Monthly Archives: October 2015

Meditation on Fear and Fiction

“Fairytales teach children that the world is fraught with danger, including life-threatening danger; but by being clever (always), honest (as a rule, but with common-sense exceptions), courteous (especially to the elderly, no matter their apparent social station), and kind (to anyone in obvious need), even a child can succeed where those who seem more qualified have failed.

And this precisely what children most need to hear.

To let them go on believing that the world is safe, that they will be provided for and achieve worthwhile things even if they remain stupid, shirk integrity, despise courtesy, and act only from self-interest, that they ought to rely on those stronger, smarter, and more able to solve their problems, would be the gravest disservice: to them, and to society as a whole.

“On the Supposed Unsuitability of Fairytales for Children”
J. Aleksandr Wootton

children's adventures

Starving in a Grocery Store


My husband has taken to telling my children that they would starve in a grocery store.  By this he means that for intelligent individuals they often seem quite helpless.  Although both can do things on computers that I can’t, they sometimes seem stymied by things that involve the physical use of their own hands and eyes.  And they are impatient.  Despite being able to conceive creative projects and determine how to make them they sometimes end up with a disappointing facsimile of their idea simply because they are unwilling to let the paint dry between coats.  Obviously some of their impulsivity can be attributed to youth, but it seems to me that it is also characteristic of individuals who are being raised in a push-button society.

There is a scene in one of the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” movies in which a teenager locks his brother in the basement of their home.  The younger boy looks frantically around for some way to call for help or escape.  There on a table is a telephone.  He picks up the receiver tentatively and finds it has a dial tone.  He is momentarily elated- until he is unable to find any buttons to use to dial.  Tragically, it is a rotary phone -and he can’t figure out how to use it.  That episode is, of course, an exaggeration – one at which my own children take great offense.  They tell me that they know what such remnants of the ancient 1980s are – but I have observed that asking them to use them is a different story.  They are not alone.  I see this attitude among many people who would rather wait out a power outage rather than attempt paperwork using actual paper.  It’s not that we don’t know how, it’s just that we don’t know why we should.

Perhaps it’s because we don’t have to.  When I was a child, my favorite books were about children who found themselves in unusual and challenging circumstances that forced them to be courageous and ingenious.  While they inevitably made mistakes, they also invariably triumphed over their adverse situations, emerging from them wiser and more mature.  Fiction?  Yes – but aspirational fiction.  I have heard people argue that today’s fiction for children and young adults is too dystopian and grim, but I don’t think that’s true.  “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” trilogies focus on future worlds that are systemically unjust and casually violent, but they are no more dangerous than Middle Earth or Narnia.  They present thorny moral dilemmas and seemingly impossible situations that require their protagonists to ponder moral issues and find creative solutions in the same way that Trixie Belden and the Hardy Boys did.  And Tris and Katniss are no more without adults to intervene than pretty much any Disney princess – none of whose mothers appear to survive their childhoods (think about it and wonder as I do if Walt Disney had mother issues).  The difference is not in the books.  The difference is in our willingness to allow our children to encounter situations that challenge them in similar, if less dangerous, ways.

That’s easy to say but, given the choice of safety or moral learning most parents (including me) will choose safety every time – and I’m sure my parents felt the same way.  It is not the value but the definition of “safe” parenting that has changed.  When I was a child, I was allowed to “go play” after completing my homework.  I knew where I was permitted to go, what I could and could not do – and what would happen if I got caught doing it.  Those were my boundaries. Today’s children play in play groups.  They are driven to and from structured after school activities.  Permission slips are needed for church activities.  Some of these changes are good and necessary.  It is not unreasonable to refuse to leave your children with an adult simply because s/he is an authority figure.  We know that some teachers, scout leaders and priests have abused the trust placed in them.  But is our level of caution necessary overall?

