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?

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.

How important is your ZIP code for your child?

San Francisco“Right now the biggest predictor of how a child will do in life is the ZIP Code in which they are born,” according to Eva Gladstein head of Philadelphia’s Office of Community Empowerment as reported at CBSnews.com. One of the major global demographic trends for well over a century has been the movement of people from rural areas to urban areas. Their driving impetus as reported by sociologists who study the phenomenon is that they are looking for a better life for themselves and a better future for their children. For most of them it seems that even living in urban squalor is superior to staying in poverty-stricken rural areas.

The rural heartland of America has for decades been losing its population to nearby cities. The standard practice since World War II is for children growing up in rural areas to go off to the nearest city for work and education and never return to the rural areas.

The accompanying major trend is the movement from inner-city to the outer rings to improve life and provide a better future for children. One of the main concerns of parents today in choosing where to live, if they feel like they have the choice, is where they can get the best education for their children along with the most desirable subcultural surroundings for them to grow up in. This is what wise parents do.

Since so much of child rearing is the non-deliberate influence on children from their surrounding sub culture starting with the parents, going to other adults then to their peers, the choice of where to have your children grow up is vitally important in shaping how their lives will turn out.

I would suggest – and I think the data would back it up – that after the ZIP Code in which you were born being of most critical importance, the ZIP Code to which you move as soon as possible with the greatest opportunity for your family and your children would be a close second as a predictor of how your child will do in life.

Dating Insight From an Arranged Marriage Mom

momIn a delightful post in NYMag.com, Beejoli Shah portrays the challenges a young person faces in America when she comes from an Asian culture of arranged marriages such as her parents had back in the 70s. The first thing that struck me was that her mother seems to have accepted her daughter choosing her own marriage mate through the American institution of dating. Beejoli then humorously portrays herself as a very boy crazy girl growing into a  romance obsessed young lady, all the time sharing her travails with her mother. Her mother somewhat surprisingly seems to be the very model of a mother who keeps the lines of communication fully open between her and her adventurous daughter by restraining herself from attempting to berate or control her high-spirited daughter. Rather, at the appropriate time, mom shares pithy observations about the realities singles face in the American find- your- future- mate- through- dating world. Mom’s advice seems amazingly spot on through the years of her daughter’s delightedly becoming fascinated with first one exciting male then another. It seems that Beejoli needs to learn everything by experience, with mother by contrast seeming to have the uncanny ability to learn all the same lessons, not by having to personally experience them, but by keen observation. I call that wisdom.

Even though daughter doesn’t seem ready to accept mom’s advice before diving headlong into the next questionable relationship, she shows great wisdom in keeping open the lines of communication with mom and in willingly recognizing each time mom’s observations prove eerily accurate. Parents who come from arranged marriage cultures face a real challenge in how to respond to their own children being so strongly influenced by the dating and mate selection behavior of their American peers. Beejoli’s mom seems to portray one of the more successful ways of responding to this powerful challenge. Perhaps mom should also be writing a blog, obviously being of help to dating singles but also likely offering some real understanding and support for other parents, especially those in arranged marriages, navigating these treacherous waters with their adventuresome children. Can we hear from mom?

Failure to Launch?

Terry-KathySarah-MatthewThe news that came out this week reported that over a third of 18 to 30-year-olds were living at home with their parents. The most typical reason given for this continued rise over the last few years is the difficulty twentysomethings are having finding adequate employment to be out on their own. What most people are unaware of is that, for the last quarter of a century, a sizable minority of twentysomethings have been living at home anyway, rather than moving out on their own.

For the last 60 years the desired pattern for American families was for children to grow up through high school and perhaps college, move out, get a job, get married, have children and establish their own new nuclear families. The majority of young people did that, so that the prevailing American family was composed of two generations – parents and growing children. However, the primary family structure throughout all of human history, until very recently, has been three or four generations living together on the same plot of ground so that you had young people being married and having babies and raising them, but living with their grandparents and frequently great-grandparents. In these cultures, children grew up and largely repeated the occupations and lifestyle of their parents, and inherited the property as the parents became too old to work or died. This type of continued extended family involvement over one’s lifetime fit well with the practice of having marriages arranged and approved by parents. Our typical American desire to pick our own marital partners fits well with the prevailing American pattern of a married couple moving out on their own, having children and starting their own new nuclear family.

