Michael Oher and The Blind Side

michael oher and tuohysAll of us, as growing children, develop strategies for negotiating the world in which we are growing. We are not consciously aware that we are developing specific strategies. We just do it. Our primary goal is survival and our secondary goal is getting our needs met. In the movie, “The Blind Side,” we see young Michael Oher’s strategies in action, strategies which have led to the survival of not only his body but his soul in a world which had destroyed so many. We also see in action the strategies he had  chosen to get his needs met. It reminds me of Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs,” in which physical survival and security are the two most basic. Against very challenging odds Michael has succeeded.

It seems to me that a core component of his success was that he chose early on to take his own counsel, to be his own man, rather than feeling he must fit in and please others. He reserved the right to make up his own mind about the various examples of life paraded before him, rejecting as unworthy many of the strategies others embraced. This core wisdom preserved his life. The greatest part of his success was who he already was before he had the opportunity offered by the Tuohys.

Another key factor in his success was the way he responded to the opportunity that came his way. It’s easy to see a fortunate turn of events as being the reason a person achieves success. But, as Dave Ramsey has pointed out, if you want to see the true character of a person give him a big wad of money and see what he does with it. The Tuohys’ intersecting his life was truly a blessing, but many have wasted such an opportunity. I’m certainly not privy to the thought processes that went on in Michael responding to this new family he now encountered. Whatever those thoughts were, they led him to a highly successful response to this unexpected opportunity.

What Michael had accomplished before the Tuohys entered his life is astounding. To have whatever it was inside him that maintained a sanity while totally immersed in an absolutely insane jungle of society’s victims and outcasts is bordering on the miraculous. To have any clear sense of self and to embrace a strategy for living that was so different from those about him was key to surviving where he was until having an opportunity to step on the next rung up when it came along. I am reminded of the line in Rudyard Kipling’s “If” that, “If you can keep your head while all about you are losing theirs… you’ll be a Man, my son!”

There have always been individuals who thought higher and better than others trapped in the same horrors about them. Each of these successes held on to some plan for survival until finding an avenue to rise above. These stories of survival need to be told to challenge us to believe we can do better, to not despair in spite of the situations in which we find yourselves.

“The Blind Side” is the story of success composed of two overarching human realities: an exceptional young man and an exceptional family. What Michael had accomplished before the Tuohy’s entered his life is astounding. The strength of his inner self pops out at various points in the movie where he gives answers that clearly were not what the questioner anticipated. The only way one can survive virtually alone in the jungle is to fiercely construct the belief system that will be strong enough to not be destroyed by contrary opinions or enticements.

Rarity also occurred in the form of the Tuohys, apparently led by Leigh-Anne. She was notable for being a woman not having herself defined or confined by someone else’s concept of what a wealthy, educated, southern Christian wife, mother, woman should be, do, think, believe and decide. In short she defined “her place” and she honored Michael’s right to define “his place.”

Notably, she has the respect of her husband who seemingly accepts her strong self-direction apparently with grace, admiration and even enjoyment. Frankly, she reminded me of my aunts on both sides of my family. They were strong women, wives and mothers living through the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War and more. None ever appeared to me to in any way lack self direction and self-determination.I can’t imagine any of them being perceived as weak, needing someone to guide them. I don’t recall any of them ever choosing not to follow a desired course of action because someone said that a woman couldn’t or shouldn’t do it. My cousins will fully confirm me on that point. And incidentally there wasn’t a weak man among any of their husbands, my uncles. Ditto my grandmothers and grandfathers.

The whole Tuohy family was fully engulfed in the consequences of Leigh-Anne’s “force of nature” decisions. And fortunately each member of the family stood up to be counted in support of the decisions. A preteen son and a teenage daughter each could have related to their own peers in ways that followed the parental examples or could have related in ways oppositional. Fortunately they chose the former. They each also had to build their own relationships with Michael as their new brother.

Some time after seeing the movie I purchased Michael Oher’s book, “I Beat the Odds: From Homelessness, to the Blind Side, and Beyond.” It was an informative read and I would strongly recommend it to you. The movie came out just as Michael was beginning his professional football career, and has certainly been impactful, bringing him much media attention along with the unwelcome aspects of receiving such attention. Any successful movie that essentially tells the story of a living individual impacts and alters that person’s life, in both welcome and unwelcome ways. So it has been for Michael and for the Tuohys. Just as it took strength of character and wisdom for all these people to live the changes they did, so too it will take strength of character and wisdom to maximize the future benefits for all who are willing to be benefited by these events while minimizing the downside.. A two-hour movie must of necessity leave out much of what a book can cover. Also, since those who write and produce movies seem to believe that real-life can’t be nearly as exciting as fiction,some artistic liberty with the facts is usually taken.

