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Book Review

Book Review-New Models of Bereavement Theory and Treatment: New Mourning

People are funny about death, grief, and bereavement.  We continue to stick our heads in the sand and pretend that death doesn’t exist – or at least that it won’t happen to us.  New Models of Bereavement Theory and Treatment: New Mourning seeks to share what we’ve learned – and how what we’ve learned doesn’t match what we’re doing.  Grief, mourning, and bereavement aren’t new topics.  I’ve read the classic On Death and Dying as well as The Grief Recovery Handbook, which provide perspectives into death, dying, and grief.  I’ve also read Top Five Regrets of the Dying to understand what people regret most before they die and The Denial of Death to learn how we avoid the thought of death in general.  However, New Models of Bereavement Theory and Treatment does offer a perspective that the other resources do not: a new way of thinking about the process.


Before getting into the meat of the work, it’s important to frame the perspective with some definitions.  We start that all death is loss.  That loss means something we had – like our relationship with the deceased – is gone.  The internal response to loss is grief.  It’s the way that we feel the loss.  The outward expression of that grief is mourning.  Suffering is the process of grief.  This is particularly true when the grief is unnecessarily extended, as in cases where people aren’t given the proper support.

These aren’t necessarily the definitions used by the book.  I use these definitions here, because they are most likely aligned to the definitions that others have and are more consistent with other literature.

It’s also important to recognize that the grieving process will differ by person and by situation.  We cannot force the process towards a natural end; however, we can support people in the process and reduce the suffering.

Detachment and Reattachment

Traditional models of grief are focused around Freud’s work and the need for the individual to detach from the loved one they’ve lost.  While this is a part of the process, it neglects an often critical aspect of grieving, which is preserving the other person as well.  Instead of completely severing connections with the deceased, the goal is to redefine the relationship with them.  In grief, we’re disconnecting the old relationship and replacing it with a new relationship.

This new relationship acknowledges that the person is no longer with us in a physical sense, but rather they remain with us in our memories and in our imaginations.  We can maintain a relationship with them by recalling previous memories and by simulating conversations with them.

It’s the critical process of redefining the relationship and creating a new attachment based on that new relationship that seems to have a healing and protective effect for people.

Radically Reorienting World Views

A common, but not universal, experience with people who experience a loss is the radical reorientation of world views.  We all use world views to define how we see the world.  We consider the world a generally helpful or generally harmful place.  We have a belief that the Sun will rise in the East and set in the West.  It would be incredibly disorienting if the opposite were suddenly true.  This is, in essence, what happens when someone whom you expected to be with for the rest of your life – or at least longer than the time you’ve had with them – dies.  This is particularly true when the loss is that of a child.

Children are supposed to bury their parents – not the other way around.  When a parent is forced to confront the loss of a child, they must also realize that the grand clockwork of the universe isn’t exactly the way they saw it.  When a parent buries a child, there is something profoundly wrong with the order of things.

It’s these world views – the things that are so woven into the fabric of life that we cannot directly see them – that must change when confronting the reality of death and that can be its own pain.

Frozen Feelings

One of the traps that people can fall into is the complete lack of feelings.  Because of conditioning while growing up, societal expectations, or our own sense of perfectionism, we can find that we don’t allow ourselves the inward expression of grief or the outward expression of mourning.  Instead, we bottle up the feelings.  We contain them so they don’t get expressed, and we don’t have to fear what others will think of us – or fear that we’ll never stop crying.

Unfortunately, this approach leads to two problems.  The first is that you can’t block out the bad feelings – the sorrow, the grief, and the fear – without also blocking out the good feelings like joy, love, and happiness.  While freezing our feelings off into their own space may be appropriate for a time, eventually the ice must thaw, and we must experience our emotions – bad and good.

The other challenge is worse.  If these feelings do remain bottled up for too long, the pressure will build, and eventually they’ll come out.  It may be as anger or resentment.  It might be an explosive outburst.  More tragically, it may be a psychotic break that leaves someone disconnected from reality and the love of the world.

The Story

In Trauma and Memory, Peter Levine explains how our implicit memories of an event – including being notified of the death of a loved one – exists outside of time.  It’s the process of converting these memories into explicit memories that places them into a time context.  Without that, we’re subject to flashbacks and other intrusive thoughts.  More broadly, we need to make sense of the trauma.

In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt explains how prediction is a core part of consciousness.  Inside Jokes explains that we’ve got mechanisms in our brain that detect errors in our predictions, and the reward cycle for detecting them is what kicks off laughter.  For the prediction engine of our consciousness to continue to run, it needs a new model of prediction, and that means integrating the events into a cohesive story that can make sense.  Without this, we’ll be stuck, unable to trust our ability to predict the future, and the world will necessarily become a much scarier, unstable place.

It was James Pennebaker’s work in Opening Up that made me aware of the healing power of writing down a trauma.  Writing down the narrative of trauma allows us to weave it into a story that makes sense as well as an opportunity to take a step back and see the potential benefits that can come from a tragedy.


We’ve got these expectations about death and loss that aren’t grounded in reality.  Ideas like we’re going to completely resolve any bereavement that we have and move on aren’t real.  Certainly, it gets better, different, and less painful at times, but anyone who says that it will end isn’t being truthful.

Similarly, we can’t prescribe a flow that all bereavement must go through.  There’s no amount of gnashing of teeth or wailing that is mandated for a given type of loss.  Instead, we must recognize that everyone will grieve in their own way.  A failure to express outward morning or acknowledge inward grief doesn’t mean that the person isn’t going through the bereavement process “correctly.”

It’s similarly not necessary that someone experience a great deal of pain in the loss.  It’s quite possible that the loss represents the other person being freed of their burdens in a way that brings them peace.  That isn’t to minimize the loss or indicate a lack of attachment but rather is an acceptance of things and how the world really is.

Who Cares for Whom?

Option B shares a model of circles of proximity to the deceased.  You provide support for those closer and seek support from those further out.  As a general model, it’s fine.  However, it breaks down inside of the nuclear family, like Newtonian physics breaks down at a subatomic level.  When a parent is lost, both the spouse and the children occupy the closest circle, and both need support from the outside.  However, inside the circle, things are not even.

Parents are expected to provide support to their children and not vice versa.  The hierarchy of the family unit suggests that this should be the order of things.  However, often, the spouse is unable to function at a level that allows them to support the children.  Instead of having reserves that allow them to get support for their needs and invest in the children, more frequently, the children must fend for themselves – and sometimes take care of the parent.  This causes long-term harm to the children as they’re forced into a parental, caregiving role before they’re supposed to.

Secrets and Security

You’re only as sick as your secrets.  Yet, in some families, it seems that secrets are all that there are.  Siblings who die at an early age are never spoken of.  Grandparents are just “away” with no expectation of return.  Even tragic illnesses that everyone knows about are just not discussed.

The problem is that, from a stability and predictability standpoint, children and adults learn that there’s always another shoe that can drop at any time.  We can’t feel safe and secure enough to share our feelings, because we can’t see what tragedy is coming around the next bend.  We can’t trust that the people we love and those that we depend on to care for us will tell us the truth so that we can predict some sense of stability in our lives.

The New Models of Bereavement Theory and Treatment accepts our need for safety, sense-making, and reconnection.

Book Review-The Road to Character

It’s a sort of challenge to the values of today.  The Road to Character proposes that, historically, we were more concerned about our character than our appearance.  We were more concerned with community than individual wealth and happiness.  We knew, the book supposes, that serving others was the path to joy and happiness.  It also proposes that we’ve lost our way.

Others agree.  Tom Brokaw wrote The Greatest Generation to acknowledge the work, sacrifices, and character of the generation that fought great wars and tamed nature.  While Chuck Underwood was looking at the differences in America’s Generations, he couldn’t help but acknowledge that things are different now.  They’re somehow more “me” focused.

