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Book Review-The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters

Humans have gathered since our first dawn as a species.  We did so to share our resources and to protect one another.  We’re better together than we are alone, and it’s this togetherness that has allowed us to become successful.  However, because we’re so used to being together, we hardly give gathering a thought.  Occasionally, when we think about gathering a few more people than normal or people who don’t know each other, we’ll ponder it a bit, but it’s more accidental than intentional.  In The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, Priya Parker explains that if we want to have successful gatherings, we need to put a bit of thought into it.

Go Further

There’s an old African proverb (the specific source of which can’t be traced) that says, “If you want to go faster, go alone.  If you want to go further, go together.”  It’s at the heart of why we gather.  It’s not faster.  It allows us to reach further heights.  Of course, there are a number of enabling conditions that must be just right for this to take place – but without the initial “together,” we can’t get there.

Conditions might include those that Kantor proposes in Reading the Room, those from William Isaacs’ work Dialogue, or the psychological safety proposed by Amy Edmondson in The Fearless Organization.  Efficacy may be found best using Scott Page’s approach in The Difference or Richard Hackman’s guidance in Collaborative Intelligence.

One of the most striking ways that people were brought together was in Florence, Italy, when the Medici family gathered people with different skills and interests and allowed them to work and interact with one another.  (See The Medici Effect for more.)  Their efforts to bring people together kicked off the Renaissance period.  We discovered that there were ways of teaming up and sharing that were effective at driving creativity and productivity.  (See Team Genius for more.)

Finding Purpose

Organizations which were once plagued by ineffective meetings and who have now encountered an enlightened leader require that meetings have agendas.  The agenda spells out why people are gathering, what the desired outcome is, and which items will lead to the desired outcome – at least, good agendas do this.  “Wasteful meetings” is a common disdain that comes from both internal and external large corporate surveys.  Too much time is wasted in meetings where there is no objective or agenda.  People meet because they believe they’re supposed to meet rather than to get something specific done – or to coordinate on a specific project.

Simon Sinek in Start with Why encourages us to find the purpose before everything else.  Steven Covey describes it as “first things first” in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

The Law of Numbers

The size of the group matters.  Small groups of around six offer intimacy.  Groups of 12 can build trust – and some intimacy.  Groups of 30 start to create buzz and electricity.  Groups of 150 are about the limit to the number of people that can feel like a single group.  These numbers are consistent with Robin Dunbar’s research.  (See High Orbit – Respecting Grieving.)

When planning a gathering, planning for the number of people is key to designing for the purpose of the gathering.  While you may want to invite more people, sometimes those additional people can disturb the goal.

Venue Vectors

Venues come with scripts, patterns that tend to play out over and over.  They’re expected, and that expectation drives more of the same.  Sometimes, the patterns are so ingrained that we don’t even see they’re happening.  Meet at a college, and people will expect to be lectured to – rather than engaging in a discussion.  Meet in a library, and people will expect to stay quiet.  (See The Public Library for more on library culture.)  The coffee shop implies a casual meeting rather than one with a drive through an aggressive agenda.

When you pick the venue, you’re necessarily shaping how the interactions will happen.  More than just the traffic flows and the catering options, venues veer us towards or away from our purpose.

Don’t Leave Me Alone

As the host of the gathering, there’s a tension between over-controlling the event and failing to let things spontaneously emerge and under controlling the event and leaving the participants to fend for themselves.  (See On Dialogue for emergence.)  There’s the idea that, if you don’t structure the time, people will be left to themselves.  The truer response is that they’ll be left to the mercy of the other participants – and that can have some embarrassing results.

Parker recounts an event where too much freedom was given to participants, and despite the small talk, they had managed to not get introduced to one another – and, as a result, the conversation was strained.

Social Contracts

All gatherings are social contracts.  People give up something – most notably, their precious time – and they want to know what they’ll get for it.  Sometimes, it’s the opportunity to meet someone new, hold interesting discussions, or have a new experience.  However, there’s always some implicit contract about what they’re giving and what they’ll be getting – or, at least, what they might get.  After all, in most situations when we attend a gathering, we don’t know for sure what we will get.  We get a raffle ticket and hope that our number is picked for a prize.

Failure to articulate the value proposition – or potential value proposition – for the group is a surefire way to have people fail to accept the invitation and fail to show.  With group dynamics being what they are, there’s no telling what not having the right – or enough – people may do to your gathering.

Strange Confessions

Sometimes, the groups that come together can share honestly because they don’t know each other – not despite their lack of relationship.  Sometimes, the things that people must share are too heavy to be borne inside of a long-term, caring relationship.  They must first be tested in the waters with relative strangers to provide comfort that they may be shared with closer relationships without fear of recrimination.  The strange thing about the group in which these things are shared is that they invariably end up feeling like sacred spaces.  People bond and connect quickly – even if those bonds turn out to be fleeting.

Hot or Cold

For most people, the conflict in a new group is anxiety producing.  Most people are conflict avoidant, and the sometimes candid and direct feedback that evolves between two or more participants in a meeting can make others duck and cover.  Clearly, this doesn’t allow everyone to bring their best selves.  On the other extreme, there’s the problem of groups who are too conflict avoidant, and the conflicts that the group needs to have never happen.  As a result, the group gets stuck being nice and getting nothing done.  Even in gatherings, we need to consider how the group dynamics are playing out, which conflicts need to happen to get out in the open, and which conflicts can be safely avoided because they can’t serve any purpose.  (See Radical Candor for more.)

Turning an End into a Closing

Kahneman explains how the Peak-End rule guides what we think of events.  (See Thinking, Fast and Slow.)  His research showed that the ending of any experience mattered more than it should.  While endings are often left to chance, they need to be an integral part of your planning.  Parker suggests that you not end with thank yous – those can be second to last.  Instead, end with the thing that you want people to most remember or experience.  If you do it just right, you may find that everyone has a powerful and moving experience in The Art of Gathering.

Book Review-Why Won’t You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts

Everyone finds places where they’ve made a mistake, done wrong, or inadvertently harmed someone else, and an apology is called for.  At some level, everyone needs to learn how to better apologize, to heal the hurts that they have caused.  Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts is a way to learn more about how to do that – and what prevents us from doing it.  Harriet Lerner’s work is familiar to me: having been referred to by Brené Brown, I’ve previously read The Dance of Connection.  When I was doing my post, Anatomy of an Apology, I didn’t know that she had written about apologies.

I’m happy to say that she didn’t disagree with anything I said – but she did add more than a few enhancements that make sense for anyone struggling with apologies.

Why Apologize?

Perhaps the best place to start is to understand why we care about apologies in the first place.  It’s simple: we want to maintain relationships.  Whether it’s the damage that permeates families when there’s an argument that splits the family, like discussed in Fault Lines, or simply friendships or community relationships that are blocked by hurt feelings, we need to find ways to rebuild relationships after a harm has been done.

Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace explains one of the reasons that we want to apologize to others: to address a betrayal.  However, that’s far from the only reason.  Anything that causes the other person pain or frustration is a reason to apologize.

Apology Math

As humans, we have a tendency to want to apologize for precisely the amount of the pain of a disagreement – as we calculate it.  However, as a comedian once said, “Anyone that believes that relationships are a 50/50 arrangement doesn’t understand women or math.”  When we try to calculate the amount of the situation that we’re responsible for, we’ll invariably calculate it differently than the other party.  As Gilovich explains in How We Know What Isn’t So, we all believe we’re better than we really are.  It’s a better strategy to work on an apology that allows for the concept that the other person may believe more of the situation is ours to own than we believe.

Ifs and Buts

“I’m sorry if…” and “I’m sorry, but…” are both non-apologies.  I called out “but” but not “if” in my post.  There’s a nuance to “if” as a part of an apology.  It indicates that the person issuing the apology either doesn’t know what they’re apologizing for – or they’re unable to accept that it’s your truth and thereby validate it.

No Golden Ticket

Another challenge with apologies is when the party issuing it expects that it’s an instant ticket for forgiveness, like it’s a get-out-of-jail-free card that they can pull out and use at any time.  This confuses both forgiveness and how it differs from forgetting.  Forgiveness cannot be demanded; it can only be offered.  The person issuing an apology cannot expect forgiveness – though sometimes that is the implicit ask when an apology is offered.

Lerner is careful about forgiveness.  She shares that forgiveness need not be binary yes or no but rather a continuum between yes and no – or zero and 100.  Her perspective on the reason for forgiveness and how it works is nuanced, and in all candor, I’m not entirely sure that I understand the distinction that she’s trying to make.  I’ve always looked at forgiveness as a willingness to let go of the transgression and move forward.

There are several versions of a story of Buddhist monks, who were traveling and came upon a woman who asked to be carried across a river.  One monk did; the other monk, after some time, confronted the first about having broken his vows to never touch a woman.  He replied that he had only carried the woman across the river, and the second monk had carried her for much longer.  Inherent in this is acceptance or completion.

The assumption that things will be the way they were before – which is another common expectation – also confuses forgiveness with forgetting.  Forgiveness doesn’t require that we trust the other person again.  We need not trust them in the same way or to the same degree.  It only means that we need to move forward.  Ultimately, the desire for forgiveness is to return to the same level of trust that happened prior to the incident.  While this may happen, it doesn’t have to if the situation warrants a change in trust.  (For a comprehensive understanding of trust, see Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited.)

Responsibility, Remorse, Restitution, and Reassurance

Lerner quotes John Kador from Effective Apology with, “We apologize when we accept responsibility for an offence or grievance and express remorse in a direct, personal and unambiguous manner, offering restitution and promising not to do it again.”

While this may be the most effective apology, I rarely see it in real life.  Often, the reassurance that the person will avoid doing it again is missing.  You’ll notice that I weakened Kador’s word “promising,” because I don’t believe it’s right to make promises that people can’t keep.  In some cases, a promise is too strong a commitment, particularly when the offense is minor.

