THINKING ABOUT WHAT MATTERS

TO TRY OR NOT TO TRY

…chance encounters play a prominent role in shaping the course of human lives.”

Albert Bandura

Did you ever observe to whom the accidents happen? Chance favors only the prepared mind.”

Louis Pasteur

Remove the word trying from your vocabulary. You’re either doing it or you’re not.

Ralph Marston as retweeted by PDiddy

The see-saw of human life, one  ridden by all the advice givers, lives in these three quotes.  I find the push to visualize and just do  harmful–trying is the journey and sadly the final destination is not totally in your hands.   Soon to be 74,  I have had my 15 minutes of fame–was on Oprah and have two published books.    Being on Oprah didn’t parley into financial success, nor did my books become best sellers.  AND YES,  that is partly due to my inability to sell myself, but also partly due to life and all the various  powers I did not control.   AND YES, I AM STILL TRYING AND STILL HOPING.

One of the most destructive forces in a person’s life is something the experts call “learned helplessness.”  Repeated failures l eventually leads to not trying–happens in laboratory mice and in human beings.  I worked for years in Mott Haven in the Bronx, NY,  one of the poorest neighborhoods in the United States.  Every September the streets would be filled in the morning with happy sparkling five and six-year olds heading to school for the very first time.  Happy hopeful parents held their hands.

Soon, however,  the referrals to the Mental Health Program I directed would start growing and always the problems were school related for the sad fact of life is that not every child can do school as the schools wish.   As one psychiatrist I worked with who directed a crisis team noted, “School drives kids crazy.”   Referrals to his program and to mine were almost non-existent during the summer.

Some of the referrals to my service were the same five and six-year olds who had entered school so joyously a few weeks or months before.  Others were the fourth and fifth graders who tried hard but now were failing for any number of reasons, and a final group were the teenage drop-outs.   All had tried and all had parents who also tried.  We helped some, others dropped out of our program.  Individual mental health counseling cannot overcome the trauma of living in poverty or failing in school.

For fourteen years before I became the director of the Mott Haven program,  I was a foster parent offering temporary care to teens in trouble with the law.  Most stayed with us for only a few weeks, some a bit longer by the time we stopped being foster parents over  300 acting out teens lived with  my husband and I in our  home as members of our family.  My book When Good Kids Do Bad Things detailed the lessons I learned from my hundreds of  foster children.   Lessons I had not learned in my previous training as a therapist.   Our foster children fell  into two categories–the protesting but still trying.  Their children’s  protests took the form of angry acting out against parents, school, or the law.  These were the kids smart enough to know the fault was not all theirs.  The second group of kids were generally the more lost,  some were suicidal, others were using drugs or alcohol to mute the pain of the not  being  loved,  failing  in school, or trying to survive the trauma of  living in violent environments–repeated trauma teaches learned helplessness.

Because of my foster children’s learned helplessness,  I became an enemy of saying as Oprah does  “If I did it anyone can.” Sorry Oprah, not every one can.  Thinking hard work is enough allows those who make it to embrace moral superiority and those who don’t to carry the burden of blame.  True most of my foster children eventually settled down to live lives as “normal” as most other people–such is the strength of human nature and the added help of chance,  fate, or faith.

At the same time in time many were lost to suicide,  institutional care including prison, or didn’t make it in more trivial ways.   Such is the burden of believing you are the master or mistress of your fate.  So I remain an enemy of “Just do it.”

Instead I preach a more moderate and probably less inspiring song:  Know your strengths, your weaknesses, your passions.     Pursue  your passions for the pleasure of pursuit.    Hope for material success, but know it is subject to the winds of chance.  Be grateful when you can.  Be as  kind as you can.  Make peace not war within yourself and with others as often as you can.  Success lies in these things not in wealth or fame.

Men are sometimes masters of their fates.

William Shakespeare

Life is like a game of cards.  The hand you are dealt is determinism; the way you play it is free will.

Jawaharlal Nehru


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