Societies have always had severe problems that need to be addressed, problems such as crime, poverty, tyranny and racism. We all need to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. There are personal things we need to do on the micro level, person-to-person, right now. There are also structural things we need to be doing on the macro level that take longer and usually involve much more than individual decision. It’s not which of these, the personal or the societal, shall we do. We should do both.

It’s always easier to do things right on a personal level when things are right on the societal level. It’s just that things will never be made right on the societal level unless first many of us make things right on the personal level.

If you have fallen off a cruiseship and a fellow passenger sees your plight, do you want him to begin to rail against the cruise line for not having a safer ship, or do you want him to immediately throw you a life preserver? And if indeed the cruise line was negligent in passenger safety, would you once you have survived want him to join you in bringing the problems to light or to merely conclude his job was complete, having personally helped you alone?

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A Mental Health Diet

john nash 2“I became disillusioned with some of the delusions.” With this statement John Nash humorously described one of his main strategies in attempting to better manage his decades long struggle with schizophrenia. I’ve written before about one important factor in John’s improving mental health, about his becoming recognized and appreciated by an appropriate group of colleagues, family and friends.

Another significant contribution to John’s rationally managing the irrationality of his schizophrenia was what he referred to as putting himself on a mental health diet. He pointed out that just as people put themselves on a food diet by choosing not to indulge certain appetites he concluded that he could not afford himself the luxury of allowing all of the voices in his head to be taken seriously as though they were accurate reporters of reality.

Instead, just as a dieter refuses the allure of certain foods in order to more rationally control calorie and nutrition intake John realized he simply had to identify those voices which would be counterproductive to his successfully functioning in his world and disqualify them as unworthy to be heard. He realized that, through the years before employing this strategy, all the voices were being given equal credibility one with another, even those voices that were upsetting and drove him to alienating behavior.

A dieter’s eyes will fall upon an array of foods all of which appeal to him. Yet if he is to be successful, in his mind he will have to identify those foods that in spite of their appeal will have to be rejected. He rationally chooses to not indulge himself with those troublesome foods. So too, John was choosing to not give credence to certain voices since he had selected those voices as being unnecessarily upsetting or as having power to negatively affect his behavior among people.

While curing his schizophrenia would be the best case scenario mental health science has not developed to that extent. There are a number of physical health problems that modern medical science has not yet been able to cure. The next best thing, a not insignificant thing, is to create ways to more effectively manage the power of a health issue to negatively impact the quality of life for patients. Just so, John realized that while he could not eliminate the strange voices in his head he could choose to a degree how much he would pay attention to which voices.

A crucial step in treating the issues that people bring to psychotherapy is identifying structural changes that the client is rationally capable of effecting that will quickly reduce a portion of the negative impact these issues are having on his quality of life. This quickly gives the client a boost in his expectations that therapy could be helpful. It then buys time for the issues not so easily controlled to be treated in a more stepwise fashion.

Even if we can’t yet rid ourselves of all our demons we can at least identify them as demons rather than friends and begin to deny them a vote in choosing what to say or what to do in a given situation. This is an important first step in beginning to move life out of the shadows and into the light.

We have all learned from experience that certain acquaintances have proven not to be our friends and should not be allowed to influence our thinking and decision-making. Similarly we need to identify our own thoughts that are not our friends and begin to remove the vote they have on how I should feel, what I should say and what I should do. Correctly labeling which of our thoughts are truly our friends and which are truly our enemies is essential to gaining control of our lives.

John Nash discovered this. He became disillusioned with his own delusions. And he reaped the benefits, for himself, for his family and friends and for all those who have been enriched by his intriguing life.

Larry Crowne

julia and tomMost movies are not only fiction but take place with plots and occurrences and even locations that can’t exist in the real world. While these diversions can certainly be highly entertaining I tend to be drawn to movies that either tell the stories of what real people experience or at least tell a fictional story not unlike the real-life experiences of millions of standard folk. These are the movies that pique my interest and are most likely to delight me.

“Larry Crowne” is such a movie, a land of opportunity story similar to the real-life experiences of millions of Americans. Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks) is a divorced 20 year Navy veteran proudly working in a big box store for which he takes ownership by his loyal enthusiasm. Set years ago during the great recession, Crowne is “downsized” out of his job. Like so many millions of others at that time he’s upside down on his house payment and unable to find a job even with his enthusiastic pursuit. His next-door neighbor Lamar (Cedric the Entertainer) directs him towards getting a college education by handing him, and trying to sell him, a (free) local community college schedule.

