeply to try to understand how the meaning of the moment has meaning to our lives.

Here, I recommend caution.  While I firmly believe in finding the meaning in the moment, I also recognize that, for traumatized people, they can read too much – or the wrong thing – into circumstances.  The woman who was raped walking home from a Christmas party may draw the conclusion that Christmas means rape.  She can also draw the conclusion that it was her fault.  Neither of these conclusions are the best.  (I hesitate to say “wrong.”)

I’d revise this to say that we should be open to discovering meaning in every moment without necessarily insisting that we find it.  When we try to force meaning from a moment, we often come up with answers that aren’t the best.

Suffering to Meaning

Core to Frankl’s beliefs is that, while suffering is universal, the resolution of suffering is finding meaning.  The idea that suffering is universal is a core Buddhist belief.  It’s the expectation that, in life, we’ll have suffering.  Frankl claims (in Man’s Search for Meaning) that the resolution of this suffering is meaning.

I disagree with Trauma Treatment’s assertion that people resist finding meaning because they need time to be in the pain.  This prejudiced perspective implies that they should just get over it and move on.  I prefer to look at it from the perspective that the therapist can see the meaning (or, more precisely, a meaning) more quickly.  Their job is to find meaning in events, and thus they’ve become more adept at it.  Sometimes, it takes people longer to learn from their circumstances.  That doesn’t mean that they need (or deserve) to suffer in pain.

Logotherapy Change

Logotherapy and existential analysis build upon the Transtheoretical Model, often called Stages of Change, to describe a process by which individuals can change and grow.  The problem, as with other parts of the book that called an Indian who lived 500 years BC a logotherapist, is that the timelines don’t work.  The model was first published in 1994 and Frankl died in 1997 – while enough time to develop an extension to the model, it’s more likely something created by his disciples.  This is important, because unlike the original insights regarding the importance of meaning, these changes feel more like an attempt to connect Frankl’s core work to the need for change to make it more relevant.


The book includes a set of what are clearly slides as figures, which contain some diagrams but are mostly walls of text that seek to make an incomprehensible number of acronyms that presumably the reader is expected to remember.  Mnemonics and acronyms can be a helpful tool – but not at the volume they’re being used.  (See Job Aids and Performance Support, How We Learn, and Efficiency in Learning for more.)

It feels as if the book was an adaptation of a workshop, but the slides themselves weren’t fully translated into prose.  For me, the wall of text on most of these slides makes me wonder why the information couldn’t be transformed into book form more readily.

In the end, there are nuggets to get out of Trauma Treatment, but it’s better to skim it than to dedicate time to reading it.

Book Review-Healing Secondary Trauma: Proven Strategies for Caregivers and Professionals to Manage Stress, Anxiety, and Compassion Fatigue

What you see and do changes what you see and do.  It’s a simple statement with profound effects.  It’s a recognition that you can’t see others’ trauma without being changed by it.  You can’t be in the presence of others’ suffering without suffering yourself.  Healing Secondary Trauma: Proven Strategies for Caregivers and Professionals to Manage Stress, Anxiety, and Compassion Fatigue is designed to provide tools that allow us to stay in contact with the trauma longer, to suffer less ourselves, and to help more.

Healthy Tactics

The set of strategies that Healing Secondary Trauma recommends are proven to be useful.  There’s no problem there.  However, the problem is that the recommended strategies are patches.  They don’t address the core problem.  They’re good to help you reduce the suffering to the point that you can do real work on the trauma.  However, they’re not a final solution.

The Symptoms

Gilbert-Eliot shares what she believes are the symptoms of secondary trauma: anger, sadness, exhaustion, and compassion fatigue.  That’s problematic, because while they can be symptoms of secondary trauma, there are also many other causes of these symptoms.

I’ve discussed how anger is disappointment directed.  (See Destructive Emotions and my explanation in Conflict: Anger.)  Disappointment is certainly something that one could experience when we see how humans treat other humans or the destruction that can come from “acts of God.”  So, it’s quite plausible that it would have an impact – but the solutions offered don’t provide a way to work through these disappointments and disable the anger.

Sadness is less frequently discussed than happiness.  In fact, happiness is one of the philosophical ideals that can keep people very busy.  A lack of enjoyment with life and a sense of sadness can be a result of secondary trauma, but here, too, there’s little advice on what to do.  (See Happiness, Hardwiring Happiness, The Dalai Lama’s Big Book of Happiness, and more for more on happiness.)