Otherwise, it’s important to take direct responsibility.  In Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), we see the impact of half-hearted acceptance of responsibility.  Remorse is carried by the words “I’m sorry.”  Restitution is also missing from most apologies, as there’s very little can be done when we’re speaking about hurt feelings.  Obviously, if there’s a tangible loss for which restitution can be offered, it should be.


Sometimes, we’ll receive a criticism for which the person may desire an apology through our actions but in ways that would be unanticipated and unfair.  I volunteered for years with a twelve-step program where there were different types of addicts and hurting people.  Once of the things we were constantly monitoring were the complaints from people about triggering comments and media.  With regularity, we’d trigger someone in the audience with a song or a media clip or the presenter for the week.  (See The Coddling of the American Mind for what triggering is.)  It became a very complicated dance.

In some cases, the offending element was clearly over the line.  For instance, I was at an event that was honoring fallen heroes, some of whom died by suicide, and a song that was promoting suicide was played.  (The good news is that I was apparently the only person in the audience who caught it, having been conditioned to look for it.)  More frequently, we weren’t sure whether the element could reasonably be considered triggering.  We ultimately learned to walk the line together to share content that we needed for the rest of the audience knowing that we would get some complaints, and we’d talk to them individually to work through them having been triggered.

The tricky part from the apology perspective is to acknowledge the feeling, say we’re sorry we caused it, and offer restitution in the form of conversations to help them become less triggered – which is good for them.  Missing would be reassurance we won’t do it again – because, in some cases, we knew the media was on the schedule in the future.

When others offer criticism, we can honestly share, “I’m sorry I didn’t see it that way.  I’m sorry it was offensive to you.  Thank you for the feedback, it’s the only way I can try and prevent this in the future.”

The Attack

Sometimes, the criticism rises above the simple and moves into a character attack.  These are obviously more challenging.  Instead of saying that we’ve done wrong, they’re saying that we are wrong.  They’ve crossed the land of guilt and moved on into shame.  (See I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) for more about the differences between shame and guilt.)  Here, Lerner shares wisdom and stories that affirm that an apology need not be immediate.  A simple response that conveys that you want to understand the feedback and process it before responding is sufficient.

The problem is that we can apologize for what we did but not who we are.  It will take time and processing to separate the characterizations from the events that caused people to make those characterizations.

The Listening

Lerner explains that even the most heartfelt apology may fall flat if the person receiving the apology doesn’t feel heard or believes their concerns were not understood.  Having been on the receiving end of someone trying to apologize but refusing to take the time to understand what it was that they did that was hurtful, it intensified the hurt and moved us further apart rather than closer together.  Instead of bringing us closer together, the failed apology moved us further apart.

It moved us further apart, because it was a strong signal that my relationship wasn’t even worth understanding my pain.

The Deception Box

The capacity of the human mind to deceive itself is impressive.  It never ceases to amaze me the extent to which one can warp their perceptions to allow them to accept their actions and maintain the personas they have for other people.  In Leadership and Self Deception, the situations that lead to self-deception are called “boxes.”  Once someone enters a space where they’re not honest with themselves, they’ll often continue the distortions and attacks on others.  Lerner explains that once we become defensive, it’s hard to get back to a place of openness where we can hear others and can respond more wholly.

When inside the boxes, it’s also hard to know yourself.  When you “believe your own press,” you can’t hear your faults or opportunities for improvement.  You can’t express yourself to others at a level that exceeds your own understanding of yourself – and that can be seriously limiting.

Accepting Inevitability

Sometimes, there isn’t an apology to be offered.  The person who was harmed may have cut off communication to protect themselves from further harm or may simply be unable to hear an apology at this time.  The person who is willing to apologize must realize that there are times when the apology could be harmful – and times when we’ll be prevented from offering it.

Ultimately, the decision to make an apology where we’ve wronged someone – or where there is a rift – is the decision about whether we want to continue to be right or whether we want to be in a relationship.  This is at the heart of Lerner’s other book, The Dance of Connection.

No matter what the circumstances, we can all find useful information in the question Why Won’t You Apologize?


Book Review-Effective Apology: Mending Fences, Building Bridges, and Restoring Trust

I’ve learned that, in legal encounters, apologies are often avoided.  Over the years, I’ve occasionally encountered situations where I’ve got contracts that are materially breached by larger entities.  The degree to which the breach caused me harm could be questioned, but the fact that they violated the terms of the agreement couldn’t.  In truth, when I confronted them on the issue, I didn’t want any restitution, I wanted them to agree to not repeat the transgression.  However, instead of an apology, I got stonewalled, and it was frustrating.

In Effective Apology: Mending Fences, Building Bridges, and Restoring Trust, John Kador explains how to do an effective apology and, more importantly, why we don’t always do them.  Stonewalling may be a very bad thing to do to a relationship, but it’s something that lawyers have been taught to do.  (See The Science of Trust for more on stonewalling.)

Legal Apologies

There’s a funny thing about apologies when it comes to legal conflicts.  Attorneys are taught not to show their hands to their opponents and certainly not to give them things they can use in court to their client’s detriment.  Apologies are treated as acts of admission and therefore reduce the burden of proof for the opposing counsel.  However, the research is emerging that apologies are often much less costly than arguing it out.  We’re finding that not only are the plaintiffs – or wronged parties – much less aggressive in their demands, juries are more compassionate to those who seem contrite.

Despite the fact that 34 states have laws prohibiting the use of doctors’ statements of regret against them, malpractice attorneys still often recommend that their clients not apologize – and, more frequently, route all communications through the attorneys.

Perfect Truth

Apologies are both a perfect solution to imperfection and a signal that we’re more interested in relationships and truth than our ego.  Apologies aren’t easy, but they’re an essential ingredient to a life that is aligned with finding truth instead of accepting our perceptions as if they’re fact.  It’s a critical resuscitation of relationships that are struggling under the weight of hurt.  As imperfect humans, we must accept that we are going to make mistakes.  What matters is how we handle them.

Compassion for the Victim

The center of an effective apology is the compassion for the victim.  That is, we must first recognize the harm caused to the victim, and then we have to have a desire to provide some form of restoration for them.  Too often, we view apologies as a ticket to instant forgiveness.  It isn’t.  We twist the apology to support feeling good about ourselves.  We take the focus away from the important issue that someone has been harmed – and, as someone we’re in a relationship with, we care.

Outcomes Not Intent

Explanations – in general – complicate apologies.  The reason for that is simple.  The victim was hurt, and that’s what matters.  They’ll have to heal, but they want to believe that they won’t be hurt again.  (See Hurtful, Hurt, Hurting for more about the pathway of hurt.)  In general, explanations don’t matter, especially if the intent was hurtful – to hurt the person intentionally, that’s worse, because it implies that it’s the character of the person and therefore it may happen again.  It gets harder as we move away from intentional hurt and towards unintentional hurt.

The next level of evaluation is whether the outcome was reasonably foreseeable.  Could or should you have foreseen the harm you might cause when you took – or failed to take – the action?  This is often where things break down.  We live in a random, probabilistic world where outcomes are never truly certain.  (See The Halo Effect for more on the probabilistic nature of our world.)  We also live in a world with diverse experiences, where it’s not possible to know what everyone who we will interact with will have been through.

Shared Experience

Decades ago, if you wanted to have something to talk about, you could talk about what was on television last night or what the community concert was like.  These helped to synchronize us by giving us all one relatively common experience that we could build from.  NBC had “must-see TV.”  Before that, the world of three television channels (if you were lucky) meant that everyone basically saw one of three things.  Today, we have time-delayed viewing of television, so we don’t know what someone has or has not seen – except for major sporting events.  That doesn’t even address the fact that people are watching YouTube and TikTok, and the variety and reservoir of content is vast.

It’s becoming harder and harder to find shared experiences and therefore a shared understanding of what might cause someone harm.  In The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff tackle trigger warnings and the relative absurdity that happens when we try to prevent people from ever being unsettled by content.  Apologies are the way we get around that.  We simply say, “I’m sorry.  I didn’t realize that would be upsetting to you.  What can I do next time?”

Prediction Engines

We are, at our core, prediction engines.  We use our massively expensive brains to predict a future that we expect to see.  Our brains, in fact, use somewhere between 20-30% of our body’s glucose (energy) while amounting for only 2-3% of our body mass.  Our brains’ abilities are keenly focused on not just basic pattern-matching type prediction, which we share with other animals, but also the ability to forecast the future and, importantly, predict the behavior of others.

We’ve emerged as the dominant life form on the planet by our ability to work together.  Our cooperation and our predictive capacity are twin benefits of our brain.  (See The Righteous Mind for more.)  That has allowed humans without extensive fur, thick skin, powerful claws, or sharp teeth to thrive.  It turns out that the ability to work together is more evolutionarily important than any of those attributes.  (See The Selfish Gene, The Evolution of Collaboration, and Does Altruism Exist? for more on evolution and the forces.)

Prediction, while being a fundamental aspect of consciousness, is far from perfect.  The Signal and the Noise and Superforecasting both lay out the challenges with predicting the future – and offer some help with what can be done to improve it.  However, neither of these really reach the depths of exploring the problem of prediction as Noise does, which lays out how our judgement is flawed.  Of course, Noise isn’t alone in this – How We Know What Isn’t So, Predictably Irrational, Incognito, The Tell-Tale Brain, and many more illuminate these problems.

Working Together

Working together is a complicated process.  It turns out that we can read people’s minds – something we call “theory of mind.”  (See Mindreading for more.)  However, we can’t read people’s minds with absolute certainty.  Instead, we can only approximate what we believe that the other person is thinking.  Our predictive capacity is based on our shared experience.  As we move to less and less shared experience, we’re increasingly less likely to be able to predict what is in someone else’s mind.