Larry enrolls in college and upon a dean’s direction enrolls in three courses: speech, writing and economics. His brain expands as he seriously jumps into his courses. He develops real skill in speaking to an audience in, “The Art of Informal Remarks,” taught by Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts), who is burned out both with teaching and with marriage (you can see part of where this is going, since it is a romantic comedy).

In Dr. Matsutani’s (George Takai) economics class Larry gets a wake-up call about his real financial situation and the wise though unpleasant moves he must make. Among many economists’ terms he learns to use, the phrase, “a strategic foreclosure,” has practical utility. His social life expands as he encounters a wide variety of folk so typical of what one encounters today in thousands of community colleges across the land, from kids not even clear why they are there to middle agers who are desperately focused on redirecting significant areas of their life trajectory.

The movies that please me most usually have some memorable quotes that get my attention. Here are some examples.

Larry bemoans having two years ago at his divorce bought his wife’s half of the house at its pre great recession value, and Cedric responds:

“I told you how to avoid divorce lawyers. You get married and you stay married.”

On the subject of his life trajectory being completely overturned by these events beyond his control:

“You are starting over. Manifest destiny has led you someplace else.”

And in response to the nonsensical reason Larry was given as to why he was let go:

“The man wanted you gone.”

In tough love verbal prods from fellow faculty member and friend Frances (Pam Grier) to Mercy, trudging through divorce and career disillusionment,:

“There’s not a woman in the world that has not been standing where you are right now.”

And

“When a man shows his true colors that’s when a woman has to make the decision to go or no go.”

From Larry, speaking of the delightful free spirit Talia who has so uninvitedly impacted his life for the better:

“She’s a unique bundle.”

Larry responds to Mercy’s late-night inebriated poor impulse control:

“It’s now time for both of us to do the right thing.”

And then when much later she thanks him for keeping that to himself his response is:

“I can keep a secret.”

Mercy, “Gentlemen do”.

In Larry’s speech to the class he gives a very appropriate George Bernard Shaw quote:

“A fool’s brain digests philosophy into folly, science into superstition, art into pedantry. Hence University education.”

In addition to making money, movies are made with a variety of motivations. If one of the goals of this movie was to, almost stealthily, stimulate in the viewer an interest in the possibilities offered by your local community college, then it is highly successful. I found it a light, very enjoyable and refreshing movie from beginning to end. I love the very optimistic message that wherever you are in life, if your body and mind can still function you can redirect and create a far better life for yourself. And in the process you can influence others in the same direction. Way to go Lance Corona, er, Larry Crowne!

Recognition! Beautiful

john nash 2

“John was obnoxious but had a beautiful mind,” was the description of John Nash quoted by his decades long friend, mathematician Harold Kuhn. This gave the name to the award-winning 2002 film about John, “A Beautiful Mind.” You perhaps heard recently the sad news of the deaths of John and his wife Alicia in an automobile accident, returning home from the airport after having spent the week in Norway to receive the prestigious Abel prize in mathematics.

CBS news.com has re-posted a 2002 Mike Wallace, Peter Klein interview with John and Alecia and others close to the couple. This interview is fascinating for several reasons but I’m focusing here on one very telling comment made by Harold Kuhn.

At one point in the interview John’s decades long struggle with schizophrenia and it’s reducing him for many years to essentially the status of a non-communicative street person was being discussed. The Nobel committee, strongly prompted by Kuhn, initiated contact with Nash which ultimately led to his being awarded the Nobel prize in 1994. Mathematicians had long known of Nash’ significant contribution to the field but Nash had been left with his own solitary dysfunction. In referring to the change that had come over John since having his rehabilitation aided by the recognition that had finally come his Way, Harold Kuhn said, “Recognition is a cure for many ills. Absolutely. John was a person who wouldn’t meet your eyes. After the prize he was a changed man. People would meet him on the street at Princeton and he would react and answer. It made the difference. And it continues.”

Absolutely essential in raising a healthy child and critical to continued healthy adult functioning is being recognized as a genuine human being by other humans one encounters in moving through life. One of the biggest problems with consigning a person to an institution is the likelihood that the reduced contact with people at large as well as being treated as an institutionalized person will create new difficulties for such an individual as well as likely exacerbate the initial difficulties that led to his being institutionalized in the first place.