Exhaustion is hard, because it’s simply exertion.  What’s missed is the reality that people are holding back emotional release, and this consumes energy.  Much like stress is a friction that reduces our efficacy, holding back memories of the trauma can rob us of the energy we need to live.  (See Nurse Burnout for stress as friction.)  So, the problem isn’t so much exhaustion directly, it’s the work that we’re doing to maintain compartmentalization of the trauma long after it should have been released.

Compassion fatigue is trickier to explain, because it’s often confused with burnout.  (See Is It Compassion Fatigue or Burnout?)  However, neither phenomenon is directly related to trauma.  Both seem to have elements of a failure to feel effective or a belief that you’re not enough.

The Tactics

Gilbert-Eliot also identifies, “Healthy tactics for managing anger include assertiveness, problem solving, cognitive restructuring, and acceptance.”  Here, too, Gilbert-Eliot misses the target.

Assertiveness is a good tool to help people take more control of their lives.  Greater degrees of control (or perception of control) are associated with better outcomes across a wide variety of mental maladies.  However, assertiveness does nothing to help someone process a trauma they’ve experienced.

Problem solving is an interesting – but difficult – tool for all sorts of things, but most traumas don’t represent a problem (or puzzle) to be solved.  Problem solving is difficult to teach just as creativity is difficult to teach.  Creative Confidence explains that we’re all born with it, and we just need to recreate situations for our stifled creativity to reemerge.  Problem solving is that, but it’s also the development of greater capacity for mental models.  Gary Klein in Sources of Power explains how mental models allow for the solution of problems, like the best way to deploy firefighters to a fire.  If we were to extend this further, we’d ideally teach people to think in systems, so they can see what kinds of things they might do to solve the problem.  (See Thinking in Systems for more.)  Even people with a high degree of problem solving skills encounter trauma and struggle with it, because it’s not a problem to be solved as much as it is an experience to be processed.

Cognitive restructuring is a solid recommendation.  It’s at the heart of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and is recognized for improved mental health.  What is missing is only that the restructuring often is about accurately perceiving and responding to reality as well as creating a better sense of innate safety.

Acceptance indirectly helps trauma by increasing safety and allowing the trauma to be processed more readily.  Richo explains in How to Be an Adult in Relationships how his five As, including acceptance, can lead to better relationships – and a better life.

False Explanations

One of the tragedies heaped on tragedy is when people have a period of memory loss associated with a trauma, and they believe, in that gap, they did something awful.  Instead of assuming that they behaved consistently with their character in a professional, respectful way, they assume that, for the memory to be missing, it must be because they did something bad.  This is rarely the case.  In most instances, the memory disruption causing amnesia is related to the event itself and not to the person’s reactions.  Even in cases where it was related to their actions, it’s often because of the ethical dilemma or moral injury situation they were placed in.

Ethical dilemmas are where you’re faced with two bad choices, and you’ve got to pick the one that seems least bad to you.  Consider a train barreling down the tracks, with 10 people on board; around a curve (unseen), there are 10 people working on the railroad tracks.  There is a switch you can throw to cause the train to go down another track and miss the workers, but it will almost certainly cause the train to derail and cause injury to the train driver and the passengers.  Do you throw the switch?  In either case, someone is getting injured.

A moral injury goes farther: you behave in ways that you disagree with, because you believe it’s required to keep your job.  Consider a train operator who believes the train can safely travel at 30 miles per hour.  The company insists on 45 miles per hour to keep the schedule.  A person jumps in front of the train – intending to die – and the operator can’t stop.  The operator faces moral injury, because they believe they’re being asked to operate in a way that is immoral.  (See How Good People Make Hard Choices and Moral Disengagement for more on these topics.)

Even in these cases, a missing memory doesn’t indicate something evil or wrong done by the individual but rather protection from the pressures of these situations.


A major concern with trauma is the splitting of personality, which Gilbert-Eliot correctly raises.  To put it in context, it’s believed that people naturally fragment parts of their experience.  No Bad Parts explains the Internal Family Systems (IFS) view, where we have protectors and victims that are all operating semi-autonomously in our heads.  The goal of IFS is to help reintegrate those parts to lead to better mental health and wellbeing.

Dissociation – a natural and normal reaction to trauma – isn’t a problem as a temporary coping mechanism.  However, when it crosses over into a permanent separation from oneself – or a part of oneself – there’s more cause for concern.  Monitoring the degree of splitting of personality and developing a sense for when the splitting may cause problems can be an important part of Healing Secondary Trauma.