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt express a similar sentiment in The Coddling of the American Mind.  What happened, they wonder, that we must have trigger warnings on everything, that people can be cancelled from university appearances because we disagree, and everything has been turned into a microaggression?  Instead of intelligent, thoughtful, and passioned debates about the issue, we’ve fallen into isolation and attacks.

Delayed Gratification

It seems like we lost our willingness to delay gratification.  If we were all preschoolers in Michel’s Marshmallow Test, we might eat the one in front of us before the researcher had left the room.  While there’s some question about the replicability of Michel’s tests, the concept of delayed gratification is important.  Albert Einstein called compound interest the 8th Wonder of the World.  The more you can save and delay gratification, the more interest works in your favor instead of against you.

What Other People Think About Me Is None of My Business

We’ve also become obsessed with our image – what other people think about us.  Image consultants work on everything.  Hairstyles and clothing are set to match the image to project.  Public relations firms shape what we say so as not to offend, and when we do, “fixers” help us to clean up the mess.  This process has been happening for some time now.  As I mentioned in The Deep Water of Affinity Groups, we’ve started putting on brands so that we could feel differently.

The Hidden Persuaders and Unsafe at Any Speed both explain that marketing stopped being about features and utility and started being about selling emotions and a life that you didn’t have.  Instead of working to be happy, serve others, or whatever it took to really get what you wanted, the suggestion was made that you could just buy a product and have it immediately.

Large Organizations Are Dinosaurs

There was a very old commercial where a man is at a party, and someone asks him what he does.  He explains that he’s a filmmaker, and the girl he is talking to swoons.  He adds that it’s for cable and she visibly deflates.  Finally, he explains that he makes films for HBO, and she regains her amorous attention.

It used to be that working for a large organization was an honor that not everyone could have.  However, since Enron, MCI/WorldCom, and countless other disasters of ethics or environments, we’ve come to believe that large organizations aren’t as good as they once were.

Instead, the darling place to work is the venture capital-based startup.  If you can work for a small company that makes it, then you can cash out and retire early.  Not only do we question the ethics of a large organization, but we’re not interested in working hard for decades for someone else.

Neither, by the way, are most up for the entrepreneurial struggle that many of our great-grandparents faced in working for themselves.

Forging Morals from Weaknesses

It used to be that your teachers, mentors, and friends would encourage you to work on your weakness.  You’d be encouraged to build your weaknesses until they were no longer weaknesses.  Today, we encourage people to focus exclusively on their strengths.  The problem with this approach is that the weaknesses – sometimes critical weaknesses – remain.

To be clear, I’m not talking about the kind of weaknesses that are easily solved, like getting glasses or contacts to improve vision,.  I’m talking about the kind of weaknesses that can’t be worked around and will continue to negatively impact you year after year.

It used to be that folks like Josh Waitzkin would learn chess and then go work in martial arts – and he’d celebrate the work it takes to push through the losses.  (See The Art of Learning.)  Positive psychology, for all its benefits, can create challenges.  It’s fundamental to positive psychology to focus on strengths rather than weaknesses.  (See Positive Psychotherapy: Clinician Manual.)  The challenge is that once people have recovered from their challenges and have achieved a baseline normal, they rarely go back and work on their weaknesses.

Focusing on strengths, so that people recognize they have value and that things can get better, has its place.  It’s important to redevelop a sense of self-efficacy, but at some point, it’s necessary to return to the things that are holding you back.  Raise Your Line makes the point that hard work is necessary.  If we want to change our outcomes, we’ve got to work on the weaknesses that are holding us back.

Performance (Merit-Based) Love

Too many children are told that they’re a good child and that they’re loved with the implication that they’re loved because they’re good.  Too many children begin to associate love with their performance.  Instead of recognizing their intrinsic value, they believe that they’re only valuable when they’re doing something good for others.  This sets children up to become adults that don’t recognize their own worth and seek ways to find their worth externally.

It works from a deficit model instead of a model that builds on a foundation of strength.

Emotional Morals

Without a solid foundation, it’s hard to be a moral person.  Knowing what you believe and accepting the consequences for what you believe is hard.  It’s even harder when your perspective is warped with the belief that your only value is what you can do for others.

Distortion becomes accepted.  Instead of making hard decisions, people begin to make decisions that feel right.  In fact, they endorse utilitarian ethics with the sense that the only real value is how it makes them feel.  Feelings, while necessary for our survival, are also not reliable.

Inner Cohesion

I describe it as stable core.  I last wrote about it in my review of Resilient.  It’s this sense that you know who you are and what you stand for.  It’s a foundation for the development of character, and it’s too often overlooked.

What Am I Being Called to Do

May people believe that you don’t choose what you are to do in life.  Life, God, or the universe decided what you are called to do, and it’s up to you to answer the call – or not.  For most of my life, I’ve not known exactly what it is that I’m supposed to do, what my calling is.  I’m not entirely certain I understand it today.

However, I can say that the path including work on trauma and suicide wasn’t on my list.  The events surrounding me pushed me in that direction, and I moved along with them.  Even writing these posts was a set of circumstances that led me to believe that, if I wanted to continue to grow, I’d need to read voraciously and work to integrate the learning into my life.  For me, that meant writing a book review every single week.

Late Bloomers: A Life of Preparation

An important point to remember if you’re on the long path to character is that many of the greatest leaders of all time experienced their success very late in life.  We venerate Abraham Lincoln but fail to see the losses in his career.  Walt Disney’s bankruptcy is washed away by history.  (See The Wisdom of Walt.)  Nothing much was expected from the great military leaders that we revere.

In the end, what we realize is that the end may be some sense of success and perhaps fame, but the path to get there is The Road to Character.

Book Review-Wonder Drug: 7 Scientifically Proven Ways That Serving Others Is the Best Medicine for Yourself

It’s a fair question to ask why I’d read Wonder Drug: 7 Scientifically Proven Ways That Serving Others Is the Best Medicine for Yourself given the mixed review of the authors’ prior work, Compassionomics.  The short answer is that someone in a position to be helpful suggested it.  The longer answer is that, despite Compassionomics’ limitations, there were still good points being made.  Unsurprisingly, the “Wonder Drug” title is hyperbole.  It’s also no surprise that this work is an extension of Compassionomics in that they’re proposing you actually do something about the compassion you’re feeling.

Live to Give

Though I’d argue that altruism is a level of compassion that involves personal cost or risk, many don’t draw that distinction.  The concept of living to give – or live to give – is that you’ll be the happiest if you worry about other people more and yourself less.  It’s no surprise that the Dalai Lama would agree.  (See The Dalai Lama’s Big Book of Happiness.)  Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson concur in Altered Traits, basing their perspective on neurologically verifiable details about firing patterns.  Neurological and psychological research is practically paved with studies verifying that the more concerned we are with others, the happier we’ll be.

The authors cite Adam Grant’s Give and Take.  On Grant’s suggestion, I read SuperCooperators and Does Altruism Exist?, which further the argument for concern for others.  Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation even provides computer models for how cooperation might have evolved – and what strategies are best.

Clearly, there’s no question about what the best approach is.  However, the important question is how to make the transition.  Even the Dalai Lama and Paul Eckman pondered whether we’re fundamentally compassionate or selfish people.  (See Destructive Emotions.)  They wrestled with the challenge of flipping the switch from selfish to serving.  They didn’t reach an answer.  Of course, the Dalai Lama could point to Buddhist monks, who meditate on compassion (loving kindness), but then one could argue that they were already on the side of compassion.

While the authors leave the question largely unanswered, I believe that before we can have compassion for others, our needs need to be satiated.  We need to believe that we have enough and that we are enough.  (See Brene Brown’s work in I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) and Daring Greatly for more about enough.)

Passion, Purpose, and Wisdom

Sometimes, we confuse the idea that we’re passionate about something for our purpose.  Consider a professional athlete.  They’re clearly passionate about their sport.  However, eventually, they’ll have to give it up.  Many athletes identify passion projects during their career or after their careers are over.  Scholarships, sports equipment, and programming for underserved youth are just the tip of the iceberg.  The difference between their passion for the game and their purpose is in how it serves others.  Purpose is why we’re here.  (See Start with Why for more.)