According to Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics, between the years that I was five and thirteen years-old violent crime in the United States rose from three-tenths of one percent to two percent.  In the state where I lived, it rose from one-tenth of one percent to almost half of one percent.  When my daughter was five, the national violent crime rate was four percent but dropped back to three percent by the time she was thirteen.  In the state where she lived, it dropped from five-tenths of one percent when she was five to four-tenths of one percent when she was thirteen.[1]  Put simply, the national violent crime rate was an average of one percent higher during my daughter’s childhood than my own.  So what gave me the idea that she was far more likely to be kidnapped or molested than I had been?

I would suggest that it is the result of something that I (paraphrasing Freud) think of as “media availability hysteria.”  While my parents read the newspaper and watched network television, thanks to omnipresent news and opinion feeds, parents today are faced with reports of violent crime everywhere they go.  The information highway is one long terror-filled trip for parents who are primed by talk shows, Facebook posts, and blogs to find evidence that they are inadequate to the task of keeping their children safe.  FDR told our parents and grandparents that there was nothing to fear but fear itself; we have learned and have subsequently taught our own children that there is nothing to trust but fear itself.  We don’t know how to deal with things not because we’re lazy but because we’re frightened.

There is a wonderful book called, “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee,”[2] which suggests that it is necessary for children to experience some adversity in order to become both self-reliant and morally competent.  Ethical reasoning cannot simply be taught; it requires experience.  Psychologists now suggest that efforts to shield our children from harm may actually hurt them in the long-run.  Making sure they get straight “A”s by doing work for them may get them into a good college, but it will not help them survive when they arrive there.[3]  Cheering on Harry, Percy, and Alina may provide them with an intellectual understanding of self-sufficiency and moral courage, but it won’t give them the strength to make hard choices themselves.  And teaching them that everything they need is available with the push of a button encourages them to be both insular and helpless.  The problem is not “out there.”  It is in us.  We are victims of our own protectiveness.  The truth is that struggle is good for the soul.  Continuing to guard those we love by keeping them from adversity is not benefitting anyone.  In our zeal to make life easier and safer we have made ourselves vulnerable to our own incompetence.  I’m not suggesting that technology or mass communication is bad; I am arguing that overdependence on it is.  Keep right on using electric can openers and voice-activated cell phones – but think about how we might behave if the power went off permanently.  Especially if we were in a grocery store at the time.

[1]United States Department of Justice, “Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics,”

[2]Wendy Mogel, (2008), The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, (New York: Scribner).

[3]Carolyn Carpeneti, “I’m ready for college but I can’t find my backpack,”

A Meditation on Incarceration




It’s easy for our inner eye to produce images of their faces:




But our inner eye is flawed

because we fail to see the vulnerabilities

of those we believe we are vulnerable to:




Victimizers – true –

but also victims –

victims of their own impulses,

their own ignorance,

their own fears.

They were once us

or might become us

if we allow it –

but locks don’t educate;

bars don’t heal

and corrections don’t correct.

Only seeing with clear eyes –

with eyes of compassion –

can do that.

Judas window

We rehabilitate inmates, don’t we? 

October 18, 2015

I used to work for the California Department of Corrections (CDC).  My employment there ended when we moved to a different state.  We returned to California six years later to find that the CDC had been re-Christened “The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).”  Not having been here when the change was made, I don’t know if it was an administrative, political or public relations-driven switch, but whatever the reason for it, I cannot help but think that this rebranding was aspirational in nature.  Because in my experience – and in that of colleagues I know who still work for the system – the California corrections system is not about rehabilitation.

Prison is first and foremost about survival.  While it’s true that many of the individuals who are incarcerated lived difficult lives on “the outside,”[1] life “inside” requires mental and emotional adjustments that most of us could not imagine having to make.  Anyone who’s watched an episode of “Law and Order” has some sense of the horrific brutality that can occur in prison settings, but I think that very few of us have spared a thought for the simple deprivations that make the idea of rehabilitation during incarceration not only a misnomer, but a tragic farce.  Make no mistake: I am not minimizing the fact that the majority of incarcerated individuals are imprisoned because of their own behaviors, and I certainly believe that many of these individuals cannot safely function in society.  I am not (currently) addressing the issue of who should be incarcerated.  I am merely suggesting that America’s prisons lack both the capacity and will to rehabilitate their residents.