Book Review-It’s Not You, It’s What Happened to You: Complex Trauma and Treatment

Over 40 years ago, post-traumatic stress disorder was recognized in DSM-III.  Still, we’re finding that people who have encountered trauma are stigmatized and treated with suspicion about whether their symptoms are real.  It’s Not You, It’s What Happened to You: Complex Trauma and Treatment unravels trauma and its aftereffects in a way designed to reduce stigma and legitimize the impacts of trauma.


Adult Children of Alcoholics formed in the 1970s and began raising awareness of the long-term effects of growing up with one or more parents being alcoholics.  The expected instability, neglect, and abuse that would come at the hands of these parents led to lasting impacts on their children.  The vocal nature of the group helped to raise awareness of the critical impact of trauma.

It was 1998 when the first study of the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) hit journals, demonstrating just how large the impact was.  It’s 26 years later, and we’re still sometimes fighting to create awareness for how trauma impacts people.

It impacts a lot of people, with studies indicating that 80-90% of US citizens will encounter trauma in their lives.  Basically, everyone you meet has encountered – or will encounter – a trauma in their lives and will need to learn to adapt.


Trauma – even the psychological trauma that we’re discussing here – comes in many forms.  It’s not one size fits all but rather a collection of types of trauma with different, related symptoms.  The types are:

  • Impersonal – The kind of trauma that would be defined as “an act of God.”
  • Interpersonal – The kind of trauma perpetrated by one human on another. It could be a rejection, a betrayal, a secondary trauma (more momentarily), or an institutional trauma.
  • Identity – An overwhelming loss of an aspect of identity.
  • Community – Trauma due to membership in a group and the group’s loss of identity.
  • Cumulative – Repeated occurrences of the preceding types.

One of the areas of trauma above – secondary trauma – is still one with a great deal of resistance to accept.  Those who experience it often minimize it.  They say, “But they’re the ones with the real trauma, I just saw it.”  What we know is that continued exposure to other people’s traumatic events leaves us with experiences that create our own trauma.  Secondary trauma is often cumulative in nature.  Listening to one bad story isn’t generally problematic – it’s the accumulation of days, weeks, months, and years of this emotional service that can take its toll.

Trauma and Attachment

Trauma is defined as a temporarily overwhelming condition.  It’s when your coping capacities are exceeded, and the body and psyche take defensive action, including compartmentalization and dissociation, to protect you.

Attachment refers to the work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth to document how children are attached to their parents.  Others have extended this work to explain how adults behave in close relationships.  Attachment styles – the way we relate to intimate others – are largely stable over time but can be changed.  They are commonly recognized as secure attachment, avoidant attachment, anxious attachment, and disorganized attachment.  Disorganized attachment is a style that leverages both anxious attachment and avoidant attachment.

Those who have a secure attachment style – either through their family of origin or through the work that they’ve done – are more likely to have healthy attachments in adulthood.  They’re willing to separate and come back together with their partner or friends without either avoidance or anxiety.  Conversely, those with a disordered style make it difficult for others to relate to them; one moment, they’re pulling the person in, and the next, they’re pushing them away.

Trauma is known to disorganize attachment styles.  In fact, some cults seek to intentionally create trauma to trigger a less-secure attachment style.  (See Terror, Love, and Brainwashing for more on cults.)  However, the opposite can be true as well: through work, support, and safety, people can convert from less healthy styles to more healthy styles.


A common source of trauma is loss.  This can be the death of a loved one, the rupture of a relationship bond, or the loss of a desirable object or situation.  The response to loss is grief.  (See The Grief Recovery Handbook for more.)  The loss need not be a physical loss.  Symbolic losses like the loss of innocence, the loss of youth, or the loss of ritual can be losses as well.  (See The Rites of Passage for the importance of rituals.)

The importance of loss is that it’s really the experience that you have with the loss that is more important than the physicality of it.  You could lose a ragged old bear or stuffed tiger, and it would be tragic because of the lost memories – even though the value of a worn Winnie-the-Pooh bear or Hobbes stuffed toy would be minimal at best.

Fear, Anxiety, and Panic

Fear is a relatively straightforward emotion.  We believe in the possibility of a negative outcome with some degree of probability and some degree of impact.  (See Emotion and Adaption for more about decomposing fear.)  Fear, however, necessarily has a specific target.  There’s something we believe can happen that we won’t enjoy.  Anxiety, however, is different in that we cannot put our finger on a particular stressor or negative outcome.  Instead, we feel overwhelmed and ill-prepared to defend ourselves against some unseen, external force.  In the extreme, this can create physiological impacts.