One of the changes brought about by family therapy is that frequently the identified patient that brings the family in has become marginalized, seemingly due to troublesome behavior, so that a syndrome has been set up which feeds on itself. The therapist, usually recognizing what’s going on, begins to guide changes in the interaction patterns of the family members so that the identified patient begins to have the feeling of being accepted and even being understood in a way he had not felt before. This change in his emotions becomes a strong element in his being able to modify his troublesome behavior and become recognized and appreciated in his family for the positive contributions he is then making.

For all of us to be psychologically healthy, functioning humans we need to receive from other humans at least acknowledgment, some basic recognition from those about us that we are fellow human beings. In addition it is very important that we receive acceptance, to be included in a certain group of other humans.All of us want recognition, to be acknowledged. Even very private people thrive under the contact and acceptance they get from whomever in their lives are important to them. It is crucial for parents of teenagers to be keenly aware that recognition and acceptance by people outside the family are more crucial at this stage in life than any other time. A teenager is driven to belong. Failing to receive acceptance from more healthy groups will lead him to search about until he finds a place of belonging, even if his chosen friends are alarming to his parents.

The third need is to receive appreciation for positive contributions we are making to the group. The fourth step up is affection, words and treatment from others that show that people do like us and even some love us. Lastly, we hunger to have at least some people approve of who we are and what we are doing. A true conundrum for parents so often is that, though teenagers seemingly are so wounded by parents’ strong disapproval of some of their behaviors, they seem so bent on doing the very behaviors that caring parents are simply forced to disapprove.

There is a natural progression from the least intimate of human contact, from acknowledgment to acceptance to appreciation and to affection as the most intimate. Approval is woven in various amounts through the first four events. One of the real challenges of parenting is to see that each child is always aware of how powerfully he is loved even when the parent is having to confront the child with strong disapproval of specific behaviors. That this has long been recognized by parents is the phrase that children of all generations have dreaded to hear, “This hurts me more than it does you.”

As parents we set the pattern for how each child is perceived by other human beings. Acknowledgment, acceptance, appreciation, affection and approval all five are deep needs that every child yearns for his parents to supply. Supplying these five creates a deep sense of security in the child which continues to pay rich dividends through all the following years.

Spy Fun

spy poster melissa“Spy” is a James Bond genre action film with all the frenetic combat, special gadgets and exotic European locations you have come to expect from these offerings. The two huge exceptions are that our undercover superagent is plus size woman Susan Cooper, played by Melissa McCarthy, and the film is a hilarious comedy! McCarthy has been referred to as the funniest woman in the world and she certainly doesn’t disappoint here.

The basic setup is that Cooper is a highly trained CIA field agent who, because of her size and being a woman, has a career limited to sitting at a desk and feeding information to the strikingly handsome male superhero Bradley Fine (Jude Law) we would expect in such a film. When the situation offers an opportunity, events take a dramatic turn with our heroine being released upon the world to perform her nonstop hilarity and over-the-top physical feats as she vigorously confronts the minions of evil.

“Spy” includes a bit of the real-life poignancy of a person held back by society’s preconceptions. These moments of vulnerability are handled deftly by McCarthy and before things can get preachy the hilarious action wraps it all in great fun.

McCarthy has always been crashing through the stereotypes most would have for her, by refusing to assume these should have anything to do with her choices. She’s become quite a role model whether or not she intended to. She certainly can be taken seriously as a comedienne. I wouldn’t be surprised if she could handle some really serious drama. Way to go, Melissa!

Married At First Sight, S’more

jaciyn ryan

As you watched the installments of “Married At First Sight” which of the couples did you think had the best chance of creating a successful marriage, which did you think would fail and what were the things you observed that led you to those expectations?

For an American-style marriage to have the best chance of being successful it must have three things in addition to true romantic love (more on this later). Each of the marital partners must be sane, stable and mature, or as the famous phrase puts it, “of sound mind.” There must also be a natural compatibility with a significant overlap of common interest and views.

Lastly they must be able to communicate openly and honestly with each other and consistently use those skills in continually building a deeper relationship as well as resolving issues that most certainly will continue to arise as time passes. You look at each of these four areas when performing an autopsy of a marriage that has died.

davina sean

True romantic love consists of physical sexual attraction, idealization of the other person and some time spent in a relationship to see that these two remain strong or perhaps increase. Where either partner finds the other one physically disappointing or unappealing there’s a good likelihood that true romantic love will be a long time in coming if it ever does appear. Likewise if the character traits a partner attributes to the other in the flush of sexual excitement turn out not to be true then the disappointment will likely end the appeal.