This is clearly evident when we explore medical statistics for incarcerated persons.  According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2011-12, over 40 percent of state and federal prisons and jail inmates were identified as having chronic medical conditions.[2]  In addition, the majority of 74 percent of prisoners in state and federal prisons and 62 percent of jail inmates were described as overweight or obese.[3]  It’s easy to argue that these statistics have little meaning to the general public.  After all, as I have heard many people argue, these people have committed crimes against society – if they are overweight and unhealthy it is of no concern to the general public.  It is if you pay taxes.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that in 2013 states spent almost 50 billion dollars on corrections.[4]  That’s approximately thirty thousand dollars per inmate.  When inmates are unhealthy, those costs increase.  When inmates are mentally ill or addicted to drugs or alcohol, the total spending goes up again.  And many inmates have these issues.  Estimates vary, but it is generally agreed upon that the rate of mental illness in prisons is at least five times that of the general population.[5]  Similarly, at least half of incarcerated individuals are classified as substance abusers.[6]  And while prisons and jails are legally mandated to provide medical treatment to inmates with illnesses, they are not obligated to teach them how to maintain healthy lifestyles.

But not doing so represents a missed opportunity.  According to CBS News, approximately half of U.S. inmates reoffend within three years of release from incarceration.[7]  That’s because these individuals are generally returned to the same bad environments they inhabited with the same lack of care and/or bad habits they exhibited when they were locked up.  Despite evidence that demonstrates that individuals who receive substance abuse treatment while incarcerated are less likely to reoffend, states are more likely to cut than enhance such programming.[8]  The statistics for mentally ill individuals are similar.[9]  And it’s just common sense to realize that rates for diabetes and heart disease decrease when individuals exercise and eat well and the frequency of sexually transmitted diseases goes down when people are educated about high risk behaviors.  In other words, if inmates were truly “rehabilitated” in prison they might have a chance of fighting the negative behaviors and influences that brought about their criminal behavior in the first place.

The fact that they are not is neither cost-effective nor humane.  Mentally ill inmates not only receive inadequate mental health treatment in prison but they are often released into the community without being linked to community assistance.[10]  Substance abusers go right back to committing crimes both while using and in order to buy illegal drugs.  And chronically ill and obese inmates return to the streets without jobs, skills or the wherewithal to obtain health care – meaning that when their conditions deteriorate they are forced to go to emergency departments for treatment.

The really sad part is that there are programs and personnel available to remedy these issues.  Research has identified numerous mental health, substance use, and lifestyle curriculum that effectively reduce symptoms of both medical and mental disorders.  Unfortunately, institutions don’t have the money to put them in place.  That’s because voters tend to see providing programming to “criminals” as a poor use of their tax dollars.  What they don’t understand is that their tax dollars will be spent on these individuals one way or the other.  Supporting rehabilitative programming in our prisons and jails is the better way.  It is the sensible way.  It is the compassionate way – and, dare I say it? – it is the right way.

[1]Amy Levad (2014). Redeeming a Prison Society: A Liturgical and Sacramental Response to Mass Incarceration, Fortress Press.  Levad’s book is an excellent overview of ethical and theological issues related to incarceration.

[2]Laura Maruschak, Marcus Berzofsky, and Jennifer Unangst (2015), “Medical Problems of State and Federal Prisons and Jail Inmates.  U.S. Department of Justice.

[3]Laura Maruschak, Marcus Berzofsky, and Jennifer Unangst (2015), “Medical Problems of State and Federal Prisons and Jail Inmates.”  U.S. Department of Justice.

[4]Center on Budget and Policy Procedures, “Policy Basics: Where Do Our Tax Dollars Go”? (2015),

[5]Terry Kupers, “Prison Madness: The Mental Health Crisis Behind Bars and What We Must Do About It,” National Criminal Justice Reference Service.

[6]The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (2010),

[7]CBS News (2012), “The Cost of a Nation of Incarceration,

[8]The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (2010),

[9]U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections, “Effective Prison Mental Health Services: Guidelines to Expand and Improve Treatment,”

[10]Anasseril Daniel (2007), “Care of the Mentally Ill in Prisons: Challenges and Solutions,” Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online,

A Meditation on Religion

Creator of the Universe,

We see your hand in all we do, all we are and all we see.

