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The calling

January 8, 2010 Comments off

When I worked for a construction company in the 1970s I spent many a lunch hour talking with the veterans about their experiences working all kinds of jobs. They had clear opinions about which jobs to avoid and which ones to seek.  Avoid, they recommended, road crewing during the summer months in Florida.  Keep away from “call backs,” where the boss sends you out to correct problems cause by other employees. Seek, instead, jobs that are done in the shop or ones that required the use of heavy equipment. Such jobs were always described with the catch phrase “good work, if you can get it.”

When I migrated from the world of construction and took a position as a college professor and social psychologist, I found myself on the right side of the “good work if you can get it” divide.  Granted, professoring is still work.  There are politics of the office, bosses who make demands, paychecks to cash, and duties that must be fulfilled.  Nor is it a glamorous occupation, as Hollywood’s depictions of Indiana Jones-like professorial types would suggest.  But depending on one’s goals and perspectives, it is a personally fulfilling pursuit.  It is an elite profession that requires special training and skill, and for much of the time if feels more like a “calling” than “work,” for it involves (a) learning and practicing the skills valued by the profession; (b) seeking immersion in a community whose members are similarly dedicated to these goals; (c) sacrificing time, effort, and pleasures so that the demands of the discipline are met, and (d) striving for goals that go beyond personal desires and needs and instead benefit other people and society as a whole.

This sense of satisfaction with the “good work” stems, almost entirely, from my reverence for social psychology. As an undergraduate displayed a dilettante’s interest in many topics before I strayed—by accident—into a course in social psychology.  As the professor (Dr. Russell D. Clark, III) moved through the material I was thrilled that my own ruminations were shared by a vibrant, expressive community of scholars. Their view contrasted so sharply with convention wisdom, for many people seem to return time and again to explanations of human behavior that stress personality and predilections as causes of behavior. My 6th grade teacher, for example, was certain that each one of her pupil’s destiny was already determined at the age of 12, with our aptitudes and temperaments had already set us on our life’s course.  My mother and grandmother, both astrologists, similarly believed that one’s outcomes depended little on the actions of others, but rather on the predetermined course set by the planets. Yet, here was a field that confirmed that other interpersonal and not intrapsychic events shape people’s outcomes. I became a professor because that is what social psychologists become.  I am a social psychologist, first, and a professor, second.

But this detached fascination is complemented by a belief that social psychology offers important insights into many of the problems of living in the modern world: collective violence, cults, destructive obedience, intergroup conflict, mental illness, overcrowding, pollution, and prejudice are all examples.  In my studies of prosocial behavior (actions that benefit others rather than the self), my students and I find that morality is as much a quality of social groups as a characteristic of isolated individuals.  Studies of our social identify model explain how individualistic qualities–traits, beliefs, skills, and so on–are melded in the self-concept with qualities that spring from membership in groups, including families, cliques, work groups, neighborhoods, tribes, cities, countries, and regions.  And my studies of the functions of groups–the rewards that people gain by joining with others in a group–explain why sociality is so common, particularly in times of challenge and stress.  This general approach to understanding how individualistic needs are coordinated with, and in many ways, met by, membership in groups, forms the theoretical basis for my analyses of how group psychotherapy can be improved.

Categories: Personal

Barbie World

February 15, 2008 Comments off

Even an unfeeling rock would have paused, if just for a second, to reflect on the meaning of the moment. I was standing there in the midst of an undeniably rich assort of humanity, most of whom were intent on their holiday shopping needs. Me, I had pulled away from the stream to stand, transfixed, at the door of the toy store.

The store wanted me inside, and in the past I would have complied, because for the last 13 years that was the store where I often found presents for the little ones. Pacifiers and crib toys in the earliest days, then on to stuffed animals, puzzles, and dolls for a time, transforming eventually to games, balls, slinkies, and squirt guns. But not this year, for I wasn’t shopping for toys this year–but Ipod nannos, DVD players, clothes, and books. We had moved on.

As I paused to consider this point of transition my regret gathered to a point centered on one ritual that was even now fading into a time gone by: The Barbie Buy. I’ll admit that before Rachel’s arrival into my world I had little but distain for the Barbie Doll. This doll, with its exaggerated proportions, vast wardrobe, and grotesque assortment of shallow, consumer-oriented props and possessions, had no place in our contemporary, woman-as-the-equal-to man household. But Rachel was not to be denied. Between seemingly endless hours reading her ever-replenishing stack of books, consorting with her neighborhood friends, watching cartoons and Disney videos, and fighting with her brother, Rachel always made time for Barbie.

Or, should I say Barbies. For she had an army of them, although when they were all laid out in the huge pink suitcase the scene seemed more morgue-like than militaristic. And I was her supplier of the dolls, for each birthday, each Christmas, each random we-all-need-presents excuse to indulge the babies would find me in the Barbie aisle, studying the options, deliberating over choices.

