Confessions of a positive cynic

 To those who can’t figure out how someone like your editor, whom Marion Barry once called a “cynical cat,” can favor, for example, the positive teaching of multiculturalism over only telling the history of racism, this excerpt from an article I wrote in 2000 helps to explain it.

Sam Smith – To view our times as decadent and dangerous, to mistrust the government, to imagine that those in power as not concerned with our best interests is not paranoid but perceptive; to be depressed, angry, or confused about such things is not delusional but a sign of consciousness.

Yet our culture suggests otherwise. If all this is true, then why not despair? The simple answer is this: despair is the suicide of imagination. Whatever evil reality presses upon us, there still remains the possibility of imagining something better, and in this dream remains the frontier of our humanity and its possibilities. To despair is to voluntarily close a door that has not yet shut.

The task is to bear knowledge without it destroying ourselves, to challenge the wrong without ending up on its casualty list. “You don’t have to change the world,” Colman McCarthy has argued. “Just keep the world from changing you.” Oddly, those who instinctively understand this best are often those who seem to have the least reason to do so- survivors of abuse, oppression, and isolation who somehow discover not so much how to beat the odds, but how to wriggle around them. They have, without formal instruction, learned two of the most fundamental lessons of psychology, philosophy, and religion:

These individuals move through life like a skilled mariner in a storm rather than as a victim at a sacrifice. Relatively unburdened by pointless and debilitating guilt about the past, uninterested in the endless regurgitation of the unalterable, they free themselves to concentrate upon the present and the future. They face the gale as a sturdy combatant rather than as cowering supplicant.

Judith Herman, a specialist in psychological trauma, says the most important principles of recovery for abused persons are “restoring power, choice and control ” and helping them reconnect with the people who are important to them. In short: choice and community. Survivors understand this implicitly even if they can’t or don’t express it. My friend Steven Wolin is a psychiatrist who has been particularly interested in children of alcoholics. In The Resilient Self, which he wrote with his wife Sybil,  Wolin described his training:

“In my psychiatric residency that followed medical school, I glibly applied the terminology of physical disease to the ‘disorders’ of behavior and the mind. Eventually, I became so immersed in pathology that I no longer even used the word healthy. Instead, I conceived of health as the absence of illness and referred to people who were well as “asymptotic,” “nonclinical,” “unhospitalized,” or “have no severe disturbance.” In retrospect, the worst offender was the term “unidentified,” as if the only way I could know a person was by his or her sickness. The peculiar vocabulary that my colleagues and I used to describe our patients reflected our meager regard for the forces that keep people healthy.” 

Wolin would come to call this the “damage model,” in which “pathologies are layered on pathologies, and eventually the survivor is no better off than his or her troubled parents.”But slowly, both in his research and therapy, he found what the profession calls “clinical failures,” which is to say that the damage model didn’t hold up. Not only did Wolin discover that the transmission of addictive drinking from parent to child was not as predictable as he had expected, not only did some of the children surprisingly satisfying lives, but the prescribed therapeutic techniques did not always work as well as they might. Among the reasons: there was too much focus on the past and not enough on how to build a future”

Instead of being energized, some survivors fell into what Wolin calls the “victim’s trap” The model overemphasized pain at the expense of possibility, causing some survivors, who had left the past behind, to begin feeling like walking time bombs trapped by the inference that family problems inevitably repeat themselves from generation to generation.

Some of Wolin’s patients had done extremely well on their own. Among their techniques: not dwelling on the past, not blaming their parents, and not becoming victims.They had discovered and built on their own strengths, deliberately improved upon their parents’ lifestyles, consciously married into strong families, and replaced memories of bad family gatherings with satisfying rituals of their own.

Out of this tough and honest reevaluation of his own work, Wolin and his wife, a developmental psychologist specializing in children with school problems, came up with what they called the “challenge model” in which the experience of damage is balanced by conscious and unconscious resiliency, in which trouble is not denied but neither is it allowed to rule. Steven and Sybil Wolin list some ways in which survivors reframe personal stories in order to rise above the troubles of their past: insight, independence, relationships, initiative, humor, creativity, and morality. Survivors often strike out on their own, find other adults to help them when their own family fails them, and reject their parents’ image of themselves.

The book is not only a personal guide for those who are or would be survivors. It is, whether intended or not, also a political guide. After all, our country and culture often stand in locus parentis and many of the pathologies we associate with families are mirrored and magnified in the larger society. Yet when we seek political therapy we repeatedly run up against a damage model enticing or forcing whole communities or groups into victimhood and leading them towards blame or surrender rather than resilience. If insight, independence, relationships, initiative, humor, creativity, and morality form sturdy support for personal resilience, might they not also serve us collectively as the abused offspring of a culture chronically drunk on its own power and conceits?