We feel the emptiness that is within us –

an emptiness we fill with


things that don’t last.

We are embarassed to admit our weakness,

our need

for you and for one another

although it is always there.

Fill it.

Fill us with the spirit of true religion –

of community,

of love,

of truth.

As we stumble in the darkness of our lives

let us hold on to one another

and to a belief in good,

in you.


True Religion


The recent visit of Pope Francis to the United States appears to have stirred both interest and debate on about “religion.” I have been both delighted to hear open conversation about church-related issues and dismayed at the level of hostility expressed toward organized religion during the course of them.  The very first comment I received in response to my initial blog post was less vehement in its disagreement with my ideas than it was in condemning my involvement in organized religion.  According to this individual, the solution to gun violence is not getting rid of guns, but getting rid of religion.

That’s quite a broad generalization.  While there is no doubt that a vast number of crimes have been committed in the name of God, a great deal of good has also occurred as a result of religious belief.  Whether the balance tips to the side of good or evil depends a great deal on how you think about “religion.”  Put in the simplest terms, a religion is simply a collection of beliefs.  And people need something to believe in.

Or so says Psychologist Steven Reiss, who has written a book called, “The 16 Strivings for God.”[1] According to Reiss, human beings are motivated by sixteen “basic [human] desires.”[2] Religions satisfy these desires.  Reiss suggests that people are more or less attracted to organized religion based on which of these motivations they value most. For example, people who value acceptance are attracted to religions which espouse community values.

Reiss’s work doesn’t necessarily suggest that belief in God is foundational to religion.  If you define religion only as a series of beliefs, then you can blame pretty much all of the world’s ills on “religion,” since under it political ideologies, cultural practices, and economic systems qualify as religions.  A recent survey indicates, however, that most Americans actually do believe in some kind of creative force in the universe beyond that belonging to human beings.[3]  Although the majority of individuals surveyed also professed to belong to some form of religion, a respectable forty-six percent of them said they did not.  An additional thirty-three percent of such people – frequently referred to as “nones” because they answer “none” in response to religious affiliation questions – also indicated that they believe that there is a creator who “defines morality.”

What this suggests to me -and what is consistent with my experience as a psychologist – is that with very few exceptions human beings seek meaning for and in their lives.  What Dr. Reiss’s research tells us is that people often find it in the context of communal, structured systems of belief – and through worship.  David Foster Wallace proposed that “in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism…There is no such thing as not worshipping.  Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”[4]  In other words, we have to revere something – but valuing the acquisition of money, power, and beauty instead of spiritual and moral growth is neither good for us, nor our neighbors.

The truth is that as far as I can tell, the basic principles of most organized religions are good – and that’s why people are drawn to them. Who objects to loving one another?  Who objects to the idea of taking care of your neighbors?  Who objects to honoring your elders – or to prohibitions against stealing and killing and lying?  I don’t think that even people who believe religious organizations are evil actually object to such religious principles.  They object to what human beings have done to religions – and in the name of them.  The idea of being organized as a group or community to uphold basically positive human values is not wrong.  It is the corruption of such organizations that is.  But the alternative is no better – because an unwillingness to believe in anything outside of the self fosters only isolation, alienation, and chaos.  Religions needn’t be dismantled, but they do need to be reformed and refreshed.  They need people who object to the evil religions have caused in the past to commit to their future – to correct what has become corrupted, to refresh what is good, and to bring renewed energy to the task of loving one another and meeting our basic human needs. That is a conversation worth having.

[1]Mercer University Press, 2016.

[2]Reiss, S. (2004). The 16 strivings for God. Zygon39, 303-320.

[3]Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Religious or not: many Americans see a creator’s hand,” Religious News Service, October 7, 2015,

[4]David Foster Wallace (2009). “This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life, “Little Brown & Co.

