Thursday, July 30, 2020

Race, Policing and Police Brutality: An Interview with Dr. Terrell Carter

Profile picture of Dr. Terrell Carter
This week, I had the pleasure and privilege to talk with writer, activist, pastor, and community leader Dr. Terrell Carter on issues of ethnicity, racial discrimination, and the police. Dr. Carter is a true Renaissance man (notwithstanding the personal thoughts and opinions of his teenage daughter) since he is not only all the epithets described above but he is also a professor, an artist as well as a former police officer.

It is the latter point that especially sets him apart from many of his peers as we can learn a lot from his experience, outlook, and status, all of which make his point of view more balanced and calibrated. This is accentuated by the fact that he himself is an upright citizen and this is something that I personally gleaned and realized from our hour-long one-on-one conversation.

Currently, I am in the process of reviewing one of his earlier books – Walking the Blue Line – which deals with his personal experiences of being a colored police officer, and I was immediately impressed with his stance of neither defending nor demonizing the police.

I concur with this view. Although my context and life experiences are very different, I used to espouse the romantic Ivory Tower ideology of viewing all forms of authority as a threat, an unconscious rebellion against the paternal figure, but when I had the opportunity to work with police officers, my views about them changed in many ways and aspects.

Part of my rebellion stemmed from fear and a general lack of contact with the police (I have had, fortunately, no specific negative experiences or trauma to speak of) but a figure dressed in an imposing uniform tends to instill more fear than respect. Yet once I got to meet these officers of the law outside of their uniform, in plain civilian clothes, I saw and realized that police officers are no different from the rest of us. They have their troubles, worries, and concerns, they have a sense of humor – believe it or not - and they have their differences.

One of the more worrisome aspects of the current anti-police movement is its either/or and black/white perspective. The protesters tend to oppose all police officers and fail to distinguish those who are upright and decent from those who are jaded, corrupt, and downright racist.

This is one of the things that Dr. Carter learned and realized first-hand as he was serving in the police force. The problem in many cases was not the individuals but the police system itself. Policing does not start off with the mission or ideology of helping others or even serving communities; it is mainly based and intent on catching and apprehending “bad guys” or perpetrators.

It is hinged on a worldview that wants officers to punish those who commit crimes, and in fact, those members of the police who do good by avoiding conflict and violence find themselves at a significant disadvantage. This is because the system runs like a business, and you would basically receive commissions on making arrests be they drug busts or felonies; once you have various arrests under your belt, you would be promoted.

Put differently, if you fail to do so, if you do not fulfill your quota, you will not have a chance to advance in your career. If you wanted to help and serve your community – the noble intentions of many who engage in this profession in the first place - you would have to do this on your own time, meaning it would go unpaid and uncredited, although that is what the true aim and purpose of policing should and ought to be.

My question for Dr. Carter was why there is so little time placed on de-escalation techniques, and the answer became apparent during our conversation. The police are seen basically as alpha males whose intention would be to escalate situations so that they can make arrests. De-escalation would be considered effeminate or too feminine. But the accent should lie on avoiding conflicts not flaming or encouraging them, and we should see the police more as officers of peace than one of force and enforcement.

Another issue that compounds and complicates the whole process in the United States is access to guns. As a police officer, you would constantly live in survival mode and you will be dealing with bad guys on a daily basis. This means that not only is your view of humanity influenced and biased in a negative way, but you might also build and harbor negative stereotypes or prejudices against certain groups or segments of society. A police officer’s mind has been primed to see the negative, and they might project this into ambivalent situations or even their daily life and context.

Again, this is not meant to excuse or defend their actions nor the various cases of excessive and unnecessary force, but it is meant to encourage a better and more empathic understanding of these situations. As Dr. Carter put it, many people start off policing as upright and decent beings, but the job and the working climate make many of them jaded and corrupt. In fact, it is easier, let alone professionally more rewarding, for a good person to go astray and be swayed onto the wrong path, of becoming bad and corrupt than to stay the course.

Why did decent folks not stand up against those rotten apples, the corrupt and sadistic members of the force? Why did no one step into the fray and stop the evident violence and police brutality occurring in front of their eyes; why did no one denounce and expose wrongdoing? Is it because of comradeship and camaraderie?

Dr. Carter’s answer was yes. You had to trust your partner in dangerous and life-threatening situations. But when he himself denounced the practices of one of his colleagues, no one wanted to partner up with him as they deemed his action a transgression against the unspoken but implicit code of police conduct. By standing up for your principles and other people’s rights, you would become ostracized and would be called a snitch. As a result, Dr. Carter decided to quit the force.

This ties in with many issues that plague administrations and governments on all their levels. Although there is corruption, we are asked to turn a blind eye and accept and go along with it. The moment a person exposes wrongdoing, the whistleblowers tend to be attacked by the establishment when they ought to be celebrated and promoted for doing the right thing and for actively tackling corruption. Honesty, integrity, and truthfulness tend not to be encouraged by higher-ups or the government; worse, whistle-blowers tend to be reprimanded or punished for speaking out and standing up for truth and integrity.

Although police officers have and will be charged with crimes, they often receive protection from the law. In many cases, we have seen that the victim would be blamed for their actions, whether it is running away or pulling out a wallet. It is hard to fathom what kind of cruel and inhumane pretext will be given for the slaying of George Floyd, but the legal system must ensure and enforce that justice will prevail and that there is no favoritism involved; that justice is indeed blind to differences by equally applying the rules to all and everyone without exception.

What ought to be done in these important, historical yet volatile times where protests abound and where the streets are in turmoil and the citizens enraged? There is a documented history of wrongdoing and police brutality. There is a long list of victims who have been mistreated and killed by the police.

But the mistreatment goes back further in history with the abominable and inexcusable practice of slavery, the atrocious fictitious narrative that it is allowed and permitted to treat fellow human beings as property. It shocks me to hear that even today there are people in government who espouse the view that slavery was a “necessary evil.” It was certainly evil, but in no way and under no pretexts was it or could it be necessary.