If there is lust and idealization but as time spent together unfolds there is less joy at being together or outright desire to avoid company there’s little hope for the future. Many are the times that at least one partner has reached this place fairly early in the relationship, being ready to end it, only to find they have already become pregnant.

Marriage is not for children or for those in emotional turmoil. It is for those who have successfully dealt with the issues created in childhood and adolescence and are now firmly rooted in adulthood. It is for those who are comfortable in their own skin, who have come to terms with the insecurities growing up tends to give us.Also, marriage is for a free agent, unencumbered by emotional entanglements in a previous relationship.

jessica ryan

For those who haven’t become this stable the stresses of making the intimate relationship of marriage work will generally prove overwhelming. Also, people who have not yet matured in the ways described above will invariably be looking for marriage to cure their problems since the early rush of romance makes one feel accepted, understood and loved. What marriage will most likely do is simply set the unresolved issues in sharper relief.

It is readily understood that two people being compatible means that they get along well together, work well together. Most likely there are common interests and common sociological factors such as age, socioeconomic class and education level. In this way similarity is a large factor in compatibility.

What is less understood is that compatibility is one of many personality traits and that people vary significantly on how easily they are to be compatible with a variety of people. The more approachable and more accepting of others a person is the more likely he or she is to be able to be compatible with a larger group of individuals. The more demanding the criteria for someone else being acceptable and the more rigidly these criteria are applied the smaller the number of people with whom compatibility can occur.

A significant contributor to compatibility can be real differences between people if each find the differences intriguing, fascinating, bringing different strengths to the relationship and being sources of mutual banter. It is a real warning sign is one person in a relationship typically seeing a partners differences as being wrong or inferior and pressuring the partner to change and “be like I am”.

For any relationship, business, friendship or romance to have a thriving future there must be communication, some sharing of thoughts, desires and feelings among the parties involved. All the differences in these areas will be causes for misunderstanding, confusion and friction, since all individuals are so different one from another. Failing to share what one wants and why one thinks that’s the better way to go virtually guarantees a partner misunderstanding and attributing inferior motives, becoming emotionally upset and more readily giving up on the relationship. Most marriages that end in divorce could not only have continued but also have been much more vibrant to the individuals involved had they possessed better communication skills and never threw in the towel on trying to connect on all the important issues of their life together. As it has been said, when you are talking about the relationship the conversation is not just an aside, the conversation is the relationship.

In watching couples’ relationships unfold as you have in “Marriage At First Sight” you can likely peg where the good intentions ran off the track. It was lacking in one or more of these four criteria for a successful marriage: true romantic love, stable individuals, strong compatibility and ceaseless effective communication. How do you see it?

Doing The Extremely Smart Thing

buds and donkeyOn the subject of doing the smart thing in terms of cold impersonal economic considerations, the RAND Corporation this week released the results of an in-depth study on the potential billions in economic gain for Israel and the Palestinians if a two state solution could be reached, contrasted with the far greater economic cost of returning to open conflict. The fact that open warfare in any region is far more destructive economically than negotiated accords should be surprising to no one. What the very rational RAND Corporation report spells out is the actual billions to be gained or lost by following each of five possible scenarios the two sides could follow in dealing with their differences.

On a much smaller scale we have witnessed in millions of cases how much economic benefit a couple and a family would achieve by negotiating their differences rather than going into the open warfare called divorce, as in “The War of the Roses”. From a strictly financial perspective enormous amounts of family income are spent on the legal processes of getting a divorce, followed by the ongoing economic hit of having to maintain two separate residences rather than one. Most typically each marital partner, to say nothing of the children, experience a significant drop in their lifestyle as a result of going the divorce route.

I have more than once begun working with a couple who after a very few sessions announced they couldn’t afford therapy to resolve their differences but immediately each shelled out $10,000 retainers to family attorneys to just begin the process of coming apart legally. The people who most obviously immediately gain from the divorce epidemic are the family law attorneys and the owners of apartment complexes. And this is considering merely the cold hard financial facts, giving no attention to the staggering emotional hit experienced by each member of the family.

You don’t need a RAND Corporation paper to show how much better each side would be if dialogue could achieve a workable relationship rather than going to open warfare. This is true most obviously in today’s Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and other Middle Eastern nations where entire infrastructures are reduced to rubble, turning developed nations into living Hells.

Once again, wouldn’t doing the smart thing really be doing the right thing?