Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Real Killer of Michael Jackson

In the avalanche of words precipitated by the tragic, untimely death of Michael Jackson, there are two that we have not seen or heard used together: mental illness. Many of his fans would probably consider it a desecration of his memory to suggest that Michael Jackson was mentally ill. Ignorance about diseases of the mind is still rampant, and we routinely overlook the devastating effects of mental illness—even when they are played out before our eyes in the dazzling and colorful lives of international celebrities.

It goes without saying that Michael Jackson was a man of astonishing, mind-boggling talent and creativity—an artist of the first order. By all accounts, he was a gentle, generous, kind-hearted person. He appears to have had deep, decades-long relationships with friends and family. Despite the obvious distortions created by early fame and unimaginable wealth, there was much that seemed right about his life.

Of course, famously, there was also much that was wrong. Perhaps most obvious was the gradual transformation from the handsome, masculine-looking performer he was in his early twenties (a time of life when mental illness often strikes) to the androgynous, child-like creature he had become by 2005, when he was put on trial in California. There was his obsessive fascination and identification with children that led to accusations of impropriety. In the last years of his life, he became reclusive, and there were rumors that he was compulsive about cleanliness.

Clearly, Michael Jackson had a tormented soul, and fame and wealth can’t substitute for happiness. But I’d like to think he escaped, from time to time, from his prison of self-doubts and obsessions. On stage, he certainly looked unfettered and free—blissfully, extravagantly free of all earthly limitations, of gravity even. Through music and motion, he provided millions of others with breath-taking, unforgettable escapism. During those magic minutes when he was performing, I hope that he, too, was able to transcend.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Note to My Readers

A reader recently commented that she found the text at 46 Degrees North tedious to read because of the color scheme. I thought it was about time for a change, anyway. I like having the posts at the left of the screen, and this new layout puts the text on a white background.

What do you think?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Power of Apology

In twenty years or so as a family counselor, I’ve observed some of the habits and attitudes that make families work well. One of them—one that is all too rare in American culture—is the willingness to apologize.

Unfortunately, Americans view an apology as a sign of weakness—whereas in reality, it’s just the opposite. It’s a way of saying, “I’m not threatened by owning up to the fact that I made a mistake, or that things didn’t go well.” It’s also a way of saying, “I respect you enough to be honest with you.”

When people haven’t been getting along, an apology by either side is just the opposite of “throwing down the gauntlet.” It’s sending a signal that says, “I don’t want to fight with you. I want to get along with you.” An apology is often the essential first step in mending a relationship. In working with troubled families, if I can’t persuade someone to apologize, and thus signal the willingness to abandon conflict, I know that I may not be able to help them.

When people have been in conflict with one another, trust has been destroyed. They eye each other suspiciously, wondering if they should be ready for another attack. Until someone apologizes, tension and distrust are likely to persist, compromising any chance of making real progress toward healing the relationship.

It’s important to realize that an apology is not an admission of wrong doing. It’s an expression of regret—regret that there are bad feelings, that the relationship is broken. When gears in a motor freeze up, a little oil is sometimes the only way to get the mechanism working again. In relationships, an apology is often that drop of oil.

President Obama, a man of extraordinary diplomacy, uses many tools to help establish—or reestablish—good communication with other countries. Those who continually second guess him, criticizing him for being gracious and respectful to other nations and their citizens, are simply displaying their own ignorance, bad manners, and lack of foresight.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Good Manners and Foreign Relations

Although people are all different, every culture has characteristic attitudes and habits. In Mexico, life is a fiesta; hard work and fun go hand-in-hand, and people see no reason to interrupt one for the other. Ireland is full of citizen-poets who can recite long passages from W.B. Yeats or Seamus Heaney and tear up at a good turn of phrase. The Swiss are remarkably well informed about history and world affairs and tend to discuss these topics like ambassadors over lunch.

Although all generalizations are wrong (including this one), there’s always some truth to caricatures. That’s why there’re funny. That’s why we laugh at cartoon characters, like Pepe Le Pew and Yosemite Sam. Somehow, without being real, they personify elements of “Frenchiness” or the outrageous, larger-than-life audacity of the American “Wild West.”

So what qualities are characteristically “American”? For over ten years, I attended meetings of a group who met weekly to speak French. Members and guests were originally from many different continents and countries—Belgium, England, India, Hong Kong, Viet Nam, Africa. Through their eyes, I gradually came to see America as others see us.