The problem is, whether you’re talking to college graduates at a commencement or whether you’re in your second decade of working, the purpose may not have revealed itself yet.  Finding the thing that is your purpose isn’t easy or straightforward.  As Extreme Productivity points out, life has twists and turns that are not predictable.  Many people find that their purpose isn’t discovered until late in life.  While they’re waiting, they’re trying out lots of causes to see one might be the one that moves them.

The Overreaches

There are places where Wonder Drug overreaches.  That is, the book makes bold claims that aren’t supported by research.  For instance, “Seventy percent of your ability to give (emotion, time, money) is the result of nurturance.”  The research doesn’t come close to supporting this assertion.  In fact, the more consistent research supports that it’s a combination of disposition and resources.  Those who believe they can spare some resources are substantially more likely to do so.  Of course, we all know people who have plenty who are disinterested in helping others and giving back.  However, that self-centered attitude is much rarer than it may first appear.

Another instance where there’s an overreach is in pain management.  “Just to be clear: if you are compassionate, your brain is more resilient.  It can block out the empathetic pain of witnessing the suffering of others to allow you to give meaningful help to people in need.”  There are two overreaches placed side by side.  First, a resilient brain isn’t necessarily more compassionate.  Though there may be some correlation, that doesn’t mean causation.  You’re resilient if you can weather the storms of life.

Second, there is nothing that says you can block out the pain of witnessing the suffering of others.  “Blocking out” implies hiding it from your consciousness, which would be the opposite of empathy and – because empathy is required before compassion – compassion as well.  Those people who are the most able to give are able to accept and process the emotions and pains of others and convert that into action – they are by no means blocking them out.

Get Started

Wonder Drug weighs that purpose is in being something larger than yourself – I disagreed above.  However, there is a barrier, a discouragement that can happen if you focus on the magnitude of the problem that your purpose puts in front of you.  You can see the scope and scale of the literacy problem for grade school children and do nothing.  However, that accomplishes nothing.  Instead, you can, like Dolly Pardon, set up library and book programs that make the maximum impact possible with the resources that you can spare.  No doubt that Dolly Pardon has more resources than the average person, but her example shows that no matter what you can do, you should do it.

No doubt that if your purpose is of large scale and importance, you’ll not be able to do it alone or in your lifetime.  That’s why it’s important to find others who can share your purpose – and become passionate about ways to address it.  Some projects may not be completed in your lifetime.  It may be that what you start won’t see fruit in your life.  The truth is that the results are nice but the real reason for doing it is the process – knowing that you’ll be making the world just a little bit better.

While compassion and living a life of philanthropy and service may be good for you, it’s not as easy as it may seem.  If we abandon the “me” culture for the culture of “we,” we become interdependent upon one another, and that’s far harder in today’s world than being independent.

That isn’t to say we shouldn’t be givers.  We should.  We have to recognize that the path isn’t easy.  It is saying that, in the end, there may be no Wonder Drug.

Book Review-The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels

I’m concerned.  A lot of people are concerned, really.  It seems like our political system in the United States is spiraling out of control, and it’s not clear what can be done to stop it.  The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels is not completely reassuring, but it does help to put our current state into a broader historical context.

The War of Northern Aggression

As I write this, I’m sitting in a state that seceded from the United States as a part of the Confederacy.  In this border state, one can still find Confederate flags and other reminders of a time long since past.  Here, they wouldn’t speak of the Civil War.  They’d speak of the “War of Northern Aggression.”  If you’ve not heard that term before, you’ve not engaged in enough conversations while in the South.  Like the conversations that we have today, where facts are warped to support feelings, the Southerners convicted by the conflict will insist that the war was one of Northern aggression.

The issue surrounds Fort Sumter, which sits in Charleston, SC’s harbor.  South Carolina seceded from the United States, but the fort wasn’t relinquished from federal control, so the Confederacy attacked it.  While the Confederacy may not have felt the United States was within its rights to hold the fort, the simple fact of the matter is that the first shot was fired by the Confederacy on the United States Fort Sumter.

I start with this story not because it’s contained within the pages of the book but rather because I see it as a real and practical example about how we don’t always listen to facts when we’re choosing our positions.


Certainly, any historian would point to the Civil War and the resulting disruption to slavery as a contentious time in our nation’s history.  Lincoln was clear that freeing the slaves wasn’t his point.  His goal was to maintain the integrity of the Union, and if slaves were freed as a part of that process, that would be fine.  History paints Lincoln in brighter colors, but his motives weren’t as altruistic as we’d like to believe.

It would be decades of Jim Crow laws and discrimination before Harry Truman would push forward a civil rights program that included anti-lynching legislation.  It’s frightening to me that we had to enact such laws.  It was Eisenhower who Invoked the Insurrection Act of 1807, deployed the 101st Airborne division, and federalized the entire Arkansas National Guard to ensure that nine Black students could go to school.

It would be another six years before Martin Luther King Jr. would stand at the Lincoln Memorial and share his “I Have a Dream” speech.  Kennedy’s assassination spurred Johnson toward completing the civil rights work that Kennedy had started.  Johnson stated that he was willing to lose a chance at reelection if he could get the civil rights bill passed.  Of course, this didn’t eliminate discrimination, but it codified that it was illegal and allowed for legal pressure to resolve the issues that were once an accepted part of life for Black Americans.

This is a window into the constant turmoil that we have faced as a nation for over 100 years – if we start at the Emancipation Proclamation.  While we think of the 1960s as an era of civil rights, few realize that the work began with Truman and Eisenhower.

It’s important to state that slavery in general and the length of time it took to get to our current state is a black spot in the history of the United States.  Too few people are aware of just how long the struggle took.


It starts with fear.  Communism came to be widely feared throughout the United States.  We didn’t fear an invasion or attack from the communists.  We feared that they’d infiltrate us from within and destroy the American ideal.  We feared that our friends and neighbors might silently be sympathetic to communism.  We particularly feared that people in our own government were moles for communism.

Senator McCarthy played on these fears with endless theatrics that claimed to find evidence of people’s involvement only to have these baseless claims evaporate in the light of the day.  Still, few were willing to lock horns with him, because they feared the fallout if he turned his gaze towards them.  While some stood up against McCarthy, it wasn’t as many as those who should have.  While his reign of terror has since ended, it was allowed to continue for far too long.


What’s striking about McCarthyism is that we’re seeing it play out again.  Trump knowingly promulgated false information to the public about COVID-19.  He played on the fears of people losing their jobs to illegal immigrants “pouring” over the United States-Mexican border.  His hyperbole regarding the wall and the misinformation regarding COVID-19 cannot help but be seen in the context of McCarthy and the adeptness that he shifted from one issue to the next to prevent the American public from catching on to his shell game.

No one – including Trump – are all good or all bad.  Both McCarthy and Trump have been adept at reading the politics of a situation and adapting.  However, that’s not the thing that we need most.

Slow, Stumbling Steps

We make and have made many mistakes.  We fail to act quickly enough.  We fall prey to fear and divisiveness, and we always have.  The fact that even today there are divisions around the Civil War (over 150 years ago) is evidence that we don’t always make progress quickly.  Enlightenment exists within our boundaries, but it’s too narrowly dispersed.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  While we cannot expect that today or even tomorrow we’ll be the country we desire to be, the expectation is that, in time, we’ll be better than we are today.  Maybe we’ll even find The Soul of America.

Book Review-The Art of Community: Seven Principles for Belonging

The Art of Community: Seven Principles for Belonging is more like a sketch of where to go than the kinds of GPS-enabled maps that we’re used to today, but that’s not a criticism.  Community and belonging are necessarily context dependent, and as a result, there’s no one map that can lead us to the places of belonging that we long for.  Robert Putnam’s work in Bowling Alone more than 20 years ago made it clear that the foundations of our social capital are eroding.  He revisits these dynamics in Our Kids, explaining how we’ve become more insular in the way that we raise our kids – and less community-based.

