On building midlife resilience

For many people who have found this blog because of very bad work experiences or career setbacks, the topic of resilience often enters into discussions of recovery and healing. Of course, there’s no shortage of books and long articles about building resilience, and they are certainly worth checking out. But sometimes less is more. Toward that end, I strongly recommend an excellent short piece that appeared over the summer, “How to Build Resilience in Midlife,” by New York Times health columnist Tara Parker-Pope.

Drawing upon the work of resilience experts, she compactly pulls together seven main points of advice:

  • “Practice Optimism”
  • “Rewrite Your Story”
  • “Don’t Personalize It”
  • “Remember Your Comebacks”
  • “Support Others”
  • “Take Stress Breaks”
  • “Go Out of Your Comfort Zone”

If this topic is important to you, then I strongly recommend reading the full article. If you give it 10 minutes of your time, then there’s a good chance you’ll want to save it or print it out. It invites deeper contemplation. Especially for those of us who have been around the block a few times, it’s a great starting place for understanding the keys to building resilience later in life.

For more

For those who would like to dive deeper into this topic, these sources may be helpful:

Also, do a search on “building resilience after trauma.” You’ll find a wealth of informational resources.

Infusing good core values into a new organization

With a beta version of the TJ Society’s forthcoming website, at the International Congress on Law and Mental Health, Prague, in July

Readers of recent entries are likely aware that I’ve been hip deep in helping to create a new, non-profit organization, the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence (“TJ Society”). From the most recent draft of our by-laws, here is what the group is about:

Therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ) is an interdisciplinary field of philosophy and practice that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of laws and public policies, legal and dispute resolution systems, and legal institutions. TJ values psychologically healthy outcomes in legal disputes and transactions, without claiming exclusivity in terms of policy objectives. The TJ Society shall advance these overall purposes by supporting legal and interdisciplinary scholarship; identifying and promoting best professional and judicial practices; sponsoring conferences, workshops, and seminars; engaging in continuing professional education and public education activities; and hosting and participating in print, electronic, social media platforms.

As I wrote earlier this month, I’m part of an all-volunteer board that is forming this organization, and I’m serving as its first chairperson. It’s a lot of work, but the broader purpose and the fellowship of a truly exceptional group of colleagues make it all worth it.

This also is an opportunity to put into practice many of the values that I have been advocating for via this blog. It means practicing inclusive, servant leadership dedicated to a cause greater than individual ambitions. It means treating others with respect and dignity. It means actually exhibiting transparency rather than simply touting it. It means avoiding unnecessary hierarchies. Above all, it means building a welcoming and difference making community. Fortunately, our board consists of individuals who walk this talk as a natural way of going about things. This is good: An organization devoted to psychologically healthy laws and legal systems should strive to operate in a psychologically healthy manner.

The TJ Society is a global organization, with a board and advisory council comprised of folks from around the world. This creates obvious communications challenges. It can mean maddening pile-ups of e-mails (many inflicted by yours truly) in attempting to work through topics that require group input, and very understandably patiences can grow weary among a group of very busy people. Additionally, available online meeting technologies such as Skype and Google hangout can’t change the scheduling realities of holding a board meeting with participants’ time zone differences ranging from six to fourteen hours! As I said, we’re fortunate to have such wonderful board members who can roll with the digital waves.

In terms of shaping my contributions to this fledgling learned society, I am fortunate to have other organizations and initiatives as role models. Over the years I have learned so much from the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network, especially the leadership of co-leaders Evelin Lindner and Linda Hartling. I’ve also been inspired by the inclusive culture of the biennial Work, Stress and Health conference, co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology. I’m further grateful for the biennial International Congress on Law and Mental Health sponsored by the International Academy of Law and Mental Health, which, among many other good things, allows therapeutic jurisprudence scholars and practitioners to gather and learn from each other. I hope that the TJ Society will draw from the best characteristics exhibited by these entities.

It’s too early to say whether the TJ Society will build into its culture the values that make for healthy, inclusive organizations, but I’m betting that it will happen. Embracing and practicing these values at the beginning is an important start. Yup, as we grow we’ll make some mistakes, juggle differences of opinion, and probably deal with conflicts here and there. But if the foundation is strong, we’ll do things in the right way much more often than not.

A dignity salon

Group shot from December 2016 HumanDHS workshop in NYC

My association with Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS), a global network of scholars, practitioners, students, artists, and activists committed to advancing human dignity and ending humiliating practices, has been a gratifying source of renewal, fellowship, and friendship. Until recently, however, my only opportunity to engage in face-to-face interactions with members of this remarkable community has been through HumanDHS’s annual December workshop in New York City. This wonderful event has always left me wanting for more.