“You Should Have Known”

It’s one of those phrases that sets my hair on end.  Someone says, “Well, you just should have known.”  I wonder, exactly how?  The answer is rarely forthcoming, and the reality is that we can’t expect others to know what’s inside our heads.  In fact, when we do, it’s like we’re setting a trap for them.  If they miss the cue, or they guess incorrectly, then it means they don’t care about us or love us.  John Gottman in The Science of Trust explains how we have sliding door moments, where we can turn towards someone, away from them, or against them.  Turning away is to ignore the other person – not necessarily intentionally – and against them is to snap back.

What’s interesting is that, by saying that the other person should have known, we’re positioning a conflict on unreasonable grounds – and that’s just not fair.

Judgement – Understanding vs. Agreement

Topping the list of things that separate us from relationships and each other is judgement.  When we judge that someone is doing something bad, we shun them and separate.  However, if want to get through an argument or apologize, we need to avoid judgement.  Instead of looking for agreement with the other person – judging them positively – we need to stop and focus on understanding.  To achieve an effective apology, we need to understand how the other person felt – even if we don’t agree that those feelings are reasonable.  We can accept that their understanding of the situation is their understanding – even when it doesn’t match reality.

We do, of course, need to make the decision about whether we try to bring reality into the situation if their perception doesn’t match reality – but often times, this makes things worse.  Tom Gilovich explains in How We Know What Isn’t So that they don’t attempt to openly accept disconfirming evidence.  Instead, they move to “must they” accept it.  That’s a very high bar that’s hard to meet.

The Five Dimensions

Kador proposes that every effective apology has the following five dimensions:

  • Recognition – Acknowledgement of what hurt the other party.
  • Responsibility – The actions (or inactions) that led to the other party’s harm.
  • Remorse – The acknowledgment that the other party’s harm wasn’t right.
  • Restitution – An offer to compensate the other party for the harm they felt.
  • Repetition – A commitment to prevent or avoid future harm.

The lack of any of these dimensions puts the apology effectiveness at risk.


One of the questions that comes up when someone apologizes is whether they have remorse – or whether they simply regret getting caught.  This doubt comes from the lack of trust in the repetition.  When someone doesn’t express any intent to stop the behavior – or the expression isn’t believed – then we’re faced with the idea that the person doesn’t regret the action or the harm that it caused but rather that it was discovered.  This often occurs when there’s a breach of trust such as infidelity.


The expression that the behavior won’t happen again is often a stumbling block to the apology.  There are some places where it’s impossible to say that you won’t make a mistake again.  Consider, for a moment, that you have friend who is transitioning gender, and you use the wrong pronouns in your conversation with them.  You can certainly commit to continued efforts to prevent using the wrong pronoun – but providing a guarantee that you’ll never use the wrong pronouns again is unrealistic.

Conversely, if there’s a behavior that clearly violated moral boundaries, it is expected that one would commit to preventing another offense.  In the extreme, if someone murders another person, it’s reasonable to ask that they commit to not murder anyone else.

Reasonable Expectations

Whether directly stated or simply implied, the apology creates an expectation that the person apologizing will not repeat the behavior.  In the interest of the relationship, whatever the expectation set by the apology is, it should be met.  Failure further erodes trust, even trust in apologies.  We have a saying “Sorry, not sorry” that describes this condition.  Someone speaks an apology without any intention of changing (or even monitoring) their behavior.

Ultimately, an apology is an attempt to recover a relationship.  Sometimes this means that we have to give up the sense that we’re right – but it always means that we need to consider the impact of the act and the apology on trust.  (See The Titleless Leader for more on “right or in relationship” and Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revisited for more on trust.)


The timing of an apology should be set by the person who was harmed.  They should be able to find conditions that makes them the most comfortable.  Twelve-step groups believe the person who has been harmed should control the conditions of an apology (amends) and when it should be made – including the possibility that “never” is a valid answer.  (See Why and How 12-Step Groups Work for more.)

Ain’t No Thing

If someone makes the effort to do an honest apology, the recipient shouldn’t dismiss the apology.  Telling the apologizer that it’s “no big deal” or “don’t worry about it” dismisses their commitment to the relationship.  Certainly, letting them know the apology is accepted is good.  However, dismissing the apology may be dismissing their honest attempt at improving their own behaviors.


It’s important to note two things about forgiveness.  First, forgiveness isn’t a given.  Second, forgiveness isn’t forgetting.  A good apology, Kador explains, shouldn’t ask for forgiveness.  It should be entirely focused on the harm that was inflicted.  When you ask for forgiveness, you necessarily shift the focus from the victim to you.  That’s not how it’s supposed to work.

Forgiveness isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card.  It doesn’t mean that the other person won’t be suspicious or observant in the future.  It’s just the release of the relational poison.

That’s the best hope.  If you can remove the relational poisons, then you’re doing an Effective Apology.

Book Review-SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed

It’s time to draw the line between the dots.  SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed is the final missing piece that connects the dots between Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, The Evolution of Cooperation, Does Altruism Exist?, and Adam Grant’s Give and Take.  It’s the bit that explains how givers – cooperators – can end up on both the top and the bottom.  It’s the part that explains how defectors can get the best of cooperators – or be rooted out by the cooperators depending upon the conditions.

Mutation and Selection

All the way back to Darwin, we’ve believed that the survival of the fittest that drove evolution is based on a set of twin ideas.  On the one hand, we have mutation – that is, changes from a single standard into multiple variants.  On the other hand, we had selection pruning away those variants that weren’t the best, most adaptive, and most effective in a given environment.  Where mutation diverges, selection converges.  It’s an elegant expression of a fascinatingly complex process that takes place over generations – but it’s incomplete.  If we leave only these two forces, then we’re stuck with Dawkins’ Selfish Gene.  There’s no room for cooperation.

That’s why we need to accept that cooperation is a third principle that is added to the first two.  It drives evolution as well but in a subtle way.

Survival of the Fittest Group

To explain how evolution might have favored cooperators, we’ve got to think on multiple scales.  We must think that groups of cooperators will succeed or fail.  We start with the prisoner’s dilemma and understand that the best scenario is for both parties to cooperate with each other.  From there, we must admit that the defector has the upper hand when dealing with a cooperator.  In that case, eventually, the defectors will populate a group well if not detected and removed by other means.

Consider two groups: one consisting of mostly collaborators, where the defectors have been mostly discovered and removed (expelled); and another, where the collaborators didn’t develop this capacity and were therefore all but eliminated.  The overall productivity and capacity of the group that has an abundance of cooperators will likely win a competition against a group of defectors because of their enhanced capacity.  It’s a case of to the victor go the spoils.  (See Human Capital for more.)


This, of course, relies on the idea that the cooperators have learned how to detect cheating.  As I mentioned in Does Altruism Exist?, the odds for learning to detect defectors may be long but they’re not impossible.  There are two ways that this detection can function.  The first is memory, and the second is reputation.  Direct reciprocity requires that players remember who has defected on them and who has not, so they can make a prediction about whether the other person will defect again.

Reputation requires a social capacity where someone can learn about another’s reputation – that is, the aggregate of their interactions with others.  If I can assess reputation, then I can use that as a proxy for my prediction of the other person’s behavior.

It’s important to pause here to say that these reputational forces are woven into humans deeply.  They’re at the heart of Diffusion of Innovations and the power of social marketing (see Guerrilla Marketing and The New Rules of Marketing and PR).  Since we’re using this information to predict behavior, we can’t ignore the ability for people to manipulate our prediction processes, as explained in Predictably Irrational, Noise, The Hidden Persuaders, and Influence.  Detection is hard because the defectors get better at hiding their defection.


However, there’s another evolutionary issue that must be addressed.  That is, once a defector has been detected, they must be punished.  In the indirect sense, their reputation does that.  It prevents them from taking advantage of others, but that’s not enough.  For that, we need to recognize the research around the ultimatum game, where two people are given $10 to split.  The first one gets to determine the split, and the second one decides whether both parties will – or will not – receive the money.  Consistently, when the first person splits the money unevenly at about 7/3 or 8/2, the second person decides to punish the first’s greediness by denying both the money.

From a strictly economic standpoint, this makes no sense.  However, it makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective where defectors – the greedy – need to be taught a lesson.  It’s generally accepted that the punishment to cost to punisher ratio needs to be about 3:1 – which lies between these two splits.

With detection and punishment, we have the possibility of preventing defectors from overtaking a generally generous group.  Vengeful punishment can pave the road of amicable cooperation.

The Makeup of Groups

This all presumes some makeup of groups.  First, there must be groups rather than one big mass of interacting actors.  Second, the groups must be sufficiently long-lived to allow for memory and reputation to take hold and defectors to be punished appropriately – that is, until they change their ways or are expelled from the group.  The key here is that cooperators need to be able to defend themselves against the defectors.

It’s also necessary to recognize that being a defector isn’t necessarily a persistent trait.  It can be that the punishment of the cooperators can convert a defector into a cooperator – exactly as we’d expect with reinforced behavior modification.

Mistakes and Generosity

The problem in any real-world situation is that we can never be sure of the other person’s intent, nor can we always assign reputation to the right parties.  We assign character traits to the other party when they were just learning.  In short, in the real world, we have to tolerate mistakes – our own and the other party’s.  As it turns out, even in the purity of computer simulations, you’re better off occasionally forgiving an offense.  Generous tit-for-tat is better than tit-for-tat and other strategies, because it occasionally forgives someone who defects against it.  It will never forget a cooperator but will occasionally forgive a defector.

The simulation result of this is that it prevents “death spirals,” where the two programs alternate between being generous and being a defector.  By occasionally giving an extra bit of trust, it stops the cycle and allows both parties to get the greatest benefit.

Simple Math, Complex Concept

The simulations and work on mathematical formulas revealed one consistent truth.  It says that when the ratio between the benefits of cooperating divided by the cost is greater than one plus the group’s size divided by the number of groups – then and only then cooperation will flourish.  Let’s tear that apart.