Putnam is not alone.  Sherry Turkle in Alone Together shares her perspectives on how technology is exaggerating the problem.  The Great Evangelical Recession explains the loss of connection from a church perspective.  In short, the problem is everywhere.  The Art of Community is designed to give people a map they can use to navigate back to places of community even if that means having to take a greater responsibility in creating them.


Loneliness can be a powerful if not overwhelming experience that far too many people encounter during their lives.  Persistent loneliness can have substantial negative health effects more than smoking or alcohol consumption.  (See the book Loneliness for more.)  The move away from relationships, social capital, and community means more loneliness and that the loneliness will last longer.

Communities and Tribes

Seth Godin’s book, Tribes, suggests that we need to find our group – and lead them.  While tribes are sometimes used synonymously with communities, there’s an essential difference.  In communities, members care about other members because they’re a member of the community.  We’ve always had mechanisms where we cared about others and would make sacrifices for them.  In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins explains a kinship mechanism that makes this work, despite the fact no one is making a statistical analysis of the probability of matching genes when deciding to rush into a burning building to save a person – family or not.  While many question the kinship hypothesis put forth by Dawkins, there is no question that we’ve evolved with a degree of concern and even self-sacrifice.

The primary problem with communities is the concern for those who would take advantage of the community by not doing their share.  Adam Grant in Give and Take speaks of the takers who take more than they give.  SuperCooperators and Does Altruism Exist? express a similar sentiment but back it up with mechanisms that keep it in balance.  Collaboration and The Evolution of Cooperation call it “social loafing,” but it is the same thing.  Cooperation leverages the best outcome for everyone over the best output for one person – the Nash equilibrium instead of the von Neumann-Morgenstern equilibrium.  (See The Outward Mindset for more.)

We can see the influences today by playing the ultimatum game as explained in Drive.  The short version is that we’ll punish another party if they’re not being fair – even if it has a cost to us.

Four Features, Three Questions, and Seven Principles

The core of the book is understanding how there are four features that you must be able to understand and articulate to drive the community.  There are three questions that the community must help the members answer.  And there are seven principles to creating community.

The four features are:

  • Shared values
  • Membership identity
  • Moral proscriptions
  • Insider understanding

The three questions that the community must help the members answer are:

  • Who am I?
  • How should I act?
  • What do I believe?

Finally, the seven principles are:

  • Boundary: The line between members and outsiders.
  • Initiation: The activities that mark a new member.
  • Rituals: The things we do that have meaning.
  • Temple: A place set aside to find our community.
  • Stories: What we share that allows others and ourselves to know our values.
  • Symbols: The things that represent ideas that are important to us.
  • Inner Rings: A path to growth as we participate.


Boundaries aren’t about keeping others out.  They’re about creating safe spaces for the members.  In The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch lays out a pattern for how to structure cities with six components: maps and signs (directions), landmarks (ever-present reference points), paths (channels of movement), edges (barriers), districts (major areas), and nodes (intersections).  Boundaries align with the edges that keep people in their lanes.

In Collaborative Intelligence, Richard Hackman explains the importance of boundaries – and the ease of crossing into and out of the group.  He describes over- and under-bounded groups and their problems.  In the case of community, we often have gatekeepers.  These people are designed to help people move into and out of the group.  Gatekeepers are those who welcome people in – and sometimes move people outside the group.


An aspect from Influence that didn’t make my review is that the more we put into becoming a part of a group, the more we’ll defend that group.  In the rationale of justifying our decision to subject ourselves to a difficult initiation process, we necessarily increase the value of membership.  The greater the cost of the initiation that we’ve gone through, the greater the value of the group.  (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for more about association with groups.)

The balance to be struck is to make it easy enough that people will want to become a part of the community while simultaneously making it hard enough to drive further commitment to the group.


Rituals have been burned into our culture since the very beginning.  As van Gennep notes in The Rites of Passage, rituals are an important part of signaling transitions between different phases of life and of community.  Robert Lewis in Raising a Modern-Day Knight encourages parents to develop their own ritual for the transition to manhood for boys.

Rituals are particularly powerful when they involve rhythm and synchronization across the group of people.  The combination of synchronicity and rhythm seem to have been a part of our evolution and hold a strong primal power over us.  (See Pre-Suasion, Team Genius, and Split-Second Persuasion.)


Sometimes the place that members come together are easy.  If you’re a member of any of the dozens of Disney-focused groups, there are two temples in the form of Disney Land in Anaheim, CA and Disney World in Orlando, FL.  Walt Disney (and his brother Roy) made sure that the experience inside the gates was a consistent story that people could walk into and ignore the outside world.  (See The Wisdom of Walt and Beyond the Wisdom of Walt.)

For most of us, the place that our community meets will be less specific.  Whether it’s online or it’s a gathering at a local community space, we need to consider how we create that sense of space.  (See Digital Habitats for creating online spaces.)

If you’re in physical spaces, The Art of Community suggests that special places can be created by:

  • Boundary: Something indicates the space boundary.
  • Invitation: People important to the ritual are specifically invited into the space.
  • Clothing: Participants wear special clothes to the space when it’s sacred.
  • Lighting: The lighting is shaped for the ritual.
  • Sound: The sound is different when the space is sacred.
  • Height: Objects important for the ceremony are raised up, including people.


Since the time before written language, we’ve been telling stories.  Cave paintings and oral tradition predate our writing of stories.  These stories truly define us.  The stories that we share and the stories that we believe bind us together and define our values.  (See The Power of Myth, Story Genius, and Wired for Story for more.)  The question for every community is what are the stories that every member should know?  What stories should we tell to new members?  Is the formation story necessary and relevant today?  Is there a reawakening story that shares the new vision and values for the organization?


There’s a tradition in the military of challenge coins.  These coins are given to signify that you were a part of something – or that you were respected by someone of rank.  The original story goes that if you were in a bar and said you were a part of something, someone could challenge you.  If you couldn’t produce the coin as proof, you’d buy them a drink.  If you did produce the coin, they’d buy you one.  Since those beginnings, they’ve become a thing of pride for many military members and other groups.

Many communities have symbols.  Some, like Alcoholics Anonymous, use coins as well, but your symbol can be anything that the members find value in.  In Green Bay, WI, it might even be a foam, cheese-shaped wedge to wear on your head.

Inner Rings

Once a group grows to a larger size, there must be a division that separates the “inner rings” from the outer rings.  That is, those who are the most committed to the community and those who are less committed.  It can be an official designation.  It can be an invitation to participate in a group that is helping to shape or design some aspects of the community.  It’s an invitation to participate more deeply that signifies that people have made it.


Throughout my reading of The Art of Community, I was struck about how this was the temporal and relational extension of the work in The Art of Gathering.  Beyond simply the similarity in names, the art of gathering – or convening – precedes the creation of community.  We bring people together to allow them to form relationships and then to develop concern for one another.  If you’re building community, the art of bringing people together is a prerequisite.

Binding the Group Together

Binding people together can have negative connotations.  The idea that people would be prevented from leaving is quite obviously not appropriate.  As we move to more restrictive forms of binding to the group, we move closer and closer to being a cult.  (See Terror, Love, and Brainwashing.)  However, we also need to create a sense of belonging, togetherness, and concern that binds folks so that they’ll be committed to one another to work through tough problems.

Disagreements occur in every community.  Building the commitment to one another to work through hard problems and disagreements is a important part of building The Art of Community.

Book Review-Who Do We Choose to Be?: Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, and Restoring Sanity

Margaret Wheatley’s work was a recommendation from a friend.  In a chance part of our conversations, he shared his reverence for her and her work.  That’s why I picked up Who Do We Choose to Be?: Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, and Restoring Sanity.  There’s the slightest hint of fatalism in how the world will disintegrate and our societies will crumble.  However, through it all, there’s a sense that we have the capacity to grow and learn as a living system.