Now, however, a smaller group of HumanDHS community members has started meeting on a regular basis in New York for open-ended conversations about ideas and projects on broad themes of shared interest.  I hopped on a Boston-to-NYC train to participate in the latest get-together on Saturday, and I’m very glad that I did. The planned three-hour gathering, with a dozen or so people meeting in a typically snug Manhattan apartment living room, spilled over our allotted time.

Our loose format starts with brief self-introductions that may include mentions of recent activities and life events. Sometimes the introductions themselves prompt deeper conversations. On other occasions the discussion will be gently guided by our unofficial convener. The topics vary widely, ranging from the personal to the global. For example, during an earlier meet-up, I was grateful for the opportunity to share the challenges that a dear friend of mine is facing in connection with severe interpersonal and work abuse. Saturday’s meeting, by contrast, included more talk about broader economic and political contexts and how we can promote human dignity as a chief framing concept for our society.

I realized after our latest meeting that we are creating our own version of a salon, a term commonly associated with small gatherings held at someone’s home, featuring conversations over food and drink. Salons were very much in fashion in New York City a century ago, organized by (mostly) left-leaning women who hosted discussions for intellectuals and artists, with libations offered to fuel smart and witty repartee. More recently, right before online discussion forums became so popular, the Utne Reader magazine promoted salons as a way of building community through conversation. (For more on that, see Jaida N’ha Sandra & Jon Spayde, Salons: The Joy of Conversation (2001).)

Our salon (if I may now call it that) is likely more serious in content than others, with tea and coffee supplanting alcohol as beverages of choice. It also reflects a conscious effort to grow the supportive community fostered by HumanDHS’s December workshop and social media outreach. As one participant characterized it yesterday, we are building an intentional tribe. In a world that cries out for more strong, caring connections with others, this is something to celebrate.

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On a personal note, this was the latest in a lengthy stretch of out-of-town trips for both personal and work-related reasons. I looked back at my calendar book (yes, I still use the printed variety) and saw that I’ve been out of town during parts of almost every week since late April, and this will continue through the summer. My travel schedule and a ton of personal and work-related commitments are the main reasons why I’ve been blogging less frequently, but it’s all good. Every trip has been mainly about being with wonderful people.

Systems enable workplace bullying, so where are the systems to stop it?

(Image courtesy of Clipartpanda.com)

As I wrote earlier this year, workplace bullying and mobbing “usually cannot flourish without organizational sponsorship, enabling, or, at the very least, indifference.” Indeed, if we take this a step further, we see that workplace abuse is enabled by formal and informal systems of people and networks.

Those who study social work or organizational behavior learn about systems theory, which is basically a fancy way of saying that human roles and interactions are complex, interrelated, and intertwined, culminating in systems that produce certain results. With workplace bullying and mobbing, dysfunctional or hostile systems inflict injuries on targets and protect their abusers. Thus, a typical campaign of severe bullying or mobbing at work involves multiple players, including but hardly limited to:

  • The main aggressor(s);
  • The supervisor or boss of the main aggressor(s), in order to ratify and sometimes further the abuse;
  • On frequent occasion, peers recruited/pressured/incentivized to join in on the abuse;
  • Human resources personnel to bureaucratically process the abuse through review and discipline of the target;
  • Legal counsel to provide cover for the organization and sometimes direct additional intimidation toward the target.

These players join to create systems of abuse, sometimes tightly coordinated, other times acting in a sort of auto-pilot mode. Not infrequently, players outside of the workplace are enlisted to help out as well, thereby extending the system beyond the office or plant.

Countervailing power

On previous occasions here, I have invoked economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s theory of countervailing power. In the 1950s, Galbraith wrote that organized labor exercised “countervailing power” in the battle over the division of profits with the titans of business and investment. Today, some labor unions help to safeguard their members against bullying and mobbing; others get a failing grade in this regard. In any event, with less than 12 percent of the American workforce currently unionized, few workers can even theoretically turn to unions to protect them from mistreatment on the job.

Accordingly, most workers who face bullying at work today do so without any kind of protective system to stand up to the forces that are abusing them. Sure, they can retain a lawyer, seek counseling and health care, and otherwise attempt to create a “loose parts” network to help them, but the organized, countervailing power to which Galbraith referred isn’t present. If their employer doesn’t take work abuse seriously, they’re basically looking at a lonely fight.

I don’t have any easy answers at this point. Instead, I’ll simply say that we need to (1) revive the labor movement in the form of strong, pro-member unions that understand the harm wrought by work abuse; and (2) create other entities that can help bullied workers in a more powerful, assertive way. We also need plenty more public education about workplace bullying and mobbing in order to build widespread objection to these forms of interpersonal abuse. 

“It’s not my responsibility”

(image courtesy of clipart kid.com)

A conversation with a friend last night and an episode of a TV crime drama I recently watched served to crystallize this line in my mind: “It’s not my responsibility.”