The ratio of benefit to cost must be greater than one as a baseline.  It’s got to have some innate value to cooperate in the first place.  In a traditional prisoner’s dilemma, with the following truth table, the ratio of benefits to cost is 1.2.  This can be calculated based on the total of 12 for years (for both parties) based on both possibilities of the other party compared to 10 total years for cooperation.

Cooperate Defect
Cooperate 2/2 5/1
Defect 5/1 3/3

What this says is that cooperation should flourish when the ratio between group size and number of groups is less than .2.

While all of this is quite abstract, it says that when group sizes are small, and there are many groups, the benefits of cooperation will likely cause it to flourish – in part because finding defectors is easier and because there are opportunities for inter-group competition.

Virus in our Genes

Evolution isn’t tidy.  In fact, it’s quite messy.  If we go back the primordial soup that existed on the planet Earth, there were plenty of building blocks from which things could start to replicate into patterns – that is, until those building blocks were consumed.  This required a different kind of replication approach – one which was more complicated.

The line between inanimate and animate life in the course of replicators isn’t clear.  However, we do know that the formation of the sort of programming language of genetics – RNA and eventually DNA – crossed us over into the place of individual cells, which contained all the pieces they needed to replicate on a whole new level.  The leap at this level required several different components of different replicating molecules to come together to work together and we’re not exactly clear how that happened.

It’s presumed that more replicators found themselves working together – because cooperation was good for their ability to survive and continue replicating.  These eventually became bounded inside of a membrane that we would today think of as a cell.  While we think of viruses as invaders today, it could be that these very same chunks – or ones just like them – became a part of us and the rest of the animal kingdom.

Bacteria in our Bodies

Most of the cells on the planet – and even in our bodies – are bacteria.  The truth is that our bodies aren’t pure human.  Our bodies are constantly trying to keep the bacteria in check in a delicate dance of cycles, rhythms, and defenses.  This is one of the reasons why stress’ tendency to turn down or turn off our immune system often spells disaster.  When the natural systems that we have to help us maintain the balance gets out of whack, it’s very difficult for us to recover.  (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more on the impacts of stress.)

Many of the most challenging diseases of our times are those that are classified as autoimmune.  Those are the ones where our own immune system starts attacking parts of the body, and the results are devastating.

Optimum Mobility

One of the challenges in defining the success of cooperators is their ability to address or avoid defectors and that requires a level of mobility that is neither too low – where they’re trapped – nor too large – where they cannot discover who the defectors are.  There’s a delicate balance between too much and too little.  It’s much like Richard Hackman’s explanation in Collaborative Intelligence in the need for groups to have a certain level of permeability – but not too little nor too much.

Levels of Religion

One of the most fundamental premises of evolution is that evolution operates at multiple levels.  Cooperation is beneficial, so it’s no surprise, given Richard Dawkins’ discussion of memes in The Selfish Gene, that the world’s religions are by-and-large recipes for creating greater cooperation.  They encourage us to work together and help us to become better SuperCooperators.

Book Review-The Common Base of Social Work Practice

While today we might recognize the role of the social work profession, that wasn’t the case in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  That’s why The Common Base of Social Work Practice was so important.  It helped to explain what social work meant and what the gaps are towards becoming a profession.  It might be easy to dismiss such a work either because one isn’t particularly interested in social work or because social work is so well understood.  However, it’s an interesting exposé about how professions are formed and what the resulting challenges are.  While other professions have come to their own since social work, none that I’m aware of have a seminal work that so expertly exposes the transformation.

Throughout this review, I’ll be connecting what social work was going through fifty years ago with the kinds of challenges facing change management today – because I believe every profession goes through similar cycles.


In the primordial soup of a profession, there are numerous competing hypotheses.  There are different perspectives and views that must be reconciled to reduce the options to a manageable number.  It’s not necessary that every profession subscribe to a single model.  It is important, however, that the profession settle into a set of relatively compatible hypotheses that can work in concert with one another.

But that means there have to be competing hypotheses that can be tried and tested.  It also means there needs to be enough of them that their relative merits and weaknesses can be exposed.  Images of Organization explains that, even in understanding organizations, there are multiple models that make it easier to understand some aspects and more difficult to understand others.  Professions are no different.  These views, as they evolve, must be numerous enough to cover the space that the profession intends to cover.  Without enough models, there’s no room for testing.  In The Evolution of Cooperation, we learned how Robert Axelrod’s second run of the test for programs to win the prisoner’s dilemma resulted in sixty-two entries.  In change management, there are easily that many models – many of which are covered in the Change Model Library.

Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene coined the term “meme.”  It was conceived as an idea that self-replicates and becomes popular within an environment – not necessarily to the exclusion of other ideas.  Healthy hypotheses have a meme-like quality in that they replicate between minds – and ultimately mutate and join forces with other ideas to form something new.

The obvious question – which doesn’t have a clean answer – is when the refinement process is done enough to form a profession.  No one knows.  Eventually, someone makes a statement so profound that it resonates enough to gather people behind it.

Knowledge Building

On of the threads of my world has been knowledge management, which is and of itself is a bit of a misnomer.  Knowledge management is, in part, about knowledge building – the terminology used in The Common Base of Social Work Practice – meaning that there needs to be a consistent set of knowledge that everyone in the field has.  This has an inherent problem that one must first agree to what that common knowledge that everyone should have is – and that problem is harder than it might first appear.

There’s an irony about knowledge management in that it has no association to coordinate activities and develop it into a profession, and there is no common base of knowledge (or awareness) that every knowledge management professional must have.  It suffers from a lack of clarity about what should be inside and what should be outside the circle of knowledge management.

Basic Elements

A tension exists between the need to be able to communicate across disciplines and the need to have a language and approach specific to the profession.  There’s the need to define the basic elements that are inside the circle and those elements that touch the circle from the outside.  One of the observations was that social work was taking its cues from the psychology field – which, in turn, was built on the medical model.

Social work has largely settled on an approach that addresses the person in their environment, recognizing Lewin’s formula that behavior is a function of both person and environment.  (See A Dynamic Theory of Personality.)  While awareness of psychology is expected, social workers focus more on the way that the person interacts with their environment.

Theoretical Knowledge

It’s tricky.  In learning anything, you want to know how to use what you’re learning.  It’s important that there’s an application aspect that allows you to clearly understand how you’ll use the information.  (See The Adult Learner.)  However, we also know from The Art of Explanation that we need explain the overall landscape before delving into the details, so that learners have a way to connect what they’re learning.  That overall view requires a committing to some model for understanding the landscape – and ideally multiple models to avoid limitations in any one model.  (See Images of Organization for more.)

Ultimately, we’re concerned with the idea of “far transfer,” which is the application of learning well beyond the time and space that it was learned in.  (See Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Training Evaluation for more.)  Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives might also look at this from an application or synthesis level when the components of learning can be combined with others in different situations to yield new and useful results.  (See Efficiency in Learning for more.)

Ultimately, the knowledge that social workers learn should be such that it can be applied to a variety of unpredictable situations.

Knowledge and Values

A profession is more than just knowledge.  While knowledge forms the foundation, professionals agree to a set of values that are consistent across the profession.  For instance, social workers explicitly agree in the need for dignity and respect of every individual.  They also believe that each culture has its own unique nuances and that cultural sensitivity is key.

Underlying every profession are a set of ethical standards.  It’s not just social norms.  It’s the challenges that Kidder describes in How Good People Make Tough Choices and the often competing foundations of morality that Jonathan Haidt describes in The Righteous Mind.

Occupation or Profession

The interesting question becomes when does an occupation or a career become a profession?  The defining characteristics of a profession seem to be a code of ethics, advanced or specialized education, and the perception of a higher level of skill or expertise.  I’d add to this definition that there must be a relevant problem that is being solved.  In Professional Learning x2, I explained that sometimes learning isn’t the point – sometimes the “paper” is.  When it comes to professions, we need solutions – not just the certification or license saying the person should be included in the profession.

The tricky part In the transition from occupation to profession – and the prestige that it conveys – is how to identify the skills and solutions that the profession will offer and what knowledge and training will be necessary to achieve that end.  Does every social worker need to be able to do individual-, group-, and community-level work?  Maybe – but maybe not.

Individual, Group, or Community

Social work broadly falls into three categories: individual, group, and community work.  Individual work is one-on-one with people who need help navigating and adapting to their environments.  Group work involves small groups of people who are being supported in growing their skills for adapting to their environment.  Community-level skills are trying to change the community as a whole.  Individual and group work is most similar to the work of psychologists, where community-level work requires a different set of skills.

Community-level skills effectively require an ability to see in systems.  Donella Meadow’s excellent work Thinking in Systems exposes the ways that stocks, flows, and loops create results in complex environments.  She explains how it’s possible to generate large impacts based on small inputs by knowing how the system functions and intervening in the right space.  Observationally, I’ll say I’ve seen a lot of social workers who are simply checking the boxes, doing the tasks, and have little or no understanding of systems or complex interactions.  (See Cynefin for more about different problem types.)  Too few have ever studied how to motivate people, how innovations are adopted, or the skills necessary to leverage a broader understanding to efficacy.  (See Diffusion of Innovations for more about adoption.)

In advanced practice nursing, there are two different kinds of roles: a nurse practitioner, who is an extender that allows medical doctors to see more patients; and a clinical nurse specialist, who helps change the relationship between the system, patient, and provider in ways that are more effective and efficient.  (I know I’m neglecting several other variants of advanced practice nursing in the service of simplicity.)  Both are advanced practice nurses, and both are trained with 80% or so of the same content, but their specialties are focused in different areas.  It’s possible that social workers need to have similar focus on whether they’re supporting individuals or systems.

Effective Helping

At the end of the day, the skill of a social worker is effective helping of people – whether they do it at an individual level or a community level.  It’s the effective assistance provided by a social worker that is the skill that justifies considering social work a true profession.  That builds on The Common Base of Social Work Practice.

Book Review-People in Crisis: Understanding and Helping

A crisis is a temporary inability to cope by means of our normal problem-solving devices.  People in Crisis: Understanding and Helping is designed to teach the means by which we can help people through their crises and to reach the other side by helping them better process their circumstances.