The Fate of Empires

Wheatley explains that her work builds on the works of Joseph Tainter from The Collapse of Complex Societies and Sir John Glubb in The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival.  She directly shares Glubb’s ages:

  1. Pioneers – In the age of pioneers, fearless, courageous people form the new empire.
  2. Conquest – In the age of conquest, they take control of others, organizing their might for the good of the empire.
  3. Commerce – In the age of commerce, with borders secured, they turn towards material wealth and comfort.
  4. Affluence – In the age of affluence, service ethics begin to wane and are replaced with a new degree of selfishness.
  5. Intellect – In the age of intellect, intelligence increases and spends endless time debating rather than acting while the empire declines around them.
  6. Decadence – The end age of decadence worships the idols of celebrity and descends into behaviors including narcissism, consumerism, materialism, nihilism, fanaticism, and high levels of frivolity.

Living Systems

Wheatley calls it the “arrow of time.”  It’s the tendency towards entropy.  It’s chaos ultimately unwinding the clock of creation.  However, she explains that this is only one view of things.  Another view is of living systems that continue to move in the direction of order and of converting information through an energy process.

Living systems is a way of viewing the universe.  Images of Organization invited us to view organizations as organisms – living organisms.  Wheatley suggests that we apply this thinking to everything.  There’s reason to believe that this is a reasonable approach.  When we went to revisit Darwin’s survival of the fittest through Dawkin’s Selfish Gene, we discovered Robert Axelrod’s Evolution of Cooperation and stumbled upon SuperCooperators putting an end to the question of Does Altruism Exist?.  We discovered that the only way for cooperation and altruism to have evolved is for higher-and-higher levels of organization to generate them.

Even inside living systems, there are higher levels of systems that evolve to create structures where there were none.  While there is this natural tendency to greater organization, we cannot ignore the challenges that we’re creating in the world.  We can’t blindly believe that we’ll find a new technology or approach that will undo all the damage that has been done.  Ronald Wright labeled this “The Progress Trap,” and Wheatley asserts that this is a major factor in accelerating decline.

Change to Preserve

People, organizations, and societies resist change.  In fact, organizations and societies are designed to resist change.  Given this, how is it that changes ever happen?  The answer seems to be that the motivators line up such that the organism or society – or person – perceives they have no choice.  Thomas Gilovich explains in How We Know What Isn’t So how we’ll deny what we don’t have to accept.  However, at some point, we must accept that what we believe or what we’re doing is no longer working.  It’s at that point that the system will accept changes – begrudgingly.

When Facts are Fiction

Perhaps the most concerning observation that Wheatley shares is the one that there comes a time when we’re no longer concerned with facts but are instead more focused on personal beliefs.  Going to Extremes begins exposing the process by which this can start to happen; however, there aren’t complete answers.

There’s a group of people who believe the Earth is flat.  The Flat Earth Society is a real association with members around the globe.  (I couldn’t help it.)  They’ve steadfastly refused to believe other scientists, pictures, and any other evidence that the world was not, in fact, flat.  In the documentary, Behind the Curve, they decided to set up their own experiment.  The short version was to fire a beam of light parallel to the Earth along water, so they knew there wasn’t a change in elevation.  The documentary ends with them proving the Earth is not flat.  And yet, the Flat Earth Society still exists.  They have, themselves, disproven their premise, and they continue.  How and why?  It’s one thing to distrust others and to believe that they’ve got ulterior motives, but what’s it like to discount your own members?

The problem isn’t one group of fringe people at one point in time.  The problem is this same pattern repeats over and over again.  We see it in cults and their failures.  Koresh’s Branch Davidians in Waco, TX, Heaven’s Gate in California, and Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple are all examples of cult followers who died because of their beliefs in the leaders of these cults.

How would I know for sure that this is true?  What’s true-ish?  We see distortion in the media and the messaging from politicians, and we don’t know what to believe.  (See Why We’re Polarized for more.)  We have a greater capacity now than at any time in history to verify facts – and we’re less likely to try.  The internet brings us unimaginable opportunities for verification of information – and an overwhelming amount of false information.  (See The Information Diet and The Organized Mind for more about the overwhelming amount of information we face.)

The simple fact of the matter is that we have no capacity left to verify the amount of information confronting us.  We’re constantly taking shortcuts – we must if we want to pretend to keep up.  This is a frequent concern of psychology, neurology, and marketing – The Hidden Brain, The Signal and the Noise, How We Know What Isn’t So, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), and many other books speak of rules of thumb.  Rules of thumb are the positive spin on these shortcuts.  The negative path uses stereotypes, which is also a popular topic: White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts, The Mind Club, No Two Alike, On Dialogue, and particularly A Class Divided speak of stereotypes.  It’s not that we occasionally take a cognitive processing shortcut, it’s the way we think.

More problematic is that we’re too exhausted to test to see when the rules of thumb and stereotypes that we’ve created are wrong.  The Wason selection task was designed to see how much people would seek to disprove their theories instead of confirm them.  The problem is that we’re generally bad when we must disprove our own theories.  (See The Righteous Mind and The Black Swan for more.)

No Longer Hate Crimes

“Don’t feed the trolls.”  It was a warning sign shared with people in the early days of the internet.  In the archaic equivalent of social media channels in the form of Internet Relay Chat and America Online (AOL), people intentionally tried to get a rise out of someone by making outrageous comments.  Moderators were taught that if the “trolls,” as they were called, were not responded to, they’d stop talking.  They would be deprived of what they’re looking for.  The trickiest trolls would post anonymously.  They’d be too ashamed to make their comments with their name attached.  However, by 2015, it was no longer socially unacceptable to say hateful things with your name attached.

No longer were people concerned about whether people knew who they were – even someone’s real name versus a username.  We’d lost our concern for how people would react to us if we connected ourselves to hateful speech.  The trolls are easier to find – but they’re also harder to remove.

Weaponized Information

We live in the information age, where information can make the difference between success and failure.  The old cliché that the “pen is mightier than the sword” is truer now than at any time in history.  Of course, it’s the phone or the computer not the pen – but the point is the same.  Virtually anyone can create information – true or not – that is seen across the globe by millions (and billions) of people.

Information can bring down regimes, like we saw in Arab Spring.  Information can shape perception, including misperception.  False claims about hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin caused countless people to use these drugs incorrectly – and resulted in untold deaths.

Information can now be clipped out of context and applied to situations which it was never intended to be used for.  Clipping out the part of the fight where the defender is hitting back can – and does – create the wrong impression.

Clear Theory of Action

Public health professionals are well intended.  They want to make the world a better place through better public health.  If they didn’t believe this, they wouldn’t have chosen public health as their profession.  It’s not glamorous, nor does it come with huge salaries.  It is a profession that you have to want to love – or you won’t even get started.  That being said, too many public health professionals are in the copycat business.  They look for a pattern that has claimed to work in another locale and they apply it to their population.  The problem is they don’t look for or evaluate the theory of action that led to its success.

A theory of action is a narrative about why the activity gets the results.  It starts with “We think…” and it ends with a causal chain from the action to the result.  The chain doesn’t have to be intuitively obvious.  It needs only to be a reasonably plausible pathway.

Too many public health professionals don’t stop to question how an intervention leads to results – or to verify the previous efficacy claims.  Take the Gun Shop Project.  It introduces the task of assessing mental health – and relative degree of suicide risk – to gun shop employees.  Given that even mental health professionals fail to identify people who are suicidal at rates much better than chance, it’s hard to believe that an employee of a gun shop with minimal training could possibly accurately predict the suicidal intent of a patron.  (See Assessment and Prediction of Suicide for more on our ability to predict suicide.)

The argument from public health professionals is “At least it’s something.”  The problem is while this makes us feel better – it doesn’t necessarily result in better outcomes.  (See Change for the problems with bias towards action.)  The real problem with this thinking is that it can block other, more effective strategies.  Even if it doesn’t directly block a different approach, the lack of efficacy leads to greater change resistance.  Effective programs make it easier to do more programs; ineffective programs block progress.