These impacts can be seen as a panic attack.  Panic attacks are generally not related to a single fear but rather are the escalation of anxiety to the point where our bodies can’t handle the onslaught of neurochemicals being triggered by the anxiety.

Guilt, Shame, Impostors, and Alienation

Brene Brown has made a career of studying shame, and she explains there’s an important difference between guilt and shame.  (See I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) for more.)  Guilt is the feeling that we’ve done wrong.  Shame is the feeling that we are wrong or bad.  Instead of being something that happened, it’s our identity.  The problem with shame is that it immobilizes us and makes us believe that we’ll never be worthy of love and connection to others.

Impostor syndrome is the way what we describe a situation where you feel as if the praise or accolades that you’re receiving aren’t deserved.  The thought is “if they really knew…” then they’d realize that you’re a fraud – an impostor.  Where shame is that you’re a bad person, impostor syndrome believes you can’t be a good person in the way that other people believe you are.  If you were a truly good person, then the trauma (bad things) wouldn’t have happened to you.  There’s a core – mistaken – belief that bad things don’t happen to good people.  Clearly, they do no, matter how stubbornly we hold on to the falsehood.

Alienation is properly being separate – or alien – from the group.  When we experience trauma, we can believe that we’re separate from others.  We believe that no one else has gone through the same things that we have.  Of course, it’s literally true that no one has gone through exactly the same traumas.  However, there are many people who have gone through similar traumas, but we can’t always see that.

When asked the direct question, “Do you think no one else has experienced this trauma?” the logical answer is almost always, “No, someone else has experienced this.”  But that requires the effort to acknowledge our feelings and then contrast them to reality.

The Avoidance Trap

It doesn’t seem like a big deal.  You just don’t feel like going out tonight.  Leftover frozen pizza and a glass of wine or a can of beer seems easier.  The problem isn’t in the individual decision to forgo a social encounter – we all have days where we’re “all peopled out.”  The problem comes when this decision slowly becomes THE answer and erodes the social contact we need for our mental survival.

When our trauma interferes with our decision-making, and we fear that we won’t be accepted, that we’ll be subjected to guilt or shame or the fear that we’ll be retraumatized – that is when we have a problem.  The avoidance behavior itself amplifies the intensity of the trauma (or traumas) we’ve faced.  The subtle decision to stay in gives the trauma more power over our lives than it deserves and reinforces its ability to change us in ways that are neither desirable nor healthy.

Instant Memories

Our brain has two relatively distinct memory systems, each with its own quirks.  Our explicit memory system, the one we use when we recall facts and think about our past, is subject to adjustment over time.  We reconstruct memories, filling in details from the current moment rather than really remembering.  We color and shape our memories with our emotions, moods, and subsequent experiences.

The other side is the implicit memory system, which maintains awareness of emotional and physical state.  Generally speaking, the memories that are recalled are of near perfect quality because our emotions, moods, and subsequent experiences have little effect.  Implicit memories are ultimately converted into (or attached to) explicit memories.  This process is supposed to happen automatically as we sleep.

However, disruption of this process for any reason – including being awoken in fear or confusion of the memories themselves – prevents the processing.  Our brain makes no distinction between simulation – or replay of the memories – and current-time reality.  Until the implicit memories are anchored in time with their connection to our autobiographical, explicit memories, they come on us like we’re in the current moment.

That’s why we experience flashbacks, which can cause our pulse to race and our blood pressure to rise whether we’re conscious of it or not.  Flashbacks are incredibly scary and disorienting.  The first thought is how this can be.  Walking down Main Street, USA, and simultaneously being in a combat zone or at the scene of a disaster is incompatible, but in that moment, our brain is experiencing both.  The disorientation leads to fear.  It’s not just a fear of the recalled implicit memories but that you’re “going crazy.”  It’s terrifying to believe that you’re developing some mental illness, because we interpret ourselves as our consciousness, and we fear its loss.

In some cases, the trigger between the current moment and the implicit memories isn’t known – so there’s no way to predict when we might experience this again.  Frankly, it’s easier if you know you interpreted a car backfiring as a gunshot.  Not that you can necessarily avoid it – but at least you can understand it.

The real work is making it easier to process the memories, so they have less likelihood to intrude on the current moment.