Americans speak loudly. In conversation, they can be rude and abrupt. Unaccustomed to rubbing shoulders with people of other cultures, they can be oblivious to things that are offensive to others. They tend to dismiss the sensibilities of guests in their country, taking the attitude, “They’re in America, now.” Abroad, they tend to have an attitude of entitlement, assuming that others can just “take us or leave us.” In a word, Americans tend to be arrogant.

On the other hand, people from elsewhere tell me that Americans can be very generous—eager to help someone in trouble or lend a hand if work needs to be done. Although they may be uncharitable, they tend to be kind. Others often see us as sensitive, emotional, and sentimental—traits that can sometimes be endearing, as well as exasperating.

Elected leaders tend to reflect the traits of the people of their country. Where other countries are concerned, recent American presidents have been arrogant—quick to criticize, condemn, and interfere with other governments. Perhaps that hasn’t always been bad. However, arrogance tends to make us blind to our own shortcomings and limitations. And over time, arrogance doesn’t wear well with other people.

We live on a rapidly shrinking planet where, as in a crowded office or apartment building, it’s increasingly important to learn to get along with others. Picking fights is clearly not the best way to get things done. We need to cooperate. We need to look for common ground. We need a leader who’s strong but can listen, explain our positions on things, respect others’ customs and values, and avoid stirring up unnecessary anger and resentment.

At this volatile and dangerous point in history, diplomacy has never been more important. A reader reminded me recently that at another critical time, we had a president who saw the need to “speak softly but carry a big stick.” Now we have another.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Health Care: Better Late Than Never

It was obvious that I would need emergency treatment that would probably be very expensive, and what a sad commentary that even in this disjointed mentality, I knew enough to be worried that my HMO might not cover my costs in the event that I went to the wrong health center for care.
--Jill Bolte Taylor, PhD., in My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey

When Jill Taylor, a neuroscientist working at Harvard, was suddenly disabled by a devastating hemorrhage in the left side of her brain, she couldn’t speak, think clearly, or remember how to dial a telephone. However, she did know enough to worry about whether her insurance would cover the costs of her treatment!

In America, most people have to worry about the costs of medical care, one way or another. In general, folks in their middle years who are employed by the government or large corporations get good, comprehensive coverage—although even for this fortunate minority, costs have been escalating dramatically every year for the employees’ share of the premiums, deductibles, and co-pays. If the well-employed change jobs or try to start their own business, they may be caught without coverage and have to play Russian roulette with their financial security. Those over 65, who are eligible for Medicare, may also be able to rest assured that they can afford the care they need—if they have additional income enough to pay for supplementary insurance.

For the rest of us, however, the choice too often has to be made between going without coverage or paying astronomical premiums for catastrophic insurance that doesn’t cover routine health care, dental or vision checkups, or even emergency room visits.

The broken, inefficient, and inequitable system of health care in this country has been limping along for too many years. The time has come to revamp it. Here are some of the reasons why. In America,

  • owners and employees of small businesses often can’t afford health insurance for themselves and their families

  • the rich may live and the poor may die of exactly the same condition

  • many people suffer and die from chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes because they can’t afford their medications

  • young parents, who are among those least likely to be insured, may not seek prenatal care

  • many people in their fifties or sixties who would like to change jobs or retire are forced to keep working for health insurance

  • huge numbers of people can’t afford routine tests and wellness checks

  • those who are chronically poor because of addictions or mental illness are helpless to get the treatment they need.

Treating people only when they are seriously ill or dying is enormously inefficient. Allowing a system to continue that deprives most people of optimum health care is a tremendous drain on the nation’s productivity and creativity. The analyses have been done. The momentum is there. The time to solve these problems is now.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Nancy Reagan and the Great Communicators

Life is one grand, sweet song, so start the music.
--Ronald Reagan

What a moving sight it was last week when 87-year-old Nancy Reagan returned to the White House, her former home, on the arm of the current president—a man whom, according to her son, Mrs. Reagan very much admires. There to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birthday of her beloved “Ronnie,” Mrs. Reagan clearly enjoyed the company of another “great communicator.”

Ronald Reagan was a likable guy. His public persona, which he honed as an actor and adapted to his role as a politician, was one of sincerity, conviction, and optimism. However, he was very much a product of his time, seeing the world as it was during World War II, divided into two great camps: good and evil, right and wrong, “us” and “them.”