One Good Conversation

Relationships are at the heart of being human.  We are social creatures.  (See Loneliness for more.)  How does one build a relationship?  It all starts with one good conversation.  One good conversation is all it takes to reintroduce us to what it feels like to be in a satisfying human relationship.  One good conversation allows us to be known – and to know someone else.  Sometimes, it can feel like the people we want to be are in some far off and elusive state.  We forget, however, that we can take steps to be the people we want to be in small and immediate ways.

Knowing Ourselves to Help Others

Brene Brown explains that some of the most wholehearted people she knows are good at boundaries.  Behind this is a great deal of work on themselves.  They know who they are – and who they are not.  People who are in helping professions frequently focus on others and solving their needs – after all, they’re so much larger than theirs.  However, the problem is that you cannot give what you do not have.  You can’t give peace if you don’t feel it yourself.  You can’t help people feel safe if you don’t feel safe yourself.

It’s hard work to choose to work on yourself.  Facing other demons isn’t the same as facing your own.  It’s easier to tell others to be strong than to stand in the face of the oppressive weight.  When we learn more about who we are, what we believe, and how we will behave, we’re preparing to be able to give gifts to others.

Making Meaning

“Humans cannot live without meaning.  The greater the uncertainty, the more our desperate grasp for a handhold, a shred of meaning.”  As we struggle to predict the future to protect ourselves, we seek to find meaning in everything that we do.  However, it’s more than that.  Many of us have to find a way to positively impact humanity.  We need to find that way that we’ll leave our small mark in the sands of time.

Being a leader who bends the arc of humanity in a positive direction is a good meaning.  It’s this thirst for meaning that has us asking and hopefully answering the question, Who Do We Choose to Be?

Book Review-The Way of Zen

Did you hear the one about the Zen Buddhist who ordered from a hot dog vendor?  He said, “Make me one with everything.”  All (bad) jokes aside, Zen is something that many people have heard about but few understand.  The Way of Zen is a classic book (1957) that brought awareness of Zen to the Western world.  I first noticed it through a reference in Happier?, but it’s come up numerous times.  As I was reading it, I was constantly reflecting on a more contemporary version in the form of Trying Not to Try.

Religion, Philosophy, or Other

In A Force for Good, the Dalai Lama explains that he isn’t concerned whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy.  Watts, in The Way of Zen, describes Zen as neither religion nor philosophy.  It’s neither psychology nor science.  Zen, he proposes, sits outside the bounds that the Western world tries to put around it.

Describing something that can’t be placed easily into a category isn’t easy.  This is particularly the case when the thing is about the present moment – and its fleeting nature.  Often, the responses of masters to students are non sequitur on purpose.  The approach is that Zen can’t be taught but rather caught or discovered on one’s own.  To obtain the nirvana that one seeks, one must not seek it.  (See Happiness for an example in the Hindu goddess of wealth.)


The reference to Trying Not to Try comes from the focus on the language at the heart of it.  Wu-wei is described by Watts as “not-making.”  It’s clearly the same concept.  It’s the same pull between different poles of a continuum.  Attributed to Tao, one of the roots from which Zen springs, Watts explains that there’s a sort of natural evolution or growth that’s implied in a way that the Judeo-Christian God doesn’t align with in the mechanical creation beliefs.

Reincarnation All the Time

What if the thoughts of reincarnation didn’t focus on the evolution of life and death in the sense of a human’s life, but rather referred to the death of each moment and the rebirth in the next?  It’s an interesting twist on the belief in reincarnation that makes sense in terms of advancing – or retracting – one’s status.  The more you invest and create positive energy around the current moment, the more the next moment will be better.


Thought of as the escape from the cycle of reincarnation (and suffering), Nirvana is a state that can reportedly only be accessed unintentionally, and spontaneously after the self-grasping has been accepted.  Self-grasping is our desire to know ourselves – and understand ourselves.  We’ve got to find peace and calm there before moving on to accept the nature of the universe.

It requires acceptance of quiet contemplation as action.  A willingness to be quiet and to use that quiet to consider how to best help is an important activity in and of itself.

Reality as a Projection

One view of reality is that it doesn’t exist at all – that it is instead a projection of our mind.  There may be something to that from the perspective of neuroscience.  Incognito thoroughly exposes how we fill in missing details in ways that we perceive as real but are verifiably not.  Most of us accept that reality is as we perceive it, but the more that we learn about the world, the less certain we can be that anything we perceive is “really real.”  Consider our perception of the solid ground on which we stand or sit or lay.  We know that there are, in fact, a number of spaces between the molecules and atoms that make up whatever it is that we believe we’re standing on.

Ultimately, Zen is about the effortless acceptance of moment-to-moment, realizing that nothing is permanent and nothing is as it seems – that is The Way of Zen.

Book Review-Why We’re Polarized

In America, we’ve become more divisive and more polarized in our politics, but why?  In Why We’re Polarized, Ezra Klein seeks to explain the progression of polarization and the factors that drive it.  Short on solutions, Klein is content to describe a problem of polarization and its causes with the hope that others will be able to help in the identification of solutions.

While Klein’s focus is squarely on politics and how we’ve changed the way that we view political parties over the decades, other researchers have been looking more broadly at how we end up in extreme positions.  Cass Sunstein examines polarization in Going to Extremes.  Alexandra Stein in Terror, Love, and Brainwashing explains how cults create alternate realities and separate people from the rest of society.  Buster Benson for his contribution seeks to help us find ways to bridge the gap and have productive disagreements in Why Are We Yelling?  In Resolving Conflicts at Work, Kenneth Coke and Joan Goldsmith provide tips targeted at resolving conflict at work but end up with a useful framework of ideas for any kind of conflict.

The Pull of Polarization

There’s no doubt that we’re more polarized.  It’s not just the news or noticing – there’s a measurable pull towards polarization that’s driven by the forces of the two-party political system.  For a candidate to be viable, they must be the most extreme version of the ideals that the party holds.  It’s like what draws us to art – it’s the extreme form that we find most interesting.  (See The Tell-Tale Brain for more.)  Candidates become leaders, and leaders’ positions pull us to more extreme positions.  This isn’t unlike what Cass Sunstein observed in Going to Extremes.

Bedrock Identities

We all have multiple identities.  We’re husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, professionals and more.  Our identities are generally fluid and work together to form a coherent self-image.  However, some identities are more powerful than others.  When two identities are in conflict, we’ll lean towards one that seems more important.  These are bedrock identities – the ones that we’ll go back to in times of crisis and concern.  There’s been an evolution with our bedrock identities.  No longer do we consider religion a bedrock identity.  (See Spiritual Evolution.)  We no longer identify with the groups we belong to – because we don’t really belong to any groups.  (See Bowling Alone.)

In the absence of these historical, powerful bedrock identities, we’ve substituted our political affiliations, and we protect them with the same veracity.  We feel as if people who have different perspectives than those held by our core identities are wrong, misguided, or evil.  Bedrock identities aren’t bad – but our need to protect them (because if they’re not right, then somehow we’re not right) is bad.  It separates us from others with different views, prevents us from learning, and leaves us even more polarized.


The challenge with bedrock identities defined by political parties is that these identities are too amorphous and changing.  What the party stands for may appear to be consistent, but it’s clear that not everyone in the party holds the same view.  A review of positions over time shows that the parties do change their positions at a much faster rate than the change in religious groups.  In short, we’ve defined a shortcut – but the shortcut keeps changing.

We need shortcuts to live.  Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow explains how we need to make simple decisions where we can, because we need to conserve glucose.  The Rise of Superman affirms that our brains are glucose hungry.  In fact, they’ve got more need for glucose than our bodies can steadily supply.  The Organized Mind makes the same point differently – we’re in an era of information overload, and we’re filtering information to cope.  We malign stereotypes – which have their faults – but we need them.  The Signal and the Noise explains that “rules of thumb” are both error-ridden and necessary.  Kahneman and colleagues revisit the problem in Noise.  We need shortcuts to cope – but we need to minimize the damage caused by using those shortcuts inappropriately.