Danger and Opportunity

Crises are inflection points.  They’re points where there is great danger and threat of an inability to process or recover – and, simultaneously, they’re the threshold of opportunity.  The Chinese symbol for crisis is formed by the symbols for danger and opportunity.  The first step in a crisis is to help people see past the danger of the situation and to recognize the opportunity that is a part of the crisis.

Identity Issues

One of the key kinds of crises that people face are crises of identity.  Erik Erikson in Childhood and Society outlines a set of stages that he believes children go through.  Each of these stages causes us to alter our internal view of our identity, and therefore these transitions are periods of identity crisis of varying intensity.

We also face identity issues when we are not able to reconcile the way that we’re behaving with our ideal versions of our identity that we hold.  In How We Know What Isn’t So, Thomas Gilovich explains how we’re able to delude ourselves about our grandeur.  Sometimes, the gap in our self-perception is pointed out to us in ways that cannot be ignored.  Kim Scott, in Radical Candor, advises us to be direct in ways that can make it impossible for us to ignore the discrepancy between our identities and the results we’re seeing.  This all leads to a crisis of identity that may be small or may be large.

Blame the Victim

One of the negative aspects of our culture today is the tendency for us to blame the victim for their misfortune.  You may have heard “ye of little faith” as a subtle attack on the piety of others.  It was believed that misfortune befell those who were in God’s disfavor.  Today, we have a view that bad things happen to good people, and misfortune happens to all of us.  Despite this, we still will tend to wonder what someone has done to deserve their fate.

Albert Bandura calls this “victim locus” in Moral Disengagement, and he doesn’t believe it’s a good thing.  It unfairly judges people when they’ve done nothing wrong.  The Halo Effect explains that we live in a probabilistic, not a deterministic, world.  That means bad things can happen to good people.  Sometimes, there isn’t someone to blame – even if that make us feel more comfortable.  We want the perception that we have control of the outcomes that befall us – even if that control is an illusion.

Perception Matters

Compelled to Control makes it clear that control is an illusion.  Despite this, it’s an illusion that we like and want to keep.  Numerous studies have shown that we have less distress with unpleasant situations when we believe that we can stop them at any time.  Whether we can stop or have influence on the situation makes little difference.  What makes the difference is that we believe we have control.  (See The Hope Circuit for more.)

The reach of perception extends beyond simply the perception of control.  If we are willing to perceive that our circumstances are neutral or good, then we’ll feel happier.  We’re not talking about delusional thinking.  We’re talking about intentionally shifting your perception towards a place of acceptance of the circumstances and reveling in the positives, as Rick Hanson explains in Hardwiring Happiness.

Navigating the Crisis Maze

We build mental maps and models of our world.  Gary Klein in Sources of Power explains how firefighting captains have learned how fires work.  They have a model for fires, and it’s disconcerting when their models predict that things will happen, but they don’t.  Sir Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes character would call it “the dogs that don’t bark.”  It’s a small thing but a noticeable one.  The fire captains generally pull people back and build a new working model for the fire – hopefully, a better one.

Crises generally involve one or more fundamental beliefs that have been called into question or destroyed.  A parent that loses a child must release the “natural order” argument that they’ll die before their children.  It’s a fundamental – if unstated – part of the rules of living and a significant portion of the mental map.  More impactful is the couple who have lived together for decades and one person dies – or chooses divorce.  The map of the world had adapted to having the other person in it – and now it has to adjust to their absence.

It’s no wonder why being in crisis is so disorienting.  Our way of navigating the world is broken or bent, and we’re not sure what parts of our mental map we can and cannot use.  Navigating a world that has become a new and uncharted maze is very scary, and it’s why people coming alongside us during a crisis makes it better – particularly if they seem to know how to navigate the maze.

Replacement Families

In an ideal world, we’d have ideal families and would have developed secure attachment patterns.  (See Daring to Trust.)  We’d have families who loved us unconditionally and never judged us.  They’d be ever-present when we needed them.  However, we don’t live in an ideal world.  In fact, there are few constants more real than the fact that all families have their own dysfunctions.  Every family has aspects that don’t work well – but we’ve adapted, because that’s the way they are.

Increasingly, we’re finding ways of augmenting our social connection needs with friends.  Our friends become our replacement families.  When we need the support that a family might have at one time provided, we lean on friends instead.  Certainly, things are changing in our social capital relationships.  Robert Putnam explained this decades ago in Bowling Alone and more recently in Our Kids.  Sherry Turkle explains in Alone Together how our dependence on technology has made us more connected – yet less personally connected.

The good news of all of this is that it’s easier for people to find support in other ways when their families aren’t able to support them the way they need to be supported.

Sick Role

It’s sometimes too easy to find others to help us.  It starts to make the role of being sick too desirable and too easy to get into.  When someone identifies themselves as ill – or they’re identified as ill by others – they’re automatically granted certain graces that wouldn’t normally be available.  No one expects people who are ill to split wood and bring it inside to man the fire.  Instead, we grant them a pass and pick up the load.

There’s a delicate balance in play here that often gets out of whack.  We should allow people time to heal, and we should support them – as we would want to be supported.  However, at some point, we need to get people out of the sick role so they can work on healing and returning to fully functional members of the society.  One of the keys to getting someone out of a sustained crisis is to help them release their victim role.  We need to help them find a way to tentatively return to the fully productive world of accountability.

The Power of Caring and Sharing

When you’re looking at how you can help people in crisis, the answers may be unsatisfyingly simple.  It can be that the best way to help someone is simply to let them know that you care and to listen to them share.  If you look at the research about the efficacy of psychotherapy, there’s one clear factor that matters more than anything else.  It matters more than the type of technique you use or where you got your training.  The Heart and Soul of Change explains that it’s the therapeutic alliance: how much you connect with and believe that your therapist really cares.

You don’t have to be a therapist to connect with other humans, and that can be a powerful way of radiating healing.  In Why and How 12-Step Groups Work, I explained that much of the power of the groups is the new communities that form around people.

The appropriate strategies for sharing can be equally helpful.  Whether you use Motivational Interviewing or something else as a strategy to engage people in the process of telling their story, there’s something to it.

Suicide by Cop

Sometimes, direct strategies don’t work.  The genetic drive for self-preservation can be a difficult thing to get past even for those determined to die.  Sometimes, self-preservation diverts things into behaviors that are harmful in the long term – but aren’t immediately life threatening.  People have taken up alcohol, overeating, and drugs in an attempt to soothe their pain but also to create a scenario where their death is more likely.  Sometimes the strategies for indirect self-harm involve other people.

I remember the first time I heard it.  My brother-in-law at the time was a cop, and we had just watched a news story about an officer-involved shooting in his basement.  I didn’t really think that it was all that interesting when he told me that it was an officer-assisted suicide – and later “suicide by cop.”  When I asked more about it, he shared that people will provoke officers to the point where they have little or no choice but to shoot – and kill – them.  Afterwards, they’d learn that the gun wasn’t loaded or wasn’t real, but the person who ultimately would die would intentionally create the perception of a real threat.

People in crisis – who want to die but aren’t able to do the degree of self-harm necessary – often do strange things.  Sometimes, it’s simply risky behaviors; other times, it’s intentionally provoking their death.

Intimate Partner Violence

The degree to which women are harmed by domestic partners – or intimate partners – is staggering.  The research seems to suggest that the problem has been going on since the earliest days of humanity and that it’s finally being discussed more.  That doesn’t make it better.  One of the key questions that gets asked is, “Why doesn’t she just leave?”  The answer to that is complicated.

In Divorce, we learned that most women’s economic status decreased after a divorce.  In short, they’re less capable of meeting their basic needs than they were when they were married.  It’s also true that, before divorce laws were changed in the US, it was harder to get a divorce without a clear reason.  Of course, not all intimate partners are married, but there’s a clear answer that the economics of the situation may play a role.

The more tragic version of this story is that, despite protective orders and social protections, women who leave are often those who are harmed.  Their departure creates an anger in their partner that erupts into violence.  That violence can visit upon them as a murder-suicide or simply battery, and it can happen no matter where they reside.


One of the things that hold people in crisis is a sense of shame.  Coming across a situation that you don’t know how to process is natural, but when you start to focus on judging yourself for the situation, it becomes harder to resolve.  Certainly, there are situations of our own making.  We make bad decisions, and we end up with consequences that we don’t like.  We can feel guilty for those bad decisions, but when it changes from we made a bad decision to we are a bad person, there’s a problem.  (See I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) for more on the difference between guilt and shame.)

Bad things happen to good people.  It’s simple truth, but it’s sometimes hard to accept when you believe that you had a hand in the circumstances that you’re in.  This is particularly hard if you’ve been struggling with the same sets of behaviors and feel as if you’re continuing to do the things that you rationally don’t want to do.

Few people have heard about Jonathan Haidt’s Elephant-Rider-Path model, which explains that our rational beliefs are a tiny rider on top of a huge, emotional elephant.  (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch for more.)  The rider believes he’s in control, but the elephant always wins when he wants to.  We make rational decisions to lose weight or stop drinking, but our emotional elephant has different plans.  Our rational rider holds the reins with all the willpower they have but eventually loses their grip.  (See Willpower for more about willpower.)  Sometimes, losing the grip means that we feel ashamed that we can’t keep from the thing we don’t want.

We forget that willpower is exhaustible, and if we don’t change the systems around us and deal with the emotional hurt that drives us to the bad behaviors, we’re unlikely to permanently resolve the bad behavior.  That’s nothing to be ashamed of.  It’s something to recognize, but it’s often shame-inducing for some.

Opening Pandora’s Box

Helpers’ discomfort with certain topics can prevent people from getting help.  Abuse, suicide, death, and other difficult topics aren’t the kind of things that anyone wants to discuss – but sometimes we need to discuss them, especially if we want to be helpful.  Helpers often fear that, by asking difficult questions, they’ll “open Pandora’s box,” causing harms to spill into the conversation, the relationship, and the world.  While opening up the discussion on these sorts of difficult topics can require a bit of time to address well, it’s not like these things are contagious.