For the most part, Reagan aimed his considerable rhetorical arsenal exclusively at the American people, talking about but rarely to the leaders (and never to the people) of other nations. Reagan got a lot of credit for the eventual d├ętente and arms reduction treaties between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. However, it was Mikhail Gorbachev—winner of the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize—who first extended the hand of friendship.

President Obama communicates with the world. Within hours after his meeting with Mrs. Reagan, he was abroad again—this time in Cairo, Egypt—speaking to an audience largely composed of young followers of Islam. His words of respect and understanding resounded throughout Muslim countries, greatly diminishing the distrust and animosity that have enabled terrorists to recruit new followers. Then, as always, this great communicator did not speak down to his audience but shared with them human hopes, dreams, and aspirations for a new world order of peace and prosperity.

Today we are in the midst not of a revolution but rather a cultural evolution. As with the evolution of species, change and adaptation of society does not occur at a measured, geologic pace. Things happen that cause a society—like a species—to leap forward. The change that has come to America in the past several months is such an event. For those willing to let go of the old paradigms, it is now possible to envision a world in which people of good faith can work together in harmony toward common goals.

Despite all the work that remains to be done, it is now possible to relinquish old habits of hatred, fear, and despair and genuinely embrace the notion that life everywhere—everywhere on Planet Earth—really is “one grand, sweet song.”

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Shadow People

There are human organisms the public never sees and, for the most part, can’t imagine. The most horrifically deformed and least recognizably human of these unfortunate creatures usually suffer their short, miserable lives in institutions. A few are hidden in homes, kept by families whose entire existence becomes distorted beyond recognition by the presence of a child that is not a child.

I knew one such creature, met one such family. As a family crisis therapist, I was dispatched to a home where, according to the referral, a teenage girl was “out of control”—defiant, disrespectful of her parents, skipping school, possibly on drugs. I arrived to find a young woman with wild, dyed-black hair and “goth” makeup and clothing—clearly the “identified client.” This child was the oldest of three siblings. The middle girl was very bright, polite, and interested in the whole procedure. Although the family reported no problems with her, she looked very sad to me. Then the mother brought in the youngest child—a pathetically deformed little creature that I honestly would not have recognized as a human being had I not been told that she was a “sister.”

This mistake of nature, whom I’ll call “Annie,” had a very tiny, round body and oversized head, which she couldn’t hold upright. Her arms and legs were limp, useless appendages. She was about eight years old when I met the family but entirely unable to communicate. She grunted and drooled throughout our conversation, while her mother kept her propped upright beside her on the couch. As I tried to get an overview of the family history, the conversation inevitably led back to Annie. Frail and underdeveloped, her life was one agonizing, prolonged medical crisis. At any given time, one parent or the other was likely standing vigil over this child—sometimes in specialized, out-of-town hospitals—while the rest of the family limped along with very limited financial, emotional, and psychological resources.

The most pathetic thing about this whole situation was that nobody talked about Annie. The oldest daughter was a problem child—that was their story, and they were sticking to it. Nobody would broach the subject of where that teenage anger came from. Given the chronic pain the family had been in since Annie’s birth, it was just too painful to suggest that she was the source of the oldest child’s angst. At one point, the oldest girl admitted that when Annie came along, she and her sister “lost” their parents. There was no time, money, or energy to celebrate the growth of the “normal” children, as they went through the various passages of their lives—birthdays, proms, graduations. There had been no family outings or vacations. Life revolved around the needs of the neediest member of the family.

I once worked with a woman who had made a different choice when confronted with the birth of a hopelessly handicapped child—she and her husband put their son in an institution. Shocked and horrified by the hopelessness of having a son who could never walk, talk, or enjoy life in any way, the couple had elected not to bring more children into the world. Eventually the marriage dissolved. When I met her, this middle-aged woman was living alone, traveling two hundred miles every two weeks to visit the son who could never recognize her. Consumed with guilt that she couldn’t do more for him, she seldom mentioned her son. The subject came up one day when another mother was bemoaning the fact that her children were growing up “too fast.”

“Don’t even say that,” said my coworker. “My son is 16 years old, and someone still has to change his diapers.”

There’s a myth that nature aborts its worst mistakes—“babies” that might cling to life but never be able to “live.” Not so. Uninterrupted, many of these pregnancies result in birth. Sometimes there are signs of trouble at some point during gestation, but life is stubborn, and modern medicine is very good at sustaining it.