Slavery can not be conceived of or brushed off as a mere case of educating and civilizing the colored people - terms that are inherently troublesome on their own - but it was the forceful and violent repression of human rights and of human dignity. It is sad and heartbreaking that there are traces and vestiges of this view still operating in modern American society. The acceptance of ethnic mistreatment and the fact that it is allowed and permitted to occur and re-occur is an example of the blind spot of race and democracy in the American system.

What we need most is a restructuring and reformatting of society. Protests, according to Dr. Carter, are a way of inconveniencing the other. It is forcing people to face what is a reality in American society and politics. It is nudging them to feel awkward about what is currently happening and to have an open, uncomfortable but necessary and liberating conversation about race and ethnicity in the United States. It is not about erasing the past but facing it and bringing it into the open and to have an honest and open dialogue from and with both sides of the fences.

The trauma is there, and it has been festering for centuries. But here is the chance to overcome it and to build bridges. The goal is not and should not be a further entrenchment or deeper division but rather a bridge that connects us to each other. It is not about seeing the others as enemies but trying to see them holistically, as human beings deserving of dignity, respect, and most importantly, empathy. At the same time, it is important to tear down fences and defenses, to expose the lies and manipulation, and, in the words of Eddie Glaude, to tell the truth with courage, commitment, and love.

Hence, protests need to be done mindfully. We must keep in mind that this movement is occurring under the ominous threat of a virus that is endangering many lives. We also need to be aware that during protests, there will be a lack of access to education; all those who are on their way to schools and universities will have their roads blocked. Finally, it will also cut off access for those that need medical attention, whether it is due to Covid-19 or other conditions.

There is more than one way to achieve awareness and change, and sometimes one needs to resort to forceful means to get the point across. In my view, there should be a balanced force of yin and yang, where Malcolm X represents an aggressive stance of forcefully and vocally demanding and obtaining what one is rightly due but also not to forget or undermine the more “feminine” side, symbolized by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., where compassion, peace, and love are meant to guide us towards the ultimate goal of harmony.

This is not straying too far from the Christian analogy since the end goal of Jesus was to reach harmony and peace, but he was fully aware that sometimes one would need to pull out the sword to that effect. I am an intrinsic pacifist, but I think that conflict is necessary to reach true and lasting peace. But I do not think that we need a violent revolution, and I oppose any forms of anarchy.

As a writer, I think that the best way to change minds and to reach understanding, empathy, and harmony is through writing. The pen is mightier than the sword. Although protests will leave an impact on people, writing can touch and affect them in more lasting, intimate, and profound ways. For instance, we should let ourselves be guided by the warmth and wisdom of James Baldwin; he may have looked physically frail, but his words were potent and ripe with themes that equally transcend and harmonize potential racial differences.

Diplomacy can be enforced through strong, forceful, and purposeful words and actions, but we need to make sure that the path ahead and forward is clear and that we get to the place we are aiming for. It is not sufficient to have had a colored president in office. Yet with our zeal and desire for change, we do not want to reach a point of disarray nor let the promising movement be swayed or hijacked by and for political means and ends.

The final goal or destination goes back to the still unresolved but possible and feasible dream that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had, that one day everyone will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. That day could indeed be another step closer, while in the hopeful words of James Baldwin: Hope is invented every day.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Vaccines and Effective Means of Protection against Covid-19

Phial of Covid-19 Vaccine with a syringe and blue gloves
Now that it has been shown that herd or community immunity is not going to happen and that the Coronavirus will not just dissipate or disappear on its own, our only hope exists via two possible avenues: effective therapeutics and preventive vaccines.

Fortunately, science has been progressing at an incredibly rapid pace on both fronts as initial results of clinical trials look promising and hopeful; all of this is playing out against the ominous background of a potential upcoming second wave slated for some time during the fall season. 

But as Dr. Anthony Fauci has reminded us, we are still in the midst and thick of the first wave and must make sure to get through this one first, before we can focus on and worry about the next one.

As of this date, there are 197 vaccines in development, while 19 have reached the stage of clinical trials (note that these numbers could change and fluctuate very quickly). One thing that is certain and undeniable is that this development has been going at an unprecedented speed.

Part of this reason is that there was some previous information and knowledge about SARS that has helped researchers to determine different ways of tackling the disease through a vaccine. One of the things that has been promising with other Coronaviruses is that our body remembers its antigens at least for a couple of years.

A vaccine not only simulates a weaker version of the virus - one that cannot reproduce or do damage - but it can also teach the body how to effectively fight it. Although this is the most common and the most successful way of vaccinating people, it involves a slow and cumbersome process, which is a problem with SARS-Covid 2 as time is of the essence.

A more novel approach is to inject not the complete virus but merely an antigen, an essential component of the virus. This has been previously done with certain viruses, such as Hepatitis B and whooping cough, and it is currently one of the most popular methods of vaccine development.

The third and final type of vaccine is one that is also the most experimental. It does not use any parts of the virus, but only gives our bodies instructions on how to deal with the virus by providing key pieces of genetic code. They can be made very fast, but they have never been tried with humans.

There is a sense of urgency to act as fast as possible by trying to limit and mitigate the risks as much as possible. Since Covid-19 has devastated, crippled, and held hostage the global economy, researchers around the world have been working hard to find a solution to this serious and life-threatening problem.

There has been governmental support as well as substantial support from the private sector. Ideally, we want, to quote Dr. Fauci, “a marriage and a collaboration between government authorities and the private sector.”

Unfortunately, politics has been another factor at stake, which is often limiting and stifling progress in the fight against the virus as well as vaccine development. It would have been recommendable to unite and work together on a solution that will help and aid every citizen of the world.

Instead, it has turned into a Cold War of sorts in which many nations work on their own and shield their knowledge from others, while some nations engage in cyber espionage to find out the results and progress of other countries to be able to trump them.

It is sad and disheartening that such turmoil and suffering has failed to truly bring the world together, where spying and mistrust has led to a lack of coordination and cooperation, but the good news is that there are still many internationally led efforts and collaborations in progress.

Scientists, academia, and pharmaceutical companies are working together to find a viable vaccine against this virus. Yet the vaccines that are eventually developed need to satisfy the following criteria.