The way to talk about any difficult topic is to address it directly.  The advice, from The End of Hope and others, is to open up about secrets.  Not talking about a topic doesn’t make it go away – it only makes it fester in hiding.

Learning, Earning, and Returning

One of the perspectives of human lifecycle is that it’s three phases.  There’s a phase of learning – perhaps through the time of college.  There’s a phase of earning, where you’re earning a living, making money, and generally striving.  The final phase – retirement – is a phase of returning.  It’s a time of your life when you make an attempt to give back to and support others.  Retirement is often seen in the US as an opportunity to kick back and relax.  It’s a time to stand by and watch the rat race.

These three phases are punctuated by crises between them.  Deciding how to make money, to take the leap into a corporate rather than educational environment is challenging.  So, too, is the transition into retirement and the awareness that you’re no longer earning money, or at least not much money.

The way to find meaning in this last transition is to discover your why.  Simon Sinek in Start with Why and Clayton Christensen in How Will You Measure Your Life? explain the importance of having a purpose for your life.

Death of a Child

The worst thing in my life to date is the death of our son.  However, it’s more than the acute loss that I feel because Alex is no longer here.  There’s another aspect.  It violates the way that the world should work – or that I understand the world should work.  No parent should have to bury their child.  When you lose a child, you not only face the loss, but you must also contend with the fact that the world doesn’t work the way that you believe it should work.

It doesn’t require the death of a child to be in crisis.  However, sometimes that’s the reason why you find People in Crisis.

Book Review-The Selfish Gene

It all started with memes.  I wanted to know the origin.  I wanted to understand how they start, how they function, and how to generate them.  I discovered that the root was The Selfish Gene – and memes were conceived as the ideological counterpart to genes.  The book is long in the tooth yet as important to understanding evolution today as it ever was.  It explains not just the simplicity of selfishness but also how altruism can appear as a complex solution to the simple replication problem.

The Replicators

The most basic start of life, it is presumed, began with molecules that could convert raw materials into copies of themselves.  Ultimately, they’d consume all of the molecules that existed in their environment, and they’d have to evolve to more and more complexity to continue to replicate themselves.  In the process of competing to be able to replicate themselves, these mini-factories developed into the sequences that we today call genes.

The language throughout most of The Selfish Gene is intentionally open.  Dawkins is clear that his perspective is that a gene is a minimally sufficient unit to replicate.  It ignores the number of molecular sequences necessary to constitute a gene and instead focuses on the replication behavior.  This is convenient, since it allows for combinations of molecules in ways that say a gene can be of arbitrary length if it’s capable of replication.


Those that win in the replication game are those that can replicate the most – and beat out competitors of the raw materials.  There’s not intent or complexity, it’s just whatever can make the most copies wins.  The complexity only arrives when we discover the methods that the genes use to ensure their success – particularly in competition with others.

The Evolution of Cooperation

In The Evolution of Cooperation, Robert Axelrod explains the results of the game theory simulation work that he did.  He pitted programs against one another in a game of “The Prisoner’s Dilemma.”  The short of the game is that two robbers are caught by the police.  If both stay silent, they’ll each get three years.  If one defects, they’ll get only one year, while the other person gets five.  If they both defect and sell out the other, then they’ll both get five years.  The best selfish strategy is to always defect – if the other person doesn’t.  The best strategy for both parties is to not defect.  This simple setup allows for several strategies for determining whether the other person will defect and therefore what your best strategy should be.

This is the rise of complexity: predicting what others will do – or, more simply, adapting to the environment in which you find yourself.  The better you can detect what your competitor replicators are doing, the greater your probability of beating them out for precious resources.

Sexual Reproduction

Our sexual reproduction is just one of many strategies that have evolved by the genes that are cheating by offering a little less to the combination than they should.  Sexual reproduction involves the shuffling of genes through two parents.  Each provides half of the genes, and this constant shuffling leads to a lot of variation of gene combinations, so that genes can work together to ensure their replication.  Research on bees has shown that genes do, in fact, work together for their replication, with two separate genes being required to uncap and throw out infected grubs which collectively benefits the hive.

While it seems like there would be disadvantages to mixing genes through sexual reproduction, the benefits of being able to work with other genes quite obviously has some advantages too.

The Cheats

When it comes to sexual reproduction, there are cheaters – and they’re called males.  In my review of Anatomy of Love, I explained that men chase and women choose.  Dawkins lays out why that may have happened.  Assume that that the replication started with two replicators contributing equally to the offspring using sexual cells – gametes.  It would be beneficial for one to skimp a bit on resources while seeking out other gametes that were slightly larger, thus allowing the other parent to invest more in the reproductive process.  This could progress to the point where one produced many small gametes – sperm – and the other to produce fewer, larger, gametes that we’d call eggs.

From the moment of conception, then, females have invested more in the reproductive process than the males, and therefore they need to be choosier about with whom they mate.  It’s wise for a female to pick a male who she believes will be supportive through raising an offspring even if they didn’t invest as much initially.

Cheating evolves at a second level, when females pair with dependable males, making them believe that the offspring are theirs while secretly copulating with other males, who may have other desirable characteristics.  Similarly, males who can convince females that they’ll support the offspring but instead abandon them for another will have an evolutionary advantage.  For every action, there’s a counter action.

The Ultimatum Game

Perhaps that’s why we’ve evolved to detect and punish cheaters.  One of the classic tests that sociologists have used to test this is called the Ultimatum Game.  In it, there are two people.  The first gets to decide how a prize – typically $10 – is split.  The second person gets to decide whether either person gets the split.  In other words, if the second person doesn’t like the split neither person gets anything.

From an economic standpoint, the second person should never say no.  After all, even if the split is 9:1, the second person is a dollar richer for the experience.  However, that’s not what happens.  What happens in most tests is that when the split exceeds about 7:3, the second person starts disproportionately saying no.  They’ve decided that the first person isn’t fair, and they will punish them even at their own expense.

It’s an odd response until you realize that it would be necessary to prevent cheaters from taking over the replication game.

The Value of Groups

The Righteous Mind suggested that we became the dominant biomass on the planet due to our ability to have a theory of mind for other humans.  (See also Mindreading.)  This allowed us to work together and conveyed an advantage over animals that had to work on their own – or at least those with less ability to anticipate or predict the other animals’ movements.  Humans as a race are relatively frail.  However, our ability to cooperate conveyed more advantage than fur or tooth.  We live in groups because it is better for us to depend upon one another.

Social insects are a bit different in their composition.  They essentially divide into the bearers (of genes) and the carriers (of those who transmit the genes).  In other words, very few of the insects replicate genes, with most of the population running the factory that cranks out copies of these genes.  In effect, they’ve got their own slave labor built in, with workers blindly working towards the goal of replicating the genes of the queen.  This group arrangement serves all in the context of replicating their genes.


Memes are a thought or idea that replicates.  They replicate from one brain to another through imitation.  Memes survive in the same way that genes do: competing against rivals, their longevity, the ability to replicate, and the fidelity with which they are imitated.  Much like the early proteins that replicated in the primordial soup, there’s little indication of which ideas will replicate and which ones will not – and even more than that, which ones will remain over the course of years or decades.  Repetition and other factors increase the chances of a meme remaining.  (See The Hidden Persuaders for more.)

Many boomers and Gen-X remember the jingles and tag lines from the commercials of their youth.  Simple sayings like, “When it rains it pours,” (Morton Salt) and “Where’s the beef?” (Wendy’s) are stuck in our minds and periodically find themselves being reused and adapted.

In our social media world, we find memes that quickly come and go.  Very few memes have staying power, though some resurface from time to time.

Immortality Through Genes and Memes

Let’s face it.  Our bodies will die.  No one will live forever.  What we leave behind in this world are our genes – through our offspring – and our memes – that is, our ideas.  While genes have been the dominant replicators on the planet, they eventually seem to die out.  They may die out faster than ideas.  After four generations, someone has only 1/32nd of the genes from one of their ancestors (on average).  After a few more generations, the genes will be diluted even further, eventually potentially extinguishing all the genes from a particular ancestor.

Conversely, some ideas seem to persist.  Consider Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato from Greece.  What about Shakespeare and Yeats from England?  Some ideas greatly outlive the people who create them – and that’s why memes may ultimately become the dominant replicator on the planet. 

Parasitic Replication

We tend to think that our genes are pure representations of one animal – even the human animal.  What we rarely consider is how virus may be a separation of a gene or that a virus might integrate new genetic material into our genes.  We tend to think in terms of purity, but what if the actual combinations include parasites and viruses as a part of the evolutionary process?  If a parasite replicates as a part of the normal reproductive cycle of the host, how long will it be before the parasitic genes eventually become incorporated into the host?  There’s no definitive answer to this question, but it seems like eventually the two will become one.

Maybe one day our memes will be able to regenerate our genes, and it will come full circle.  Maybe we’ll realize the true power of The Selfish Gene.

Book Review-Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide

If you’ve ever wondered how a group of people might become so polarized and radical that they would do things that would normally be unthinkable?  What’s crazy is that what we often see as “crazy” levels of polarization is the normal reaction.  In Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide, Cass Sunstein explores the ways that people radicalize.  (Cass also wrote Nudge and was an author on Noise.)

The Amplification Effect

One might surmise that when you put people in a group, the resulting attitudes and behaviors would become homogeneous around the median attitudes and behaviors.  What we’d expect to see, then, is everyone behaving the same.  They’d have the same Ford Model T car in the same color – black.  However, observationally and through the research, we find that this is decidedly not the case.  Instead of moving towards the middle, groups tend to move towards the extreme.  As The Tell-Tale Brain explains, art relies on exaggeration of proportions to draw us in.  We’re naturally drawn to the extreme, and it’s particularly apparent when it comes to the behavior of groups.