Love, Affection, and Happiness

These are birthrights.  They are a part of the human experience, but they’re also concepts that traumatized people often believe no longer belong to them.  Because of what happened to them, they can’t expect to ever be loved.  They can’t expect others to show them affection.  They don’t believe that happiness is something they can even aspire to.

The problem is that even when these birthrights are affirmed, some people with trauma see themselves disconnected from the rest of humanity.  They believe that, somehow, the world has decided they shouldn’t have the same rights as other humans.  They believe in the isolation – and have never been told that 80-90% of people will experience a trauma in their lifetime.  What they see as something that separates and isolates them from humanity and its gifts – love, affection, and happiness – is actually a thing binds them to humanity.

The Silence of Trauma

One of the reasons that people don’t know how many people have faced trauma in their lives is because we don’t talk about it.  The belief that if it happened to me, I must have done something wrong, may be helpful in our initial coping by allowing us to feel like we can prevent it again.  However, in the long term, it’s harmful, because to expose our trauma exposes our guilt and shame.  To expose the trauma that happened because of our behavior means we’re sharing our fault.

Though it’s untrue, it’s still a substantial barrier.  Instead of meeting people every day who we know have trauma, we meet people whom we assume haven’t.  Instead of speaking of our trauma – and healing – we remain silent and sentence others to the alienation that we ourselves have felt.

To overcome the silence, we need to know – and share – It’s Not You, It’s What Happened to You.

Trauma is the Black Hole Around Which Mental Illness, Suicide, Substance Use, and Despair Circle

The world we live in seems to get faster every day.  While the Earth rotates at the same speed, we’re inundated with increasing news and noise.  We see human suffering scattered in the form of mental health, substance use, despair, and suicide.  What is difficult to see in all the noise is the degree to which this suffering comes from the same place.  Trauma obscures its presence through shame and denial.  The cycle of trauma pulls people, communities, and our world into its grasp.

As we continue to learn about trauma and the talons it has in us years after the initial contact, we become more convinced that it is at the root of many of the problems we’re facing as a society and individually today.

In service of helping everyone understand trauma better, so that we can be better prepared when it comes and learn how to process it, we’ll be posting book reviews every day next week for trauma-related books.

We know that almost everyone will have significant trauma in their lives.  If you’ve not experienced a significant trauma yet, it’s likely you will.  You can use these resources to prepare yourself or support those you love.

Book Review-Kindness and Wonder: Why Mister Rogers Matters Now More Than Ever

I recently finished printing a 3D model of Mister Rogers’ neighborhood trolley.  It brought me a strange sense of joy to think of the little trolley that transported viewers from the real world of Mister Rogers’ house to the make-believe world.  Both ends of the trolley track ended in places of kindness and wonder.  Kindness and Wonder: Why Mister Rogers Matters Now More Than Ever is an exploration of how he wove principles and values into the social and emotional education of children.

The Helpers

I mentioned in my review of The Good Neighbor how Rogers’ mother implored him to look for the helpers.  He took this to heart and was always scanning the news, sidelines, and behind-the-story story for the helpers.  On the surface, this hunt seems like little more than a chance to placate our need for balance.  Rick Hansen in Hardwiring Happiness explains how we can – and should – focus on the positive to counteract our natural bias toward negativity.

However, there’s a deeper insight at work here.  To see it, we need the lens of Rick Snyder and The Psychology of Hope.  He explains that hope is a cognition based on our knowledge of how to reach the desired goal and our commitment to reaching it.  Extending this a bit, hope operates on internal and external dimensions.  We can know how to do it ourselves – or believe someone else does.  We can feel as if we have the strength ourselves or that others will come to our aid.

When we don’t look for the helpers, we don’t find them, and we fall victim to What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI).  (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more about this bias.)  By looking for the helpers, we’re able to call the idea of others helping us in our burdens to mind more easily.  That means that we can more easily retain hope.

The Difference One Person Can Make

When speaking of Fred Rogers, one might easily see the difference that one person can make.  His seemingly tireless dedication to using television to teach children left the world a better place.  However, if you asked Rogers about this phenomenon, he wouldn’t be speaking of himself.  He’d be speaking about a friend named Jim.

Jim Stumbaugh was a “big man on campus” who was the star in track, basketball, and football.  After sustaining an injury, he ended up in the hospital.  Rogers’ mother arranged for Fred to take Jim his homework.  Fred and Jim became lifelong friends.  Jim’s influence redirected Fred Rogers in ways that likely led him to be the powerful force for good that he became.