First, they need to be effective. So far clinical trials have been promising, and a few of these experimental vaccines seem to build or boost immunity.

The question remains for how long the immunity would last. Would booster shots be necessary? Will it be on an annual basis like the flu shot? The problem with the flu shot is that the virus often mutates and is hard to predict. To my knowledge, there has been some but not much mutation in the case of the Coronavirus. It remains to be seen how it will all play out.

Second, the vaccine needs to be safe. This is the main reason why clinical trials are so important. However, due to the urgency of the situation, sometimes two separate clinical stages are undertaken at the same time.

Once, the vaccine is deemed safe enough for a group of people, we would need to expand it to a larger sample and study the potential side effects. No vaccine will be a 100% effective (measles is the closest one with about 97% and smallpox with 95%) but, most likely, there will be secondary effects, which so far have been documented as headaches and low-grade fevers.

When it comes to safety, we would always need to counterbalance the harm with the benefits. Since vaccines are generally safe and have been extensively vetted, tested, and studied, they tend to be safe enough.

The current waves of people opposing all types of vaccines, generally referred to as anti-vaxxers, are a potential threat to building immunity, while their reasons do not constitute or bring about a veritable debate.

The staunch and blind opposition to science, this anti-scientific stance, is often tolerated and accepted in the United States under the guise of a liberty right’s issue, since it is allegedly part and parcel of constitutional rights enshrined in and guaranteed with the first and 14th amendments.

The issue is, however, not only of a “philosophical” or rather ideological matter, but it has serious consequences and repercussions for health and society. 

Liberties must always exist in relation to others, and with this comes social accountability and responsibility. For instance, freedom of speech is an essential aspect of one’s personal liberty, but it crosses a dangerous line when it becomes or borders on forms of hate speech aimed and targeted towards particular groups or segments of society.

In terms of anti-vaxxers, this is not about protecting one’s right to express oneself or to live in accordance with one’s beliefs, but it is an action that is unsafe, and it is of no benefit to neither the individuals themselves nor to their immediate surroundings. Since we are all in this together, the careless, irresponsible, and irrational actions of the few will have dangerous consequences for everyone.

The bottom line is that vaccines are lifesaving, and those who refuse to have them are not only putting themselves and their children at risk, but they put other people, particularly senior citizens, children, and those who are immunocompromised at risk as well.

In fact, there is no debate to speak of, and this leaves little, if any, room for discussion on the matter; the evidence and science speak for themselves. Yet it is more than a matter of health, safety, and common sense; it is also an ultimate act of altruism, of acting for the benefit of one’s community and nation.

When it comes to the COVID vaccine, there will be elements of risk, but that is why it will not be available until it is deemed relatively safe. To remedy that, it is most useful and helpful to have more than one vaccine. When we have multiple and different vaccines available, they can be effective in complementary ways since there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this disease.

Dr. Stefano Bertuzzi, the CEO of AMS (American Society for Microbiology) stated in an interview with the US Chamber of Commerce that the different vaccine particles can be compared to making a pizza.

We could adjust the pizza according to necessity; we could provide different platforms, or in the case of our pizza analogy, gluten-free options with a variety of toppings, according to age, health, conditions, and other demographics.

The next factor to consider is whether the vaccine is affordable. That is another important issue that will be tied with patents. Will pharmaceutical companies try to make a quick buck by taking advantage of a global health crisis or will they do the right and ethical thing to make it as affordable as possible?

Will they become health heroes or saviors like Jonas Salk and forgo profit over doing the right and honorable thing? In the case of a pandemic, it affects everyone, and everyone, or at the very least 70% of the world population needs to be protected for the global community to be safe and immune against this virus.

We need to consider that there is substantial poverty in each nation. The poor and underprivileged also need to have protection, which leads us to the final point: The vaccine needs to be available for all and everyone.

Although the roll-out of the vaccines will start with those who are at highest risk, such as health care workers and those who are immunocompromised, we would need to find ways of reaching large swaths of the seven + billion citizens of this world and that includes actively seeking out and contacting underprivileged people in each and every community.

This will pose logistical problems as well. The vaccine needs to be able to be transported easily, and it needs to be administered in the furthest regions of the world, from the deserts to the mountain tops. We would need to have sufficient syringes, vials, and swabs for this enormous undertaking.

In terms of testing, there was an issue with the supply chain as the nasopharyngeal swabs were for the most part (about 80%) made in Italy. Since commercial planes were grounded at the time, the US decided to use military planes to transport them. And yet, even today, there is still not enough supply at hand. Hence, we need to find safe and quick manners of transporting the vaccine to places that are remote, and which may not have potable water, for instance.

Finally, there is also the issue of therapeutics. In terms of logistics, this is much easier to achieve as, unlike vaccines, it does not involve every citizen of the world but is limited to those who have contracted or developed this disease.

They can then be hopefully treated in an effective manner, and as such, we would reduce the number of deaths and fatalities due to Covid-19. Currently, there are experiments on repurposing antivirals for early stages of Covid-19, that is, they are using and experimenting with treatments for other diseases and conditions to find one that works best with this unpredictable and uncharted virus.

Before we have any viable vaccines or therapeutics in place, we need to be careful and vigilant. It would be best to follow the Core 4 strategies, that is, using masks and face coverings, especially when in crowded or enclosed spaces; by practicing social distancing by keeping at least two meters apart from others; by using hand hygiene, that is washing our hands as often as possible to kill the germs, most safely achieved through the simple use of soap and water; and finally, by staying home and avoiding contact with others when sick.

The latter point is a bit tricky and more complicated when it gets to the Coronavirus as it is oddly enough most contagious in its initial phases and this is compounded by the fact that many people may be asymptomatic, meaning they would display no visible symptoms whatsoever but will still be able to infect others with this highly contagious illness.

Children are also not spared of the disease. Although it seems that children younger than ten do not transmit the disease, it is quite a different story from the ages of ten and onwards. They could not only transmit the virus and infect others, but, in some unfortunate cases, children may themselves have serious repercussions and complications with what are known as multi-system inflammatory syndrome and Kawasaki Disease.