Richard Hackman, in Collaborative Intelligence, helps us to see that the most insular groups aren’t the best groups.  He encourages us to look for groups that have the right properties of boundedness.  They must have enough stability to know who they are but enough openness to allow new members of the group to introduce new ideas.

In extremist groups, Sunstein explains that the boundedness is at its extreme.  The greater the degree to which you isolate a group of any kind from the broader society, the greater the probability that they’ll go to an extreme.

Like and Trust

One of the pernicious problems that we face as a society is the polarization that we see around us, from the Flat Earth Society, who seem to believe that the Earth is flat and can’t understand why the rest of us can’t see it, to the politics invading every aspect of our lives, including public health.  It’s difficult to have an intelligent conversation with people who see the world differently than you do, because they don’t like you and they don’t trust you.

Sunstein explains that people like you just a bit more when you tell them something they already know – or that aligns with their existing beliefs.  We know the people who are more than willing to tell you what you want to hear.  They’re called “Yes men,” and in the language of Buy-In, they’re given the name “Bendi Wendi.”  While most of us naturally recoil from the idea, we frequently fall into their web and become entangled in their lies and desire to build affinity (like) and trust with us.  (Paul Eckman in Telling Lies would argue against my characterization here, because the people who are misleading us are often genuinely moved in the moment towards our point of view.)

Trust is a complicated topic that’s core to being human and our need to be social.  Rather than addressing the topic in full here, see Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited for a comprehensive view on trust and The Righteous Mind for more on why we need to be social.  What’s important in the context of Going to Extremes is recognizing that we trust people we like.  If we simplify this, we trust people who agree with us.  In Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order, Francis Fukuyama, talks about how different cultures have different power bases for trust and how those power bases are changing.  Traditional centers of trust are breaking down, and social networks are becoming more powerful strongholds of trust.

One More Like and a Share

The idea that social media feeds us more of what we like makes sense.  The algorithms are designed to push to us more of what we like, so we will like the platform more, and they can sell advertisers on the need to advertise on their platform.  The algorithms, therefore, intentionally filter out views that may be contrary to ours.  The problem with this is that this is exactly the kind of isolation that Sunstein is explaining is a prerequisite to extreme behavior.  So, even if we’re still going to the grocery store and interacting with others, it can be that our electronic lives are intentionally being biased towards people with similar, or at least not objectionable, opinions.

This becomes evil when we recognize that it is the repeated portrayal of others as sub-human that is a part of every genocide.  Albert Bandura in Moral Disengagement and Phillip Zimbardo in The Lucifer Effect speak to what can happen when other people are considered sub-human.  However, this is exactly what we’re talking about when we’re talking about isolating groups together.  It allows for them to define the outside group as sub-human.

Exit Amplification

Another group polarization effect occurs as people elect to exit from the group rather than remain.  In Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, Albert Hirschman explains that when people exit, they have eliminated voice.  Their voice, which might have been a mediating factor, is removed from the group, pushing them further to the extreme.  He explains further that when exit is removed because the costs to exit are too high, the person may disengage and voluntarily remove their voice, because they’re resigned to the fact that their voice doesn’t matter.  This hopeless resignation may end in burnout, but that’s not generally a concern for the group.  (See Extinguish Burnout for more information about burnout and overcoming it.)

Drawing a Line at Asch

In Decision Making, Irving Janis and Leon Mann spoke of the research of Solomon Asch and how, in a simple experiment, he demonstrated that you could change people’s perceptions of line lengths simply by including confederates who answered with the wrong answer first.  This was a part of the research that followed the Second World War, when everyone was trying to figure out how genocide was possible.  Subsequent research has shown that the effect of others answering incorrectly doesn’t trigger conflict, but rather the person who is influenced by others consistently giving an incorrect answer is an altering of perception.

In the context of groups, when more people coalesce around an idea that may be objectively wrong, others are pulled along into the perception.  This is the heart of Janis’ concept of groupthink.  Groups will tend to think the same way because of the persuasive effect that it has on its own members.


Sometimes when you try to push people in one direction, they move in the opposite direction.  In Nudge and Decision Making, we find that sometimes a small push in one direction results in a larger response than necessary – and that moves towards extremism when we’re pushing towards the middle.  While overcorrection is at the heart of being Antifragile, that kind of overcorrection means we have to be careful to make sure we don’t make things worse.  Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology explains that many of the anti-drug-abuse programs from the 1980s made things worse.  DARE in particular was classified as a potentially harmful intervention.


Memes are more than just funny images with captions on the internet.  Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.  The fundamental concept is that ideas can replicate, mutate, and evolve – just like genes do.  Sunstein’s language is focused on the replication of ideas, particularly the rapid replication that he calls “social cascades.”  Think of Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point – at some point, movements become self-sustaining.  Sunstein points out that these movements change folks: they go from holding beliefs and perspectives of their own to relying on the beliefs and perspectives that they believe others hold.

Said differently, your internal trust of another person climbs high enough that you’re willing to accept their beliefs and perspectives without question – and that can be tragic.  For instance, Jim Jones convinced his followers in The People’s Temple to drink poisoned Kool-Aid – and to serve it to their children.  Most believed Jones so blindly they didn’t question anything – even mass suicide.  (See The Hidden Brain, Influence, and Split-Second Persuasion for more on the tragedy.)

Can I, or Must I?

The real problem with extremists is that, in whatever form, the question a person asks themselves switches from “Can I accept this?” to “Must I accept this?”  This subtle shift has powerful ramifications as the burden climbs much higher to reach “Mount Must.”  When our minds close and we become fixated on our existing perceptions – because they’re supported by our peers – we filter information with such a high degree of “must” that we can safely exclude almost everything.  We cannot, of course, apply the same filter to the information that we believe.  We need to cling to it and accept the lower chasm of “can” – so that we can maintain our beliefs.

The best way to avoid others going to extremes is to read and understand Going to Extremes.

Book Review-Touching Two Worlds: A Guide for Finding Hope in the Landscape of Loss

What do you do when your work becomes your personal life?  Perhaps you spend your time helping others with substance abuse, and a family member starts abusing; or you work with grief counseling, and suddenly, you’re faced with the death of a parent, a spouse, or a child.  It’s the place that Sherry Walling, a licensed mental health professional, found herself in.  In Touching Two Worlds: A Guide for Finding Hope in the Landscape of Loss, she shares the stories about losing her father and her brother.

Orientation Check

If you want to make sure that the person you’re talking to is oriented to the world – or connected with reality – you can ask them four key questions looking for practical rather than existential answers:

  • Do you know who you are?
  • Do you know where you are?
  • Do you know when you are?
  • Do you know why you are here?

If they can’t answer these questions, then there are big issues.  When you feel your grip on reality slipping – or at least you’re concerned that it is slipping – you can reconnect to a set of basic truths and ground yourself in the world by knowing these orienting questions.  The existential answers to these questions can be orienting as well.

In dealing with loss and the grieving process, one of the issues is that a loss can challenge three of your four existential orientation answers.  If you are a father and lose a son, are you still a father?  Often, we wrap our identities in with other people.  This is mostly good but can be overdone.  If our identity is wrapped into a person we lose, don’t we lose a part of ourselves?  Are you in the middle of your life, or is this the end for you as well?  If you’re not here as a part of this other person’s life, then why are you here?

The Club No One Wants to Be a Part of

When you lose someone close to you, you become a member of the club that no one wants to be a part of – but everyone eventually will.  The family of grief is a painful group that no one wants but everyone must one day have.  It’s common in loss to hear people accepting the reality of the loss of their loved one and simultaneously hating it.  They long for a way to not have this reality and, at the same time, understand that it’s unchangeable.

Goodness, Safety, and Predictability

It was years ago at the Indianapolis Zoo.  My wife left the wagon, which we had brought for my son to ride in, outside an exhibit.  When she returned, the wagon was gone.  We ultimately recovered the wagon when I spotted some people with children struggling to get it in their car.  I had a custom jacket in the wagon that they hadn’t removed, so it was easy to identify.  To this day, I don’t know if it was an honest mistake, or it was malicious.

However, to my son, it was the first time that he realized that the world may not be good.  Until that time, he had been sheltered from negative realities.  Luckily, it was a relatively small disruption to his sense of goodness.

We also attempt to instill in our children a sense of safety.  We know that the impacts of stress aren’t good, and that fear makes us behave in unpredictable ways.  (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more.)  In general, our egos protect us from the reality that we can’t protect ourselves from everything.  (See Change or Die.)  We like the illusion of control, because it makes us feel safe even when we know that control is an illusion.  (See Compelled to Control for more.)

Prediction is one of the primary functions of consciousness.  (See Quiet Leadership for more on Jeff Hawkins’ theory.)  Consciousness, and higher-order brain function, is very expensive from a calorie perspective.  It must have an evolutionary benefit to exist, and prediction is proposed to be that benefit.  We know that we’re not always right – but being right even some of the time is evolutionarily useful.  (See The Signal and the Noise, Superforecasting, and Noise for more on our errors and ways to combat them.)

The loss of someone threatens all three of these.  How can a good world have allowed our loss? How can we be safe if we’ve lost someone we love?  Who could have predicted this?

Landmines of the Psyche

After a loss, you never really know what will set you off and when it will come.  One moment, you’re floating through your day, and the next, you’re consumed by feelings of loss and sadness.  Years after the death of my brother in a tragic airplane accident, my wife got me a gift certificate to get up flying again.  (See Rusty Shane Bogue for more about the accident.)  I went from okay to very much not okay in a moment.  I was grateful for the gift, but it caused the memory and feelings of the loss to become unstoppable.  Sure, I recovered after a few minutes, but it was an instant return to the moments and days after his death.

This is far from the only time that I’ve been humming along and suddenly get derailed.  It’s a common experience with those who have experienced grief.  It comes back at us in a moment without warning.