It’s important that Jim didn’t do this intentionally.  He wasn’t intending to change the world – he was simply returning the favor by helping the “shy kid” learn to be himself more fully.  By helping Rogers become himself, he gave the world a great gift.

The question it leads one to wonder is how can a bit of kindness – nothing monumental – make a real difference in the world?  And also, how could you ever know how your little acts of kindness will change the world?

The Magical Tiger

Daniel, the striped tiger, was a small puppet provided by the station manager – whose name was Dorthy Daniel.  Daniel popped out of a clock with no hands and leapt into the hearts of little viewers and Rogers’ original cohost of The Children’s Corner, Josie Carey (Vicari).  Josie, with cameras rolling, admitted to Daniel that she was upset.  It was a magical moment when Josie was pouring her heart out to a puppet.  Reportedly, Carey would later attempt to recount her discussions with Daniel to Rogers, having forgotten that cameras were rolling and, more importantly, that Daniel was performed by Rogers.

One can’t help but see that if an adult can have a conversation with a puppet, then it’s safe for children to do so as well.  By speaking of her feelings to a puppet, Josie modeled the kind of emotional vulnerability and emotional management that Rogers hoped, he would later tell Senator Pastore, children’s programming could bring to America.

Learning by Doing

When Rogers started in television, it was a new medium without rules.  It started basically as radio with a picture before evolving to what it is today.  During this evolution, people were doing things to see what would and would not work.  There was a period of intense experimentation.

When Rogers came to Pittsburgh, he wasn’t just experimenting with how to create a children’s program, he was finding ways to get things done without either financial or people resources.  The trademark opening of Mister Rogers Neighborhood was inspired in part by the fact that Rogers wore sneakers on set to eliminate the noise as he ran from one thing to another.

Yes, he did work before airtime, but during airtime, he’d move from playing music on the piano to being the puppeteer, and, by the time he had Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, acting on screen.  It’s true that you learn a lot by doing – and everyone on the team was doing a lot.  David Newell, for instance, was the shows’ publicist and the actor portraying Mr. McFeely.  Joe Negri, a musician of some acclaim who worked on the show, also found himself in front of the camera as Handyman Negri.

Simplify Complicated Things

It’s a subtle skill that isn’t noticed when done right.  Taking the complicated and distilling it to its minimal elements makes things that appear complicated simple.  Einstein reportedly said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”  Lost Knowledge explains how our schema for understanding topics gets more complex and how this can interfere with our ability to speak to others.  The Art of Explanation and The ABCs of How We Learn explain how we need to simplify complicated things to make them easier to learn.

Rogers’ process for simplification was described as a translation to “Freddish.”  (See The Good Neighbor for the process.)

Safe Place to Go

When your world is chaos.  When your parents are fighting when they’re home.  When you wonder where your next meal will come from – if at all.  When you don’t know where you’re sleeping for more than a few days at a time.  These are the times when you need a refuge.  This is – to a greater or lesser degree – what Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was.  It was a place where kids could see good in the world, possibilities, and a baseline stability that may have been lacking.

The challenges of poverty aren’t unique to the decades when Fred Rogers was producing the show.  Robert Putnam was able to see the differences between the affluent and the less affluent in his book, Our Kids.  His earlier book, Bowling Alone, speaks to the breakdown of community and how it harms people who have the least resources.  The breakdown of social capital (Putnam’s words for it) has only continued based on the feedback about churches continuing to lose members and attendance.

A Message of Understanding

Not only was the neighborhood safe, but it was a place where understanding and acceptance pervaded.  There were the episodes that broke color lines and those that spoke of the difficult topic of divorce at a time when it was unspeakable.  Rogers projected this sense that he was listening to each individual child – and was careful not to appear as if he were spying on them through the television.

Understanding is a good start, but it’s not where Rogers stopped.  He wanted every child to know that they were accepted as who they are, just as he was accepted unconditionally by his grandfather.

Make Goodness Attractive

One of the difficult challenges facing anyone who wants to do good is to change the perception from the idea that doing good is hard or painful to a place where good seems attractive.  Today, we see too many examples of shortcuts and swindling.  We hear stories of harm and horror.  The journalism adage that “if it bleeds it leads” leads us away from the benefits of goodness.

More than ever, we need to help everyone understand how helping others helps you – not in a tit-for-tat sort of way but rather that you receive while giving.  (See The Evolution of Cooperation for more on tit-for-tat.)