These conditions are caused by an overreaction of the immune system, and if untreated, they can become lethal. Although rare, they are serious enough conditions, but with early detection and proper medical care, children should recover.

In the meantime, we must engage in relevant cultural behavior change, according to Dr. Oxiris Barbot, the Acting Commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. This is a necessary transition until we have a vaccine with most people having been vaccinated. This would not only include constantly engaging in the Core Four Strategies mentioned earlier but also to find alternative ways of transit and transportation to avoid crowds and gatherings. This could also mean using alternative forms of transit, such as biking and walking, whenever possible and feasible.

Finally, schools need to be opened in a safe manner where masks are not only encouraged but mandatory to protect each other. To encourage mask-wearing, Dr. Barbot suggested making face coverings together with the children by showing them the importance and the civic duty of protecting oneself as well as others.

As to businesses, the word of advice she gave was to go slow and not to cut any corners. Business owners need to ensure that their employees and their clients are as safe as possible and that the health recommendations are followed as closely as possible.

In the words of Dr. Fauci, it is essential that we have a healthy business community. This would be in the best interest of everyone until we can go back to at least a semblance of the normal that we used to know.

Finally, how can we ensure that most people will get the vaccine? Should it be mandatory? Should people have the right to become exempt as it has been the case with vaccinations and immunizations?

There may be legal repercussions involved, but the decision in these types of matter ought to be utilitarian, meaning they should serve the common good.

And it would be in the best interest of everyone to get vaccinated so that this COVID nightmare can finally become a thing of the past, a haunting memory of a time where we suffered and lost greatly but also when and where we realized that our only hope and faith lie in science and in our sense of community.


Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Moving through the Motivational Fields of Well-being

Motivation is a topic I am quite passionate as well as motivated to write about. I am interested in it for two different but interconnected reasons. First, I want to know what moves us to act and live a certain way, so in a more precise sense, this could fall into drive and need satisfaction, but also how motivation can engender, create, and sustain beliefs. My own motivation in all of this is to relate and integrate beliefs and actions into a drive for better and improved holistic health and wellbeing, that is, promoting and ideally leading to physical, emotional, mental, and psychological wellness.

I had the pleasure to attend a webinar by Dr. Chris Johnstone from the College of Well-being who discussed many of the factors that I am interested in exploring. Without motivation, this intrinsic push, we would not be able to bring about necessary and significant changes and improvements in our health and lives, so it is of importance both for me personally on how to deal with and heal various aspects of myself including my private and professional life, but it is also relevant for effectively transmitting that gained knowledge to others.

Yet one of the things to keep in mind, contrary to our general and overall perception, is that motivation is not stable. In fact, it fluctuates; it waxes and wanes. We cannot be constantly motivated throughout the day, the same way, we do not want to be driven at every moment of our life as this would be quite taxing on our energy levels. Out of necessity and for our own good, we need downtime to use for rest, pause, and reflection.

Moreover, motivation can be influenced easily and can be, for better or worse, rather gullible. Conversations can sway us one way or another. We can motivate ourselves and others to do what is beneficial and healthy, and this is something I am aiming and driving for, which is indeed my main motivation for writing. But communication can be used for ill means and shady purposes or it might simply be ineffective regardless of the underlying intentions. The person can be pushy and bossy wanting to have their way, and they may try to convince you to do things you are not inclined nor willing to do in the first place.

Or the way a person with good intentions, often a parent or maybe a friend, tries to communicate may be too pushy and demanding for us to accept, let alone adopt their point of view. They may even engage in shaming or belittling us, which would have, motivationally speaking, the exact opposite intended effect: we rebel against them and refuse and reject their suggestion, regardless if it is beneficial or not. In other words, I will try not to push my ideas and experiences down your throat but need to keep up avenues of respect and courtesy and merely give you the ball and put it into your court to play with. You may choose to take up playing with that idea or just let it be. This would be up to you.

To put motivation into perspective, we need to briefly trace its history. In fact, motivational interviews and interactions are an outgrowth of the humanistic concepts and ideas of Carl Rogers. They have been further developed and elaborated by William Miller and Stephen Rollnick. Motivational theories involve seeing the person through empathic and sympathetic eyes and to give them the space they need and ideally create an environment of unconditional love and acceptance for them, which are terms and actions proposed by Carl Rogers.

To achieve real foundational change in a person and to motivate them for further action, we must refrain from pushing and confronting them. This has been the commonly accepted but harmful and counterproductive method of dealing with addictions, for instance. The last thing a person afflicted with an addiction wants and needs is a sermon, punishment, or rejection from loved ones, caregivers, and health care and mental health practitioners.

The most productive results would be achieved through a collaborative conversation style. The confrontational style generally does not work because we do not want or like to be told what to do. This may bring up feelings of inadequacy and incompetency and could hearken back to our years of childhood where parents and teachers would scold us and make us feel bad, ashamed, and guilty about ourselves and our actions. In fact, resistance is the enemy of motivation.

However, a collaborative communication style, one that is not lecturing and is not pushy and demanding would strengthen a person’s own motivation and commitment to change. To achieve that, we first need to listen. This is not just hearing what the person says, its content, but rather perceiving and feeling what it is they are trying to communicate to us. It is a deep form of listening in which the other person has our full and undivided attention. It is also a kind of listening that we are generally not accustomed to in our hectic lives where we tend to multitask and run about and run around. In fact, we need to take the time to practice this skill of deep listening as it may not come to us naturally.

Moreover, in motivational interviewing, we want the “change talk” to come out of the mouth of the client. It is again not telling them what to do but putting the ball into their court and asking them what it is they want to do with it. In this type of communication, the will is predominant and most important, that is the express intention and desire to change on a certain level or to modify certain actions and behaviors.

A person that reaches out for help is usually propelled by this desire for change. They experience an inspirational dissatisfaction and are fed up with the status quo regarding one or various aspects of life. But instead of jumping and rushing to conclusions, suggestions, and treatments, we must first explore what the person really wants to do about that situation or condition. In fact, we want to find the want behind the should, and this would pave the way for how to do and go about doing it. Ideally, we want suggestions and improvements to come from the afflicted person themselves.