A Meditation on Loving your Neighbor

Like many Americans, I grew up on a steady diet of television.  When I think of the neighbors of my favorite sitcom families, the most interesting ones were the ones who were different in some way – and who forced the main characters to learn something.  Where would Mr. Wilson be without Dennis the Menace?  The Bunkers without the Jeffersons?  The Stevens’ without Gladys Kravitz?  And didn’t we all actually want to live next to the Adam’s Family?

What does it mean to love a neighbor?  

Open our hearts to those who are different than us.

Help us to learn what they might teach us.

Let us love all of the people in our lives

by overcoming our fear of difference

and of change.

Let loving our neighbors be a challenge and a comfort to us.

Let the cup of sugar we borrow

bring the sweetness of understanding

and love.


Who is my neighbor?

October 6, 2015

My husband was in the U.S. military for a number of years and, as a result, we moved fairly frequently.  When my children were born, we lived in a racially diverse area in which they had the opportunity to interact with people from a variety of cultural and socioeconomic groups.  They were still quite young when we moved to a more racially and socioeconomically segregated area of the country.  As time went on, despite our efforts to meet and spend time with a diverse group of people, my children had less and less contact with people who looked different than they did.  Although official statistics suggested that we lived in a diverse area, there were no people of color in my children’s schools, local “Y,” play groups, music classes, and precious few in our church community.  That’s the nature of modern-day segregation; it’s subtle and it’s toxic.  I know this because within a couple of years my children – who had as babies known many wonderful people of color – began to fear people who looked different than they did.

We taught them to love their neighbors, but because of the discreet racial isolation in which we lived, local society taught them a very limited perspective as to who their neighbors were.  Maybe this kind of situation explains all of the church-going folk I know who insist they believe in loving their neighbors as themselves, but don’t want people of color, transgendered, gay, mentally ill, or people with criminal records in their schools, churches and – above all – their neighborhoods.  They don’t even know that they are robbing themselves of the amazing experiences that come from being “neighbors” with people of different races, cultures and creeds.  They’re also causing themselves unnecessary anxiety.

“Stranger danger” is a primary component of preschool and kindergarten curriculums all over the United States.  Children are taught to be wary of anyone they don’t know and never to go anywhere with a stranger.  These are reasonable cautions.  The problem is the way in which what the children are learning outside of school interacts with the formal lesson plans.  In many places, like the one where we lived, children get imperceptible cues from the adults around them that anyone who is different – who doesn’t look like them or live in a neighborhood like theirs – is a stranger, even if they know them.

This subtle way of instilling prejudice is both effective and deadly.  But the reality is that teaching children to fear people that are different than they are actually puts them in danger.  Crime statistics indicate, for example, that the vast majority of murder victims under the age of eighteen are killed by their parents.[1]  Children actually have the lowest rates of victimization of all age groups in society.[2]  Crime data consistently indicates that individuals are most likely to kill others of the same race.  Perhaps most importantly, long-term Bureau of Justice statistics indicate that most homicides occur when the victim and perpetrator know one another.[3]  All of this information suggests that children are in more danger from those they know – and those that look like them – than “strangers.”

But people remain afraid.  Even though official data indicates that crime rates have been on a downward trend since the turn of the 21st century,[4] surveys suggest that most people think that crime is going up.[5]  Superimpose that idea on “stranger danger” and you discover a lot of very frightened and potentially reactionary people – because the more likely we are to think of someone as a “stranger,” the more likely we are to fear them.  A 2014 study exploring the relationship between fear and gender, race, and sexuality found that among adults surveyed, one-third were afraid to walk in their own neighborhood at night.[6]  Not surprisingly, women were statistically more likely to be afraid than men.  In addition, the authors found that gay people, Blacks, and Hispanics were significantly more likely to be afraid of going out at night than Whites and heterosexuals.  And both Black and White people are both more afraid of people of different races.[7]  Tellingly, however, this association was not found among individuals who had been part of an interracial relationship.

The truth is that, contrary to beliefs consistent with the idea that ignorance is bliss, what (and who) you don’t know can hurt you – and other people.  My children were deprived of opportunities for learning – not to mention love – by living in a society which taught them that their neighbors were only those who were like them.  In our case, we left that area of the country and moved to a place where diversity is prized – and we are all much the better for it.