Over time I had become a kind of Barbie connoisseur. Like a wine expert who studies the vintage, inspects the cork, considers the bouquet, and explores the first taste, I considered each Barbie closely: the clothes, the shoes, the hair, the bend in the knees, the upturn of the nose, and, most important, the eyes. Rachel could get over a Barbie with the wrong hair, a bad outfit, or shoes that did not reach her standards, but the wrong eyes? A Barbie with bad eyes would never be able to move up the status hierarchy that organized all those Barbies. Should would forever be one of the supporting characters, never one of the stars.

And stars there were. Rachel never let her guard down enough to play out her stories when I was in the room, but through the closed door I could hear the dramas unfold as the characters she created talked, debated, schemed, planned, partied, and argued. She and her Barbies were a world apart from the real one, and the story’s resolution could be discerned from the players’ final positions around her room when the session ended: the outcasts, the incrowd, the couples, and the wannabies.

And so, for so many years, I knew what I could do to make her happy: I could enter the toy store, find my way to the Barbie cache, and buy another doll who would make her way into the cast. But today, as I turned away from the store and rejoined the other shoppers, I realized that making Rachel happy wasn’t so simple anymore.

Categories: Personal

Community

April 19, 2006 Comments off

Who doesn’t think on occasion, “The river looks beautiful today,” as we catch a glimpse of it from our car window as we rush across it. But few of us love the river the way Karen Abse did. Karen did not call it the “Rivah;” it was “The James” to Karen; a river of force and spirit; water with a temper. She did not just admire it from the Huguenot Bridge or the Browns Island pedestrian bridge. She swam, canoed, and kayaked in it. And on January 21 of this year she died in it.

Karen put in that day to challenge the river’s high white water—it was running 8 feet above normal. But as she moved through the Hollywood Rapids she was caught in what the water dogs of the James call a strainer—trees and debris that jam in the rocks and bridge pilings, forming a trap for anything that the river pushes into its tangle. Karen was a uniquely skilled kayaker; she was certified to teach canoeing, white-water kayaking and sea kayaking. But when the torrent pulled her under the litter of the strainer she could not free herself. Her fellow kayakers tried desperately to save, but their heroic efforts were for naught.

As philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau explained, “The person who has lived the most is not the one who has lived the longest, but the one with the richest experiences.” Karen, each day of her life, lived by Rousseau’s creed. The James River is a serious river, and Karen knew that. But she so loved the river, and the danger did not keep her from it. Her life ended because she took a risk. She understood the risk and did all she could to minimize it. Sometimes, no matter how much we try to prevent harm, accidents happen.

Karen’s friends and family met for her memorial service a week later on the banks of the James, as if we wanted to reassure her river that we held no hard feelings. Her service drew us all together for the first and last time, and even people who knew Karen well were surprised by the diversity of the assembled throng. For Karen was the kind of person that science writer Malcolm Gladwell calls connectors: those who seem to have far more ties to other people than the rest of us. We all are embedded in a network of friends, family, and acquaintances, but connectors are the hubs of a more vast and far-flung web of relationships. And Karen was a unique kind of connector, for she not only linked with people in one-to-one relationships; she also was a member and leader of dozens of different groups and associations. That day in the afternoon sunshine at the river’s edge her softball and soccer teams stood together, wearing their uniforms in her honor. Members of James River Outdoor Coalition and the Coastal Canoeists came with their boats on the roofs of their cars, an honor to their lost member. Her former crewmates of the Lady Slipper, the boat that Karen captained when for many years in the James River Bateau Festival, threw flowers into the river. The artists from the craft cooperative Karen helped found, “But is it Art?,” stood together before the display of Karen’s pottery, weavings, and sculptures. Her sisters, father, and former husband and partner comforted each other, as did the cliques of fellow teachers in Chesterfield County Department of Parks and Recreation, the mountaineers she traveled with each year to climb the highest peaks in the U.S. states, and co-workers in Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. We gathered, not so much as individuals, but as entire groups to salute the contributions of a fellow member and leader.

Sometimes it takes a loss of a person for us see what we so often take for granted: our connections to our one another. The community reels at the loss of every one of its members, but the hole torn by the loss of a connector such as Karen gapes wide. We expect such people to always be with us, and may even be blind to the work they do in of creating unions and associations. Karen was the one who took charge of the situation and organized her groups. She was a community leader, but she liked to work down at the grassroots level, with small groups of Richmonders with specific needs and goals. When she was with us, we each one had to do a little less. With Karen gone, we must step in and do a little more; for ourselves, for our groups, and for our community.

So March found me with a kayak paddle in my hand and river shoes on my feet. I know that I’ll never seek the thrills Karen did in the white water of the rapids downtown, but before she died Karen had planned out a flat-water trip for early March. When the outing faltered after Karen’s accident, I accepted (somewhat slowly) the challenge and agreed to sub in for her. What was it that Rousseau said about “living the most?”