In motivational interviewing, there is a four-process model. We begin with engaging, and that is a sort of setting the stage and answers to the question who. At this point, we are trying to get on the same page and build trust and rapport with each other. It should not be a one-sided or unidirectional conversation since to build rapport both need to engage and disclose relevant personal information to each other.

Once the conditions have been set and the person is willing to openly talk about their issues, then we move to focusing, that is, working together to have or reach a shared and agreed focus. This is more about what it is we are talking about and dealing with. We would streamline our conversation on and around the given topic.

The next step is evoking. Here we try to gently elicit responses from the mouth of the client. We expect them to tell us about their reasons and perceptions and this boils down to the how of change. In other words, we are drawing out what is important to them and how it could work. We are distilling elements of will - the intention and desire for change - combined with the way or direction: what it is the person needs to do to reach the desired outcome. This is paving the way for effective and sustainable change.

This would then lead to the final stage of the four-process model, which is planning. At this stage, we are together shaping and working out the specific details of the subsequent steps to take. This is basically the action plan that turns out to be, for the most part, based on and around ideas proposed by the clients themselves. In this case, we are facilitating the conversation and may occasionally guide and steer them in a suggested direction, but we are not telling the other person what to do.

It is indeed a collaborative conversation style and a process and development that is mutually involved and engaging. It is not merely the person looking for advice and suggestions and us telling and teaching them what to do and how to go about it, but it is a more explorational style, a common and unifying quest for positive and lasting change.

Yet we ought to keep in mind that this is not necessarily a linear style or process, but rather it circles and delineates layers of engagement. Sometimes, or rather often, we need to go back to the first stage of engaging as the person may occasionally loosen their rapport and trust in the connection and communication with us.

We must also be aware that evoking is not always comfortable, and that the other person could close or shut down, so we would need to re-engage them and get them back on track and on the same page. In fact, engagement is a predictor of outcome, and the more engaged the other person is, the better the results would turn out to be.

Engagement is also a key coaching and teaching skill and it goes hand in hand with motivation. I know from personal experience that if my students are not engaged, that is they either lack trust and rapport or lack interest in the topic and content or both, it is going to be very difficult for them to become motivated.

It is essential to understand the other person’s perspective, where they are coming from and to have a clear-eyed focus on the road and obstacles ahead. There would certainly be cognitive dissonance at play in the interaction. This is the discrepancy or uncomfortable gap that exists between where the person is and where they would like to be.

Put differently, they are here (the current state) and they want to be there (the preferred state). Throughout the process and the conversation, uncomfortable feelings will be brought to the surface, so it is essential that there is safety. We need to make the environment safe and sound so that others can feel comfortable enough to talk about uncomfortable issues.

One of the best ways for doing that by providing us with core tools is the OARS model. The O stands for open questions. The questions are open-ended enough to draw out the thoughts, reflections, and emotions of the other person. For example, when it comes to the common question of how old the person is, we would be less interested in the exact age of the person but rather how their age makes them feel or how they feel about their age.

Moreover, we want to affirm as much as we can. That is, we would be actively supporting their agency as well as notice, underscore, and encourage strengths in their answers. We want them to take positive steps forward and want to affirm and reward their ideas and initiatives whenever possible and feasible.

The next step would be reflective listening. This is usually echoing back what you hear and is part and parcel of the Rogerian client-centered counseling technique. We want them to re-think and re-evaluate their answers by repeating it back to them. It also serves a second purpose, namely, to check for validation and to confirm that we have understood the other person correctly and are indeed on the same page.

The last step is summarizing. This can lead to longer reflections and thoughts about the process. We basically collect what they say and offer it back to them. This would be composed of aspects and solutions that have been said and covered during the conversation. We can also be reiterating and reconfirming specific plans for action.

It is important to underline that we are not controlling or setting the agenda, but it is the other person who brings items to the table. Yet we do need to have a common focus, and this means not just following everything the person says and suggests but rather to guide and direct them in the best possible direction. Throughout the process, we are trying to draw out motivational energy, but we are always aware of certain pitfalls.

For instance, the opposite of change talk is sustain talk. This is the conflicting, counterproductive and impeding desire of holding onto the status quo. It often happens because people are working with and through mixed feelings. There is part of the self that wants to stick to the known here and now versus the undetermined and undefined there.

This conflict or resistance can be most strongly felt at the initial stages of the conversation where the other person is cautious and wary. That is when engaging and affirming them would help to create rapport and trust so that they feel more at ease in the situation.

Nonetheless, it is important that any type of affirmation be accurate and genuine. You should not affirm what is not in the best interest of the other person nor should you twist and distort information and feelings about the topic or the other person. Most of the time, the other person would sense or perceive this, and they could break off their trust and rapport with you.

Finally, you want to always aim for progress but not for perfection. Perfection is not an ideal state, and it is the perfect way of de-motivating another person. The focus should be more on manageable steps that can be taken from the here and now and that would gradually, with patience and persistent effort, take us towards an ideal and desired state.

But it should be a realistic outcome that we have in mind. And it is most important to keep in mind that the path always lies in the hands of the other person. We can serve as a map or tour guide, but the journey must be undertaken by the other person. But at this point, they would have already taken the crucial and all-important first step, which is of itself quite an accomplishment, to begin with.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Praise for the Crowd? A Talk by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht

Photo of Sepp with white hair staring at the camera

Over the past months, I have been following quite a few webinars offered by different institutions ever since Covid-19 has taken us captive and has constrained and confined us in our movements. I used to physically attend a variety of talks and lectures in my vicinity, but ironically, Coronavirus has now given me more options by enabling me to attend lectures not only in my area but all around the world.

In fact, two of the series that I have enjoyed the most so far are the Rotterdam School of Management of the Erasmus University and the ETH lecture series of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Although the former has been a case of hit and miss, the latter has been pure gold so far, and the talk I shall discuss here is indeed by ETH in Zurich ably moderated by Chris Luebkeman.