Who is your neighbor?  Do you know?  What would happen if we all made neighbors of everyone around us – and then loved them as we love those who look and act like us – as ourselves.  Statistics suggest that we’d be a lot braver – and a lot safer.  And my heart tells me that we’d be a lot happier too.




[4]Bureau of Justice Statistics:


[6]Doug Meyer and Eric Anthony Grollman (2014), “Sexual Orientation and Fear at Night: Gender Differences among Sexual Minorities and Heterosexuals,” Journal of Homosexuality, 61 (4),

[7]William C. Marra, “Fear Toward Other Races Found,” Harvard Crimson,

A Brief Poem on Self-Awareness

The Mask

She wore a mask

and behind it hid

a personality

and perhaps even a life.

She wore no face –

not two-faced she – 

and yet, perhaps,

she even hid the mask.C.S. Lewis humility

The Woman in the Mirror

5 October 2015

Most of us have heard the saying, “You have to walk a mile in someone’s shoes to truly know them.”  Personally, I think it’s not necessary to go even that far.  I think you just have to ask a few questions.  Because there’s something to be said for attempting to get a sense of someone beyond the face they wear for social consumption – and it’s been my experience that getting to know someone better often ends up teaching me a lot about myself.

I think this is particularly true of people you dislike.  Many of the people that I am closest to are those that I have sometimes struggled with the most.  This includes members of my own family and some of my dearest friends.  My daughter’s Godmother is one such person.  Although we hardly knew one another at school, we were cast as “enemies” by virtue of being on opposite sides of a manufactured rivalry (and really, what kind of word is that to use in regard to a college sophomore – “enemy”?  Did I think she was going to attempt to take over the known world)?  After circumstances forced us into meaningful conversation with one another, we found that we had a great deal in common – far more than either of us did with the people around us who had convinced us we were natural enemies.  My 16 year-old daughter, who has more sense than we did at 21, finds the whole story hysterical.  And she’s right.  Why did we ever dislike one another?

I think the key is something that Sigmund Freud was already on to in the nineteenth century: Projection.  Most people in this country have, I think, heard the expression.  (It passes what I call “The Oprah Test,” meaning if she’s done a show on it, it’s no longer considered a technical term).  Basically, projection is a defense mechanism in which you attribute your own ideas to other people – and often those ideas are negative ones.  It’s one of the basic ways in which we can avoid dealing with feelings and insecurities we’d rather not think about.  (For a good summary of defense mechanisms, see Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne’s “The Essential Guide to Defense Mechanisms” at   Rather than spend time sorting through whether we really are too loud or too meek or too tall or wear too much make-up, we simply decide that our sister/boyfriend/mother/friend is too loud, too meek, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.  And the more significant an issue is for us, the more it makes us angry when we perceive someone else to be exhibiting it.  So, for example, I tend to have a little trouble with stubborn people.  I’m just saying.

What’s the solution to this little dance of denial?  Sadly, it’s not easy – but it seems to work.  You have to look at yourself.  Every time someone around you does something that drives you insane, try to figure out why.  A lot of the time your anger or anxiety may be understandable.  If someone is making sexist, racist, or hurtful comments about things you care deeply about, it makes sense that you’re upset.  But if, for example, you witness someone acting in a mildly and harmless attention-seeking manner and feel inclined to express your opinion that such behavior is completely inappropriate, you might want to look in the mirror (just saying)!

But don’t stop there.  Because recognizing that something you find irritating about someone else is something you find worrisome in yourself is not going to feel good.  What will feel good is figuring out whether you need to change it (and doing something about it if you do) – or whether you just need to accept that part of you.  The truth is that chances are other people already do.  Potentially, after a little introspection, you might even look at that other person’s behavior and say, “It’s good that s/he puts herself out there (or speaks her mind or has a sense of fun or…).  I like that about her!”   And then look back into that mirror.  The worst thing that can happen is that you gain a little more understanding about yourself.  The best thing is that you might find a friend – or maybe two – if you count the one in the mirror.