We can’t mitigate the damage of shortcuts when the shortcuts are changing underneath us.

Negative Partisanship

However, the problem is more complicated than just the shortcuts that we use to identify ourselves.  The research finds that we don’t vote for people as much as we vote against the other guy.  The other party, the other views, and the other people are so repugnant to us that we’ll take anyone with our own party just to avoid them.  There’s no secret to our negative bias.  (See The Resilience Factor and Hardwiring Happiness for more.)  There’s an evolutionary reason for this bias.

It’s sort of the opposite of Pascal’s wager, which argues that the wins and losses for not believing in God are far worse than the wins and losses of believing in God.  (See The Mind Club for more.)  If we err on the side of believing that a threat isn’t a threat – but it is – we may wind up dead.  We can either be unnecessarily concerned about a lion in the grass – or we ignore the lion and we’re dead.

Policy Views

Those who don’t follow politics are more likely to view political decisions in terms of their own best interest, while those who do follow politics are more inclined to view political decisions from the lens of their identity.  For those of us who are only peripherally interested because we neither have a professional reason nor consider it a hobby or area of expertise, we make the decisions because they seem to be best suited for positive outcomes.  However, as people focus more attention on politics, they start to believe that the meaning behind the decisions – rather than the actual outcomes – are more important.

The truth is that most of the public won’t – and can’t – have a strong position on a policy issue or a political appointment.  Most people don’t have the time or capacity to process the issue that deeply.

Agrees with Me

The definition of expert seems to be “a credentialed person who agrees with me.”  Like many things in politics, everything stops mattering except if they’re “for me or against me.”  Thomas Gilovich explained in How We Know What Isn’t So how we believe things until we can’t any longer.  We seek confirming evidence while eschewing evidence that doesn’t agree with us.

If you provide the actual evidence on gun control efficacy to those that believe strongly in gun control and ask them to do the math, they’ll suddenly be bad at math.  Similarly, if you ask gun advocates why people “need” their guns, they’re likely to make slightly – or completely – illogical arguments.  We are more compelled to protect our beliefs – and, more importantly, our identities – than we are to seek the truth.  Amy Edmondson in Right Kind of Wrong explains that we don’t like being wrong – and we’ll resist it.

The Fiction that We All Believe

There’s an idealized image of colleges and universities that they are places of unrestricted thought.  People can explore any line of thinking that is important to them.  They’re places of debate and civil disagreements.  However, as Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff explain in The Coddling of the American Mind, this is no longer the case.  Instructors now must warn students that what they’re about to be exposed to may be offensive, shocking, or triggering to them.  Klein questions whether this concern for decorum is any different than in previous generations.

The answer is probably both.  Certainly, speech and thought are freer inside the relative safety of a university – but those walls have always been permeable, and people needed to consider what others might think.  But our polarization leads us to find even less safety in universities.  The idea that we can explore ideas inside of a university is likely fiction today – and it may always have been.  Yet most people would say that universities are full of free thinkers.

Interests and Identities

Marketers figured it out a long time ago.  They figured out that they had to find the identities of people to craft messages that resonate.  They weren’t looking for the person who was interested in a dog.  They were speaking to the dog owner who viewed that dog as a part of their identity.  They were looking for the person who wanted to feel happy – and that’s why advertisements almost universally feature people who are smiling.

What we believe are the interests of others are aspects of their identity – and those aspects, when activated, have the power to unite or divide.  When stated generally, “cat people” aren’t activated by conversations about dogs.  Similarly, “dog people” aren’t activated by conversations about cats.  However, frame the conversations about the relative benefits of a canine or a feline, and the fur will fly.  Positioned as a competition or as a single “right” answer, our identities have us arguing that we’re right.

Politicians realized, too, that they needed not to just get people to support them but rather get activated people, people who will campaign and canvas for them if they’re going to win elections – and that means getting people angry.  It means engaging the emotion.  (See The Happiness Hypothesis for more about engaging emotion.)

Our polarization is a natural result of the forces that reinforce extreme positions – yet we still ask Why We’re Polarized.

Book Review-Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal

Trauma survivors aren’t heroes in the same sense that a first responder is.  We see the first responder at the scene of an accident, like a house fire, and see how their actions are protecting all of us.  We don’t get to see the hard work that trauma survivors do, because their work is internal.  That’s why the title Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal makes so much sense.  The work is invisible on the outside – until the trauma victim reemerges transformed by the trauma.  (See Transformed by Trauma for examples.)

Predictable Pacification

Too frequently after a trauma, a person blames themselves.  They think that they somehow – often magically – should have avoided the situation.  Of course, in many cases, there is no way to see or avoid the situation.  It’s one of the random things that happen in life.  Even in those cases where we could have made different choices – and likely will in the future – there’s little reason to ruminate over the choices that were made.

This need for a sense of control – innate to all humans – drives us to take too much accountability for the things that have happened and how we might have made things turn out differently if only we had done something differently.  We fail to accept that we may not have done anything wrong or incorrectly.  We believe we had to have done something wrong, so that we can maintain our belief that the world isn’t random and that we’re able to predict it.

The degree to which we believe we can predict the situation influences the degree to which we feel peaceful.


One of the challenges with the unnecessary attribution of blame to ourselves from the randomness of life is that we can take on ourselves a sense of unworthiness.  That is, we believe that not only did we make a mistake (guilt) but that we’re unable to do the right things (shame).  We start with shame, but eventually we start self-punishing and self-isolating, perhaps progressing even to a place where we believe we’re irredeemable.  There’s nothing that can happen to make us worthy of interacting with other mortals.

Sometimes, this thinking style becomes so pervasive because of continued trauma and abuse that the idea of returning to what others would consider normal is uncomfortable.  It can feel weird and uncomfortable for people to treat you as a fellow human instead of someone beneath them.

The truth is that no one is irredeemable.  Everyone deserves to be treated as a human – even if that’s not their norm.


Substantial traumas often create a division in a person’s lifeline.  There’s a time before the trauma and a time after the trauma.  Often, traumas cause a major change of course.  One of the ways you can recognize that someone acknowledges their experience was one of trauma is that they’re able to acknowledge their life is different – in more than a tactical and mechanical kind of way.

With smaller traumas, or traumas that persist over a longer time, it’s harder to see this demarcation point, but it’s rare that trauma doesn’t cause us to change in some way or another.

Something that Happened to Me

With time, in the post-trauma space, it’s possible to recount the trauma without reexperiencing it.  Until we can establish an explicit memory of the trauma and come to some terms with what it does – and does not – mean, many victims reexperience the event while retelling the story.  With new traumas, it’s important to not push them to recount the events, because doing so may accidentally amplify and anchor the trauma in their mind.  Rather, we should let people share at the speed, detail, and level that they’re able to.  If we can create a safe space for them to process the trauma, they can move it to something that happened in the past.

It is even better when we can recognize that one trauma or even multiple traumas don’t define us.  Yes, there is that demarcation line where things changed, but it’s not the entirety of who we are.

Work is Hard and Necessary

I’ve never found anyone who would dare to say that overcoming and moving past trauma is easy.  Even those who are grateful for where they are today would neither recommend their trauma nor relish the work they had to get to their place of healing.  Victor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning explains his time at a concentration camp.  While he exposes some of the things that helped him and others survive, he doesn’t recommend it.

There’s a delicate balance of experiencing the event while replaying it at a level that’s safe enough but vulnerable and raw enough that it’s possible to make sense of the event.  Sometimes, the only sense of control you can get in a trauma is the extent to which you allow yourself to experience it and your insistence that it won’t define you.