I must admit that I had not heard of Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht - who shall from now on and with the greatest respect (hochachtungsvoll) be referred to with the moniker “Sepp.” Yet within the first minutes of the talk, Sepp did not fail to impress me. He is evidently erudite as well as passionate about his knowledge – he rightly claims that professors love to talk – but he also embodies an offbeat angle and quality that is bathed in and enveloped with a dry sense of humor, something I myself strive for, both in my writing as well as in my classes.

Case in point, apart from being an academic scholar, he also loves spectating sports, particularly soccer. So much so that he prefers to find himself in the Südtribune, the standing section of the Dortmund stadium that can, at least in non-Coronavirus times, hold up to 32,000 standing people. Herr Professor was told not to go for security reasons, especially considering his age, and then it was recommended he should at least go with a bodyguard. 

Sepp retorted that he would not mind the risks and dangers simply because they did not outweigh the pleasure of being immersed in the crowd, and that in no way he would take a bodyguard with him as it would serve as an invitation and a potential reason and motive for the crowd to beat him up.

This was within the first few minutes of this talk, and I knew right away that what would follow and what he had to say was certainly worth listening to. His topic and stance were also rather unusual. In his most recent book, he deals with and examines the concept of crowds. 

Contrary to most intellectuals, he praises crowds (Lob für die Masse) and does not necessarily share the pejorative and rather condescending view that crowds embody and signify ignorance, danger, and violence. As someone who tends to like crowds, I do not entirely disagree with him, but before my views be known, let us first examine, what Sepp has to say on the topic.

First off, the discussion of crowds comes at a very peculiar moment in time and history. Regardless of whether one likes or enjoys them or not, they are discouraged since they are a source of infection and contagion during this pandemic. In fact, even those who usually frown upon or hate crowds may miss them under these stringent and demanding circumstances, a seeming remnant and throwback of the good old days of careless safety and security.

Although the cause in and of itself is certainly important and significant, an additional component of why the Black Lives Matter movement managed to attract and draw massive crowds recently was the fact that people missed being in crowds and that it offered the perfect excuse and reason to be in one without facing any potential consequences by the authorities (although it still came with significant personal health risks and consequences). Despite limitations on mass gatherings, the police and politicians wisely sidestepped the issue during the protests so as not to incite further and more violent manifestations down the road.

The second thing that we miss out in a world run by webinars, Zoom meetings, Facetime, and Skype chats is the random encounter. This cannot occur as easily and frequently as used to be the case. We do not run into people anymore as our meetings and encounters are carefully planned, structured, and programmed in advance. Although I enjoy the Zoom meetings myself, I miss running into people in the hallway and corridors of our university or the brief chat at the water fountain, in the washroom, in the instructor’s room.

But what is a crowd, and what constitutes and sustains it? By definition, a crowd needs to be a certain number of people. Sepp claims that it may be hard to set an exact number, but in a lab or group setting, five to seven people seem to be an ideal benchmark, whereas in a family, more than twelve persons would be considered a crowd since not everyone would have the opportunity - or would at least find it challenging - to physically convene and assemble at the same dinner table.

Yet when it comes to the concept of crowds, there are three movements and directions to consider. Crowds function and operate in a lateral manner. That is, in a crowd, people will often find themselves standing next to each other, often elbow to elbow. 

Although we have a feeling of being in a crowd with the physical proximity of other bodies, there is also an element of solitude at play. In a crowd, such as a soccer stadium or during a rock concert, communication and conversations are generally excluded and often discouraged and frowned upon. Sepp told us that one of the worst things for him to occur during a soccer match would be a member of the crowd talking to him.

This leads us to the next direction as the crowds are also transitive, that is they are focused on a shared intentional object. That could be either a game (a soccer or tennis ball), an event, or music. These objects of desire almost always have a clearly defined and a set and determined boundary.

This is to accentuate their importance, and it is often enforced by security guards who ensure that this space is protected and not infringed upon. In a soccer match, it would be disrespectful to enter the field in the same way that the concert stage is only for the musicians unless one is invited up there – a special honor – or unless the musician decides to leave the comfort of the stage and to surf the crowds.

The third concept of importance is an upward vertical movement. A crowd tends to elicit feelings of elevation and euphoria. This happens when the crowd feels empowered. This can go in either direction towards the positive or the negative. In a soccer match in which the home team is ahead and winning or in an electrifying rock concert or even in a mesmerizing church service, people tend to sing and chant in unison.

There is a particular rhythm that is initiated, propagated, and sustained and that can involve dancing, clapping, and hopping as well. The rhythm produces intensity, and it is this intensity that translates into feelings of elevation and euphoria. In Sepp’s own words, you are then almost in a black hole, you block out everything else and only do and engage in what the crowd is doing.

Now we can see how synchronized movements could then lead to uplifting feelings and create a sense of harmony via identification and acceptance among and across all the individual members of the crowd. At the same time, we can envision individuals being hypnotized and becoming hysterical, of either speaking in tongues or shouting and chanting words of hatred and bigotry. 

We can also see the potential for violence, an unwanted and often unintended outcome of gatherings, which may have started out as a peaceful get-together and gathering. This also explains to an extent the dark spots of history and occurrences, such as lynch mobs and Nazi congregations.

Sepp accepts that where there is a crowd, there is a danger of violence. He defines violence in a broader sense as the occupation of bodies against the resistance and will of other bodies. Hence, whenever you find yourself in a crowd, there is a certain risk of things going (terribly) wrong. 

The same could occur in a rock or sports event in the case and context of a life-threatening emergency, such as a fire or an earthquake, that could potentially lead to a stampede as people are rushing for safety towards designated emergency exits.

But Sepp believes that we are underestimating and underappreciating the beneficial and empowering aspects of the crowd. Crowds do not always have to be intimidating, and he finds the intellectual stance of disregard (Verachtung) towards the masses to be somewhat anti-democratic as it also automatically precludes and imbues the masses with a lack of intelligence, volition, and intention.   

Yet crowds can also elevate and create a mystical feeling of union. When we look at and discuss crowds in social theory, there is less focus on the body itself, while it goes without saying that a crowd must be composed of separate physical bodies. 

