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Basic Goodness in our Troubled World

Goodness is defined as the best part of anything. Goodness is surely the best part of human beings. It is when we act with kindness, generosity, strength and integrity. Henry David Thoreau said that “goodness is the only investment that never fails”. It never fails because when we engage others with an attitude of goodness we produce what we are biologically and spiritually programmed to do. We produce the hormone oxytocin, which has been called the hormone of compassion which is elicited when we bond through the relational qualities that goodness embodies. We all possess basic goodness but depending on how resilient we are in facing day to day challenges this inherent quality can recede into the background of our lives.

What interferes with our basic nature?

We probably all remember being told to “be good” by our parents and those of us raised in one of the major religions remember being told to “do good” in the service of others. Over time these phrases have been taken for granted and have seemed to have lost the basic message they were intended to deliver. If we do not appreciate the value of goodness we are unlikely to live from this perspective. Human beings are kinder to each other when we feel safe and secure. With the rise of aggression in our culture, the threat of terrorism, the increase of bullying in our schools and in our workplace we find ourselves in a position of fear. Fear creates anxiety, anxiety creates distorted thinking and ultimately distorted thinking creates an inflexible, overly simplified view of the world. These recent changes in our culture have promoted a lack of good will toward others and fostered more self absorption and less outward giving.

                                        Black and White Thinking

Studies have proven that when we feel secure bias and prejudice is markedly reduced. Perception and mood are closely related, when we feel understood and secure we are more likely to perceive accurately and more likely to do good rather than do harm.  Social psychologists have long established that avoidant or anxious individuals will bolster their own self worth by imagining that their group, whether ethnic, religious or otherwise is superior. This defensive posture creates rigid thinking, the black and white perceptions that promote simplified theories of human beings and their affiliations. Rigidity protects a fragile sense of self; it creates an artificial road map that gives an insecure person answers and direction to life complexities. Establishing a world view on anything but the truth will ultimately create more and more fear. Anxious people avoid new ideas and new ways of thinking, while avoidant people run from new challenges, both fearing loss of self esteem if they give up their entrenched beliefs.

                                      To Do Good We Must Feel Good

If we have a solid sense of self we are far more likely to be gracious to groups other than our own. We emerge with greater tolerance of differences when we have been loved, respected and understood in the early parts of our lives. If we received the empathic resonance all young people crave we grow with optimism and with an excitement about learning new and novel ideas from new and novel people. It begins in our families. If our parents had friends of diversity, if they were open to learning new possibilities to replace less functional ideas we are likely to value and feel happy when learning. This is the opposite experience of those who grew up in insecure households where the enemy was outside and the only good people remain inside. Goodness then takes on a distorted meaning promoting the idea that we should only be and do good to our own, not those unlike us. If you talk to any early childhood educator they will tell you it takes only a few days in the initial school year to identify the empathic children who love life, love learning and most importantly love making friends. Knowing how to express goodness makes us happy, more energetic and more resilient. We have more skills to manage daily living. We are not limited in our pursuits of knowledge and we are not limited in the array of people we can befriend. Young children feel the way we feel but they don’t think the way we think, therefore learning must take place by doing and feeling. When learning is recorded on a visceral level it is embedded in the deepest part of our memory bank. Experience shapes our early outlook of ourselves and the world, children pay far less attention to what we say and far more attention to what we do.  The old saying, “ do as I say not as I do” is an hypocritical message based on myth not on the true realities of how  learning actually takes place. We are the models, the teachers who must convey a sense of excitement about doing good for all people.

                                             Teaching Goodness

To uncover the basic goodness in each of us we must make a disciplined effort. We must recognize that goodness is part of our being; it is at the heart of our humanness. We have to move away from excluding anyone based on bias and prejudice. Goodness is not just for those who adhere to the Judeo-Christian ethic or the Buddhist or Muslim ethic or for that matter goodness is as much inherent to atheists as to any group. We are all born with this inherent capacity. But what if we have been raised to believe that one group is superior to another, or that several of our thinking patterns are superior to others. I can assure if you think your education, race, religion, vocation, income, or location make you superior you are profoundly mistaken and doomed to a life of superficial relationships.

We teach goodness by the way we live, not by holding on to fixed ideas to shore up our sense of self. Be honest with yourself, acknowledge situations and people who threaten you and go about resolving these issues rather than punishing innocent people for being their authentic selves. You will never be comfortable in your own skin unless you have the courage to allow yourself to be vulnerable and discover where you need to grow and learn. In many instances we need to un-learn mistaken positions we have held on to defensively. Old hurts are recorded deeply in the brain; we are programmed to remember what caused us fear. Fear creates rigid thinking which leads to false theories and inaccurate judgments. Re-evaluate your past with today’s wisdom and in the process you will release your dormant innate goodness. Thomas Paine, one of our Founding Fathers when asked about his philosophy of life, replied “My country is the world, my religion is to do good”. Our world would surely be a better place if his words became synonymous with our actions on a daily basis.

Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D., Ph.D.

http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Goodness-Renaissance-Project/104778329611615

Author of The Curse of the Capable: The Hidden Challenge to a Balanced, Healthy, High Achieving Life.

 

Suffering Unleashes Goodness

A few weeks ago I was talking with one of my patients about his recent release from the hospital where he was treated for a major infection. He was telling me he had to get home to cook the turkey for Thanksgiving. He was bringing the meal to his elderly parents, his mother is recovering from her second bout of breast cancer and his dad is currently struggling with the effects of Leukemia. Joe also mentioned that he invited a few of his workers to dinner as he knew they had nowhere else to go for the holiday as their families were far away.

I met Joe some time ago when he was referred to me for stress related work problems. He had a thriving construction business, owned several rental properties in addition to a beautiful home on Cape Cod. He son was turning 8 and his wife complained of his working seven days a week and not being a very tolerant husband. Joe has always been a perfectionist, holding himself and others to very high standards. He had trouble maintaining employees as he often drove them as hard as he drives himself.  His anger would often get the better of him, leading to physical altercations on a few occasions. Nevertheless he impressed me as well intentioned and in many ways good hearted.  I could tell early on he was not someone who would be easy to work for or live with. His intolerance for anyone who didn’t see things his way seemed to be a characteristic of his black and white thinking. He once told he had no room for the gray in life, “you either step up and do the work or get out of the way” was his motto.

Out of Despair Kindness Arises

       One rainy day Joe’s entire life ironically changed for the better. He fell off a roof and became paralyzed. He was used to scaling buildings, walking great heights and using potentially fatal power tools. On this day, he was in a hurry to make a dentist appointment. His attention dropped, his foot slipped and the next thing he knew he was on his back struggling to breathe.

As you might expect Joe went through a profound depression after the accident. Joe’s wife eventually filed for divorce, continuing a time in his life that seemed like the worst nightmare possible.

I lived through Joe’s depression. I visited him in a Boston hospital after I learned he was paralyzed. His first words to me were, “Doc, can you believe this happened to me? What am I going to do? I could lose my business. How will I support my family? This is crazy. I can’t live like this! You know I can’t!” I cried when I left his room. I felt empty with a deep sense of sadness as I drove home, wondering how I could help Joe and how he could ultimately help himself.

How could this man, in his late 30’s, very successful, two homes, real estate, land purchases, see it all come crumbling down and recover? His wife had left him. Two years later his father developed leukemia; then his mother discovered she had breast cancer. The only friend he felt understood his plight was a fellow paraplegic he met in rehab. Unfortunately, his friend committed suicide shortly thereafter, not being able to cope with the life of a paraplegic. We started our journey with a momentous mountain in our path.

The first two years of our meetings were filled with grief, anger and despair. I listened as Joe told me how much he missed walking, running and skating. He’d been a stellar athlete and a very physical man all his life. How could he ever work out again? How could he regain his business? Would he disappoint his son?  He was afraid he wouldn’t be able to teach him how to hit a baseball, fish, ski, etc. Would his ex-wife’s new boyfriend take his place in his son’s heart? All these fears filled his mind, all based on a loss of complete control.

He constantly asked me what I thought about regaining his business, how could he continue his role as a father and whether he would ever drive again. We found a physical therapist who would train him to condition his upper body so that he could move more adeptly in his chair. He called truck manufacturers to see if a vehicle could be made for him to drive. We talked about how he could train men to be part of his construction business. He eventually trained two men, and he even had them hoist him up on to the very roof he’d fallen from to face his fear and most importantly, “to finish that goddamn job.”

We made a plan to call old customers to let them know he was back in business. He asked the baseball commissioner of his son’s league if he could coach his team. Last spring they won their division and his son could not be more proud of his dad.

Today, Joe’s business is again successful. He goes to job sites daily and works out at a gym three times a week. He has made his home handicap accessible and has become a great cook. He had abandoned his church after the accident, but today he and his son attend every Sunday morning. “It gives me such a good feeling to be there with him.” He has unleashed the kindness that had been buried within him for years.

Goodness Changes the Brain

A few weeks ago, after one of our individual sessions, Joe remarked, “I am a better person as a paraplegic.” “I turned my life around; I’ve come to believe that people are basically good. So many strangers have cared for me, given me their best to help me get better; they made me a more compassionate person. I was always so hard on people; I never realized how difficult it was for me to trust anybody.”

The tragedies of Joe’s accident made him slow down and reflect as the circumstances overwhelmed him with emotion. He was not known for expressing feelings readily. Loss of control can be a blessing. It can actually lift a burden one has been carrying all through life.