When the unfortunate parents of such unfortunate children chose not to burden their deformed offspring with the misery of life, Dr. George Tiller was among the few who could or would help them make what they believed to be the most moral of decisions. For this, he was executed.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Where Credit Is Due

Yesterday, Dick Cheney did something right. He kept his mouth shut about something he knows little or nothing about—the upcoming Senate confirmation hearings for Judge Sonia Sotomayor. He also restated his support for gay marriage—a position that prompted one commentator to say that on that issue, he is “left of Obama.”

These most recent public statements by the once reclusive and silent former vice president help to clarify his apparent motives in his recent rash of public appearances. Evidently Cheney isn’t emerging as a dogmatic right-wing apologist for the General Opposition Party (GOP). He’s merely interested in protecting the interests of his own family.

Cheney has a daughter who is in a long-term partnership with another woman; hence, his empathy for gay couples. He has grandchildren; hence, his interest in justifying his actions during his time in office. (Who wouldn’t be daunted by the notion of great-grandchildren reading in school that their progenitor made history by sanctioning torture in America?)

One might wish that the Cheneys of this world could exercise enough imagination to empathize with those who are not close blood relations. (The only prominent member of the GOP who has personal, visceral, real-life experience with torture—John McCain—is against it.) However, a little empathy and respect for the rights of others is better than nothing.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Decision Making 101

Judge Sonia Sotomayor is lavishly experienced and spectacularly qualified to be a Supreme Court Justice. However, if King Solomon or Christ himself came back to earth and was nominated by President Obama, the General Opposition Party (GOP) would find something to criticize. They’ve been itching for a fight ever since Justice David Souter announced his retirement, and they’re not about to be deprived of it, regardless of how ridiculous their arguments may be.

Immediately after her nomination was announced, there were ludicrous accusations that Judge Sotomayor—a renowned scholar and Summa Cum Laude graduate of Princeton and Yale—was lacking in intelligence. Then this daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants was accused of racism. In ordinary circumstances, it shouldn’t be necessary to dignify such attacks by responding to them. However, for the sake of those who limit their news gathering to the radical right media, there were those who chose to set the record straight.

Mark Krikorian of National Review Online weighed in, whining about a report that the judge likes to have her name pronounced correctly. Then attempts were made to center attention on two out-of-context remarks she uttered in 2001 and 2005, respectively. Now that it seems unlikely the pundits will generate much outrage from those attacks, the major focus of the Party of No seems to be, for the moment, a point of philosophy: that Judge Sotomayor may have feelings and even—horrors!—empathy! God forbid that feelings could somehow creep into the deliberations of a justice!

No one who listens to the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Newt Gingrich is going to be swayed by mere logic and facts, but just for the record, here are a few relevant points:

First, in her 17 years of experience as a federal court judge, Sotomayor has earned a reputation of fairness and objectivity. She’s hardly likely to start now throwing out judicial precedent in favor of promoting her own personal agendas.

Secondly, the Supreme Court is and always has been composed of human beings. If total and complete, bloodless, passionless objectivity were desirable in justices, we should be working on a computer program that could parse every phrase in the constitution and every decision ever handed down by justices past and make truly impartial decisions, untainted by emotions of any kind. However, it could be argued that such a “court” was not at all what the Founding Fathers, in their infinite wisdom, had in mind.

Finally—and here’s the reason computer scientists have been stumped so far in their attempts to get computers to think like people—emotions are a necessary component for making reasonable, rational decisions. This fundamental fact of human nature is well known to psychologists and, for lay audiences, has been brilliantly explained in several best-selling books—notably, Decartes’ Error (1994), by Antonio Damasio, and How We Decide (2009), by Jonah Lehrer.

In Decartes’ Error, Damasio describes the plight of a patient called “Elliot” who, as a result of a devastating brain injury, could no longer experience emotions. He lacked the essential feedback system that lets us know (i.e., gives us feelings) about whether our conscious, rational thinking is on track or not. His life dissolved into chaos and dissolution, as he became utterly incapable of making good decisions of any kind. In How We Decide, Lehrer observes that even the great psychologist William James, writing in the late 1800s, understood that “the mind contained two distinct thinking systems, one that was rational and deliberate and another that was quick, effortless, and emotional. The key to making decisions, James said, was knowing when to rely on which system.”

Given her solid reputation for excellent decision making, it appears that Judge Sonia Sotomayor knows what part of her brain to use when. If only the same could be said for some of her most vociferous critics.