Mastering the Waves

Trauma survivors will tell you that you’ll always experience triggers that connect you to the traumatic experience, but they change.  It can be likened to riding an emotional wave on a surfboard.  You are still moved by it, and you’ll likely end up in the water at some point.  In the meantime, you can stay above it, using the energy to propel you forward.  Surfers, even professional surfers, fall off their board, but until they do, they’re able to do some amazing things.

One way to make trauma better is to learn the skills that allow you to spend more time above the wave and less time being pummeled by it.

Internal Perception of Danger

One step is recognizing that, often, the danger and fear associated with the event are in the past.  It’s quite likely that the fear of that moment doesn’t continue into the current moment – or shouldn’t.  What we come to realize is that it’s our internal perception of danger that matters more than the objective measure of risk.

We can use a set of well-known techniques to shift our perception away from momentary and current danger to a sense of relative safety.  Some of those techniques are below.

Play Acting a Different Ending

It’s magical thinking.  It’s the domain of the two-year-old – but it works.  For Victor Frankl, it was imagining his wife.  He knew she might be dead, but hearing her speak to him transcended that actuality.  He was able to create a scene in his mind that he knew to be reassuring but also false.

One way that we can reduce the suffering associated with trauma is to replay the event in our mind with different endings.  We can know they’re not real but at the same time be comforted with alternate endings.

An Army of Heroes

One alternate ending that can be valuable is to call in for a hero you can trust – real or imaginary.  These heroes can stand with us in our mind’s eye of the moment.  For some, they have a single hero who can stand with them.  For others, it’s a cadre of heroes, each with their own special skills and protections to offer.

This stands in the fantasy land of the child and at the same time offers us healing.  The real heroes aren’t the Invisible Heroes of our imagination but are those who fight their way out of the wake of trauma.

Book Review-Reducing Secondary Traumatic Stress: Skills for Sustaining a Career in the Helping Professions

When you think about it, there are dozens of professions that are focused on improving society.  We think of first responders in terms of firefighters, law enforcement, emergency medical personnel, and 911 dispatchers.  However, we forget about our mental health professionals, teachers, child protective services, and dozens of other professions that are exposed to the traumas others are coping with.  Reducing Secondary Traumatic Stress: Skills for Sustaining a Career in the Helping Professions is designed to serve those who serve others by helping them learn to address the hardest parts of their jobs.


Early on, Miller speaks about burnout harking back to Freudenberger’s Burn-Out.  He incorrectly associates Maslach’s work with Freudenberger’s, perhaps because that’s the narrative that has been spun.  (I should say that Freudenberger’s book isn’t the oldest book on burnout: that distinction belongs to Professional Burn-Out.)

Miller, however, correctly identifies the key to burnout as feelings of inefficacy.  He challenges the notion that you’re burned out at the end of a long career and explains that burnout happens more frequently at the beginning of a career – not the end.  Of course, this is consistent with the research we did when building Extinguish Burnout.

Compassion Fatigue

Miller similarly pushes back against compassion fatigue.  He argues that it’s not that you’ve expressed too much compassion, but rather that you’ve closed yourself off to all feelings and empathy with the result of failing to express compassion for those you’re there to serve.  In Is It Compassion Fatigue or Burnout?, we speak about it from the perspective that professionals have failed to do their self-care.  The result is the same: you shut down, and it’s this shutdown that’s perceived as compassion fatigue.

Systemic Stress

Too many mental wellness programs are little more than herbal tea, soft lighting, and a once-a-month yoga session.  While these practices have some value, they’re often crushed by the onslaught of 50-minute sessions, crisis calls, and complex cases.  The physician that can’t find time for a bathroom break between 15-minute patient appointments won’t find what they need at the bottom of a teacup.  The paramedic whose sleep was just interrupted to respond to an accident doesn’t need soft lighting.

We can’t assume that we can put a band-aid on a gaping wound, and it will all be okay.  We have to match the care that we give to the need.

Feel or No Feel – There Is No Try

My apologies to Yoda.  You can’t selectively let in some feelings and dampen others.  You can’t decide to let joy through but block depression.  When we numb – either naturally or with pharmaceutical assistance – we block both the good and the bad.  This is part of Miller’s point: when we try to block out the struggles of empathy, we necessarily prevent the development of compassion.  We can either choose to open ourselves to experiences and live, or we can wall ourselves off from the world and from others.  If we choose that option, we disconnect ourselves from the broader community and their support for when we’re feeling low.

No Feeling is Final

What we know about feelings is that they change.  Even moods change over the longer course of time.  (See Emotion and Adaptation.)  It is hard to remember in the moment that the feeling will pass.  (See Capture.)  However, the only thing constant about feelings is that they do change.

There is something to be said for actively shaping your thoughts while accepting them.  One can work to hardwire happiness without preventing acceptance of other emotions.  (See Hardwiring Happiness.)  Too many people believe that feelings happen to you – and it can certainly feel that way.  However, we know that you can consciously influence your feelings by focusing attention on the emotions that you want to have.  Caution is appropriate here so that we don’t over emphasize what can be done, as Bright-sided and Happier? Are concerned about.

Removing Rumination

Rumination is the opposite.  It’s focusing on the same situation and the challenges associated with it without finding ways to resolve the problem.  Instead of problem solving, rumination catches us in a net of repetition.  (See Capture.)  If we want to break free from rumination, we must either seek to solve the problem, or we must learn to let go.

Miller proposes an ACES (Action, Concrete, Experiential, and Specific) model for problem solving.  You know it’s not rumination when you’re coming up with specific, concrete actions that are doable.  Problem solving doesn’t mean that you must solve the end problem yourself.  Even identifying the specific set of actions you’re going to do to ask for help is enough to allow your mind to let go of it.

It used to be that I’d be caught in a loop of trying to not forget something that I needed to do in the morning.  Now, I grab my phone, send myself a quick one-line email, and go back to sleep.  Knowing that I’ll see it in the morning allows me to let it go and move on to the important need for sleep.

Letting go of something is the other option.  It’s easier when you’re deferring it, but for some things that we ruminate on, we need to accept that we have no control of.  We can’t prevent something from happening or cause it to happen.  No amount of rumination will change the outcome.  As uncomfortable as it can be, sometimes we just must let the cards play out the way they’re going to play.

Energy Management

The narratives around burnout, compassion fatigue, and secondary traumatic stress are collectively focused on a false dichotomy.  They generally believe that your energy is drained or consumed at work and refilled at home.  The expectation is that work grinds you down, and your home life is fulfilling and life-giving.  However, for many people, this isn’t the case.

At work, they feel effective and fulfilled in their role.  They know what to do and how to get good results.  At home, they’re in a constant struggle with their spouse.  Their teenage kids don’t listen to them and are downright hostile.  They don’t know what they did wrong or what it will take to fix it – but they know they don’t like it.

More often, it’s in the middle, where some things at work build and renew a person – but there are times of exposure to trauma and tragedy.  At home, they find both love and challenge.  It’s not about the place but rather about the moment-to-moment environment that defines whether someone is receiving more energy than they’re giving.

Driving with the Brakes On

If you’ve ever had the experience of having a car brake caliper freeze up, you quickly have discovered what it’s like to drive with the brakes on.  (Hint: it doesn’t end well.)  A less eventful situation might be what happens when you forget and leave a parking brake on.  Unfortunately, that’s what happens with too many people.  Their sympathetic and parasympathetic systems get locked into a fight, and they get stuck or oscillate.  If we want better results, we’ll find a way to either have the brakes on or put our foot on the accelerator.

Generally, when the parasympathetic system (brakes) is engaged, the sympathetic system shuts down – but not always immediately.  With patience and practice, it becomes easier to downregulate and recover more quickly when we do become triggered.

Blessin’ or Lesson

Miller quotes a Southern saying that “everyone you meet is a blessin’ or a lesson.”  In other words, they’ll either attempt to bring you good or bad.  Either way, you must learn to work with them.  Knowing ahead of time which one they are is one step towards Reducing Secondary Trauma Stress.

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