Naturally I thought about “It’s not my responsibility” and responses like it in the context of my bailiwicks: Workplaces, law and policy, and the community. But before I share some thoughts on that, let’s get a definition. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines responsibility as “the quality or state of being responsible,” such as a “moral, legal, or mental accountability.”

Okay, sometimes “It’s not my responsibility” is simply a truthful, accurate statement of circumstances and limitations. At work we may have defined responsibilities, and exceeding them or stepping over those of others could lead to chaos and disruption. The law establishes responsibilities and obligations, too, and exceeding those boundaries could lead to unwanted consequences. Family ties may mandate responsibilities legally and morally, especially based on closeness of relations.

Beyond that, however, there’s a huge realm of discretion where we can choose to accept or undertake responsibility or not. This may occur in the context of taking a stand, helping or protecting someone, or contributing financial support. When we exercise our discretion to take responsibility, we are making a commitment notwithstanding the lack of external obligation to do so. That commitment should be every bit as strong as an institutionally imposed mandate.

Despite religious chest-thumping by some, I have to say that we are in an age where serving as each other’s keepers does not appear to be in style. Whether in our workplaces or other communities and relationships, I hope that will change.

The privilege of thinking abstractly and the obligation to pay it forward

I’ve often remarked here that one of my favorite writers is Charles D. Hayes, author of wonderful books that integrate themes of adult learning, practical philosophy, and life’s second half. Currently I’m slowly savoring his 2003 novel, Portals in a Northern Sky, a unique work that I can best describe as a multi-character philosophical journey, with a sci-fi, time-crossing element to it. It’s also an ode to Charles’s adopted home of Alaska.

In Portals, philosopher and bookstore owner Ruben Sanchez engages Bob Thornton, an ex-Wall Street trader, in an ongoing dialogue about the meaning of life. Here’s a snippet from Ruben that caught my eye:

There are two types of people in the world, my friend: those who live a concrete existence and those who live in abstraction. The difference is surprisingly simple, and, of course, it’s a matter of degree because all of us require some of both. The people who live in the concrete world lack basic wealth and spend most of their time in a perpetual struggle for survival. Abstraction is a luxury engaged in by people whose fundamental material needs are no longer important issues. What’s misunderstood by those who profess to know how people should be educated is that to be truly educated a person must be able to reside in both worlds at all.

The Sanchez-Thornton dialogues are just one ongoing storyline in the novel. You’ll encounter many other interesting characters and ideas.

Boiled down Maslow?

Ruben Sanchez’s words sound like a boiled down take on psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs. In a classic Psychological Review article published in 1943, Maslow grouped human needs into the following categories, organizing them as a hierarchy: At the base are “physiological needs” such as food, clothing, and shelter, that are central to our survival. Next are “safety needs” such as personal health, security, and financial security. The “love needs” for close human relationships comprise a third layer, and “esteem needs” for belonging in society, make for a fourth. Finally, “self-actualization,” the full realization of one’s potential, stands atop the hierarchy.

Paying it forward

Whether we’re looking at human development through the eyes of philosopher Hayes or psychologist Maslow, I submit that those of us whose basic survival needs are met have a moral obligation to pay it forward in some meaningful way. This includes helping others meet their survival needs and playing some tangible part in making the world a more decent, humane place.

I realize that not all readers are in such a privileged position. (For example, a good number originally find this blog because they are enduring horrible situations at work that are threatening their health and livelihoods.) However, those who enjoy the luxury of living largely in the world of abstraction — engaging ideas, meaningful initiatives and actions, and the meaning of life — have many opportunities to change our world for the better. Whether one believes in fate, random luck, or something in between (another theme running through Portals in a Northern Sky), such an advantage should not be squandered.

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Related post

The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary human need (2013, rev. 2017)

Timothy Snyder on standing out

Historian Timothy Snyder (Yale) has written an important little book for our times, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017), which belongs on the must-read lists of change agents who are confronting abuses of power. Essentially it’s a 128-page expanded essay that can be read in an evening — and hopefully will be re-read to reinforce its core lessons.

Among the 20 short chapters of instruction, number 8, “Stand out,” resonates specially with me:

Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. Remember Rosa Parks. The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

For this chapter, Snyder draws heavily upon examples of heroism during the Second World War, especially that of Winston Churchill. Citing the Prime Minister’s political leadership and brave oratory, Snyder notes that “had Churchill not kept Britain in the war in 1940,” the Allied forces would never have had the chance to win the war. “Today,” writes Snyder, “what Churchill did seems normal, and right. But at the time he had to stand out.”

Of course, even in the fiercest of onslaughts, battles must be picked. Snyder briefly mentions the evacuation at Dunkirk in 1940, a massive operation that rescued what remained of the British expeditionary force after France fell to the Nazis. Dunkirk illustrates how fighting to the bitter end is not always the answer. Sometimes you need to retreat and regroup to fight another day.

History provides us with guidance only; it is not an instruction book. But as Snyder observes, “We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”

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