Translating Care from Inside to Outside

The Dalai Lama is known the world over for his compassion.  However, there’s one place where Fred Rogers might disagree with the Dalai Lama.  The Dalai Lama explains that compassion is having empathy for someone’s suffering and a desire to change it.  (See A Force for Good.)  Rogers might push this further and seek tangible progress in translating the internal care we have for others into outward signals, signs, and actions.

It’s probably splitting hairs, as the Dalai Lama seeks to project his influence without much direct power – but it’s important to realize that people don’t know about our desire for their care unless we can demonstrate it to them with Kindness and Wonder.

Book Review-The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember

It’s Joanne Rogers’ wisdom that starts The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember.  Written the year of his death, his grieving wife was able to share her vision of Fred Rogers in a way that no other could – except perhaps Fred himself.

Courage, Love, and Discipline

These are the words that Joanne used to describe her husband.  Courage is too often reduced to a fearless movement forward, but that’s not Rogers.  He reportedly did have fears – but he chose to move forward when he felt them, demonstrating true courage.  (See Find Your Courage.)

Love is complex.  Certainly, he loved his wife (eros), but he also had brotherly love (philos) and worldly loving kindness (agape).  (See The Four Loves for more.)

Discipline is something that’s often overlooked with Rogers.  He produced – on a shoestring budget – a striking 65 shows per year for most of his career.  He rose at the same time, prayed, and swam.  He reportedly never waivered from his 143-pound stature as an adult.  There was a discipled, committed quality to him as he served his post as a Presbyterian minister through Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Truth About Ourselves

“Discovering the truth about ourselves is a lifetime’s work, but it’s worth the effort.”  You’d think you’d know yourself by now.  You’re the only one who knows all of your stories, yet the truth is often that we don’t know ourselves as well as we’d like to believe.  It’s true that we know all the stories – but it’s equally true that we couldn’t enumerate them if we tried.  The truth is that we’ve got tacit memories that haven’t been and likely can’t be converted to explicit memories.  (See Lost Knowledge.)  More than that, our memory isn’t one long stream of information from beginning to end.  As a result, we need cues to get back to our stories – and they’re not always forthcoming.

Our morality isn’t the result of a single conscious decision but is instead the aggregation of our experiences.  (See The Righteous Mind for the foundations of morality.)  Similarly, by evaluating the sum of our experiences, we may – or may not – expose the basic motivators that Reiss identified in Who Am I?  Dan Richo in How to Be an Adult in Relationships speaks of the five As – attention, acceptance, appreciation, affection, and allowing.  Developing these for ourselves can take a lifetime of reflection.


Dr. Orr, a mentor of Rogers, said, “There is only one thing evil cannot stand and that is forgiveness.”  This simple statement exposes the truth that it took evolutionary scientists decades to discover.  Robert Axelrod in The Evolution of Cooperation explains how tit-for-tat is an effective strategy for winning.  The simulation he ran pitted two programs against each other in a game called the prisoner’s dilemma.  The best state is cooperation; the worst state is when the other party defects and you don’t.  This provides incentives to defect when your opponent won’t – and to cooperate when they will.

In the first round of Axelrod’s competition, tit-for-tat won against a mixture of other strategies.  However, there was one strategy that would beat tit-for-tat.  In tit-for-tat, the approach is simply to be cooperative on the first round and then do whatever the other party did on the last round.  The better version occasionally (but not always) “forgave” a previous transgression and operated cooperatively.

It seems that not only evil cannot stand forgiveness but also that forgiveness provides for a better evolutionary basis.

Learning and Loving

John Gottman calls it “attunement.”  (See The Science of Trust.)  It’s present in the couples that are the most successful in maintaining their relationships and those who are happiest.  It’s simply learning and responding to the other person.  In Rogers’ world, learning about others is loving them.  Whether in a romantic relationship or a friendship, the more that you learn about the other person, the better you are demonstrating your love for them.

There is no loving – caring – for others if you’re unwilling to learn what is important to them and how they view the world.

Comparing Love

There’s an oddity in mathematics where two infinities cannot be compared to one another.  They’re large – infinitely large – but their sizes cannot be compared.  If they show up as the runaway result of an equation, you know you’ve reached a terminal point where your analysis must stop because you can’t compare one infinity with another.

Love has the same incomparable quality.  “Love you more” is a common statement in our family, but one that’s intended to convey the maximum intensity of love without literally comparing the love we feel for one another.

