A recent New Yorker article by Paul Tough, “The Poverty Clinic,” is wonderful and inspiring, although too narrowly titled in my view. It is about a parenting hero, Dr. Nadine Burke, who is making a difference with some of our least supported and most hurt children and families; and it’s also about the effects of abuse in childhood on not just emotional, but also physical health in adulthood. But it’s also about how to help, how to connect, how to work more effectively… by taking feelings more strongly into account even when looking at physical healing—and that is about the world we all live in, a world where the “poverty” may be spiritual, compassion-oriented or consciousness-oriented.
Abuse in kids leads to later psychological and physical illness when they grow-up (see the ACE Study, which I wrote about previously, and which underpins Burke’s actions). Since we cannot be happier than our least happy child, if that child lives in the hood, the barrio or in rural poverty (or in a more economically advantaged part of town, even under our own roof) we must do something about it. And that something starts with accurately understanding feelings, something that both medicine, and our broader culture, have given short shrift. Why is this? Perhaps we just don’t know how to deal with emotion effectively… and we have not yet bought into how effective and important it is to attune with our kids: this is a huge part of how we enhance self-esteem, improve academic performance, reduce wasted health-care dollars (i.e. after people are already very sick) and heal out children and our collective community.
Dr. Burke is a parenting hero in that she really cares about our collective children and is truly walking the talk about helping. She is compassionate, smart and committed—modeling a new sort of involved approach that harmonizes facts and feelings—science and mindfulness. One of the coolest things about this is that it is a widening trend; Dr. Burke is a great pioneer in something that many involved and compassionate people are excited about and increasingly applying to their work, to our collective and always changing, perhaps spontaneously wiring up, re-ordering and re-integrating, world culture.
My hope is that we are moving away from a world of who gets credit for what and toward a world of participation—one in which you and I can trust that what we are up to makes a real difference in our shared world. If we can feel safer, perhaps through becoming more conscious of our own past hurts (and the research is clear that such increased awareness of ourselves mitigates potential damage against our children) we grow more equipped and empowered to ripple out an ethic of caring and connection—the very thing that both helps others, and also brings us a greater sense of involvement, community, meaning and purpose… the very building blocks, after basic trust and security, of love and happiness.
In simplified terms, the science of scared kids becoming sick grown-ups has to do with neuro-chemicals influencing genes which influence behavior which influence widening social circles. This is how individual abuse and neglect becomes a culture of fear, abuse and neglect. And if you think this is confined to the “hood,” take another look around. Ours is a circular world—intervene at any point and you effect the whole cycle. Starting with ourselves, if we can calm down and transcend the fear that has imprisoned us (and impaired our compassion for others along with ourselves, and blocked our playful happiness) we will organically reorganize our world to reflect safety instead of terror.
And before you let anyone kill the buzz of your compassion, ask one simple question: do they stand to gain or lose from a reduction in societal fear? The current power hierarchies benefit from fear, and they themselves may be too scared (and unconscious, and defended) to even realize how scared they are. Think about it: the truly at-risk are just barely surviving, while the rich fret endlessly about whether they are pushing their kids hard enough, buying into the anti-social (and economically powerful—as the scared try to buy safety) notion that there is truly not enough to go around.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have prosperity and comfort, just that even our good fortune and prosperity is tenuous and often hollow, failing to deliver on authentic happiness and making us more afraid of losing what we have than grateful for our blessings—constantly afraid of dying, but somehow not quite living.
We have a surplus of fear and a shortage on courage and compassion. Across our culture, the science supports an approach of accurate understanding to ameliorate mistrust. Free markets include blogs, and social networks, and the zeitgeist that just may be edging close to becoming sick of its own sickness. Fear and the subsequent lizard-brain breakdown in simple human compassion and connection is a core problem; our own rising consciousness is a potential remedy (and it’s free, and always has been).
The way forward: be conscious; be nice; actually care. Lean on me and I’ll lean on you and we can deal with our fears by recognizing and acknowledging and caring and being cared about. From micro-finance to micro parenting and micro-compassion, perhaps we humans are in the process of spontaneously liberating ourselves from the myth of money as the be-all end-all problem and solution, suddenly substituting relationship and connection as the new coin of the new realm. If people do not have enough to eat or be safe or be educated, we are oppressing them if we have too much and can’t even manage to be happy with our good fortune (and perhaps we pay a karmic toll with our angst-laden and often covert-misery; after all happy people are generally kind, so how happy is our culture?). Maybe giving more of ourselves, not necessarily of our much vaunted wallets that maybe everybody doesn’t care all that much about, but of our hearts that people do yearn to know care and feel, just like their hearts do… maybe this is our attitudinal balm.
Dr. Burke leads the charge, saying, “…this is a huge, huge issue, and as a society I don’t think we’ve even come close to grasping its significance.” So, are we willing to follow her lead and walk the talk ourselves by caring, listening, deepening compassion for not just kids, but also for limited and traumatized parents who need understanding and support to break cycles of hurt and subsequent sickness?
There is adequate science to support the position that neglect and abuse leads to sickness. There is solid science to show that accurate understanding and secure attachment works in the opposite, healing direction. It’s hard to see much downside in our culture, much less ourselves, for doing what works to facilitate basic trust and heal trauma (which means talking about it with others who care and listen reasonable accuracy).
Let’s ask ourselves, what can we add to the group in this regard? Can we work to heal our trauma, and thus not further it on others? Can we stand to listen, care and attune in the service of others? Are we ready for a more compassionate culture? Are we ready to step up and participate by caring and listening to each other—to other parents without judging them (or being triggered by their fear and anxiety), and by listening more deeply to all our collective children?
If people care, you cannot stop them from caring. Let’s be those people. Let’s live with hearts and eyes open in this world that we share.