Like so many social phenomena, there are pros and cons to having three or more generations living together. There’s certainly a significant economic benefit to be gained by having adult children living at home, instead of having to generate enough money to support a separate residence, with all the attendant expenses. There’s also the benefit of these new adults continuing to interact closely with their parents while the parents hopefully continue to have some wise influence on the decision making and behavior of their enthusiastic, and frequently risk-taking, offspring. Also, when babies are born and toddlers are around, it helps to have more adult hands share in the care and rearing of this next generation. If all the adults are seen as truly being adult and living responsible lives, the grandparents of these new children are likely to really enjoy having their grandchildren around as they grow up.

However, when the prevailing view in the extended family is that the twentysomethings are merely staying home to delay entering responsible adulthood, worry tends to be the order of the day, at least for the older generation which is aiding and abetting what comes to be seen as an extended childhood. This adds an unhappiness, which tends to erode whatever benefits might otherwise be gained from continued living together. Where each adult is seen as being responsible and productive, and where good communication and appropriate behavior exists, there’s a good likely the extended time together will be valuable for all.

In the movie, “Failure to Launch,” Matthew McConnaughy plays a twentysomething only son who loves living at home with his parents, is responsibly employed outside the home, and spends all his time and income enthusiastically pursuing entertaining activities with his friends and their adult toys, including having no intention, for the foreseeable future, of finding an appropriate mate and getting married. This worries his parents so much that they hire Sarah Jessica Parker to woo their son into wanting marriage. This wacky idea is then played out with comedy and drama, and some unexpected nudity, among the mother, father, son and girlfriend, with much reaction along the way from each one’s running buddies.

With each generation since World War II waiting longer and longer for first marriage, and yet getting education and going to work, this movie is simply one look at a real option that many twentysomethings are choosing, as they are delaying choosing a marriage partner and even, by delaying long enough, choosing not to become married at all.

Children Are Competent

baby on laptopA friend of mine, an energetic young grandmother whom I see frequently, shared with me something that happened to her mother the previous week. For a variety of reasons the story needs to be told. Here’s the story in the great-grandmother’s words.

“I am a great-grandmother in rural North Texas living with my granddaughter and husband and their two children, a three-year-old daughter and a one-year-old son. We had recently moved into a home that was nice but needs repairs. I was babysitting on a particular day, the grandson was napping and I went to the restroom. I stepped on a certain part of the floor and it gave way and I was trapped. The next thing I remembered was my great-granddaughter rubbing my cheeks and saying, ‘Grandma, what’s wrong? ‘ over and over. I realized I was sitting on one leg and the other leg was down in the floor. So all this time the little girl kept asking, ‘What’s wrong?’ I said, ‘I’m stuck. I need my phone.’ So she went to my room, dug into my purse till she found the phone, opened it and saw the red light. She crawled under my bed, unplugged the charger, brought the phone to me, then got up on the back of the toilet, plugged in the charger, pushed 911 and handed me the phone. I told the operator where I was and what had happened. Soon three fire departments, with about 10 firemen, showed up at my home. They pulled me up from the hole and we all went to the hospital.

My granddaughter is a very special little girl. She will always have a special place in my heart. As for me, I was fine when released from the hospital, nothing broken – just my pride. But one thing I know for sure, it would have been a lot worse if she hadn’t been there with me. This just shows little kids can do anything and learn anything if taught, but most things are learned just by watching.”

Obviously, this is a bright little girl. She had been taught by her parents how to use a phone. With no help from anyone she turns on the phone, uses the phone and takes pictures with it. The adults have long noticed how quickly she learns by merely observing what they are doing. The minds of children, even this young, are like voracious sponges soaking up the world they’re living in. It’s a mistake for parents to think little children won’t notice what’s going on, won’t think about it or won’t take it to heart. Like the parents of this little girl, we need to see to it that from a very young age a child knows important information, such as names and numbers, and how to perform any number of ordinary tasks that the adults can perform.

Kids learn constantly by observing the behavior of the parents and other adults. The combination of the examples we are setting for our children, coupled with our verbal instructions and explanations and allowing the children to begin to perform all the standard tasks as soon as they can exercise any ability in that direction, makes the fullest use of inquisitive young minds and adds a significant safety factor to the events of a child’s life.