Joe tried so very hard to control all aspects of his life—his work environment, his wife, his son, etc. He always thought he was doing the “right thing.” He never realized that people could not relax around him. They worried he would be easily displeased or that they would disappoint him if they didn’t make that “all-out” effort he encouraged.

Today he has learned how to listen rather than using his old style of lecturing. He can tolerate vulnerability rather than giving anyone who has a doubt a pep talk. He understands human frailty in a way he never considered before. As a result, people feel closer to him and he feels closeness with many people he never experienced closeness with before.

People who remain open to new experiences and who expand their social circle have an expanded capacity for learning. Their brains develop new neurons. They find life interesting, not a chore. They like to find the novelty in every situation and “mix it up” a little, as opposed to the routine predictability I often see in many of my adult clients.

Joe lives near the church where I rent space to do my group sessions. After group on Friday mornings, I meet Joe at his home for our weekly session.

One Friday morning I was early and arrived before him. I talked with Ronnie, a recovering drug addict who is staying with Joe—not because Joe needs help, but because Ronnie needs to put his life back together. Ronnie lost his job, his wife, his driver’s license and most of his friends because of cocaine; and he is having trouble figuring out how to adapt to the circumstances of his life.

When Joe arrived, he roared up on the motorcycle he had custom-outfitted for his particular disability. He had come from the lake where he was overseeing the construction of a dock at a camp for handicapped children so they could learn how to kayak and water ski. Last winter, Joe went skiing on a special ski with his young son in Aspen. He also won a deep sea fishing contest with his son in Canada this past summer.

Giving is a Survival Skill

A number of scientific studies as of late have indicated that being a giving person, an individual with a warm heart who extends himself or herself to others derives significant psychological benefits. Goodness stimulates the pleasure center of the brain, releases the feel good chemical dopamine,  and as a result this kind of empathic attunement is thought to protect our species by fostering cooperative efforts. Joe derived the benefits of giving as he was forced into a state of vulnerability. He learned through his tragic accident how vulnerability increases interpersonal capability. It would have seemed impossible to him to imagine loosing the use of his legs and immerging a happier person. It is a fact I have been privileged to witness. When we are open and honest with ourselves we can be open and honest with others. In the process we discover goodness in ourselves we can share with the rest of the world. It is surely a protective, connective process that allows us to remain healthy and vibrant. The opposite is true when we remain isolated and pre-occupied with our self interests to the exclusion of others.

In my experience leading group therapy sessions over the years I have continually noticed that when people become involved with other members in an empathic way they begin to feel better. The cure for depression and anxiety is not within but between us, as we enter the world of another we take a mental vacation from ourselves while influencing our neurochemistry positively.

Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D., Ph.D.

http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Goodness-Renaissance-Project/104778329611615

Author of the Curse of the Capable: The Hidden Challenge to a Balanced, Healthy, High Achieving Life.

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Have a Spirit of Giving to our Haitian Sisters and Brothers

People around the world have joined forces in attempts to help Haitians who are suffering enormous hardship. These are the times when our empathy and compassion drive us to do whatever we can to be of help. I have listened to many people tell me how this experience has made them more grateful and appreciative of the freedoms and good fortune we enjoy in our country.

Suffering unites those of us who are interested in mankind; many people find it unbearable that some individuals have to endure life’s greatest pains while not having the support needed to cope effectively.  Those of good character want to help!

I was watching Haitian children singing in the streets the other day.  As their voices pleaded with God for solace I could see their spirits rise despite the chaos around them. We here in the United States often associate wealth and material possessions with happiness. The Haitian people survive with far less than we do, yet their spirits seem to shine despite the lack of amenities in their lives.

If you seek emotional freedom you must be involved in the social world. To expand our humanity we need to open our eyes, minds and hearts to the inequalities of the world. Personal liberation is brought about, in part, when we are involved with the freedom and equality of all people. I have seen in recent days a renewed sense of calm among many people who were previously troubled by matters of little significance in comparison to what we view daily in Haiti. This tragedy has provided us with an opportunity to examine our lives, question how often we are in service to others, and how our lifestyle is affecting our spirits and the lives of others. Perhaps in the face of mortality we are awakened to what really matters in our lives. We are reminded that we do not have ultimate control; we have this moment to do the right thing for ourselves and others. Our lives are truly unpredictable beyond this moment in time.

If you have found yourself very affected by this tragedy use it as an opportunity.  Try to connect to those who suffer and are in great need of your help. Be more of a giver and become less preoccupied with your own self interests. This new perspective will bring you a sense of freedom that cannot be matched by self preoccupation. In the process of healing broken wings we release our humanity and heal ourselves. Open your heart, help the Haitians, and release the goodness within you.

To find ways you can help follow the Red Cross Tweets @redcross or visit http://www.cnn.com/impact

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