Right Actions

The actions preceding the death are never certain.  When you’re told by an addict that they’re using, and you thank them for trusting you with the information, are you doing the right thing – or not?  As you’re considering the visitation time with a terminally ill family member, do you spend enough time with them – or too much?  The problem is that we perceive these as critically important times, and we have no way of knowing if what we’ve done is right or not.

We could quite easily become consumed by these thoughts and worries.  “What if” becomes the question that haunts the mind – until we’re able to find ways to accept our imperfection and realize that we did the best we could.

Finding Answers

A natural response to a death is to try to figure out the cause and the blame.  Was the cancer caused by the workplace, the pack-a-day cigarette habit, or service in a foreign country?  Did the heart attack come because of high cholesterol or a genetic predisposition?  These and a million other questions race through the minds of those who are grieving as they attempt to make sense of the situation so that they can regain their ability to predict and find a way to reclaim the idea that the world is good.

The problem is that, in many cases, there are no answers.  The accident just happened.  New tires or old tires don’t matter.  No caution or plea to be careful can rewind time and change the outcomes.  Answers are often nowhere because there are no answers.

Meaning and Brokenness

The loss of a loved one leaves us with brokenness, one that we’ll have to mend without their help.  One of the ways that we can do that is by looking for meaning – for us – in the events.  (See Finding Meaning for more.)  Brokenness and meaning are their own worlds that are intertwined with our experience of grief.  In the end, we find ways to find ourselves through the mess with our efforts to be Touching Two Worlds.

Book Review-Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief

Grief sucks.  Finding a way out from underneath the weight is the goal.  That’s what David Kessler proposes in Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.  How do you learn to grieve in ways that avoid suffering and allow you to find some meaning in the aftermath of loss?  Kessler argues that finding meaning helps to transform grief so that it’s less painful and less suffering.

The Grieving Process

Kessler’s previous books include co-author Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.  Kubler-Ross wrote On Death and Dying, a classic about how people respond to the prospects of their own death, which she and Kessler adapted to the grieving process in On Grief and Grieving (which I’ve not reviewed).  Not everyone is wildly supportive of this work and approach to both death and grieving for various reasons.  However, as I explained while defending it against the concerns leveled in The Grief Recovery Handbook, it’s solid work that’s often misunderstood.

Grieving doesn’t follow a single linear path from start to finish with regular checkpoints along the way.  Instead, grief is a deeply personal process that has no one answer.  One moment you’re accepting things, and the next you’re throwing things in frustration, desperation, and denial.  This is sometimes confusing to those who are going through it – or those close to them.  After a moment or month of return to denial, it’s hard not to question what progress looks like and whether things are headed in the right direction.  However, that’s not giving the grieving both the benefit of the doubt – and the space to grieve in their own way and their own time.

Nothing Prepares You

Candy Lightner formed Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) after the death of her daughter Cari at the hands of a repeat drunk driver.  John Walsh started America’s Most Wanted after the abduction and murder of his son.  Neither desired the tragedy – but they decided to make the best of it in hopes that others wouldn’t have to go through what they went through.  Knowing intimately the pain and torment of the loss of a child, they decided that no one else should have to.  They found meaning in a purpose.  They developed their grief into a force to prevent others from having to feel it.

Even those who have spent their lives teaching and writing on a topic can find themselves unprepared when it happens to them.  Kessler explains that he lost his 21-year-old son and how none of the work he had done teaching people about grief was enough to prevent his own loss.  He may have handled it better than most – but it wasn’t as if he managed to side-step the grief process.  What he did know was where all the signposts were.

Sense Making

One of the things that we know about humans is that we have a deep need for things to make sense.  If prediction is the fundamental purpose of consciousness, then we need sense-making to feed the prediction engine.  (See Mindreading for more about the belief that prediction is the fundamental purpose of consciousness.)  We know that we learn and think in stories.  (See Story Genius and Wired for Story for more.)  We even recognize the role that sense-making plays in whether someone will emerge from a trauma with growth or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  (See Transformed by Trauma, Opening Up, and The Body Keeps the Score for more on how sense-making relieves PTSD)

It’s no surprise, then, that to transform a trauma of the loss of a loved one, we need to make sense of it.  What is surprising is what that sense can mean.  It can transform someone from believing the world is a fundamentally helpful place to a view that the world is fundamentally hostile, and it’s necessary to protect oneself.  This is a fundamental belief, because it’s not easily changed – but the loss of a loved one is just the size of trauma it might take to shift it.

Conversely, the sense-making can be much, much smaller.  It can be that you develop an avoidance for the source of the trauma.  If your husband died in a motorcycle accident, you may develop a strong aversion to motorcycles.  The sense that you make from the trauma is personal, and it likely will never answer the question about why your loved one had to be the one.

Meaning Is What You Make of It

Meaning is what you make of the tragedy.  It can be a quest to change the world to make it better or form connections with others who’ve suffered similar tragedies.  The meaning you make isn’t the same meaning that someone else would make.

Love and Grief

It is possible to avoid grief – but at what cost?  Grief is the way that we experience loss.  It’s possible to avoid loss only through the avoidance of learning to love others.  If we don’t care about others, then we can avoid grief.  In the moments of deepest mourning and grief, we may briefly decide that this sounds like a good plan only to realize it’s a fool’s errand.  Love is what makes life worth living.  It’s the light in the darkness that we sometimes see in the world.

To be clear, love here is the relationship and connection that you have with others.  It might be the Greek eros (sexual love), but it’s more often philos (brotherly love) or agape (world love or compassion).  The Grief Recovery Handbook appropriately points out that grief is the way that we respond to loss, and therefore it doesn’t necessarily have to be related to love – but it often is.

Acceptance and Non-Judgement

The divorce rate of parents who have lost a child is high – too high.  Kessler attributes this to the fact that the spouses grieve differently, and they don’t allow for their partner’s grief in a way that accepts and validates it.  We believe the way that we grieve – as influenced by our societies, families, and personal experiences – is the way that everyone should grieve, and we’re confused when our spouse doesn’t grieve this way.

David Richo suggests that there are five As that we need in his book How to Be an Adult in Relationships.  Those As are attention, acceptance, appreciation, affection, and allowing.  Perhaps if everyone practiced these, we wouldn’t have to compound the tragedy of death of a child with the tragedy of divorce.  (See more about Divorce.)

Addicted to Grief

Capture speaks of how our processing of a situation or our life can leave us stuck.  It’s as if our loss has taken the wheel, and we’ve become helpless passengers on the journey of grief.  The process isn’t fundamentally different from the process of addiction, where someone starts with a coping strategy that progressively gains more and more control over them.  Some people can become stuck in their grief process, swallowed up by the support that we receive to the point that we fail to stand on our own or attempt to regain control of our lives.

While it’s natural to be utterly overwhelmed and unable to function after a loss, at some point, we’ve each got to figure out how we can work on our own healing.  No one can heal us – it’s something that we must do ourselves and it’s not easy.  The healing that we muster doesn’t mean our loss didn’t happen or won’t impact us, but it does mean that it no longer controls and confines us.

Suffering is Optional

Kessler argues that grief is necessary, but suffering is optional.  I agree in part – but disagree as well.  The word suffering is “the state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship.”  The losses that we’re speaking of necessarily cause suffering.  However, where I agree with Kessler is that the amount of time you spend in suffering can be influenced.  You can choose to remain in a state of persistent suffering, or you can crawl and climb your way out of the hole that is suffering.

Those who have lost someone are caught between two incompatible expectations.  On the one hand, they’re expected to return to “normal” as soon as possible.  People wonder if you’re “over it” yet.  On the other hand, we’re told the degree to which we grieve is the degree to which we loved the person we’ve lost.  In that case, shouldn’t we go on grieving forever?

The truth is that we will continue to grieve forever.  It will change and transform, but it will always be there.  We can choose to have the expression of our grief be pain and distress or we can simply experience it as a loss.

Why Me and What Do I Do Now?

There are two different ways to questions we ask ourselves in any loss – and we all use both at different times and to varying degrees.  The first approach is to ask the question, “Why me?”  This comes from a place of victimhood.  Why was I the victim of this unfair event?  The answer that life isn’t fair isn’t very satisfying.  While the question is reasonable and expected, you don’t want to build a home in victimhood.  (See Hostage at the Table for more on victimhood.)

The other question is, “What do I do now?” which represents an awareness of the agency we have in how we respond to the events that happen in our lives.  Losses happen that we have no control of.  We must simply accept they’ve happened no matter how painful they are or how much we want to avoid the outcome.  While losses aren’t controllable, the way that we react to them is.  Certainly, we should mourn the loss and grieve but we can choose for how long and in what ways.

That isn’t to say that we have conscious control of our grieving process, and we can decide that, on Tuesday at 3:02 PM, we’re done.  Instead, we control the responses in a way that encourages our recovery or leaves us in the same place of victimhood.

Life Worth Living

The person that we’ve lost can no longer be present for life.  Their death ends their participation.  However, we have a choice as to whether we are just going to be present for life or whether we’re going to find ways to make the best of what we have left – to thrive as much as is possible.  (See Flourish and The How of Happiness for more.)

Running into the Storm

Imagine for a moment that you’re out on the plains on a motorcycle with no protection from rain and storms.  There are no overpasses or anything to hide underneath.  Your options are to hunker down by the side of the road or charge into the storm.  Which option is a better option?  At first, hurling yourself headlong into a storm may seem crazy.  After all, why would you volunteer for more than what is already where you are?  The answer is because the storm is coming.  You cannot avoid it.  Turning and driving in the other direction will only prolong your experience of the storm.

When you face the storm and push into it, you reduce the amount of time you’ll be in it.  As the storm moves across the ground, you move forward and find the end sooner.  With our loss and grief, we can turn the other way and attempt to run from it, or we can face it and move forward at whatever pace we can manage.  If we face the storm and move into it, we’ll find the storm is over sooner.  No one is going to like loss, but maybe we can find our way through it by Finding Meaning.

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