These bodies on their own may exist in anonymity and solitude and could be lost in the crowd, but, in a different sense, they are also absorbed and harmonized and engulfed by the crowd. This could lead to a mystical feeling that is best expressed in Christianity with the concept of the church and its congregation as they come to re-present and em-body the mystical body of Christ.

In another sense, stadiums are also a ritual of presence. They are often used as a form of union and celebration since people gather for a common cause and are unified in their joy. 

On the other hand, they might also congregate in their grief as would occur with mass funerals of celebrated people or as in the case of the funeral made in solidarity with the family and friends of George Floyd, a victim and a living symbol to police brutality and injustice. To claim that the masses are always wrong or mistaken is not appreciating the extent and potential reach they have towards positive social change as well as their aim for justice and equality.

In fact, one of the most profound and ground-breaking effects in Western history was the French revolution. This may have started as an impromptu gathering as there was no strategic plan to storm and take over the Bastille, and which, on paper and in theory, would have made little sense and would have not been conceived as fruitful or helpful a priori. 

In other words, Freud’s concept of masses falling to leaders would not be pertinent in this case as there was no obvious or immediate leader, to begin with. It was a group and gathering of dissatisfied people who decided to manifest and air their grievances.

As they marched towards the Bastille, they grew in number since more and more people joined them, hence creating a massive crowd. Nobody had the intention, nor did anybody give the order to storm the Bastille on July 14th 1789, but it happened nonetheless, and it had repercussions for the rest of human history. 

The loss of individuality had created a swarm of people who wanted effective change, and they were not manipulated nor were they easy to be dissuaded from their will and desire.

For the most part, I agree with Sepp, and I find his mystical view of crowds utterly fascinating. As someone who has always enjoyed crowds, I am to a large extent in favor of them. 

But I think, Sepp is overly enthusiastic about them, an enthusiasm I appreciate but do not personally share with him. I think when people gather in a crowd or in a rally, they tend to lose not only their judgment but often also their common sense, and sometimes even their reason. 

Crowds can be easily swayed and manipulated, and I intuitively agree with Sting’s song “All This Time” from his album The Soul Cages: “Crowds go crazy in congregations, they only get better one by one.”

This inherent threat is mainly due to the make-up of our psychology. Freud was right that we would more easily succumb to a leader when we are in a crowd. There is a sense of hysteria and mass hypnosis that could permeate the crowd, and that is above each of the members, and this can be quite dangerous. People wish to fit in and conform, but they are also naturally inclined to copy their fellow members via mirror neurons. Hence, they might suddenly find themselves espousing beliefs or engaging in behaviors that they would otherwise not embrace nor condone.

We do not have to go as far back as Nazi Germany to see and prove this. The recent campaign rally of Donald Trump during which thousands of people decided to put their own health and safety at risk by refusing to wear masks during a pandemic is a concrete example. These people wished to act as to his bidding and desire, and it is an example where masses are led - or rather misled - by a person they see and envision as powerful or as a figure of authority.

There is a persistent risk and danger of crowds becoming mobs, regardless of the cause and political situation, and I believe that we cannot dismiss or diminish that troubling aspect of the masses. It is the lack of individuality that concerns me, so I think it is important to always be on guard and to preserve one’s right and option to stand up for one’s ideas and to go against the crowd. 

When crowds go blind and hysterical, the responsible and conscientious person caught in the middle needs to speak out and let his or her voice be heard, and they need to expose the truth, at the risk and expense of being criticized or ostracized.

So I shall not sing my hymns and praises on crowds but would rather remain silent or even hold my breath. And I shall avoid crowds like the pest, especially during this pandemic. Notwithstanding, I found Sepp’s ideas fascinating, insightful, and thoughtful, and despite my reservations, both timely and significant.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Coping with Grief: A Book Review of Finding Meaning by David Kessler

Six squares depicting a gradual rising sun

Grief is something that all of us must deal with at some point in our lives. Sooner or later and every now and then, we will lose a loved one. They will be missed, cherished, and grieved. There will be a hole in our lives, while our hearts will feel less full because of their lack of presence. We also notice that neither fame nor money can save or protect us from the cold grip of death; the rich and the famous, like every being, are forced to die, and everyone’s time is limited.

In the context of today, death has never been more upfront and present while the Covid-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc and the number of deaths keeps growing exponentially. Each rising number on the screen represents another human being who has fallen to this dreadful disease, another person that it has taken away from us prematurely.

Each rising number will have a crowd of people trying to mend and deal with the loss of a cherished being, and they will grieve this unexpected departure, a life cut short due to this ravaging and lethal virus. But it is moreover a death that cannot be grieved in traditional ways with its accustomed and helpful rituals, but one that will sting even more with grief, pain, and suffering.

What is the meaning of all of this? How can death possibly have meaning when it indiscriminately and insensitively takes away people we love and care about and even people we depend upon for our existence?

David Kessler’s latest book Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief is a find and a treasure to keep close to heart, especially during these painful days. David is one of the most known and celebrated grief experts in the world. He worked together with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in developing the five stages of grief that have identified and defined the grieving process and that have helped millions and millions of people not only to deal with the pain and suffering but also to understand and grasp its process.

The five stages of grief are denial (shock that the loss has occurred), anger (that someone we care about is no longer with us), bargaining (what-ifs and regrets), depression (sadness from the loss) and lastly, acceptance (acknowledging the reality of the loss).

But after losing his son - whose life was cut short in young adulthood - the renowned grief expert had to deal with his own grief. He realized that although the stages delineate the process and pangs of grief, there is one vital stage and dimension that is missing. This is concerned about how to make sense and find meaning out of the grief. Why did we have to lose the person so close to us and so cherished by us?

In his life and work, David has had to face the pain and suffering of many people, and he has given expert advice to them on how to manage and deal with their grief. He has been called to plane disasters, mass shootings, fires, and terrorist attacks. For instance, with any plane disaster, he outlines that there are three location points where psychological help and services would be required, that is the plane’s departure point, the plane’s intended arrival point as well as the crash site.