As a corollary not shared in Rogers’ world, grief, too, has an immeasurable quality about it.  No two events can be compared, nor can any two reactions.  (See The Grieving Brain.)

Our Talents

There’s a parable in the Christian bible that always confused me.  Matthew 25:14-30 speaks of a master who is leaving and who entrusts different numbers of talents to his three servants.  The problem is that the word “talent” in this context is a sum of money.  However, we’re all given skills and talents in our lives – which aren’t money.  There’s an important question about what we do with these skills and talents.

Even Rogers occasionally wondered if he was using his talents best.  He was a driven man – who understood rest – but he wondered if he was doing “enough.”  Of course, enough is a dangerous word.  (See I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t).)  He was a talented musician, puppeteer, producer, and performer.  He used these talents to create the world we know as Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.  He used his talents to create The World According to Mister Rogers – at least in the confines of the show.

Book Review-Life’s Journeys According to Mister Rogers

It’s fitting that Joanne Rogers, Fred Roger’s wife, would open Life’s Journeys According to Mister Rogers.  Written in 2005, two years after Fred’s death and using his quotes, the book pays homage to his wisdom.  However, It’s Joanne’s wisdom and peace that is striking.  “When the day turns into night, / And you are way beyond my sight, / I think of you.”  As openings go, it’s powerful.  It sets the tone for a journey through Fred’s beliefs and his view of life.

Fascinating Journeys

One of the resounding thoughts that comes across, both here and in other works written about Rogers, is that he was always interested in others and trying to connect.  (See The Good Neighbor, The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers, and The Mister Rogers Effect for other works on Rogers.)  Rogers didn’t need a guide like James Spradley wrote in The Ethnographic Interview; he naturally looked for ways to learn about other people.  His heart seemed to have room for everyone.  Despite keeping 80 hour weeks during production season, he’d find ways to listen to anyone who he ran into – especially children.

Mentionable and Manageable

They’re the words that Rogers used in a famous congressional testimony before Senator Pastore.  He felt that emotions should be mentionable, and through that, they’d become more manageable.  He was chided for his “touchy-feely” approach.  He was teaching social-emotional learning well before it was fashionable.  Somehow, he knew that the development of a child into an adult required learning how to work with emotions.

Gentle Roots

We are too often not gentle with ourselves.  We rush through our days criticizing what we didn’t get done, what we don’t know, and how we could have – or should have – done better.  However, if we want to discover who we really are, we need to get to the roots, and roots are fragile things that need to be treated gently.  They’re the place from which we pull our nutrition and strength.  Without them, we’ll be left adrift in the journey of life.

You Contains Multitudes

It was Walt Wittman who wrote, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then, I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”  However, it speaks to Rogers’ perspective that you shouldn’t let any one thing define you.  You’re not your job description, the awards you’ve received, or even the things you’ve done.  You are unique and special “just the way you are.”  It’s too easy to simplify ourselves to the trivial and meaningless things that exist in life and, in doing so, ignore the special, unique person inside of each of us.

Pulling Away

Rogers’ son, Jim, for a time stopped talking to his parents.  Rogers commented, “the different generations within a family may have to pull apart for a while for each to find its own healthy identity.”  I don’t know that it was his recollection of the story of the prodigal son or a wisdom that his son would likely return.  It doesn’t minimize the pain that he and Joanne felt at the distance – but it affirms the need for individualization, as Erik Erikson discovered (see Childhood and Society).  Rogers and Erikson were well acquainted through work at the Arsenal Nursery School.  It would have been hard to grow up with someone so revered as Rogers as a father.  Either way, it just shows that there are reasons for temporary estrangement in every family.  (See Fault Lines.)

Speaking and Listening

“We speak with more than our mouths.  We listen with more than our ears.”  We speak louder with our actions.  There are numerous accounts of Rogers taking time that he didn’t have to make phone calls, respond to letters, or generally connect with those who were kind enough to reach out to him.  Our actions speak volumes.  (See also Heroic Leadership.)

Listening goes beyond the simple conversion of air pressure waves into electrical impulses in the brain.  Hearing and listening aren’t synonymous.  Listening involves an intent to understand what is being said, to compare it to what we know, and, most importantly, to be curious.


This book was assembled after Rogers’ transition to death.  While death has a special level of grief associated with it, every transition has loss and grief.  (See Managing Transitions for more.)  Rogers knew that there is a final transition at the end of his life’s journey.  There’s a peace in understanding Life’s Journeys According to Mister Rogers.

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