The arrival point must be one of the most excruciating places to be in those moments. People would be waiting for news of their loved ones, and in many cases, it would not be clear whether they had survived or not. In these situations, people react with understandably extreme forms and outbursts of grief: they scream, pass out and fall to their knees, while it would be the grief experts’ job to keep them safe throughout. 

At this point and under the given circumstances, his reach and outreach would be limited; he would simply be present for them, give them water, tell them to sit down and witness their pain and suffering.

That is indeed one of the most basic things that anyone of us can do when a loss has occurred in a person’s life. When somebody has lost their loved one, I would always feel awkward and a tad guilty around them. I would not know what to say because I would not want to offer sayings or formulas that are commonplace and cliché, but at the same time, I would feel guilty since I had been fortunate enough not to be afflicted with and be spared from that pain and suffering.

But this book demonstrated to me that in those moments, it is not what we say that matters most, but the simple fact that we are there for the afflicted person. We are there to witness their pain and to validate it. 

Offering condolences means I am present to your grief, and I acknowledge and respect it. This gives the grieving person the emotional support and connection they need at that precise moment as it is being witnessed by another person.

In a northern indigenous village in Australia, they have an amazing tradition that commemorates the death of any villager in a simple but profound and effective manner. When someone dies, everyone in the village moves a piece of furniture or something else in their yard. It may be a small gesture, but it communicates to the person who is grieving that their pain not only counts but that it has been witnessed and acknowledged by the entire village.

Yet in the modern world, grief is something we shun, avoid, evade, and often do not wish to talk about. Some even see it as debilitating or think of it as a form or as a sign of weakness. 

But when we refrain from respecting and expressing our grief, when we are not giving our pain its due and release, when we lack rituals and closure that remind us of the person we have lost and that the person has left us indefinitely, and when we lack unity in the face of death, it will wreak havoc in our interior, keep us bound and attached to the pain, and hence it will become traumatic.

Grief needs to be both expressed and witnessed in the form of mourning, often with tears as evidence of one’s love that the person who died was someone who mattered deeply, and this should not only be limited to funerals, the communal time where we openly witness each other’s grief through music, stories, poems, and prayers. 

Grief is a continuous process and needs time to run its course. This is, however, more difficult, and cumbersome in societies that tend to neglect and evade any talk of death and that have fewer rituals to deal with this aspect of life since the way we view death reflects how we look at life.

We all grieve differently, and we show it in different ways. Some are more expressive about it than others, some go on with their lives seemingly unaffected by it, and others harbor and linger on their pain. Grief is as unique as our fingerprints. Be that as it may, we all must fully process the grief. And part of the process includes facing and confronting the pain and experiencing it fully. This is the only one to deal with it.

David would often be asked if the pain would lessen or go away with time. His answer is that it does not. The pain will always be there, and it will always sting and be painful. Time on its own does not automatically or magically heal this wound. But while the pain would remain, we have the chance of becoming bigger than it and to move on and to move ahead with our lives.

We can find meaning in what may appear to be a random and meaningless event. The meaning is tied to deeper questions and more profound answers and understanding about our existence. We are not and should not remain stuck and have the power to change and re-define our thoughts and perceptions about events. We would then realize that death has meanings we had not noticed before.

This realization would have significant effects on our lives as well as on those around us. We may deepen our connections to those that are still with us. We may appreciate the extra time we have been given and not let it go to waste. We may appreciate more the beauty all around us that we took for granted for many years as we were living on autopilot all those years. 

We may set new priorities or change and modify the ones that were driving us by replacing our quest for money and recognition with simply being and with enjoying one’s own company as well as those of others. In other words, death may teach us how to live again.

In many cases, the death of a loved one leads to different ways of commemorating the person while also leading to contributions that will honor them and perhaps bring about change in the world. It was the death of her teenaged daughter Cari by a repeat drunk-driving offender in 1980 that led Candy Lightner to found the organization MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) or the murder of his own son Adam that sparked John Walsh’s TV show America’s Most Wanted to reduce homicides by catching criminals and perpetrators, while there are countless other foundations and organizations that are built upon and inspired by the death of people we love and care about.

In many ways, love and grief are quite similar and interconnected. Whenever you love, you would need to accept, embrace as well as brace for the fact that you will experience loss at some point. In fact, the pain you feel when you lose a loved one is proportional to the love you had for that person. 

They go hand in hand, and with love, you must accept grief. To quote Erich Fromm: “To spare oneself from grief at all costs can be achieved only at the price of total detachment, which excludes the ability to experience happiness.”

Living is not the same as being alive. You might as well live in a bunker all by yourself if you want to avoid loss and death, but no one, most notably and least of all, yourself, would benefit from that situation and outcome. In fact, it would rob our existence of its very existential essence, our capacity to love and grow, and to find meaning and happiness in life.

In John Augustus Shedd’s words: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” We cannot allow ourselves to avoid reality, to live in a fantasy, or to get stuck in the past. We must face the truth and move forward, no matter how painful it may look or seem at first. This is how meaning is born.

In fact, David Kessler has written this book as a reflection of the love he has for the son he has lost. Meaning is a post-acceptance stage in which healing often resides, and the book is a manner for him to keep his own pain moving while also being of service to others as he has been throughout his life. 

In a way, it also signifies a return to life for him with writing being his chosen form of finding meaning as well as healing. Healing, in David’s own words, does not mean the loss did not happen. It means that it no longer controls us.

We tend to see death as a “catastrophic, destructive thing,” but in the wise words of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, it can also be viewed as “one of the most constructive positive and creative elements of culture and life.” Death means being face to face with a situation that may seem hopeless, unchangeable, and insurmountable, but at the same time, it invites and challenges us to change ourselves. We cannot escape pain, but suffering is optional.

This comes down to a choice that Viktor Frankl profoundly and beautifully explored in his seminal Man’s Search for Meaning: We can choose to respond to any given situation and turn tragic events into an opportunity for growth. It does not mean that your grief will get smaller but that you must get bigger in the face of adversity. As a matter of fact, meaning has tremendous power and potential to heal us.